Vp Issue 6: “Heather Juergensen: Straight Outta Brooklyn”

[Originally published in Vp issue 6 by Kelly McCartney and photos by Matteo Trisolini (2004)]

[Originally published in Vp issue 6 by Kelly McCartney and photos by Matteo Trisolini (2004)]

At this point, Heather Juergensen is best known as half of the writer/producer/actor team that created Kissing Jessica Stein. With a simple premise, some sharp wit, and a lot of heart, she and Jennifer Westfeldt brought lesbian themes into mainstream cinema. They were greeted by a big old belly laugh courtesy of the masses (at least those out of North Carolina).

Having gained Hollywood’s stamp of approval, this triple threat turns her gaze inward and forward as she chats with Velvetpark about post-Jessica life. 

Congratulations on getting married recently. How’s it feeling?

It feels good. It feels very sturdy, like investing in a really good dresser that you know will last forever.

You’re a busy kid—is it your meditation practice that keeps you balanced?

I find meditation to be a lot like working out in terms of giving you more energy and more time, even though it’s time that you take to do it. I do my regular meditation every night. I just feel so much stronger. I guess everyone has their own root need or reason they meditate. I really think for me it’s to help eradicate a feeling of fear. And I think that would be the case of whatever business I was in. But I do happen to work in a business that runs on a lot of fear. You feel it, espeically in L.A. This is going to sound like a bizarre reference, but I was watching Queer Eye [for the Straight Guy] the other night and I think it was Kyan who said, “Make every rep count. When you’re working out, donnt’ just rush through it. If you do the reps real slow, your muscle are going to look better than if you do ten quickies.” And I feel like meditation is about doing thirty minutes slow or doing sixty minutes slow. Just coming back to that central point where there is no time, no space, no speed, no desire, no worry, no fear. I think the challenge for so many of us, and certainly for me, is to bring that meditative state into every moment of waking life.

Even though it’s coming out as fear of not succeeding, don’t you think it’s ultimately about wanting love? However people chase it, it’s that constant craving to be accepted and loved which is the universal theme.

Yeah, and probably for me it manifests as wanting success in my career. And for other people, they might do drugs. In this book I’m reading by a guy who teaches meditation in prisons, he feels that even criminals are just seeking love. When they knock over a liquor store or something, they are looking for love. Even though I practice these ideas, I tripped over that a little bit. But I’m sure if you pull back the layers, right down to the core, he’s right. 

Whether it’s a prisoner or a rich person or a gay person or a straight person or whoever it is, we think that because we have labels and names for everybody, that it makes us separate and different. When, like you said, we peel away the layers, we’re all after the same things.

That was probably one of the biggest “learnings” for me in doing Kissing Jessica Stein because it started out more about sex. But as we worked more deeply on the film, it became clear that sexual labels were just that. I think Gore Vidal once said that “There is no sexual orientation, only sexual acts.” Obviously, if you spend your whole life performing one particular sexual act, you can probably put yourself pretty firmly in that category, whatever it is, but I think by and large that he’s right. We give OURSELVES as many labels as other people give us. And I think labels can be reassuring, like “I know what I am and I know what box I fit into and that makes me feel safe.” But actually, it’s when you start stripping away the labels and think, “Maybe I’m a different label than I’ve always thought I was…”—that’s when you’re really changing yourself. 

That was profoundly admirable in both characters, how they were willing to challenge those labels and expected notions that they had put on themselves and that society had put on them.

It’s funny, gay people that talk to be about the movie almost always want to talk about the porch scene between Jessica and her mom as being either the most beautiful thing they’ve ever seen, they wept and it was the best coming out scene ever. Or it was like, “No offense, but that would never happen.” And “That’s not how my mom reacted.” We talked a lot about whether Jessica’s family and friends would be more shocked by what she was doing, or whether she herself would be really the most shocked. And from a story perspective, about giving a character a satisfying arc, it just made the most sense for most of the blocks to be from Jessica herself. No one’s going to judge it as much as she is.

If you don’t put any negative energy into it, then nobody else can.

And it’s like that in everything in life, every choice we make, every state of being we assume. Really, whatever we do, it’s about our own attitude towards it.

Why did it take two straight girls to make a great lesbian-themed film? Because the lesbian-made ones….?

They can be really self-serious, yeah. I feel lie when you live that life and you have dealt with homophobia, gay-bashing, oppression—these are series issues. These are issues that are going to leave you feeling perhaps a little humorless and a little angry. In terms of expression in art, those are going to come up more. Jennifer [Westfeldt] and I had the luxury of going at this story as writers. Both of us have many, many gay friends. We sat down with them. We culled stories. We listened. We tried to process from our hearts, but really we were interested in making a comedy. It was easier for us to go into the complexity of the material, but always step back and look at it with humor, because we’re not in that club, so to speak.

You’re almost more objective.

We had, perhaps, more objectivity looking at it from the outside in. And I really do say that’s a luxury, because even politics…I’ll be discussing an issue that I really care about, that I’m really passionate about, and someone will make a joke and laugh it off a little bit. And I’ll look at them like, “It’s not funny. This is a serious issue.” So I understand that feeling. I think we realized this film was going to do more for the gay community if it was kept a rip-roaring comedy. Not just because it would cross over into the mainstream more, but even…I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve gotten from gay peole who said to me, “I could take my parents to see this film. And it’s the first film we’ve ever had where I’m enjoying it and they’re enjoying it and it’s the same story.” Those have been very gratifying for me because that’s what we sensed as we were developing the material.

What’s beautiful about the fim is that it has so many layers. You can enjoy it strictly as a comedy. But for those who want it and need it, there are otehr things in there to hold on to.

Talk about hitting a zeitgeist or a moment in time. We just sensed that being two straight writer/actresses tied into the gay community maybe more so than others and having a great story…that all just converged to make this film that different kinds of people could enjoy. Ultimately, we had hoped it would have done better in fly-over country and the South, but I think it’s still a little early for that. I was told by a friend in North Carolina that when she went to buy a ticket the saleswoman said, “Do you know what this film’s about?” Like warning her, making sure she got it. I mean, are you kidding? You’re warning your patrons? Protecting them from…I mean obviously the movie was INCREDIBLY TAME [laughs]. Gay women and straight men alike wanted a LOT more sex. And we heard a lot of shit about that. So when I hear stories like this, I’m like, “You’re fucking kidding me!” This is such a…it’s got one of the most innocent spines to the story. [laughs]

Was it hard to let go of Helen and Jessica after so many years in those shoes and hearts?

I did get very attached to Helen. I actually felt playing Helen helped me broaden my understanding of being a human being. I really tried to internalize what it would be like to come out. I always felt that for all her downtown, cool, hip, art gallery world, she probably has very conservative parents in Iowa or something. And there were other facets of Helen that I enjoyed, like her assertiveness and sense of style. I can kind of dip into her a little bit and carry her around with me. One thing as an actor, you’re always ready to move onto the next thing. So I was really happy that my next film after Jessica was this funny little quirky Irish independent film, because I played this curmudeonly couch potato—like the girl pushing thirty who’s still living with her mom at home. The only reason anybody picks the life of an actor which is so crazy and hard and full of rejection is for that. You basically want as many different experiences as you can get.

You currently have that film—Red Roses and Petrol—running the festival circuit and then Haunted Mansion with Eddie Murphy in theaters. There’s a touch of contrast for you.

My role in Haunted Mansion is really tiny. It was kind of a lark. I feel like there are times you do a job not because the work is going to be so layered or fascinating, but because it’s a big Disney movie. There’s a lot of art and commerce crossing paths out there—more commerce than art, sadly, a lot of the time. But I do try to make choices that are smart.

Tell me about Blackwannabe.

Oh, Blackwannabe is this beautiful little show that is kind of firmly on the back burner right now. It’s a very autobiographical theater piece where I delve into racial identity. I was raised in a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn and I realized at a pretty early age that I felt as black as I felt white. And this was pre-whte rappers, pre-Whoopi with her character. So it was just part of my identity because so may of my early influences—friends, community, neighbors—were black. And it never occurred to me that there was anything weird about that. That’s the beauty and innocence of childhood. As I got older and entered adolescence, New York went through a very tough time of drugs and violence, especially a lot of racial violence. And I would watch the news every night about black and white people being at each other’s throats, killing each other. Then, the next day, I would see my neighbor and she would give me something she just baked or cooked, like she was my grandma. And it was hard to come to terms with that. So I basically wrote a series of monologues about growing up in Flatbush. It was a nice show, but it was still rough. The nice thing after Jessica was that a lot of producer doors opened for me, so it seems like this is the best time to focus on my film work. People want to know what I want to do next. And I really do want to get another film moving soon. 

Are you worried at all about the sophomore jinx?

Yeah, it’s funny. I’ve been reading a lot about Sofia Coppola and Lost in Translation. It’s a really beautiful film, a gem because it’s not typical on any level. I think what she did that’s so remarkable in that film is to create one of the strongest geographic moods I’ve ever seen in film.  It’s relentless. You know where you are and what these people are feeling in every moment. What she’s done is stay completely rooted in what she wants to do and what her mind and heart and soul are seeing and feeling. And it just so happens that it was well received. I know [Steven] Soderbergh, after Sex, Lies, and Videotape, went and did two or three films that nobody got, nobody liked, nobody cared about. And he was considered totally washed up in Hollywood. Then, of course, he comes and does Out of Sight and it does a ton of business. And he does Traffic and suddenly he’s Hollywood’s golden boy. I hope that I have the courage for my next outing in film to be something that people are not interested in. Then I’m off the hook. I don’t have to worry about the judgment. Of course you want people to like what you do at some level, but it’s smarter to just try to follow your own artistic instincts and let the chips fall where they may. But I would by lying if I said I didn’t have some nervousness about it. 

Well you certainly can’t get any further away from Kissing Jessica Stein than producing The Hammer with Adam Carolla, the man behind The Man Show.

[laughs] Yeah, no… We’ve been talking about that from a marketing perspective. You know, ti’s a hook, right? [laughs] Adam Carolla is a great guy, actually. He’s much sweeter and a much more sensitive soul than anyone would know from the hijinks on The Man Show. I think that’s why he wants to move into features because there’s a lot more room for depth and complexity in films than there is in television. I imagine there will be SOME flak from SOME sections of the culture worrying about “What are you doing working with Adam Carolla?” [laughs]

And you have an improv project in the works?

I’m working with theater director Jason Chaet, who directed some of the Kissing Jessica Stein staged readings, on a new indie film called 24 Hemlock Drive. We’ll be shooting digitally and the actors will be working improvisationally. The story will be traditionally structured, but we want to give the actors a lot of freedom about how to interpret and play within a scene. We’re envisioning it as being somewhere between Dogma and Christopher Guest. The story revolves around three adult siblings who have to decide whether to eep or sell the family home after the death of their mother. We’re interested in exploring how ideas of hearth and home have changed in our brave new cyber world. Right now we’re focusing on story development and pulling together a great company of actors. Parts of Kissing Jessica Stein were developed improvisationally, so I know it can work. Hemlock is going to explore that methodolgy a bit more formally. 

Sounds intriguing. Did I miss anything?

Well, there’s a new group I’ve been working with called “Write Girl.” I’ve actually just begun, but it’s a mentoring program with young girls who are looking to write. I’m excited because I know how when you’re 12, 13, 14—those kinds of ages in particular—you’re being bombarded with so many messages and so much yucky stuff with your body changing and boys and girls and everything. It’s an exciting new project for me to see if I can latch on to a girl and see if I can help, because writing is such an expressive thing. I know that age can be so wraught with so many things. 

The gratitude I have for the teachers and peole who encouraged writing and music in my life is immense. It’s wonderful that you’re doing that.

Well, we’ll see. Hopefully I won’t screw any poor kid up. Once I get my hands on them, they’ll never want to write again! [laughs]


Velvetpark Magazine, Issue 6 (Winter 2004), 20-27.