Jenna Lamia perfectly embodies the goal that my niece, Molly, set her sights on as a 3rd grader. She told her mom, “When I grow up, I want to be like Aunt Sue (me!)- famous, but nobody knows who I am.” Bingo. Jenna fits that bill. She is an actress, screenplay writer, television producer and award-winning audio book performer. In spite of all of that, the person who read the credits for an audio book that she starred in, The Help, mispronounced her last name. To that she says, “Oops!” and laughs, “It happens all the time.” Listening to The Help is where I was first introduced to Jenna’s massive talent. Her voice brought the southern drawl of protagonist, Skeeter, to lifein a way that pulled me in and made it nearly impossible to stop listening. I soon began searching for audio books performed by her to pass the time while painting at my drawing table.
Learning about Jenna’s childhood felt like stepping into an episode of the Wonder Years: safe and surrounded by love. Yes, I’m sure she had her struggles, but she definitely is in no need of therapy to make sense of it all. Her family is a creative lot, the imaginations of which were fostered at an early age. Her parents were both big believers in story-time. Each evening her father would spin a tale to share with Jenna and her five siblings. “My dad was great at making up stories. He called them ‘tell stories,’ and he would add a new chapter every night. I remember that the villain was always called ‘Bad Thumb.’ I just love that name for a villain in a children’s story.”
With the encouragement of her parents, writing became an early tool for Jenna’s creative expression. Her fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Alfandre, nurtured that love. “She was so inspiring! She had us write our own books. I remember my mom asking her if it was normal that I had written a 64-page story? So, my passion for it goes way back.”
When Jenna enrolled at Amherst College in Massachusetts, she had no defined career path. She got into writing plays and that led to writing screenplays. She sees every aspect of her work life today as facets of storytelling. “That’s why I love acting – getting outside of my own life and immersing myself in someone else’s. I definitely approach writing from a character perspective, so they feel closely related. When I went to college, I was a little young to know what I wanted to do with my life, but by the end of it, I was 100% sure I wanted to be an actress.”
Jenna’s plan was to move to New York City after she graduated, but instead found herself there her junior year. Her playwriting instructor felt her style was more suited to screenplay writing. Since Amherst didn’t have any classes on that subject, she enrolled in the New York University film program.
While Jenna was acting in a play at NYU, an agent saw her and offered to represent her as an actress. She fell into narrating audio books while picking up a script at her agent’s office. An agent from the audio department asked her if she could do a Russian accent. Jenna said she thought she could and was led into a recording booth.
They soon discovered that Jenna has a real gift for mimicking accents and began sending her on auditions for audiobooks. It was a thing that she didn’t even know existed and quickly learned that book narration is the most wonderful form of acting for somebody who isn’t comfortable being scrutinized physically.
“Wondering whether I look pretty or not ruins losing myself in the character, you know? I guess I’m a little shy. I didn’t get into acting because I thought I was the most beautiful girl in the world, kind of thing. I remember being told by a manager once, ‘Well they said you’re not pretty enough for that role, and it’s like, wait, I just want to be an actress! I want to go for the role that I’m right for. I don’t want this to be about being pretty enough.”
Happily, in audiobooks your physical appearance is completely off the table. She loves the freedom of showing up for work in sweatpants with no one touching up her lip gloss before she begins a take. “So, it feels very pure in that way, I love that about it.”
Her writing career bloomed in her twenties after Jenna moved to Los Angeles. She lived in a little apartment and went to auditions during the day. At night she would work on a script called, All About Me. Set in a high school theater department, it was a take off of one of her favorite movies, the 1950’s comedy, All About Eve. “I just thought that dynamic from the original movie would be funny in a modern day setting. Sort of like Clueless meets Election in tone, a high school comedy.”
When Jenna was 28, she was cast in a Vince Vaughn comedy that David O. Russell was going to direct. It was a huge break for her as an actress. A few weeks before the movie was to start production, David decided not to make it. He was very apologetic and told Jenna that if there was ever anything he could do for her to let him know. “I can’t believe I did it, but somehow I was brave enough to say, ‘Well, there is something you could do. You could read the script I wrote. And to his credit, he did. He then gave it to his agent, and we sold it to New Line Cinema!”
To Jenna that chain of events is a perfect example of the adage, luck is when preparation meets opportunity. “True, I was very lucky to have David’s offer. I had already written the script. I’m talking about four or five years of writing it, draft after draft. Inviting my actor friends over to have a reading more than once. Changing the dialogue based on that, trying to make it funnier and funnier. I’m saying all of this because I don’t want any young writer to think, ‘Oh it’s so easy! Just write something and give it to somebody.’ My script had been through a lot, and it was ready for somebody who really knew what they were doing to see it.”
Selling her first movie script led to other feature film writing jobs. She became friends with a writer for the television show 90210 and began writing for it. “I learned there’s this whole world to writing TV that I didn’t know about. It turned out to be really fun because the stories you’re creating end up coming to fruition within a couple months. Versus features, where you definitely have no guarantee that it’ll ever get made. With TV, it’s getting made. In the last several years TV has become a new world. The things that are on Netflix and HBO are so high quality. It’s really exciting times to be writing TV.”
Jenna stayed at 90210 until the show ended in 2000. Then she went on to MTV’s series Awkward. Getting to write and act on that show was a dream come true.
Today, Jenna is involved with two hit television series. She serves as an Executive Producer for NBC’s Good Girls and is writing for SyFy’s Resident Alien season two and also plays the part of Judy Cooper on the show.
“So, the dream of getting to act and write on the same project is alive and well! I also just wrapped shooting on a movie I wrote called My Best Friend’s Exorcism. It is a horror movie with heart and comedy, set in 1988. It will be on Amazon later this year. I am so excited about it because we had a fantastic director, Damon Thomas from Killing Eve, and a top-notch young cast, including Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade) Amiah Miller (War of the Planet of the Apes) and Chris Lowell (Promising Young Woman).”
Even though she had successes early on, there were many people who thought Jenna was going down the path of disappointment. She remembers a friend of the family once saying, “Wait, you’re an actress? But your backup career is a writer? So, you’re basically jumping out of a plane with a Kleenex for a parachute.”
Jenna didn’t let it sway her. “I think there is nothing sadder than not living your passion, either because of an outside force telling you you can’t or an inner one.”
For Jenna, her career strategy could be compared to shooting an arrow and being open to where it lands. Every door she walked through always led to another and following her bliss is what opened each door. She says, “I never had a master plan, but I did have fidelity to what excites me. And that is a plan. If you’re doing what moves you, you’re going to work hard at it, and something good creatively will result. Maybe no one will see it. Maybe no one will buy it. Maybe no one will cast you in anything, but if you’re doing something that you love, isn’t that what matters anyway?”
Tied to her inner light, Jenna relies on her intuition to guide her for the most part. “Of course, I don’t always trust it, or I’m too busy, or I think ‘well that can’t be right’. But it doesn’t leave me.” For her it is evidence of something loving that holds us all together.
“I deeply believe there are things in the universe that we can’t quantify, that we don’t fully understand, but it would be hubris to say they don’t exist. There are forces beyond our complete understanding. It’s not like I’m getting bursts of guidance all the time, not even close. But when I do, I recognize and consider them. I’m not saying it’s special to me at all. I’m saying I think it’s there for all of us, and if you can trust that those things are around, you’ll hear them.”
Following her light is what led Jenna to where she is today. From what the cadence of the dialect reveals about a character she’s playing, to the next step on her path, paying attention is key for her. Jenna Lamia has learned to listen.
*Coming up next month: Shane McAnally serves as a producer on the NBC musical competition series “Songland.” McAnally is a three-time Grammy Award-winning songwriter and record producer who has earned 38 No. 1 singles to date.
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Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan