Through the years, Jean Louisa Kelly has become a familiar face in both the worlds of film and television. A constant thread running through her career has been her love of music. A native of Central Massachusetts, Jean Louisa Kelly began her career in New England, performing in community theatre and playing the title role in “Annie” in summer stock at Theatre by the Sea in Matunuck, Rhode Island. She studied voice, ballet, tap dance and jazz dance as a child and got her big break when she was 14 years old, moving to New York City to play Snow White in the original Broadway cast of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.”
When she was 17, she broke into the movie business with her portrayal of Tia, the bratty teenage niece opposite John Candy in John Hughes’ “Uncle Buck.” After shooting she took time off to earn a BA in English at Columbia College in New York City.
Upon graduating, she was cast as the young songstress Rowena Morgan opposite Richard Dreyfuss in “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” She subsequently played Luisa opposite Joe McIntyre and Joel Grey in the film version of “The Fantasticks,” enabling her to practice her musical theatre skills on the big screen at a time when few musical movies were being made. She married in 1997 and moved to the west coast to star in the NBC dramedy “Cold Feet.” The show was short-lived, but she quickly made a deal with CBS resulting in six years of playing the smart and sassy Kim Warner in the long running sitcom “Yes, Dear.”
During her years on “Yes, Dear,” Kelly had a son, and became a working mother, bringing him to the set every day. Shortly after the show ended, she gave birth to her daughter and in due course devoted herself to motherhood, taking guest star roles, short-term movie commitments, and continuing to perform onstage at benefits and cabarets.
While rearing her children, Kelly made her first foray into musical composition with her album “Color of Your Heart,” which was inspired by Marlo Thomas’ “Free to Be, You and Me.” Produced by Heather Reid, it is a group of original songs for kids of all ages that is an expression of feelings, solutions and the process of growing up. She was also moved to write “Don’t Give Up,” while working on the film “1000 to 1: The Corey Weissman Story,” about a young stroke survivor who overcame incredible odds. This past Christmas season, she reimagined “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” putting her own spin on an old classic with producer Peter Adams.
In the Spring of 2015, Jean unveiled her most ambitious musical project to date, a new EP titled “Willing.” The EP is a showcase of original songs about growth, transformation and intimacy. Her strong vocal performance is something one would expect from a seasoned broadway artists such as Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth. ‘Willing’ offers music fans a taste of what this multi-faceted artist has to offer in the years to come!
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Jean Louisa Kelly to discuss her journey in the entertainment industry, her love of music, what lead her to breathing life into her powerful EP and what the future might hold for her in the realm of music!
Through the years, you became a familiar face in the worlds of film and television. What got you started on your career in the entertainment industry?
I started in musical theater when I was a child. I was actually a child actor! I started with dance class and it developed into full plays. I started to do community theater when I was around 10 years old. Originally, I am from a small town in Massachusetts, a small town in New England. That is where I started doing community theater and then I did “Annie” in Summer Stock when I was 11 years old at Theater By The Sea in Rhode Island. I think that was my first professional experience, so that is where it started. I did stuff around New England and, when I was around 14, I was in a contest called “Talent America.” I won the ones in New England and I had to go to the finals in New York. The judges of that competition were agents and managers, so I got an agent when I was 14 years old. That was really great because it is really hard to get an agent. From there, I ended up auditioning for the original broadway cast of “Into The Woods,” which was back around 1988. I got that and I moved to New York for a year and I did “Into The Woods” on Broadway. After that, my family moved to Maryland and that is when I auditioned for “Uncle Buck.” I took the train up from Wilmington, Del. into the city to do the audition for “Uncle Buck” and that was my first film!
Directed by John Hughes and starring John Candy, obviously “Uncle Buck” was a big hit and has become a fan favorite. It being your first film, what impact did that have on you as a young actress?
That is a good question. It was a great experience and, at the same time, I really just wanted to have a normal life for a while. After doing that film, I kind of took a step back and wanted to go to high school and be a normal person in high school, although I am not sure how normal I was! [laughs] I went to college and I didn’t study acting. I actually got a BA in English. I think because I started so young, there has always been a tug-of-war inside me when it comes to going after my career and having the experiences that a non-professional would have. I did not go full-fledged after an acting career. It wasn’t until later that I decided, “Yeah, I think I want to do this again.” That is when I auditioned for “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and got back into it.
Music has always been a part of your life. What are some of your first musical memories and what drew you to musical theater and the like?
My mother is a piano teacher and I would definitely not of had the musical career that I have had without her influence. My entire family is very musical. My father plays the piano, just by ear. My sister plays the flute and my brother is an excellent drummer. The way I started singing was when my mother would play the piano, I would sing along. She taught me to read music. The songs that we sang were Broadway standards and the old standards like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Gershwin and all of the Broadway plays. That has had a huge impact on me in musical theater and how it started for me and it has taken off from there!
What kept you inspired as a creative person through the years and do you find yourself looking in any particular direction for inspiration?
You know, I would say the thing that has kept me the most inspired has been being a parent. I feel like I have had this major growth spurt as a human being with the development of my children. I have learned so much about life, people and myself just by being there and witnessing them grow and trying to guide them. Looking for wisdom in raising them makes me get really in touch with what is inside me.
That leads me to my next question. You have a new EP called “Willing.” What led you to this release?
The songs that I have written for this EP, some of them started when I was writing my previous album, which is a children’s album. That EP was my first attempt at composing, which I never knew was in the cards for me! From being a parent, I just started writing children’s music and was inspired by life situations with them. There were some other songs that sort of came to me and I felt weren’t necessarily appropriate for children’s audiences, so I sort of filed them away. I wrote a single for a movie I did a few years ago and other things have come to me. Finally, I realized it is not like I have to be good enough, it is just that I have to tell my truth. That is what I finally have the courage to do! [laughs] I feel like that is what this is, my expressing of what is going on with me at this point in time.
What can you tell us about your songwriting process and how it developed?
It is evolving. What has seemed to have happened is that I will get an idea by hearing something in my head and some words will come. I have realized that the key, for me, is to immediately record it. Thank God for iPhones! [laughs] I will record into the voice memo app on my iPhone and, when I get a chance, I will write down the chords. I am not a great pianist but I can write the chords and then write down the lyrics. That is how it comes to me! Over time, I will add things and finesse it a little bit.
For those who haven’t heard “Willing,” how would you describe your style and what they can expect?
I don’t know what genre it is. I will tell you this, I am inspired by Cyndi Lauper. I know I don’t sound like Cyndi Lauper but she was my favorite pop artist growing up. I am also inspired by musical theater. I have been told that there is a theatrical quality to the music.
When you started the creative process for this album, did you have goals or aspirations for this EP?
I had originally written a full album but then I decided to split it in half. This group of songs felt like they worked together in terms of tone. I have been asked over and over again for the past 15 years by fans on my website, “When are you going to put out an album?” I did put out the album of children’s music but this is my debut as myself. I am just testing the waters and we will see what people say!
That is great and I think the EP is very strong! It sounds like, with splitting the album in half, there is the potential for another release!
There is music on the way that is already written and it just has to be finished. That will be coming! I also wrote that single for the film and this past holiday season. I decided to record “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and I put that out. Now, it is possible to do this so easily because of modern technology. It’s not that hard! I can just put stuff out as it comes to me and as I have time.
Looking back on the process of putting together this EP, what was the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge for me has been this marketing stuff! [laughs] I don’t like it! I love writing the music, working with the musicians and recording it. The comping is time consuming and is a bit of a pain. Listening to myself can be horrifying sometimes! [laughs] However, it is very satisfying to have the sound inside of my head actually be out there. The marketing is a challenge though. I did not market my last album at all and I decided, this time, to give people a chance to know about it and it has been painful! [laughs] I am a private person! That is a big challenge for me! [laughs]
That is understandable! It can be difficult to put yourself out there. On a personal level, which of these songs resonates with you most right now?
“Willing,” which is the title track, is probably the closest to my heart. That one sort of colors the rest. “Lay Your World Down” is another one I feel really intensely about, along with “Butterfly.”
Do you see parallels between the way you approach your music and the way you bring a character to life?
That is an interesting question. I think with any character that I play, it is always me as that character. It is important to find the truth of that character and then it is just me. Someone else may be given the same lines or scenario and it would come through differently. It is really important to know where I am. I don’t think I could have created this music until I really started to become familiar with where I am personally and became more conscious of it. I do think as I have grown and become a mother, I am just more conscious of who I am, what I think, where I stand and what inspires me. That enables me to create in the same way as if I were given a situation or a character to play.
What should we be on the lookout from you in the short term?
I had a small part in a Yahoo series called “Sin City Saints” that came out a couple of weeks ago. It was a small part but the series is really funny. It is about a basketball team in Las Vegas. A bunch of things are happening at the same time! They just re-released “The Fantasticks” on Blu-ray! For fans of that film from long ago, it is now available in that format. I am also going to be finishing up the next group of songs. I am not sure when I will be finishing them but that is the next thing I will be focusing on musically.
Any chance we would see you in a live setting in support of this EP release?
I am not planning on it. The great thing about this for me has been that I have been able to do all of this work while my kids are at school. I pick them up in the afternoons. That is what has been really lovely because being an actor who is doing film and television, it is such a strange schedule. Particularly in film and television, you are gone. That part of my career has taken a back seat to motherhood. I am still active but really on the terms that I feel comfortable and pair well with my family life. Having spent so much of my life in the spotlight, as a kid in the early part of my career, I realize how quickly childhood goes and I really want to be with my kids while they are young.
What is the best lesson we might take away from your life and times in the industry?
I am still learning! [laughs] I guess a really important thing for me to know is how much I don’t know and that I am not alone. There are resources available and the possibility of connections. I think, for so long, I thought I had all of the answers and it is so great to know that I don’t! [laughs]
That is a great outlook to have! [laughs] We can all take a little something from that I am sure! Thank you so much for your time today, Jean! It has been a pleasure and I look forward to talking to you again soon!
Thank you so much, Jason! Talk to you soon!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.