"Rather than saying 'I hope I'm successful in five years' - Which essentially doesn't mean anything. Everyone hopes that. - I break my dreams down into smaller dreams. That might seem mundane, but this dream minutiae has helped me a lot. Without it, I feel like I'm just wandering around, hoping that someone nice will see my potential."
Jolene Kay is an actor, rock climber, and enthusiast of odd animal facts.
“My first acting job was hiring myself to put on a one-person play of The Lion King. In my basement. When I was eight. I killed it.”
Jolene Kay is an American actress (currently living in LA) known for her roles in the upcoming Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, Scandal, Rizzoli & Isles, Star Trek and video game giant Call of Duty as well as a slue of national and international commercials including Best Buy, Nissan, Dr. Scholl’s, Coca-Cola, Under Armour, American Airlines, Naked Juice and many more.
She is joined, on this quest, by director Daniel Scherl.
Jolene is driven to find and create dimensional and intelligent roles for women in film and television.
What fuels your creative ambition?
I’ve found that the best way to understand myself, is through understanding others. It would be wonderful to be an artist who makes tons and tons of money, and who can help out with big world issues… but fame has never been the goal for me.
With acting specifically, there’s a quote from Meryl Streep that circulates around:
“Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there.”
That’s what fuels my creative ambition: understanding myself better through other’s journeys.
If you were to write a letter to a younger self,
what’s the hook you would start that letter with to ensure you read to the end?
I would start with “Jolene… even if you skim the rest of the this letter, read this: It’s hardly ever what you think it will be, but it’s all okay.” That’s what I’d lead with, and then there’d be a whole mess of crap that I’d say after…
I actually stole that verbatim from a woman named Wilexia Shields-Knox who I interviewed for a documentary film I did about motherhood. They’re not my words… but I found it so authentic and genius when she said it.
When did you first realize that you wanted to be an artist?
[laughing] I only really… this is the stupidity of my life, but I only really committed to acting a few years ago; however, I think I first realized that I wanted to be an artist when I entered a lip-synching competition in first grade.
My group of kid friends chose ‘The Little Mermaid’ to do this ensemble medley piece. One of us played Ursula, one played Ariel, and I was most drawn to Sebastian the Crab. My mom made the outfit, and I lip-synched ‘Under the Sea’ (recruiting one of my brother’s to be the big fat fish that walks onto the stage and does the ‘yeah’ part).
It was that. It was being Sebastian the Crab in the my first grade talent show. That was my first glimpse of being apart of a collaborative effort, and making something that I thought was really beautiful, and that I was proud of.
Maybe it was a light-hearted introduction into it… but that’s my ‘why’.
I’d like to ask you about four different experiences, and what they feel like to you. The first experience is fear.
Fear feels…. it feels very stiff and confining on a cellular level. It’s one of the emotions that… I mean, everyone knows what fear feels like, but it’s a very physical experience for me. It’s almost like I don’t trust my own body when it happens. I’m very conscious of where the tension’s held – different triggers of fear seem to reside in different parts of the body.
It’s like, my own cells are trying to find a way out of themselves.
I don’t know why my brain goes here, but I start to think about the universe inside and how we’re made. It really feels like my body is fighting with myself on a cellular level.
The next experience is a success you weren’t expecting.
What does that feel like to you?
I recently had that experience a couple of times, and that feels like… the opposite of fear. It feels like my body is not enough.
It usually manifests itself vocally somehow. Like a scream or something. I make sounds that I’ve never made before. It’s like I’m trying to find a way to rejoice that seems big enough, and that goes beyond the senses and abilities that I have available to me, so… I do weird things.
The next experience is anger.
What does anger feel like to you?
Anger is the hardest one for me. Anger feels hot. Like there’s something wrong with my engine. I’m trying not to talk in metaphor… but it’s this very locomotive feeling. Like someone put too much coal on the fire or something. Anger is the one I like the least.
The last experience is love.
What does love feel like to you?
Oh man. The most enjoyable one, and probably the hardest to describe. If anger’s hot, love is warm and relaxing and affirming.
If there’s anything that lets us glimpse what being here is all about, and what the universe is all about… I seem to go to particles and molecules really quickly. Love is like the Higgs Boson of human connectivity. It’s like I’m feeling – being wrapped in – a very nice fabric of whatever this is all made of; whatever this is all about.
What is your greatest failure?
(or something that led to your greatest shift in consciousness and brought you to where you are today)?
There are several specific experiences I could cite, but they all add up to self doubt and hesitation. I’m not a risk taker at all, and that’s probably led to some of the worst decisions I’ve made in my life. Worst meaning those decisions hurt the largest amount of people – or the people who were closest to me.
The shift in consciousness, that this hesitation and self doubt has led to, is working on being more honest. I used to lie a lot – just about little things. I was preoccupied with disappointing people.
Is it better to talk about a specific experience?
Not necessarily. But can you think of an experience that sort of encapsulates several in one. So many of our failures tend to be repetitions.
I guess there is one. I lied to and hurt someone I cared about, and as a result completely lost that relationship and friendship – which felt big enough. Being honest with people… that has repeated itself over and over again in my life, but this particular experience resulted in a shift.
What I started doing was – if I caught myself lying or obscuring the truth – making myself call the person that I’d lied to, and telling them: “I lied to you, and I need to tell you that I did, and I would like to explain why.” I’d start out by telling them that they didn’t owe me anything, or even need to listen.
This has helped.
If I’m tempted to lie, I realize I have the choice to tell the truth now and face the possible unpleasant consequences, or make that awkward phone call that I’m going to make myself make later (as penance, or whatever).
But yeah… just being honest has been my biggest battle with myself.
Where do you think that battle comes from?
Childhood and growing up in a rather repressed Christian household. I’m not Christian now… but I am a people pleaser, and that’s gotten me into all sorts of trouble to this day.
Still, I’m way more honest than I used to be, and I’m much less afraid of disappointing people, or of confrontation (which used to be a big one).
All of that will hold you back in acting like you wouldn’t believe.
Honesty requires you to face the darker parts of yourself that you’ve been trying to sweep aside. I’d been trying to uphold this illusion of myself of: ”everyone’s comfortable around me all the time, and everyone’s happy constantly.” That’s not reality.
What is your greatest strength as a person?
I think one of my greatest strengths is my ability to not take things personally – which has helped me to build some wonderful relationships with people.
We all have outbursts. We’re human. When I see that happen to someone, I think of the battles I’ve fought myself with honesty. I see it and I’m able to reach out and say: ”I see you. I see the struggle, and it’s okay.” I’m not going to judge you for it, and no one else should either.
Let’s just be human together and figure it out.
I think patience, and intuition, and not taking things personally are some of my greatest strengths.
What about one of your personal challenges?
Besides the honesty thing. I am very… as much as I think I’m patient and good at seeing other people, I can also be a very judgmental person.
I’m trying very hard to live my life based on what ‘is’ and what ‘is not,’ versus what ‘should be.’ I have a million stories about how that’s come back to bite me in the ass.
My mom’s very fond of talking about being present in any given moment. Naturally… I’m not very good at that. I can get there, but living in ‘what is’ or ‘what is not’ versus ‘what should be’ has been my biggest personal challenge lately.
Are you happy?
What does happiness mean to you?
Lately… I am very happy.
Sometimes the ridiculousness of my situation, of my life, and of my career path becomes clear all at once. Right now, I’m sitting in an office with a couple of guinea pigs, and with the scripts and things on my desk that I’ll study on a daily basis…
In my chosen profession, there’s a lot of chaos (there’s a lot of chaos in life itself). I have chosen to take on something that invites more chaos than maybe your average 9-5 experience, but what I’ve realized recently is: that’s what I want! That’s where I thrive, and I didn’t always realize that about myself.
I used to think that I should be more responsible than I am. I used to think that I should get more sleep, and be more scheduled and regimented. But over the last couple of months, I’ve been able to let that go, and be like ‘cool you’re not, and you should enjoy that for what it is.’
I might go a week without getting any work, and I should just enjoy that time if I’m financially able to do so.
So yes, I am happy and I think a lot of that has to do with accepting the chaos that I actually thrive in, and that I’ve invited into my life.
It’s a beautiful chaos.
Where in the world can you breathe the deepest?
I think the answer to that question is going to be Scotland, but I haven’t made it there yet. That’s an odd to say…
There’s a German word – Fernweh – that specifically means being homesick for a place you’ve never been. I like that – a lot – and I feel that quite a bit.
A large portion of my family is from Scotland. I mean, we’re mixed, but a large branch hails from there, so I’ve been trying to make it there myself. Land a project there, or maybe just buy a plane ticket and go.
I feel like Scotland would be the answer to this question.
What does the child in you believe about the world?
The child in me believes that people are good, and that everyone’s great. That’s really it.
The adult in me says ‘No, no! There’s evil people. There’s all this bad shit,” but my child is an eternal optimist. I believe everyone wants to play with me, and that I’m capable of coming up with the greatest game for us all to play together. I think the child in me lives in Neverland where Robin Williams is Peter Pan, and we’re all having food fights and stuff.
Yeah… that’s what my kid thinks.
How do you dream?
I do well with specifics.
I deal in terms of days, weeks, months, and years. I think: in a month I would like to have achieved this thing. So in order for that to happen, what are the things I can do – the steps I can take – to make that a reality?
“Oh, I hope this happens this month’ and leaving it open ended, doesn’t work for me. I dream strategically.
Can you think of an example where that worked really well?
Anything that has happened in the past couple of years, career wise or life wise, is a result of this strategic dreaming.
Rather than saying ‘I hope I’m successful in five years’ – Which essentially doesn’t mean anything. Everyone hopes that. – I break my dreams down into smaller dreams. That might seem mundane, but this dream minutiae has helped me a lot. Without it, I feel like I’m just wandering around, hoping that someone nice will see my potential.
I make these mental checklists that help me realize when the smaller dreams have been achieved. That way it feels like I’m building forward momentum and making progress towards the bigger ones.
With the manager I have now, with any kind of TV shows I’ve booked in the last year, the National Commercials…. It’s difficult to identify and explain, but I was systematic about the casting directors who were working on certain shows, and systematic about the managers I met with – thinking “is this person communicative enough? Do they understand me? No. Okay, moving on.”
The strategic dreaming has been the instrumental thing. The driving force.
Have you ever experienced ‘flow’ or ‘being in the zone’?
What is that experience like for you?
Oh man! Before I met with you, I had an audition for a feature film. It’s found-footage based, and deals with supernatural elements that you couldn’t possibly… I mean as strategic and analytical as I like to be, for the first scene I had to portray a character who is basically just your scared human being, and with the next scene I had to be altered and attacked – essentially becoming a different creature than who I started out as in the script.
I had a week to work on it, and I didn’t really know how to systematically break it down. The best I could do was try out different things. I tried something different every day.
And then I walked into the room today. I’m not always able to do this, but the optimistic inner kid (that I talked about earlier) showed up. The left brain version of myself had gone as far as it could go, so I decided to see where instinct would take me.
Flow is just something I feel. I feel it in when I’m mid-performance and not at all conscious of any of the analytical stuff. I’m just thinking and reacting, and maintaining eye contact with my reader. It feels authentic. I walk away on this high, thinking everything that led up to that moment kind of worked in concert, and that I did everything I could do.
In flow, it doesn’t feel like I held anything back. I’m not scared or tightened. It feels like I was supposed to be in that room, doing that performance – and I’m not talking ‘it was my destiny to be there”, but everything does feel like it was working together. It feels very harmonious.
Do you believe in fate or destiny?
I do not. I believe that the opportunities are there, but I know the deck is stacked in favour of some more than others. I don’t think that fate or destiny plays a part, necessarily, in where we all end up.
But I do think that if you listen, the universe speaks through all of us – regardless of where we’re born, to whom we’re born, or what our upbringing is.
I’ve always been self conscious about this topic. I feel that I’m lucky, very lucky, to have been born to the parents I have, and in the location where I grew up. I haven’t had to struggle nearly as much as some of the people I know.
So, whether that’s destiny or what… I don’t know. I try to exercise gratitude for everything that I’ve been given.
The short answer is no, I don’t believe in destiny… but I don’t seem to have the vocabulary to tell you what I do believe in. I’ll work on that.
What are your thoughts on the word ‘potential’?
Potential. I… right of the bat, I don’t like the word. I feel like it’s a very PC way of looking at someone and saying “I see that you can be good, but you’re not yet.”
I understand why you’d spare an actor’s feelings – especially in an acting class that’s supposed to be safe (and that’s a whole other issue) – but I feel like it’s a word that people hide behind. It would be more helpful to point out the things that are good, and then also the things that are maybe impeding your performance.
I think saying to someone ‘I see your potential’ is glossing over the important part. Yeah, we all have potential. That’s why we’re here. And hopefully we’ll have the opportunity to cultivate it.
How do you deal with doubt?
Where do you go for support?
Doubt runs rampant for me, and sometimes I’m not sure how to deal with it. I am not very successful at mentally talking myself out of doubt.
I’ve been with my boyfriend Daniel Scherl for nearly the past decade – which should tell you something right away, considering what a big, silly commitment-phobe I am.
He’s been there every step of the way whenever I falter, saying: “Jo, take the wheel.” He’s a lot more resourceful and honest than I am. He also sees all the worst things about me, and it’s still okay. Working together with him in love, life, and career has been such a game changer.
My friends and family are also full of support and inspiration in times of doubt. My mom offers love, cookies, and cash when things have been tight. My dad’s the reason I could afford to join SAG-AFTRA. I don’t know how I’ve lucked out so much, but hey… I’ll take it.
I’d never want to claim that I’m walking this path alone. I’ve had so much more help than I could ever repay.
Doubt tends to make me tense up.
I grew up in an athletic household so, before walking into an audition room, I always stretch (I tend to freak some people out, but I’ve stopped giving a shit). If I can start at a physical level, and keep the muscles from being tense, it helps. It’s weird. Some people work from the inside out. I tend to be the opposite. I can’t do anything mentally if I don’t first take care of whatever’s happening in my body.
If it’s really bad, I’ll go for a run. I’m also a rock climber…
I wish I could prescribe rock climbing to everybody. It’s such a mental exercise of looking at this thing and absolutely not believing that you can do it, and then doing it anyway. It’s huge.
What animal are you?
(This question is inspired by the animal work often done in acting classes).
Well, the two quizzes that I’ve taken say that my spirit animal is an owl; however, orangutan is the one I land on most.
What are the qualities of an orangutan?
Inquisitive. Physical. Tends to explore with their hands. It works for me.
What, in your opinion, are the qualities of someone who is a ‘great’ artist?
There’s a fearlessness to someone that I consider ‘great’.
Maybe some people come by it more naturally, but even if they do I feel like it’s a fearlessness that has to be cultivated through constant work. It’s the ability to take those leaps and those chances. And then the ability – whether they land on their feet or not – to keep going.
‘Great’ artist’s just don’t ever stop. Even after huge failures.
I draw parallels between athletics and acting a lot. When it comes to getting injured, the ‘good’ athletes will recover from their injuries, but the ‘great’ athletes will recover from their injuries and rebound better than they were before.
I think the same thing happens with acting.
I’ve met so many people that I consider friends that have HUGE ‘potential’, and who are naturally talented…. but they don’t keep going.
I’d even put fearlessness and tenacity above talent – which is interesting to say out loud. But I think, especially in film and television, you can be taught to play to the camera, and you can be taught how to deliver a line. You can even be taught to cry. But if you’re not fearless and you don’t keep going, then it won’t really matter.
Who are you? What is your identity?
I don’t know.
I know what I stand for, I know what I like, I know what my profession is… but anything I say to sound brilliant would be a lie. Finding out who I am, and reinventing that, is part of the reason I’m here. It’s the biggest reason I’ve chosen acting.
There’s an old Star Trek computer game that I used to play with my Dad. In one part of the game, you’re faced with this alien oracle. He makes you answer three questions, and one of them is: “who are you?” There are a multitude of answers you can choose from: you could say your profession, you could list the people you love, you could list any event in your life, or any choice you’ve made, as an identifying thing. But the right answer, that will get you past that oracle, is: “I don’t know.”
And that’s the answer I’m comfortable with. All I can do is reach the end of my days without any huge secrets or regrets.
Figuring out who I am… That’s one of the things that I love about life. I love it a lot.
What books have had the biggest impact on your life?
‘Infinite Jest‘ by David Foster Wallace
I haven’t even finished reading it yet. Right now it’s sitting on my night stand. If there’s anything else going on in your ears or your eyes, it’s not a book you can easily read. It’s about risk taking and fearlessness, and it’s sitting there as a dare to me: Look at what this guy did when he just sat down and wrote. He was in the human experience entirely; immersed in it. Immersed in his own ADD or depression, or whatever was going.
Some filmmakers did a visual representation of a graduation speech David Foster Wallace did. It’s called This is Water.
I don’t ever say something changed my life, but that did. It was like someone reached into my brain and took the cluttered thoughts that I’d been struggling with, and said ‘let me lay these out neatly for you.’ It was awesome.
I also really like Science Fiction, and have read a lot of David Brin.
‘Startide Rising‘ (I’ve read it twice) is about humans on space faring vessels with dolphins that they’ve uplifted. The novel has talking dolphins, talking chimps, and entirely different species’. David Brin is a scientist who happens to write fiction, so his reverence for the Science behind what he writes is fairly amazing. There’s a whole mess of novels that take place in this universe he’s created. All of them explore his perception of humanity.
Connect with Jolene
About The Creative Life Interview Series
“Theatre is a safe place to do the unsafe things that need to be done” said John Patrick Shanley. Likewise, Creative Life is a safe place to share ‘unsafe’ things that need to be said.
The stories and interviews from this site share the personal experiences of courage, fear, vulnerability, flow, creativity, and happiness from the perspective of the artist.
Latest posts by Creative Life Interview (see all)
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- “There’s this connection that happens when you write something you want down, and make it tangible in the world” – a conversation with Daniel Scherl - November 3, 2015