By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Photo by Lynn Imanaka
Jennifer Siebel is glamour on the move. In September she opened in the SF Playhouse production of Six Degrees Of Separation portraying two roles, Tess and Elizabeth. The 1990 play by John Guare revolves around the premise that any two people in the entire world are separated by only six degrees – that they could conceivably link through six controlled, cunningly crafted and carefully calculated connections. Just prior to taking off for two weeks to North Carolina to complete her work in the forthcoming film, April Fool’s Day, Jennifer and I exchanged a 6-point combination of post-curtain rap, cell-rings and wireless replies before settling on a chic corner café to chat. No less than six beguiling blondes make their entrance as my coffee is being re-freshed. An outside newsstand catches my eye – some caption about the latest at City Hall, just enough to make me smile. Good thing! The radiant Ms. Siebel has wafted in from out of nowhere and suddenly I’m The Guy with the prettiest girl in town.
JENNIFER SIEBEL – At SF Playhouse
Within moments we have launched into Girls Club Entertainment, the companies Jennifer has created to foster and advance independent women filmmakers, particularly those who share her focus on how to make the world go round a helluva lot better. If that sounds like you, click here. Word is out that Jennifer Siebel is one hot degree closer than most to five others that link-up to Who, What and the Where of global environmental organizations, children’s international health issues, wildlife management in Africa, rainforests in South America, and just about everything in women’s athletics. As a producer, she has collaborated on such recently successful films as The Trouble With Romance. When screened for the Directors Guild of America the film garnered critical praise, as did her performance (in the role of “Jill”) at recent film festivals in San Jose, San Francisco, Washington, DC and San Diego. With an MA in Business Administration from Stanford in her hip pocket, Jennifer Siebel pulls out my favorite stops for themes on Hollywood’s Leading Ladies.
THE TROUBLE WITH ROMANCE
SEÁN: Tell me about your latest endeavor.
JENNIFER: It’s called Women’s Independent Cinema. We’re basically distributing DVDs; each has a feature, a documentary, a few shorts, and a Q&A interview – honoring women filmmakers, writers, and composers, stories that are very female-centric. There is an overabundance of opportunity for men behind the camera and in front of the camera. But, not all stories are told by women. So, we’re trying to support that.
S: How far back are you going with works produced by women?
J: That’s a great question! Just a few years. I need to think about that, though. Going back further is a great idea and one we should consider.
S: There’s all that work that has been done and can’t just sit on the shelves simply because it never got proper distribution.
J: My favorite eras are the ’40s and ’70s. My favorite films and female story lines like Silkwood come out of the ’70s. Also, women in the Golden Age of film and from the ’40s. That was beautiful.
S: My favorite star from that period is Norma Shearer. To study her career is to study much of the culture of the ’20s and the ’30s.
J: Yes! I did research on her for a project based on women in power. I love the black and white Classics. Film history is so important. I feel Hollywood loses so much with our emphasis on celebrity culture, and the tabloids, etc. I was just seen in In The Valley Of Elah – Paul Haggis’ film. I have a small role in it, but it is a very powerful film. The film got great reviews, but Haggis gets attacked by the bloggers for being “anti-American”. The film is very powerful and I was so glad to be a part of it. I feel we need to celebrate the filmmakers who are brave and bold, who are telling stories that are deep and powerful and are putting women into complex roles. Women like Meryl Streep and Charlize Theron deserve to be part of those stories that are going to inspire women and men for future generations.
SIX DEGREES – Jennifer Siebel (in dual roles), with Daniel Krueger, Daveed Diggs, and Christopher Maikish (right)
S: As the fine arts critic for the San Francisco Sentinel I really enjoy covering the opera, symphony and ballet. It’s all Theatre. The productions either hold my attention and keep me entertained – or they don’t. The play you are now in, Six Degrees Of Separation, is well done and very entertaining. That’s all that matters. It’s also important to me that SF Playhouse is successful enough to be able to cast Bay Area performers with Equity standing. That alone says something very important to many in the acting community who are wanting to leave San Francisco because of lack of opportunity.
J: Bill English and Susi Damilano run the Playhouse. I absolutely love them and wish them so much success. I want to work with them again and again. I think our cast is phenomenal. It makes me very excited about working in San Francisco because there is this caliber of talent.
S: Tell me about your audition. What monologue did you do? What got you the part?
J: I did Elizabeth’s monologue. It’s a short monologue. I went in as a brunette. I was doing a movie and they had darkened my hair. I looked very different! I had not done a lengthy run since the previous fall. It was a blast to just get back into my body. I was saying, “Do you want me to do it bigger?” Bill was so encouraging. The Playhouse is a small theatre, so he likes working with film and TV actors because he does not want the delivery so big and disconnected. They called me a week later and offered me the role.
S: At the time, did you know you would be doing two parts?
J: They were matching us. They had a couple of us playing multiple roles, trying to figure out how to do it. That made me happy because in the beginning I was thinking I would just do this small thing. Then it became more of a challenge – to play two different roles. And I like challenges! Then I became more excited about the whole product. Granted, I’m not on stage for the first thirty minutes – but, you feel it every night. Both of my characters go through real emotional journeys. I am wiped afterwards! Two performances on Saturdays – I’m really wiped I don’t want to get out of bed. Sunday morning? I am so wiped. Also, it’s been crazy. I have a company and we’re in production on a film and I’m acting in North Carolina – a completely different character, a “Miss Carolina”, totally opposite of both of these roles.
S: Have you ever been to North Carolina?
J: Yes, but I haven’t been there in a while. We’re working 12 to 14 hour days.
S: What is the project?
J: It’s called “April Fool’s Day”. It’s a Columbia TriStar film, mainly a bunch of 18 to 20-something year olds. They’re the hot young Hollywoods and I’m, like, Hey, I’m a kind of a witch – not a “witch” – but I get to be nasty.
S: Sounds like fun! [Actually, her character's name is, like, "Barbie".]
J: It is fun. It’s fun to play opposite your personality because I would never want to be that way. But I will miss doing the play and that makes me sad. We have the most wonderful cast. Bill and Susie have the best energy and they really take care of you. I have an understudy and she’ll be on for the next two weeks.
S: But, good for her!
J: She’s great, I love her. And I’m happy for her because sometimes, as an understudy, you never get to go on.
[During my recent interview with Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin – "THE BIG VOICE: God or Merman?" – the boys talked about the occasions when the theatre was packed with a more-mature audience, especially for previews and matinees. Thanks to various agencies and special ticket prices offered by non-profit performing arts companies – no one over 65 has to stay home. As Steve and Jim observed, they've seen it all anyway! The main advantage for the actors on stage – considering Experience is the Best Teacher – is that the humor and subtleties within a well-written script are seldom lost and whatever may be of peek interest to a younger crowd is most often shrugged into acceptance by those who've been around for a while.]
S: So what do you think the reaction of the little old ladies was on Saturday afternoon?
J: [Big laugh.] I’m thinking – why do they put the little old ladies right there in the front?! You know, I was really impressed with the commitment from Day One. There was no fear, people we’re just going for it, everybody’s comfortable, we’re just going to give it our all.
S: Frontal nudity is certainly nothing new and many of the folks are multi-grandparents by this point – thus, “What do I NOT know?” New Conservatory Theatre’s recent production of TAKE ME OUT was loaded with frontal nudity. When it looks that good it may take a while to re-focus back to the script. But when the script is equally charming – it’s easy and the nudity dissolves into “whatever”. How do you feel about all of that?
J: I think it’s beautiful. There’s a play I’ve wanted to do for the longest time, David Hare’s The Blue Room. If the part calls for it, you do it. Now I would want to check-in with those close to me and consider what is appropriate. You have to figure that out. On the other hand I think suggestiveness can be more sensual and attractive either way. In some instances it is sexier and more beautiful to watch. I don’t always think that! But I think it’s cool and it is Art.
S: So after you’re finished in North Carolina and you come back here, then what?
J: The play lasts until the 17th of November. I still have my place in Los Angeles, but essentially my company is up here – so, I can be day-to-day here. And I’m on this NBC show, LIFE, on Wednesday nights. They weren’t sure whether to make me a “bad guy” or a “good guy” : and they are making my storyline with the lead, Daniel, a larger piece of the conspiracy theme. Our characters, though divorced, may still be in love. But the show is getting great reviews. So, I go to do work on that in LA. I’m in the process of trying to sell a couple of TV shows.
S: Are you writing it or is it being written for you?
J: I’m developing it with a girl that works for me as a writer. I don’t have the time that I did before, so I’m better at this stage of just pitching them. Then we have two environmental TV shows. I think we will sell at least one. We have some good stuff and people are responding.
S: Is it easier for you, in your position, to do something that is really you or to compete against women of your type? In other words – how many of you who actually fit that description will show up in one room?
J: A gazillion. It’s easiest just to be yourself but you have to get in the rooms. In Los Angeles there are a million Leading Lady Blondes. I have to say – when I died my hair brown for the movie, I really liked it. They took me a little more seriously. It got people in San Francisco thinking I was “somebody else”. It was quite funny for a while. I died my hair red for a TV show a while back and there was a whole other vibe in the way people would respond.
JENNIFER SIEBEL – moods and shades
S: What do you think it is?
J: There are people who love redheads – you’re more serious, more sensual. As a brunette? You seem stronger, smarter. I found I was taking myself more seriously. I had to color my hair back to blonde for one day, for the TV show …
J: Yeah, not good for it. They ended up with a medium color the first day, but got enough blonde for the show that it passed. But I also felt lighter and giddier and more girlish as a blonde. It was weird. As an actor, I’m very perceptive. I know myself and I’m very aware.
S: It’s also very similar to the kind of thing that’s about, “What am I wearing tonight / What am I wearing this afternoon?!” As a performer, I spent my career in a tuxedoe. I discovered early on that I really did not want to share the stage nor leave San Francisco. As a Gay man in the ’80s – it’s a whole other world. So, I had to diversify. I had to discover what would satisfy me artistically and at the same time be socially appropriate and not have all of that other “agenda” be on anybody’s table. I just wanted the audience to hear me. So I wound up doing a lot of concert work and singing in church. The performance was not about Me, but about “It”.
J: Yes! Right! That’s what Art is about. It’s not you, it’s about the story. Thats a mistake a lot of actors make in Hollywood. I’ve learned it and you have to keep reminding yourself of it. In Six Degrees, it’s not about me. It’s about telling the story through your character’s eyes. It’s about being a part of a team.
S: When going through your website and checking out your pictures, my focus is always about “What do I notice?” It’s a great collection of portraits because it shows a lot of sides of you. The one I like the most – outside the very sensual one of you in black, a great photo no matter who it is – is the one of you in front of the window in the white dress.
J: Omigod, really? My friend Maggie Norris, a designer, loaned me that dress.
JENNIFER SIEBEL and NORMA SHEARER
S: I look at that and all these things just pop out at me. I’m a native San Franciscan. When I’m eight years old, Channel 7 gets the M.G.M package of films. One day I had a cold, I’m home in front of the TV, and on comes Norma Shearer in Noël Coward’s Private Lives. She is at her fashionable best – and ruins me. Over the years, watching her over and over – I learned about Hollywood’s glamour photography. Image Making. What face do they need as the scene is progressing? Turns out, Norma’s right eye was occasionally lazy. Thus, in contolling her image, she has about seven faces. So, what’s your handicap?
J: It’s tension, tension in the face. I say, “OK, relax.” I gind my teeth at night, sometimes I wear a mouthpiece. I meditate. I let off steam through exercise, I do my vocals, I do all of the mouth stuff – just so I’m relaxed. I also do some Alexander Technique.
S: This is your preparation before you go on? You use this to center?
J: Yes. I’m not a good actor when I’m not centered.
S: None of us are.
J: Right. In L.A., if you’re not a name-actor, you only get into so many rooms. So, you have to make an impression when you get in that room. If I’m worrying about my bills or my film in production, etc., I’m crappy. So I have to center myself and make whatever scene I’m doing – that other person I’m in the scene with – the most important thing for those five minutes. When I do that – yay! When I don’t get the part I know it wasn’t meant to be. But, if I’m present and I’ve done the work, I feel good about it.
S: If money were no object, if you could do anything, have it produced for you, bring in the best people – what would it be?
J: I would really love to have a role I could really sink my teeth into. It would be great if it could be on stage, such as an Albee or a Tennesse Williams. But I’d love to do a film – a really raw, intense, dramatic story – something like Naomi Watts and Charlize Theron have done, where you just get down and dirty.
S: Can you give me an example of that role?
J: I love Meryl Streep in Silkwood. I look a little bit like Naomi Watts, maybe we could play sisters or something. I like her as a person. She’s not Hollywood, very down-to-earth and real. I love the role Charlize did in In The Valley Of Elah. Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby, Jennifer Connelly in Requiem For A Dream. I’ve always loved Joan Allen. And Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront.
S: Would you choose film over the stage?
J: No. I like the stage a lot. I think it’s the only way I will really get to grow, unless I get to work as an actor in film and TV daily. Because everyday you do the same thing over and over and every time it’s different. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But you keep going forward. You can’t take it over, you have to accept it. You made me think of something — Naomi Watts, being able to portray two different women [Mulholland Drive]. Two identities, two selves. I’d love to show that I too have those chops.
JENNIFER SIEBEL and LAURA HARRING
S: That has always been a major Hollywood gimmick. Bette Davis did it twice – Stolen Life and Dead Ringer, Olivia de Havilland in Dark Mirror. It was one of those challenges, the “plum thing”. The other gimmick is to grow old, to portray a range of aging.
J: I did this one part where they put me in a prosthetic and aged me. I was in make-up and hair at 3:30 in the morning and looked my grandma’s age. But my grandma is really quite attractive at 70-something! And I thought – this is really cool, to see yourself, if you’d look like that … with the jowls. They didn’t make my ears look bigger but that would have been funny, too. So, that was fun – to just let go of vanity and get down like that. I make fun of myself in my movie in North Carolina because I’m actually older than everyone else and my character is a little bit older. I make fun of the lines on my face. It’s really fun to not take yourself so seriously. But, I would find a phenomenal director – someone I really trusted, to push me, allow me to play and explore places I’ve never been before as an artist. I would love to tell Amy Beale’s story – the girl that was killed in South Africa. Or Jane Goodall’s story. I would love to do something on location in Africa. I love Africa. Those are big dreams of mine. Then, if money was no issue, to really get more involved in the world. To travel, to help other people – whether they be kids, women, minorities – basically to help improve their lives, give them hope, to ensure their education and that they’d have some opportunities for an entrepreneurial endeavor, beyond just a job. When I lived and worked in Africa and Latin America, I worked with women entrepreneurs. Women, especially in developing countries, are the ones responsible to feed their children – are the best at insuring the proper health and shelter, clothing, welfare and well-being of their children. Therefore, they should be the ones that control the family purse strings. So, for me, it would be to empower women. And, at the same time, to support men in enabling them to empower their wives – so that there would be more equality and not such a disparity.
S: Do you think you’ll see it in your lifetime?
J: I hope so. I think we’re starting to see it – with Nancy Pelosi where she is, with Hilary Clinton running for president. We have to take it. One of the reasons I love being in San Francisco versus L.A. is the reality check. Women up here, for the most part, are pretty impressive. Honestly, I have great girl friends in L.A. – some phenomenal women. But I think it’s easier in L.A. to get caught up in the power that is in my industry – the games, the male/female power dynamics, in the entertainment field. Women aren’t given the opportunities that men are. Women are put down a bit – and they believe it. I think I’ve even hurt my own career by not believing in my own strength and power. Until recently.
S: It’s hard for me to hear that. I’ve been around long enough – to witness all the various movements, to see the changes in college curriculums – to think that women and everyone else would “get it” by now. Whereas, what you are saying is so fifty-years-ago the problem and it is still the problem.
J: Something I’m exploying in my documentaries, to a certain extent, we have to take responsibility as a gender. At times we can be our own worst enemy. Women need to come together in the way that men do, for each other. There’s room for all of us. And, unfortunately, I don’t know if it’s genetic or Darwinian – I think a lot of times women don’t realize that there’s room for all of us and there’s no need to bring other women down in the process. We may as well all rise up together. One of the greatest things my parents did for me was to encourage me to play sports. I learned how to be a team player, I learned to fail. I learned that I wasn’t always the best no matter how hard I tried. Hollywood’s been good and I’ve struggled a lot. It’s really taught me there’s room for everyone. I think, once we as a gender get that, and support each other to be the best we can be, then the men will have to follow suit.
MAYOR GAVIN NEWSOM and JENNIFER SIEBEL.
Photo by Steve Simons
S: Then this is the ethos around your products. If someone asks, “What is your philosophy here?” – that would be it in a nutshell and everything else supports it. Is that fair?
J: Everyday I am challenged in trying to be a better person – looking at all my misgivings, shortcomings, trying to figure out how to survive, how to inspire other girls, who inspires me, etc.
S: Where I find it as a vocal coach is enabling women to let their voice out. Some arrive with these breathy, hesitant and stifled sounds. Then working through music, with scales and breathing – the layers then fall and out comes this larger resonating tone.
J: I know. You obviously embrace it. You embrace strong women, like Norma Shearer. There’s a fine line. There’s an ego in having confidence and knowing your purpose, knowing who you are and celebrating life. Then there’s another ego that is damaging, in anger. Like the light and the dark. We’ve all got them both in us and it’s which one do we have to fight the most. Eckhart Tolle (A New Earth) says it’s about letting go of the ego, releasing it, to be aware of when it’s coming up.
S: Because it gets in the way.
J: It gets in the way. The final thing is – as a planet as a global community, the ego is what gets us into war. The ego is what causes sexism and racism which causes all the turmoil we’re in. I don’t know if it’s possible to become ego-less. But it is possible to be aware of when you are making decisions based on ego. I want my decisions based on clarity.
What is crystal clear is that Jennifer Siebel is much more than the New Girl In Town.
The Cast of SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION – now at SF Playhouse
See Seán’s recent articles and interviews:
MAGIC FLUTE – Entrancing Make-Believe at San Francisco Opera
SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY OPENS 2007 SEASON WITH A FLOURISH
APPOMATTOX – A Flag–Waving Victory for San Francisco Opera
SAMSON AND DELILAH – L’Amour et Glamour On the Re-Bound at SAN FRANCISCO OPERA
NORMA SHEARER – Headlines the 12th ANNUAL SILENT FILM FESTIVAL
SWEENEY TODD – Sheared Ennui At A.C.T.’s 41st Anniversary
THE SCULPTURE OF LOUISE NEVELSON: Constructing a Legend
A CONVERSATION with JIM BROCHU and STEVE SCHALCHLIN – “The Big Voice: God or Merman?”
An Interview with PASCAL MOLAT, Principal Dancer of the San Francisco Ballet
Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: email@example.com.
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