"The plug on this film could have been pulled many times, but I just kept going"
Jenna Ciralli is a NY based actress. Growing up in Montana, Jenna was a very shy girl ("I took an acting class when I was 14 because I wanted to tackle this shyness") who was obsessed with horses.
Last month, Jenna won Best Performance of Fest award for her lead role in "Willow Creek Road". Jenna, who also wrote the script (with director Francesca Mirabella), plays Ruth, a lonely ranch hand in rural Montana unexpectedly picks up two children by the side of the road.
The lead judge, Roy Zafrani, described Jenna's performance as "Adorable. Through voice over and a very little dialogue, she takes us on a deep journey into her heart. There, you'll find yourself in a mystery, feeling weirdly uncomfortable with what's about to come".
In the following interview, Jenna takes us back to where it all started: From her childhood in Montana and her first role in high school, to some of her most memorable experiences on set as an award-winning actress in TV, stage and commercials.
Jenna Ciralli. Photo by Prospect Photography
Jenna, congratulations on winning Best Performance of Fest! Your performance was absolutely brilliant. What is your process like? How did you transform yourself into being Ruth Hutchinson in Willow Creek Road?
My process is very intuitive, instinctual and collaborative. Ruth was a slow burn. I had the luxury of understanding her world as a writer, so I was basking in her loneliness and ache from the writer's room, day 1. The seed of the story came from an artistic miscarriage I felt on the NYC theater scene. This artistic ache transferred into the more literal world of familial longing and loss for Ruth. I also had the world of Montana to draw from in my muscle memory of having spent 18 years living there. It was very familiar to use the beauty and spaciousness of the land, as well as horses to soothe Ruth's ache. I did this growing up. Montana was a scene partner for sure - a lot to take in through the senses.
What was the most challenging thing about the role?
Trusting that Ruth was being communicated non-verbally and that the camera would pick up on the subtle nuances of her emotional life. Director Francesca Mirabella largely guided that. I was so excited to be on set and she turned down my volume as Jenna at 9 to a "Ruth" 3. She pulled me back and gave me some quirky physical behavior to focus on - like focusing Ruth's nervousness in her hands and picking at them. If I was indicating in any moment, Francesca gave me a real task to do. For example, thinking of a grocery list instead of a general emotional underpinning. That technique translates to real and specific processing on camera. I learned a great deal about the camera from her.
What was your favorite scene to work on?
I loved the sprinkler scene. Running in and out of that giant pivot sprinkler with the kids at golden hour was impromptu movie magic. My cousin Steve Saunders is Montana based and made that scene happen near his home, day of. Francesca and Sheldon Chau, our DP, loved the visual, so our AD Josh Lucas efficiently collected the troops in a last minute decision at the end of the day. We were fighting day light but we got it! The wheat crop was very high though and the girl actress, precocious Scout, broke out in hives from it. So I carried her on my back and Preston, that darling little boy, despite his own discomfort, braved through it. The wheat was as high as he was. And it was sharp, too. The water was energizing though.
Is this your first collaboration with director Francesca Mirabella? How did you two meet, and what was it like to co-write the screenplay together? Did you already know you were going to play Ruth when you first approached the writing?
Yes, it is my first time working with Francesca and I did have my role of actor set prior to meeting her. I met Francesca through our DP, Sheldon. They were both finishing the NYU Graduate film program at the time and Francesca impressed me with her hunger, curiosity and tenacity. I knew it would take that to make a film in Montana with an NYC base. This was Francesca's first film as a co-Writer and she just blew me away. She's a detective. She picks up on clues from personal, real life observations and marries them to her imagination. The voiceover is all Francesca's writing. Our Editor Amy Adair had the idea and Francesca ran with it. She also sharpened the behavior in the initial script blueprint and slimmed it down. It was a very collaborative process.
From a producer's perspective, what unexpected events happened while you were working on Willow Creek Road?
We had an original writer and director on board who both fell away due to outside projects and concerns. There were many times the plug on this film could have been pulled, but I just kept going. I listened to a deep well of stubborn determination that was 200% committed. And my community really had my back. Pre-production and post were the most difficult. You know, the basic glitches of assembling team and figuring out technical concerns. The right team came on board at the right time.
Willow Creek Road - Trailer
Let's roll back to the beginning. Tell us about your early days, where did you grow up, what were some of your early inspirations and how did you become an actor and a storyteller?
I grew up in Montana and was obsessed with horses. I horse-showed professionally for many years. I remember feeling an early sense of showmanship and grace, of not complaining and getting right back on that horse after I fell off. (Little did I know how helpful that was to the filmmaking process). I was very shy. I took an acting class when I was 14 because I wanted to tackle this shyness. I was obsessed with Shakespeare, Stanislavsky, The Group Theater & theater history, and always -- going to the movies. I escaped into films because they were an emotional safe-ground for a shy kid. But it seemed far away. Theater was something I could actively work towards in Montana. I began to find a voice through other's words, an identity as an actor to my peers, an outlet for my emotional life and most importantly -- a craft that challenged and called me.
Jenna Ciralli. Photo by Susan Shacter
What training did you go through? Looking back, do you feel it's important to learn acting techniques? Do you find yourself using advice from acting mentors?
It is crucial to be well studied. I absolutely subscribe to having a base in the liberal arts, classics and modern theater. I began my study of the Meisner Technique in college at the Willamette University Theater Program in Salem, OR with Susan Coromel. We did a lot of Shakespeare and Chekhov scene study alongside the Meisner Technique (method acting based on working truthfully off a scene partner). That really honed my tool box and my perception. I think it's crucial to be able to read another person as an actor. That is empathy 101. I got to perform work from Arthur Miller, Eugene Ionesco, Shakespeare, Chekhov, and contemporary playwrights on stage. Then I found Terry Knickerbocker in NYC at William Esper Studio. Terry is a master Meisner teacher and his Professional Actor Training Program was 2 of the best years of my life. Afterwards, I got to see his work with Sam Rockwell as acting coach and really learned from their consistent approach to craft, obsessive research, detailed script analysis and sense of play and humor. I marry all my teachers' advice to my own intuition and sense of things. Best advice I've received: run your own race. And lead from a place of love, not desperation. Let the pile-up of your good work stand for itself.
Jenna Ciralli in Willow Creek Road
Do you remember your first role? What was it?
In High School it was Luciana in Shakespeare's "A Comedy of Errors" and in college it was the Pupil in Eugene Ionesco's absurdist two-hander "The Lesson." Ionesco was dealing with trauma in the aftermath of WWII. The Lesson was a study in how words defile another human being, ending in a symbolic death of the Pupil. I really took that ride and it took some time to recover.
You've worked in Film (The Nest, The Other Woman, Say it With Flowers), TV (A Crime to Remember, One Life to Live, What History Forgot), Stage (Fever! A Date with Tennessee Williams) and commercial world (LG Phone, Heineken, Chocolate Works). What were some of the most memorable experiences for you on set? Were there any defining moments that made you wanna go in a certain direction (more films of a certain genre, more stage, etc)?
Honestly, I feel I have a thoroughbred's race in me and the opportunities on set thus far have been minor sprints. That is why I made Willow Creek Road. I wanted a full meal in film. Theatre is very satiating (my most magical experience was playing Velma Sparrow in a play called Birdbath, a role suggested to me by the great acting teacher Maggie Flanigan) and I want to continue to find opportunity to work on that kind of depth of material in film.
With director Francesca Mirabella on set
You define yourself as a "Film Nerd", can you share more about that? What makes you so passionate about films? What are your favorite films? Do you feel these films influence your work?
Absolutely. To me, films are a process of organizing, distilling and sharing beauty. I think cinematic beauty comes from seeing an actor play for real in an intimate platform. There is beauty in the relationship between that and the audience's catharsis. I know it heals me. To name just a couple ... I have long studied and absorbed the early work of Meryl Streep, Juliette Binoche, Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, and Kate Winslet. No one really looked like me in film and Kate was a revelation for my teenage self. She had this classic look and earthy aesthetic that I saw myself in and was so comfortable in her own skin. Films with complex female performances like Kramer vs Kramer, Blue, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Silkwood, Sophie's Choice, American Beauty, The Hours, Boogie Nights, Safe, Vanya on 42nd Street, Sense and Sensibility, Jude, The Reader etc. have inspired me to no end and taught me the gamut of vulnerable strength and strong vulnerability. And of course Sam Rockwell's body of work represents the training I come from and he beautifully blurs the line between comedy and drama to find the truth.
Jenna Ciralli in Willow Creek Road
If you could choose any director in the world to work with on your next movie as an actor... Who would you choose?
Have you seen Phantom Thread? I just cannot stop thinking about Vicky Krieps's work. Her work with DDL is one of the most honest depictions of a relationship I have ever seen on film. I saw some outtakes of the screen tests in prep with the meticulous period piece details, the lighting, the character preparation. It is all given such love. P.T. Anderson is the real deal. Dream choice. And Kelly Reichardt. The type of stories I am called to seem to align with hers: looking at the American West through the female gaze.
Where are you currently based, and what are your short term and long term career goals?
I am based in Brooklyn, NY, and accessible to Bozeman, MT and LA. Short term goals - I'd like to build relationships with casting directors and book TV credits while continuing content creation in indie film. Long term -- I feel called to stories about women in the American West, I want to learn to act in Italian, and be a strong ally to Indigenous voices in filmmaking. I want to tackle ageism and reaffirm the tremendous value in deepening one's craft with age. And I hope I always choose courage. This line of work takes courage in spades. May it be a copious, life-long well.
What's planned for 2018 and 2019?
I have two short films cooking: "Amadi Comes Home" (with the Casting Call | The Project team -- we created a video that went viral in 2016 of real actresses reading real sexist breakdowns) and "Tessa Returning," my first solo writing experience, also set in MT. I have a theater piece in development that is site specific to Brooklyn bar culture of bar scenes throughout the 20th & 21st centuries, and a feature film "Cara + Abilene," a Modern Day Western with Francesca Mirabella to move along.
Where can our readers follow you and your work?
Is there anything you wish to add?
TThank you so much for these excellent questions. It is an honor to connect with you. The work you do to spotlight actors is really important. Beyond celebrity - I think highlighting the crafts(wo)manship of actors out there hustling with great heart, risk and commitment is crucial.