Who Is Jessica? (Notes Toward a Definition of Actress)

Australian actor Jessica Joseph-McDermott is living in Los Angeles and AussieTheatre welcomes her as a regular columnist.

Jessica Joseph-McDermott
Jessica Joseph-McDermott

When you’re working on a scene, and you have to play a woman who’s just discovered her husband’s been fucking a goat for six months, you really need to stretch your mind and powers of imagination. This is my acting training. This is my challenge. This is what I’m here to learn. And by god, how I love it!

I’ve been living in Los Angeles for a year now. I am acutely aware that I’m a cliché incarnate – young Australian actress moves to Los Angeles, with stars in her eyes. Young Australian woman. Not another Australian. But there you go.

I don’t think I’m a cliché. But I’m sure no one ever does.

So here I find myself, living not two steps from the infamous Roosevelt Hotel, right on the corner of Hollywood Blvd. So very close to all the greats’ stars, and their legacy. The dream.

Yet there’s this niggle I can’t shake. This feeling I have, of something slightly ominous. Something unfavourable. Something more, in this city I now call home.

Imagine if you will, a street bustling with activity. Hollywood Blvd. My zoo. There are the tourists with their multi-coloured hats and backpacks, and iPhones and water bottles, walking with their heads down, scanning the stars at their feet. Walking at a glacial pace. Stopping intermittently to crouch down and pose by a star for a photo. Smiles. So many smiles, and sounds of glee: “Snoopy! Look it’s Snoopy mum! Snoopy!”

Then there’s the tourist guides with their straw hats and chin-chords, their hands out, pushing flyers on unassuming passers-by: “See the stars homes! The stars homes! Not to be missed!” A simple reply: “I live here,” does the trick. Then they’re onto the next one.

Just as insistent are the knots of young men with their trousers down around their ankles, shiny bling around their necks, and irrefutable arguments: “You’re a heart breaker, I can tell. Marry me. Will you please marry me?” As they force their music CD’s into your hands, or your face. Be careful not to take one. I can’t imagine what they’d say if you accepted…Their persistence is almost admirable. Almost.

Then there’s the fantasia-themed barrage of costumed people waving and smiling, with their hands outstretched, vying for your attention and money. There’s the overweight spider-man, and his younger, thinner brother. The Mickey and Minnie Mouse couple, with her white and red polka dot dress (now faded and blackened with wear), and his not-so-white gloves and limp ears.

Jessica Joseph-McDermott
Jessica Joseph-McDermott

There’s Marilyn Monroe with her red lips and powdered cheeks, smudged from the day’s wear and Californian heat. There’s the wiry Batman all in black, with wings outstretched and his irritating propensity to jump out at you when you least expect it (he’s made me yelp more times than I’d like to admit)!

There’s also the python-sized snakes and white and multi-coloured parrots to pet, the heavy metal music blasting ear drums from speakers on the street corner, the beat-box music made from upturned buckets, mime, too much mediocre break-dance, children that play guitar, impromptu rap on the curb, and a man (in a particularly unnerving plastic face-mask) still as a statue, holding the righteous sign: ‘Fuck Trump’.

This is all at eye-level. This is my zoo, and this is my 10-minute walk to school every day. This is what most people see when they visit the stars on Hollywood Blvd.

But if you fancy a moment, and lower your eyes, you’ll see something more.

One of the very first exercises I worked on at school was aptly coined: ‘The Homeless Exercise’. That’s almost a year ago now – I’m just about to start my 2nd year full-time at the Stella Adler Academy of Acting & Theatre, Los Angeles. Having just performed a scene from Edward Albee’s The Goat Or, Who is Sylvia? (Notes Toward A Definition of Tragedy), I can imagine you’re wondering what sort of school this is? An exercise about the homeless, and a scene where my husband has been fucking a goat. What is this place?

Simply put, it’s the school that has begun to teach me to act. Can you be taught that? Of course you can. It’s called technique, and it was something I was lacking in my career before I moved to Los Angeles. I didn’t know how much my acting was lacking, until my first day at this school.

It’s also a school that teaches you to become reacquainted with you. Does that sound fanciful to you? Well, it’s not. How do I know this? Because I had forgotten how to be a child, and you may have too. I’d forgotten how to imagine. How to believe. And let’s be honest – if I’m an actress standing on stage, not believing in the world of the play, or the person I have become, and my circumstance, then how can I ever expect an audience to believe me? To see me as I want them to. As character. Not as an actress, or woman, pretending.

This training bleeds into life. As mentioned, what I described before is what most people see when they visit the stars at Hollywood. But if you lower your eyes, you’ll see what I described earlier as ‘unfavourable’. You’ll see the stark contrast of glamour and lights and legacy, with the dirt and grime-covered hands and feet of the homeless. You’ll smell the urine and sick running in small rivers from their cardboard shelters. The Styrofoam cups with black writing ‘Please’, and sleeping bags caked in filth. You’ll see their upturned faces as they slump on the pavement, barely audible as they ask for change, watching us look down only to see the concrete-paved stars with names engraved.

How do we tell these stories? Do we make a difference? Does the telling of these stories make any difference whatsoever? Probably not. Or, does it?

Isn’t it true that we admire movie stars, and their legacies, because we are affected by the stories they tell? We revere them, yet we fail to understand the plight of the homeless man. It is the homeless man’s story, and others like his, which impact us and make us remember the actor. I find this irony best shown when Hollywood Blvd is swept clear of homeless people, in preparation for a red carpet event.

Don’t get me wrong, as an actress myself I understand the work that is needed to portray character convincingly, and tell a story truthfully. This is the work that I love, and adore, and live for. I just find this contrast so well illustrated on the street with the stars. This polarity of glamour with humanity. It is this very humanity that every actor strives to portray. We shouldn’t ignore it. But we do.

As I said, there’s this niggle I can’t shake, in this city I now call home. Something slightly ominous. Something unfavourable. A dichotomy at odds in this Hollywood zoo of mine. Does a homeless acting exercise make any sort of difference? I don’t know. Am I changing the world with my thoughts and considerations? I’m not fooling myself. But is this ‘something more’ at the very least, worth noticing? I think so.

Jessica Joseph-McDermott

Jessica Joseph-McDermott is an Australian writer and actor living in Los Angeles. She holds a Bachelor of Communications (Writing and Cultural Studies), University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and was a Sydney Morning Herald Regional Finalist for Young Writer of the Year (2005). Follow her on Instagram at @jjosephmcdermott, visit her imdb page, or her website Jessicajosephmcdermott.com.

Jessica Joseph-McDermott

3 thoughts on “Who Is Jessica? (Notes Toward a Definition of Actress)

  • Thought provoking Jessica.

  • Being from LA the sad thing was all that “dirt and grime” became sort of normal for me over the years. To the point that it all kind of meshed together. However, I believe doing Tim’s homeless exercise allowed me to really take in the severity of LA’s homeless situation in this “great city” of “glamour and lights”. Reading this article only served to remind me and reemphasize that empathy I gained, so thanks for that. But I have to ask, what makes you say “I don’t know” in regards to the homeless exercise making any sort of difference? Do you mean to you as a person or towards your craft as an actress?

    • Jessica Joseph-McDermott

      Thank you very much for reading and commenting. The homeless exercise made a difference both to me as a person, as well as my craft. What I meant was, did the homeless exercise make any difference in the scheme of things? In regards to this issue as a whole? Does it change anything, or have any impact?…Here we are talking about it, though. And here I am, having written an article about it. So I suppose that is something! Thanks again for reading, Jess.


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