Jessie Komitor Taps Her Way From Subway to Web Series
The first time I met Jessie Komitor at a mutual friend's rooftop birthday party in Manhattan, I was stricken with an awkward feeling. She was so pretty and so friendly. Why was she talking to me? And being so nice about it.
A master of many trades, Jessie is first and foremost an actress (and tap dancer). Most recently, though, she is the writer (and sometimes director and producer) of her web series, People of New York. Inspired by Humans of New York, a photo series by Brandon Stanton showcasing real-live New Yorkers, PONY is its "Spinal Tap" equivalent. If HONY is real life, then PONY is its Christopher Guest film. And every main characters is played by her.
While Jessie is actually as nice IRL as she was the night we met, she doesn't fancy herself a smoking-hot babe. "I don't consider myself even close to competing to the standard Hollywood beauty," she tells me. And she's totally OK with it. She's really just trying to play the Edward Norton roles.
Here she reveals her frustrations about typecasting, how to tap on the subway, and why she just wants to be one of the guys.
photos by Daria Lombroso
Let’s start with how it all began.
I have been dancing since I was five, which is how I got into acting.
For my first audition, my mom took me to try out for the high-school musical. They were doing Music Man, and needed kids. But when it came time for my line, I just stood there. I froze. I guess I was just petrified. So that didn’t work out.
I kept on dancing every day after school for hours. Ballet, tap, jazz--you know, the essentials when you’re younger, and as I got older, contemporary dance and tap dancing were my two “things.”
You’re a really good tapper. I mean, in Q Train Connection, you are on a moving subway tapping up a storm. How did that come about?
[Laughs] Yeah, it was really, really difficult. I got the idea for that on the subway. I have notebooks full of ideas I want to execute, but it seemed so difficult to make a video like that. Finally, I called my friend Max and was like, “Would it be crazy to get together and choreograph a dance?” And he said, “No, I’ll do it.”
How did you get a clear subway train?
So many hours of waiting. We probably waited two hours, just taking the Q train all the way to Coney Island and back. And every time someone would get on the subway, we would have to stop and start over. Or run to another car. The whole thing is one take, so we did it a lot. I had a very clear vision, but it was difficult to achieve.
So you really got serious about acting at NYU?
I went to Atlantic in NYU. It's very intense theater training that’s action based. I was so disappointed that I didn’t get CAP 21, but it was a blessing. The entire process of learning this theory opened me up as a person and an actor.
Then I did a semester at Stonestreet, which is film and television, and then I did a semester abroad in Florence and studied the ancient art of comedy. Basically, clowning. I fell in love with clowns like Bill Irwin and Dr. Brown. The amount of discomfort Dr. Brown is able to make you feel is something we should all aspire to.
And that really informed what kind of actor you wanted to be?
At NYU, I kept getting cast as the comedic relief, never the ingenue parts. And while, at audition time I would sometimes be really disappointed, I also started falling in love with the characters I’d play--these offbeat, quirky characters. Eventually I realized that comedy wasn’t just about rhythm and timing, but that comedy can also be subtle and awkward. That’s the part of comedy I fell in love with, which is why I’m doing what I’m doing.
Who are some actors and actresses you wanted to emulate?
Edward Norton. Or Christian Bale. Ricky Gervais. I just always wanted to play those roles.
What about those actors compels you to want to act like them?
I think because I don't see those people when they are acting. I only see the character they’ve become.
Don’t you feel like there are strong female actors that do that?
Yes? I think Cate Blanchett is one of those actresses. I have no idea “who” she is, because every time I see her in a role, I am just blown away by the character she creates. Marisa Tomei does that for me, as well as Gabby Hoffman, Parker Posey, and Lucille Ball. Lucy is probably the reason I fell in love with comedy.
It’s just that a lot of lead female roles play the ingenue characters. And I don’t want to be that. And a lot of the male roles end up being more interesting. I’m not saying men are better than women in film, it’s just that the roles I find most interesting are usually played by men. Like, I want to be the guy in Fight Club.
What kinds of pressures do you feel as a female actress in New York City?
When I go to meetings, when I know someone will be looking at my hair, my size, my skin color, or whatever it is, I fear being typecast. Some people figure out what their type is and run with it, and become very successful...and then they break it and have an incredible career. And sometimes I think maybe I should have done that. But I’m not. I’m trying to not let people pigeonhole me off the bat. I just want as much opportunity to play Edward Norton roles as possible.
I don’t know much about that process, but I assume people look at you and say, “Oh, you can be the fiery Italian sister.”
Yeah, that’s exactly what it’s like. I want to play the fiery Italian sister. That sounds great. But when I meet a casting director for the first time, or an agent for the first time, I never go in like, [speaks in Italian-Brooklyn accent] “Hey! How the fuck are ya? Where the fuck have you been?!” I go in being like, [sweetly] “Hi, how are you? Thank you so much for having me today.” I still try to make an effort to ground myself, and to be my own weird self, but it’s hard to not be typecast.
Maybe you could just, like, fart when you walk in the room?
[laughs] Yes! I wish I could just fart when I walk in the room. “Whoops! I’m Jessie, nice to meet you guys!”
Do you feel passionate about trying to change people’s perception?
Yeah, I guess so. Because I have such an active imagination, I really believe that I can. I hope this doesn’t sound cocky but I really feel like I can really lose myself… and that’s the kind of actor I want to be.
I read in your Marie Claire interview that you played a lot of characters in one audition, and that's what inspired the series?
About 2 years ago, I made a self tape where I had to create characters in a comedy sketch. I showed it to Max, my tap dancing partner. He was laughing hysterically at Joey, which is the only fully formed character to make it from that audition tape to People of New York The Series. The rest are either combinations of people or variations on.
I can’t remember how it came up, but I just wanted to make an episode. So I thought, what if it was kind of like the portrait photography Humans of New York, who are real people, but this time, I’d be all the people.
How do you get inspired to create each character?
Through people on the street or in my life, or by people in my family.
Like Nancy? Who is she modeled after?
[Laughs] My mom. I was very nervous to show it to her, but she loved it.
I improv what these people would talk about, and what they talk like. I just start with who they are and then I start speaking like them, writing it out as I’m improving. Then I sculpt a story arc. So I have an outline, and once I get to set, I improv the scenes.
Does that make you nervous?
Do you have improv experience?
Yes, at UCB. There are four levels. I did three levels, and about to do the fourth.
You don’t write a script?
I write pieces of dialogue and the scenes, and I have visions of how they go. On set, I know the things I need to say in order to move the story forward. Then I riff.
My editor, Julian, is amazing. He finds the stuff I didn’t write, things I didn’t notice while watching the footage, or something that didn’t fit in the storyline and shouldn't be there, but he finds it and makes it work, and it’s usually the best part of the episode.
What other kinds of projects are you working on?
I just did a move called Cruise, directed by Robert Siegel, who wrote The Wrestler. It’s a really small part, but it was an incredible experience.
Your boyfriend is a producer, and he also works with you on People of New York. Has that changed your relationship at all?
The good thing is that he “gets” me. He understands my anxieties and self doubt. And he is so good at being a producer, so I’m lucky to have that talent.
Since we are working together on it every day, it’s very difficult. We live together, so it’s hard to know when to "turn off." If we’ve been sitting on the couch since 9 am, having coffee together, and then we transition into working all day, how do we stop? Then, when we're going to sleep and one of us thinks of something…what do you do? We’ve had to schedule times to work on it, and make certain times off limits. We just say, “We’ll talk about this tomorrow morning.”
Being that Mark is also an actor, does that influence your work? Does he weigh in with acting notes?
Yeah, he’ll give notes. For example, the first cut of Joan--he felt there was a humanity about her that was missing. He just didn’t “feel” for her, which is a very actor-y thing to say, and something I wanted very badly for her character. So immediately I knew I needed to go back into the editing room and rework it. His notes are important to me.
There's no doubt that NYC plays a major role in your work. What do you love most about the city?
I love that I can walk outside and be in the middle of everything. Suburbia scares me so much. When I go home to Westchester, I can’t sleep. It’s too quiet. I hate being bored, and I love that, even if I’m bored in my apartment, I’ll just go take a walk and experience so much. I like being able to eat the best Thai food, or the best burrito. I love trying new things, and you can do anything in New York. You can sit at home and watch a movie, or you can go see...someone like Joan.