Queer Corner is a new segment we’re introducing on this blog, designed to focus on the intersection on the venn diagram between LGBT+ individuals and representation and theatre. For our debut article, I sat down with Jessie Shelton at a McNally Jackson in Manhattan and chatted with her about everything from the largest land mammal she thinks she could take in a fight to the importance of being true to yourself in 2018.
(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Who is Jessie Shelton?
"So, you are an actress? Is that how you would define yourself?"
"Yeah! Predominantly an actor. I'm also a musician, and I found myself in my performances using a lot of my music. Actor/musician shows, stuff like that. I've also started writing more music and collaborating with a lot of people in that regard. I grew up starting in music, started playing violin at a very young age, and then was a dancer for several years in a conservatory program, and then found theatre later on, going into high school."
"So you're like a triple threat! You can do it all!"
"Yeah, a triple threat! And music on top of it. But yeah, actor predominantly an actor."
"Where are you from?"
"I'm from Minneapolis, Minnesota originally."
"Do you miss Minnesota?"
"Yeah! In parts. I miss the lakes. It's a really fantastic place, lots of green spaces, so it's different from here. Yeah, it's a beautiful city. There's a lot going on, the arts are very expansive there- visual arts, music, theatre. But I'm also glad that I opened the door when I got out of college so I knew that that was a possibility for me, because I could have stayed there, and I knew that I needed to strike out on my own. It's a good place to be from, and I like visiting."
"Where did you go to college?"
"I went to Carnegie Mellon for musical theatre and that's in Pittsburgh, so I spent four years there. And that was great, although I was mainly in the drama building, and that's a great city, and then I moved here afterwards!"
"What's something that not a lot of people know about you that you want people to know?"
"I do find that people learn more about me with each piece I work on, and honestly sometimes they surprise me with what they find out about me that I'm not aware of! I love animals. I wanted to be a librarian growing up initially, and so my love of books maybe stems from an early love of wanting to be a librarian and help people check in and check out books. And I love languages, I wish I got to explore the language aspect more in theatre."
"What is one of your biggest personal achievements along those lines of 'This isn't going to come up at a party unless I bring it up, but I might, because I want you to know that I did this'?"
"Well, something that definitely marked a big shift in my life at a time that was already a shift was that I was in a horrible car accident when I was eighteen, and I broke my back, and so I had to defer a year from school and it's not that it was, I guess, a conscious thing because I had no choice but to heal, but I think coming back from that, at that time, marked a pretty big achievement in my life. And the fact that life happens to us and we take it in stride and we have the capacity to bounce back from an amazing amount of things- trauma, difficulty. The ups and downs. So that's not something that I necessarily bring up, but it's a big thing! You often find other people have undergone huge things in their lives and you might not know it, you might not see it, but you get a sense of it, but we have so much depth to us when you start talking to people and they choose to open up, then you also learn more about them and their stories, so it's kind of an odd thing but that."
"What's the largest land mammal you think you could take in a fight?"
"Largest land mammal I think I could take in a fight?! In reality, or in my dreams?"
"Both, let's go with both."
"I'm gonna go with giraffe? Because I feel like that would be a pretty impressive Mortal Kombat moment with the long neck and the tall legs."
"Is that something you dream about? Fighting a giraffe?"
"No. I actually don't think about fighting giraffes, because they're delightful. I also recently auditioned for a show and there was a whole little monologue about the mating rituals of the hippopotamus which also got me thinking… I guess that's a water animal, though. That would be an interesting one."
Why are we talking to her for Queer Corner?
"How do you identify?"
"I identify as a queer woman."
"How long have you known that about yourself?"
"I've always been very open about stuff, but for a long time I considered myself straight, and when I was 21 I was studying in Bulgaria, and I met a woman and we started seeing other and she had a really profound impact on me and that was when I really started to explore my own sexuality, and stuff like that. But I grew up with a lot of queer/gay friends, and just didn't necessarily think about it for myself, but wasn't necessarily opposed to the idea. And so then when I was in college, I started sort of using the term "pansexual" because for me it's always been about the person, whether they're a man, woman, trans, anywhere on the spectrum. And I think queer sort of encompasses my sexuality and my lifestyle the most, in one word, I guess, so that's what I use."
"What do you think is the importance of being true to yourself and true to that part of yourself, in this day and age? For yourself or for others who are looking up to you as an example?"
"I think, from my own background, it's not always a bad thing, but I think there are a lot of ideas circulating in our society about what we are supposed to do, or what we're supposed to look for, or what we should be or not be, and I think for myself, because I have a sexual fluidity, the way that I grew up was totally fine, and respect to that. Having two straight parents who are still together, of having this very traditional model, if you will, of what life was like, sent me down a certain path, just because that's what I saw growing up, so that's just kind of what I followed, and it wasn't until way later down that I realized there were more options. Some people know from the beginning that they're only interested in this kind of person, and that's fine! But for me it's really important to listen to yourself and follow your curiosities, and if you are really drawn to a person, it may not be sexual, or it may be! I think giving yourself space to to explore that, and not cutting yourself off because you think you "shouldn't", because I came into myself a lot more as my own person once I started opening up in that way. And like I said, it's not for everyone! A woman may know she's only interested in women from birth, and that's also beautiful! And a lot of times, definitely the models you see, like the books you've read or the Disney movies you've grown up on, just, those things get ingrained without us being completely aware of it, and I continue to check in with myself every day, because no one knows you like you, hopefully, will come to know yourself over the course of your life."
"So, I look up to you as someone who is out and more or less proud, so how does that make you feel, to know that you are a role model for a younger person?"
"It's wonderful! There's been so many people that I look up to, actors, who in the end make such horrible comments about how people should stay in the closet because it'll affect what roles they're up for, and I think that's bullshit, because not only do we need more role models, we need to see more people just being who they are fully in the world, and realize that that's the beauty of what we do, we can transform into a lot of different things, or not, depending on what you want to do. We've hid for too long. People in all walks of life, you know, also it's unto each person. People need to know that they can be who they are, they can make their own decisions, but, that being said, I've had a lot of conversations with my wife that there is a responsibility, in 2018 in particular, that if you are part of certain communities, I think it's important that you speak out about that. Like… I mean, for awhile as I was trying to figure out my identity, I wouldn't necessarily go into it with people? It was kind of as if we started talking about it, I would bring it up, but because I was so new to it and having a lot of friends who had been apart of the queer or gay community - however they choose to identify it- for a long time, I felt like I wasn't fully a part of it, and was kind of like a poser, and also because I have more fluidity in my sexuality, but because everyone has a different place, a different approach, different things they find most important, and I think we all need to be open about that and speak about it, because there are so many people that can't find the words, or don't feel safe to express themselves in that way, and the more they see people out in the world, living their lives fully, hopefully they can look to those people, or even find those people and talk to them, and find a lifeline in that way. It's also confusing sometimes, living in New York, because you've got a very, for lack of a better word, progressive and open and liberal outlook towards sexuality, but it's not like that everywhere, and there are still horrific things that happen here, in this day and age, and violence against people that are different, but it still is so much better here than it is in so many places of the country. I don't even fully realize that, because I happened to grow up in a very supportive environment, so I didn't necessarily see the animosity towards queer people, but it's still happening, and I think that living in big cities and metropolitan areas, we can sometimes forget that those violences are still very much a reality. By talking about it, but being open about who I am, I hope that I can make others feel safe in being open about who they are, and also that it's constantly fluctuating! Your answer may be different tomorrow than it is today, and that's okay, too! So yeah, hearing that I am a role model is really amazing, and I hope that I can support people by coming into themselves just by living my life as fully as possible."
"I have a niece now, who's one year old, and that has me thinking, too, in terms of wanting to buy picture books or stories. Things where I'm like 'What did I grow up with? What was I told?' and it's really, I find myself being very picky about the narratives, because it's one thing to be like 'Oh, I loved this story growing up!' but if that's a really intensely, like, heterosexual only storyline, even if it only about rabbits, like if I wanted to share that story with her, I equally want to have a story that represents the other end of the spectrum, like, you can have two moms, or you can have two dads, and so I'm like looking at all of that sort of literature and I'm completely blown away because I was like… very into books as a kid and reading, but I wonder if I was able to go back to that and see what stories I had, what the narratives were."
"How do you feel about LGBT representation being considered an adult theme?"
"It's very of this past generation. I have a friend who, for example, when she came out, her parents were very upset about it and had to go through coming to terms with it for themselves, and at one point were like 'Well, you have to tell your sister.' Her younger sister, and that was going to be a big deal, and so she sits down with her sister who is, I don't know how old at the time, but a kid, and is like 'I have something really important to tell her.' and she tells her, and then they keep talking about other stuff, and then her sister is like 'So what did you have to tell me?' It was like not a big deal at all, I think that's really generational and really funny in a not funny way because we have LGBT children in the world. Why don't we find ways of talking about it, instead of saying 'Oh, no no no. You're not ready for this yet.' Because we don't know. Just like our parents didn't know. We're all doing this for the first time. My brother just having this kid, he's a first time parent- but even my parents, they've never had, you know, a daughter my age before until this moment, because here I am. So we're all doing this for the first time. So I hope to see more LGBT literature, shows, subject matter and theme presented, from like, blocks to dissertations in this world. It's there, just like everything else. It's there like this color's purple. It doesn't start at any time, it just is."
What are some of Jessie's big dreams?
"What's your dream role? If you could play any role, and who are some dream costars for that role?"
"Dream role… Sometimes I like to say that it hasn't been written yet, because I really love to do new plays and am constantly surprised… I love when I'm able to come into a room with playwright friends of mine, and then they end up sort of… writing the character with me in mind, and therefore the growth is very collaborative. I've set myself a task, when I have time I come back to it, of reading a play a day and so in that way I'm trying to find more characters that have already been written that I love, but that's a really great question to answer, to be honest! I'd say I'm still sort of exploring that, and exploring writing my own material, and therefore… trying to push myself in further directions than ones I've already done, so I'll leave it at waiting to decide.
Dream people to work with? I really admire Ben Whishaw's career, although he's a man, a gay man, and I've been saying lately I want his career, but for me as a gay woman. Who else? … Some really fantastic people. I really admire Vanessa Curry. I've got a lot of greats on my list, she's fantastic, but I don't know if I want to be her or want to work with her. Probably both."
"What's a director you'd love to work with?"
"Director? Love Rachel Chavkin. Have worked with and would love to work with Leigh Silverman. Another one I've worked with is Jenn Thompson and I want to work with her immediately, as well. A lot of fantastic women are working right now. I've been fortunate to work with some of my favorites, but there are also so many film directors that I know nothing about and I actually was talking to a friend last night about some really fantastic film directors that I would love to work with. But yeah, that's a short list of three people I love!"
"If you could make the change to movies and TV, would you?"
"Not entirely, I don't think. I love theatre, and I love live performance in general. I'm actually learning how to love it in a new way, through doing other things, like performing music is very different from being in a play, and I love that you get to come back to it every time, and you're always trying again. Though I have little experience with TV and film, so I'm not sure how that beast works, I may try and find it'll speak to me more, but I think I'll always want to come back to the stage."
What else do we know about Jessie?
"Out of all the roles you've played so far, which was your favorite?"
"Okay, well… There have been a handful, but most recently I just played a socialite in 1920s England, and her world is opening up, she's seeing beyond the four walls of how she was brought up, and sort of finding love along the way, and it was a really fun role to take on! The privileged classes don't give a shit about anyone else, and you have to have the confidence to do that, as an actor? And so that was a good step for me to take. It was also the first straight play that I've done in awhile, and I'm the kind of person who's doing five things at a time, which is good, but I love it when I can just focus on one thing! I really got to dive into her. It was a Miles Malleson play called Conflict, down at the Mint Theatre. So that was a favorite, partly also because of the cast and the crew. Was just a fantastic production all around! I miss them all. Another role I've loved was, I was a fate in Hadestown, which is a new musical by Änais Mitchell, it's continuing it's journey, they're going to London next, but that was fantastic because that was a singing/acting/dancing/playing violin role! So that was the opposite end of my performative spectrum, of doing a million things at once, and also a fantastic team all around."
"Out of all of the roles you've played, which is the closest to who you are, and which is the farthest away from who you are?"
"Let's see… I just played a role, one show ago, that was a new play, and the character was a young 20-something gay woman who was helping out her best friend, whose grandmother was coming to dinner, pretending to play straight, and while that part may not apply to me, that's closest in age and I was just kind of playing myself, except my major happened to be economics instead of theatre, or whatever, but that was pretty close to me! I just brought myself to the table. And then farthest from me... Actually in that same play, I also played the grandmother! We all did and so we had to go back and forth between the two, so that's an example in one show! I did another play in college that was, I was in a reinvented Noh, like Japanese Noh, play, but brought into the Americana context of like, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, and that was the farthest in the sense that it was a really emotionally distraught courtesan, basically. Then, closest to me… I played sort of another emotionally distraught teenager who was going through a really emotional moment and started seeing demons and stuff. So that's close and far at the same time."
"Do you prefer plays or musicals?"
"Currently plays. In my professional career, here in New York, I've done mainly musicals or highly experimental plays that had music, so I feel like I've had a lot of different experience with that, and I love it! But I find that I really love working on straight plays and if I need to do music, I can do that on the side. I have so many great friends I can hit up and be like "Hey, let's make something!" when I miss music, so that balance is important to me, but I want to do more plays, for sure."
"What is one of the most important lessons you learned at Carnegie, whether it be a formal lesson, or an informal one?"
"I think informally I like to say that beyond everything else, I majored in flying by the seat of my pants, the confidence and wherewithal to jump into anything, and just ride the wave has been really important for me, whether it's in performance or in auditions, I love cold reading and so that idea to get something and just go through the process and just go for it… Thinking too much can definitely be an enemy of mine, so that's an idea that I put into process just about every day."
"What's something that you didn't learn until later in life that you felt like ‘I should have learned this in college.’?"
"How to do taxes. That's a big one. To be honest, finances in general were a surprise to me in the way that there's really no prep. I remember learning how to write a check in, God, must have been seventh or eighth grade? And then after that, there was like, nothing, unless you opted to take a course, but when I was in college, our classes were pretty much laid out for us, and yeah, especially as an artist, I think that being able to know how your taxes work and your finances work is really important, because freelancing is such a wild game. So yeah, I really wish I had learned them."
"Some people get a role and then they are in it for, like, the rest of time, but you said you had been in Cruel Intentions for three months and wanted to do something new, so is that common for you?"
"No, I've never left a production early. The last production I left early was when I had my car accident, and we had half done half of the shows. So that was a bizarre feeling, too, because the sense of closure is not really there and you have to sort of undertake that feeling of closure on your own, which is why I'm really glad I got to back to see it, the last show, and then be with everyone there! So I got to have closure in the end. But no, I do think that I'm very fortunate that I've been in productions that have extended, or that have been one offs, so I always love that I've been able to move from show to show. I definitely think I can be a little ADHD- to unofficially use that term- in terms of always wanting something new, and to meet new people, but I could also see myself in a long running show."
"So, what's next for you?"
"I'm doing some readings coming up, and auditioning, I have a show at Rockwood coming up with a dear friend of mine, so I'll be writing the music for that and collaborating with him, but other than that, TBD, you know. Some of the shows are getting full productions, so we'll see what comes of that if I'm still going to be involved or onto something new. My last show ended mid-July, and since then, I've been back into the pool to see what happens. Which is fun and exciting, but also really sad, because I missed that production, but also exciting."
What are Jessie Shelton's last words to us?
"I just recently started going to therapy, and I want to advocate that to everyone, whatever form that might take. It could just be sitting by a lake or sitting on a bench, meditating for a period of time, or whatever, but I think… I don't want people to feel a stigma about taking care of yourself. Going back to what I said originally about checking in with yourself and going back to yourself because it's really important, even the people who love you and give you feedback about how you're doing and try to help you when you're talking through stuff, they're coming from their perspective. And it's really important that as much as one can, you spend time with yourself. And that can be hard! Especially when it seems like that's not helpful, I think we have ups, we have downs, we go back and forth, we can have anxiety or feel like the world is just a big bubble of joy. I'm hit with a thousand things a day and so I think, just trying to be patient with ourselves and listen through the worst of times and the best of times, writing or listening to music or making music or whatever to give yourself a pace to be with yourself is really important, and I think that's a great first step but if we all encourage each other to do that, that can lead to better understanding of ourselves and others. But that's really important."
"To each their own. At the end, you do what's best for you."
(Photo credit Molly Norman.)