N.O. native gets ‘Unchained’ role

Dana Gourrier plays Cora in “Django Unchained”

On the set of the Quentin Tarantino Western “Django Unchained,” New Orleans native Dana Gourrier plays Cora, an enslaved woman, alongside seasoned actors such as Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson.

With such a star-studded cast, many silver screen first-timers would have been intimidated or nervous, but Gourrier took it in stride — for the most part.

“I didn’t lose my words or my confidence with anyone — not with Quentin, not with Jamie, not with Sam,” she said. “The only person that I lost it and I got starstruck with was Leo.

“I grew up during that Bop magazine age, and I just had a massive crush on him. I don’t know what it was, but when I saw Leo, I just lost my words,” she said.

Gourrier had a much different relationship with Jackson, who became a mentor to her.

“Samuel L. Jackson campaigned for me for the entire film,” she said. “There was a special chemistry between us. He took me under his wing in a way that was really kind. He didn’t have to do that.”

Growing up in New Orleans, Gourrier always knew she was meant to become an entertainer.

She took dancing, singing and acting classes, and she’s earned two degrees in performing arts.

Her determination to be better has seen her through her share of challenges in life.

“I didn’t look like the average 7- or 8-year-old. I was always a little thicker, but it didn’t stop me,” Gourrier recalled. “I was never really a strong dancer, but I could move and I was willing to learn, and that is what I think is more than half the battle.”

Gourrier graduated from Ursuline Academy in 1997, then enrolled in the University of New Orleans, where she tried to do what she thought was expected of her.

She still had a passion to perform, but moved away from the performing arts and into psychology, a more traditional career choice.

She eventually realized she had to be faithful to her true self.

“I ended up dropping out because I was at my lowest at UNO,” Gourrier said. “I was just miserable.

“You don’t do what people want to make you do. You have to do what you feel and know you are supposed to be doing,” she said.

Since then, Gourrier has worked hard to perfect her craft, earning a bachelor’s degree in performing arts from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and a master’s in acting from the California Institute of the Arts.

She is now a firm believer in following an individual path, which, in her case, has led back to her hometown. After graduating from the California Institute of the Arts, Gourrier felt pulled back to New Orleans, but it was a difficult choice.

“I was afraid to move home,” Gourrier said. “Not because I don’t love New Orleans, but part of the reason why you leave a place is because you feel you outgrow it or you feel like you need to be challenged in a different way. ... I didn’t want to move home and get caught up in the beautiful slow life of New Orleans.”

Nevertheless, Gourrier returned to the Big Easy with the goal to continue performing, setting her sights on joining the cast of the hit HBO series “Tremé.”

It was a plan that came to fruition quicker than she could have ever imagined.

“Within two to three months, I landed the role of Detective LeRoy,” she said.

The show is in its fourth season.

Gourrier’s success in television and film is not something she takes lightly, nor does she take complete credit for it.

“I really wouldn’t be able to do any of this, even if I lived in New York, without my family and friends,” Gourrier said. “They are so incredibly supportive, beyond what I can even describe.

“I have to be honest: It is probably the hardest thing in the world to raise a daughter or a son that’s an artist because we’re so different. You have to sometimes be so patient. I have to say to other parents out there, ‘Just keep being patient and encourage them.’ That’s what my parents did, and now I’m living my dreams,” she said.

“Django Unchained” opened in theaters on Christmas.

Gourrier also can be seen in the upcoming films “Broken City” with Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe, and “The Butler,” starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Lenny Kravitz, and Cuba Gooding Jr.

Both films are set to release later in 2013.