Jen Ponton is an actress, media creative, and puppeteer whose latest film is Love on the Run, also starring Francis Fisher, Steve Howey, and Annaleigh Banford. She is also co-creator, co-writer, puppeteer, and actor for the puppet web series The Weirdos Next Door. We recently discussed her work in front of and behind the camera.
KM: You describe your webseries The Weirdos Next Door as a mix between The Muppets and Full House. There's definitely a deep nostalgia there! Why did you choose this as a project and with whom are you working? What are your specific roles in the series, both on screen and off?
JP: I work under PacKay Productions with my co-showrunner, Kay Koch, and our 3rd producer, Packy Anderson. We were 100% going for deep nostalgia! We spent so much time collectively pining for the family content that really defined the '80s and early '90s -- 'TGIF' (Full House, Family Matters, Boy Meets World, Step By Step), Family Ties, Perfect Strangers, Growing Pains, I could go on and on! Not coincidentally, it was also something that Jim Henson was brilliant at doing. Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street, and The Muppet Show (not to mention his many films) all had content that engaged both children and adults, that truly was family viewing. When Kay started to build puppets, we knew we were being called upon to basically resurrect the long lost artform of the '80s family sitcom.
KM: What are your writing and rehearsal processes like for a webseries, especially one that uses muppets?
JP: One thing Kay and I always joke about is that we'll start writing these elaborate, very active scenes and get super excited, then we'll check in with reality --"Oh wait, they're not real." So we always need to keep an eye on feasibility, which means (most of the time) we can't see the entire body of a character without doing green screen; we can't have them, say, seated in a wide shot -- because where will we hide the puppeteer? We do a cast read-through while we're in pre-production, but our rehearsal process really just happens on the day. We'll rehearse for camera and then shoot, and Kay and I work out our shot lists beforehand.
JP: While I can definitely empathize with Bradley and have been there myself (especially as a woman...the deeply sexist bent to castings is alive and well!), I am a fierce believer in picking yourself up by your bootstraps. The more you focus on the drudgery of the problem, the more difficult it is to see -- and work on -- a solution. So I do a ton of inner work (gratitude, visualizations, intentions, goal-setting) and I've always been a fan of thinking outside-the-box. Mad about rejection and shitty material? You could decide to be grateful in your heart for each 'no' because it gets you closer to a 'yes'. You could also write that epic screenplay you've had swirling around in your head for years. I believe innovation and faith is the key to any career in the arts.
KM: Who are you inspired by as an actor, particularly other actors?
JP: My whole life, I was deeply inspired by Robin Williams and Jim Carrey. That gentleness of spirit and commitment to play has influenced my work and my approach to the craft. As I've gotten older, my heroes also include Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Melissa McCarthy, Paul Feig, Lena Dunham -- I love the women who are proclaiming, "This is my voice, this is how I like to make people laugh, and I'm amplifying it." That totally fuels me.
Because it's 2017, and just being so fed up, I would add Jill Soloway, Jenji Kohan, Shonda Rhimes, Nicole Byer, Ava DuVernay, Donald Glover, Aziz Ansari and Abbi [Jacobson] & Ilana [Glazer] of Broad City to my heroes list. I'm inspired right now almost exclusively by people who are making things that matter to them and the world around them, that provide a voice and a platform.
JP: I'm very lucky to be an up-and-coming actress of size in a field that is just starting to recognize and respect people who look like me. It's gonna take a while, but I'm delighted that actresses like Melissa McCarthy, Rebel Wison, Gabourey Sidibe and Chrissy Metz are very much getting seen. So much of what we define as 'normal' is what we're allowed to see. The more sizes, shapes, genders, abilities and colors we see being respected and carrying storylines, the better -- and the more our collective empathy grows to really humanize people of oppressed groups.
I did an off-Broadway play a few years ago where I happened to be playing a lead character, but other than physically seeing me on stage, there was literally zero reference at all to my body type. Nothing. No lines, no reactions to me from the other characters. So it was fascinating to see the percentage of reviews that came in (including the [New York] Times) that referred to my size -- and not even in a way that created a vivid picture. Seeing that out there is just another indicator to me of how much doing this work and pushing forward is worth it. When a reviewer can finally see a woman of size in a lead role and not comment on her body, that will be an incredible win.
When it comes to how it affects my day-to-day career, that's blissfully little. Much of that is because I'm in a body type category where I don't get the pushback of, "Mmm, she's not quite thin enough to play the lead." What I do constantly push against, though, are breakdowns that describe the (often lead) character's personality -- and, if I'm the right fit, my agent and I are hellbent on getting me considered for as many of those as possible. That can be a steep hill to climb, too, but again -- I truly believe that the more you expose people to the option, the easier it will be for them to normalize it and see it as acceptable.
KM: You've acted in plays and in numerous television shows and films, including 30 Rock and Orange is the New Black, and with directors Todd Solondz and Liev Schreiber. As an actor who also has a webseries, do you ever observe directors or other people on set to apply what you pick up to your own series? How is having a webseries different from being hired for a film or show?
JP: Absolutely! Being on set myself, as an actor, has taught me literally everything that I've then applied to Weirdos, teaching Kay and Packy similarly and expanding our collective skill sets. I watch everyone on the crew; I mark what lighting choices are made, what shots are made, where a wide makes sense and just how much attention needs to be paid to continuity. None of us are trained as filmmakers, so all my education has been through observation.
It's certainly different in that we've to to really pick and choose what we can transfer to Weirdos -- in terms of, here's a network television show with literally hundreds of employees, and here is my web series baby with three people who can make it happen. So we may not be able to afford a crew or a bunch of lenses or a Red camera, we can choose a consumer-grade camera with higher fps; we can save up for a small kit of lavalier mics that will help us stay out of ADR [Automated Dialogue Replacement] hell later on down the line. It's also nice to be able to be the boss and problem-solve--as an actor, you really need to respect the boundaries of your job. On Weirdos, if we run into an issue, I'm a critical part of figuring out a solution or punting. While that is stressful, it's also great for keeping you spry and ready and creative.
JP: My dream is for The Weirdos Next Door to be picked up by a streaming service like Netflix or Hulu or Amazon. We all work so hard and put so much love into this, and I think we're making something really special -- something that needs to be accessible. So Kay and I have a pilot and a treatment ready, and we're currently looking for a management and production company to partner with for the long haul. For me personally, I'm in this wonderful place where I'm about half-a-breath away from my 'big break.' It's so close that I can taste it -- which can be exhilarating or maddening. To keep me away from the latter, I find that creating my own stuff in the meantime is more important than ever.
Aside from Weirdos, I've been writing a ton, having recently finished my first feature comedy screenplay. I've also finished a pilot script and treatment for another series, and I've got more projects at varying stages of development. Writing is keeping me occupied and sane these days, and it's been one of the only ways I can deal with and contribute to the world at this point (assuming there'll still be a world around to which I can contribute).
In Love on the Run (released August 2016), I star as Franny, a naive, optimistically romantic young woman waiting for her Prince Charming. When Rick (Steve Howey) takes me hostage during a bank robbery, it seems like he could be my One True Love. We're joined by Frances Fisher and Annaleigh Ashford, who play my off-the-walls, codependent mother and sister. The film is really fun, a hybrid road movie/romcom, and it's got flavors of John Waters and the Coen Brothers.
Perhaps more importantly -- and to speak to your question before -- I think it's going to serve as a powerful visual example, seeing a woman of size as a romantic lead. It almost never happens, at least not without a big helping of self-loathing. But that's the other really powerful thing about Franny -- she doesn't hate herself, she doesn't hate her body. She's really comfortable in her skin and to be just who she is. To couple THAT with being a romantic lead? I don't think that's been the case in a film since Hairspray.
(You can see the film on VOD & Digital, including DirecTV, Dish network, iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu and Hoopla).
Website - Jen Ponton
Website - The Weirdos Next Door