Girl Power

Sure, she spent her early life in New York and now she resides in Los Angeles, but Jennifer Bartels still considers the South home.

Bartels has come a long way from her Raleigh, N.C., home, though, and she’s poised for a breakout starring alongside Alicia Silverstone and Mena Suvari in the new Paramount Network comedic drama American Woman. As she awaits the show’s premiere, she took time to chat with South about where she came from and where she’s headed:

ON HER POTENTIAL BREAKOUT ROLE IN AMERICAN WOMAN / Yeah, I want to think that. The middle school version of me is like, “Jennifer, don’t get your hopes up,” but my modern-day self hopes so. It’s a great collective of three women. If you look at the other two names, I know the other two.

ON WORKING WITH SILVERSTONE AND SUVARI / They came into acting much younger than I did. When I was doing local theater and going to high school, I was watching them from afar and seeing how their careers took of, so to be in the same realm as them is just amazing. It never gets old that I’m friends with Mena and Alicia. I can’t just not geek out about it.

ON DOING A MORE SERIOUS TURN AFTER MAKING A NAME AS A COMEDIC ACTRESS / People forget that a lot of comedy comes from a sadness or understanding a darkness, because we turn to comedy. I always understood darker things, and that helped me, almost as a coping skill, to lead into comedy. When I started realizing that was a strength of mine, I ran with it. I’m so thankful to John Riggi, who created the show, and to the writers who slowly saw what I was capable of and believed in me enough to write this juicy character arc for me. Every time I’d go in for read-throughs, I was so thankful that they were taking a chance on me to do what I trained for in college. I’ve done serious stuff, but people are more likely to know me because of my comedy, so this was great to break out of that a bit and show some of the other things I can do.

ON PLAYING A STRONG, INDEPENDENT WOMAN SET IN A TIME WHEN THAT WAS A BREAK FROM THE NORM / I think now, fortunately and unfortunately, the climate we’re in especially in Hollywood with everything that’s come out with regard to fair pay for women and the women’s rights movement that we’re still kind of chasing today, I think it’s relevant. … I can relate to Diana’s struggles, not in the 1975 aspect, but in the idea that it still exists today. Being the only woman in a room filled with men and being looked at differently because I’m a female. I guess my goal with Diana is to send a message to people, and especially women, about how far we’ve come and that we could be farther. It took a lot of strong women back in the day to get us where we are today.

ON HER NONTRADITIONAL PATH TO HOLLYWOOD / It’s always interesting when someone comes out in a role like this, and they’re like, “Oh, who’s this person?” Like they found me in a cafe and I was, like, sexily eating a croissant, and it’s like, that’s not how it works. … I always knew I wanted to be a performer, but I didn’t come out to Hollywood at a young age; I didn’t have that same setup. I was a dancer as a kid, and then I did high school theater. When I got to college, I gave myself a year and said if I got into the BFA program at East Carolina that Sandra Bullock went to, I would give it a shot. I literally said if I didn’t get it, I would be a teacher. I got in, and it was like, this is probably what I’m supposed to do, and I just never looked back. I waited tables until I had to sell cell phones, and that got me to New York, where I sold cell phones during the day and did comedy at night. It was a constant hustle, but I always kept my eye on the prize. I think it’s been interesting to have a different path to how I got here, and I also think it’s inspiring because it shows that there is no one true path.

WHAT DO YOU MISS ABOUT THE SOUTH? I love Southern food. I just work out really hard when I go to the South, because I just work out to eat for the rest of the day. At breakfast, my parents are like, “For lunch…,” and I’m like, “What? We’re eating breakfast!” We have to map out our food, and all meals are full meals, so I never lose weight in the South, but I’m probably never more comforted or happy with the food and the manner of Southern people. I’m so thankful looking back that my family plucked me from Staten Island at 11 and moved me to North Carolina. For the good and the bad of that cultural shock, I feel like I learned what it was to be friendly. When you go on a walk you say hi to people, and you say, “yes ma’am” and “no, sir” and there are some aspects of that that warmed me to being a kinder person. And the food is delicious. … There’s a familial feeling that you don’t have in L.A. There’s a real nice comfort in the South.

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