We met Jessica Ellerby on a beautiful morning in London, and we couldn’t wait to meet her, a woman who is not only an actress willing to portrait always more “well rounded and 3D characters,” but also a brilliant director and writer, defining her own work as a labor of love.
Between laughs, epic fails and her new TV series “Living the Dream” where she plays hyper-efficient,
Directing, acting and writing: which came first and how do they intertwine for you?
Acting came first, in terms of career, and writing and directing are very new. I just wrote/directed/produced my first short film. I also did the hair & makeup, costumes and, catering, props…basically everything!
Did you like it?
I really liked it actually.
It sort of materialized from not working and also feeling frustrated with the things that I was being seen for, or the characters that were being written for women. So, I just thought, “I’m just going to write and make something myself.”
For me, though it’s not one or the other – they’re not completely separate. In fact, I think think the two are intrinsically linked. Both are about creating worlds and people who reside in those worlds. Of course, you have more artistic control when you are writing something because it’s your baby, everything is your decision, and that sometimes comes more responsibility than just playing one part in it, but there’s also the freedom to just go wild.
“…it’s your baby, everything is your decision…”
The best part for you of shooting your short film?
I think actually there were two things:
1 – Having people say ing “yes” and being excited and passionate about something that up until that point has just been a private seed of an idea. That was pretty special – having a team that believes in what you are doing.
And 2 – Seeing it all come together; maybe it’s like when you do a shoot and an interview: doing it and then seeing the whole piece? It was sort of that. When it suddenly clicks and makes sense, that was hugely gratifying.
I know what you mean. Everyone helping and when something clicks it’s…
Magic, because it’s a real labor of love, isn’t it? No one has really been paid, it’s hard work, and you have to think of everything because maybe three people are doing one job. Actually, what it did was make me so grateful, going back onto a big set, for the crew. You realize how important everybody’s jobs are, how it’s like a well-oiled machine and everybody is working their backsides off. The runners, the ADs, the locations people – things that you take for granted when you’re on set like thinking, “that car’s been brought in because that’s what we need for the scene,” whereas when you are doing your own work you ‘d have to organize that logistic too!
“…it’s a real labor of love, isn’t it?”
On “The Hungry Games,” where did the inspiration come from?
I think it just came from life in general. I just heard so many people, mostly female but male as well, talking in this obsessive way about what we look like on the outside. And I felt like it actually had very little to do with being healthy, or being the best version of you, or anything like that. It’s just pure aesthetic. And it’s everywhere.
And, the ridiculousness of what people were telling me “This new healthy diet I’m on…” – when clearly there was nothing ‘healthy’ involved at all.
But the real climax was when a friend was showing me a red carpet photo of her actress friend. We were talking about how amazing she looked, and my friend told me she looked so great because she was on this ‘diet’ called ‘two chews and out, ‘ and I was like, “what is that? Say that again.”
And she said: “So, you chew your food twice, and then you spit out.” And my immediate reaction was a laugh because I thought, it MUST be a joke, and I was like, “no, no, no.”
And on the one hand it is funny (and that’s why I’ve written it as a comedy), but also, and more importantly it’s SO damaging and so poisonous. So that was really the catalyst. I thought, this has gotten out of hand, I have to poke fun of that and shine a light on it.
That’s actually one of the diets that is in the short film. People think it’s one I’ve just made up because it’s so ridiculous, but it’s not.
“You realize how important everybody’s jobs are, how it’s like a well-oiled machine and everybody is working their backsides off. “
It looks like the screen, whether it’s cinema or the phone can have bad influences. Do you think this influence could be turned around with messages such as the one of your short film, perhaps?
Yes, of course. I think that it’s often to do with being conscious about the content that you choose to watch. There’s obviously a big difference between mindlessly scrolling
Because now there are shows like “Black Mirror” that are showing in an exaggerated way, of course, what is bad for us. I think, maybe, on someone that can cause a little change for the better.
I hope that people will be more aware and, maybe, more educated about what the screen does to you. They say that the blue light mirrors the light of sunrise, it causes our cortisol levels to rise, so your stress levels rise. And, apparently, the sounds of a phone going off or some of the soundscape behind a lot of modern cinemas can be quite damaging for the nervous system. I think comedy is always good for the soul, right? And I do also think that it is important not to be too earnest about entertainment, sometimes it’s just for entertainment.
I get it. Because sometimes you just want to go to bed and watch a really good comedy to wind down.
Of course, you don’t always want to have to think!
“I think comedy is always good for the soul, right?”
Why you chose satire as a medium for “The Hungry Games”?
I think comedy is disarming; I think that if you can make someone laugh you already have them on side a little bit, – it appeal s to something very human in us all. So yes, that’s it a guess. I ’ve also done quite a lot of comedies as an actress, so it felt like a natural place to write from. Though if I’m completely honest I wasn’t thinking about it too much: it wasn’t so premeditated. I just had this idea, and I wanted to poke the funny and ridicule it.
What’s a character you would dream to play?
There isn’t a specific role per se, I think as an actor you want like a very varied career where you get to play a lot of interesting, well rounded, 3D characters that are believable — characters that are human or that you can bring some human qualities to, (even if they’re hideous human beings). I think I’m more fascinated by what makes people tick, how do people behave and why do they behave in certain ways or, also, how or what is your personal way of coping with life. Even down to, “what’s your morning routine like? How do you do the morning?” Things only you know, or that someone you live with does.
So, it’s about finding that psychology behind, even if you’re playing a serial killer: what makes them behave like that? Because for them that’s completely normal, it’s just joining the dots, how they get from here to here: you have to find that path.
Also at the moment I feel really excited by this new wave, (and I hope it continues!) of integral, interesting
“Also at the moment I feel really excited by this new wave, (and I hope it continues!) of integral, interesting female leads being written.”
“I don’t think everybody is strong, you don’t have to be a strong female lead, but an interesting one…”
Are you writing something at the moment?
Yeah, I am. I just wrote a script for another short – It’s a horror which wasn’t planned, but I get quite inspired by my life or everyday things.
I have a lot of little ideas going round my head at any one point. I remember hearing a writer once saying that her ideas were like clouds above her head and they just got fuller and fuller and fuller like rain clouds until one day they just pour down. And that’s kind of how I feel; I have a lot of little ideas that mull and grow in my brain until one day they just have to come out. Normally the writing process is really quick for me because it’s a fully formed idea already.
I’m also in the middle of writing a slightly longer short, about being a woman. About hitting thirty and being true to yourself; what happens when you’re not, what happens to when you don’t listen to that little voices inside your head.
“I’m also in the middle of writing a slightly longer short, about being a woman. About hitting thirty and being true to yourself; what happens when you’re not, what happens to when you don’t listen to that little voices inside your head.”
What about “Living the Dream,” what can you tell us about it?
I joined the cast in the second season. Honestly, it’s the nicest job I’ve ever done.
We shot in Spain, near Sotogrande which is such a nice place to be. And it was the loveliest cast and crew – everybody is so nice and generous and kind. It was honestly like a holiday. And although I was coming on to a set that is already established, I was very welcomed.
So we’re back in Florida, and I play Stacee, who’s a really sweet, enthusiastic, single mum. She comes to work for the Pembertons, joins their team and really turns things around for them.
She’s a really nice person; though I tried really hard not to make her nauseatingly nice.
Like, so nice that you hate her.
I hope not! It was a nice energy to have to bring onto set though! She’s always full of beans and super nice to everyone – it’s a nice person to play.
“I play Stacee, who’s a really sweet, enthusiastic, single mum.”
Must have on set: Snacks.
Superpower: I’d love to be able to teleport. My parents live in the Middle East, and my brother lives in Australia, so on a Sunday, I wish I could just snap my fingers and I’d be at home.
Happy place: The beach. Like, specifically, in the sea. Swimming.
Epic fail on the job: I did a musical in the West End – it was a 1950s show, and I had these amazing full skirts.
And ON MY OPENING NIGHT we were in the middle of a routine, and in this bit where you had to spin, my heel got caught in my skirt, and pulled my skirt, and me down onto the floor. So I’ve fallen over, with a full West End audience watching me and I was like, “just get back up again,” and as I scrambled back up to standing, I realized my skirt was still on the floor.
I think that’s an epic fail. That was horrendous.
Favorite word: Ricochet. And I also really like saying Benjamin Netanyahu.
Favorite Accent: To hear I love an Irish accent, Northern Irish specifically. And to do – a Liverpudlian.
Favorite Movie as a Child: “The Aristocats,” such a good film. It’s a very underrated cartoon.
We used to have two back to back films, we had to fast forward.
“I love an Irish accent…”
Your favorite time of the day to shoot a scene: Nothing between 3 and 4, it’s a dead zone for me. Maybe like the second scene up, so not the first thing when the coffee is kicking in, and you didn’t have time for breakfast, but the second. I don’t know, between nine and ten, let’s say.
The last series you binge-watched: “Informer,” a BBC Series. But also, a Netflix series called “The Good Place.” It’s really easy-watching; it’s just half an hour, I can just shut my brain off. It’s good, and it’s funny, like actually funny. I don’t laugh my heart out at comedy lots. Tough crowd! But that was funny, really.
What’s for you acting? What’s the beauty of acting?
I think that it’s getting into somebody else’s shoes. There’s something very humanizing about seeing
Seeing what makes somebody else tick.