Jess Loudon, 34
Lives in: Brisbane
On her way to: New York City
Nominated by: Clare McFadden
Jess Loudon is a lawyer turned actor who chats to me like we’ve known each other for five years rather than five minutes.
At 34, Jess says her life feels a little like it’s in a holding pattern between where she’s been and where she wants to be. After leaving her law career to train at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York City and eventually work for them, she is now back in Brisbane touring with a Shakespearean theatre company. Jess knows where she wants to go (back to New York City, of course!), she’s just figuring out the next steps to get there.
I have to laugh when Jess tells me that I should feel free to shut her up if she starts talking too much. I wouldn’t dream of it. She is warm, inquisitive and so plainly overjoyed (if not still a little surprised) that she is now a full-time actor. I am stoked for her, as you will be too. And it turns out Jess does have lots to say: on the wisdom of grandparents, why we’re so set on being polite and how to keep it real in a world that is built on the make believe.
Jess, can you tell us how you landed on acting after starting out as a lawyer?
I’ve always been a show off! If there was anything that even remotely looked like a stage, I would run onto it and start doing routines and singing and stuff. So it’s very much been a part of me, but I didn’t really know how to do it. The academic side was sort of more encouraged. I thought, I’ve got to be serious, so it’s either law or medicine.
I’ve got this life and I’m going to run with it. And someone will eventually tell me to shut up if I’m really bad!
I was doing little bits of amateur theatre while I was at law school but in my final year my mum (sorry mum!) was going through quite a nasty divorce from my former stepfather and I thought, You know what, life’s too short to be miserable. I’m miserable being a lawyer and I may be an absolute rubbish actor, but by god I’ve got this life and I’m going to run with it. And someone will eventually tell me to shut up if I’m really bad!
There are 40,000 actors in New York and you’ve got the top acting schools in the world, so if you’re the sort of person—like me—who wants to suss out how good you are, that’s where you want to pop yourself. And somehow I was lucky to get a break and then another break and then another.
Something goes from being possible to probable and it’s just that little tweak for you to think okay, I can keep going to the next step.
Who have you received advice from along the way? Who has been the most encouraging?
I think I’ve been lucky the whole way along. Every time I’ve needed it there’s always been that one person there who’s given me a little push. And I think that makes all the difference. Because something goes from being possible to probable and it’s just that little tweak for you to think, Okay, I can keep going to the next step.
When I was at law school we used to do the law revue. Everyone in the year above me was really creative so I had this extraordinary group of people I could look up to who were also like, ‘You’re really funny, why don’t you do this?’ Bit by bit, I would have people hire me and be really honest with me.
My experience in New York was also unbelievable. I wasn’t getting much work in Australia and was almost thinking of giving up acting because I thought, Well, I’m never going to make a living off it. Turning up in New York and having this theatre company, that I’ve always loved, first of all offering me a chance to train with them, and then to have the head of that theatre company offer me a job and end up in a room with all these Tony and Oscar winners, people who have done everything that I want to do, was beyond my wildest dreams.
They’re sitting in the room saying, ‘What do you think, is this any good?’ And I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? Of course it’s good!’ [Laughs] They were really encouraging to me as well.
Did you feel like you could hold your own when you first got in there with all these people that you really admired?
It would be safe to say that I could have very easily lost control of my bowels from the moment I stepped into the room. I was terrified. But in New York you’ve gotta hustle. So I walked in and pretended that I wasn’t terrified.
Jess, I wanted to briefly come back to that whole idea of sharing and generosity. How do you think we become more comfortable sharing what we know, rather than scared we’re going to lose the spot we’ve worked so hard for?
That’s the thing. It’s making people feel secure. I think the more often we reassure, encourage and support people in their creative endeavours, as opposed to judging, criticising and undermining the validity of their choices, then we allow people to relax and focus on their creativity.
I have an extremely strong group of women around me and it’s always the older women who choose to mentor and nurture. They’re the relationships that are the ones that really sustain you, especially during hard times.
Can you tell us about some of the strongest women in your life?
Well, definitely I have two warrior women. I have my mum and my grandma and they are extraordinary women: incredibly strong, very, very intelligent, kind, insightful, compassionate and very generous. They’re the ultimate role models for me.
She went from this hideous situation—from having so much insecurity and turmoil—and yet she and my grandad created this incredible stability and love for us.
What do you think have been the clearest examples of their strength and generosity?
My grandma, she’s from a different generation. She was from the generation where once you got married you didn’t work any more. She didn’t have the opportunity to prove herself on the level that we currently think is appropriate.
I think by raising four very capable women—her daughters—she has a legacy that’s extraordinary. Plus, when I was little, my mum and I lived with my grandparents, so I was like the fifth kid. I got to experience firsthand how much love went into everything in our household.
She had a very tumultuous childhood, as I had as well. Her parents divorced at a time in Australia when divorce was almost non-existent. She lived in a Salvation Army home at one point. She was living on her own by the time she was fifteen or sixteen and had sort of been—not abandoned, I guess—but really let down by both the parental figures she had.
So, at seventeen she became a hairdresser and got an apartment of her own in a period where that wasn’t the norm. She went from this hideous situation—from having so much insecurity and turmoil—and yet she and my grandad created this incredible stability and love for us.
And my mum is the eldest of her daughters. My mum is someone who is incredibly tenacious, incredibly spirited. She sees wonder in everything. She also speaks Latin, the little bugger. Very useful when Julius Caesar comes to dinner! She’s an incredibly capable woman.
Wow! You know, hearing about your grandma, it makes me wonder what makes us hold on to some things and not others?
In my opinion you can choose to be a victim of something or a survivor of something. Do you know the screenwriter, Nora Ephron? She wrote When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, all those very classic romcoms. She and her sister were raised in quite an unusual household and her big quote was, ‘Don’t be the victim of your life, be the heroine.’
And I think, Boom! You know what I mean?
As long as you have something to anchor yourself to, or to go back to, you have to be ok.
You were saying earlier that you and your grandma are quite similar in that you both had quite a tumultuous childhood. What made it feel like such a rollercoaster for you?
Well, my parents divorced when I was five weeks old. It wasn’t my fault! But the actual divorce proceedings didn’t end until I was ten. And there were a lot of changes. So things sort of piled up on each other.
At the end of the day I always knew I had my mum. I always knew I had my grandparents. So as long as you have something to anchor yourself to, or to go back to, you have to be ok. I had no excuse for whinging or complaining, or saying, ‘I’m like this because you did this.’ No, that’s not on.
You also spent a little bit of your childhood in the Northern Territory and then in Brunei before heading to Brisbane. How does that fit into everything that’s happened so far?
Honestly, it was the best! It was terrifying when we first went to the Northern Territory. I went to a private school in Northern Sydney. I was very comfortable with how we lived, and then to move to a tiny little mining town…At that point there was no road in or road out. It was fly in or fly out, or the barge from Darwin. It was pretty intense.
Another thing that was really grounding for me was that I had the best next door neighbours in the world: my friend Rosie and her brother, Arian. They’re Yunupingus from the Yolngu tribe. I think it was very obvious to their grandma, Nancy, that there were lots of things going on in our lives and she just used to sit with me very quietly and talk to me about the birds and the trees. She would say, ‘Have a look, what do you think that cloud means?’ She was a very calming influence. The Aboriginal culture has been a huge influence on my life.
And then Brunei, wowsers! That was insane in a good way too.
How did you end up in Brunei?
So, we had two years in Nhulunbuy and one year in Tennant Creek. We went back to Sydney and I think Mum was sort of getting itchy feet. Mum loves travelling as well. So my Mum and I, and my stepdad at the time, we went over to Brunei.
The mixture of cultures there…You’re meeting people from every country in the world. I’m a very proud Aussie and can probably be a little bit occa at times but I went from being like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re bloody brilliant [as Australians],’ to, ‘Woah, this is awesome.’
Do you feel like all this travelling set you up with a mentality that life can be anywhere?
Yeah, and I think life is what you make it and you always find people who are like you, and you look for them.
I always felt a little self-conscious in Australia. But in New York you have the gift of real anonymity. There are eight million people so if you want to make something happen you’ve got to put yourself out there. In my first year in New York, I just remember one night having this realisation—I thought, You’ve come so far, you’ve invested literally everything you have, you’ve got to make this happen. And from then on I pulled out all the stops. I said yes to everything. It’s very easy for us to talk ourselves out of something.
What’s been interesting in speaking to so many people over these past few months is that we’re constantly asking ourselves Am I doing this right? And eventually you realise no one else gives a shit! In the end it’s only got to be right for you.
And the thing is, as women, we’re really socially programmed to always be polite. It’s not a very attractive trait in a woman to be ambitious. If a man’s ambitious, we’re like, ‘Oh yeah.’ If a woman’s ambitious, she might be a bitch.
Being a feminist today means knowing what you need to do to achieve your goals in a society that is just ever so slightly skewed against you.
Why do you think people have got the wrong end of the stick?
I think we’re in this post-feminist era where even saying you’re a feminist doesn’t go down very well. Whereas at the end of the day, and I don’t mean to be crude, but if you have a brain and a vagina that, to me, means you’re a feminist. Well, at least you should be. You should know how to treat people. And being a feminist is not hating men. That doesn’t come into the definition. Being a feminist today means knowing what you need to do to achieve your goals in a society that is just ever so slightly skewed against you.
They lead by acting in a way that says, ‘I am capable of this, I’m actually doing it.’
How do you talk about it then in a way that’s fruitful?
I think, personally, things are changing. We have amazing examples right now. Some of my poster girls, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Michelle Obama, Quentin Bryce, Cate Blanchett, are people who are not aggressive, who aren’t necessarily strident or militant but who are incredibly in tune, who look at the world in an equal and tolerant way. They just lead by example, they lead by acting in a way that says, ‘I am capable of this, I’m actually doing it.’
Also, I think of something that my grandad taught me. He was always like, ‘If you’re in a position to push someone down, that’s not your job. Your job is to lift them up.’
That’s beautiful! So well said.
Jess, what has been the most surprising thing about your life so far? What did you not expect about being 34?
I would give absolutely anything to be married with children but I’m not prepared to give up my freedom because it’s been hard fought for, for a long time.
When you say freedom, do you mean the freedom of having your career in New York? Or wherever you need to be?
Yeah, to be an actor, it’s an itinerant and transient job. Someone can call you and say I need you in L.A. on Monday and it’s Friday and you have to be able to pick up and go. I’m really hoping, and I think, that I will meet the guy that I’m meant to be with somewhere along my journey.
What have you found to be the most difficult thing to grapple with so far?
I am very stubborn and, I like to think that I’m not, but I really am a control freak. Which is really funny because I am in an industry where generally nothing is planned and if anything is the actor is certainly not the person who is in control. [Laughs]
Something that’s been very hard for me is having to actually step back and be like, Okay you can want all of this stuff and you can work really hard for all of this stuff, but ultimately you are not in control of 99% of what is going to happen to you.
But that 1% that I am in control of—you know, making sure I’m eating properly, reading scripts and making time to see plays—I’ve got that down. Then the other 99%, which is luck or serendipity, hopefully that will happen.
To me, I’m successful. I’ve made it. Now, other people might think, What are you talking about, you tour high schools? No one sees you except the kids. Yeah, sure, but from my point of view I wake up every day and I get paid to act, that’s all I’ve wanted in my whole life.
How do you now define success?
In our final year at acting school in New York one of our amazing teachers made us write a letter to ourselves about what we could achieve in the next year and then five years and ten years that would make us really proud of ourselves. The first thing I wrote was that I wanted to make enough money from acting that I wouldn’t ever have to have a day job, that I wouldn’t have to be a waiter or a cocktail waitress. We all have to do this, I’m aware.
And within nine months of finishing my course I had a job that pays all my bills as an actor. To me, I’m successful. I’ve made it. Now, other people might think, What are you talking about, you tour high schools? No one sees you except the kids. Yeah, sure, but from my point of view I wake up every day and I get paid to act, that’s all I’ve wanted in my whole life. That’s success.
In life, I think success is also knowing that my friends and family know I’m always there for them and that they have someone in their corner. Even if it’s a monkey brain!
I think we should be teaching girls that politeness is not to be followed at the expense of your instincts.
Ha! And what do you wish we talked more about?
I think we should be teaching girls that politeness is not to be followed at the expense of your instincts. This is going to sound a little far-fetched, but from studying law and criminal law, there are so many women who have been raped and murdered and you can see in the circumstances that have led up to it, that there must have been a part of them and the instinct has been bad bad bad. And because we think, Oh don’t rock the boat, don’t be impolite, a lot of people have ended up in very dangerous situations.
To celebrate the similarities and the differences that we see in one another. That has to be the way we all move forward.
I also think the most important thing to teach girls is to like other girls. It’s my greatest disappointment when I see women pulling other women apart. That’s too easy, to walk up to someone and point at their hair, point at their accent. It’s harder, but I think in the long run much more productive, to see the similarities in each other instead of the differences and to celebrate the similarities and the differences that we see in one another. That has to be the way we all move forward.
So what’s next for Jess Loudon?
At the moment I’m really not sure. My aim is to get back to New York by summer next year. To do that I need to keep on making a certain amount of cash, so it may be that I do have to get the dreaded day job! I will pull out all the stops to get back to New York.
Any last words of wisdom?
I have two things to say.
First one is from Finding Nemo, ‘Just keep swimming.’
And the other one is the King of Siam from The King and I, ‘Do it do it do it.’
Things I Love
No, I really do. Completely obsessed. I was almost denied entry to the U.S. at LAX when I answered (quite honestly) that the reason for my visit to the US was to eat all their Ben and Jerry’s. I don’t believe in lying to officials.
What a gift to be able to express ourselves and how we feel so clearly and freely every day. And I don’t buy into the stereotype that if you love fashion, you’re a vacuous airhead – some of the most stylish women I know are also some of the most accomplished and kick-ass – Quentin Bryce, Fatima Bhutto, Michelle Obama, Rose Byrne and one of my idols, Grace Coddington.