It’s not uncommon for a birthday girl to receive a flood of online greetings and some cool gifts.
Jessica McLeod put a fresh spin on that expectation when she turned 18 on Jan. 25, however, choosing to create an online gift of her own for web-surfers.
That’s the day the Claremont graduate and her gal pals Tiarra Sulyk and Athena Russell began creating Almost Actors, a web series they’d begin shooting a month later in Vancouver.
“We all have similar senses of humour and everyone’s so driven in their own way and so quirky,” said McLeod, whose creative team wrote nine episodes in a week.
The comedic online series about acting-school archetypes was inspired by their own experiences, she said.
“It’s a very specific niche and a web series is a great tool because you get complete creative control and you can do it on a super low budget.”
McLeod says they were motivated by the success of the web series that was inspired by Convos with my 2-Year-Old, the hilarious online viral video featuring actor Matthew Clarke re-enacting conversations with his two-year-old daughter, portrayed by grownup actor David Milchard in his underwear.
“They must have spent $20 an episode on that so we decided ‘Why not write things we can direct, produce and sometimes star in?’ ” she said. “And we can create good female roles.”
Five Almost Actors webisodes shot by Devon Mussett of Lawn Party Films are already online, with more to come via YouTube and their Bitchpop Productions Facebook page created by editor Ben Groulx.
The trio’s witty labour of love, likely to resonate with anyone trying to break into show business, is one of the latest screen adventures for the versatile young actor who graduated with honours two years early from Claremont.
McLeod was an integral part of the school’s Focus on Fine Arts program, appearing in Claremont Musical Theatre’s production of The Wizard of Oz as The Guard, and starring as Elle Woods in its production of the musical Legally Blonde before she moved to Vancouver two summers ago with her mother, Teresa.
Although McLeod was burning with ambition and already had film and TV credits under her belt, she made a deal with her mother, who insisted she graduate before taking it to the next level.
McLeod’s roles include playing the daughter of Steven Weber’s character in the miniseries Eve of Destruction, and roles opposite David Hasselhoff in the Lifetime movie The Christmas Consultant and Billy Ray Cyrus in Hallmark’s Christmas in Canaan. She also got to play a feisty redhead who matches wits with an outspoken private-school teacher played by Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn in Rita, a pilot for a Fox TV series.
After graduation she also appeared in Zapped, Disney Channel’s Zendaya comedy for director Peter DeLuise as a “super-prissy” teenager.
Despite her upbeat attitude, the actress admits it hasn’t all been peaches and cream since she relocated to Vancouver.
“I had the worst year of my life last year, but I got through it,” recalled McLeod, who struggled with anxiety and depression.
“It came to a head. I felt isolated in a new city and I underestimated how hard it would be to move.”
McLeod’s subsequent gigs include roles in Some Assembly Required and Jacob Tierney’s comedy Preggoland, but the one she’s most excited about is both horrifying (in a good way) and hits close to home.
Her role as Samantha, a rebellious 15-year-old foster child in Victoria filmmaker Jeremy Lutter’s feature debut The Hollow Ones, gave her an opportunity to flex her acting muscles in the horror genre.
Lutter said McLeod “really nailed it” when she auditioned to play the detached teenager convinced her younger sister who mysteriously reappears after vanishing is a supernatural impostor.
“She’s very offbeat, an anti-hero, not the most likeable character at the beginning,” says McLeod, describing her role in Lutter’s folklore-inspired feature debut, written by Ben Rollo, that recently wrapped in Vancouver.
It’s not the first time McLeod has done horror-themed material since her debut as a youngster in a ridiculous example. In Scary Movie 4 she played the schoolgirl reading My Pet Duck to Leslie Nielsen as the American president in a sequence spoofing George W. Bush’s delayed reaction to 9/11. She also appeared in two of R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour episodes, and was scared witless in Stonados.
“I love scaring people. It’s just the best job,” laughs McLeod, referring as much to her seasonal employment at Playland as a Fright Nights program supervisor.
Her duties include training actors to scare visitors to its Carnevil and Haunted Mansion attractions. It’s there where she met Sulyk, part of what she terms a “lovely” and supportive group of friends.
While McLeod says she loves “stunt stuff and blood and dirt” she admits the 19-day The Hollow Ones shoot in Maple Ridge, Surrey and Langley could be as “difficult” as it was rewarding.
“Seeing several friends die is hard, but everyone was so awesome,” she said, singling out Hannah Cheramy, her 11-year-old co-star who plays Olivia, her missing younger sister.
“She’s never done anything but commercials, and she is incredible. I cannot stress enough how extraordinary she is.”
Ironically, “the most collaborative experience I’ve ever had” also reunited her with John Emmet Tracy. Her former acting teacher at Victoria’s Screen Actors Studio plays her character’s foster father.