Behind the Screens with Joshua Maloni
It doesn’t matter which side of the bed you woke up on, when you got that first cup of coffee, or what you had for breakfast.
Each day’s success – or lack thereof – is based on one thing: The decisions we make.
Such a simple, profound truth is the basis of NBC’s new series “Ordinary Joe,” a heart-warming, “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style show.
On the day of his graduation from Syracuse University, Joe Kimbreau (James Wolk) is faced with the biggest question of his life: Take off with Amy Kindelán (Natalie Martinez), the new girl he just met and with whom he immediately clicked; go back to Jenny (Elizabeth Lail), his sort-of girlfriend – who has news to share; or leave with his family, and follow in his late father’s footsteps as a police officer. The path Joe chooses will shape his life for the next 10 years – which is where the storyline picks up following commencement.
“Rocker Joe” and Jenny disagree about their son on “Ordinary Joe.” (NBC photo by Fernando Decillis)
“Rocker Joe” is a musical superstar married to Amy and adored by the masses. Despite living a life of luxury, Joe longs to be a father and grows discontent when Amy – who has miscarried on several occasions – decides to pursue a career in politics instead of starting a family. He bumps into Jenny at their 10-year reunion. Lo and behold, law partner Jenny had given birth to a son – Joe’s son – but, when he didn’t show up on graduation day, she opted to give the baby up for adoption. Joe becomes singularly focused on finding his son – despite Jenny’s objections (she’s married with two daughters) and Amy’s fears of infidelity.
“Nurse Joe” and Jenny share a light-hearted moment with their son, Christopher (John Gluck). (NBC photo by Fernando Decillis)
“Nurse Joe” wed paralegal Jenny. They have a son, Christopher (John Gluck), who uses a wheelchair and is in need of regular supervision. Joe and Jenny’s marriage is on the rocks, as their schedules have made them passing ships in the night. Still, they love each other and want what’s best for Christopher. They decide to get counseling, talk more, and be the best parents possible. In this version, Amy is married to Joe’s best friend and college roommate, Eric Payne (Charlie Barnett)
“Cop Joe” and Jenny discuss the case involving Bobby Diaz. (NBC photo by Fernando Decillis)
“Cop Joe” is single; a hero, following his actions to save the life of Congressman Bobby Diaz (Adam Rodriguez) from a disgruntled gunman; and a bar musician with amazing Billy Joel covers. Joe unexpectedly reconnects with Amy, who is running Bobby’s reelection campaign; and Jenny, a member of the DA’s office working on the attempted murder. He meets up with Amy at the reunion, and the two start a relationship. Jenny, unbeknownst to Joe, has kept Christopher and is raising him with her husband.
BTS caught up with Elizabeth Lail, an intelligent, talented actor who, while not yet 30, has already made a mark on her industry with a memorable arc on “Once Upon A Time” as “Frozen” Princess Anna; plus, a recurring role on the highly publicized “Gossip Girl” reboot. We chatted about the psychology seen on “Ordinary Joe” and debated whether there is a good, better and best version of the show’s characters. She said viewers are taking an interest in “Ordinary Joe,” and its character variations.
On her way to the set, a viewer “turned around, and she was like, ‘Ooh, Jenny, I'm mad at you – you won't let him see his son!’ (Laughs)” Lail said of the “Rocker Joe” response. “That was the first time someone out in the world was like, ‘Oh, you're Jenny, and this is what you're doing, and this is how I feel about it!’ And that was really cool. It was like, ‘Oh, that's great.’ It's great that it elicits a reaction – whether it's positive or negative. It's cool when you hear that people are invested in the story and the characters.”
An edited Q&A follows.
Elizabeth Lail stars as Jenny Banks on NBC’s “Ordinary Joe.” (Photo by Fernando Decillis/NBC)
Q: I was really intrigued by the premise of this series – looking at life through three different, obviously very large decisions. What appealed to you about this show and about this character?
Elizabeth Lail: Well, definitely that question, of “What if? If I had made this choice or continued dating this person, how different would my life be today?” I think that's just a really resonant question that we as mankind will always have. And I, really, I loved the relationships; I loved the struggle between Jenny and Joe inside of their marriage; and the secrets she has in the other worlds; and I loved the drama.
Q: What is the challenge – and what do you enjoy – in playing three versions of the same character?
Elizabeth Lail: (Laughs) I enjoy digging into the psychology of her, and discovering different elements of the same person based off of the choices that she's made – whether that's to give up a child for adoption, or raise it with another man, or marry her college sweetheart. It really defines how she operates inside of her current world. And I feel like, every time I get a script, I'm able to kind of like dig a little deeper on what drives her inside of each of these three worlds – and I love that.
The challenge, I mean, it's always a challenge. Acting is a challenge (laughs). It always requires more view than you think. And more of you than you might normally share like in your day-to-day life. It requires you to be vulnerable and available and present and, you know, soften your heart and open it up. It's all challenging for me.
Q: The way I'm watching this series, I sort of see a good, better and best Joe – of course, the rocker being the worst of the three, so far, in my estimation. What do you think of that?
Elizabeth Lail: Who is your good, better and best?
Q: You know, coming into this interview, I was really thinking the cop was the best, but now I'm not sure; the cop and the nurse are really neck and neck. The last episode that we saw, I think the nurse may have pulled ahead a little bit, honestly. But, yeah, the rocker is certainly in the doghouse, I'm sure, with many viewers right at the moment – and, of course, so is his wife after this last episode. (Joe has been moonlighting with Jenny, trying to find a way into their son’s life; Amy, meanwhile, is convinced Joe is cheating … and decided to have her own tryst with Bobby).
What do you think of that idea of there being a good, better and best version of this character – and if there's something to that, then do you also see a good, better and best version of Jenny as well?
Elizabeth Lail: You know, what's really interesting to me is that everyone I talk to has their own good, better and best estimation of each character. They'll be mad at one character and then love the other. And I think that's kind of the beauty of the show is that everyone has a piece of the show, of the drama, of the relationships, that they can potentially relate to.
I am of the opinion that there is no good, better or best. There's no right or wrong, and the grass is not greener on the other side. It's just different. They're all just messy, complex humans, in all three worlds; and just figuring out different aspects of living and being in relationships with other people.
But that's me trying to be very nonjudgmental. I like to extend a lot of grace to my characters and to humankind.
Q: It's interesting hearing you say that, how you look at the characters. As I'm hearing you saying that – of course, the show is meant entertain. But if you think about all the different sides of a person, and all the different sides of a person's personality, I mean, oftentimes we do just see one character and one presentation on screen. To see this presented in all these different ways – it's the same characters, and so all of these parts are in them. Maybe they haven't come out in all of their respective journeys, but they're all in there. What do you think of sort of the psychology, or the inside look at a person's personality, that this show is offering? Like I said, we really don't get anywhere else in any other show.
Elizabeth Lail: Yeah. I love that. I feel, as an actor – I've been thinking this way for a long time – which is all of the human condition is capable of manifesting itself inside of me. And it's just my job as an actor to make room and let it come through – whether that's a temper, or like an altruistic kindness; it's like you could be a murderer or you could be the next best thing to like a monk in the Himalayas. It's all possible. And that's how I think as an actor, which kind of allows me or makes me feel like I could really step into any part – to a certain extent, of course.
And you're so right. This show does the exact same thing, which is, it begs the question of how much is fate? How much is conditioning? And how much is just like personal growth and relationships?
I do think our relationships with other people define a lot about ourselves and, depending on who you spend your time with, they bring out different parts of you – whether that's your strength, your anger, your joy, your creativity. I think that, inside of all of our relationships, we discover new parts of ourselves. And so, that kind of conditioning of who you spend your time with, and the choices you make – which is reflected in this show – is very defining.
Q: You know, before our conversation, I would have asked you if there was one version of Jenny that you preferred playing but, based on what you're saying and what you're getting from each of these pathways, if you will, I'm guessing they're all equally rewarding for you. Is that true?
Elizabeth Lail: Well, they certainly are. But I will say that, you know, for me as an actor, I'm always looking to kind of like discover parts of myself that I don't spend a lot of time in. And I do feel like inside of the music world – so, law partner Jenny – she's very strong; very set in her ways. And just, you know, doesn't give a f**k. And then she also has this massive piece of heartache that determines that all her choices, as well.
And so, I really enjoy that world, because it's so far from me. Like, I'm just very breezy and easy, and constantly apologizing – for better for worse. And she doesn't apologize; and I love that.
Q: Fair enough.
What do you like about working with James and John, and what have you learned from them?
Elizabeth Lail: Oh, well they're just such a fun time. It just like a good-humored set. We're always just talking in different accents. And Jimmy – we call him Jimmy – and John, they sing together, and it is heart-melting. I feel so lucky I get to hang out with them and watch them sing – and cry.
Q: Of course, they are musically inclined on the show. Are you musically inclined? Is your character musically inclined? Are we going to see that aspect of her at some point?
Elizabeth Lail: You know, it's so funny: Before we shot the pilot, I knew I was meant to be playing the piano for “New York State of Mind” by Billy Joel; and I spent all this time learning how to play it on the piano; and I sent the producers a video of me playing it on the piano. And we got there on the day, and the piano in our home was really out of tune. So, I couldn't actually play the piano. It was devastating (laughs).
But I would say, yeah, I am somewhat musically inclined. I was in chorus and in band growing up, so I've got some of the basics. And I like to tinker around on the piano and the guitar – not as much as Jimmy; Jimmy is definitely like a next level. But I think I can do it enough to fake it for television, basically.
Elizabeth Lail as Jenny Banks. (NBC photo by Parrish Lewis)