Jessica Pohly may not yet be a household name but there is little doubt she soon will be. A multi-faceted performer, she takes on every day armed with an amazing skill set, incredible range and unrelenting drive. This star on the rise got her start taking on some of the most challenging material in the world of theater and, over the past several years, she has continued to blossom as an artist. Along the way, she found herself gravitating to even bigger projects in the worlds of film and television. Her recent credits include appearances on “Stalker,” “Rake,” “Modern Family,” “Super Fun Night,” “Bella and the Bulldogs” and “Welcome to the Family.” In 2016, you will be able to catch her in her most notable role to date, co-starring opposite Paul Reubens and Joe Manganiello, in “Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday.” In the highly anticipated film, Jessica shines as Pepper, head of an all-girls gang of bank robbers who doesn’t take crap from anyone, including Pee-Wee. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with her to discuss her journey as an actor, the challenges she has faced along the way, playing alongside the legendary Paul Reubens for the return of one of his most beloved characters and what the future may hold for this star on the rise!
You spent much of your life in front of an audience. How did you get involved with the arts early on?
I was privileged enough to grow up in New York City, so I saw a lot of theater and dance. I was constantly absorbing that kind of stuff. Also, New York is almost a theater in and of itself. I was exposed to the arts at a young age and was lucky to have that privilege.
At what point did you decide to pursue acting as a profession? Was there a moment that served as a jumping off point?
Yeah! At some point in high school, I did a production of “Three Sisters.” After opening night, I walked myself home across Central Park and said, “This is what I am doing!” It was just very clear to me because the experience of performing great works brought me such an incredible joy. It was a bit of a light bulb moment!
Who are some of people who had a big impact on you as an actor?
I would have to say, honestly, every great teacher I have ever had in any subject have had a big impact on me, even math which is not my thing! Great teachers throughout my life have definitely influenced my work as an actor, just in terms of a level of passion about what they do and how they see the world through their specific talents. There were also some performances I saw growing up which had a big impact on me. John Leguizamo had a one-man show on Broadway. I saw it three or four times. Seeing that performance was really huge because it was about his life and he played all of the different characters. I toured a lot after college as I worked for a lot of Shakespeare companies. Along the way, I met a lot of older actors, as the age range varies a lot in all of Shakespeare’s plays. A lot of the older actors that I got to tour with and do summer stock with had a really big influence on me.
What were some of the highlights for you as a theater performer? What moments jump out at you as milestones?
Wow! I have had so many incredible moments on stage! I have done a lot of theater. I played Lady Macbeth on tour. I played Caliban in “The Tempest,” which is not a role that women get cast in very often. That was a huge thing for me and that was also my first job out of college. Then I had a lot of formative experiences working in theater in New York. I developed a lot of new characters with new playwrights and that was certainly formative. It was a lot of work but really, really rewarding!
Everyone experiences their share of ups and downs on their journey. Where do you look for inspiration these days?
Everything! Anything! I think it is really important for me as an actor to constantly be feeding myself good stuff, whether it is good music, great people or good food! Inspiration can come around any corner for me! Within my field, other great actors that I have had the privilege of working with or seeing their performances inspire me. My friends inspire me with great conversations and curious minds. I also get a lot of inspiration from nature. That is one of the cool things about living in LA, being able to go for a hike and get out of the city so easily.
You have a big project on the way with “Pee Wee’s Big Holiday.” How did you get involved with the production?
I auditioned! It was as simple as that. My wonderful manager sent me to the audition. I showed up and I got the part! As with many characters in Paul Reubens work, a lot of them jump off the page and are larger than life. My character’s name is Pepper and she is a bank robber. She is not the kind of gal you would run across in your day to day life. I love that! Any character that I get to play that is at some extreme is something I really enjoy.
How does working in the world of Paul Reuben’s differ from what you encountered in the past?
This was, hands down, the most extraordinary experience I have really ever had on a set. Paul is a dream to work with, as is John Lee, the director. It was an incredible cast and crew. It was a breeze! I felt privileged every single day that I was on that set!
Did you bring any of your personality through in the role and was there much improvisation that took place while shooting?
I think that every character you tackle as an actor, even though most of them are scripted, there is always an improvisational element. Whether it is how you hold your body or your reaction when other people are speaking, there is always a tiny amount of improv going on in between the lines that are scripted. For this project, we mostly stuck to the script and followed the dialogue.
What is your process when you take on a new character? Is there a set way you go about bringing it to life?
It depends. My training is in practical aesthetics, which is The Atlantic Theater Company method of acting in New York City. That is a very, very clear process. Sometimes I lean on it heavily and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I just pick and choose what pieces of that process I want to use in order to tackle a character. For me, every character I tackle goes through a unique process and involves a bit of discovery as you go through it. As you move through, the way it is written usually tells you what it needs of you. Then you have to constantly be on your toes in figuring out how to bring all that you can bring to this very unique and specific situation.
Looking back on your career, what was the biggest challenge you faced as an actor?
Honestly, every day as an actor has had its challenges. It is a very trying profession. There are a lot of ups and even more downs. The challenge for me has generally been to stay on my toes, stay healthy and stay confident, so once I am fortunate enough to book work, I can show up with a great attitude. That is really important. There is a lot of rejection in this profession and it can be easy to get down or discouraged, so keeping your spirits up and a healthy mind and body are really important things.
How have you most evolved as a performer?
I think the ways I have grown as an actor are very personal. I think I have definitely grown in terms of how I handle things in professional environments, in terms of being able to let things roll off your shoulder, which is very important. Being able to let loose with my performances in terms of my own criticism of myself, which can be very harsh! I have learned to be a little kinder to myself and take things a little more lightly because I was very, very, very serious when I was younger! I mean, I am serious now but you have to be able to laugh at yourself.
Where do you see yourself headed when it comes to your work?
I love what I do! My greatest hope is to continue to work! As, I’m sure, any actor would tell you the goal is to always keep working. If I am ever fortunate enough to try my hand at directing it would be fantastic but right now my focus is really on acting, continuing to book roles that inspire me and be a part of projects that I can contribute to. That is my greatest dream. Every set I walk onto, I always feel lucky to be there and that it is a little dream come true in and of itself when I wake up and get to go to set. I hope to keep doing that!
When it comes to the roles you hope to play, what do you have your eye on?
I want to play as many different characters as I can in my lifetime. I love quirky, weird characters and I don’t gravitate to the cookie-cutter, leading lady type of roles. I gravitate towards unexpected characters and ones that challenge me to really dig deep and bring something of myself to a character that is so far outside of myself. My greatest hope is to keep finding those challenges.
What is the best lesson we can take away from your journey as an actor?
Be kind to yourself and be kind to others!
That is certainly great advice! Thank you so much for your time today and we wish you all the best in years to come!
Thank you, Jason!