During her senior year at Lutheran High School in Rochester Hills, Julie (Bland) Berkobien toured the Saginaw Valley State University theatre department, where she witnessed the making of a prosthetic face for a character in the school’s production of “Man of La Mancha.”
At the time, she didn’t know whose face was meant for the mold. Soon, she would.
“I had no idea at the time that this was my future husband’s face,” Berkobien said of her future beau, who was an actor in the play.
She met her future husband, Justin Berkobien face-to-face during another SVSU theatre production both worked on about one year later. It was the beginning of a love affair that has led to working together in the performing arts.
More than a decade later, their journey has Julie Berkobien in position as a screenwriter-in-training in the movie capital of the world, Hollywood.
Last year, she was one of only 20 students accepted into the Stephens College Master of Fine Arts in TV and Screenwriting program, a prestigious institution housed in Hollywood’s Jim Henson Studios. There, she is learning the craft of screenwriting from authors of cult classic feature films such as “Legally Blonde” and long-running TV shows including “Friends.”
And the lessons she has learned — in life as well as at SVSU — are helping her shape a screenplay inspired by one of her former mentors at SVSU.
Berkobien knew what role she wanted to play in life at an early age. She began performing in theater in the seventh grade and continued through high school with roles in several productions.
When Berkobien enrolled at SVSU in 2002, she was convinced she found her “home away from home” with SVSU’s theater family. Supportive faculty and staff helped empower her with many opportunities.
Those opportunities included the SVSU Foundation Scholars Program, a competitive program for talented students that offers incoming freshman a community environment for social and academic interaction. It includes a stipend for travel abroad, which Julie used to study in Dublin for eight weeks. There, she found inspiration in Ireland’s theater scene, including a visit to the historic Abbey Theatre.
Back on campus, her opportunities included playing lead theater roles and writing scripts. She earned roles on SVSU productions such as “The Velveteen Rabbit,” “Lettice and Loveage,” “Dark of the Moon,” “The Elephant Man,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Oliver.” She also participated in community workshops hosted by Saginaw’s Pit & Balcony Theatre, as well as a touring group from the Chicago-based improvisation school, Second City.
It was during rehearsals for the 2003 production of “The Hobbit” that Berkobien, working stage lighting for the play, met Justin. One day on set, she opened a door he was standing behind, nearly knocking him off his feet. It was a seemingly serendipitous meeting as, eventually, he would sweep her off her feet.
“The moment we started dating, it just felt right,” she said.
After graduation — she earned a bachelor’s degree in theatre in 2006, two years after he did the same — the couple wed and moved to Chicago. There, they auditioned for roles in theater and film. “It was our dream to continue to work together as we did at SVSU,” she said.
They landed small roles together in films including “The Dark Knight,” “Fred Claus” and “The Express.” Soon after, she put her career goals on hold to start their family. Their daughter, Audrey, was born in 2008, and the Berkobiens moved to Los Angeles.
In 2012, Berkobien received an internship reviewing scripts and writing at MadChance Productions, a Hollywood company that produces features such as the Clint Eastwood-directed “American Sniper.” The experience inspired her to apply at Stephens College, where she began studies in August 2015.
Berkobien is writing a screenplay inspired by a tragedy from her past at SVSU. The script — untitled for now — is loosely based on her experience grieving the death of a mentor, Marc Gordon, an assistant professor of theatre who died of a heart attack in 2003.
It’s a deeply personal story for Berkobien, who befriended Gordon’s wife and babysat for their three children. This friendship led her to write a story exploring the strong-but-fragile bond between a husband and wife — one that can be so quickly cut short.
“My screenplay is a second love story about two friends who lose their spouses, help each other through their respective crises and eventually fall in love,” she said.
When she finishes the work, Berkobien’s story as a screenwriter will be far from its closing chapter. She has several ideas for scripts she hopes to pen.
“I can safely say it would be ridiculously exciting to see one of those scripts up on the big screen,” she said.