The stage and screen actress has appeared in a Broadway revival of Gypsy alongside Bernadette Peters and in popular television series such as “The Good Wife,” “Boardwalk Empire,” and “House of Cards.” Jenna just wrapped up an off-Broadway run of the play Straight, about a bisexual love triangle that challenges assumptions about stereotypes and sexual autonomy. She plays the conflicted protagonist's female love interest, Emily, a Ph.D. candidate in genetics and bioinformatics. We spoke after a recent performance.
Brent: What is the most challenging role you've ever had to prepare for in terms of memorization?
Jenna: Oh, my. Well, when I first got the script for Straight, I’ll admit I was a bit overwhelmed. I think it’s the most words I’ve ever had to memorize for a job. I was especially concerned with Emily’s scientific jargon, because I knew I had to not only memorize it, but seem like I knew what I was talking about.
Brent: It would be a lot to expect an actor to have expertise in this field. How did you approach this?
Jenna: So for that, I spoke with our writers, and they explained to me what Emily actually does in terms of working towards her Ph.D.—and curing cancer! Once I understood her (very intense) work, I had an easier time memorizing. And because it was just the three of us [Tom Sullivan, Jake Epstein, and myself] in the play, rehearsal from 10 to 6 every day was more than enough time to memorize the play as a whole.
Brent: Sounds like duration and repetition were your best friends. What about memorizing for television?
Jenna: I had to memorize a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti for “Boardwalk Empire.” Because there’s no time for rehearsal for most television, I just kept going over and over it. (Luckily I had a little time with it. Thanks, Boardwalk writers!) I think it’s now in my mind forever. There’s nothing like knowing a whole crew will be staring at you to motivate memorization!
Brent: Right, so let’s add urgency to that list! What sticks with you from your school days?
Jenna: I’ll say that while I don’t remember all of what I studied in school, I remember a lot of blocking lines from past shows. The Moo Cow and Broadway, Broadway choreography is permanently planted in my brain. I suspect Emily’s lines will be as well. I think the difference is that I wasn’t always in love with what I was memorizing in school, but I’m ever in love with my job.
Brent: A lot of actors I talk with mention muscle memory—they repeat lines out loud and even record them and play them back incessantly. Do you do that?
Jenna: For auditions, I find that running lines out loud with a partner helps a lot. If I can’t do that, I will record myself reading all of the lines and then listen to them while I do something mindless like folding laundry.
Brent: Let’s go back to your role as Emily in Straight. Tell me more about your interaction with the writers to understand the complex fields of genetics and bioinformatics. You certainly delivered the scientific processes and jargon with convincing expertise.
Jenna: Thank you for saying I spoke with conviction. That was my goal! Emily is nothing if not educated and passionate about her work, so I needed to respect that. I owe that to researching every scientific term Emily spoke, as well as discussing it with one of our writers, Scott Elmegreen. He was a good teacher. I guess a rule of thumb is: don’t try to memorize something without actually understanding it at a basic level.
Brent: Makes sense. The audience would definitely pick up on that. OK, last question: do you have a favorite story about forgetting a line and having to get back on track?
Jenna: Well, during our first preview, I called an offstage character (Ben’s friend, Tim), CHRIS. And then I recovered with, “No. You’re Chris. I meant Tim. You know, crazy Tim.” Improvisation and listening will always help get back on track, as do helpful costars. No show is ever going to be “perfect” and certainly no audition will be “perfect,” so just staying in the story and knowing the wants and needs of the characters will always keep things grounded.
Brent: Nice recovery, without drawing undue attention to the line. Thanks so much for sharing your stories.
Jenna: Thank you!