Jessica Carlson of New York and Chilmark, is 15, and about to appear as the female lead in the Universal Studios film Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, about teenagers and vampires. The film, which also features Salma Hayek and Willem Dafoe, is based on Darren Shan’s popular vampire book series, The Saga of Darren Shan. This past summer, at the Peaked Hill home of her parents, David and Catha Carlson, she was exuberantly talking about being an actress.
“It began when I was six,” Jessica said. “I went to a performance in Pelham where we lived. I saw the stage and I just wanted to run up and be on it, too.”
As soon as she could, she joined the Summer Stars program at the Vineyard Playhouse and IMP, the junior version of WIMP, the Island’s improvisation company. In winter, she made sure she acted in all school plays and whenever there was an opening for a child in a production at the local community theatre, she would try out — and invariably get the role.
“And then I wanted to find out how people got on TV and into movies,” Jessica said.
She and her mother found out that Backstage Magazine could be a help. In it, they learned that New York University and Columbia University made films as part of their classes in directing and that they had auditions for them. And it wasn’t long before Jessica was in one. It was called Blue Dress and was a coming-of-age film. By then, Jessica was 11. The film was made in Hillsdale in upstate New York one cold June.
“We thought, surely, that would rid her of the acting bug,” her mother said. “She had to go swimming in a pool and the temperature in Hillsdale was about 30 degrees at night. But she got all fired up by the experience instead and made many more student films.”
“In one, I got to drive a car when I was 13,” Jessica said. “I really did some pretty cool things, and my mom and I decided it was time I got a manager and an agent. You really need both if you’re going to be in theater. My manager really gives me personal attention and finds jobs for me and then pitches me, and then I get called and have auditions. My mom’s pretty much in on this, too, and can tell you more about it,” Jessica said, itching to be off to a party at the Chilmark Community Center where she worked this past summer.
“We were very much fish out of water,” her mother chimed in helpfully. “We found out that, in addition to a manager, Jessie was going to have to have an agent so she could audition for commercials and TV. But before long, she had been cast for a part in Law and Order.
“It was a story about a mom who’s stoned to death because she was having an affair. And then there was a real movie where there was a Columbine-style school shooting in it and the blood was really sticky,” Jessica inserted nonchalantly. “That one was The Life Before Your Eyes, with Uma Thurman.” She also began doing work in commercials, and by the time she was 12 was a member of the Screen Actors Guild.
Meanwhile, she had tried out and won a role in Brighton Beach Memoirs at the Emlin Theatre in Mamaroneck
“That was really fun,” Jesssica said. “It was an Equity performance, and there were six weeks of rehearsals and three weeks on stage. And we had to talk in Brooklyn accents and eat beets dyed brown to look like liver and cole slaw and cold mashed potatoes every night. We had rehearsals in a Broadway studio, and we stayed in a hotel in Manhattan.”
And this past year, she spent two and a half months in a trailer in New Orleans where Cirque du Freak was being filmed. Chaperones for much of that exciting time were her grandparents, Robert and Barbara Day of West Tisbury.
“It was so cool,” Jessica said. “We were there for Mardi Gras and the Easter parade and the Jazz Festival, and the food was delicious, and I was out of school — though there was a set teacher, but that was different. I learned how to walk on a tightrope for the movie. In the scene, the tightrope is seven feet up. The movie is about vampires and a circus of freaks, and I’m a mysterious girl who has romantic sparks with the lead boy in the cast. But that’s all I’m allowed to tell or it will spoil the movie for you. I got the audition for that movie, though, with a picture Peter Simon took of me.”
Which is easier, film or stage acting? the veteran 15-year-old actress, with a sprinkling if freckles across her nose, was asked.
“In film it’s probably harder at first to relate to the other actors,” sparkling-eyed Jessica said, “because you don’t see anyone unless they’re in the scene with you. But in Cirque there was some real bonding. It took only a couple of days for me to feel that I knew my fellow actors really well. After all, we were all living together down there in New Orleans for two and a half months. Pat Fugit and I developed a special handshake that was just for us. He plays Snake Boy in the film.
“Stage probably requires more stamina. In a film, after all, if a mistake’s made, they can cut and redo the scene, but you can’t do that on stage.”
This year, back in New York, Jessica is entering her junior year at the Professional Children’s School and, of course, she expects to be continuing in theatre and film. She has studied at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, the Neighborhood Playhouse and the Sarah Whitten Scene Study Classes in Pelham, among others. On the Vineyard, M. J. Bruder Munafo of the Vineyard Playhouse also has coached her.
“It’s almost like leading a double life,” Jessica said, “going into my junior year in a regular high school, but loving acting so much. If I’m performing, I have to get up early, get my hair and makeup done and make sure my lines are memorized. But then I have to work hard in school and get enough sleep, too.”
This past summer, in addition to doing a commercial in which she plays a girl going into a boy’s formerly smelly room after he has freshened it with Febreeze, and doing a New York reading, she has been busy with more ordinary teenage things in Chilmark. She has been swimming with her brothers, Luke, 14, and Scott, 9, at Stonewall and Squibnocket beaches, gone kayaking and horseback riding. Besides being a volunteer at the Community Center, she has worked at the Orange Peel Bakery in Aquinnah.
Jessica is a seventh-generation summer Chilmarker, a descendant of Hannah Lane Blackwell who first came to the Island in the 1860s.