Actor and director Jillian Armenante tells DIVA about living her truth
BY JANE FAE, IMAGE BY KARL GADJUSEKJ
Lesbian Visibility Week is an opportunity to celebrate lesbians. Not just the young, the hip – or the skinny! – but also the women who’ve just been there. Working. Supporting. Making room for a younger generation without any great fuss. One such is Jillian Armenante. Who she?
An actor. A director. A dynamo. More than that, she is out and lesbian in a business that has not always been entirely LGBTQI-friendly. I was reminded of her existence – hilariously so – while reviewing Kittens In A Cage, a comedy she made back in 2015 and recently released on Lesflicks.
We caught up via zoom last week.
I began by asking how it all began. Her answer was on brand and forthright.
“I’m a theatre whore from way back.
“I grew up in New Jersey: born in 1968; child to an Irish/Scottish housewife and Italian chemical engineer. Every birthday I’d beg to see a Broadway show. But I knew, at nine, that British acting was where it was at. I fell in love with Upstairs Downstairs – and with Pauline Collins who played the scullery maid! I thought it the best acting I had ever seen.
“I begged to study in England – and I went to Middlesex Poly, and that turned my world inside out when it came to comedy.
“Back in the States I couldn’t afford grad school. I ended up in Seattle: fell into a group of theatre actors with a 2800 square foot loft in Seattle’s Annex Theatre, and I did something like 24 original plays a year. Not just acting, but writing, directing, producing, designing, lights.
“We took care of each other.”
So no instant breakthrough?
“I’d been doing theatre with nobody looking: no awards, no money for a long while in Seattle. Then they went looking for a ‘big angry lesbian’ to play Melony in the Cider House Rules, and that carried me to LA. I started auditioning for TV and film but I was still directing and producing and writing for theatre. I never stop!
“While I was rehearsing Cider House, I directed Great Men Of Science and won an Ovation Award (the LA Tony). Later, even during Judging Amy, which is 18 hour days and network television, I was writing and directing two other shows that also won awards.”
The media focus on films like Vice, The Dark Knight Rises and Bad Teacher. But I sense those are not the projects Jillian would like to be remembered for?
“Those are the multi-million dollar box office ones. In terms of spirituality and friends and story-telling I was very proud of Girl, Interrupted. It was my first big film. I didn’t know anybody and I felt like I was doing good work that would help people in the world politically.
“The other one dear to me is North Country, about a class action suit by a group of mining women who were terribly treated and band together and sue the company. Some of my dearest friends came out of that film. The stuff of life is friends and relationships. I am not going to remember the jobs when I am about to croak!”
She’s also written and directed musicals. How influential have these been?
“I love musicals. Laura Comstock’s Bag-Punching Dog is a musical I wrote with my wife and my friend Chris Jeffries. But growing up I listened to them all. My mother’s eight-track always had her favourite My Fair Lady on it. My dad’s was Man Of La Mancha.
“I listened to Annie and Chorus Line. Now I love the work of Tom Hulce: my mentor who produced Spring Awakening, American Idiot and Ain’t Too Proud.
“As for Man Of La Mancha… my dad was that guy. ‘C’mon we can do it!’ That became the mantra for my theatre work: ‘I don’t care we only have $8: we are putting this play up’. That idealism! I fight windmills on a daily basis creatively and I can source it back to my dad.”
Jillian also found love along the way.
“I was a bit of a wild child. When I got to Seattle it didn’t get less wild. Then I met Alice [Dodd]… and I just knew I’d be with her for the rest of my life.
“She is also an actor and very talented writer, and she worked at the Annex Theatre on one of the big musicals. We started dating and after about a month I said, ‘I really like you’. No! A week after, I said: ‘I don’t want to fuck around. I want kids so if you’re not interested, leave now, because I don’t want to invest any time in someone who doesn’t want to have a family. And she was like O…K. She must have been, because she’s still with me and we now have two teenage children. We’re a true team creatively, maritally, in every way.
“About a month after we first met, in 1995, I said, ‘I’m moving to Los Angeles so I hope you’ll come with me’.[Laughs] We lived in a horrible cockroach infested apartment and she moved to LA and a month later I booked Girl, Interrupted and I went to the East Coast and left her in a new town with nobody!”
Jillian and Alice were married in 2000. How were their families about that?
“When I say we got married it was not ‘legal’ in any sense of the word. We got a giant turn of the century dairy farm in New Jersey and 200 of my family and friends and we ‘perpetually committed’ to each other. Alice wore my mother’s wedding dress because I wouldn’t fit into it! That is spiritually my actual wedding: when we took vows in front of our personal god and our family and friends.
“I did not grow up very brave. I came out to my parents pretty late. But my mother said something amazing. She said: ‘You know what you know. You don’t know what you don’t know.’ So, both of my parents walked me down the aisle and both of Alice’s parents walked her down the aisle.”
How hard has it been to come out? What has been the impact on her career?
“I was never fearful. When I was growing up, we were less accessible to exploring sexuality. Then, when I moved to Seattle, not knowing anyone, I could be who I wanted to be. I dated boys. I dated girls: I ended up with a girl! But, the work is about the work: I don’t have on my resume Jillian Armenante Actors Equity Sag FAG. I came out to some close friends initially, but I ran the largest gay theatre in the country at the time in Seattle. Then, when I moved to Los Angeles I just decided to be who I was.
“I never hid. So, I was never hunted and I was never exposed. In retrospect I don’t think I could have lied and waited for somebody to blackmail me and put it in all the papers. I showed up to Hollywood already out so they really couldn’t out me.
“In Cider House that character was gay and the character I played in Girl, Interrupted was gay. So, to me it was like I was living my truth. If they didn’t want to hire me, I didn’t want to work with them.”
Would she describe herself as a role model?
“I would hope so. A cousin’s child wrote me a thank you letter about 10 years ago and I thought: me? Somebody thought they were brave because of me. But I think seeing anyone who is living their truth is an inspiration. Anything that inspires someone to live their truth and to know there’s other people like them and you are not alone and there are places and people who are loving and inclusive and accepting. That’s always an inspiration That’s always a good thing.”
If you’d like to hear more Jillian Armenante, don’t miss her talking live, this Thursday evening, with Lesflicks, for Lesbian Visibility Week. Find out more at lesflicks.com/event/in-conversation-jillianarmenante-29apr21/.
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