Enter Kelly Jenrette: from Emmy-nominated acting to writing for stage
Kelly Jenrette, nominated for an Emmy for her guest role in The Handmaid's Tale, tells us about her experience of the nomination, her work on feature films All Day And A Night and Uncorked currently available on Netflix, and being commissioned by the Black Rebirth Collective to write a new stage play based on an imagined meeting between Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King.
Over the last few months, the obvious place to begin any interview has been with the pandemic and this shared period of enforced lockdown. While it's still very relevant, that focus has understandably shifted to worldwide protests in the face of more senseless killings of African-Americans at the hands of the police and even fellow citizens.
My conversation with Emmy-nominated actor Kelly Jenrette was just a few days after the murder of George Floyd.
"Before everything exploded with what we are dealing with now with the brutal murder of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, it was pretty calming and peaceful around here. I'm very much a homebody, so being home for me wasn't something that was new. My husband and I like to shoot pool, so I think the challenging part is just not being able to get out of the house and do the things that we enjoy doing.
"Since all of the things have started with the protest, it's been a little uneasy. There were protests that were happening two minutes from where we live, and they turned violent. We were getting a little anxious, but they've got everything under control. It's been a mixed bag of emotions lately."
As such, it felt strange to turn attention to anything else when there was only one topic on anyone's mind. However, as soon as I ask Jenrette about her career and how it all began, we soon fall into conversation and the warm retelling of her story is welcome and engaging.
"For me, acting was something that I really enjoyed doing. I remember in elementary school my very first play was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and I got to play Charlie. I remember my teacher asking if I wanted to change the character's name to Charlene, but I was very adamant that I could play a boy [laughs]. We had a really successful run of the show and then later I saw Robert Townsend's The Five Heartbeats and just fell in love with acting even more.
"As I got older, I would do plays with my church but felt like acting wasn't a real job, it was just something you can do on the side. I went to Xavier University in New Orleans to be a forensic psychologist. I took the first test, aced it, then saw what the remainder of my classes would be for the next couple of years and decided I would much rather play a forensic psychologist on TV! I transferred back home and got my degree in theater.
"My very first paying job was working with Kaiser Permanente. We would travel to different high schools, putting on a show, raising awareness and educating young people about HIV and AIDS. That really excited me because I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I can get paid for doing this!'. I then moved to Upstate New York and worked with a theatre company called Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, then had a decision to make between going to New York City or LA and I chose LA. It took me seven years of being out here before I booked my first co-star role. That was a big wake up call but it's been rolling ever since then."
That rolling eventually lead to a guest role on The Handmaid's Tale playing Annie, the jilted wife of Luke (O-T Fagbenle) who would leave her for June (Elizabeth Moss). While it's clearly a wonderful opportunity to be part of a hit show, coming in as a guest character on season two and working with cast and crew already familiar with each other must present some challenges.
"It is challenging at times when you're coming in as a guest co-star, but one thing that I will say about the cast and crew on that set of The Handmaid's Tale is that they made it feel like home. I did not feel like a stranger coming in. I remember Elisabeth Moss coming up to me when we were rehearsing one of the scenes and she just thanked me for being a part of it, talked about how amazing my tape was that she watched. She was so warm and welcoming, it just felt like a safe space.
"What I also loved was, the show is so heavy, but in between takes they were laughing and joking with one another. I wasn't in that space because I was there to do a very specific job and I wanted to stay focused on telling Annie's story, but I just loved the lightness and the fun that was on that set."
Her performance resulted in a nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series at the 2018 Emmy Awards. Not only that, her husband Melvin Jackson Jr. was also nominated for Outstanding Actor in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series for his role in the web series This Eddie Murphy Role is Mine, Not Yours (which he also wrote and executive produced), making them the first African American married couple to be nominated in the same year.
"It's great to relive it, especially during this time, to have something that brings joy. I remember the announcement was early in the morning. I saw some of the announcements on TV or a live stream then they said if you want to see the rest of the names, go to this website. I went to the website really not thinking anything of it. I went to the Outstanding Guests Actress in a Drama Series, and I'm looking at these names and seeing Cherry Jones, Samira Wiley, Viola Davis, Cicely Tyson, and then I see my name... For a moment I was really shocked. There were no words, I couldn't believe it [laughs].
"Then my husband called me and said 'Babe, you are an Emmy nominated actress!' I was like, 'Oh my God, I know! Are you nominated?' He said he didn't know because he was at work and couldn't look it up so I said, 'Well, let me look it up.' I went to his category and saw his name there and started screaming and he tried to scream as softly as he could too. It was an amazing time for both of us. I'm so grateful that I was nominated but to be nominated alongside my husband was a true blessing as well."
Jenrette currently stars in a couple of very different feature films currently available on Netflix. The first is All Day and a Night, written and directed by Joe Robert Cole, a powerful drama about the life of a young man before and after he commits a murder. Ashton Sanders leads with Jenrette and Jeffrey Wright playing his beleaguered parents. She recalls how she became involved.
"It's so funny because the morning that I woke up, I couldn't sleep. I think I woke up around 6am and thank God I did. I ended up checking my email and saw that I had one from my manager stating that I had an audition at 3pm later that day. I thought, 'Alright, just get your mind right, do the work that you do and approach the character'.
"I initially judged Delanda just because of the choices that she made. How she talked to her son, how she talked about her son's father, those were things that I could never picture myself saying to my 19-year old nephew, or a child of my own. I had to take a step back and acknowledge that I was judging her and that I needed to find a way to sit in who this woman was to be able to tell the truth behind her story. Once I got myself together, I went to the audition.
"I will say Kim Coleman, as a casting director, makes it so easy for you to just get into the pocket. The way she reads with you, the emotion that she gives you, just really helps to pull out even more great things in you. I had a really great audition and then found out that they wanted me to come back the next day to meet with the director Joe Robert Cole. I met with him, had really powerful audition with him. It felt really good and then that was that. It took a couple of weeks before I found out that I booked it, but to finally get the call was an amazing call to receive."
Almost all of her scenes in the film are incredibly intense, especially with her co-star Jeffrey Wright, who in one scene becomes very physically confrontational.
"It was very intense, but I will say they made sure that we were both safe. They had a stunt coordinator on set and we actually talked through what we were going to do and walked through it because it was supposed to be something else completely different. It was going to be even more intense than what it was, and so just talking through what this moment looks like for us was refreshing and it made me feel safe and taken care of. After each take, the stunt coordinator would come in and check we were okay.
"I just remember in that moment, just really wanting to tell Delanda's truth. We wanted to make sure that Jeffrey's character didn't come off as an abuser. Their relationship was very toxic on both sides, it wasn't dominated by one person more than the other. We were both broken people and trying to raise a child with all of the baggage that we had in place. We wanted to make sure that it came across as they're equally broken, they're equally antagonising one another. I just thought that that was a really good moment for us to have."
At the opposite end of the spectrum, another film in which Jenrette stars is Uncorked, written and directed by Prentice Penny. It's a humorous and heartfelt family drama about a young man looking to start a career as a sommelier instead of taking over the family BBQ business. For Jenrette it's a much lighter role, playing the sister of leading man Mamoudou Athie, with both playing the children of Courtney B. Vance and Niecy Nash.
"Being a part of Uncorked was an absolute blessing, it came in the perfect time in my life. I had just lost my best friend – who was basically a sister to me – to colon cancer. It was a welcomed distraction, so to speak, and being with the kind of people that I was with, like I said before about The Handmaid's set, it just felt safe. Courtney B. Vance, I didn't realise how funny he was, he cracked me up. The dinner scenes that we had, at times I couldn't even look at him because I knew that he was going to do something that would make me laugh. Niecy Nash, queen of comedy. It was a wonderful time to be with her as well. I remember we would have dinner with each other quite frequently, so that was a beautiful thing. That whole process just being able to be with a normal black family, pulling back the curtains to see what life was like for them, it was a beautiful thing to be a part of."
"As far as approaching the two completely different roles, I think for me, the approach is always to focus on telling the truth. Whether it's a comedy or drama, my job is to become this character and tell the truth of who this character is. That's just what I wanted to focus on. It was a beautiful thing to be able to play Brenda who was a terrible cook and no one was afraid to let her know that, which was entertaining in and of itself. Delanda was much heavier to sit with and to sit in and just made the body feel a little more weighed down. With Brenda, there was a lightness to her even though she was having her own issues, she has this family dynamic."
In addition to her acting, Jenrette is currently writing a new stage play about Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King that has been commissioned by the Black Rebirth Collective. It's her first foray into writing something of this scale and it's something she's clearly relishing.
"I saw this play called The Meeting, which was an imagined meeting between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. It was so powerful and moving and I went up to Jeff Stetson, the writer, and said, 'I would love to see an imagined meeting between Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King.' He smiled and that was it. Someone overheard me say it and said, 'Well, then you should write it.' I met with Kimberly Hebert, the founding director of Black Rebirth Collective, she along with another friend of ours said, 'Let's write it'.
"It was very scary but something that I felt like I was called to do because what I notice about Coretta and Betty, is that they are oftentimes only referred to as the wives or the widows of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. These were women before they were the wives and widows of these men, and continued to live full lives after their husbands were assassinated. I just wanted to know who these women were. What were their dreams before becoming the wives of these powerful men? What were they like as mothers? What were they like as girlfriends? Myrlie Evers-Williams writes in Betty Shabazz's biography that their relationship went from rivalry to tolerance, to genuine affection. We see them through the lens of who their husbands were but I wanted to really tell the story of who these women were, period.
"Growing up I would do a lot of writing but something of this magnitude to be commissioned by a theater collective has never happened before. It is very scary, but I have the support of so many people helping me to push it on. We had a reading of a newer draft a couple of weeks ago which went really well and I felt excited about continuing to write because I realised my very first draft was exactly what we as a society had been doing. Every time they spoke, they were the mouthpieces for their husbands and not true to who they were outside of that, and so it's evolved into this amazing piece just about these women. I'm still on that journey. We were hoping to put this up to a world premiere in September, but then the coronavirus had its world premiere first, and so it's halted everything."
With the stage play still in draft – and the world finding itself in sharp focus of the Black Lives Matter movement – Jenrette is certain that what is happening now will influence the final piece.
"The focus of these two meeting is the assassination of Medgar Evers. He was heavily involved in the civil rights movement in the South and was shot in the back in his driveway. It's heartbreaking to know that that's still happening today, so I don't even think it's necessarily to find a way to make what's happening now appear in the play, it already does. Life was already like that. They were lynching people back then, so while we may not have lynching parties per se, we still have officers who were sworn to serve and protect, kneeling on the neck of someone for almost nine minutes, that's our modern-day lynching. I think that it definitely heightens and amplifies the conversations they have with one another in the play and highlight, unfortunately, it's still relevant today in 2020."
It is now hoped that the play might open in February next year during Black History Month, assuming the coronavirus has dissipated to allow theatres to reopen. In the meantime, there will be a free virtual live reading of The Meeting by Jeff Stetson that Jenrette will be co-hosting coming up that viewers can access remotely.
"People can absolutely join in if they want. It's going to be via Zoom on June 19th at 5.30pm PST (1.30am BST). It's a very powerful piece and it's also still very relevant to what we are dealing with today, so I will definitely encourage people to keep an eye out for that. People can either follow me (@kellymjenrette) or @themeetinglive on Instagram for upcoming information on how to RSVP for the reading.
"Bechir Sylvain is playing Malcolm X and Ethen Henry is playing Martin Luther King. It will be co-hosted by myself and Affion Crockett who is a really funny and talented comedian out here who's also been very active in what's going on. It's being directed by the amazing Bill Cobbs who is a staple in African American culture and history."
"I am learning a lot about myself and my writing process. Too often I am editing in my head before I even allow it to hit the page, so being able to work through those things are important because there are stories that I have to tell. There is a piece of paper that I have with Maya Angelou's quote, 'There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,' and so I just want to honour the stories that are inside of me and let them out to share and encourage others to do that as well."
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