Family Portrait: Jessica Graham

She was born in Chester and now lives in L.A., but we claim her as our own. Before moving to the City of Angels, actor Jessica Graham was a staple of the Philadelphia-area scene. Graham co-founded both Theater Catalyst’s Eternal Spiral Project and Stonegraham Productions (producers of girL, Philadelphia’s longest-running lesbian party). She has also worked with a number of Philadelphia filmmakers and has not one, but two films in next week’s QFest (formerly the Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival). The multi-talented Graham has done stage, screen and television, including commercials for Southwest Airlines, AOL and PETA; various stage productions and the lead role in the sexy thriller “2 Minutes Later.” PGN had a chance to chat with her about her time in Philadelphia, her thoughts as an out actor and what’s next on the agenda.

PGN: You grew up in Chester. What was that like? JG: Chester was not quite a suburb, but not quite the city. [Laughs.] Being right along 95, I’m told it’s a hub for drugs coming into the city. I was born in Chester but I’ve lived all over the place in the suburbs. The last seven years before moving to California, I was in Center City.

PGN: Family? JG: I’m the oldest of three sisters and I have a half-brother and two stepbrothers.

PGN: That’s a lot of kids. JG: Well, at that point we lived in Ridley Creek State Park in a big 400-year-old park house. My mother and stepfather rented it from the park and, in fact, still live there. They have a deal where they are allowed to rent it as long as they help maintain it. So our backyard growing up was a state park.

PGN: What did you do for fun? JG: We didn’t have a television so we ran around outside all day long. We found ways to entertain ourselves.

PGN: Was there a reason for no television? JG: They thought that we should learn to be creative and they didn’t want our heads filled up with images from television. They wanted us to make up our own stories and read books and explore. Even though I thought it was annoying at times when I was a kid, I’m really grateful for it now. I still don’t own a TV.

PGN: A favorite memory from playing in the park? JG: If you hiked about 25 minutes from our house, there were these big rocks that we would play on. We called them “skull rocks,” as if they were something out of Peter Pan. We’d hang out on the rocks and play games or go beyond the rocks where there was a creek where you could swim.

PGN: Scariest moment? JG: When I was about 10, a friend of mine and I got lost in the park. We wandered around the woods for hours with no idea where we were. We finally found a house and got the people inside to call our parents to come get us. They had been really worried about us, so they were relieved to get the call.

PGN: Favorite book as a kid? JG: Oh boy, I read so many. Let’s think. I remember trying to read “The Hobbit.” I was only about 7 and it was very difficult but I sure did try. I don’t know how successful I was.

PGN: When did you get bit by the acting bug? JG: I was making up plays and shows and performing them for family and friends from the time I was young. I was mostly home-schooled, but from fourth through sixth grade I went to an amazing school called The School in Rose Valley. My mother had gone there when she was a kid. It was a very cool school: They had this big hippie dome where we would sing Beatles songs in the morning. We would call all the teachers by their first names and we had at least an hour a day for free time — it was rad! They had a really strong emphasis on the arts and I was in my first real play there. We were doing “Antigone” and my teacher told me that I was going to play the lead. I immediately said, “No, no, I don’t want to do it.” She told me to think it over for a few days and get back to her. I did and still said no, so she told me that I had to do it. I ended up playing the role and I loved it. My parents and their friends all came out. People were saying to my mother, “Your daughter is really talented!” and that felt great. I was happy that people felt I was good at something! Eleven years old can be an awkward and uncomfortable period and theater lets you escape and be someone else for a time. It’s one of the reasons I enjoyed it and, until recently, that escape was still a major reason why I loved acting so much. Only in the last few years when I’ve found a more mature way of looking at acting have I discovered it more as a craft and less of an escape. Anyway, after Rose Valley, I started doing regional theater: I did a lot of stuff at Hedgerow Theatre, took classes and did children’s theater, etc.

PGN: What do your parents do? JG: My mother raises and trains alpacas — you know, the animal that looks kind of like a llama. She also works as a gardener for an all-women’s gardening company. My stepfather is a carpenter, he makes fine cabinets, and my father, who recently passed away, worked in an oil refinery.

PGN: Your least favorite moment on stage? JG: I was going through a horrible breakup with my girlfriend. It was in my early 20s, that period when you think it’s the end of the world and you can’t eat or sleep and your stomach is in such knots you are physically ill. I had to go on stage and try to push it out of my mind so I wouldn’t cry at the wrong moments! But that’s your job; you just have to put on a face and do it. I’ve seen people go onstage after someone has died and have to do a comedy. You just do it. But I love performing, whether it’s on stage or in films; they’re all my favorite moments. I feel at home on the stage.

PGN: Awards? JG: I won the Best Actress Award at the Tampa [International] Gay and Lesbian Film Festival for my role in “Two Minutes Later.” That was a pretty cool and unexpected moment.

PGN: So tell me about coming out. JG: I’ve always been attracted to both guys and girls, so I guess I’m kind of the B on the LGBT continuum. Even when I was a kid, I had little boyfriends and little girlfriends. I’ve had people on both sides tell me, “Well, you know as you get older, you’ll probably shift and settle on one side.” And I’ve said, “Well, you know, it really hasn’t worked that way.” It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I really fell in love with a woman for the first time. I’d dated girls before but it was the first time I really fell in love, moved in, the whole 9 yards. As far as my parents and friends were concerned, there was never a problem. I never worried about my family being angry or my friends shunning me. There was never a personal issue for me, either. I had a few hurdles to jump when it came to investing in a relationship with a woman, but it was never anything moral. If anything, I feel more of a coming-out now, because I am very involved in the community and have been in a lot of gay films and I have a boyfriend right now. My friends and associates have been very loving and accepting, but sometimes you find people on both sides who have a problem with it. I’ve had people in the past tell me not to mention that I had a girlfriend and now I’ve had people tell me not to mention that I have a boyfriend. I haven’t listened to either. For me, I just put my energy in relationships that make me feel good. Whether it’s personal or professional, I don’t get involved in projects that don’t make me feel good about what I’m doing. It’s not about just taking anything that comes your way. I love acting, but if it made me feel like I had to lie about who I was, I’d find something else to do. But I’ve been very lucky and have been able to do what I love without compromising who I am.

PGN: A fun travel experience? JG: As I mentioned, my father passed away recently. I came home for a few months to take care of him. I’d planned on flying home, but I needed a new car and L.A. is so car dependent, I didn’t want to even arrive at the airport without wheels, so I decided to get one here and drive it home. After the funeral, my sister came with me and we did a cross-country trip together. We had so much fun: We stopped in my dad’s hometown of Texarkana, Texas, and sprinkled some of his ashes there in some of the places he used to hang out when he was a teenager.

PGN: What was the culture shock moving to L.A.? JG: The emphasis on physical appearance in L.A. is different. It’s not like you come here and everyone talks about your looks, but it’s subtle. For instance, in the city paper here, the LA Weekly, every other ad is for breast augmentation, rhinoplasty or vaginal rejuvenation surgery; every page offers some sort of change for your body. I’ve been living in L.A. for four years now and I didn’t realize how much it affected me until I was gone for those few months. I live in Echo Park, which is a small community that’s really laidback, and I don’t go into Hollywood except for auditions, but you are still affected by seeing the emphasis placed on physicality all around you.

PGN: Do you ever feel pressured to follow that path? JG: No, I’ve never felt the desire to shoot stuff in my face. But as I get older and develop lines, who knows? But I don’t want to be the sort of actress who needs breast implants or anything like that. I look at women like Diane Lane and Helen Hunt, and I don’t know if they’ve had work done or not, but they look like real women. They don’t look like they’re trying to be cookie cutouts. Those are the kind of women I admire.

PGN: What was the last personal mail you received? JG: My friend Sochi, from Philadelphia, sent me a postcard.

PGN: You ride horses? JG: My grandparents have a horse farm, so we grew up riding. I was first on a horse when I was 6. I’ve been thrown a few times and had the horse run off, which is kind of scary. Someone was just telling me that there’s a theory that straight girls like horses and lesbians like monkeys. Have you heard that?

PGN: No, but I do like monkeys! JG: Me too, but I like horses better.

PGN: Well, that would explain the bi part! JG: [Laughs.] But I have a friend who is strictly lesbian and she likes horses better too. I’m just saying …

PGN: Hmm, perhaps the exception that proves the rule … So, tell me about your films. JG: I have two films that I act in that are playing in the festival. In Kelly Burkhardt’s short film, “Tremble & Spark,” I play the villain of the story. I’m in love with a woman named Charlie, who is played by Cathy DeBuono, one of the stars of “Out at the Wedding.” It’s a romantic-noir sort of thing. It was fun: They made me very pretty, a kind of femme fatale, and I got to wear some cool costumes. The other film is a feature called, “And Then Came Lola.” It’s a really fast-paced funny lesbian romp. Ashleigh Sumner plays Lola and I play her ex-girlfriend, Jen. Jen’s a little surly, which is fun. I’m leaning more and more toward character roles and less toward the ingénue. I’m getting past the range for that anyway. We’ve had a great response to the film: It sold out the Castro Theatre and people really seem to love it.

PGN: What’s a favorite on-screen kissing moment? JG: I did a movie called “Devil Girl,” a supernatural horror film about a young woman who gets stranded in a small town when her car breaks down while she’s driving cross-country. I had a make-out scene — well, a sex scene actually — with Vanessa Kay, who played Devil Girl. Vanessa was from a show called “The Man Show,” where very-endowed women jump around on trampolines while guys talk about whatever guys talk about. She was also on the Nip-pocalypse episode of “Crossballs: The Debate Show.” The kind of stuff that rubs my feminist side the wrong way, but she was really nice and we got along well. Anyway, we had this scene to do; it was just me and her and all of her red latex paint. It was a fun, messy sex scene and during the scene I wore my personal cowboy boots. They came off by the end of the scene, but to this day, I still have red paint on them from being all over her. It was hilarious. The funny thing was that we had to do several takes, so they had hair and makeup there with towels to wipe me down and more red paint to retouch her in the areas where her latex had rubbed off onto me!

PGN: What’s next? JG: I’m shooting another project called “Socially Registered” with Robert Gaston, who produced “Two Minutes Later.” He’s also one of the writing assistants on “King of the Hill.” I can’t tell you how excited I am to work on this project. He is so talented as a writer, director and filmmaker — I love working with him. The script is phenomenal and I love the character he wrote for me. It’s about a small street in a neighborhood and what goes on behind closed doors. It’s funny but it also deals with some serious themes. What excites me about the script is that it crosses genres. I like when a story is not just about gay or straight or black or white. Because that’s not real life. I want a film that shows what we really are, which encompasses so much more than we usually see. We have gay people and black people and straight people and young people and old people; why are the usual choices either a gay drama or a boy-meets-girl film when life is more complicated and embracing than that? I want to see something that reflects real life …

Catch Jessica Graham on screen at QFest starting July 9. Visit www.qfest.com for more information.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].