A Conversation with Jillian Morgese

Actress Jillian Morgese, notable for her performance in the role of Hero in Joss Whedon's 2012 film adaptation of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, drops by Fulle Circle to discuss her life, career, favorite movies, inspirations and fear of spiders.

Jason Anders:  So let's start with where you were born and what life was like for you growing up- Was acting ever something you enjoyed doing as a kid?

Jillian Morgese:  I was born in Fair Lawn, New Jersey and lived there until I graduated high school. It’s about a twenty-five minute drive from Manhattan, so my parents took my sister and I in quite often growing up.  I can still remember them surprising us one night by taking us on a horse and carriage ride around Central Park and then to see our first Broadway show, Cats.  Needless to say my love for New York City started at a young age.

I did some commercial/print work when I was a kid, but athletics ended up taking over for some time. I competed as a junior Olympic gymnast for almost nine years.  I took my first class when I was six and immediately fell in love with the sport.  I joined the competitive team the following year.  We would train four hours a day, five days a week, and then travel most weekends for competitions.  My teammates and I also competed on the town’s diving team during the summers, which was a lot of fun. I stayed very active.  
JA:  Did you have other plans for your future at the time besides getting in to the Fashion Institute of Technology, or did you know that's where you wanted to be? 

JM:  I’ve been really lucky, in that I’ve had the chance to explore everything I’ve been passionate about.  Gymnastics was a huge part of my life, and for a while my goal was to get an athletic scholarship to the University of Georgia and compete throughout college.  However, by the time I got to high school, and after many injuries including a tumbling accident where I broke both my arms, my focus shifted to fashion. 

I’d always loved fashion styling, and my mom and I even helped design some of the competition leotards that my team and I wore.  I started to take courses at FIT the summer before starting high school and knew pretty quickly that was where I wanted to be.  It was actually the only college I applied to, so I was very excited when I was accepted.  I moved to New York after high school and into the FIT dorms in Chelsea.  I loved every minute of my time there.  I was surrounded by artistic people, learned a lot, and got to experience Fashion Week every season, which was amazing.

While living in the city, I also started to get back into acting.  Over the next couple of years, I would take classes on nights or weekends when I didn’t have school.  I also signed with a commercial agent and began doing some commercial/print work.  I then decided to start doing some extra work as well, to get a feel for what it was like to be on television and film sets. There were very long hours, but I learned a lot from watching everyone work and just really loved being in that atmosphere.  Senior year, I submitted for extra work on a project called Group Hug, which I soon found out was the alias for The Avengers, and everything kind of happened from there. 

By the time I graduated, acting had my heart.  
JA:  What would you say inspires you most in life?

JM:  Every form of art that makes you feel something, opens your mind and makes you think. 

JA:  Let's talk about your cameo in The Avengers- If it were me, it would have made my life if the back of my head ended up on the cutting room floor.  Tell me how this opportunity came about.

JM:  I submitted to extras casting, just like I did on numerous other things, and they were just looking for a background waitress.  It wasn't even through an audition, it was just casting to be an extra. When I booked it, it was for a movie called Group Hug, so I had no idea what it was even for. I didn't think it was anything out of the ordinary.  I had to go for a fitting to get the waitress outfit... once I walked into the offices there were huge comic book pictures on the wall and I realized I was at Marvel and that it was for The Avengers.  

I loved Joss's work so I'd already been a fan of his and was looking forward to this movie, so I was thrilled that I was going to be a part of it.
JA:  Even after landing big roles, do you still get moments of self-doubt?

JM:  Oh, I think you constantly get those throughout your entire career.  People always say "don't do it" or  "if it's not something you have to do, do anything else" because it's a tough industry... but it's the only thing I want to do.  It's something I need to do.  Self-doubt comes up now and then, but you just have to stay on track, keep training and keep focused.  

JA:  What is it about acting that is so attractive to you?

JM:  First of all, the community of people.  I love other actors and the creative atmosphere that you're always in.  It's exciting to me.  You get to experience things that you otherwise wouldn't ever have the chance to.  I get to travel and meet people that are now some of my best friends.  It's also this emotional outlet that allows you to make connections and feel things you might not otherwise get a chance to in real life, which is rewarding and cool.   

JA: Was landing the role of Hero in Much Ado About Nothing intimidating for you, being that it's William Shakespeare?

JM:  It was for sure intimidating.  On the set of The Avengers Ashley Johnson was the other waitress and we were filming a scene running away from the battle of New York- Joss kept giving me more and more actions like "can you be upset", "can you cry" and "let's see you give up on your life"... I was just like "I am going to give you everything."  They asked me to come back the next day to continue working on it.  
Most of the footage got cut, but I made it in!  When I was leaving at the end of the second day, Joss came up to me with Much Ado in his back pocket and told me and Ashley that he was thinking about doing it.  He asked me to send my headshot and resume and said he'd like to put me on tape if acting was something I'd want to do.  I sent him everything and got an email back a couple of days later saying that he was working on a Shakespeare project and was wondering if I would Skype an audition with him because it was happening very soon.

I had never performed Shakespeare before.  The most I'd ever done was read it in high school, which everyone does, and you never get the full effect when you just read Shakespeare.  My friend in New York was very well-versed in Shakespeare so I asked him to come help me because I had only two days to get this monologue down.  We rented out a studio and worked on this monologue for hours.  
We Skyped the audition the next day- I did the monologue, he gave me a couple of notes, and I did the monologue again.  When I finished he said "I'm actually filming Much Ado About Nothing, it's going to be shot at my house and I'd love for you to play Hero.  We start filming in two weeks.  Are you available?"  I was so in shock that I just remained totally cool on Skype, and then the second I hung up so many emotions took over- I was excited and terrified!      

JA: That's the actor's dream that rarely ever happens...

JM: It's the dream that doesn't happen, so you don't even dream it!  You just hope that someone will talk to you on set.  You just don't even go that far to imagine that could actually happen.  That's what is so amazing about him, that he took the time to say "maybe she has something.  Let's see."  

It happened very fast.  I only had the script for a week and was doing everything I could to try and memorize the lines because I wasn't familiar with the play.  We had a week of rehearsal and filmed the whole movie at his house in fourteen days.  It didn't give me a lot of time to panic.  
JA:  The shoot looks like it was a lot of fun...

JM: It was probably the most fun I've ever had in my life.   Most of the cast had already been friends, so it was a lot like a family home-movie type of thing.  The thought of everyone knowing each other was nerve-racking, but when I got there the nerves went away so fast because everyone in the cast was so kind, generous and open.  We went to a cast dinner on the second night where everybody got to know each other.  It was such an amazing group of people that it felt very comfortable very fast, you felt part of it right away.  Filming was very much like a party, even the dance scene at the end of the movie continued once the cameras stopped rolling.  We just kept dancing!  That's how it was all the time.  

I didn't drive at the time because I was living in New York, and the call times were as early as 4:30 in the morning and went until 11:30 at night, and so I just ended up living there for the shoot.  His family were the most welcoming people.  This was also my first speaking role outside of commercials, so I just wanted to be there all the time and watch these people work because they're such amazing actors.  I just sat behind the monitor when I wasn't working and watched them work.  I could sit there all day learning from everything they were doing.  It was incredible.  

JA: I was at the Cinerama premiere- was that the first time you screened it?

JM:  I think we had all seen it far too many times because we had so much fun watching it.  We did have one cast screening before it was released.  The first time we saw it with an audience was at the Toronto Film Festival, which was in this big grand theater with tons of people.  We were all so nervous going in because you don't know how people are going to respond to a black-and-white Shakespeare movie... at the end there were three standing ovations and we all looked at each other like "is this really happening?"  That was a magical moment.  

Fran and I went to the Boston Film Festival which is near where my family lives, so it was cool to see it with them.  Then we all went to South by Southwest, and then to the ArcLight premiere.  Seeing it with an audience and watching people reacting and laughing to things you hoped would land, and even seeing a grown man cry during the wedding scene, made it so much more special... I was just like "Yes!  We did it!"       
JA: What was the bus tour like for you?  Did you feel like rock stars?

JM:  Oh we totally recreated the "Tiny Dancer" scene from Almost Famous and I'm not kidding.  It was a thirty-hour trip to Austin, we even had a dance party on it.  It was amazing for me and so much fun.   Joss kept us involved in every aspect of it, and so I learned so much about the craft of acting as well as the business.  I got to go to festivals and do panels and interviews, it was a first time for everything for me.  I feel like I was so lucky to have a learning experience like that. You couldn't find a better group to do all of that with because we love each other's company and have so much fun every time we get together.    

JA:  What are three performances in movies that you love?

JM:  Elle Fanning and Felicity Huffman in Phoebe in Wonderland, Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids and Evan Rachel Wood in Running with Scissors.  Can I also add Amy Acker in Much Ado?  Because, come on.

JA:  What are three movies you think everyone should see?

JM:  Short Term 12, Boyhood and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

JA:  What advice do you have for aspiring actors?

JM:  Clark Gregg gives the best advice, and I think he summed things up pretty great with this:

“Be gentle with yourself.  The life of an actor can be a long road with crazy highs and serious beat downs.  You’ve got to be in it for the long haul.  That means accepting those ups and downs with a degree of stoicism and ignoring the people who suggest you’ll never “make it.”  Your job is to keep showing up day in and day out and when you do that, before you know it, a little becomes a lot.  So just keep taking the next small step that will make you a little better.  They need someone exactly like you; they just don’t know it yet.”

I will add that it is important to always be open to learn, keep training, and try to surround yourself with a community of creative, driven and supportive people.  It helps you stay focused and it’s nice to be around others that are on the same journey. 
JA:  Do you have any hobbies?

JM:  The athletic side of me is still in there- I love to swim, go for runs on the beach and do lots of hikes.  I’m also really into photography and dance parties.

JA:  What is your favorite thing about living in Los Angeles, and your least favorite?

JM:  My favorite thing is the weather- it's just beautiful every day and I don't have to survive the polar vortex anymore.  I love being outdoors and here I can hike and go to the beach and have bonfires year-round.  The worst thing is 100% the traffic.  That is the only big downfall.  I live in Santa Monica and it takes forever to get to Hollywood.

JA:  Do you have any beauty secrets?

JM:  For a long time it was not going in the sun, when I did I'd always have an umbrella with me.  
Now that I've moved to L.A. I find it very difficult to avoid the sun completely.  

JA:  What is your favorite color?

JM:  Yellow.

JA:  Do you have any phobias?

JM:  Yes, spiders.  We cannot co-exist.  

JA:  What kind of clothes do you like to wear?

JM:  I love fashion and dressing up.  I always find something at Free People and Urban.  I also love vintage stuff. 
JA:  Tell me about your passion for fashion... which I didn't mean to rhyme.

JM:  I guess it's just another creative outlet that I love.  I have fun always putting things together.  I'd always try and shop for my friends and family because it's something I have fun doing.  I love Diane von Fürstenberg and Marc Jacobs.  I just love putting outfits together, the styling part of it.  I think it's just fun to find things from flea markets and stores and mix them all together and try to make an interesting thing happen.

JA:  Do you have a dream date?

JM:  It would definitely include watching the sunset on the beach and dancing.

JA:  If you had to describe yourself with just three words, what would they be?

JM:  Creative.  Empathetic.  Old soul.

Follow Jillian on Twitter: @JillianMorgese