Jessy Schram laughs when I suggest she's the hardest working gal on TV these days, but she shouldn't. In the past two years, she's had plum roles in three high-profile series.
The Skokie native and former Buffalo Grove resident currently can be seen at 7 p.m. Thursdays in ABC's "Last Resort" as Christine Kendal, the wife of Scott Speedman's rogue Navy officer Sam Kendal. She also stars as human-turned-alien Karen Nadler in TNT's summer hit, "Falling Skies," and played the dual role of Ashley Boyd/Cinderella in the first season of ABC's "Once Upon a Time."
"It's a little unreal," the 26-year-old says over the phone from Honolulu, where she's filming "Last Resort." "You kind of don't believe it as you're doing it. ... I'm like, 'Oh yeah, that's right. I have to sleep sometimes.'"
"I think the stars aligned and God was like, 'Hey, we're going to give you three [shows], and this is what they are,'" she adds, laughing. "Not bad."
Call it the stars aligning or good timing or a lucky coincidence, but Schram has been steadily working in TV since she moved to L.A. after graduating from Buffalo Grove High School in 2004 to play Lea Thompson's daughter in a series of "Jane Doe" movies for Hallmark. Her biggest role before the current three was starring opposite Damian Lewis ("Homeland") and Sarah Shahi ("Fairly Legal") in NBC's "Life."
And it all started in Chicago, where as a child she did commercials, modeled and made her theatrical debut at age 12 in an American Girl Musical Revue.
"I was the original girl Kirsten," she says, laughing. "She's a little blond Swedish one with those little Princess Leia wraparound [hair] things. I didn't have enough hair, though, for them to do that. So they were like, 'Just wear pigtails.'"
The experience firmed her desire to be a performer. She "dabbled" in singing during high school, performing around town with the band Joan Baby. But she always wanted to act.
"When I was younger I asked my mom if I could be in [show business], and I kept asking and then told her I wanted to be on the 'real TV,'" she says, adding that she and her sister would make up and act out their own TV commercials.
She credits her great grandfather with inspiring her with stories from when he worked in Chicago's silent film industry. "It's always been something that I loved doing, to perform and be around people and create a story," she says.
She's doing that, and then some. In "Last Resort," her character Christine is harassed by the U.S. government after her husband, who is second in command aboard the nuclear submarine USS Colorado, joins his commanding officer, Capt. Marcus Chaplin (Andre Braugher), in questioning a shady order to fire nukes at Pakistan. As a result, they and their crew are being hunted by the government and have been labeled traitors. They have sought refuge on an island where they hope to clear their names.
Back at home, Christine is defiant in the face of angry neighbors, intrusive reporters and federal agents who are both spying on her and telling her lies about Sam. "Christine is definitely not someone who sits around and gets battered. She's not someone who cowers in a corner," Schram says. "Her world is being turned upside down and there's nothing to do but fight."
Christine continues the actress' current streak of playing strong women, but Schram says it's just a happy coincidence, not unlike her being in three shows nearly at the same time.
"I think that's just something that maybe I've just kind of instinctively brought to the characters," she says. "That's something that I'm able to bring to them. And those roles for some reason are calling out to me."
Schram says she feels incredibly blessed to be juggling three shows and hopes to continue. Karen is very much alive on "Falling Skies," she says, and there's always a chance Cinderella will reappear on "Once Upon A Time." She just hopes her "Last Resort" production schedule allows.
"I've stopped hyperventilating about it," she says, adding that she anticipates several flights from Hawaii to Vancouver, where the other shows are filmed. "And I've always got my little carry-on bag packed, and I've got my scripts." (She's had to use them already; as of Oct. 24, the actress is in Vancouver filming scenes for Season 3 of "Falling Skies.")
I chatted with Schram in August before the Season 2 finale of "Falling Skies" (read that here) but we talked about all her projects, growing up in the Chicago suburbs, where her family members still live--really, what didn't we talk about? Here's an edited version of our conversation, broken up by subject matter so you can read what you want.
How is filming in Honolulu?
It's been good. ... My character is not on the island with everyone else. She's kind of separated from it in the storyline. It's kind of been like that filming, in the sense of you come in and you're on set in Washington in all these little rooms, and talking on the phone to your long-lost husband, and we kind of film it like that. So everyone right now is just really getting adjusted and having a good time seeing all the island stuff. And it's quite beautiful. The whole tropical setting brings in the whole reality of what the script brings. So it's looking beautiful. And I know that we're all just setting up trying to find our feet.
I saw a picture you tweeted of you in the big tree.
Oh, did you see that? Yeah, my mom actually just came in from Chicago. She's never been to Hawaii or flown over any kind of ocean. So I actually have a few more days off than most right now and she just came in to visit me and see Hawaii. So we're being tourists, and that was actually Manila Falls so we went to see a waterfall. Every day has just been great; you drive down the street and you see something that's just stunningly beautiful that you don't get every day everywhere else.
Tell me about Christine.
Ah yes. Christine is the wife of Executive Naval Officer. And she is very strong, very independent, very patient. She has her husband in her heart the entire time. But at the same time, he's away, so we're dealing with the tensions of an absent man, physically. Yet he's still very present in her life ... Christine is dealing with her husband being called a traitor and all this other stuff. And she's put in this extraordinary circumstance of not knowing what's going on, and kind of being thrown into this world that she was never physically a part of, even though her husband was there. So she's being thrown into having to find truth in herself in all situations, especially about her marriage, that she's never even had to question or deal with before. And it used to be, "Hey I want to make babies and start a family." And now it's like, "Hey, what's going on? Who are you? And why won't people leave me alone?"
The military's sort of going to put her through the ringer a little bit.
They're trying to turn me against the USS Colorado because the Colorado is defying their orders. So Washington is definitely going to take Christine through the ringer. And I'm guessing that Christine might take them, too. I mean, it's always a possibility. She's a strong woman and she's got a love and a man in her heart. And that's something that you fight for. And even more so you just fight for the truth and for dignity, and character comes out ... She's very connected to Sam. She's very connected to the cause. And now that they're detaining her, that's something she's not going to take lightly.
You talked about how she's strong and independent. I see a little theme with the characters you choose.
I think that the timing of it just [worked]. ... They're all women who have strength and who are very independent and kind of have been through something, yet they still have a lot to give in their heart and they still hold a grace. There's still a nurture as opposed to just someone that's taking away all the good in the world and puts this shell on and doesn't want anyone to come in. There's still hope in all of the characters.
How is it having Scott Speedman as your husband?
You know, there are worse things in the world. Initially you have that thing where you're like, "Wow, I've got a good looking husband. I like your choice." But he is really quite fantastic. In the pilot we were introduced very quickly. We had done our scene and then we had to move on. And during that time period we just had an amazing chemistry together that really came off really well. And he's someone that definitely looks at the scripts ... and is very thoughtful about what he wants to get from it and what the scene is about. So it's definitely interesting and a learning experience whoever you work with. And with him it's the same. I think it'll be really nice.
Shawn Ryan and Andre Braugher are both from Chicago area.
Yes, my God.
Have you had any conversation about that at all?
Yes. Well the first time I'm met Andre, my dad had let me know that they had gone to the same school together. So we had that second degree of separation, and I kind of felt proud. But I was able to drop the Chicago code with both of us right off the bath. And so it's nice to have that connection. And with Shawn too, he's definitely a Midwesterner, and he's definitely a very down-to-earth person, very inspiring and really smart. And we have discussed, we're like, "Hey, Chicago, what up?" So I think all you need to do is look at them and be like, "Chicago?" "Yeah, Chicago."
A lot of folks on TV are from Chicago. Do you have any theories as to why that is?
I can honestly say from the day that I moved to Los Angeles I realized that Chicago has a work ethic that's like none other. There's an energy and a certain vibe and a certain way of going about things. And I can't put my finger on it completely but maybe it's a certain passion. I don't know what it is, but Chicago has a certain work ethic, and I think that maybe that carries over. And also too the Midwest, blue-collar vibe of getting your hands dirty and getting in there and doing it until you love it or until you succeed. So I think maybe a lot of the success comes from really going after it in a way that maybe other people don't. I'm not quite sure.
ONCE UPON A TIME & FALLING SKIES
How did you manage to get on three shows almost at once?
I think the timing was just beautiful, and the right roles came at the right time. Last year I had an audition for "Once Upon a Time" in between [seasons] of "Falling Skies." And I had done a TV movie, and at the same time that "Falling Skies," which I didn't know if I would be back on, called and they're like, "Alright, well we have something in mind. We're not quite sure." So both TV shows just started calling and then when pilot season came around I was working on them, and really could only audition for one or two. And "Last Resort" came around, and it was like, "Hey, you're with us now." So. [Laughs.]
I have a photo gallery of stars on two TV shows at once on the blog, but you are breaking that mold with three.
Yay, oh that's an honor. That's very exciting. It is funny because you just start working and you put your head down. You get it, and all of a sudden when you look up you go, "Whoa, yeah that's kind of crazy, and I'm not quite sure how it's happening, but it is."
Were you filming the two at the same time in Vancouver?
They tried to film them at the same time. I would go back and forth from Los Angeles to Vancouver whenever each show needed me. So there were a couple of times they tried doing it at the same time, and you think it'll work out, but even though you're in Vancouver it doesn't mean that the schedules always align. But it made it easier knowing that they were both in the same spot and I never had to change hotels.
How was it going from harnessed Karen to Cinderella in a big ol' gown?
That was the biggest mind trip. You would think, "OK, well, I'm going to be doing a night shoot as this alien with a harness jumping off a roof top. And then there's not really going to be a turnaround, and I'm going to go straight to the set and put on a beautiful ball gown, but I have to shower in between."
The neatest thing about being given the opportunity to play these two characters, it's the first time ever really I've been able to be in the creative process of making a character, and making something that no one really, you know, you have expectations, but you get to put your own spin on it. So these were two characters both that we kind of got to build from our own little areas in our minds. So both of those characters are completely opposite in the same or they're fantasy, and they're something new.
For both those roles you're sort of playing or you played two different versions of the characters. So it's almost like four roles.
[Laughs.] I love that you bring that up. That is very, very true. For both of the roles I did do a lot of my own side research because you have Ashley and Cinderella in Storybrooke and in the fantasy world. So you have the two aspects, "OK, well this is a maid. This is what a real life teenager, pregnant girl would be. And these are these situations." And then you're trying to bring those same aspects and characteristics into another world that people are more familiar with.
And for Karen in "Falling Skies" that was definitely extremely tricky, because you know her as this badass fighting chick that you only got to know a little bit about, so you only have a little bit in your mind of who Karen really was. So I had to develop that on my own as being a teenager dragged away in a post-apocalyptic setting. And then all of a sudden you have some ideas on what this alien is supposed to be, but it's completely new. And how much do you bring in of this human, and how much is not human. And it was a hodgepodge of, like you said, four different characters not just two.
Are Cinderella and Ashley going to be back on "Once Upon a Time?"
There's always that possibility. I know that right now the storylines are so big, but it's very much open and Storybooke is very much alive. So we're all just sitting there waiting for opportunities.
You had fun playing Cinderella?
Oh it was so much fun. It really was one of the best experiences I've had between the material, and the opportunity to bring the character to life, and the costumes, and the crew, and the cast members. Everything about it is really fantastic. It's just very genuine. It's very quality. Every second of that experience I hold in my heart. It's really fun.
Did the gowns and the harness help you sort of get into the characters?
It definitely does. It causes chiropractor trips, but it's really fantastic. The harness, a lot of the movement that you'll see in this first episode back or really any episodes, we adjusted it so that it's a little bit more comfortable and that there's more movement involved. But for the most part, the movement that's there is mainly caused because of the way that the harness fits on your neck and your back. And the movement is limited in the way that you go about really is how it is. So a lot of people, "Oh why did you move your eyes that way?" You're like, "Well, because my head had to turn before my eyes could." The harness very much guides your body as do how you're going to act when you play Karen.
And the dresses, when you step into those for "Once Upon a Time," it really transforms your movement and your feeling as well. It either makes you feel like a princess and you have this royalty in you when you're at the ball and the gown, and you have to keep your head up, and you don't look down otherwise you'll trip over your dress. And there are all these things that allow your physical structure to then add to your acting. And then when you're in the gowns you're able to move around more, and you feel the heaviness of your clothes.
So really the wardrobe on "Once Upon a Time" and on "Falling Skies" has so much to do with how you'll act or how you'll go about things. It just automatically physically puts your presence on your acting.
HER CHICAGO YEARS
You moved out to L.A., what, when you were 18?
Yeah, I moved out right after high school.
Wow, now that's pretty brave. It's either crazy or independent-minded.
It's a mixture of both. I'm sure if you were to talk to my mom in those months or even now she's like, "Yeah, I think Jessy likes to come home every now and then." [Laughs.] I think my process of moving out to Los Angeles, too, is really what I'm able to bring into these characters as well. I have kind of been on my own in many different ways and experienced life in ways that a lot of people won't or wouldn't normally. So in that time period I was always trying to hold integrity. And I think that all of these three characters that have been present are all ones that try and hold integrity and try to find the better good in things. And maybe that's me trying to bring it from my little trip out to Los Angeles trying to find my footing.
When I talked to Drew Roy he told me he moved out there and he lived with six guys in a two-bedroom place. When you moved out there did you have any situation like that. He took a while to find work.
I love his story. He's fantastic. When I moved to Los Angeles I had planned on moving after high school in August, and ended up getting on a plane a day early than my original move date because I had booked a mini-series with Lea Thompson on the Hallmark Channel.
So you already had a job.
Yeah, I got it literally the day before I came out. So I can honestly say I have been so blessed to always be consistently working on something else. And my jobs and where I've had to go and travel for those has really kind of guided my life as opposed to me saying, "Hey I'm going to go here and do that." Doors keep opening, and I've worked hard for those doors, but they keep opening in ways that I wouldn't expect them to.
You were working in Chicago before you went out there, right?
Well, I say that I became an actress when I moved to Los Angeles only because I really started getting to do television and film. But in Chicago I did start out doing commercials and a lot of radio spots. And I had done a little pilot here, there, and I had worked downtown at the American Girl Revue. ... I was the original girl Kirsten.
Did you always want to be an actress?
Yes I did. ... I had a great grandpa in Chicago, too, who used to do silent movies, so he would always tell me how to walk through a door. And he would teach me. And I had some really beautiful people in my family growing up that just inspired me. And I think that that just fed it even more to be a performer.
There was a huge silent film business here.
Yeah, he says he had owned a dance studio downtown with my great grandma, and I don't know how much of the acting part he did, but he was a performer and used to teach me all that. And he had his own stage name, so he was always very magical to me growing up. And I always loved to sing to him and he would always listen to ours. So I think that days like that really kind of, like I said, fed me to want to be a performer, and to mainly just to share with the audience, or to share with the person next to you and create something new.
Did you spend a lot of time downtown while you were here?
I did. When I was younger I did because I was going downtown every day to perform or to do auditions and things. But throughout high school I kind of took a break from the acting and dabbled in music a little bit. So I would sing at the Hard Rock Chicago with this awesome band called Joan Baby blues band. And I would go to festivals with them, and sing on the boat and do stuff like that. So I would actually do gigs throughout high school. And then when I wasn't doing gigs we would be downtown, me and my friends or boyfriend, we would always be at the different festivals and everything that was going. Anything that was music we were at when we were downtown.
She had a little blues band, and I originally first met her at one of the train stations down there singing with her. She would bring me on as her guest performer. We would go to Hard Rock and the different places.
So Chicago favorites; anything you miss?
Uno's pizza. I have not really eaten pizza since going to Los Angeles. Because they forget the sauce and they forget the cheese. ... I miss the food in Chicago and the music. I just really miss just the music on the streets.
I did not realize that you were on one of my favorite shows that didn't last long, and that was "Life." You were Rachel.
Yes, I was Rachel Seybolt. That is still one of my favorite shows, and it's still one that I wish that it didn't get cancelled. It was so good. ... I loved playing the role of Rachel Seybolt.
I was sad when that show when away. It was really good.
It was written so well. It was so good, and it was quirky, and it was interesting, and like you said, the relationships between everyone on there, especially Sarah and Damian's it was just so intriguing.
Sarah has a show now, and Damian's doing really well I'd say on "Homeland."
You know, they're not doing too bad.
But they're not on three shows at once, so...
[Laughs.] No, it's just about the quality of it. If you can keep your work consistent and you can be proud of it, or put your all into it, that's what you want. So, if we had a fourth I think we might have a problem.
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'Last Resort' star Jessy Schram's TV juggling act
Jessy Schram laughs when I suggest she's the hardest working gal on TV these days, but she shouldn't. In the past two years, she's had plum roles in three high-profile series.