||Heather Juergensen grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and began writing and acting for the stage soon after graduation from school. While at a workshop sponsored by New York's Ensemble Studio Theater, Juergensen began collaborating with fellow actress/writer Jennifer Westfeldt on a storyline which was eventually turned into a script for Kissing Jessica Stein, an observational comedy about two straight women who form a romantic relationship. After years in development-hell, Kissing Jessica Stein, co-written and starring Juergensen and Westfeldt, was released in 2002, quickly becoming a critical and commercial hit. Here we talk to Heather about success, regrets, forthcoming projects and working with Malcolm McDowell...
The Spinning Image (TSI): Who’s your style icon? Is it all down to your stylist or do you aspire to someone in particular?
Heather Juergensen (HJ): My style icon? I wish I had one! I usually leave the house in junky corduroys and ratty tops. I adore stylists. Stylists present you with racks and racks of gorgeous designer clothing, and for the few precious hours of the photo shoot, they are all yours. Then like magic, perfect necklaces and hats and earrings also appear. If I could, I'd have a stylist permanently affixed to myself.
TSI: What typifies your fan base? What are the main audience you capture; is it mainly gay as they still relate to you in KJS, the first film that truly tackles their issues, or is it more of a mixed audience?
HJ: I get letters through my website from all over the world. Recently a man in Portugal wrote, "I have seen a lot of movies, but Kissing Jessica Stein, specialy because of you, made me fell like to be a woman, just to have that moments realy intense with you." A few things lost in the translation here, but a very sweet sentiment nonetheless. I also get lots of letters from young girls-- in university or just graduating from university, who seem to be identifying with me as a kind of young female entrepreneurial filmmaker.
TSI: Do you think that winning the GLAAD prize opened up new doors for you and made you appeal to a larger audience, or can you not help but feel a little branded and too bound to this one role of playing gay Helen Cooper?
HJ: I don't understand this fear of being typecast in gay roles. First of all, there aren't enough gay roles out there to be typecast in. All actors, gay or straight, are interested in a wide variety of roles because it's more interesting and challenging artistically. In Jessica I play a sophisticated, sexually adventurous (and ultimately gay) woman, in Red Roses and Petrol I play a mousy Irish girl who never leaves the house, and in the film I'm currently developing (Female Trouble) I'll play a white trash, slutty straight girl. Variety is the spice of life.
TSI: Did you feel comfortable assuming the role of a bisexual, and are you well adjusted in your own sexuality?
HJ: I enjoyed playing the role of Helen, I enjoyed exploring the bisexual nature of that character. I'm not really sure what you mean by being "well adjusted" in my own sexuality. I feel comfortable in my own sexuality, if that's what you mean. I think it's a shame that so many people are raised to feel uptight about sex or confused about it or ashamed of it. From a young age I understood that sex is just as normal and natural as eating or dancing or playing. I'm not really sure why... my parents were actually pretty conservative. My mom would shriek in embarrassment if I pulled my top up as a little girl, for example. If you watch children, they're almost universally comfortable with their bodies early on... until they're taught by their elders to feel shame or embarrassment about them.
TSI: Some call you ‘Jugalicious’ Juergensen (don’t ask); do you find this chauvinistic or humorous?
HJ: "Jugalacious?!?" What jugs are they talking about? Mine are miniscule! I'm an "Almost A" -- you need a microscope just to find them. Perhaps they were referring to my ass? I have a little bit of a bubble butt.
TSI: How is fame affecting your relationship, as you make the transition from underground to commercial?
HJ: Luckily, my fiancé is the most down-to-earth person I've ever met. He's a comedy writer, so whenever we go out to any kind of Hollywood function I always get a hilarious running commentary on the whole ridiculous scene. He doesn't mind when I get recognized or when people approach me, I think he feels vicarious satisfaction for me. It's nice to get recognition after years of hard work. He's very supportive.
TSI: Have you ever had doubts about how successful you can become; and what knock backs have ever triggered these doubts?
HJ: I have doubts all the time. Not as much about my own talent as the system in place that navigates the talent through the system. The people who broker talent -- producers and casting directors -- play the "Name Game" in the interest of box office and so name actors are always at the top of the list. I've lost roles to actresses who may not be quite as suited for a role as I am but if they carry a bigger name, that's usually the end of that. Many directors are told who they can have as a lead and who they can't. This is why so much was made of George Clooney fighting for his guy Sam Rockwell in A Dangerous Mind. The producers wanted a bigger name. Since the only real way to become a 'name' is by getting cast in a big movie or TV show, it becomes a bit of a catch-22. I do believe the cream rises, but the lack of control we actors feel in the casting process really makes us crazy. That's why I continue my writing, to try to control at least one more part of the process.
TSI: How did you find it working with Malcolm McDowell in Red Roses and Petrol? Was it intimidating acting against an actor of such stature?
HJ: I loved working with Malcolm. I wasn't intimidated at all, I think because he's so warm and affable and such a generous actor. He was always cracking wise on set -- including the scene where he's dying in hospital, and I'm crying and upset. That was some tricky acting job with him making me giggle every two minutes! I wish we'd had more scenes together... Catherine Farrell got all the scenes with Malcolm, lucky girl.
TSI: Do you regret ever giving up the safety that work in advertising would have provided you with? And would you ever consider going back?
HJ: I don't regret leaving advertising. I never could have stayed in a desk job for a lifetime. When I worked a desk job, it was as though there was an invisible chain attaching my leg to the desk... I felt trapped and miserable. As difficult as the artist's life is, and as infrequent as the pay checks can sometimes be, I'll take it over the office job any day. That said, I still have a soft spot in my heart for advertising. I find some TV commercials more interesting than the actual programming!
TSI: Was there anything about Kissing Jessica Stein that you were unhappy with? And if you could change anything, what would it be?
HJ: The only thing that I was disappointed with in Kissing Jessica Stein were certain shots where we lost the light or where we didn't have enough time for enough takes to experiment with things, or to fix subtle problems. The virgin eye probably doesn't see them, but I see them every time I see the film. But I don't focus on the problems. I think it's a bloody miracle we got the thing made at all, and I'm proud of it.
TSI: What can you tell us about the your next original screenplay, which has been described as "a caper comedy in the spirit of a female Dumb & Dumber"? And if offered the chance, would you wish to direct it?
HJ: All I can say about my next screenplay is that I'm writing one of the roles for one of my favorite female stand-up comics, and it will be a very silly, spoofy comedy. I wouldn't direct it myself because it's going to be an ensemble piece and as one of the actors in that ensemble, I want to be able to go through the muck and the mire of shooting a film with the other actors without also being at the helm, which tends to separate you from the other actors.
TSI: What’s the best social venue you’ve ever been to?
HJ: Social venue. Hm. I'm kind of a homebody. Ooh, I know-- I love the Halloween parade in West Hollywood. It's a wild party, everyone's dressed up and drinking and completely familiar with everyone else, like you've known each other for years even though you've just met. I actually hate dressing up in costume on Halloween, but I love this particular party, it's so wild and free.
TSI: What are your phobias? What are your vices/bad habits?
HJ: I have a character flaw where I get impatient and short with people and can be a little bitchy. Other than that, I'm perfect. And modest.
TSI: Are you a family person?
HJ: I absolutely love family. When I was a kid my dad used to make omelettes on weekends and I would just sit in the kitchen while he mixed the eggs, it made me so happy. I love the trappings of family and the rituals of it. That's why my favorite holiday is Christmas. At that time of year I become a Martha Stewart lunatic. I'll make eggnog and set out special ornaments and wrap presents with 20 different kinds of paper and color-coordinated ribbon. I play Christmas carols all day long, much to the chagrin of everyone else. I particularly like Christmas in England because it lasts a whole week. The world is so global now, and we're all scattered so far away from each other that I think it's more important than ever to either make time for your own family or create new family wherever you find yourself. Otherwise you'll always feel an emptiness inside. We're biologically programmed to have families and enjoy them.
TSI: Tell us something, anything (not necessarily filthy!) that you’ve never told anyone before.
HJ: I have kind of a big mouth, so this is a hard one.
TSI: When can we look forward to you coming to the UK?
HJ: I don't know when I'll next be in the UK. Hopefully doing press for Red Roses and Petrol!
Kissing Jessica Stein is now available on DVD.