Jenny Stead is an actress currently starring as Judy Boone in the South African premiere of the West End and Broadway hit, The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-Time. After graduating from the University of Stellenbosch, she won the Vita award for Best New Actress for her performance in Fiona Coyne’s Glass Roots. Jenny won a Fleur du Cap for her performance in Reza de Wet’s Breathing In, followed by a tour through the USA and Europe with the New York Colonnade’s production of the politically charged, Truth In Translation. She was nominated for a Fleur du Cap for Best Actress in A Musical for her portrayal of Janet in The Fugard Theatre’s production of The Rocky Horror Show. Her fourth Fleur du Cap Nomination was for The Visit in 2018. Her film and television credits include The Poseidon Adventure, Starship Troopers 3, Restless, ICE and Blood Drive.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
The short answer is probably my mom. I had sung from the time I was little but acting was never something that I thought I would do and then in matric, for some or other reason, decided to audition for the school play. We had house plays and I auditioned and I got cast as the supporting actress in our house. They had the award ceremony and the adjudicator got up and she said that for the first time in her career she wanted to give the Best Actress award to a Supporting Actress and it was me. That was the moment where I thought, “Maybe it’s something that I could do.” I had always wanted to be a psychologist. The plan was to do drama as a secondary subject and have psychology be my major. Then I followed a boyfriend to Stellenbosch and started studying and started doing drama and just fell in love with it and everything else just fell away. But my mom had always said that she thought it was something that I should do. She sort of championed it. I think she knew but I had never paid much attention to it. It wasn’t so much somebody or someone else’s career, it was something that happened by mistake in a lot of ways.
What was your time like at Stellenbosch?
I loved it. I feel like I wasted my time there a little bit because I think it’s so wonderful to get the opportunity to train and those institutions do offer spaces and opportunities to put on your own work; to direct things, to write things, to create things and to fail because you are not being judged in the same way that you will be once you enter the professional arena. I feel like I missed that opportunity a little bit but I had a great time at Stellenbosch. I love that I got to study in a dual language and it’s served me nothing because I cannot work in Afrikaans apparently because I’m not a first language Afrikaans speaker but I had a great time. I had some amazing lecturers. Robyn Scott has told me that I’m an honorary UCT graduate now because I’ve worked with many. Just for anyone who doesn’t know, Robyn said it.
Upon graduating you were nominated for a Fleur du Cap Award for The Most Promising Student. How do you feel like that affected the beginning of your career?
They had an award ceremony at Stellenbosch where they also voted for awards and in my honours year, I was not nominated as Best Actress at all and then was nominated for the Fleur du Cap. It was interesting to me because it made me quite aware of politics. I had already started doing professional work in my fourth year and I don’t know if that was a factor but there was a little bit of unhappiness within university, perhaps. Perhaps, art is subjective. Maybe they didn’t think it was worth anything but it did make those awards seem less important in certain ways but at the same time, it is always nice to be validated. I often look at people who have aspired to have a certain type of career. They’ll say that they had dreams of being a movie star or winning an Oscar or that kind of thing. I’ve never had that. I’ve never had huge aspirations at all. It’s always been that I just wanted to work and I wanted to do work that inspired me and moved me and then I’ve always just kind of trudged along and worked where I could. I’ve been fortunate that the Fleur du Caps have been very generous with me in terms of nominations but I do think that art is incredibly subjective and depending on who the judges are and what they like. I don’t think that people should take it to heart too much.
Eventually, you went on to win one for your performance in Breathing In. How did it feel to receive that recognition?
It was wonderful. It was great cause I got cash. It was lovely and it’s always very nice to put down when people ask for your CV or you have to write a bio. I loved that particular production so much and I loved getting to work with Antoinette Kellermann and Marthinus Basson and to do a Reza de Wet [play]. That had been one of my absolute dreams. I said earlier that I didn’t have dreams and I lied because this was one. I had seen Diepe Grond that Reza had written and Marthinus had directed. I adore Reza’s work. She is one of my favourite playwrights and I adore Marthinus. The opportunity to work with the two of them and to work with Reza, because she was in the rehearsal room with us, was just one of those things that I am so grateful for. It was an amazing opportunity and then to be recognized for it was just like the cherry on top.
What was it that originally attracted you to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time?
I had read the book but a very long time ago and I knew that I enjoyed it but I couldn’t really remember it all that well. I had just done Fatal Attraction with the same team and had decided that I wasn’t going to do theatre again for a while and specifically didn’t want to tour again because I did a month in Joburg, which is tricky with kids. I was on holiday with my family in Singapore and Dean [Roberts] actually got hold of me and said, “We’d like you to audition for Paul [Warwick Griffin].” He told me the dates and I said, “Those dates are terrible because it falls over my kid’s final year exams and it’s the first year they are writing exams.” I’ve got twins. I was like, “I can’t do that. It would be a terrible decision.” Then he sent me the sides which was one of the letters that she has written. I actually sat in the hotel room and read the letter and just bawled. I was like, “I want to do it so badly.” I connected with her so much in a way that is maybe a little bit frightening because she is not the greatest mom but I understood. I had so much compassion for her. I had such a huge level of empathy. I sent in a self-tape and it just kind of snowballed from there.
Because of the way the play is structured, did your traditional process have to change at all?
It was an interesting process for me because it was a fairly short rehearsal period. It was about three and a half weeks and the mom only appears quite late in the first half. For the first week of rehearsals, Paul kept saying that I didn’t have to come in. I did the table read and then he was like, “Don’t come in. I need to work with them.” It’s a massive ensemble piece and it’s quite physical. At first, I was a bit taken aback and felt like I was being left out and then I was like, “This is great. I have free time.” When he called me in, then it was really nose to the grindstone. We were working very hard at that point. In that way, it was different because I felt like I was quite isolated from the rest of the cast for a while which was maybe a good thing especially in terms of the character. It required a different way of learning lines. I am a very lazy line learner. I like to learn in rehearsals. I like to learn through repetition on the floor and I didn’t have the luxury of that. It was really a question of sitting at home and studying lines and getting them into your brain which I’m not great at but my daughter was amazing.
What is one thing you’ve learned by working on this production or by playing this character?
It’s been an interesting journey because I feel it’s required a kind of emotional athleticism. The way that Paul and I have gone about playing Judy, she’s extremely emotional and probably sits on a level of Bipolar, perhaps. To be able to find that every night, has been an incredible lesson. Some nights are better than others but it’s been an amazing exercise. What has been the most special thing for me about this production, I think, has been Paul Warwick Griffin because he is just sublime in the way that he treats people with absolute respect and dignity and admiration and meeting people where they are at. I think that in this industry, we should all be like that. He has been an incredible mentor to me and I loved working with him. He has reignited my belief in this.
It’s interesting that you choose the word belief as opposed to him reigniting your passion for this.
I’ve always had a passion but it’s hard. It’s a hard industry to be in and I’ve been fortunate because I’ve done a little bit of film and TV over the last few years and in a medium that is so much more intimate and where you are paid a lot better and where you are treated in a way that theatre can’t afford to treat you. To come back to theatre can be a little bit heartbreaking sometimes because it’s much harder. The material rewards aren’t always there and often the critical kind of acclaim is also not there. You could be working really hard and people could not notice you and it can wear you down but your passion is always there. But your belief in yourself and the art form can wear and diminish.
How do you go about selecting the roles that you do?
I don’t know that I do. There are some things that I won’t audition for. I’m extremely reluctant to ever do a musical again because it makes me panic. The auditioning process of that is so hardcore. Oprah has that thing of opportunity is when luck meets preparation. I feel like there is something to that in terms of my career. I feel like I’ve found the roles that I was meant to play and I’ve just been lucky in that way. Even with Fatal Attraction, because I had auditioned for Alex and I really wanted to play Alex and then they called me back for Alex and for Beth and I was like, “I don’t really know if I want to play Beth.” But Beth spoke to me. I understood her, being a mom and being a wife. It was the right role for me. I think a lot of it has been ordained.
Is there anything still on your professional bucket list?
I would love to do more South African film work. It’s a very tight, close-knit industry. I love telling South African stories and I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve gotten to tell a lot of South African stories on stage. I’ve done a couple of great South African stories and I like speaking from what I know. That would be nice. I would like to do a Mamet and I would probably like to do a musical again at some point but it would have to be the right one.
In the context of your career, what is something you are most proud of?
Honestly, probably what I’m most proud of is that I’ve been able to balance my private life with my professional life. I know how completely blessed I am to be a mom and a wife and to get to still do what I do because you can sort of count on two hands women in this industry that still work who are moms. One of my favourite documentaries is one called Searching For Debra Winger, that Rosanna Arquette made. It deals with this idea of when women become mothers, that they then have to give up their careers and that you can’t have both. It happens all the time and you see it happening all the time. It used to happen a lot in film. Debra Winger was the famous example. She was at the top of her career and then she fell pregnant and she just disappeared and the whole documentary deals with women in the arts and can you have both? Can you do both? How does it work? That is what makes me probably the proudest, that I’ve walked that fine line because as much as I know that I am incredibly lucky, it’s hard. It’s not easy to balance the two. I’m proud of that.
What is something you’ve found to be your biggest challenge?
I suppose acting is quite a selfish thing, so requiring your family to understand not only do you need to go away to Johannesburg for a month to work, sometimes you can’t speak because you need to rest your voice or sometimes you need to have a nap or focus. Alternatively, sometimes you don’t get to have a nap because you have your kids and have to help them with homework. I think sometimes that’s the challenge, figuring out that fine line, understanding which is more important to you on that day and in that moment and then making that choice and not feeling guilty about it.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I don’t know if it’s advice or just an example. For me, it’s not so much advice but examples set by women who are brilliant at what they do and who are still kind and generous and compassionate. Watching that, with women I respect tremendously, has been the most valuable lesson for me. I’m trying to do that as much as possible.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
That is also such a tricky question because I’m friends with so many of them. I think as a disclaimer, I’m not going to include any of my dear friends because I obviously respect them. I do think I have a very soft spot for women who are really great actresses who are moms. Susan Danford and Terry Norton and Jo da Silva. Diane Wilson, who was one of the first women I got to work with in a professional capacity who is such a momma bear above all else. Thembi Mtshali-Jones. There are also people like Robyn Scott and Tinarie van Wyk Loots who I just think are spectacular at what they do and are such lovely human beings. That inspires me.