RALEIGH — Within the first 30 seconds of “Place Like Home,” Morgan Piner demonstrates the acting versatility that’s garnered praise from Raleigh to Los Angeles.
In one scene, Piner’s summoning tears and straining her voice in hysterics. In the next, the 21-year-old floats across the screen, channelling the excitement shared by so many couples who’ve just bought their first home.
That house on Horne Street in Raleigh is the setting and cause for conflict in “Place Like Home,” a 3-minute, 47-second film that chronicles Piner’s reaction to mysterious noises throughout the house. The film premiered in February at N.C. State University’s Campus MovieFest, where a panel of judges awarded it Best Drama, Best Editing, Best Soundtrack, and picked Piner as the festival’s Best Actress. “Place Like Home” was one of about 75 films submitted.
It was the second year in a row judges at N.C. State’s Campus MovieFest named Piner, a Wendell native, Best Actress. But this time, the recognition awarded to Piner and her peers at N.C. State – Aaron Cook, Will Howell, Walt Lilly, Alex Smith, and Ibrahim Zafar – earned them a trip to the National Campus MovieFest awards night on June 22.
Piner’s passion for acting was planted less than 10 years ago when she was a student at Zebulon Middle.
“My mother said I should try out for a musical called ‘Into the Woods,’” Piner recalled, laughing. “I was a witch who turned good.”
Piner was later picked for lead roles in “Footloose” while at East Wake High School, and in a play called “A Place in My Heart” in N.C. State’s theater program. Those productions allowed Piner time for practice and tutoring.
That’s what makes Piner’s Campus MovieFest performances all the more noteworthy. Student filmmakers are given one week to produce a short film. The competition tries to prevent advance work by requiring students to borrow the university’s equipment and time-stamping each film.
In 2012, the group executed a plan to produce a 5-minute film on a woman (Piner) interviewing and hiring a hit-man to kill her cheating husband.
“This year, we had no idea what we were going to do. We had two actors and no script,” Piner said. “We had to just play off each other … sometimes staying up filming until 3 or 4 in the morning.”
Not only was “Place Like Home” a success on campus, it was nominated for Best Editing, Best Drama and Best Actress in the National Campus MovieFest show in LA. It was also one of 30 films from Campus MovieFest shown at the world renowned Cannes Film Festival in France, Piner said.
From answering questions about “Place Like Home” from a live audience to meeting actor Gary Cole of Office Space fame, Piner said she felt the red carpet experience.
“It actually was like a mini-Oscars,” Piner said. “We walked a red carpet to the show … and I met lots of talented people (and) made lots of connections.”
Piner, a marine and coastal resources major at N.C. State, is interning with WHO this summer. If her acting career continues on this ascent, she may find herself in New York or Los Angeles this time next year.
“Why not head out there to try to make it work?” Piner said. “You know, while I’m still young and poor.”