Where did you grow up?
My childhood was split between New Jersey and Illinois. I was born in Illinois, but moved to New Jersey when I was two years old. We lived there until I was fifteen and then moved back to Illinois, where I finished high school and went to college.
At what age were the Arts introduced to you?
When I was about seven my parents took us into New York to see Annie on Broadway. I fell instantly in love. I had no idea the scope of what I was experiencing, but I knew I wanted to be on that stage.
Do you remember what your first movie experience was?
My earliest memory of the movies is The Wizard of Oz. It came on every year around my birthday and I remember thinking it was absolute magic. I wanted to live inside that world.
When did you “know” you wanted to be an Actor? For many, it’s a specific moment in their life.
I knew I wanted to be an actor that very first time I went to Broadway. It was so clear to me at that very moment and it has driven me ever since. I grew up with a passion for entertainment. It fueled a lot of my activities and interests as a child and I went on to study acting formally and make it my career.
Once you decided being an Actor was your career path – what support system did you have embarking on your creative journey?
My family has always been very supportive of me. I’m the only actor in the family, but I come from a long line of artists in various forms, so they get it. I pretty much immersed myself in acting as early as I could and my family was always there to support and cheer me on. And they still are. Then as I went on to college and eventually New York, I slowly built a strong network of friends and colleagues that has been instrumental in helping me grow as an actor. I am very lucky to constantly be surrounded by generous, talented and supportive people.
How did your career as an Actor begin and what would you consider your “big break?”
I think my career began the moment I decided I wanted to be an actor because all of the steps since then have put me where I am now. I’ve always considered it my career, but it didn’t become a profession until I moved to New York. I consider my big break moment differently than some people consider theirs. It’s not a moment that propelled me into the mainstream, but it’s the moment I walked out of a New York casting office knowing I had booked my first job. I will never forget it. I remember the room, the action, what I wore and every single second of that audition. I finally knew how it felt to own the room and nail the audition. I didn’t get the call until the next day, but as I walked east on 23rd street in Manhattan after leaving the office, I just knew. It’s not a traditional big break moment, but it’s the moment I knew I was where I was supposed to be.
Your career includes both stage and screen. As an Actor, which experience is more fulfilling and why?
I absolutely love working on stage. It’s what I grew up doing and it’s how I trained professionally. There is something truly magical about live theatre, but I personally find film more fulfilling. It’s just a preference. I grew up being so mesmerized by film and the magic of Hollywood and filmmaking and the process and everything that went into creating a film. There’s a great rush that comes from performing live and I still do it as often as I can, but I get that same rush from watching a film take the journey from the page through production and post production and come out on the other side a finished, polished piece of art that lasts forever. I’m also fascinated by everything that goes into the film and what makes the cut and what doesn’t and how the story and the film will go through so many changes and forms throughout the journey from start to finish.
You’re an Award Winning Actress – but you’re also an Award Winning Producer. How did being a Producer come to you?
I actually fell into producing not by choice. I started out working on films by doing film challenges and the second one I worked on, the coordinator of the challenge asked me to produce one of the films. I said absolutely not I have no idea how to produce! He said you got this, don’t worry. I’m here if you need guidance. So I agreed and it turned out that I was pretty good at it, so it just became something I did. In the beginning, it served as a way for me to create more acting work for myself, which was ultimately my goal.
You Produced 20 Independent films as well as two pilots. What is your passion behind wanting to produce a project?
It really comes down to two things for me. The story and the team. If it’s a story I believe in or love or a story I really want to help tell, I’m in. There are also people in this industry that I love working with and people I really want to work with but haven’t yet. If the team is comprised of any of these people, that’s usually the first thing that attracts me to a project.
When wearing both hats of Producer/Actor in a film, how do you find the balance between the two?
I’ve learned that one the hard way several times. Producing and acting both require a great deal of time, energy and focus on a project so it’s imperative to allow ample time for both. I think as a producer, building a strong team that you can trust is essential to succeeding in wearing both hats. You have to be able to count on others to carry out tasks so you don’t have to oversee every detail all the time. That affords you the time you need to focus on the acting. If you don’t find that balance between the two aspects, you risk one of them failing.
Your most recent film FIZZLE, is Directed by Jeremiah Kipp. You’ve also worked with Kipp on the film LOST & FOUND. What do you look for in a Director – for you as an Actor – that makes you want to work with them?
Jeremiah sets the bar really high when it comes to what I look for in a director, which is why I will work with him time and time again. He’s an actor’s director through and through. He understands an actor’s process, what they need and how they work. He loves the collaboration and ultimately, that’s what I look for. Someone who truly wants to collaborate and sees everyone involved, from the actors to the writers to the crew to the producers as colleagues and as vital parts of the machine.
Do you like rehearsals for a film?
I do like rehearsals for film. I’ve done it both ways. I’ve worked on projects where I rehearsed a bunch prior to shooting and I’ve worked on some where you rehearse on set right before you shoot. Either way is ok. I think rehearsing in any capacity is important. But you can’t always count on getting a rehearsal so it’s important beyond all else that you arrive prepared. But given a choice, I’d rather rehearse. I like to be able to connect with the other actors I’m working with especially if it’s someone I’ve never met or worked with. Even if we don’t rehearse the material or the scene. Even if it’s just connecting and creating a relationship and familiarity beforehand. I think that foundation deepens the connection and the work on set. The other side of that is that I don’t like to over-rehearse. I like to make that connection and make sure everything is in place technically and emotionally, but I don’t like to overdo it because I think you risk losing some of the spontaneity in the moment.
When working on a character, give us an idea of your working road map – start to finish. Things you do for each role as the Actor to deliver the best work possible.
My process varies depending on the role, the director and the project. But for every project, my first step is always to spend as much time as possible with the script. I read it multiple times and I read it from the perspective of every character, not just mine, so I can see how every character fits into the world of the story. I read it for what’s on the page and for all the clues that the script will give me. I also read it for what’s not on the page. What’s not said. What’s said between the lines. Then I start prepping my role specifically and figuring out the similarities and differences between the character and myself, what I can personally bring to the role and how the actions and events are similar to things I’ve experienced. I find ways to make everything specific, personal and honest. Then I take all of that information with me into the rehearsal and incorporate the director’s ideas and layer that all together with what the other actors bring.
Your role in which you received a Best Actress Award was for THE RED LOTUS – a film which deals with abortion. How did that role come to you and how did you prepare?
I was actually on the development team for that project so I was already involved, but I had to audition to get the role. I went through my normal prep process, but this one was a bit different in that it dealt with something very specific, very emotionally charged and topical that I had never experienced. I had to rely heavily on my own views and desires about motherhood, the stories and similar experiences of women that I knew and my own experience with loss. So I pieced all of that together for the role.
You currently have five films, a television pilot and a web series on the festival circuit – as both a Producer and Actress. Tell us a little bit about each of these projects.
It’s been a great time sharing and promoting these projects because they’re all so vastly different and I had different roles in each both in front of and behind the camera. Awkwardly is an incredibly fun, heartfelt twenty episode web series from writer-creator Nikki Coble. It’s a chain of connection story about life in New York City and the awkward moments we all find ourselves in. It was great to be a part of this cast and get back to comedy after having done multiple dramatic roles in a row. I was also thrilled to be part of the cast of My Dinner With Schwartzey from director Melissa Skirboll and writer Penny Jackson. It’s a wonderful story that blends Alice In Wonderland with the Me Too movement and the 80’s music scene in New York. It’s fantastic. Lost + Found and Fizzle are just starting out on the circuit, both from director Jeremiah Kipp. Lost + Found is a film noir adaptation of John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Fizzle is written by Gilbert Girion and is an experimental comedy that follows eight strangers navigating inhibitions and the social pitfalls of an upscale party. I was a producer on Lost + Found and an associate producer on Fizzle and was so lucky to also be part of both casts. Playing Satan in Lost + Found was a real highlight for me! I produced the film The Long Commute from writer Anthony Robert Grasso and director Miguel Garzon Martinez and How Am I Doing, a television pilot from writer-creator Ken Perlstein and director Colleen Davie-Janes. Both are in the early stages of their festival run and are doing well so far! And finally, Perfect is a pilot from writer Nate Raven and director Jesse R. Tendler that explores modern day relationships and what it means to have a perfect relationship. I was a producer on this and also a part of the cast and we recently released it online to the public.
You’re a wonderful example of a “working actress” – with multiple projects at any given time. For those Actors just starting out in their career – where do you find the opportunities to audition?
It’s definitely a hustle and a labor of love. I have a manager that sends me out consistently for auditions which is wonderful, but I also stay well connected so I can do my part to further my career and work consistently. I take classes, I network, I promote myself on social media and I keep the industry people that I’ve met and worked with up to date on all my news and my work. This helps people keep me in mind when they are casting projects I’m a good fit for. I think maintaining relationships is key. It’s great if your rep is submitting you but sometimes the relationship you’ve nurtured with a casting director or director prior to an audition can be what gets you in the room. And if you don’t have a rep, Actor’s Access and Backstage are great places to find auditions so that you can build a body of work and create that industry network.
Which Actors did you look up to growing up?
Tom Hanks and Glenn Close were two big influences for me. I saw Fatal Attraction well before I should have when I was a kid and I remember thinking that she was so beautiful and so terrifying. I always admired her for being able to wield that kind of massive power in such a calm, succinct manner but also keep the audience thinking she could unleash at any moment. And her work is consistent that way in every role no matter the character or the circumstances. She’s one of the greatest of all time. And Tom Hanks. I mean who doesn’t love Tom Hanks? I used to watch reruns of Bosom Buddies when I was kid and I always thought he was such a lovable goofball. But I’ve been fascinated over the years to watch the arc of his career and his capacity for so much more than that. There is so much heart and honesty in his work. He also has a reputation for being the nice guy in Hollywood and I think he’s proof that kindness is king and that it can be your tool in getting ahead. You can be someone that everyone loves working with, make consistent, wonderful work, have a family and a successful career all at the same time.
Which Actor and Director is on your bucket list to work with someday?
That’s a very long list, but some of my top directors are David Fincher, Shawn Levy, Greta Gerwig and Amy Sherman-Palladino. Actors I’d absolutely love to work with are Michael Shannon, Frances McDormand, Jason Bateman, Sam Rockwell and Kathryn Hahn.
Advice for someone starting out as an Actor.
Learn all aspects of the medium you’re working in. If it’s film, understand all facets of a production. You don’t need to become an expert on each, but having a general knowledge of what takes place before and after production and in front of and behind the camera makes you a more well rounded actor. It gives you a greater respect and value for everyone and everything going into the production. And it gives you a more global view of the project and how you fit into it.
What’s next for you?
I have several films in development. A few that we’re actually producing in quarantine over the next few months and a feature that is slated for next year that I’m co-producing. I’m also producing and acting in a film next spring that takes place in New York in 1967 during the birth of the women’s movement. I play a mysterious cult leader pursued by a down-on-her-luck detective and I’m super excited!
Lastly, what is it about being an Actor – that you love most.
I’m a roll up my sleeves and get dirty kind of girl, so I love the work. I love the hustle. I thrive on it. I love that the industry is changing and accessible and there is so much available to us now to be able to create, produce and tell our own stories. I love getting to work with so many different people and personalities. It keeps everything fresh and new. Every day is a new adventure.
Jenn with her hubby Dave ❤