Creators on the Rise: O'Neil Thomas: “I love creating, I love creating, I love creating”

By 05/08/2024
Creators on the Rise: O'Neil Thomas: “I love creating, I love creating, I love creating”

Welcome to Creators on the Rise, where we find and profile breakout creators who are in the midst of extraordinary growth. You can check out previous installments here.

When he was in the third grade, O'Neil Thomas scored what was possibly the most important acting role of his life: one of the three kings in his school's Christmas play.

“I didn't have any lines,” he says. “I just delivered the myrrh. And I was like, ‘Oh my god. That was crazy.'”


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From then on, he was hooked. He went to performing arts high school, and as soon as he graduated, moved to New York City and started taking “as many classes as possible,” he says. “I landed my agent, my manager, and I've been able to book some cool gigs.”

Then COVID hit, and the acting world shut down. So, Thomas, who'd also always had a fascination with social media, decided to start uploading to TikTok. He tossed up some funny memes and skits (including one where he morphs into Suite Life‘s Mr. Moseby, a video we think got criminally little attention), and then landed in his goldmine niche: Hamilton.

Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s historical rap musical, being the sold-out sensation it was, had been too difficult for Thomas to see live-and, for years, there were no official recordings of the production for non-ticket-havers to partake of the performance, too. But in July 2020, Disney+ finally got a recording.

“I watched it for the first time and I fell in love with it so much, I started making content on TikTok about it,” Thomas says. “My first Hamilton video I made was the one that went viral. Everybody was talking about it at the time, it got a lot of attention. I was like, ‘Okay, I'm going to do a day in the life kind of things. I'm going to be doing little household tasks like sweeping and cleaning or on cooking and I'm going to be singing Hamilton songs while doing it.'”

He was able to grow to 50,000 followers just off his Hamilton content. At the same time, filming resumed, and he booked a role in independent horror movie Summer of the Wolf, which came out last year.

Also last year, he found his next niche: clapback videos, aka skits featuring scripted, spicy responses from Thomas (like this one where he's battling family drama during Christmas). He started uploading those in November, and since then has grown  to nearly 3 million followers.

As for what the future brings, Thomas can't tell us too much without spoiling. But, he says, just keep an eye out for summer 2024.

Check out our chat with him below.

@oneilthomas97 Replying to @CHERRY_POP Cuz they thought they were SAFE during Christmas?!?! LINE EM UP! #clapback #christmas #christmasclapbacks ♬ original sound - O’Neil Thomas

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

B-ru: To start, imagine somebody's reading this and has no idea who you are. They've never seen your stuff. Give me a little bit of introduction about you, your background, and what you did leading up to social media.

O'Neil Thomas: Awesome. Well, okay, great. My name is O'Neil Thomas. I'm an actor and a full-time content creator. I went to performing arts high school, so acting has always been ingrained in my blood from a very, very young age. Whenever I'm not auditioning or on set, I love creating and putting myself on camera, so it turned into a very fun and fruitful career.

B-ru: Did you do acting classes as a kid at all?

O'Neil Thomas: The whole nine. I always say the really funny story that I found my calling in the third grade on my very first stage production. Ever since that moment, I've been studying nonstop. I love watching TV shows and movies or just really studying. I learned my comedy through studying TV shows. I took classes. I got so much training when I went to my performing arts high school. Then as soon as I graduated, I really started going to New York City and taking as many classes as possible. I landed my agent, my manager, and I've been able to book some cool gigs.

B-ru: What was the stage production you were in in the third grade? Do you remember?

O'Neil Thomas: Yes! It was, oh my gosh. Wait. Hold on. I was one of the three kings. I went to a Catholic school. I didn't have any lines. I just delivered the myrrh. And I was like, “Oh my god. That was crazy.” [laughs]

B-ru: Born to be a star. So you move to New York and started creating TikTok videos during the pandemic. Can you talk a little bit about that?

O'Neil Thomas: Yes. When the pandemic happened, it was a very sad and scary time for a lot of people, including myself. I'm a firm believer that laughter really is the best medicine, and I've always had previous experience with making content before TikTok. I was like, “You know what? A lot of my friends from school told me, ‘You should try it out,'” and I was like, “I don't really know,” but once COVID came and the shutdowns happened, I was like, “You know what? I think I'm going to use this time to try to bring out as much positivity into the world that I can. If I'm able to make at least one person laugh, then I've done my job.” Ever since shutdown, I've been doing it and I've been lucky enough to do it full-time ever since.

B-ru: You said you did have experience with social media previously?

O'Neil Thomas: Yes. I always had a love for it. Whenever I'm not auditioning or in class or anything, I love just putting myself on camera. I love creating concepts and making videos. Prior to TikTok, I used to do Vine, I used to do YouTube, and that really helped me etch my ways into editing and producing and creating stories and just posting it online.

B-ru: How did growth work for you on TikTok? Did your first video do really well? Was there a certain video that did really well? How did you know when it was going to become a thing for you?

O'Neil Thomas: My first video definitely flopped. I had no issue with that, because I told myself going into TikTok I didn't want to treat it like a job because I have so much love for what I do with acting and creating and scripting. I just wanted to do something that I truly enjoyed.

The cool thing with TikTok is it felt like a platform that didn't require that much hard work to just make a video. It was very open and welcome to just say, “Hey, you're welcome here. You can post whatever you want and see what happens,” versus other platforms that may seem a lot more nervous and nerve-wracking to feel like you have to do a lot more to get some sort of traction from it.

My first video, it was probably like a funny sound trend that I liked and I'll never forget when I finally finished filming. I think I did three takes. I remember I laughed so much. I remember I showed my brother and he laughed. I was like, “I'm so happy with how this came out. If anybody else enjoys it, that's great.” I always told myself, I want to be so proud of whatever I put out. If I'm laughing at my own self, I'm like, “Okay, great. My job here is done.”

So, to answer that, first video flopped, but the change that happened was, honestly, Hamilton on Disney+. I've always wanted to watch Hamilton, the Broadway musical, but never had a chance to watch it in person at all. It came out on Disney+ during the pandemic. I watched it for the first time and I fell in love with it so much, I started making content on TikTok about it. My first Hamilton video I made was the one that went viral. Everybody was talking about it at the time, it got a lot of attention.

I was like, “Okay, I'm going to do a day in the life kind of things. I'm going to be doing little household tasks like sweeping and cleaning or on cooking and I'm going to be singing Hamilton songs while doing it.” That was my first video that blew up. Ever since, I was doing so many more Hamilton videos on top of that, and I was able to grow my first 50k off of just Hamilton content.

B-ru: Wow. Very cool. That's wild.

O'Neil Thomas: Right?

B-ru: Yes. I do feel the intimidation factor. There's a lot of people who have aspirations to be on YouTube and long-form can feel unapproachable and intimidating.

O'Neil Thomas: I can agree for that. I love YouTube. I definitely have my hat in the ring for trying YouTube full-time. I remember when I was in college, I produced and scripted out my first set of, I think, six to seven videos. I did crazy batch editing and scripting and making my thumbnails and everything. I was able to roll it out on a schedule basis, but it didn't get the eyes that I hoped it would fall on. It always reinforces that it can be really tough to break on other platforms like YouTube, for example.

B-ru: You said videos are where you're able to bring together scripting and all of your various talents, I would love to hear a little bit about your production process. How does a video go from start to finish for you?

O'Neil Thomas: Oh my gosh, that's a great question. For instance, use my clapback videos for example. Now I have a humongous setup. Well, not humongous. I have light fixtures here. I'll show it, but it's pretty heavy. I have a light fixture I set up in the table over there. Whenever I have a video, my process is I conceptualize, I then script it. I'm making sure my script is nice and tight.

I want to make sure that in my head, it all flows really, really well within a nice, cool timeframe. Once I have the script, I now address the set. I take my table out and I start to move things around, set the table. I get my lighting, I set the lighting. I make sure this light's on, I make sure this is off. I sit down, I prop up my phone on the tripod and I start filming.

I'm there the entire time. The process for me for these videos, it takes me about three to four hours per video because after I film, it takes me hours to edit to make sure everything's good and concise and the voiceovers and everything. It's a very long process, but it is so rewarding, so I'm very happy with how they always resonate with my audience.

B-ru: Have you come to really like editing?

O'Neil Thomas: Yes. I've always had a really interesting relationship with editing, but I'm very happy with doing content as a fun hobby of mine for years. I started with the Final Cut Pros, the iMovies, and everything. I really had a great basis of knowledge with editing before I got into TikTok. Now I'm experimenting with other forms of content on my platform.

I have a much healthier relationship with editing. Once I mentally prepare myself to edit and I'm locked in and I'm really zoned in, then it can be a really good time because again, at the end of the day, the final product is the most important product for me.

B-ru: Do you aim to post a certain number of videos per day or per week? Do you have a set schedule?

O'Neil Thomas: Yes. Before my clapback series, I would always post a video a day. No matter what, if it's like a fun ranting video or just something I can do to prop my phone up and just start saying something or making a well thought out video, I will always aim to do at least one a day. Ever since the demand got so high, I now try to do one every two days. I definitely try at least one a day. Now my goal is one a day.

B-ru: Got you. I'd like to hear a little bit more about your clapback series, how that got started and how it became such a thing for you.

O'Neil Thomas: It's a really, really funny story and I think a lot of creators can possibly resonate with this. My clapback series, funny enough, started back in November of last year. I was in a creative rut. It happens. I couldn't really know what to think of at the time. I remember I created a clapback video the year prior, the November prior of last November. I was like, “Okay, I'll repost this and see whatever happens. At least I'm putting a video out.”

I posted and it went viral again. I was like, “That's pretty cool. It went viral last time and it's going viral again. The difference with this year is that there was so much more demand for a Part 2. So many people were saying, “We need a Part 2. I was like, “I never really thought of making a Part 2 for this, so all right, why not? I'll work my creative juices and see what I can come up with.” Then I made a Part 2. That went viral.

Then they were asking for a Part 3. I made another part. I filmed Part 3 a few days later. That went viral, so I'm now seeing that there is a really, really big traction behind what I'm doing with this clapback series. I wanted to ensure that, “Okay, this seems like something really special that I'm resonating a lot with new audience members and previous audience members, so I'm going to be able to cultivate and script out really fun and cohesive stories for each episode,” because you want to make sure each episode is better than the last.

There's something different that keeps the audience engaged. You don't want to keep doing the same, same thing because it'll run stale. The clapback series now, ever since November, it amassed me about an additional million followers, on top of the million that I had.

It's gotten me a lot of new eyes and a lot of new attention. It has been one of the best things to happen for me as a creative because I'm now doing my whole production within myself. I'm waking up, conceptualizing, I'm scripting out, and it's really sharpening my writing tools. It's such a rewarding factor because I'm learning so much about myself and my new strengths as a writer and my performance as an actor and my editing. It became just a very beautiful melting pot of creative goodness. I'm so happy again that I have an audience that really loves and resonates with it.

B-ru: Were you also into writing as a kid, or is this something that you've grown into?

O'Neil Thomas: You know what? I actually always did have a subtle love for writing. I think writing was one of those things that I never thought about pursuing because, again, I love acting the most and I always would read scripts and try to- what is it? Dissect scripts and really work from there.

Ever since I started creating my own form of content, that ownership turned into making sure I'm writing something really good. On top of essays and things from school that I'm really good at writing, creatively, I think I've slowly formed a really tight and good relationship with writing. It's given me so much power as a creative to put things into my own hands and create something that I know and test out with an audience that will like it. Either they'll hate it or they'll like it. For me as a writer, it teaches me every single video, “Okay, what working with this?”

B-ru: You have a very lively and engaged audience. It sounds like you listen to them a lot. I'm really curious how that engagement with your audience works, if they play a big part in your content, or if that's great feedback for you.

O'Neil Thomas: I love my audience so much. I feel like with any creative, there's no platform without an audience. To me, I get really surprised whenever there are creators who just post something and then they leave. I find as a person who makes content, I also consume content. There are moments where maybe someone is having a really bad day. There are times where I'm having really bad day and I go to content and I watch things and I laugh so much that the pain just goes away. Even if it's temporary.

My audience has been so impactful to me because I listen to them and they take the time out of their day to just comment something. I don't know about you, but doing a comment, that's an additional step that you don't have to take.

For them to go that extra way to make a comment and they share with me and they DM me and they comment saying things like, “You saved my life. I had such a bad day until I watched your videos,” or, “I always watch your videos just whenever I want a boost of a good mood.” That means the world to me because I always want to make sure that I create a space of safety and openness and welcomeness.

I want everyone to come on my platform and feel like you're welcome here. I do not like negativity at all. I don't engage with negativity. I love that my audience has created- they created their own bubble or their own world into my world. It's just a really big, safe space and I just love it so much. Without them, I would not be here.

They also helped me with really fun video ideas. One actually gave me another fun idea for a clapback and I took note of that, I screenshotted it and I was able to make a whole new video on top of that because they made such a great point. I think there was over a thousand likes for that comment. A lot of people were really interested to see what that would look like. We have a really great relationship and they do a great job just listening to me and I listen to them and it's all just really good.

B-ru: Has TikTok had an effect on your acting career?

O'Neil Thomas: I want to say yes and no. I want to say that because I feel like my team has been doing a great job still getting me auditions regardless, prior to TikTok and within TikTok, but as an actor, for sure. Again, it's allowed me to continue to sharpen my skills as an actor and just really keep being able to create things because if I didn't have TikTok, I wouldn't be acting as often and then I probably wouldn't be booking as much because my skills wouldn't be as sharpened versus now I get to write and act daily and I'm able to use that on top of me getting auditions and applying what I know now and what I've continued to use for those.

B-ru: You have TikTok and you have this whole content creation side, and then you have the acting and potentially writing side. Where do you see this going forward?

O'Neil Thomas: That's a great question. The more I do this, the more I realize I love- I don't know if you know Quinta Brunson. I love Quinta Brunson so much and I love what she's been able to do with Abbott Elementary because Quinta Brunson was a creator before what she's doing now. Being a creator showed me that there's so much power in creating your own story instead of waiting for someone else to have you tell their story.

I love what I do as an actor, but there are times as actors that we can all relate that there are dry states. There are times where the phones don't ring and you don't get auditions, you don't get callbacks, you don't get booked, and you feel really defeated. I feel like I can see myself creating my own production company and creating sitcoms and writing scripts for films and TV shows. I think I'm working on a pilot right now. I really am just excited to create something that's from me and I can deliver it to my audience with a lot more confidence.

B-ru: You mentioned earlier, I wanted to go back to this, you mentioned that you used to study TV shows as a kid, and comedy. What shows and actors inspired you?

O'Neil Thomas: I was a Disney and Nickelodeon kid growing up. I loved That's So Raven. Raven-Symoné is probably one of the biggest reasons why I love sketch comedy and doing these bizarre characters and these bizarre rendezvous. That's So Raven, Suite Life of Zack & Cody, again, another great sitcom that is just so out there and there's just so many great punchline joke, humorous and I studied those two a lot. Other than that, a lot of Nickelodeon shows. Sitcom wise, Victorious is a really great one. For sure, that's another. I love that. For me, when I first started, definitely the main two were That's So Raven and Suite Life of Zack & Cody.

Actually, fun fact, now that we're talking about it, my first ever TikTok was a funny morphing challenge. I had a buzz cut. I just shaved my head and so many of my friends told me, “Oh my gosh, if you put on a suit, you look like Mr. Moseby.”

B-ru: And that flopped?

O'Neil Thomas: Yes. [laughs]

B-ru: That's a sin.

O'Neil Thomas: It flopped, but you know what? I loved it, so they were all good.

B-ru: The answer to this may vary from week to week, but in terms of balancing content creation and balancing acting and everything else you're doing, what does the average week look like for you?

O'Neil Thomas: Hectic. Very hectic. I have definitely had my share of moments with friends and family where I just definitely felt very overwhelmed at times. It can be a day where I'm spending about four to five hours conceptualizing, filming, and editing, and then an audition would come in. The rest of my other half of the day that was supposed to be used for freedom, I'm now working on another task that I want to make sure I get done and I do it well so I can submit it to my team so they can send it out.

In a week, it's extremely busy. I get emails all the time. I work all the time with scripting and filming, auditions come in. As of right now, I think in the industry for film, it has been slow, but I did get an audition last Friday while I was doing that.

I was like, “Let me get this done first so I can see if I can find 24 hours to myself to hang out. Before working a 9:00 to 5:00, it's definitely 24/7. A lot of things come in and it's up to you when you want to decide to, but I do not want to procrastinate when it comes to my career. I want to be able to really hone in on what I'm doing right now in that moment and make sure I'm producing the best that I can for both acting and for creating content.

B-ru: I'm really curious, when you book an audition, what is your prep process and how long does it take for you?

O'Neil Thomas: Let's say I book a a role on a TV series, let's say like a co-star, a guest star of a sort. Normally you get the script, and I would love to read the entire script from top to bottom, and then from there I'll print out whatever I need, maybe my slides for the day, and really just highlight, dissect.

I love trying to figure out ways I can add my own flair into things. One of the funny things about working on shows like that is [laughs] the call time. You definitely get a lot of things late notice, really late notice, so whenever you get booked, it comes down to locking in, and you're like, “Now I need to figure out with what I'm given right now,” if I'm given the script, “How can I utilize this to the best of my ability so when I'm now on set, everything's good?”

Number one, getting the script, learning the lines. Learning, learning, learning, and learning the lines. You never want to go to set and feel like you're all over the place. I learn the lines as much as I can. I get to my trailer, and with acting on sets, it's a lot of sitting around and waiting. I remember I was doing this one show a while ago, and I was on set for 14 hours, but when I was actually filming, the filming process probably took two of those 14 hours. The rest I was either in hair and makeup or just in my trailer the entire time.

It's such a beautiful, it's like organized chaos. There's so many different hands behind the camera that are just making sure that what we see on TV is just the absolute best. I tip my hat off to anybody who works on crews for TV shows and films.

B-ru: Did you ever have a rough audition or a rough scene where you forgot your lines or something else happened? How did you recover from that?

O'Neil Thomas: Absolutely. I think I did, it's probably an independent film I worked on a while ago where it happened. I think what happened was the conditions that we were in, it was extreme. We were filming a summer film and we happened to be doing reshoots in the peak of winter. There'll be times where my body is so shut down or frozen where I definitely do flub lines. The days happens where I have to fly in a day before we actually shoot, so I don't even have enough time to go over lines the night before. On the way to location, I'll be learning lines if we're filming and I flub a line or two.

Thank goodness the crew is very supportive and they're like, “Listen, you're all good, no worries, take your time or we'll figure-” They're really great with working around what may be working, what may not be working.” It's a very collaborative process. Those days happen where you may be flubbing on some lines or stuff. It's just important to take a deep breath, take maybe some 5, 10 minutes off to yourself and just sense yourself and come back in and it should be a much more fun process.

B-ru: I know you may not be able to talk about some stuff, but any cool projects you have going on?

O'Neil Thomas: As of right now, I don't know if I can talk about it. I am excited for the summer, if I can say that. In the summer, it's going to be cool.

B-ru: Any personal goals you want to talk about, things you're hoping for the future?

O'Neil Thomas: I love where I am right now with business for my content, for acting. Goal-wise, again, my dream is I'd love to be a series regular on a TV series. I'd love to do more films. I love to travel for work, so I love traveling. With the beauty of doing content creating, it's unlocked a new love for me now, which is public speaking. I love going to summits. I love going to events and panels where I'm able to share my story and engage and inspire so many people.

I learned that I love to inspire because I feel like if I can do it, anybody else can. Sometimes people just need that extra push and I love being that voice of reason for them. Career-wise, I would love to be able to do more speaking. I love to do more acting on films, on sets. I love to just be able to just create. I love creating, I love creating, I love creating.

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