Jenness Rouse is a singer, actress, and writer, and a "Creative Communicator," who has traversed the Entertainment Spectrum from Opera, to Broadway, to Print, Commercials, and finally Film, TV, and Public Speaking. Texas born, NYC bred, and LA based, Jenness continues to present stories about "life's realities" with a "Pollyanna Optimism" to inspire laughter and delight as we all face this world head on.
Her latest project, "Becca on Call" is about Becca C. Johnson, aspiring writer, agrees to work as a Part-Time “Temp” Nurse Assistant (NA) for her Dad at his new medical clinic in exchange for an "allowance" so she can focus on her writing. But Becca soon discovers: there's nothing part-time or “temp” about nurse anything. We had the pleasure of speaking to Jenness regarding the making of her film.
What was the inspiration behind the making of " Becca on Call?
The inspiration for Becca on Call, or "BoC" as we cast and crew call it, was necessity. When I first moved to Los Angeles from New York City, I had JUST transitioned from the world of Broadway and theater to the “silver screen” and was bumbling my way through trying to get a handle on the whole "film genre" of the entertainment industry. I discovered that I needed to create a better "demo reel" than what I had, and as I began seeking ways to accomplish that, I landed a position at a Demo Reel Production Studio, which proved to be the absolute best on-the-job “Film School” Education I could have ever had! I learned the entire process of film production, from pitch, to storyboard, to casting, to production, to post (etc. etc), and it was here that I learned how to write scenes, produce them, and edit demo reels together. After working there about 3-4months, I could begin updating my demo reel as I had originally set out to do, and wrote a comedic scene about a Nurse Assistant, Becca C. Johnson. I chose the subject of the Nurse because I happened to have a Nurse Costume leftover from the brief extra work I did in NYC. The scene had no real "backstory" to it - just something funny for me to put on my reel.
It wasn't until much later that more of the story developed. An industry acquaintance watched the scene, and was so impressed with the writing, that he wanted to know if there was more to the show. When he learned it was a single scene, he strongly suggested I consider writing more to the story, and that is how the concept of "Becca on Call" emerged.
Your film is a medical comedy. What is the most challenging aspect of making a comedy genre?
Honestly, I don't find comedy challenging, in fact, I find it automatic. I see the world in a comedic light - I always have. It's almost this subconscious "worldview" where my "go to" response to situations is to laugh; where most people might swear, or scream or hit something, I am more likely to giggle, chuckle, or "guffaw" (lol), and I'm much happier for it, to be sure.
Moreover, for as long as I can remember, I have ALWAYS sought ways to make others laugh, not because I wanted them to like me, but rather I wanted to make them feel better. One of my earliest memories was when I was in kindergarten, and there was this shy kid (we all know the scene) being dropped off by "Mommy" and NOT ok with it, having a meltdown, crying till his face was red and wet with his tears. I remember how it made me so sad seeing him cry, so I went over in my determined 5year old way, boldly introducing myself and summarily exploding into 5yr old disruptive "silliness" that got me into trouble. As I was pulled aside and receiving an earful of scolding from “Mrs. M,” I looked back at the boy, and to my delighted satisfaction, his little tear-stained face was all lit up with a huge grin from ear to ear as he giggled and rubbed one of his teary eyes dry. That was how I was – I saw some kid left out, sitting alone, or crying, and I’d go over and find ways to make them laugh.
So, to answer the question, comedy is not difficult for me, it’s how I see the world, and it’s what drives me in my way to encourage others. Truth be told, I think I would find drama far more challenging simply because my go to is "fun" and "light" and "childlike," which makes "getting into the severe space" a little more difficult. I can “do it” it’s just not my “go to.”
And as for the challenges I might face with comedy, the only real challenge would be if I were presented with an audience that doesn’t particularly like my style of “comedy” (i.e., doesn’t laugh). But, the remedy to that situation would simply be to find a different audience who will laugh and all will be well.
When did you realize that you wanted to work in media and make films and what was the first film project that you created as a director?
When I was 18, I was cast as the lead in the Fall Musical, A Little Night Music, a role I didn’t audition for and in an elective I had no interest in pursuing further than the easy “A” I was “supposed” to get for just “showing up.” I was an athlete and an academic, High Honor Roll in my grades and Starting Varsity Player in sports, with aspirations of college athletics in a Division 1 School. But somehow, someone decided that, since I was one of the Choir Seniors, I was the perfect candidate for the lead character, Desiree Armfeldt; and once I was cast, I couldn’t exactly “quit” and expect to get my “A,” so I trudged on through the rehearsals and enduring the embarrassing side effects of my stage-fright and performance phobia. However, everything changed the minute I took the stage and sang Send in the Clowns in our Opening Night Performance; something "sparked" within me and a new side of me emerged, this “performer” I didn’t know was there. That was when I hesitantly began dreaming of pursuing an entertainment career, and by the spring of that year, I was envisioning one day going to Hollywood to start a film acting career. But life has a way of spinning in circles and it wasn't for another 5years before I could actually take steps into the world of entertainment … in opera, ironically, which happens to be the polar opposite of Film/TV. Eventually, I landed in the Film world as I had originally planned, but it was a roundabout way of doing it.
As to filmmaking, the desire to "make" films was never a really goal. It became a necessity when I realized in the early stages of my film career that sometimes to get anywhere in today's film industry, you have to either pitch yourself or produce yourself. And I found that, while pitching is a valid method, if you have a competitive reel with “famous faces” in the lineup, it is difficult to get into those roles if you don’t have the agency or studio connections, which is often the case for “new faces.” Nevertheless, it didn’t stop me from trying, and I was in the process of attempting to build a competitive Demo Reel when the other option of “self-production” presented itself out of the blue (as I mentioned in a previous answer). I had no intention of going this route, but once I was offered a small sponsorship to "do something with the character” in my Demo Reel Scene, I found myself in the first stages of producing my very first project, Becca on Call, the focus of this interview.
You are also the star of your film. Tell us about acting and directing at the same time and what you think about the process?
This question is kind of funny to me. I didn't think about it. Truth be told, throughout the shoot, I didn't even feel like we were doing a "real production." I mean, don't get me wrong, it was a real legitimate SAG/AFTRA licensed project, with all the certifications and paperwork attached, as well as a line budget, set, crew, cast, writing, wardrobe, makeup, director/DP, props, etc.; but in the process of it all - it just felt like I was doing some kind of school project, or even those "make believe" play-times I used to do with my brother and our friends in childhood. Growing up, our playtimes were these elaborate “adventures,” where we would "make believe" some epic dramatic story in the backyard, and sometimes even dress up and get my Dad to film it on his camcorder. For HOURS, we'd all be excitedly “imagining” things we could do to make the story better, or what our character should do in each situation, and act it out accordingly. Similarly, that's how the set of BoC was. I ran the set as the leader, but always appreciated and encouraged creative suggestions and input, akin to those backyard playtimes, so the BoC Set felt like I was in the backyard all over again, just with a lot more people (and equipment).
In short, the production process of BoC didn't feel "real" to me, so that's probably why, on the subject of directing/acting in the film, I just didn't (and don't) think about it. I was so busy running around - getting everyone in their wardrobe, to the makeup station, checking the budget to see what else we could buy, building the set pieces and props, asking friends/contacts if we could borrow or use their location for one of the scenes, driving our cast/crew (who were all my friends) to the different places we'd film, having my parents join in the fray offering to carpool and coordinate craft services (graciously provided by some of our local restaurants), that “acting” wasn’t much a thought. I was so distracted by my efforts to ensure everything was running smoothly and everyone was having fun, that I didn't pay much attention to my performance. It was a lot of work, but it was "easy" in that it felt like we were just "messing around." Even in the editing room and coloring stages, it had all the earmarks of how I'd "finesse" a school project or those fun “skits” we’d do, not “as if” I was in a “professional setting” (though that was the case).
When you're working with friends, it doesn't feel like work, and it wasn't until festivals started to pick it up and awards began to appear that it hit me that this production was the "real thing." I think that now that I know what production actually feels like when I'm at the helm, I can better "focus" more "intentionally" on my acting performance in future, but then again, I wouldn’t change the fun and “levity” of how we ran the set. And with the acting awards I’ve won for the role, it looks like I managed to bring a solid performance, whether intentionally or not.
What genre of filmmaking fascinates you as a director and which genres do you prefer to work on?
In truth, I wouldn't say that I'm particularly "fascinated" by any genre as a "director." In fact, I don't really "see" myself as a "director." As I said previously, my inspiration for filmmaking began primarily out of necessity; my first project blossomed out of my need for a comedic scene in my ACTING Demo Reel, and I have been straddling that line of producer/actress ever since.
I will say that I do produce far more comedy than anything else; my most successful projects, the TV Pilot, Becca on Call (my very first project), and my most recent project, the Quarantine Web Series, "The Shannon O'Brian Chronicles," created during the 2020 pandemic shutdowns, are both comedies and have both won awards for being so. However, comedy seems to "bleed" through all my independently produced projects: even my live musical/stage shows contain some kind of comedic element to them. I wouldn't say the comedy focus has anything to do with my fascination with the genre, but rather how I see the world (as I said previously). It's more natural for me to create comedy or add comedic elements to a typically "non comedic" genre, simply because of who I am in my core.
As for what I prefer to work on; it depends. As an actress, my favorite genres are comedy, musicals, police procedurals, even epic fantasy/sci-fi (like Marvel/Lord of the Rings/Star Wars) and adventure (such as Jumanji/National Treasure/Pirates). As a producer, I suppose you could say comedy is a preference in addition to live stage musicals ... but these are also the only projects I have actually worked on as a filmmaker, so it’s hard to judge at this point in my career.
How can cinema change the world and have an impact on society?
Entertainment is one of the most influential "mountains" of society that shapes people's emotions, beliefs, and passions. We give voice to the realities people face on a day-to-day basis; we also give them an escape from the woes they see in their worlds. We give them hope to believe that something better can happen (a "happy ending"); and we also educate them with biopics and retellings of fairy tales and true tales long forgotten. But most influentially, people spend so much of their time watching our shows, getting involved with the characters, forming relationships with the show itself as well as with other fans, and with all this time focusing on and absorbing our entertainment into their minds and social lives, there is no doubt that what they’re focusing on is inevitably shaping how they think, whether they realize it or not.
As filmmakers, we have a heavy responsibility with the images we put out there for the world to see - it behooves us to be intentional with our entertainment, not just throw things out there for the almighty dollar, but to consider, "what is the message we are saying?" even if the message is merely, "I want them to laugh;” "laughter is good medicine," and thereby your comedy can lift a person's spirits and give them strength or a better night's sleep. It could be, "I want to make a difference in this injustice," just as actor, Don Cheadle, discussed when he joined the film Hotel Rwanda (2004), wanting to bring attention to Hutu/Tutsi massacre that few in the Western world had even heard about.
But above all, I believe it is imperative that our messages we produce are audience centered, rather than filmmaker centered. Why? We're not creating something for us to watch by ourselves. Every performance needs an audience, and you have to be aware of the audience to whom you're performing. A leader is not a leader unless he is followed; a general is no general without an army; likewise, a film is not much of a film if there is no one to watch it. Without an audience, a film becomes merely a video file that takes up memory in a database. We are reliant on audiences to purchase tickets and watch what we put out there, so it behooves us to likewise honor those, who invest in our product, respecting us enough to say, "your show is worth this amount of my time, my resources, and my attention." They won’t get those moments back, so let’s make those moments worthwhile. Moreover, our images are going into these people, so let's give them images that have a positive influence that takes them back into their worlds better than were before they ever saw them.
What is your next film project as a director?
My "next" film project is my current one. I'm having a BLAST with my little Quarantine Web Series, “The Shannon O'Brian Chronicles”, which has won Best Web Series, Best Parody, Best Comedy, Best Microfilm, and even Best Actress in Film Festivals worldwide. Not sure what doors it will open, but this little fun "Mobile" Film is really a hitting the “right notes” for people during this pandemic crisis. And the character itself has a lot of flexibility as to what I can do with "her,” so skies the limit as to where she will go in future.