Jennifer Karen talks about her life as an actress…
My mother isn’t – and never was – an agent or maybe a casting director. My father isn’t – and never was – a producer, a writer or better still a director… I don’t have an uncle who is an established director either and no aunty who happens to be in the film industry… Why do I mention this? Because if truth be told many well-known and established actors wouldn’t be where they are in their careers if it hadn’t been for that little ‘contact’ they had already ‘in the industry’ or that first ‘foot in the door’ they were given by someone they or their parents knew…
Talent alone is usually not enough to make it unfortunately. It helps but it is not enough. Hard work and persistence certainly are necessary if you want to get anywhere in this business… But little did I know about the ‘real acting industry’ when I grew up in a small village in South West Germany in a white middle-class family – my father being German, my mother being Dutch and two older sisters who loved messing about with me… From a young age, I simply loved, well, performing… I would entertain my family at dinnertime imitating the neighbour, our grandmother or a teacher, and make my family laugh. I simply enjoyed going into different characters and making little parodies I guess you could call it.
With the Scouts, I got my first small audience when we would prepare small sketches for our yearly presentation, a cultural evening for all the parents and friends. I then went on to act with the school theatre although not really any leading roles. As I grew into a teenager my love for dance grew stronger, and I quickly became the girl in the front row at Jazz dance lessons. I had begged my parents to be able to take dance lessons and soon the other girls would copy my moves. This is where I felt confident. I remember one school friend once telling me “I would so prefer to be able to dance like you than to get good marks in maths.”
I was a nightmare in subjects like mathematics, chemistry or physics, however communication and languages – by no surprise with my bilingual upbringing – were my strengths.
When at sixteen, my family encouraged me to go to a high school in the States for a while to improve my English and as a learning experience in general, I ended up only about an hour away from Hollywood in California, but I still knew very little about the industry I wanted to be part of so badly, and wasn’t ‘grown-up’ enough yet to start pursuing my ambitions… I think my time there definitely had a big impact on my decisions later on though, especially wanting to study abroad and trying to establish myself internationally rather than just in Germany.
Back home, I still had three years to finish school and joined a musical group at the new school I changed to. I was “Sandy” in ‘Grease’, and sang “Aquarius” in ‘Hair’ and was in the cast of the ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ too. Yet, I had still not taken a single acting lesson. A six-month so called intensive “Preparation course” (for drama school) after I had graduated would change this!
I was lucky to be working with a teacher who had studied all the big masters of theatre and acting techniques, including Stanislavski, Brecht, Chekhov, Marceau and Meisner – all people I had up to that moment never heard of before. Combining all the knowledge he had acquired, he worked with us on techniques to improve our physical capacities of expression and our vocal and mental strength for character work.
Aged nineteen, and with my hair up in an old fashioned, yet sophisticated style and a dress that made me age a fair bit, I ended up playing Lady Bracknell (an elderly, very stubborn and also high-tempered woman) in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The importance of being Earnest’… and I loved every single minute of it. Managing to use the fabulous writing to my advantage in making the audience laugh by developing a good sense of comic timing was an eye opener and certainly made me ‘want more’ as an actress.
Having also worked for another six months in a hotel in Cyprus as an ‘entertainer’; participating in evening shows; singing classics from Musicals; dancing fun jazz routines and compering shows bilingually, I had gained enough experience to know this was what I wanted to pursue professionally… I wanted to be an actress!
Although I had no clue what the prospects of work actually were, I started looking into, and applying to drama schools all over Germany – usually 800-1000 people would apply for the 10-15 places per school… Suddenly performing was not ‘just fun’ but something linked to rivals, competition, needing to be extremely well-prepared and being judged in front of a panel…. Pretty scary!
I don’t think I was actually quite ready for it and the massive auditions, waiting beforehand in rooms with hundreds of other young, driven actors, were quite cruel, discouraging experiences to be honest. I lacked maturity and life experience. But I didn’t want to give up so quickly. I looked into alternatives and found university courses in England to study Performing Arts, a nice combination of doing a university degree and becoming an actor I thought. Quickly, I put together an ‘audition video’ from the few roles I had played and was over the moon when one University got back to me offering me a place. This was the start of my dream coming true…
So, I packed my suitcase, left my boyfriend of three years behind and went to a small town called Winchester; an hour South West from London to pursue my ambition: to become a professional actress and make a living from this art.
After my time at University I decided to give things a go in London, the capital of theatre and of film…
I got my first experiences on stage in small, (of course unpaid) productions and also started acting in student short-films as I wanted to get as much film experience as quickly as possible. I also signed up with some extra agencies, just to earn some money and get an insight on what things really looked like on the big film-sets.
BUT, I found that It was hard to even get roles in unpaid projects! The competition is just beyond big… Just think of all the established drama schools that just exist in London, not to mention all over the UK, and then over Europe, and America, and the world… and many actors come to London to try their luck – also from abroad…
I was determined! And I kept taking classes, networking, gaining more experience and knocking on doors: some opened, and slowly I started building up my CV and also getting better jobs. I got signed by some agents – commercial agents are easier to find than decent ones for TV-film and theatre work, which are often signed on an exclusive basis – and I got my first auditions and castings for – yeah! Paid Work, at last.
To be able to pay my bills, I had to work on the side though, but it felt good to be valued for my acting. I did jobs of all sorts – anything from market research to teacher’s assistant, as long as it was flexible as castings come up at the last minute and people expect you to be available all the time…
Unfortunately, I have to say that I didn’t get that ‘big breakthrough’ people hope for or that you see in the movies… but, there were some success-stories while being in London: Besides acting in many shorts I also got cast for some TV series and in three different feature films, all indie productions, and two of them were lead roles. I also had the chance to do several theatre tours around the UK and I got cast for a German TV commercial of a big brand and this was originally just a test commercial that led to me being the ‘face of the brand’ for three years, shooting commercials in different countries and getting big pay cheques for the first time! I also worked on getting into voiceovers, another lucrative but also competitive market for actors… and after having a demo recorded and after long months of waiting and applying, I got my first offer from an agency.
These days, I am represented by agencies in London and Paris in this field and have worked for many well-known brands, and I have also gotten experience in dubbing films and doing ‘character voices’ (the funny ones!) for animation films and computer games…
The journey continues – now in Paris, but also still in London and every now and then also in Germany. I have been part of some great projects, got to play leading roles like the classical Lady Macbeth (touring France) or more recently Elizabeth Proctor in “The Crucible” and I feel experienced in front of the camera, too.
Not long ago I challenged myself as a filmmaker for the first time and wrote, co-produced and directed my own short “Naked Dreams” in which I also play the lead-role and it got selected for the Los Angeles CineFest and some other international festivals, too. A great learning curve indeed.
I now have artistic agents representing me in London and Paris but am on the lookout for one in Germany, too…
My life is still a bit unstable and I have to continue to knock on many doors, push things forward continuously and never know what the month will bring.
But it is exciting to look at the amount of jobs and projects I have worked on over the years now, how many people I have met and what I have achieved in the over 10 years that I am an actress and voiceover artist now.
This business is full of promises, full of disappointment and many rejections… and you need to have a thick skin to keep going and to believe in yourself and not to let your mood get down… But hey, give up my dream? I don’t think so!
I’d rather work on the side if I have to (currently not, yes!! ;)) and you never know what tomorrow brings… the best things happen when you don’t expect them – but you also need to make them happen.
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