Estes Tarver spent 20 years in New York City, landing acting gigs on commercials and television shows.
But Tarver, 40, decided to come home to North Carolina to help other aspiring actors. In 2010, he created Moonlight Stage Company in North Raleigh as a training space.
He saw a need for more acting schools, since Hollywood began creeping ever closer to the South. North Carolina has attracted several TV shows and films, partly through an incentives program.
“I came here with the intention to start a school,” Tarver said.
Tucked away in an industrial park on Millbrook Road, Moonlight enrolled only a few students at first. But it has grown – and it’s helped some young local actors get national roles, including on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon.
Gabriella Cila, 17, began training with Tarver about five years ago. She said she came close to landing a role on a Disney Channel series, and now she hopes to get a role in a national commercial.
Like many young performers, Cila wants to move to Los Angeles. But she doesn’t think it’s necessary right away.
It’s easy to tape auditions from Raleigh, she said, and send them to agencies in Atlanta’s growing entertainment industry. From there, she can book roles in South Carolina and New Orleans.
“It’s crazy that I’m here but I’m reading for the same projects I would be if I was living in L.A.,” Cila said.
Staying close to home has some perks, she said. Raleigh isn’t exactly overflowing with aspiring actors, so competition isn’t overbearing.
“It’s a more fun environment,” Cila said. “In L.A., it’s so competitive ... no one’s rooting for each other.”
Tarver didn’t always dream of the big screen. After growing up in Raleigh, he attended Rhodes College in Tennessee as a pre-med student. His senior year, he took an acting class for fun and found his calling. He wanted to act.
He went on to graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill, where he studied acting.
Tarver has had guest spots on several shows that filmed in North Carolina over the years, including “Dawson’s Creek” and “One Tree Hill.” He also played a main character in CBS’s “Under the Dome” series, which was based on a Stephen King novel.
Tarver still takes on an occasional acting role in commercials. He appeared locally in a commercial for The News & Observer, which owns the North Raleigh News.
But he said he enjoys his new role as a teacher.
Moonlight Stage Company offers studio time, performance opportunities and classes in screenwriting, comedy and music. The instructors have experience in major acting markets, and they want to pass on their knowledge.
“We have no agenda except the students,” Tarver said. “We are here to make them better, and that’s it.”