You may have seen her in “iCarly’ or you may have seen her on “The Goodwin Games”; you will definitely see her on an upcoming episode of “Parenthood,” but don’t talk about overnight success on television with Jessica Gardner. The 1997 Pilgrim High School graduate has been working at show business since she left the familiar halls of Pilgrim and headed down to Central Florida University. She got to Orlando just in time to grow with a new musical theatre specialty in the Department of Theatre at their College of Arts and Humanities. She is one show business veteran who knows there’s no such thing as overnight for most people. She has been in Los Angeles since 2006 and is only now seeing all the hard work and persistence pay off.
“Los Angeles is a beast!” she said Monday, as she spoke with the Beacon. “The idea is to get a guest part, and that leads to another part, that leads to an audition and then eventually you’re getting work all the time. This last year has been the best in my life. The time is finally paying off. A guest shot on ‘iCarly’ … ‘The Goodwin Games’ … ‘How I Met Your Mother’ … Definitely the best year so far.”
(A clip from “The Goodwin Games” shows Gardner as a so-called yoga instructor who is, in fact, channeling Jane Fonda from her 1980s exercise videos, except that this time Jane acts like she’s high on crack and she’s coaching something that is far removed from the serene exertions of yoga. It’s hilarious.)
You may have noticed that there is a bit of a gap between 1997 and 2013. What has Jessica been doing? Working on that overnight success thing.
“I always wanted to be a performer and I always got plenty of encouragement from people like my dance teacher, Carolyn Dutra, to my parents and family … My parents wanted me to go to college, made me go, but allowed me to do what I wanted to do.”
Musical theatre was something that drama students at Central Florida did on the side. It was students like Jessica and other enthusiasts that convinced the school that a specialty in musical theatre would be good for the kids and good for the business too, especially with Disney and Universal Studios Orlando so close.
“There really wasn’t much for people who wanted to specialize in musical comedy,” she said. “You had to do it on your own.”
After graduation, Gardner spread a wider net than Orlando. She went on to do a lot of regional theatre in places like Tennessee and other places before family matters drew her back to Warwick around 2004. She stayed in the New England area for a few years, doing commercials and other roles in Boston and working at the Newport Playhouse.
“I wasn’t sure where my future would be,” said Gardner. “I knew it had to be New York or Los Angeles. I tried New York for a while but then decided I like Los Angeles a lot better.”
One thing that Gardener learned was that it never hurt an actor to play different roles off stage as well as on. She has worked as a reporter for Hollywood trade papers and has interviewed some vary recognizable stars about how they do things. She also helped establish a casting and training business with other show business people to prepare them for getting and keeping work. She even worked as a reporter for Backstage, interviewing successful stars to learn whatever secrets they would divulge about their craft.
“What I found out from Martin Sheen was how to approach a part you don’t immediately see yourself in,” she explained. “He told me he sometimes gets stuck and doesn’t know how to start with a character. He told me that he thinks about an actor he likes, in his case, it was George C. Scott, and does an impression of that person playing the role. After that, he said, it eventually comes to him and he can make the character his own.”
Gardner said she was amazed at how freely Sheen gave his advice and noted how tight-lipped other stars can be about what they do. She is not the least tight-lipped about her business and what she likes to do. The Actors Key West is an educational studio for actors that connects them with industry casting directors and insiders.
But for her performance, the focus and the goal is being funny. She enjoys doing comedy and has even tried her hand at stand-up.
“I have been on at places like the Comedy Store and the Hollywood Improv and I can tell you that stand-up is much harder than acting,” she said. “It’s terrifying. If you can do stand-up, you can do anything. I did it and I’m proud of it. I came in third place in a contest at Flappers Comedy Club in Burbank.”
Gardner said she knew she wanted to act from a very young age. It was only after she graduated and met the real world head-on that she realized how much “dues” had to be paid to become a working entertainer. She worked as a choreographer, did commercials, modeling and hosting and spokesperson jobs.
She came home to Warwick after her mother became ill and worked in New England to be close to her family. After her mother succumbed to cancer, she tried to like New York but decided that Los Angeles was the place to be.
“Rhode Island is my home and that is where my family is and it will always be special to me but, honestly, I love L.A.,” she declared. “It’s so exciting and challenging. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
Meeting and marrying Nicholas Brandt may have something to do with that. He’s a writer-director-producer that shares most of Jessica’s ambitions. She met him while they were both looking for work and she quickly realized that she had a lot in common with the boy from Buffalo.
“As it turned out, he lost his mother around the same time I lost mine and we had that in common, but mostly we just enjoy each other and enjoy what we are doing. We’re both too ambitious and having a great time to be having kids right now but that could change. I just hope we’re not going to be just another Hollywood marriage that doesn’t last.”
In the upcoming “Parenthood” episode, called “All that’s left is the Hugging,” set to air on Dec. 12, Gardner plays alongside Peter Krause and Monica Potter through the tribulations of the Braverman family. Gardner plays Susan, the nosy and bossy mom at the playground who manages to make everyone uncomfortable and everything awkward.
“I’ve been a fan of Peter’s ever since ‘Sports Night’
and ‘Six Feet Under’ and a fan of Monica’s since ‘Along Came a Spider.’ They are fantastic actors at the top of their craft. They are the heart and soul of ‘Parenthood’ and I loved acting with them.”
In addition to some projects she is pursuing with her husband, Gardner is filming a webcast to be shown on YouTube called the “The Glass Slipper Confessionals.” It takes up the story of Cinderella after her divorce from the handsome Prince.
“It turns out that the Prince is gay and he’s run off to marry Prince Valiant and … well, we take it from there,” said Gardner.
Gardner said the webcast will premiere on Jan. 1 and will be online twice a week. Then she had to excuse herself.
“I’m going to shoot something with Shannon Doherty; you know, from ‘Beverly Hills 90210?’ Anyway, I’ll be back in Warwick for Christmas and I’m really looking forward to that.”