A Math Geek in Hollywood

By Claire Jeantheau

Anyone from Commonwealth’s Class of 1987, Nick Campbell wagers, would remember him first as a “math and science geek.” Who else would undertake a seminar dedicated almost solely to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems? “My dad talked to somebody who talked to somebody who knew a graduate student at MIT and said, ‘My son’s doing this in math class at his high school,’” Nick recalls. “And the grad student said, ‘We’re just covering that now.’”

Alongside classmates Colum Amory ’87, Ben Steinberg '87, and Jeremy Mumford ’87, Nick spent a full semester proving the theorems, which claim that there are some mathematical statements that, although true, nevertheless can’t be proved. To peers, Nick may have seemed bound for the same track in quantitative work as that graduate student. But “they would have been shocked where I ended up,” he laughs. Nick is still tackling complex problems, but as a talent manager in Los Angeles, where the variables are competing projects, artificial intelligence, and even a Netflix star or two. It’s a path that started through a chance senior project—and it requires every ounce of the critical-thinking skills he honed at Commonwealth.

Another Kind of Problem Solving

The day-to-day workings of Nick’s current role at Venture Entertainment Partners are loaded with calculations: determining which actors are the perfect fit for a casting call, synchronizing schedules while accounting for dozens of timetables, searching for alternate opportunities when a client’s television series drifts into hiatus.

One of Nick’s main goals is to match his clients to television pilots with full-series potential—and, in turn, more permanent roles. (Nick works primarily in TV but also has connections in video games and other media projects.) He might work with actors who are entering the industry for the first time or those looking to build on the momentum of a successful season. Nick has a particular interest in cultivating young talent and spotting emerging actors in college and the workforce. You’ve likely heard of some of Venture’s more established clients, like Finn Wolfhard (of Stranger Things fame) and Michelle Yeoh (most recently winner of the 2023 Best Actress Academy Award for Everything Everywhere All at Once).

Aiding clients means finding not only consistent work but consistent support from others. “It’s about putting the right team around them—making sure that they have the right publicist,  entertainment attorney (if they need one), the right agency, and that they have a business manager for their finances,” he says. To stay abreast of acting opportunities, he keeps tabs on the churn of pitches, sequels, spinoffs, and development rumors, too.

Of course, as a Commonwealth alumnus, Nick is no stranger to a demanding workload: “I remember five hours of homework every single night, and everybody thinking that was insane, but that’s what we all did.” The talent industry requires no less dedication. “That’s the thing about talent management: it’s literally management,” Nick comments. “It’s managing every aspect of a client’s career, from helping them get the next job to managing their money to publicity to making sure that we have the right attorney involved in the deal-making process. It’s getting your hands in everything.”

How did Nick travel from mathematician to manager? It began, as many Commonwealth stories do, during a senior project. Scrambling for something to do, Nick and his classmate Colum reached out to the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players, a troupe they remembered from childhood that happened to have an end-of-March performance of The Gondoliers on deck. Nick phoned a Harvard connection (“this was pre-Internet”) and pitched the services of two high-school volunteers. The response was energetic: “They were, like, ‘Free labor? That’s awesome.’” Nick and Colum put set elements together and then put them to work. “Every night when the show would go on, we’d help pull the gondola across the stage with the ropes and pulleys and everything. It was really fun.”

When he started at the University of Pennsylvania that fall as a prospective physics major, Nick wanted to stay involved with—or rather, behind—the theater stage. “I started as a guy in carpentry, putting together sets and building and hammering. Slowly, over the course of a couple of years, I graduated to designing sets and ended up making a bunch for productions.” His major turned from physics to theatrical design (a self-created program of study), and his post-graduate plans turned towards entertainment. He landed his first job at a talent agency in New York City. One cross-country move and numerous clients later, Nick came full circle, delivering a virtual talk on “The Business of Acting and Writing for Film & TV” for Commonwealth’s
Project Week in 2020. “It was really my Commonwealth project,” he admits, “that changed the direction of my life.”

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The Future of Talent

Nick has found connections between his seemingly disparate interests for years. “In math and physics, you basically are confronted with a problem, and you have to break it down, analyze it, and figure out a solution to it. That helps, I think, throughout your whole life,” he reflects. “Having that background through four years of Commonwealth and four years of Penn helped me look at everything analytically and say, ‘Okay, here’s what we need to do. Here’s the path we have to follow in order to get to where we want to go.’”

Now, though, the entertainment industry faces a development that begs for the insight of a STEM background like Nick’s. Rapid advancements in artificial intelligence are flooding digital spaces with everything from automatically generated film scripts to uncanny mimicries of celebrity voices. Is this the end of Hollywood? Not so, Nick thinks (and presciently notes in our conversation predating the May 2023 WGA strike). “People have tried telling AI programs to write screenplays as an experiment, and they’re terrible.” And yet: “We all know that they will get better and better and better.”

Regardless, Nick isn’t afraid of the machines, testing their capabilities with the experimental mindset he sharpened as a once physics–major: “As a layman, I’m still interested in science and math issues.” He subscribed to ChatGPT and tried out computerized art generators. He was even able to trick his coworkers. “I can now type into a computer and make the computer sound like me and say anything. I created a computerized version of my voice and used it to fool some of my colleagues.” While AI discourse often centers on job loss, Nick sees potential for what voice replication, in particular, could do for his clients as they deal with packed schedules. “Wouldn’t it be interesting if, at some point, I license a client’s voice to a video-game company,” he posits, “and the client recites a soundbite of two paragraphs of prose, they feed it into the computer, and then the computer can say whatever it wants in the client’s voice? The client can just lie in bed and not have to go to a studio, but collect a salary and fees.”

In fact, Nick points out, this kind of technology was already being used before AI came to the forefront of the news: “James Earl Jones licensed his voice for Darth Vader—he’s in his nineties, and I’m sure he doesn’t want to keep going into recording booths.” Perhaps one day, he imagines, a screenwriter with a signature style (like Aaron Sorkin, known for his loquacious, politically inflected scripts) could license it as they enter retirement, with AI programs replicating their diction and hallmarks in decades of future works. Nick is mindful of the ethical dimensions of this practice, though, especially regarding a client’s public image: What would the reaction be, he wonders, “if the estate of Elvis Presley decides that they want to license Elvis’s voice to a cigarette commercial?”

Though Nick relishes the speculation, there are no settled answers—and that’s exactly what his Commonwealth education prepared him for. The same drive to cross the disciplines and play with new technologies—as well as to contemplate the creative, legal, and moral issues underlying their use—is not unlike what pushed him to build Gilbert and Sullivan sets many years ago.

“Obviously, Commonwealth teaches you facts, but the overall goal of the school, I think, wasn’t to teach you ‘when did this battle occur,’ but how to go through the rest of your life being able to analyze and come up with your own ideas and continue a life of learning,” Nick says. “I think I do that today; I’m in entertainment, but I still read about business and math and science and politics. And I think that that's true of everyone I know from Commonwealth.”

Claire Jeantheau is the former Communications Coordinator at Commonwealth.

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