Funny. Talented. Beautiful. That’s Jennifer Marsala in a nutshell.
As the star of the new NBC series “Taken,” which delves into the past of the Liam Neeson-played character (portrayed in the television show by Clive Standen) to learn how he mastered his very particular set of skills, Marsala has quickly become a fan favorite of the ongoing origin story, bringing charm and a natural lightheartedness to an otherwise serious behind-the-scenes look of the intelligence community.
We recently sat down with the Las Vegas-native and magic lover to discuss the series, going into the field without a weapon, and the wonders of free cheese.
TrunkSpace: “Taken” premiered on NBC a few weeks ago. As an actress, do you stress about a project finding an audience or do you have to push that aside and focus on the job at hand?
Marsala: It’s interesting. I didn’t so much on the night of the premiere. The cast was all together, we had a party, it was a sort of a celebration of everything we accomplished together, but I found myself doing it this Monday night with the second episode. Sort of going, “I hope people are watching us!” (Laughter) Because, you know, we had so much fun and this cast is really unique from… I mean, I’ve loved most casts that I’ve worked with and all of the people, but with this cast, we were away for four months in Toronto and when you’re away from your lives and your families, you become really, really close. And this cast is super close and loves each other so much and I think you think about it because you go, “I want to go back and do this again with these people.” I don’t want it to be this one moment in time. I want it to be something that, you know, we get to continue to do. So, I did have a moment this Monday night where I was thinking about it. (Laughter) I hope I don’t have to think about it too much more.
TrunkSpace: It seems like a great time for an actor because there are so many different platforms and mediums for your craft, but at the same time, you’re going up against a lot of competition, which must make it more difficult to break through that noise of everything else that’s circulating in front of the eyes of viewers?
Marsala: Yeah. I think it is. I hope we’re lucky in that the franchise has some built in fans and for the people who were not fans of the movie, I hope they find something in it. The characters are almost all different. The only character that you find in this is… it’s a modern day origin story… the only character that’s the connective tissue to the movies later is the Bryan Mills character. And everybody else is this sort of team that surrounds him as he gets his particular set of skills. Or hones them. I mean, he obviously has this raw material that is incredible, which is why he is a part of this team to begin with. But these people are all going to teach him something that he can carry with him when he gets to the movies and I think the opportunity is to get new people watching because you’re adding something to the space of the movie that wasn’t there before.
But yeah, listen, there are so many ways to watch TV now that you always hope that people find you. And we’re on at 10 o’clock at night. Who stays up? (Laughter) I’m so thankful to everybody who’s staying up at 10 o’clock at night to watch us!
TrunkSpace: You mentioned how all of the characters have influence on who Bryan becomes in the films. Do you think that will give viewers a different perspective of the films themselves when they go back and revisit them after watching the series?
Marsala: I think so. The great thing about TV is we only know what we know so far. As we continue to shoot, we learn more, so every week we get a script and we’re learning something else. I think, if we’re lucky enough to go on seasons, then I think you’ll definitely see more of the connective tissue. I would imagine characters that are a part of the movie… you know, his wife and everything… will start to come in as the series goes on. That’s not where we are in the series right now. We’re so many years before that happens. I can’t speak for the writers, but I’d imagine the intention would be to sort of lay that connective tissue from this period of his life to the movies as it goes on.
TrunkSpace: How has your character Riley changed from when you first read for her to where she is in the current set of episodes you’ve shot?
Marsala: I loved her already from the pilot. She seems to have this sense of humor under pressure, which I found really appealing. How do you maintain a sense of humor in these pressure cooker situations, which I really like. What the series tries to do is highlight a different member of the team in different episodes and Episode 4 is a big episode for Riley. You sort of learn what brought her to this job, and for me, it was really important because she has also suffered a loss and you find out about it in Episode 4. That shows what her connection to Bryan is. What her investment in Bryan is on the team. Everybody is hard on him, but I always from the beginning thought of Riley as somebody who was on Team Bryan, someone who really wanted him to be successful and part of the team. When we came to Episode 4 and I saw that, you know, she had suffered this loss that had brought her to this as a career as well, it sort of made a lot more sense to me why I always got the sense that she was rooting for him.
TrunkSpace: As an actress, does the fact that you’re learning more about your character as you go make television a more exciting creative environment than say, film?
Marsala: Yeah, definitely. It’s a different way of working. When you get a film script you go, “Okay, I know about this character because I know where they start and where they end.” So, the work is within these two defined posts, right… the beginning and the end. I think for TV it’s interesting because you can make a choice and in the next week find out something totally that you hadn’t anticipated and it’s a journey that you were not expecting. I find it really exciting to have that be the case because your character will grow and evolve, and as other people’s characters grow and evolve in the show, your relationships grow and evolve.
I always wanted to do TV because I felt that… I grew up doing repertory theater, working with the same actors all of the time and seeing them in different roles and how they change as people. I think working with the cast and seeing how their characters change and evolve and your relationships grow is so exciting. So yeah, it’s my preferred way to work. It’s like getting a Christmas present every time you open a script and find out what your character is up to this week. (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: So when you look at some shows that defy logic and are on the air for 10, 11, 12 years and running… is the idea of playing the same character for that many years something that’s appealing to you, if, knock on wood, “Taken” became a huge, long-term success?
Marsala: Yeah. I mean, knock on wood is right! That’s a quality problem to have, right? Too many years of working on the same project? Obviously if you love the character that you’re playing, there’s something really nice about sort of deepening within that character for an extended period of time that I find very appealing. And then I think when you get to that point… that’s why a lot of people use their hiatus to do other projects where they can explore other characters and really sort of get a sense of playing somebody else, but… that’s what we’re all looking for, is the opportunity to get to play in the worlds we create for the most amount of time possible. I would love that. That would be a real gift to be able to do.
TrunkSpace: Riley works in intelligence. Due to a seemingly countless number of news stories over the last few months, the intelligence world has had a spotlight shined on it.
Marsala: Yeah! (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: Do you think the current political and social landscape has directly influenced the series at all in terms of just how it’s being approached?
Marsala: It was interesting because we were shooting during the run up to the election. We were shooting in Canada, so we were all a little bit removed from here. The group that we work for is the ODNI… the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. That is an organization that was started after 9/11 to coordinate what’s happening in all of the different intelligence agencies. I think it is, now more than ever, really essential. Yeah, I mean, listen, there’s such a spotlight on what’s going on in the intelligence community right now that there’s going to be, if we get a second season, a lot to mine from in that world.
TrunkSpace: The news itself has almost become pop culture now and people seem more informed about what’s going on than ever. I wonder if that knowledge of what’s going on will place more of an interest in a show like “Taken,” which focuses on that world?
Marsala: Yeah. I definitely think so. I’ve had people that I sort of knew from before… someone I went to high school with just sent me a Facebook message saying, “I have had a Top Secret security clearance for years and you don’t know how right you guys are in what you’re talking about in this show.” Which is always kind of nice when you hear that because you feel like you’re suspending disbelief a bit, obviously when you’re doing a work of fiction, but that it is as accurate as you can be with everything. I see so much potential in a second season to mine what is happening right now, which I’m sure that they would if we get one. Because it is true… this is pop culture now. People are much more informed than ever before about this and it is fascinating. Just really, really edge of your seat kind of stuff.
TrunkSpace: Well, they always say “you can’t write this stuff” when it comes to the crazy stories you see on the news, but at the same time, the “Taken” writers are in fact writing this stuff!
Marsala: Yeah. (Laughter) You can write it. Anything they say is not believable in fiction seems to be currently happening in the real world, so who knows! (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: Did you get a chance to do any sort of in-the-field, real world training to get comfortable in Riley’s career?
Marsala: No. I mean, the boys did. We work in two separate groups that have a little bit of an overlap right now. Riley is not a field operative, although that does change in Episode 4. She pops out for different things. In Episode 2 we learn that Riley has some medical training. In Episode 4 I get out in the field and I think ideally she would like to be in the field more. It’s always very exciting. Those days when I was out in the field were very exciting. But, the boys had weapons training and they’re obviously handling that stuff more. I kept saying, “Give Riley a gun or a knife or something!” (Laughter) It’s funny because the character description even of Riley is, “armed with a sharp sense of humor.” I was like, “Come on, guys! No weapons? Her only weapon is jokes? This does not seem appropriate for what she’s doing.” (Laughter) But, hopefully as we go on, we’ll see her in the field more.
TrunkSpace: Maybe in season two Riley will get a bazooka!
Marsala: (Laughter) I think so. I think the longer you go without a weapon, the bigger your weapon should be.
TrunkSpace: “Taken” is an origin story and we’re curious what your origin story has been… that journey from where it began to where you are now?
Marsala: Well, I started in theater. I grew up in Las Vegas and from the time I was really little… my uncle worked as a sound man at the Hilton, which is where like every big musical act came to perform. My aunt and uncle would take me and put me in the sound booth, prop me up on pillows, and I would watch, you know, every big performer come through and then go backstage with my little autograph book. I remember going back one time and I saw this sort of snack table and it had all of these assorted fancy cheeses on it and I thought, “Show business is for me!” (Laughter) It was a real pivotal moment for me. I thought, “They give you as many snacks as you want if you’re famous… I’m definitely pursuing this!” But I had no musical talent, so I started acting instead. (Laughter) I think if I had any discernible musical talent that I would have gone that way, but sadly, I might be tone deaf.
So, I started in theater and I grew up doing repertory theater and school theater and acting and then left Vegas. I was touring with shows and then I found myself at the Stella Adler Academy of Acting, just pursuing this. I never had a back up plan. It was sort of always what I was going to do. I worked my way through a series of comically strange day jobs when I moved to Los Angeles. (Laughter) I was an electrician’s assistant for a little while. I was a wedding planner. I did many, many jobs before it sort of hit that this could be the day job and that you could be living the dream, so… it was always for me, acting, from the time I was a really little kid.
TrunkSpace: Has the acting world offered as much fancy cheeses as the live music world?
Marsala: (Laughter) No and it’s ridiculous and something that I intend to remedy! Although, they do always have at the crafty table, sort of cubed cheeses, which come out at like three in the morning when you’re so tired and your senses are down and you’re like, “I think the best thing I could do right now is eat a pound of Gouda.” So I did that much too frequently on set. (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: And you actually did some stand-up comedy as well, correct?
Marsala: I did. It’s interesting because my resume is filled with drama, but actually, my goal was always to be on a sitcom. That’s literally all I wanted, was to do a multi-camera sitcom with a live audience. It has the most direct connection to theater, you know, the world that I come from. I love comedy. I do improv and years ago I thought, “What’s the scariest thing in the comedy world that I could actually think of to try?” And as I thought about it, I thought stand-up. I had just one goal, which was like, if I just don’t pee my pants, I did it… I win. So, I did it for a little while and I’m happy to report… never wet myself. (Laughter)
I do it occasionally. I still write a bit, but it is the most terrifying. I have the most respect for my friends who get up five nights a week at clubs and really do it. When I was doing improv, if you get up and you’re brilliant, the audience is with you. They think, “She just made that up!” And then if it’s bad, they think, “Oh, but, she just made it up.” But with stand-up, you get up and they’re like, “Oh, she wrote this! She spent time on it. She memorized it. She got up and she thought we would think it was funny. We hate her!” (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: It does seem that part of the allure for an audience at a stand-up show is to not always be the easiest audience.
Marsala: Yes! It’s a very antagonistic thing, which I had not anticipated. It’s not unlike being in a magic show, which I also love. I’m also a big magic fan. There’s something about, “Oh, so you think you can fool me? You think you can make me laugh? Try it!” And I don’t quite get it because it’s a very strange mentality to have. (Laughter) It’s almost like people don’t want to be made to laugh, so there is that sort of working against you. I was very lucky and tend to have audiences who are nicer, but I think they just take one look at me and think, “Oh, she could run off the stage crying. We should be a little nicer to her.” (Laughter)
“Taken” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on NBC.