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The Midwestern Girl

Greencastle native Jess Berry is taking her Chicago stage résumé to The City of Angels for a chance to stand in front of the camera.  With a television and film credit already under her belt, she’s off to a good start.

by Donovan Wheeler
featured photo by Brittney Way
photos by Janna Giacoppo

An open strand of gravel road banked by vast swaths of soy beans and corn is more than a long way from the sidewalks along State Street or Wacker Drive.  Here, at the farm where Jess Berry grew up, sunshine permeates the brick framing her parents’ century-old house.  Here a soft breeze sometime works up the nerve to whistle by as hot wind.  Here a porch-side conversation is peppered by the ambient sound of sparrows, finches, and the occasional whippoorwill.

There, everything is different.  There, the towering city-scape often shuts out direct sunlight.  You can see your way around The Loop, but the perpetual shadows offer little respite from the searing winter wind or the asphalt-laden heat they envelop.  As Berry calls it, Chicago is a “city-city.”  But for all the visual and tactile differences between her long-time adopted home and the one she returns to for family gatherings, Berry has used her last eight years in the Windy City doing what she’s always done.  She’s reached out to others, she’s chased her passions, and she’s made a sometimes alien world as comfortable as her old rural back yard.

In a few months Berry, who has spent most of her time building her theater résumé on the floorboards of the city’s famed storefront scene, will leave The Loop behind her, opting for time in front of the camera in Los Angeles.  On a sweltering Saturday—the day before Father’s Day—Berry, her miniature goldendoodle named Frankie, and I sat down in front of her parents’ front door and talked about what happens when someone grows up in a small Midwestern town and ends up somewhere very, very different.

Photo: copyright Janna Giacoppo, courtesy Jess Berry.
Photo: copyright Janna Giacoppo, courtesy Jess Berry.

Donovan Wheeler:  You attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.  Earned a degree in graphic design and then took an advertising job in Chicago.  How did you end up on stage from that point?

Jess Berry:  “About two years ago, I left my full time job.  At the time I earned an opportunity to understudy in Chicago, and that became a full-time commitment: day long rehearsals, full shows…all of that.  After that production closed, I returned to the ad world as a freelancer for a while, but since March I’ve returned to full-time acting.”

DW:  Mostly on stage?

JB: “Actually much of my income comes from television commercials.  My current representation has been very good opening those doors, and I currently have four of them running on the air right now.”

DW:  What’s it like shooting a TV spot in comparison to other types of film acting?

JB:  “I’ve been on a two-day shoot for a 30-second ad.  We were in a ‘running club’ for a Michelob Ultra spot, and we ran all over Chicago in minus-12 degree weather…two 12-hour days.  It’s unbelievable how much footage it takes.  And thank goodness I was surrounded by good people…great actors…good crew.”

DW:  So not that different, then.

JB:  “But I’ve been on other productions which ended after a two-hour shoot, and the end-result runs a solid two or three minutes.  It depends on the production level, who you’re working with, and factors such as that.”

DW:  These are Internet ads then?

JB:  “Anthem pays for several of those long-form informational ads which live online and often never see TV.  And all of this is interesting because my commercial work has been influenced by my advertising background.”

DW:  How so?

JB:  “I have experience with the ways which brands want to portray their products, and that allows me to put myself in that ‘acting vehicle’ and give them what they want.  This means that the decisions about who gets cast in a spot and who doesn’t is not a personal issue.  It’s about ‘the fit,’ and my experience helps me tremendously with that.”

DW:  Take me back to the beginning of your career.  How did all of this happen?

JB:  “I did some modeling in high school and college, but I didn’t start acting until after college when I was living in Chicago.  I was driven by a sense of unhappiness in the advertising world.  I spent all day at a desk, and I spent time reflecting on the fun things I had been a part of growing up.  The theatre, my time with my drama teacher Vickie Parker and performing in Peter Pan…all these neat, fun, collaborative, on-your-feet sorts of things came back to me.  I needed a creative outlet, and based on those memories, going back to the stage seemed like a natural choice.  And Chicago boasts one of the most vibrant, storefront theater communities in the country, and it’s very accessible.”

DW:  So you auditioned for a show?

JB:  “Not right away, no.  I took a class at first.  I was in my early twenties, and I thought that would give me the best chance to meet new people.  Remember, I’m still working my day job at this point, and I’m looking for ways to improve my quality of life.  But I did start working at my teacher’s theater in Lakeview, and she asked to understudy a part in Sweet Bird of Youth.  And then I actually went on for a performance.  The lead came down with some 24-hour bug, so I filled in.”

DW:  Is that rare?

JB:  “You know, I don’t really know.  I don’t know what the statistics for such a thing are, but I know from my own experience that I’ve understudied for weeks and never touched the stage, but in this case it worked out.”

DW:  How does this lead to full time acting?

JB:  “Many of my friends in the theater community were pursuing full time work, and they liked my own work and frequently said to me, ‘You can do this.’  So they offered to pass along my information to their own agents and other people holding the levers.  That led to more stage work, and the commercial work mostly opened up out of all of those theater connections.”

DW:  So the television work then spawned out of the commercial acting?

JB:  “No, it all came from the theater.  After I found an agent, I decided to shop around for stronger representation because I didn’t want to settle for a ‘cattle-call’ agency.  So I hunkered down into a lot of research…research, research, research.  Then I started moving from agency to agency, each time moving with a bigger résumé as the theater productions and commercial work mounted.  Some of the people behind the commercial work, also cast small parts for Chicago Fire.  I had been around the block enough, and those people knew my face, so they brought me in to meet the director for the episode I would eventually work.”

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The episode Berry refers to is a season-3 crossover piece with its sister shows (Chicago P.D. and Law and Order: SVU) titled “Nobody Touches Anything.”  Appearing early in the program, Berry hangs from the driver’s seat of a late-model sedan, wedged into a ditch.  The car is upside down, pouring smoke, and getting ready to light up.  As Berry herself explains, the fear on her character’s face was something more than an act.

DW:  Describe your experience on the Chicago Fire shoot.

JB:  “Well, for one, I spent most of it upside down.  It was terrifying.  I didn’t expect it to be as hard as it was, because of, first and foremost, the sheer physicality of it.  I didn’t realize what it would be like to hang from a harness with smoke and fire coming at you in the confines of a car.  But all of that helped me play the part, too. It created a lot of anxiety.  It was nothing like standing on stage ‘having a conversation.’ It was very intimidating.  At the same time, I didn’t feel out of place.  The series regulars were dropping their lines, for example, and something about that reminded me that we were all acting from the same page, so to speak.  And other elements, such as wardrobe and sitting in a trailer on set, were all things I was used to with commercial shoots.”

DW:  The turnaround time for line memorization was pretty quick, I’m assuming?

JB:  “Oh yeah…or they’ll rewrite your lines, right there at the shoot…which is hard.”

DW:  How so?

JB:  “On television shows such as Fire, they are very strict.  They want the lines delivered ‘word perfect,’ exactly as written.  Whereas when you’re on stage, and things go a little weird, you just figure it out together, and then you’re back on the track.  And in commercial filming it’s yet again different, because those directors want that improv.  They want to see that you’ve studied at Second City and that you can come up with your own funny bit where they’ll say, ‘Oh, my gosh…that’s gold!’”

DW:  What is the new play you’re working on in Chicago?

JB:  “It’s an original play…a historical work about Frederick Douglass and the abolitionist movement.”

DW:  Who do you play?

JB:  “I play a young New England woman supporting the movement, and I’m not only vocal about racial rights but women’s rights.  But your question is interesting in another way.”

DW:  How so?

JB:  “Part of my character’s back story was her love interest with an Irish immigrant.  But as of last week, the production team cut that entire character, and this was a show cast two months ago…at least.  When the director called, I thought he was about to tell me he had cut my character.  They originally had planned to create a host of side figures who would weave their stories together and create this fabric of the time period.  But they decided to strengthen the relationship among the central characters: Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and the West Family—which is a family representing Northern wealth at the time.”

DW:  So what’s changed for you?

JB:  “They told me that my character has become ‘substantially larger,’ but I don’t know in what way.  I’ll find out next week when we start rehearsal.”

DW:  Why do you think the new and original material thrives in Chicago?  Why does Indy find itself promoting mostly Off-Broadway remakes of animated movies?

JB:  “I think there’s an appetite in Chicago which stems from the creative culture that fuels much of that city.  The storefront theater scene is very unique…and all of the actors living in it are supportive, too.”

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DW:  How does that compare to the support network among actors in New York?

JB:  “I can’t speak to New York because I’ve not worked there…and it’s so big.  I think Zach [Zachary Spicer] would probably have a better answer for that, but from my experience here there’s a sense of community.  Everyone keeps in close contact, and we go to each other’s shows, and we cross paths very, very frequently.  Everyone works hard to help new talent, too.  We help them develop on stage, and we welcome them into the network of actors as well.  Speaking for myself, I feel like, as an actor who doesn’t have a theater degree or a pedigree at Steppenwolf or Second City, I’m still treated very well by my colleagues.”

DW:  That sounds very nice for the third-largest city in the nation.

JB:  “I can’t express enough how wonderful everyone is.  You don’t see any of that superficial judgment.  It really does feel like a community of artists and collaborators, which is why I think it sucked me in so heavily.  You’re working with designers, and directors, and dramaturges…and many of them are not getting paid to do it.  When I first started this, I was doing it as an outlet fired by my personal love for the stage.  I think that’s what makes the place so great…people want to do the work for the sake of the work.  And people who volunteer like that are people who typically love working with other people, and all of that feeds into the culture.”

DW:  So, given that Chicago is this amazing place to work if you’re an actor, why make the move to LA?

JB:  “This is the weird thing about the casting world: you can work more of the types of plays you want to work, on the stages you would rather work if you have a lot of screen credits to your name.  I have colleagues who have logged their Chicago stage time, landed a couple television credits, and now they’ve moved on to…I guess you’d call it a bigger pond.  I hate to say that there’s a ceiling in Chicago, but if your ambitions are very high, then yes, there is one.  You have many people who are happy with the atmosphere, here and want to stay for that reason.  I think that’s great.”

DW:  That actually makes a lot of sense.

JB:  “I want to do more theater, but I want to have more control in the parts and plays I choose rather than saying, ‘yes’ because I need to be working.”

DW:  How much harder is getting a television or film role in Chicago than in LA?

JB:  “In the fall we’ll have seven shows filming in Chicago, but almost all of the casting takes place on the coasts.  Those people come here with the production crew for the shoots.  And if you live in Chicago, then you’re best chances are to get the smaller parts, the ‘co-star’ roles…or maybe a recurring ‘guest-star’ role which runs for two or three episodes.  That’s a perfect example of the ceiling I was talking about.”

Photo: copyright Janna Giacoppo, courtesy Jess Berry.
Photo: copyright Janna Giacoppo, courtesy Jess Berry.

DW:  So it’s LA then.

JB:  “Yes, and I’m looking forward to it for so many reasons.  I know you can get stuck in traffic, and that sort of thing, but you’re near a host of national parks, there’s so much open space, and I’m looking forward to a lifestyle which is geared toward a little more time outdoors.  I love Chicago, but I’m feeling the urge for a change, and this seems like the right time.”

DW:  You grew up here, on your parents’ farm just outside of Greencastle, Indiana.  How much of Greencastle is still with you?  Honestly?

JB:  “I think there’s more than what most people would expect.  I would argue that I’ve become ‘city-savvy,’ but the hard-work ethic and the kindness which this town pours into us since childhood is something I’ll take with me no matter what city I’m in.”

DW:  Do your city friends notice that in you?

JB:  “The people I work with often tell me, ‘You can talk to anybody…and you’re nice…and you’re not complaining about the work conditions, you’re not complaining about your trailer size…’ And I don’t think these compliments come to me because of me.  I’m a product of my upbringing: the work of my parents and of my community here.  I know that I appreciate coming home more.  When I was in high school and college I always thought, ‘get me out of here.’  But at that time I never realized how good I’ve had it.”

Late in our conversation, I asked Berry if she was comfortable calling herself “ambitious.”  She was.  She clarified, of course.  For her, “ambition” means the desire to make good work.  To be the best performer she can, to say yes to the best scripts she can latch onto, and to work with the best directors in the business.  Fame, if it comes to that, is something she won’t turn down, but that’s not her first objective.  In a culture saturated with YouTube and Twitter stars, reality TV contest winners, and click-bait journalism this is a refreshing perspective.  And for Berry herself, she’s working in an era which one news report called the best in Hollywood’s history in terms of finding work.  Thanks to Netflix, HULU, Amazon Prime, and about a thousand cable networks the parts are aplenty.  But what happens next when she boards that plane for the West Coast?  That’s the part we don’t know.  Regardless how her story plays out, we can safely assume that when it’s over, the easy-going small-town girl…the one who can make friends with anyone…?  She will be the one who tells us all about it.

Cover Photo: copyright Janna Giacoppo, courtesy Jess Berry.
Cover Photo: copyright Janna Giacoppo, courtesy Jess Berry.

About Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches AP Literature and AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He is the senior editor for the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for ISU’s STATE Magazine. Since putting in a pool he can now dive in head first (with goggles), and he has mostly stopped throwing golf clubs, but he still hates to fly.

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