(Featured image courtesy of Emily Sandifer)
Jessy Schram’s name is already a well-known one in the industry, and you’ll surely immediately recognize her from one of her many television roles. Veronica Mars, House, Mad Men, Once Upon a Time, and Nashville are just a few of the titles in her filmography, which also includes many Hallmark original movies.
TV Wasteland sat down with the actress to discuss her backlog of projects, the ways that acting have influenced her throughout the years, and how her rising music career has become so influential for her.
Growing up, the arts were a big part of Jessy’s life. “When I was younger, I did a lot of songwriting and poetry and performing… These creative spaces were an escape” and a way for her to find her voice. Her mother was also an artist, “so there was creativity all over our house.” She recalls owning a little plastic record player for children, and the only record they owned for it was Olivia Newton-John’s album, so that (along with Whitney Houston’s Bodyguard) was one of her biggest musical influences. In terms of performing, her artistically inclined family constantly instilled the acting bug in her (she specifically recalls her great-grandfather always talking about doing silent movies). Even to this day, whenever she needs to ground herself, she always turns to the arts to help.
The first big professional job that Schram booked was on the Jane Doe film series with Lea Thompson for the Hallmark Channel. “I had plans to move [to Los Angeles] on a Friday, and then I auditioned for Jane Doe, and I booked it and had to move on Thursday.” Jessy found “an instant family” in that cast and crew, as Thompson (who played her mother) “took me under her wing.” Jessy has since worked with countless other studios and channels, but it always feels full circle to come back to the world and the people who helped to set her foundation.
In 2010, Schram worked with the late Tony Scott (director of Top Gun) on Unstoppable, an action thriller where she played the estranged wife of Chris Pine’s protagonist. When asked about Scott, Jessy immediately said, “I adore him.” She highlighted his energy on set and how grateful she was to have the opportunity to work alongside him. “He would wake up at like 4 a.m., down a couple espressos, and then hand-draw all of the vision boards on all of our sides” for what he wanted the scene to look like. Jessy still has one of them, and plans to frame the side profile of her character that he drew. “He had so much creativity and so much to share.” She also marveled at the sheer “epic” proportions of the production, as cameras on helicopters and faraway trains captured the tiniest things, like a tear going down her cheek.
The year after, Schram found herself with some pretty big glass slippers to fill as the recurring role of Cinderella on ABC’s fairytale drama Once Upon a Time. Cinderella being her favorite Disney story, “I was so excited and so scared at the same time,” though she did emphasize that “you’re basically just an older girl in different, more expensive costumes, doing all the things you did when you were younger.” It was still a very creative space for her though, as the show was providing a new take on the character that she could play around with and develop in her own unique way. There was some pressure, but she made it her goal to “try to create this new version of Cinderella while still keeping intact what so many girls fell in love with. It was a great challenge.”
Many of the shows Schram has worked on have been in period or fantasy settings that have required different types of costumes that provide different types of challenges. All of Once Upon a Time’s lavish costumes were created from scratch and tailored specifically for each actor. Jessy remembers her iconic blue dress having a detachable skirt, because the full outfit was just too “massive” to even fit into a bathroom stall. On Mad Men, “we couldn’t wear clothing that hadn’t been invented yet.” Schram appeared in the final season, which took place in summer 1969, and the designers were so detailed that even “if there were pants that came out in August that were a new style, we could not do it.” One particular thing she remembered was how the outfits made her stand and hold herself a certain way, whether they were designed to or not. While filming The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, she almost passed out one day at lunch because her body was just not used to wearing a corset, but it became more comfortable as time went on and really transported her to that time period. “The costumes just get you to that place, and there’s acting that your body naturally does just by being in [them].”
The attention to detail on Mad Men wasn’t only limited to the costumes. “They were honest to all those little details” and would often reshoot scenes just to emphasize an object or a song that was integral to that time period. Jessy created her own playlist with songs from 1969 to really get in the head of her character and live within that year a little better. “I never really had an appreciation for the music, so I started learning about the time period and understanding it, and then it became groundbreaking.” The writing also really helped, as “you [automatically] have the cadence of someone who lived in 1969 because it’s written so well.” Even the audition was so specific about what she should be wearing, but just the promise of two lines on the Emmy-winning show made Jessy so excited. When sides were given to her beforehand to prepare, the names of the other characters would be blocked out to avoid spoiler leaks, so when two lines turned into four episodes, she was surprised every day coming on set and realizing that she would be sharing scenes with people like Jon Hamm and Vincent Kartheiser. She did admit to being intimidated at times, but the excitement she felt finding her little card at table reads was unmatched.
One of Schram’s most iconic television scenes is Cinderella’s ball gown transformation, and aside from the impact of that classic rags-to-riches scene, it brought one of her favorite on-set stories. Robert Carlyle (playing Rumplestiltskin) was her scene partner that day. “When you get to set, you bring your A game” for Carlyle, which made Jessy an even bigger fan of his than she had been before, as he would improvise and play with scenes in a way that required everyone around him to be on their toes. Production was losing time to finish the scene, and they only had fifteen minutes to do Jessy’s real-life transformation from dirty servant girl to ball-ready princess. Everything was getting a little rushed as the sun was coming up, and when it came time for Cinderella to run to her carriage to be off to the ball, Schram “massively tripped.” As they cut, she recalled Carlyle quietly laughing behind her and saying “That makes sense, you’ve never worn high heels before.” It mortified her, but she loved that he saw it as an in-character choice.
“When you’re playing fantasy or sci-fi, you have this make-believe world, but the rules are actually real.” Jessy really highlighted how even though these other worlds may be fantastical and occasionally far-fetched, they’re still populated by people who fundamentally aren’t that different from us. There’s more freedom and room for interpretation in acting within these different realities, but she does still sometimes come off a long day on set and ask herself, “Why can’t I just have a breakfast scene with my husband?” She admitted that “the grass is always greener,” and sometimes “you miss the simplicity of a kitchen just being a kitchen,” but she loves the ability to play with her craft in new environments.
Many of her Hallmark movies are set around the holiday season, but a lot of the time, there isn’t the opportunity to actually film in winter. So, how does movie magic create Christmas in the summertime? “Soap suds,” Jessy immediately answered. Productions can set up huge machines that shower sets with soap bubbles that look exactly like falling snowflakes. The problem comes in post-production, as those soap machines are often so loud that you have to re-record all of your lines weeks later in a booth. Road to Christmas with Chad Michael Murray was special because Hallmark was able to bring in truckloads of real snow to blanket over a tree farm, but if you can’t do that, layering cotton is a great way to turn a grass field into a winter wonderland.
One of Schram’s most recent television roles is Dr. Hannah Asher on the fifth season of Chicago Med. “My character is special in that I not only have the medical aspect, but she also deals with an addiction.” Jessy first studied addicts, watching every documentary she could find, talking to survivors, and asking therapists about commonalities they had noticed in patients suffering from addiction. On the flip side, Dr. Asher is a top gynecological surgeon. Schram praised NBC’s team of advisors who really guided her through the extremely technical aspects of playing a doctor. She emphasized how the surgery scenes were especially difficult, because not only was the jargon so specialized and specific, but every movement with her tools, no matter how seemingly simple, had to be accurate, requiring lots of rehearsals to get everything right. “The hard part is making it sound like you know what you’re talking about.” It might be easy for some people to say some fancy dialogue and go home, but Jessy takes the time to look up every word and make sure that she understands what she’s saying, because it can only add to the authenticity and reality of her performance. She also gives huge thanks to all of her “very patient” friends who are in the medical field and answer all of her questions.
Schram’s biggest upcoming project is Country at Heart. In the Hallmark original, she plays Shayna Judson, a country singer who is just “trying to figure it out. Her music career is not where she wants it to be, and she needs to take a step back and figure out if the struggle is worth it.” She goes home to see her father, who is also a down-on-his-luck songwriter, and they decide to write for a singer (played by Lucas Bryant) who will be singing at a festival. “They go deeper in the lyrics and teach each other about different parts of the music, and through the process, they get closer to their hearts. Shayna deals a lot with trying to be what she thinks she should be or what she thinks everybody wants, but the closer she gets to what she really wants and what’s in her heart, the more people listen and the more she’s really seen.” The film is also a romance and centers around igniting passion not only in yourself, but in Shayna’s case, for the person right in front of her. “It’s a love story about yourself and life and music.”
Jessy also writes music herself. She hasn’t quite nailed down her songwriting process just yet, but she usually starts out with lyrics, then adds a simple melody and jumps off from there. “I’ve gotten more into developing songwriting, and it’s more about collaborating with other songwriters that can bring other ideas or shape where I’m going.” She’s asking herself more now about what she’s trying to say with her music, shaping what’s naturally coming out of her with more active intent.
Some big things she’s learned from acting that she hopes to use in her songwriting career is “story and character and collaboration.” So much of acting is taking the time to get to know a character and tell their story, and she wants to bring that depth of focus to her songs as well. Acting is also never in a vacuum, and she doesn’t think songwriting should be either. She highlighted the importance of bouncing ideas off of other people and how partnerships can really bring creations to new heights. “It’s very vulnerable and scary,” but if she got used to it in acting, she’s confident she can do it in music as well.
Recently, Jessy sang in a benefit concert for neurofibromatosis. In terms of being a celebrity involved in activism, she said “I feel like I’m still trying to figure it out.” She finds that simply being involved is the best way to spread awareness of the issues you’re passionate about. She frequently works with Red Eye and Corazon de Vida, humanitarian groups that give her the opportunity to really be hands-on in her participation. Whenever she comes across an issue that she recognizes as severely affecting people, she advises, “the best thing to do is just learn about it and know enough, and when there’s opportunity to share about it, take those opportunities.” She does admit that it still often feels like she’s not doing enough, so she’s always looking for new ways to make her voice heard.
If Schram could play any role on television, she would choose Villanelle in Killing Eve or Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans. “I feel like one of my dreams is to be like a spy.”
Much like the rest of the world, Schram has been watching some great television in quarantine. Shows like Dead to Me, Working Moms, Peaky Blinders, and Downton Abbey have been getting her through the long hours at home. She even highlighted how in this era of Peak TV with hundreds upon hundreds of shows on the air, it can still feel like there’s nothing to watch because it’s all too overwhelming. “What’s fun about quarantine is that… there’s nothing new coming out, so when it does, you feel like you’ve been given a gift.”
One of those upcoming quarantine gifts will be Country at Heart, premiering on June 6 on the Hallmark Channel. Be sure to also look out for Jessy’s upcoming single “Do I Dare” as she forges her way through a new music career. Schram already has a very impressive history in the industry, and we’re sure it will only continue to grow far into the future.
(Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named both of Schram’s parents as artists and incorrectly identified one of her Mad Men scene partners. We apologize for these mistakes, and they have been corrected.)