Jessica Conger is a full-time waitress and part-time actor in the Boston area. She performs regularly with the Post Meridian Radio Players of Somerville and is a film producer with Bang! Films production company. When not serving food, acting, or attending school, Jess like to read mysteries and brew cider and beer. She and I first met in September 1998, when a mutual friend dragged me over to where she was sitting in the cafeteria before homeroom and said, “This is Jess. She likes The X-Files too.” Since that fateful morning, she’s been one of my best friends. Last week, Jess and I sat down at our respective computers to discuss her on-screen work in Bang! Films’ upcoming feature length film, Most Likely. (The link leads to the teaser video on Vimeo, which is NSFW.)
Tell us about Most Likely. Who is your character?
I play Beth, an uptight woman who travels with her stoner roommate Phil, played by Kevin Sandberg, to her high school friend’s wedding in a remote area of New Hampshire. Beth hasn’t seen anyone who is going to be at the wedding in years and is very anxious about it. She feels lost in her life. The movie takes place at the wedding over a weekend. The bride, Chloe, played by Alex Fandel, has set up a weekend for her old friends and new ones to meet and join one of the happiest days of her life. She probably did not expect it to go how it goes.
The Kickstarter for Most Likely mentions a naked yoga scene. What was preparing for and shooting that scene like?
So, when Andrew Bemis was writing the script, he said that when he was stuck on something, he just thought about how to make me uncomfortable. That’s how that scene got written. We filmed that scene in the evening, in April, in New Hampshire. It was seriously cold, about 40 degrees from what I remember. There were crew members off to the sides with blankets for Rory and Alex between takes. I felt so bad for them, at least I got to wear layers! They did have some standard protective pieces on, lest we get a good shot of balls, but they were pretty naked. For filming we usually ran through the scenes a few times with and without scripts and then did a wide shot, some closeups, and reverses. Shooting each scene takes several hours, usually. For this, because it was so cold, we ran through it once or twice and just sort of ran with it. Rory was unsure of yoga moves and I and Kate Zarnay, a friend who visited the set that day, tried to give him a few tips on the best ones to perform naked. I think downward dog got brought up a lot. It was hard for me to get through takes without giggling because Rory is so fucking funny.
How do you deal with the negative cultural attitudes around fat women in movies and television? Have you ever felt discouraged from acting because of your size?
I drink a lot. Really, I try to recognize that while Hollywood is the fucking worst, the way to get better roles for people of all representations is to make art yourself. I can’t tell you the number of auditions I didn’t make the cut for because I wasn’t “the right look,” or the number of casting calls I didn’t even bother with because of the descriptions of the roles for women. If every part requires 25-35 year old female actors who are of “lean build,” that cuts out so many talented actors. I really believe that the Alien approach is perfect for so many roles which could be played by anyone: write the script, go through the auditions, and cast the best people. But I know that’s a pipe dream for anything mainstream. So, I mostly stick to radio plays and acting in parts written for me.
A few months ago on Twitter, you self-identified as a fat actress and said that you like roles where your appearance isn’t part of your character’s story (e.g. nobody second-guesses your character as someone’s love interest because of her size). In your opinion, are these characters fat characters because a fat actress is portraying them, or does being a fat character depend on fatness being an explicit part of the character’s story?
I think these characters are fat because a fat person is playing them. In Most Likely, Beth could have been cast with a smaller actor– I am the largest woman in the cast– and it wouldn’t have changed the character a bit. I do think that size can be an explicit part of a character, but if that is the character’s entire motivation, yawn, I’m not going to be interested. I’m really interested in playing interesting, complex people. I think most actors are. If you think about it, how many mainstream movies would change if the lead actress had 20 or more pounds on her? Maybe Bridget Jones’ outside would accurately reflect her diary woes, but it really wouldn’t change much. What if Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig swapped roles in Bridesmaids? The lead would be a lovable fuck-up fat woman trying to do her best, and the weirdo with heart would be the conventionally attractive thin woman. Where would that change the plot?
Who is your favorite fat movie character?
This is such a difficult question. Farva from Super Troopers or Ursula from The Little Mermaid. Or Ken from In Bruges. Or Don Corleone from The Godfather. Or Charles Foster Kane from Citizen Kane. I like Fat Amy from Pitch Perfect, but that’s just because Rebel Wilson is a 10. I’m sure as soon as I hit send I’ll think of like 30 more.