(Featured image courtesy of F. Scott Schafer)
One of ABC’s breakout hits of the past few years was Bless This Mess, which follows Mike and Rio (played by Dax Shepard and Lake Bell) as they leave their New York life behind to restore an inherited family farm in Nebraska. Jacob, the sweet, teenage farm boy who lives next door to the unlikely couple, is played by rising star JT Neal.
TV Wasteland talked with JT Neal about working on Bless This Mess, his roots on Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, and how every connection you make can shape your whole career.
JT grew up in “a town in Texas where the arts weren’t necessarily the key focus; it was mostly sports.” He had never really been into sports, so he eventually found his way to the audition for the school play. Even though he was forced into acting a little bit, he counts himself as fortunate to have discovered that path. “It was kind of the first thing I did where I felt connected to something… Nothing had made me happier up until that point.” He would go on to attend the prestigious Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas.
Neal first broke out in children’s programming. His first-ever role was in Disney Channel’s Lab Rats, and his first recurring part was as Scott Tomlinson on Nickelodeon’s The Haunted Hathaways (a character he reprised on The Thundermans in a special crossover episode). He has a special place in his heart for Disney and Nickelodeon, as “both of them were kind of instrumental in kicking off this career and, at least in the beginning, sort of validating what I was doing and letting me know I was on the right path.” The way that his career grew from there just proves how every project can plant the seeds of new relationships and connections that will grow to other things in the future. “All of these people have stayed in my life, and they’re really special networks.”
In 2016, Neal’s latest project had been cancelled, and he found himself in a sort of limbo, not wanting to just wait around for the next project to come along. So, after getting together with another actor friend of his, “we decided to collaborate with our other friends (our real-life roommates) and create this show about our lives.” Roommates followed three seasons of the adventures of the titular group of guys, all playing “heightened” versions of themselves. “It was really just a way for us to stay creative in a time when none of us were doing enough to sustain us.” In this age where content is growing faster than weeds, these friends’ story is a perfect example of how the accessibility of production can make passion projects an easy reality. It also helps to be constantly working with your best friends every day, as he did admit, “we had more fun behind the scenes in between takes than even shooting it.”
A few years later, JT appeared in what would turn out to be one of Netflix’s buzziest films, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser. For a while, no one actually had any idea that the streaming service would be picking up their movie. “I ran into our director, Ian, at the mall one day, and he was being very cryptic, so I knew something big was happening with it.” Though while it was shooting, he could sense an air of something special around the project. He likened it to the type of John Hughes/The Breakfast Club type of film that is able to bring both comedy and genuine heart to a high school setting. Neal also highlighted how the cast on that set really bonded, hanging out in each other’s trailers and getting to know each other. This production was right before Netflix’s other huge teen rom-com, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, shot Noah Centineo into the stratosphere, and JT specifically recalled his sweet and humble presence on set. “We were all just in this thing together, trying to make the best thing we could [in] a very creative environment.”
JT found that his own personal history may have given him an extra edge in landing the role of Jacob on Bless This Mess, as he “tried to bring in aspects of [his] own personal life, of growing up in a small town in Texas.” The audition process was stressful (as it would be with any show as high-profile as this), but whatever nerves he may have had during his callback were immediately alleviated by simply reading with Bell, who almost immediately put him at ease. Even as he went in for the high-stakes screen test, he recalled feeling as if everyone involved was “so generous and let [him] work through things and let [him] find things about this character.”
At the beginning of the series, Jacob is a little more naive and “looks at the world through rose-colored glasses,” not even letting up on his extreme positivity when he accidentally cuts off his own thumb. Though, in season two, Neal had the opportunity “to explore more of his insecurities and some of his anxieties about life,” as he explores his love of music and how it clashes with his upbringing and the future he thought was set out for him. JT only held praise for all the writers, saying how the deeper they delved into the character, the more fun he had in exploring all of the facets of his personality. “They knew exactly where he needed to go, and I think bringing a girlfriend into the mix also definitely helped Jacob grow up a little bit.” He finds that the comedy in his character and in the series overall comes from such a deep place of heart, “that human beings can relate to on a cellular level.”
When asked about the moment or scene that made him laugh the hardest on set, Neal admitted that he is notorious for frequently breaking character. “I don’t know what it is, I constantly laugh at everything everybody does, especially on our set, where we had such heavyweights in the comedy world.” Though if he had to pick one episode, it would be the one where Mike and Jacob start a band, as it really just made him ask, “Where else in the world could you have this much fun working on a job?”
He found that filming on a ranch, with live farm animals, dust storms, thunderstorms, and the occasional bridge flood, really added to the authenticity of the work and gave it its own distinctive feel. A wildfire breaking out just on the other side of a ridge, forcing the crew to evacuate, made for a particularly ‘authentic’ day.
One of the most impressive things about Bless This Mess is its ensemble. Comedy legends like Pam Grier, Ed Begley Jr, Marla Gibbs, and Rita Moreno have passed through the town of Bucksnort, and even though their reputation and stature may be huge, Neal remembered all of them as being completely ego-less. “They came on and… just wanted to make the best episode possible.” He is “eternally bummed out” that he was never able to meet Moreno (as they were always shooting scenes on different days), but he remembers sitting next to Marla Gibbs and talking with her about family.
He credits a lot of that comfort to the culture on set, as everyone promoted an environment where egos and big names would never get in the way of simply having a good time and doing good work. “Lake was very specific about wanting the set to be as stress-free as possible.” That environment is one of the ways Bless This Mess sets itself apart, and the cast has really come together as a family because of it. His favorite days are those when all of the stars and recurring actors are together, as the downtime between shooting builds a wonderful kind of camaraderie between everyone as they sing songs or tell jokes together.
Neal loves working with over-the-top and physical comedy, which is why he’s especially loved being involved in Netflix’s Malibu Rescue. His character, Brody, “was so outrageous that nothing was really off-limits for him.” The creators of that series also worked on Best Friends Whenever, providing yet another great example of just one connection having a huge impact on something else down the line that you could never expect. “It’s very rare that I get the feeling of going and working with my friends… and they allowed that. They encouraged that.” Many fans who approach him are fans of the series and the movie, and he counts it as gratifying to be a part of something that so many people, including his own family, continue to enjoy so much.
Neal has also worked extensively with charity organizations like Los Angeles’ Share A Meal, which uses food trucks to deliver meals to the hungry. “I’ve always wanted to use my platform for good, and if I can get the word out about wonderful organizations that are helping people in need, then that’s exactly what I want to do.” Fame is simply a louder voice, and while he acknowledged that he’s not really into ‘influencing’ or that type of platform utilization, he at least hopes to encourage people to go out and help someone else in any way they can.
JT has worked with so many diverse kinds of ‘funny,’ but he sees that variety as something to be proud of. “I feel so lucky to be able to work on all these different genres of comedy. You really become more confident with every single one, and you always are able to tell what the next one demands because of your past experiences.”
To all the young performers out there looking for their big break, JT simply says: “Work hard and work consistently. Even if you don’t have a job at the time, you can still be doing things to prepare yourself.” He recalled an acting teacher’s advice, which told him that “Luck is a preparation meeting opportunity.” Keeping your skills sharp on your own time is what will bring you far, as the audition should not be the hardest part of your week.
Nearly every actor has a bucket list of people they’d love to work with in the future, and JT is no different. Tom Hanks, Will Smith, and Tom Hardy were just some of the names that popped up on the list, and while he admits that some of his fantasy collaborators may be “tall orders” at the moment, his career so far has proven that nothing is ever completely out of reach if the right connections are being made.
In terms of quarantine binge watching, Neal recommends Prop Culture on Disney Plus. As a self-proclaimed “film historian,” the docuseries intrigued him with its celebration of the artists who created so many of the costumes and set pieces that have become nothing short of iconic. “It’s really just emotional to see them reunited with the people that interacted with them sixty years ago… The collector in me was just in hog heaven.”
The Next Wave, a new Malibu Rescue film, will be released on Netflix sometime later this summer, with JT only teasing that “Brody is back, and he’s more obnoxious than ever before, if that’s even possible.”
Neal will be appearing in the upcoming Life in a Year, starring the “absolutely incredible” Jaden Smith and Cara Delevingne. The “heartbreaking” and “hilarious” romantic drama has already finished shooting, and though movie releases are so up in the air right now, he hopes it will be available to see (whether in theaters or on demand) soon.