- Leila E. Cole
Get to Know Jennifer Schemke
Updated: Apr 2, 2020
From: Northern California
Where did you grow up/hometown?
I grew up in Northern California, in the Bay Area, just outside a town called Fairfield. It’s situated between Vallejo and Vacaville, and if you climbed over the hill ridge, like the Von Trapp family at the end of “The Sound of Music”, you’d be in Napa.
How did life lead you to this career path? My mom choreographed local musicals when she was pregnant with me, and as a baby, I’d sit in the stroller during rehearsals. My mom says my first utterances were infant versions of the overture to “Flower Drum Song.” All the fun theatre folk would come around and engage me. My first stage role was in the Vacaville Players production of “Fiddler on the Roof” when I was 4. I played Shprintze. I sang and tap-danced my way through the local talent show circuit and did some commercials as a kid. But, I really got serious about the acting craft when I got to undergrad at San Francisco State. I’d been kinda overlooked for roles all through high-school and I was ready to take the bull by the horns and explore. What was the process leading up to landing your role on ABC's remake of "Dirty Dancing"? I was in New York when the audition for the “Dirty Dancing” remake came my way. My dear friend, Izzy, who’s also an actor and a really talented artist, came over and she helped me tape the audition. It’s helpful to have a strong actor reading with you in those situations. I dressed a bit for my perception of the role, backcombed my hair a bit, and then just relaxed and laid down a couple of takes. It felt very natural. I grew up with “Dirty Dancing” and actually had my first real kiss, with my freshman year boyfriend, Philip, as the credits rolled. We watched it on VHS and we were both nervous the entire movie because we knew the kiss was coming. It was such an influential movie in my life. I felt a really special, tingly energy about the opportunity to read for the remake.
Describe your character, 'Esther Feinberg' --are you able to identify with her, and if so how? What was the behind-the-scenes like settling into this role? My character, Esther Feinberg, and her husband Leon, are regulars at Kellerman’s Lodge. Leon is a bit of an aloof husband, preferring his drink to my fabulous Jersey glitz and glamour, which I turn up in hopes of getting his warm glance. I think it’s a position a lot of women can relate to, and men too, for that matter. My updos just keep getting higher and my dresses flashier. Though she’s somewhat resigned to a life of loneliness, Esther keeps fighting, which I love. The costumes were so evocative, even our undergarments were from the 1960’s. My friend Glenn gave me some coins from the year the story takes place, which I kept in my trailer. I love having artifacts and listening to music from the world of the piece. These details help catapult me into the environment, which has always been important in my process. I think my background in improvisation (at The Groundlings and The Second City, and in grad school) has influenced this. Creating the environment entirely with imagination, requires a connection to the tactile. Filming in North Carolina, in many of the same places as the original, was an inspiration of its own. The original "Dirty Dancing" 1987 is undoubtedly a classic(!), what do you hope people get from the 2017 remake? There was such reverence for the original in this production. You could feel it on set, in the vibes of the producers. This was a production paying homage to something truly beloved, and the team brought their A-game always. Even the extras were local to NC, and so enthusiastic. Many of them had been in the original as young people and were now playing mature characters. It astounds me that more of today’s young people haven’t seen the original, but I love that this will bring them to the material. The themes and lessons are still so relevant.
Although we realize that no two days are alike, what is a typical day like for you?
I have been sharing time between California, New York and New Orleans. So, my typical day begins with appreciating being in one of my favorite places, focusing on staying present and grateful. I’ll find my way to a hot yoga class and/or (if I’m in NoCal) a “primal fit” class at The Factory Elite Fitness. Depending on my to-do list, I may be preparing for my next role, writing and developing new projects, babysitting my new little niece, Danica, or working on a start-up I’m a part of called CreativeTao, which is a website that connects students with creative arts teachers. I’ve been hanging with family a lot more since Danica was born and that is a blessing I treasure. I have so many creative, fabulous friends, I see them when I can, too. Working on any other projects currently? I am thrilled to be a part of Brandon Rogers’ series “Magic Funhouse”, on fullscreen.com (soon on iTunes.) Season 1 is out now, and I just finished shooting my role on Season 2. Brandon and I met in 2011 at a film festival in which we both had films we wrote and directed. He saw a cameo I did and loved it, and we kept in touch. When he blew up on YouTube last year and created this series, he wrote a role just for me based on one of the characters he loved from my character reel. It was such an honor. He wrote an entirely different character for me Season 2 and the idea is to keep that tradition as long as the show continues. Brandon, besides being a genuine sweetheart, is a visionary and, I think, a genius. His show is a colorful, twisted miasma. I highly recommend it. The cast and crew are top notch, too.
What do you find most challenging about your career? The most challenging part of being an actor, for me, is keeping sharp and keeping the faith, between roles. It’s so easy to take temporary career lulls personally. It’s important to stay focused and ambitious, but also to nurture a full life outside of the craft.
How do you stay inspired? Music is a big inspiration for me. I love to make it and listen to it, and dance to it. Also, drag queens. I’ll know I’ve “made it” when I’m a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race (and when I have a crystal chandelier that throws rainbows on every surface.) If I’m feeling sluggish while writing, incense is helpful, as is watching Dorothy Loudon perform “Miss Hannigan” on the 1977 Tonys. Nature is also a big inspiration. Right now there are all these dragonflies flying outside my kitchen window. They look so happy and jubilant. Our world is changing so fast, with technology. It's really nice to see these dragonflies are still out there doing their thing, and none of them seem to care about social media. Translated into "she sees", Elle Sees [NYC]'s digital platform is a curated guide to culture and lifestyle --what are your must haves for productivity? What gets your juices flowing? Since I work from home a lot, writing, it can be easy to fall into a sweats and hair up mode, but sometimes a nice lipstick can energize me, even if I’m the only one who sees it. I’m digging smoothies made with Vega-One protein and matcha powder, and I love having a crystals and gemstones in my environment, as well. I picked up a lot of incredible quartz pieces when I was in North Carolina. I display them atop a cake stand, like confections. Their presence provides wonder and perspective. What advice do you have for those aspiring to break into the acting world?
Make stuff you love. Don’t wait for the work to come to you. Also, unless a project really seems busted, say “yes.” You never know who you’ll meet. Have fun. Be brave.
What are you most proud of/your most satisfying accolade thus far? I was really proud of myself when I wrote, produced and directed “Pimp My Rascal.” I’d written it, and was waiting to find a third party to buy it, when I had the “aha” moment to just do it myself. I shot it in Boca Raton, FL at a senior living complex called “Century Village.” The cast had a median age of 80-something, and it was an absolutely incredible experience. It debuted in the “Los Angeles Comedy Shorts Festival” and the seniors of “Century Village” were as thrilled as I was. Someday, I’d like to find the footage from the auditions, held at their clubhouse. There’s some classic stuff there.
What can we expect from you in the future? You can expect more of my own brainchildren, so to speak. I have some new characters in mind, and they all have minds of their own, so expect to go along for their rides.
Words to live by? Champions play hurt. Whether your coffee has kicked in, or it hasn’t, you better put yo back into it! Also, to quote RuPaul, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love someone else? Can I get an ‘Amen’ up in here?” Love big! One thing most people don't know about you? I’m a Deadhead. I still sometimes sleep with my childhood stuffed animal, a seal named SeaBee. I believe eating butter makes your hair shiny.
(Photography by Isaac Sterling)
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