Interview: Jill Alexander on Auditioning, Paying Attention to Her Career and Why She Calls Herself a “Working Class” Actor
If you’re an eagle-eyed viewer of Mad Men, you may have spotted Jill Alexander in the final minutes of last Sunday’s episode. If not, don’t worry because I’m guessing she’ll be back for more fun times at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Not that she could tell me anything about her role when I talked to her recently. She was sworn to secrecy!
Luckily, she was able to talk about everything else. Jill is, in the true sense of the word, a ‘working actor.’ Or, as she called it, a “working class” actor. She’s been in over 50 National commercials, has just celebrated her 9th year in the weekly improv show, Trophy Wife, and is recurring on HBO’s terrific new show, Silicon Valley. All that, plus she’s auditioning, auditioning, auditioning and auditioning!
For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes.
You’re one of those people who now that I know who you are, I’ve seen you everywhere. You know what I mean?
Jill Alexander: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, a lot of people at the grocery store say, “I met you somewhere.” Or, “Weren’t you at so and so’s wedding?” And I always feel like that’s the best kind of profile to have as an actor, because it means you work but people aren’t gonna stalk you.
Yeah. You’re just like the very definition of, at least to me, a working actor. You just seem to be busy and on the go all the time and just kind of working, working, working.
Jill Alexander: Yeah, that’s what… and my husband is a screenwriter and we always refer to ourselves as working class writer and actor, for that very reason. That it’s not all red carpets and bouquets of roses, but it doesn’t need to still be able to support yourself, and that’s pretty awesome.
I was looking at your IMDB and I wish I had one tenth of what you’re stuff that you’ve done.
Jill Alexander: Well, it’s been fun. You know, it’s a slog but it’s really fun when you get the work. And then if you can figure out a way to make the auditions fun as well, then that helps.
Are you just constantly auditioning now?
Jill Alexander: Yeah. I am. I, of course, have the commercial side of things that I still need to do to pay the bills, and that’s always been very busy for me. But theatrically, I have found a really nice team that really understands where I fit. So I’m busy. I’m busy, which is great.
I get an audition and I’m like, “Alright, everything stops.” But since you’re so busy, for you, does everything stop as well? Are you just now at the point where you’re just kind of driving everywhere and you’re working on the sides out of your car? How do you kind of prepare for your auditions now?
Jill Alexander: Well, you have to prioritize, right? So anything that is a theatrical, TV, film, whatever, that totally takes priority. And yeah, absolutely I buckle down and the minute that I get an appointment I focus wholeheartedly on whatever that is. So I coach and I practice and I have kind of a routine that I work out that makes me feel as confident and comfortable with the work as possible.
The only time it’s difficult is when there’s more than one thing. So sometimes you’ll have a day where there’s 2 things or you’ll know that you have things that are one right after another, one day right after another. And that’s just what’s difficult. I have a little bit of OCD, so it’s hard to focus on 2 things at once. So when I just have one, that’s easiest.
But absolutely. Putting in all that work is the only way to not walk away from an audition and feel like, “Oops.” I mean, you have to put it in so you feel like you did everything that you possibly could.
Do you get coached for auditions? Is that what you were talking about?
Jill Alexander: Yeah. I do. I have a good friend who used to work in casting in New York who I really trust and then I also will sometimes run material with my husband. He is a writer/director and, I tell you, at the beginning of our relationship I was very nervous to ever present anything in front of him. I felt like he was kind of hard on me and I felt like he didn’t always understand the best way to communicate with me. But over the course of the 10 years that we’ve been together, we have found a good way to work together. And his perspective and his point of view is so useful because he really does look at things from a writer’s perspective. So sometimes when I’m trying to figure out what’s behind a particular line or how to approach something, he’ll be able to look at it differently than say just an acting coach or another actor would be able to.
You’re mostly going up for guest star roles and pilot stuff now, I would think?
Jill Alexander: Yeah. At this point. Yeah. Which is really great because when you’re first starting focusing on TV and film, of course, it’s all these crazy one line costar roles, which are almost impossible in and of themselves. So to get beyond that where you get a little bit more to do, a little bit of the character to create, then it actually gets easier than the smaller parts.
I’ll go for a guest star occasionally, but I’m still doing the one or two, 3, 4 lines and it’s just miserable. You know? Especially the one liners. You’re just like, “This is… just pick somebody. They’re gonna do as well as anybody else.” It’s just so awful doing those kind of auditions.
Jill Alexander: I don’t know if they’re awful or if it’s just their way to check the box. It’s hard to tell these stories and not go, “Oh, it’s not all about the cab driver? Oh, it’s not all about the receptionist?” because that’s what we want to do to make it feel like we’re actually doing something. Those parts are so hard. I feel like that’s why there’s an entire group of classes where people will focus just on how to book that kind of work.
How did you go from those costars and graduated to where you are now? When you first came out here to LA, were you taking casting director workshops or what was sort of your progression?
Jill Alexander: No, I was actually really frightened of those to begin with. And my whole reason for moving to Los Angeles was to focus on comedy. I had done improv in Chicago and found at the time that I was there that it was a pretty male dominated scene. And I had visited LA on occasion and seen The Groundlings and had just loved their style and loved how female friendly it seemed. So I moved here to study at The Goundlings and that was my focus and I accidentally got a commercial agent and accidentally started having a career doing commercials. So I was not even paying attention to auditioning for theatrical. I just figured, oh, that will eventually come along if I focus on improv and if I do these commercials.
And it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I realized that it was a completely different focus and I had to buckle down and make that the focus of what I was doing.
I actually had an instance where I thought that I might go to law school. And I went down and I toured Loyola Marymount and it occurred to me that if I put as much time and money into trying to get on a sitcom as I would trying to get a job in the DA’s office that I would probably have a better chance of actually getting on a sitcom. So that was the mental shift.
And then absolutely investing in everything that I could. Great teachers, casting director workshops, great headshots, and going full force to really see how to transition my focus on improv and commercials into what I had always thought I wanted to do, which was sitcom acting. And it’s been great. Really paying attention to it has helped, as it turns out.
Speaking of commercials, I saw that you’ve done over 50 national commercials?
Jill Alexander: I stopped counting at some point because it seemed kind of silly. I think when you add everything up, whatever it is with some regional spots and the rest of it, it’s over 100. But there’s a whole roster of people who do commercials like that. So I don’t know if it in particular is anything special because I know a lot of people who also make their paycheck doing commercials mostly.
I grew up in Maryland and used to do commercials there all the time. And I moved out here and now that has gone way down. I don’t know what it is about me that I can’t… it’s nuts. Do you have any sort of advice or anything on what the heck you’re doing right and I might not be doing?
Jill Alexander: I don’t know. I liken commercial acting to just being a whole lot of yourself. The side of yourself that people like and respond to, which is totally different than when you’re audition for a TV or film project where now you’re trying to be somebody else and trying to flesh out a character. So they really seem like 2 separate beasts.
Do you still get nervous auditioning?
Jill Alexander: Absolutely. Yeah. Yesterday I had a producer session for a guest spot on something and I had been to the office the week prior for a guest spot. And this was a different role. So clearly the office liked me, they had brought me back for something else, they felt like they had a better understanding of who I was. And absolutely.
I opted to sit for one scene and stand for another and my hand was shaking violently as I transitioned. And that’s a tell. Right? So I hate when that happens, but I feel like it doesn’t come out in my work but it does still come out a lot in my body. A little bit of shakes or a little bit of extra adrenaline, I think, only helps. And isn’t that part of the rush?
Oh, yeah. Totally.
Jill Alexander: Oh, that woke me up. Oh, ok.
No need for coffee after an audition.
Jill Alexander: No, not at all.
Have you had any nightmare auditions?
Jill Alexander: [laughs] No.
Jill Alexander: No. No. Besides maybe having a personality conflict, I’ve never had anything where I left in tears or I left angry or… I think every single person walks away from something now and then going, “Hm, that didn’t go the way that I wanted it to,” but I’ve never had a nightmare scenario.
I think it may help that I tend to view things through a lens of just reading for what ridiculous moment is gonna happen next, so maybe I have had those happen and to someone else it would be a nightmare. But to me I was able to just sit there and be amused by whatever it was.
The fact that I can’t think of anything is making me sit here and pat myself on the back that I haven’t had a horrible Hollywood experience serious yet.
And then you kind of were mentioning some things, but what would be your main advice to actors?
Jill Alexander: I think that there’s a misunderstanding of how much work it actually takes.
Even graduates of really great theatre schools don’t seem to understand that having a slate of great plays on their resumes from whatever theatre school they want to, it doesn’t always translate. That you still have to stick your your feet and your face in the mud here and get into the training and understand that it’s a whole different muscle.
Now you’re auditioning for a silly multi camera sitcom or now you’re auditioning for a really intense but still silly one hour drama. And finding a way in that’s not doing animal work and not doing whatever other kind of preparation seems to help for the stage. I just feel like they’re 2 different animals and that I do some consulting and I have so many clients come to me and feel like they did the work in school and that now they’re ready and haven’t been in an acting class in 3 years since they’ve gotten to LA. And whether or not it’s a matter of learning a new technique, you still need to keep the muscles sharp.
And then for actors who just decide out of the blue they wanna do this and not investing in the best headshot that they can get and not understanding that there’s some training that’s required, it just seems naive to me. Because I don’t know what other career you would go into and say, “Oh, I want to be a doctor but I’m not gonna bother with med school.” Or, “Oh, I wanna be a photographer but I’m not gonna buy myself a great camera.”
So I don’t know why acting happens to draw that type of personality to it, but it seems like there’s a lot of inherent laziness or expectation that comes with the decision of, “Oh, I’m gonna be an actor now and this is gonna be something that comes easily.”
I think you’re so right. There are so many freaking lazy actors out there.
Jill Alexander: Clearly you have an interest in figuring out what works and that’s why you started your blog and your interviews is in an effort to do exactly the opposite of all that. You’re curious and you’re constantly searching and that’s only gonna lead you to achieve what your goals are. And you can see the people who don’t make that effort, they’ll never move forward.