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American Woman

Wingman Wednesday

Makenna James

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Photo By: Jeff Forney

Big breaks in Hollywood are no easy thing to come by, even in this Golden Age of television where the quantity of the content being produced is matched only by the quality. Actress Makenna James, still in the early stages of her career, knows that big breaks are only what you make of them, and with her new series “American Woman,” she’s embracing the mantra that even those jobs that appear like game changers on the surface, they don’t actually change the game itself.

We recently sat down with James to discuss the “American Woman” learning curve, why the storytelling is so relevant even though it’s a period piece, and how acting is not the only path she plans on walking in life.

TrunkSpace: “American Woman” is your biggest role to date, in a series that has received a lot of attention. Do you view it as a career game changer? At the same time, is it important to also manage expectations because it seems like this is an industry where things always zig when you expect them to zag?
James: I wouldn’t say a game changer. A stepping stone, maybe. I try to never have lofty expectations. If this is a game changer, that’s fantastic. If not, I’ve dealt with that before and I’ll move on.

TrunkSpace: The talent involved in the series is phenomenal, as is the creative team behind it. Are you viewing your time on the series as just as much of an education as you are a job? We would imagine there’s a wealth of knowledge to absorb on a set like that.
James: Definitely. The learning curve was insane for me. I got to become less socially awkward, more acclimated to working in front of a camera, and exposed to the writing process over the course of numerous episodes. John Wells is a legend, but – more than that – such a kind person. It was incredible to be able to work with him so early in my career.

TrunkSpace: The series takes place in the 1970s, but the experiences that the characters are going through could just as easily be applied to what people are dealing with today. Do you think that is part of what makes the series work, that it’s relatable on a human, grounded level?
James: I do. Although the era impacts the storylines, a lot of what our characters are going through – self-doubt, discrimination, sexism, racism – continue to have a place in today’s society. I don’t think that the show could have arrived at a more relevant time.

TrunkSpace: In terms of your own personal experience, is it a gift to be able to play a character like Becca who has layers, but at the same time, is dropped into a world that is foreign to you (the ‘70s) and have an opportunity to play in a space that feels new?
James: Such a gift. A lot of Becca’s opinions are normalized in modern society, but – for the ‘70s – are radical. Everything about the era – from sexist teachers to passive racism – amplifies the passion that Becca feels. In the face of dismissiveness, Becca’s beliefs are fortified.

TrunkSpace: Is there a particular set piece/design or wardrobe selection that impacted you and helped to transport you back to the 1970s? Do those real time visuals help get you into character when you arrive on set?
James: There were so many brilliant pieces on our set – our crew was phenomenal. But, if I had to pick one, it would be Becca’s Angela Davis t-shirt. That particular shirt really helped me understand Becca as she related to the time – her activism, the unabashed nature of her personality, her understanding that she is privileged. A great debt is owed to Judy Gellman, our head costume designer, as she brings each character to life with their style, and each actor back to the era that we are living in.

TrunkSpace: What do you enjoy most about getting to slip into Becca’s skin and where has she allowed you to go with your performance that previous roles didn’t?
James: Her dynamism. Playing the rebellious character is always fun, but Becca poses a unique opportunity. Not only is she defiant and difficult, but she is also vulnerable and confused. A lot of her pessimism stems from the sense that she lacks control and the notion that her mother doesn’t make her a priority. Becca feels left behind and, for whatever reason, that manifests in anger. That complexity is rare to come by for a teenage character.

TrunkSpace: This is the longest time you’ve ever spent with one character. What has that extended character journey been like for you, and do you think you would be creatively fulfilled playing the same character – not necessarily Becca, but any character – for six or seven seasons?
James: I loved staying in character for an extended amount of time. But, when we talk about six or seven seasons, I think it depends on the character and the show. Like real people, characters evolve. The challenges they face, the developments in their lives – all of it changes who they are. In that sense, I don’t feel that it would be a hindrance, as long as the creative team behind the show is dedicated to authenticity. With Becca specifically, I feel that there is a lot we haven’t yet explored in her personality. She has a lot of pent-up, complicated emotions.

TrunkSpace: You’re headed off to Harvard University in the fall. First, as Boston peeps, welcome to the city! Secondly, have you given thought to how your two workloads – career and school – will intermingle and how they will impact each other? Will you be stepping back a bit from acting while attending classes?
James: Thank you for the welcome! I am still figuring out that balance if I’m being honest. For now, and this is subject to change, I am planning on taking my first year to get settled and clarify my field of study. After that, I might re-enter acting, but exclusively during breaks.

TrunkSpace: You’ve been acting since you were 12. Is Harvard the start of what you hope is a different long-term career path? Do you have your sights set on goals beyond the entertainment industry?
James: Yes. I am not going to college for the novelty. There are many fields I am interested in – criminal justice, environmental science – that I am equally passionate about. Even within the industry itself, I would want to direct or write, rather than just act. Acting alone has never been the plan.

TrunkSpace: If “American Woman” becomes the smash hit of the year and it ends up being the show that everyone is talking about, would that alter your long-term point of view at all? Would you have to reassess the various paths you’re walking?
James: For the most part, no. Multitasking might slow down the process, but other than perhaps delaying Harvard for a year to do a second season, the show’s success will not impact my other goals. I don’t want to dedicate my life to one profession.

American Woman” airs Thursdays on Paramount Network.

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Wingman Wednesday

Jennifer Bartels

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The new Paramount Network series “American Woman” may be marketed as a comedy, but there are plenty of dramatic moments throughout the course of the first season, which proved an exciting change of pace for star Jennifer Bartels. Although trained in theater and the Meisner technique (an approach to acting developed by Sanford Meisner that places emphasis on instinctive response), the North Carolina native became a familiar voice within the comedy scene, studying and performing at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater before being cast in a reboot of “In Living Color” and serving as writer, performer and executive producer of truTV’s sketch comedy series “Friends of the People.”

With “American Woman,” a period piece that also stars Alicia Silverstone and Mena Suvari, Bartels is getting to flex dormant muscles, and relishing in the fact that her character Diana travels so far from her starting point in the pilot to where she ends up in the season finale.

We recently sat down with Bartels to discuss the need for actors to create, how she’s settling her hustler nerves so that she can enjoy the “American Woman” ride, and why she’s eager to shape opportunities for other actors in the future.

TrunkSpace: It must be quite a whirlwind for you these last couple of weeks?
Bartels: Yeah, it’s been amazing. As an actor that started out in theater and doing comedy in New York, to have this show and all the fun and buzz behind it, it’s been really awesome – really great.

TrunkSpace: What is the experience like when you’re doing a project of this size and scope, from that moment when you first slip into the character to when it premieres? Is the wait excruciating… to get to share it with the world?
Bartels: Yeah. It was a wonderful experience. The thing is, from the conception of this show to now, it’s been, I believe, almost five years. So even when I booked the pilot and then from what that pilot was, and what Diana and these characters were, to where they are now when you see the final product… it was a really rich experience. But it’s also timely, everything we’re discussing now. It’s really nice because it’s been a work-in-the-making for years. And we wrapped in July, so it’s been really nice to finally see it take off and get promoted and have really great viewership.

TrunkSpace: When working in this business, especially before something is formally released, is it important for you to temper expectation knowing that so much of it is out of your control?
Bartels: Yeah, I feel like that’s been my personal journey creatively, which is why to me, it’s so important to be creating your own projects because at least you have control. There are a lot of actors who are actors, but I think in this climate, with social media and just with where we are, it’s great to be writing and creating and producing your own thing because it’s such a crap shoot. There’s so many elements outside of your control. From me going on an audition, to having a series go on to air 12 episodes, to a billboard on Sunset… it’s wonderful, but it’s a rarity. And then to see who’s going to like it? It’s a lot of holding your breath and a lot of ups and downs. It never goes away.

TrunkSpace: There must be something creatively satisfying knowing that you have those 12 episodes to build an audience with and not having to wait week-to-week to see if you’ll be moving forward with a storyline or particular arc?
Bartels: Yeah, that’s what is exciting right now, and I think as an actor sometimes we’re hard on ourselves and we’re always like, “What else? What are we doing?” We’re hustlers, but I think giving yourself a moment to sit in the satisfaction that it’s a solid female-driven show that, each week, will air, and that these characters really develop in a really surprising way, especially Diana, my character, from where you see her in the pilot to where she goes… it’s very wonderful and layered, so it’s exciting. Yeah, I have to check myself and go, “Jen, calm down, take a deep breath.” (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: At what point can you let your guard down and just sort of say, “Okay, this is it. This is going to be my life for the next four or five years?”
Bartels: I think it’s always a struggle, if I’m being brutally honest. I think at this point everyone should be in therapy out here because it is a matter of what is enough and feeling that what you’re doing is enough creatively and professionally, because again, there’s so many cooks in the kitchen on any given project. So I’m trying to really celebrate and not let… sometimes you just have those voices in your head that… great, that’s going to make me sound totally insane… but you have those naysayers in your own head that try to get in your own way, and so it’s nice to remind yourself that if you hang with good family or friends, like, “Hey, you really accomplished something pretty rad.” So that’s what I’m trying to do.

TrunkSpace: In the current TV landscape where there is so much great television being produced, just finding an audience is a big accomplishment.
Bartels: Yeah, there really is so much competition because there’s so many avenues to watch programming, and solid programming, and so I think that’s what’s been really gratifying is, the fans, viewers. New fans, fans who love Kyle (Richards), fans who love John Wells, or Alicia and Mena… and then the ’70s. There’s just a lot of elements that different people can be drawn in by with this show, and so it’s really cool to see the first week, Twitter light up, and a lot of, especially women, but I think what’s been wonderful too is men and older folks too who really are taken back to the ’70s with this type of show… it’s been a nice array of viewership, so it is very cool.

TrunkSpace: For you personally, as a performer, was one of the draws in working on “American Woman” the fact that it was a little bit drama and a little bit comedy, and having the ability to sort of play with all of the emotions of a character?
Bartels: Yeah, I think that that’s always wonderful. I studied theater and Meisner technique in North Carolina and then I came to New York and I started doing comedy, and I think it’s a really nice thing when you have a project that allows you to flex different muscles. People are like, “So it’s a comedy?” And I’m like, “Well, it’s more of a dramedy.” There really is a lot of honest, serious social and personal issues and I think the comedy that you’re looking for when you’re like, “Oh, where’s that one liner?”, it’s more… there are funny, honest things, and to me, comedy is honesty. When you’re honest, that’s when it’s truth in comedy. So I feel like that’s what we play with, and that is finding the honesty and the comedy in real life situations and how they’ve changed to how they haven’t, then and now.

TrunkSpace: With traditional TV comedies, sitcoms, you don’t see a lot of growth and story arcs for characters, but that’s not the case with this show. You’re seeing them go through life and adjusting based on what they experience.
Bartels: Yeah, which I really actually enjoy, and like you said, it was a really nice thing to see as this story progressed and the writers were writing for us, that these characters did take very juicy steps in directions that we maybe didn’t foresee when we did the pilot. Because when you do the pilot, you think, “Oh, it’s a pilot…” You hope it gets picked up, and now I’m Episode 7 in and I’m like, “What am I about to do?” And it’s so rewarding and surprising and I think the viewers will like it as well.

TrunkSpace: You spoke about the chance to get to flex your acting muscles. Where do you feel you got to stretch the most by being a part of “American Woman?”
Bartels: I think it’s more on the serious side. I think a lot of my work in the past, my commercial work, has been… I had a sketch show and I booked “In Living Color,” so I was coming in hot with comedy. So to be given the trust with the writers and the producers to be seen as… not a serious actor, but I had more of a dramatic side to me… I think it was great and it came out in the writing as the show progressed. In Episode 3 there’s this pool scene where Diana kind of goes off the deep end, literally, and it allowed me to have some fun as I did this wonderful, rich monologue on a roof after partying a little too hard, and you start to see this different side of Diana. This not-so-buttoned-up side. And that reveals itself in like five different ways in the whole season, different ways that she starts to loosen those buttons. I think there was a lot that I was challenged with that I had never done before on-screen that was fun and wild and sexy and sad, and I’m really excited and proud of Diana. And it was so cool that people trusted me when they started seeing what I can do, and wrote more for me, so it was wonderful.

TrunkSpace: As a creative person who also works as a writer and producer, is a long-term journey with a character on-screen – going four, five, or even six years with a character – something that appeals to you?
Bartels: Well, I feel like there’s the idea of getting work to get work, or having as much as possible and seeing what sticks on a wall, but creatively for me, I prefer if it’s something fulfilling. And if Diana’s story or whomever I’m working with, playing whatever character, has a rich, fun road to walk down, I would definitely have allegiance to playing that role, truth be told. And I also think there is a lot of intense work. You shoot for three months nonstop and then you do have time allocated to creating other roles or projects. A big thing I want to do is continue to pitch and produce projects that I’m on the backend of – that I’m behind the scenes with – just to give more females and more underrepresented people roles because I feel like that still needs to happen. I feel like we branch out, but we still kind of use the same few people. There are just so many talented people I know that need that opportunity, that was in a way given to me, and so I think if I could help create and give back, that’s kind of what I want to do. But I think they can both go together. I can still be on the journey with Diana, or whomever else, and keep creating on the side.

Catch Jennifer Bartels’ journey with Diana in “American Woman” every Thursday on Paramount Network.

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