Star On the Rise
The Advocate: Hi, Jessica. Congratulations on True Blood — can you tell us how you transitioned from modeling to acting?
Sara was the first film project I worked on as an actress; it's a short film. I was really drawn to it because I think it told a story that’s relatively unique in the lesbian community that’s rarely discussed, which is HIV and the complexity of what that brings to a relationship. I feel, obviously, it’s been present in the LGBT community for a long time but rarely told from the female perspective. So, it was something I wanted to explore and put out there. I thought they were two very different women that the story focused on. What I’m most drawn to in life in general is how we think and why we do what we do and the complexities of people and women and love and I thought that film, in a really short amount of time, addressed and challenged so many of those pre-conceptions.
So, that was my first experience and it ignited something in me. I had always attended classes and written stories as a creative outlet because I need that, and I thought in my previous career in a model the way I approached that was that I believed I was telling a non-verbal story. But to be an actress and live that life you have to be really dedicated, you have to be sure that’s something you really want. And after the experience of Sara, it became real for me that this is what I want to do.
Then your role in A Perfect Ending came next?
It came a couple of months after Sara. I think what’s funny about that is our community—the internet has done such an amazing job of connecting LGBT communities and the arts and politics and having these discussions and forums in places across the U.S. and the world—that didn’t necessarily exist before. There was a certain amount of press and responses to my work in Sara. Nicole Conn and Marina Rice Bader were obviously working on A Perfect Ending and I actually came up on Facebook as a person they should know because we had mutual friends in the artistic community. So there was this Facebook connection and they reached out to my manager to see if I would be interested. I knew Nicole’s work and had a tremendous amount of respect for her as a writer and director. When I read the script, I was completely blown away. And Paris, my character, was really this thrilling, terrifying, amazing challenge and experience for me because she’s so complex and has this amazing power and completely vulnerable side to her. The journey she goes on personally and the journey she goes on meeting Rebecca is sort of revelatory.
As an out actress, did you think for a minute that it wouldn’t be wise to take a gay role?
It was definitely a question that I asked myself. I wouldn’t say necessarily it came out of fear, more one of interest. Things have changed so much even in recent years. And it needs to change in terms of visibility of gay people and gay women in the arts. I certainly didn’t think it was something to be scared of, and I enjoy a challenge. As an actress I want to do as many diverse characters and stories as possible but I also really love the idea that being gay isn’t necessarily the storyline every time. The character can be gay and the story isn’t necessarily about that. With A Perfect Ending, especially, as much as it is a lesbian-driven film in terms of the writer and director and myself, [the protagonist] is not a gay woman, and I think the story and the journey the characters go on is relevant and can appeal to people across the board. That’s what I’m really interested in—human experience.
Sounds like you don’t have any anxiety being described as gay, lesbian, or queer. Someone like Amber Heard—she seems like someone who has people telling her to downplay her gayness.
Amber Heard is a tremendous actress and talent. That’s certainly not for me to comment on; I think she’s fabulous. But for myself, I am who I am and I feel comfortable in my skin. I’m a forthright person and I am ambitious and I do hope that I get to do more, interesting work but not at the expense of me not being who I am. Backtracking on who I am, how I define myself, or who I’m in love with, that for me would diminish the quality of my life. Any professional success that came out of that wouldn’t give me true satisfaction.
Who are some actresses that you admire?
Some of my favorite actresses are Cate Blanchett, I love her. I love Zoe Saldana, and Julianne Moore is one of my favorites. I like women who choose diverse roles and have that strength, which I think all women have but some women embrace it, present it, and live in it. Kate Winslet makes really strong, bold choices.
You were recently on the cover of Vogue India. Did that feel like an accomplishment or simply another job?
It was definitely a big accomplishment. I think of myself as an actress now, and that was the last modeling job I’d done. That wasn't deliberate at all; it came out of the blue that they asked me. I worked for them a number of times over the years, but the cover request kind of came out of the blue. I started modeling at a really young age and the cover of Vogue is one of those things that any woman, or most people who have only a cursory knowledge of fashion, recognize and admire. So it did feel significant and I was very honored.
Are you part Indian?
Yes, I am. I'm very diverse, I'm a walking political statement. I'm part Indian and part Nigerian, and then English-Irish.
Have you encountered difficulties being a non-white actress in Hollywood?
It's not something I tend to think about too much. There are similar percentages [of racial makeup] in the fashion world. The way I've always coped with it, and what I've continued with in my acting career, is that there are certain things that I can't control and have no desire to control. I am multi-racial, I am gay, and there's not much I can do about those things, nor would I want to if I could. So to sit there and worry, it's not a constructive thing. There are so many subjective things in this industry and there's no one linear path to success, so I could freak out about any number of those things, but for my own sanity I try hard not to go there. I try generally to look at the positive, forward motions of these things. I was really happy in this pilot season that they cast a significant amount of women of color. And Kerry Washington has Scandal and Mindy Kaling has a new show. I do see forward motion, obviously I would wish for more and I would love to be part of that from a purely selfish aspect. I think all you can do is great work and do the best you can.
It's just annoying when you hear people say we're "beyond race."
I wouldn't say that. I'm positive, not delusional (laughs). I don't think we're in a post-sex world; I'm a huge feminist. We've made huge strides but we're still not equal in the workplace in terms of what we're paid and CEO representation. I just prefer to approach it like, There's work to be done, so let's get out there and do it.
Where are you based now?
My wife and I are in L.A. now. We made the move from New York.
Where were you married?
We had a destination wedding off the coast of Mexico, in terms of our ceremony and family and friends. We figured everyone had to travel, given that I'm from Europe. So, we figured we make everyone travel and have the event in the sunshine. We had our legal ceremony in Connecticut two years ago; at the time New York (where she was living) wasn't issuing licenses but they were recognizes marriages performed in other states.
So, tell us about your latest project.
Well, I'm on the fifth season of True Blood, playing a supernatural creature. I'm super excited. I'm having an amazing time.
It looks like a revealing role, physically.
It's True Blood, so it's certainly not for the prudish. In keeping with all the other things I've been talking about, I'm very comfortable with my sexuality and my body. Not to say I don't have any hangups with my body as a woman, but as an actress my job is to tell stories and depict human, and supernatural, experiences. I do relate to my body as part of that instrument.
What does your wife think of your racy scenes? Have you talked about that?
We discuss a lot of things. Talking is one of our favorite activities. Well, one of them (laughs). She and I were drawn together and fell in love because, as much as we're similar in some regards, we come from very different places and we're very different people. So, there's so much fun in sharing your life with someone who has a different perspective on the world. She embraces who I am and what I love to do and is my greatest cheerleader in this journey, as I am with her. But I'm sure it's a little odd (laughs). She's a fitness expert with her own company and she trains me. She says, "At least they can see how great my work is."
True Blood airs on HBO, Sundays at 9 p.m.