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Life and Work with Jessica Harris

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jessica Harris.

Jessica, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I knew I wanted to be an actress in the third grade when I was cast as a small-speaking role in a school play, but that was all it took. I liked the idea of getting to be a million different people and living a million different lives, telling a million different stories. No matter how small or how big, every role excited me. And as I got older, I learned the humility of watching others succeed, from the sidelines, offering to help on the technical side just to be a part of it all. I studied the Meisner method of acting both at UNCSA and Columbus State University (and a third time here in Atlanta at Get Scene Studios). And it was in school that I saw myself and other women scrambling over each other for scraps, as far as well-written roles for women were concerned. I saw the politics of the acting world and decided to take my fate into my own hands.

At the urging of my novelist aunt, Pam Harris, I started writing stories about women, and people, that interested me, about complex characters and undefinable emotions. I started developing the writing phase of my career as I entered the first of many different jobs in the film industry. As my knowledge of film-making grows, it nourishes my love of all of its aspects. I love the cinematography, the casting, the sound mixing, the editing. After falling into the role of producer (often on top of already acting) on friends’ indie projects, I’ve learned that my creativity can’t be bound to just one aspect of art.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
No matter what job you have or how submissive you try to be, there will be people that will try to tear you down. I once cried to my parents, confused about why people who weren’t even in competition with me would spread lies to try to blacklist me. I would distance myself from opportunities as a sign of good faith to other women who wanted them, but the rumors didn’t stop. They still haven’t. My parents suggested that I grow colder, that I close myself off and give them nothing to talk about. They advised I stifle my friendliness, that I strategize my conversations; this is a battlefield, after all. But that isn’t me. I decided to risk it and go the complete opposite direction.

I’ve embraced my energy, and excitement, and the consequences. I put my foot in my mouth, I make friends with everyone, and weirdly enough, I’m an open book. It’s hard to spread lies about me when everyone already knows the story. In return, I’ve made invaluable friendships and connections with people who love my ideas and my passion. I’ve received more grace for my mistakes and miscommunications than most people are afforded in this industry. Not just because people like who I am, but more people understand my intentions and my heart. They know that I’m not just out here for myself, but for the team. So, however you need to carve that path for yourself, I think the best way is to embrace yourself wholeheartedly and put it on display for all to see. The toxic people will fall by the wayside.

Please tell us about your work.
Due to having no connections to the industry and no knowledge of how to get started, my first on-set job was doing background work (you know, the non-speaking people in the background of a scene that ruins it for me every time a show I’m watching shows a giant crowd or army and for the entirety of the scene I think of how difficult that day of filming must have been). I loved it, at first, and met people that are my closest friends to this day, but I wasn’t involved enough. I hated having to sit idly by as everyone else ran around all day. My path went from background to being a stand-in (a replacement for the actor during set-up) to photo double (a replacement for the actor on camera) to a set dresser (a glorified mover and underappreciated interior decorator) to a production assistant.

As PA’s, we assist in all aspects of on set production. We are the runners, the coffee makers, the bell ringers. But we are also the ones who get cast through hair/makeup/wardrobe and get them miked and on set. We check-in the crowds of background and send them through the same process and direct them on set. We provide radio equipment and distribute paperwork to the entire crew, that we later collect and file for the office. We are the front line of communication and safety. We don’t sit down, we’re in with the earliest of the crew and out with the latest, and we make the lowest payment on the crew. But it’s hard to describe the feeling I have after a long day of hard work with a good team after pulling off what seemed impossible. And we do it again and again.

I’m inspired daily by the people I work with, in every department. I learn from witnessing the good and the bad. I see firsthand how ego or money can affect a crew and thus an entire production. I have front row seats to A-list actors doing multiple takes of a scene. My love of the entire process makes it hard for me to get grinded down, even when it gets hard. And that attitude made up for my lack of experience in the beginning and now gives me an edge. My boss’ nickname for me on Venom was “Sunshine.”

Right now, I’m trying to move over to assist producers. I’ve seen how the sausage is made but I need to learn how to raise the pig… or whatever that metaphor extends to.

Which women have inspired you in your life? Why?
My mother inspired me to be who I am. She was a young, single mother for most of my formative years and raised us with a little help from a small community. They were her friend-group of punks in their late twenties who pierced their faces in front of my sister and me and tattooed each other on the couch but squirmed at the sight of my loose tooth. She taught us to love people for who they were, like Christ. She always stopped to help people, whether it was taking the time out of her day to buy meals for homeless people she passed or letting troubled kids stay with us for months at a time when things got hard. We had an open door to the needy, we fostered animals, and we listened and danced to Tracy Chapman. My mother and her friends encouraged my sister and me to be loud and goofy and unafraid of what people thought. She is the foundation of who I am.

As our country has grown more divisive and our media’s bellies have yellowed, I’ve found a lot of women who inspire me with their knowledge, grace, bravery, strategy, and empathy. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Michelle Obama, Bree Newsome, Emma Gonzalez, and Sarah Kendzior to name a few. The leaders of the biggest political movements today are mostly women and women organized the biggest protest in American history in 2017 and scored the #2 spot with their anniversary parade in 2018. I’m constantly inspired by women of all ages who stand their moral ground and are based in truth and compassion.

My main career inspiration growing up was Tina Fey. She writes, directs, acts, and makes me cry from laughing. 30 Rock is my favorite sitcom and I re-watch it once a year or so, still finding new jokes every time. As a filmmaker, I love Sofia Coppola and am particularly touched by all the work of Miranda July, who has a special place in my heart. Acting-wise, I’m inspired by Juno Temple. With a long-standing successful career as an indie darling, she chooses original and often surreal scripts and has proven to me that she can play any role given with a stunningly vulnerable honesty. I’m also inspired by the surge of women finally in the driver’s seat in the industry. Ava Duvernay, Issa Rae, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Lena Waithe, Frankie Shaw, and despite her problematic opinions, Lena Dunham. I’m going to run my own production company where I can write, act, maybe even direct, while helping other people to create their own art.

Oh! A24 studios as a WHOLE is an inspiration to me and what I want my company to be. I love the films they make and their marriage to originality in scripts, direction, and cinematography. Just gorgeous work. UGH! So, whatever women are over there, I love you and you’re amazing.

Contact Info:

  • Email: legendarydarlingprods@gmail.com
  • Instagram: @jessiexthexmess

Image Credit:
Jessica Harris

Getting in touch: VoyageATL is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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