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Interview: Spell’s Jackie Tohn

by Charles Trapunski

Interviewing the talent from the Netflix series GLOW is not something we take for granted, as each of the eight ensemble members that we have interviewed have been uniquely special. But until we talked to Jackie Tohn, who’s currently starring in the deeply layered Spell (a mystery-comedy written by and starring Barak Hardley), we didn’t feel like we had the full perspective. The multi-talented Tohn was a thrill to speak with and we highly recommend her immersive performance in Spell.

The following is a condensed and edited version of our phone conversation with the loquacious and hilarious Jackie Tohn. *Spoilers ahead for plot points in Spell*

Brief Take: You’re incredible in Spell. How did you approach crafting your character in the film?

Jackie Tohn: My character, she is very straightforward, she loves to party, and I think that she was a very troubled woman with an enormous amount of love and energy and charisma inside her. She’s very likeable and I think that a lot of people with these problems are this way: they’re fun and they’re lovely and they’re good people. They have huge hearts and you love them. But at a certain point, health is necessary. Sidebar: I did a movie a couple of years ago about Doug Kenney, the guy who created National Lampoon, and Harold Ramis was famously quoted as saying, after people said “Did Doug Kenney, did he jump? Did he kill himself? Or was he on drugs and he fell and died?” And Harold Ramis famously said: “Well, he fell off the side of a mountain when he was looking for a place to jump?”. That same kind of thing happened to Jess in this movie. I don’t think that her character was purposely committing suicide, that wasn’t the way that I was playing it, I was just playing it that she was on this trip and going on this walk, and she wasn’t paying attention and she drowned.

BT: Did you get to improvise at all for this movie?

JT: The scene in the bar in which we’re fighting, and I storm out and I’m a little drunk and we’re talking and we’re in the Mexican restaurant, that was supposed to be a scene without audio. That was supposed to be a flashback and you see them fighting, but they filmed it with audio and of course, we were mic’d, and then it ended up being a full scene in the movie that we basically improvised. [laughs] It’s just me and Barak, we knew the parameters of the scene, the couple was having a fight and this is sort of what she does. They’re having a really good time, but she’s a little too loud and a little too drunk, and a little too much, and that’s all we kind of knew. And then we went in and sort of improvised an entire scene around it, [chuckles] and then the entire scene made the movie.

BT: Does singing and performing music overlap into acting for you as well?

JT: You know…not really. I think maybe I want to make an answer in which they do, but they’re very, very, separate. They sometimes work together, like if I get to sing a song on GLOW, they’re sort of utilizing my skill set, which I love. And I’m making a cartoon right now for Amazon with Kristen Bell that I’ve created, it’s an animated pre-school musical series, and I’m writing, executive producing and voicing the show, and also writing all the music for our 52-episode first season, it’s a massive undertaking. In that regard, my music is intertwined with my job. In GLOW, it overlaps a little. But it depends on the project.

BT: Where does this movie fit within your arc of many interesting projects?

JT: I loved doing this movie for many reasons. There are parts when she is sort of like [stretches out word] co-mi-cal, but not really, there’s really very little…I mean there’s personality that comes through certainly, in most of the things that I do, but in this movie, I think that it was special for me because it’s not funny and it’s not supposed to be funny, and I think that a big part of who I am- I’ve been doing stand-up since I was a teenager – and a big part of who I am and my identity, and from where my value comes is being a funny person. It’s in making people feel comfortable and being friendly and being funny, and those are my things that I am, and when I’m playing a character that’s fairly out of it and on drugs or is not funny, I think it’s utilizing a whole other part of who I am and really sort of forcing me to get into a role in a really different way than I would normally, because I think that in some of the roles I play, I really put myself in, and in this role, I think that I arguably did that less than I’ve had for any other role.

BT: Was the camping trip on GLOW an actual bonding experience?

JT: It’s all a bonding experience. Just being there is a bonding experience because there’s 14 women wrestling together and having to trust each other. We do our own stunts, so it’s not a low-key situation over there, we have to make sure that we’re not hurting each other, I mean seriously hurting each other, and doing our own stunts when none of us are professional wrestlers. We do a month of wrestling training before each season starts and yeah, then we hit the ground running. The whole thing is a super bonding experience and a trust experience, and the camping episode took it all to the next level.

BT: How much do you get into the character within a character layers on GLOW?

JT: Fairly. Betty Gilpin says, and I’m going to misquote her, but on GLOW, we get the opportunity to play many of the…generally on a show, you get to play one of the women who lives in your head. You get to play one of the facets of your personality and you get to go and do that. On GLOW, we get to play many of the people who live inside of us. And that’s so rare, and as far as my character, I think that Melrose is one of the ones whose in-ring persona is similar to her out-of-ring persona, whereas Debbie and Liberty Belle could not be more different. Melrose…I mean even the fact that Melrose’s name is the same…she’s Melrose out of the ring and she’s Melrose inside the ring. But of course it’s a way elevated, super-sexualized, not really a person version that’s outside the ring, but outside the ring, there’s way more layers there that I think we got to explore in season 3, episode 6. But I think as just an actor, as a female, it’s really powerful that we have female writers and directors that are really writing the female experience. For me, it’s not as crazy to be playing a character that is within a character that is within a show that I can wrap my brain around, it’s more like: “Wow, look at these things that we get to do which are written by strong, powerful and incredible women”.

BT: What was it like working on The Boys for Amazon Studios?

JT: Working on The Boys was incredible. We shot in Toronto, which is such a cool city. I love shooting on location. The funny thing is that they gave me only the script for the episode that I was in, so I had no idea what the show was really or how amazing it was going to be. I was like: “Who’s Mother’s Milk? What is going on here?” But I understood my character, a ruthless reality show producer and that was all I needed to hit the ground running. When I got to see the whole season put together, I was blown away. I loved the show.

BT: You talked about how you were acting since you were nine years old, but really started getting the roles that you want a scant couple of years ago. Do you think that a significant shift took place for this to happen?

JT: So…a couple of things. I think it’s fiftyfold, no, I think it’s a millionfold, right? What you’re asking is sort of like the butterfly effect, right? Like if you went back to prehistoric times and stepped on a fly, would there be an iPhone? [laughs] It’s hard, you know, everything affects everything. I think that for me, a couple of things that happened that were like it’s difficult because everything affects everything.

I think for me, a couple of things that happened that were like I sort of came into the age that I always played. That was one of the things, I started looking and acting like the age I was playing. When I was this mousy and intellectual as a teenager, I don’t know that it was easy to hire that kid. I was a stand-up comic and I was a writer and I was a teenager and they were like: “Okay, we love this, but we’re not quite sure what to do with you“. Also, I was told in the beginning of my career that I was this “outside the box” hire, which I never understood. I thought to myself “I look normal and I have an interesting personality. I don’t know what is so outside the box about that.” But I guess because I was a writer and a comic, and I was probably edgier than the other little girls running around [laughs], maybe the timbre of my speaking voice. All these things considered, I’ve been acting since I was nine, and I would get these monstrous opportunities- I got development deals and big people were creating me pilots and things were happening,  they just never landed. Like I probably had four or five development deals, one with the guy who created Mad About You and one with the guy who created King of Queens. I mean these huge opportunities, but they never turned into anything. It wasn’t like I was sitting around twiddling my thumbs and just waiting for someone to look in my direction, I was waiting for something to materialize. Waiting for one of the opportunities to actually turn into something, and it wasn’t really until I got…that’s 20,000 reasons.

And then I got like a couple of reasons were: Netflix is a thing! Streaming is a thing! There’s more content being created, which is giving actors more opportunity. Also because of Netflix and these streaming services, there are more opportunities for weirder people to get on television- like me- these outside the box hires, edgy women, or whoever that is, that would maybe be too edgy for network or however they worded it.

But then on top of all of that, the timing worked out for me and I got super lucky, because I tried out to play Gilda Radner in 2016 for this casting director named Allison Jones, one of the great casting legends of all time. And the only reason I went for Gilda Radner is because they’d seen everyone else in the city. And one of my favourite little tidbits is I was in the waiting room with one other girl who was this beautiful Latina girl. I leaned over to her and I said: “Oh, who are you auditioning for?” and she said: “Gilda….Gilda Rosener? Gilda Ratner?” And I was like: “Okay, she doesn’t know the name of Gilda Radner”, but also, that was absurd! She was this gorgeous Latina girl. And I was like oh, they’ve seen everyone in the city. Like me and this girl are like the last two randoms to pop up. And it happens that Gilda’s one of my heroes, and I’m a comic and a Jew, a Jewish person from Detroit and I’m from New York and our speaking voices are similar and our mannerisms are similar and it’s not a far cry for me to…I mean she’s a legend, but it’s not a far cry for me. Like it’s not crazy for me, it makes perfect sense. And so I went in and I did all these characters and all this and I get the Gilda role. Then unbeknownst to me, when I go to audition for GLOW, oh, by the way, I have like no opportunities at this point. The Gilda thing was the first audition that I had done in ages of any value. I would try out for like a 10 line part on CSI: Miami, but nothing was really happening. But I go in and try out for the Gilda thing, and by the way good luck distilling this into anything that someone wants to read. I get the Gilda thing, and then when I go in for GLOW, I introduce myself to the New York casting director named Jen Euston, and she goes: “I know who you are. Allison Jones sent me your Gilda tape. Because she was like: “Who is this girl? She’s going to be our Gilda, where has she been hiding?” And Jen Euston, who was Allison Jones’ protégé coming up in casting, was like: “Oh my God, I need to get her on GLOW” so she calls me in for GLOW. And this was at a time in my career in which again I had nothing going on.

So the timing of Netflix existing, more women getting opportunities when it used to be one girl per show! Good luck! Hopefully you can be the quirky best friend! You’re not going to be the lead because you’re too outside the box! And so Netflix existing, more women being hired, more opportunities existing, and then Allison Jones showing Jen Euston my Gilda tape. The rest is history. And then now, I think work breeds work, right? So you’re working on stuff, people get excited, they see that you’re fun, they see that you’re interesting, and then of course, it unfolds from there. But it has to start somewhere.

BT: How important do you think does being a helpful and likeable castmate have to do with it?

JT: It’s a good question. I think that it’s interesting because we do sort of hear these stories about co-stars that hate each other and do a great job. So I don’t know. I mean personally, that wouldn’t be as good, but I think it helps. Obviously it helps enormously when you love the people with whom you are working and for whom you are working and we love our writers and our directors and our showrunners and we all feel so seen and understood and represented as different women, and I as a Jewish woman, who gets to tell the story of a piece of my actual family’s Holocaust story and all of that, I think that it’s so powerful. That said, that all makes everything better, 100 per cent. As far as if we didn’t get along, could we make a show? Probably. I don’t think that it would be the GLOW you get to see today. But could you do it? Sure, people do it all the time. [laughs] We’re just lucky that I love Barak (Hardley) and I love the girls of GLOW, and I love David Wain, the director of A Futile and Stupid Gesture, and I love that cast. I’ve been really lucky and I think that my luck has multiplied because I think that for every year of my life that I was broke and not working is coming back around, it feels like it’s coming back around.


Spell is currently on VOD

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