Jessica is represented by J Pervis Talent Agency in Atlanta, Georgia. More information, including reels, can be found on her website: www.JessicaLeighSmith.com.
When did you know you wanted to be an actor, and how did you go about starting it?
I don’t know when I really knew for sure I wanted to be an actor, I know that it was something that was part of me my whole life, and if I could have dreamed big, I would have when I was little. But it never occurred to me that it was okay to dream that way. I grew up in a small town in Georgia and at that point, we didn’t have the industry. We didn’t have the Internet so you couldn’t go research how to get involved in it; it was more difficult that way to know about it. I did all the church plays, a couple of them every year, big productions and I had a lot of the lead roles, and I did a couple plays in high school and had a wonderful time doing it, and even had my high school drama teacher encourage me to get involved with the community theater near my college where I was going. It was the Rome community theater, a really good community theater, but I didn’t know it then, and then I went to college, and every year said to myself, “This is the year that I audition for a play” and then I just never did. I was pursuing another line of work, so I was more concerned with getting the classes and the internships done for broadcast journalism than I was for being an actress.
What did you study in college?
I was studying Broadcast Journalism and Spanish. The plan was to be a newscaster, I wanted to be a news reporter. That was more of a viable option for me than the crazy world of acting. But by the time I graduated college, I didn’t want to do that anymore, and I wanted to go, I always wanted to change the world, save the world and try to figure out what God wanted me to do, and I ended up being a missionary. Well, first I thought I was going to be a teacher, so I started pursuing my masters, and then decided to go to Honduras, and I spent a year in Honduras teaching English at a Christian school, thinking that I would stay there and I was going to be an English teacher, or come back home and be a Spanish teacher, and that was going to be my life.
But over time and just spending some time with God and prayer, I decided I wanted to be an actress. So I came back from Honduras in my mid-twenties thinking I would be an actress. But then I was on my own and I was single. I had to have multiple jobs to pay the rent; I ended up getting busy. I still didn’t do it, and it wasn’t until my late twenties when I was working a job. I was working a non-profit and on the board of this non-profit was a woman named Eaddy Mays who is an actress. She and her then husband were running a community theater and they were doing a play. They needed an 18-year-old blonde girl. At the time, I looked 18 and had blonde hair. They cast me in the part. When I did the play was when I realized this is what I wanted to do, this is what I was going to do. I didn’t even tell Eaddy I wanted it, Eaddy is just the kind of personality that pushes. Within a couple months, Eaddy had me my first headshots, a commercial and an agent lined up.
That’s really how it started, I got thrown into it, but it was always what I had wanted, I just didn’t know it until it happened. Part of it is that I never believed that I had any real talent. I thought that I could do a church play, I can do a school play, I can do a community play, but I can’t compete with Los Angeles actors. It never really occurred to me that I could until it happened and then I just started doing it.
And you happened to live in the Atlanta area?
Yes, I grew up in Georgia, I grew up in metro Atlanta, lived here my whole life. It was right before the Atlanta area started hitting pretty big in the market, too. I started acting right around the time that the Atlanta industry was starting to boom. It all lined up together at the same time, which meant I didn’t have any reason to go to L.A., because it was starting to happen here, and since I was just starting out learning, I needed to learn things here first and then everything just started happening.
Your family was supportive?
My husband, who had just proposed to me right before all this happened, was very supportive. We were recently engaged but he was a 100% on board. And he always has been, he’s never wavered in that. I couldn’t do it without my husband. Not only because of time, because of our daughters and things like that, but I don’t think I could have confidence enough in myself without him sitting there telling me, yes you can do this. The rest of my family, I really didn’t tell anybody for a long time. It was a secret, I wasn’t living with anybody so I didn’t have to tell people where I was going and what I was doing. I never really had a family that told me good things, that complimented me. So I was never told good things about myself, and I was never really encouraged. It was probably at least a year, maybe longer, before I said out loud to my family that I was pursuing this career. They’re mostly supportive now.
Did you take any classes around town?
I do believe heavily in classes, and I believe in admitting when you don’t know something you know. I can readily admit that I wasn’t the greatest actress and I needed help so I signed up at YourAct. I first did their on-camera prep class, around where auditions were and getting some exposure on-camera. I had done a couple of sessions with YourAct in 2008 when I decided that I didn’t have enough of a foundation, because I hadn’t studied it in college.
My biggest regret is that I had not had that type of education and the conservatory training. I wish I could have had that. So I ended up going to Los Angeles for a couple of weeks in 2008 and working with some teachers out there privately. They gave me a great foundation, taught me how to get in your character, how to live in it, all the things you’re supposed to be thinking of and doing when you’re prepping a scene, when you’re prepping a play.
When I came back from LA, I was talking to Vince Pisani at Houghton and found out he does private coaching. He has a Meisner background, so I started training privately with Vince for a while. He gave me an even deeper foundation. Shortly after that, in 2010, is when I found The Company Acting Studio and I started working in Lisina Stoneburner’s Master Class there. She has an Adler background. I was with her for four years and that’s where all my training has been, with Lisina mostly, and help from some teachers in LA.
What made you want to go to LA for a couple of weeks and how did you find the teachers there?
I jfelt like the training in Atlanta, especially at that time, to me, was mostly focused on on-camera technique, or audition technique, and I wanted to learn how to act. I was doing fine in auditions, I could go get call backs all day long, at a commercial audition, at least. I wasn’t having trouble with that. I wanted to learn how to act, and I wasn’t finding anybody that was teaching. At the time, I hadn’t heard of Lisina Stoneburner. Had I, I probably would have already been in her class.
At first, I thought how am I going to get out to Los Angeles where all the great teachers are? But then I realized, there’s no reason I can’t just go out there for a short amount of time. I did some research, got online, Google searches, who’s the best backstage actor teacher for this or who was rated the best in LA in 2007 for this, then I went to the teacher’s website and learned about who they were. I ended up finding a woman named Janice Kent who’s a very successful actress and teaches comedy. I wanted to learn some comedy. I really wish we had that in Atlanta. I also worked with Margie Haber. I ended up working with two former teachers from Margie’s studio. One of them taught me the mechanics, how to find your beats, your moment, your goals and your obstacles. The other one taught me how to just sit and use my imagination. How to sit with a scene and imagine the whole thing, and I put those two things together. I was able to put her imagination work along with the other work, and come up with my own craft.
Do you think the quality of training has since then at least caught up in Atlanta, or do you think that there are still some differences?
It’s definitely gotten a lot better but it hasn’t caught up to New York or LA. Because of the industry booming, we have more people coming here from LA who’ve had great training backgrounds. They are bringing it here and I think it’s wonderful. I had not heard of Lisina Stoneburner in 2010 but once I found her, I loved what I got in her class. She was trained in New York, her family is a famous theatrical family and she grew up in the industry, so her training is amazing.
I don’t know Rob Mello, I’ve never trained with him, but I’ve searched a little bit of what he’s doing, and I like it because he’s bringing a technique to Atlanta. We’re definitely seeing more technique come to Atlanta, which is what we needed. We’re overrun with workshops. We’re overrun with on-camera techniques and what I don’t like about it is that it tells new actors this is all you need. If you just go do a little bit of on-camera technique, and then you go to a casting director workshop, you’ll be fine. I wish we didn’t give off that impression.
We also don’t have the commitment level here that some people in L.A. have. Maybe it’s just a percentage because I’m sure some people in L.A. aren’t really committed either. I wish we had a conservatory in Atlanta. A 2-year conservatory would do well here. It would be incredible. I would have done it.
In terms of training, what do you think are the top three kinds of classes that an actor needs?
Every actor needs a technique of acting class. It doesn’t matter which philosophy you follow. In my opinion, when you boil them all down, they’re all very similar, they use different lingo for different stuff. I believe that every actor, if you really truly want to be an actor, and you don’t just want to try to be famous, must have a technique class. You cannot book the big roles without a technique. You’ll get lucky once in a while, but the truth is that you still need to go exercise those talents and make them stronger. On-camera classes, in my opinion, depend on you. Some people do need to get comfortable with that and therefore they need some on-camera classes.
Improv is immensely important. You will learn to listen to your scene partner when you’re doing improv. It loosens up your body and makes you feel a little bit like you can flow into the scene. You gotta use your entire body. Actors need to be taking care of their entire instrument which is your voice, doing vocal training multiple times a week. Working on your posture, standing up straight. Staying in physical shape so that you can breathe well when you’re talking. All of those things are important to learn if you really and truly want to master this as a job and a career.
What have your survival jobs been? Has your husband also been providing financial support?
I didn’t have to worry about that too much because I got married. I was working for this non-profit when it all happened. I ended up working a customer service job at a company but it wasn’t a big deal. It was a stopgap to be able to save some money and pay my rent, but I had a few health problems and actually can’t work full-time. I can only really do part-time. Because of that my husband, my then fiancé, and I decided that I would stop working full-time and go part-time. I worked a motivational speaking job for Monster. I got lucky my husband was able to pay our bills. I didn’t have to stress over that. And then when we had a child I decided I would stay home with her.
So right now you basically take care of your kids and pursue acting full time on top of that?
Yep! That’s it. It’s definitely not easy.
It’s a tough profession. How do you stay positive?
Because I have two really small children, I don’t have time for that. It’s really, really hard to be a parent and have a career. I work out a lot, which is important for the career and my health. I run a lot and try to do races with my husband.
So basically having a strong family life provides a core that lets you not get consumed by the acting career.
That would be a good way to put it because I’ve been going through that a lot lately. That’s been a big issue for me, how easy it is to be consumed by this career, probably because we love it and it’s such a challenging one. Because you can’t really have control over where it goes. You can do all the best stuff but you’re still not going to get booked if they don’t want to book you, and it’s just a weird thing. It’s so different from other careers and we can get obsessed with that. I’ve had my moments when I’ve been obsessed with it.
I’ve been going through a thing in the past year of learning how to let go and get rid of that, stop working so hard. Realizing that my girls are way more important than the career will ever be because they’re human beings and I can’t ignore their tiny human hearts, they need their mommy. And so I’ve been working on focusing on them more and I find when I do that and when I’m focusing on them more, I don’t really care about the industry, I love it and I’m still doing it, and I’m producing a movie now and a web series, but I don’t really care as much as I used to about whether or not it succeeds. But I’m just going to do whatever, I’m going to throw it out there, and see if it sticks. And if it doesn’t, I’ve still got two gorgeous little girls at home to play in the yard with.
Because you can only control your actions, not the outcomes?
Yes and it’s really hard because, in a lot of other careers, you can control the outcome with the action but you cannot do that in acting. It’s hard for someone like me, I’ve always been able to do great things. If I could just do what I wanted to do, things would happen for me, but not necessarily. So I’ve been letting go a lot. If people can find those outlets outside of acting, it makes you a more whole human being which in turn makes you a better actor. If you’re volunteering in the homeless streets of Atlanta once a week, then you’re a much more compassionate, caring person who can then become a more compassionate, caring actor.
You believe that self-producing, learning to produce and write is an important skill also for an actor?
There are a few things that I get out of it personally. I believe wholeheartedly in it for one reason–how can I possibly sit around and complain about not working when it’s so easy for me to do something on my own. My philosophy has become – if no one else will hire me, I will hire myself. And that’s what I’m trying to do these days. I just premiered my own web series. And I created it around my life and what I know. I’m producing an inspirational, faith-based movie that I’m very excited about.
When you are self-producing, you are doing these things for yourself. That goes back to having something outside of your career. It’s another way of not sitting around and wallowing in your self-pity. If you’re busy then you don’t have time to worry about that commercial you didn’t get because you’re too busy producing something.
What else do you do in terms of marketing and staying informed about what’s happening in the industry?
I never know how I’m doing in the industry. Ever since the beginning I’ve done the mailings, I do the postcards regularly, only every couple times a year, nothing major, but I’ve always done the postcards and sent them out to all the casting directors locally. I just recently started doing the quarterly email blast, so instead of doing the postcard mailing, for people whose email address I have, I now send them a newsletter kind of thing. Which is really better because a postcard is sometimes hard—such little space to write in. If I haven’t spoken with you in six months, I have a lot to write on that postcard and that’s really crowded and not well done. I like the email because I can add pictures on there and video to it and links. I believe in trying to stay on the radar the best you can but authentically, it’s got to be done in your own voice. I’m a southern-grown woman. Writing thank you cards and personal notes is part of who I am.
It’s completely authentic for me to send a casting director a thank you card for an audition. It might be weird for somebody’s brand who is maybe a body guard. Or some big, huge, biker dude sending a thank you note might come off as a little bit weird. You find what works with your brand that way. I don’t spend a whole lot of time on Twitter or Facebook marketing, but I do believe in it. I do have a Twitter account, I just don’t do it very well. I do believe that you can have some success by reaching out to a director on Twitter. It’s happened, we’ve seen some stories of people who have reached out to their favorite director and they got an audition and even a part in his movie. It happens once in a while, so I believe in that, but again it has to be authentic. You can’t use Twitter and beg for an audition. You have to use it to create a relationship and build a friendship with that person.
Are you trying to get representation outside Atlanta?
Not yet and not heavily. I was going to and then I realized how much time this movie is going to take up. So I think instead of trying to force it, I’m going to try to let it happen naturally. They used to book the Atlanta actors more here but they aren’t doing that as much anymore. Most of my TV auditions last year were large roles, and they all went to LA actors every time. So they’re willing to bring them here, and some of them are willing to fly themselves here and be local.
What do you see as the future of acting being in Atlanta?
I have a long answer to this. I’m trying to be optimistic, but cautiously so. I’ve believed since 2010 that we were going to get large roles opportunities in Atlanta. In 2015, we’re seeing that. A lot of Atlanta actors get a lot of opportunities that they couldn’t get even five years ago. I do believe that since it has changed in that direction, it can change even more. If we can get enough Melissa McBrides jumping out there, they’re going to give us some opportunities. I love the fact that LA actors are coming here because that makes us up our game. I had a call back for a movie in 2010, and every other girl had flown in that morning from LA. At first, I was a little bit territorial, that this is an Atlanta job, it should go to all of us. But then I realized if they were coming here, that just meant that we had to work harder, which would only make us better.
If Atlantans continue to work smarter, better, harder then the industry will continue to grow. We’ve got a lot of good production companies who are starting training centers for crew, which is important, and more people are moving here. We have great things to offer if we will continue to train ourselves to be great actors, we will get bigger parts and we will see series regulars come out of Atlanta, definitely.
No plans to move to LA in the near future?
No plans. I’m not opposed to it, I’ll never say I never will but all the grandparents are here and the aunts and uncles and cousins are here. We don’t want to take our family to LA. My husband has a very steady job. It’s a huge risk to move. If something were to happen for me or if my girls wanted to act, and it ended up being their future, then we’re not going to say no to it. But it’s not in the plans.
Are you SAG?
I’m not yet SAG. I’ve decided for now I am not joining. If I join SAG, I can’t do non-Union commercials, but I can stay non-Union and do SAG jobs, so I can do both if I stay non-Union. One of the biggest arguments people say is that non-Union commercials are terrible and you shouldn’t do them, you don’t make as much money. The truth is, I’ve done nine, only one or two have been SAG and I make just as much money on the non-Union ones as I have on the SAG ones. I’ve been treated wonderfully on non-Union commercials. There are very few SAG commercials in Atlanta. Extremely few Union commercials are shot here. Which means if you are a Union actor, you have just cut yourself down from a ton of commercial opportunities to very few. So you may not make any money in commercials if you are a SAG actor because you are only competing for a couple of jobs. If you are non-Union then you can work in commercials and industrials all year long.
As far as the shows are concerned, I’ve only had two co-star roles so it’s not been a demand that I have to join. They are not marching down my door yet, saying we won’t let you work anymore. I don’t need or want the medical insurance, but I know you can get it even non-Union if you make enough money. But it hasn’t been an issue for me. I know people say that they give preference to those that are in the Union, but the truth is when TV shows are being booked, the producers don’t look at your resume, they look at your tape. They can’t look at the tape and know that you’re SAG or not.
What do you wish someone had told you at the beginning of your career and what mistakes did you make?
I wish someone had told me what to do, which Eaddy kind of did, I suppose. I like to educate myself and I like to know what I’m doing before I go do it. It’s nice for actors who have been there and done that to help younger actors and tell them to beware of this or do it this way, don’t do it that way. Sometimes you run into a lot of actors who have been in it for a while, who are stingy with their knowledge and they are fearful of sharing their knowledge with newer actors, because when that person comes up they will take their jobs.
That’s such a fearful way of living, I much prefer to help people so anytime I see someone who is starting out, I tell them what I wish people had told me which is here’s how to get your headshots, here are options for class, here are some good agents. I tell them everything that they want to know so they don’t have to learn by trial and error. It can save people three years of heartache by being with the wrong agent when they didn’t know that that agent wasn’t getting auditions. I try to help people out in the beginning, and I’ve done that many times with many actors, spend that time with them. I don’t do everything for them, I say here’s my resume, and you can use it to format yours, I’m not going to create the resume for them, but at least keep them from being overwhelmed. If they get overwhelmed by the industry then they just may not ever start. I don’t want someone to not do it because they felt overwhelmed by what they didn’t know. I wish people would be more open with their knowledge and maybe even have a way for older actors ready to mentor new ones.
And the other biggest thing is don’t try to get in front of any casting directors until you know for certain you’re ready. A lot of people want to just jump in and go get in front of someone like Mark Fincannon before they’ve had training, and know what they’re doing. What you should do is go get your training, go work on your craft, don’t be too stressed about it not happening fast enough. Just go do the things, get in class where you will meet other actors and they’ll help you learn things, and then when you’re ready then go.
Finding mentors is an authentic thing that sometimes just has to happen naturally. I’ll ask actors oftentimes, how did you get started and how long have you been doing it. They are very cagey and don’t want to share their answers. Sometimes they’ll just outright lie. They don’t want me to know that they’ve trained to become a good actor, they want me to think they were just naturally talented and gifted.
When I started to produce this movie that I’m producing, I’ve never produced a movie, and this is a big one. I started researching how could I do it and I found a producer who has a very long resume, very successful producer who’s had movies in theaters and TV and I didn’t know him from Adam, but I emailed him requesting five minutes to ask a couple of questions, and he said yes. That turned into a mentor, he is helping me do this movie. He’s not a producer on it but he’s just telling me what to do, and giving me the advice.