Actress Jessica Rowan has a great sense of humor, wit and some interesting stories about her life and career thus far. Here she talks to us about how she got started in acting, what brought her to New York, her experiences there and other places her incredible life has taken her.
Jessica explains: I initially applied for UCLA film school and got in. After a daunting and overwhelming first quarter, I went back to the University of Minneapolis. I then went to drama school and did shows throughout Minneapolis and in college. With each successive year there, I got bigger roles in productions. My last quarter, I got to play perhaps the role of my life, which was Emily in Our Town, with a marvelous cast. The person that played George was Michael Phillips, who is now one of the Siskel and Ebert film critic’s, with AO Scott.
I then got into ACT, the American Conservatory Theater, Advanced Training Program. I was advised by Emily Mann, a director of mine in Minneapolis, who is now artistic director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. It turned out to be the best year of my life, being immersed with acting or anything related to it, every day and all the time. A fellow classmate at the time was Annette Bening. I also studied with superb teachers. I was cut after the first year, as was Denzel Washington, although not in the same year. I then went straight to New York, with a friend who was also going to Harvard.
On a tip from my friend, I lived at the hostel at Columbia University for the entire summer, which was a great beginning. I also studied a summer at Oxford. After that, housing was unstable and I jumped from place to place for about three years. I then settled on the Upper West Side and lived in a tiny apartment, for about seven years.
I got my first acting job one year later, and heard about it while vacationing in Minnesota. When I got back to New York, I found it was in a theater on West 19th Street that doubled as an adult establishment at night. The artistic director, Magdalena was a very warm-hearted woman who also ran the adult entertainment part and said I’d have a job if I wanted to stay when theater hours were over. I politely declined. Jobs flowed in just as sparsely over the next five years or so.
In 1986 I got involved with Riverside Shakespeare on the Upper West Side. It had great actors and directors. I started as ASM, and played the role of Moth in the tour of Loves, Labors, Lost. I eventually played Juliet, which was the second of my three favorite roles, in a workshop production read at Grant’s tomb. A tour of Germany followed where I played Betty in The Crucible. It was a small role, so I also had to do the laundry. Not an easy feat when there are no laundromats to speak of.
I worked at Riverside Shakespeare near the end of its heyday but I think of them as an example of really great actors, directors, and minds, who are not famous. It was a great enriching few years, and I don’t think I would take that back to get Hollywood scripts at my doorstep more quickly.
Earlier that year, I had toured doing The Little Prince. I played the Little Prince role, binding myself up on top to play the lead. This role was also one third in French. We toured schools all over the South and Southwest. We were told to drive, despite a blizzard in Colorado, and flipped our van entirely upside down, thereby dumping the trailer with our props out in the snow. We still did the show, even though I had a neck brace on.
In the early 1990s, I auditioned for an acting intern position with Tony Randall’s National Actors Theatre, and got in. Days started about 9am, and if we had a show, we didn’t get out until around 11pm. They were tough hours but being on Broadway and in two shows was amazing. Just being on that stage at the Lyceum Theatre was incredible. I got to work with brilliant people and celebrities such as the amazing John Neville. He is soft-spoken, nice and low-key, and he would casually say something just remarkable. I was Tyne Daly’s assistant, who is such a warm person. I also worked with Jack Klugman, who is so real and just ‘gets it’, Ethan Hawke, Laura Linney, Tony Roberts, John Franklin Robbins, Joan Macintosh, Maryann Plunkett, Jay Sanders, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jon Voight, and Marshall Mason, who is so intelligent and intense. Of course Tony Randall, with his gigantic enthusiasm, was there every day.
Also during this time I was working at Columbia Law School so I could afford to learn how to scuba dive. On a trip to the Cayman Islands, an eight foot eel came slithering through the water with its teeth bared and attacked me.
I was fortunate enough to work with Sidney Lumet, who is totally amazing and I appeared as the lead in an independent movie. Parts of it were filmed in New Jersey where they didn’t want to pay me any wages after working overnight a couple of days, but the rest of the experience was really incredible.
In actuality, the best moments for me are meeting amazing people, connecting with another actor in a scene, having a great show on stage, or wrapping a movie at the end of a long day.
For an actor it is a lot of work finding jobs, finding the right resources, meeting the right people, getting ready for auditions, getting head shots, trying to figure out how to make enough money to live on, or even just finding some joy or keeping your hopes up.
I was called “brilliant” by a great director and coach for Al Pacino at Riverside Shakespeare and “so beautiful” by amazing Herbert Berghof. I have been described as grounded, intelligent, and high-energy. These are wonderful memories that mean a lot to me and probably get me through some long empty moments without work. Part of being an actor is that you can have a casting director who’s just deadpan and you trudge out the door, and then you get that call back. You can also have people who love you but who you never hear from again.
There’s not a lot of glamour in this business. I meet people who say “Oh, you’re an actress, that must be fun.” Well, I think that the fun is about 2% of the time when you get to work, or maybe the fulfillment in the pursuit of what I want.
In my spare time I love to read modern fiction or the classics, although I rarely get enough time.
In the past few years, I’ve wanted to work more in film although I still audition for theater. I would say it’s even tougher now, especially for anything that pays well. I have had success in commercials, such as one for Merck, which helps pay the bills.
Some of my other memories include: I have run into a bear, in northern Minnesota; I was a state delegate at the age of 19; I met, and spoke to, Marcel Marceau; I’ve been the star of a movie; worked very hard for McGovern and been bitten by a doberman. I helped put out a forest fire and suffered smoke inhalation. I originated and edited a student newspaper. I threw the ring from the guy I almost married off the Golden Gate Bridge. I flew to St. Louis to be the lead in a series of ten commercials for Silver Dollar City; I rode a stingray when I went scuba diving; I lived through the tornado of May 1965 that made the front cover of National Geographic. I played right wing on the University of Minnesota women’s hockey team. I met Sidney Lumet, and was chosen to work on Find Me Guilty. I ran into a skunk in Colorado; I’ve had a gun held to my head; I worked with Betty Friedan for six months; I’ve taken class with Herbert Berghof, who called me “beautiful, so beautiful”; I skied at Alta and worked at Sundance in the same year. I have climbed glaciers; I’ve had my heart broken so bad I didn’t want to wake up every morning for two years; I dove on the reefs and wrecks at the Cayman Islands at night, was stung by jellyfish, and snorkeled over a shark. I love London Theater, and I’ve been to Prague, Copenhagen, Rome, Florence, Paris, Mexico City and Acapulco, all over Germany, Florence, and Sweden. I have not yet jumped out of a plane.
My aspiration is to get the richness I find in literature into my acting for both film and stage. I have quite a high bar, and even though I don’t have thousands of words to express the richness of life, I keep that ideal in mind as I work a scene or build a character.