*“Jean of the Joneses” is Film Marks feature debut for writer-director Stella Meghie and star Taylour Paige, who plays 25-year-old Jean Jones, the center of a multi-generational, middle-class Jamaican-American family of strong-minded, stubborn yet loving women. Their lives come to an arresting stop when her estranged grandfather dies on the doorstep of the family’s brownstone during a Sunday dinner. Tensions rise and old conflicts come to a boil as Jean uncovers the family’s buried secrets.
Joined by co-stars Sherri Shepherd, Michelle Hurst, Gloria Reuben and Erica Ash, Jean’s aunts further complicate the family dynamics as Anne, the “baby” of the Joneses sisters, (played by Erica Ash), is unable to take responsibility for her decisions.
The semi-autobiographical screenplay was the first script to be penned by Stella Meghie, who led an all-star cast of empowering black women. EUR/Electronic Urban Report caught-up with Erica Ash (“Survivor’s Remorse,” “Sister Code,” “Real Husbands of Hollywood”), and “Orange is the News Black” star Michelle Hurst ahead of Sunday night’s premiere to discuss the production and the creative energy that was fostered on set from this dynamic cast.
Check out our Q&A with the actresses below.
Tell us about your character Anne?
Erica Ash: I would say she’s pretty much Jean in about five years. She and Jean are closer to a sister relationship than an aunt-niece relationship. I think not necessarily just because of the chronological smaller gaps between he two of them but just because of the way that they relate to each other and where Anne is in her life. She’s in no position to help Jean figure out this whole love thing and life thing because she hasn’t figure it out. They sort of figure it out together.
You play Jamaican grandmother Daphne, describe her personality and relationship with her family.
Michelle Hurst: She is a Jamaican woman with three grown daughters, and one grown granddaughter, who is Jean of the title. And my three daughters are played by Sherri Shepherd, Gloria Reuben and Erica Ash. My granddaughter is played by Taylour Paige. I guess you could say, if you are of any kind of West Indian background, she is everybody’s mother. Everything you love about her, and everything you don’t quite love about her. She can love you with a slap and then hug you with a smile, and it’s all the same. She’s like every family you’ve ever known. Doesn’t matter if you’re Jamaican, Italian, Jewish… whatever. The way the mother animal in her is that this is how I take care of my children. This is how I show them love. May not look like love all the time, but this is how I show them love.
Does Daphne have favorites? What’s her relationship like with Jean compared to that with the other women of the Jones family?
Michelle Hurst: It’s exactly the same in that she treats everybody almost as if they’ve been bad children forever. The only people that she honestly showed some positive love to, which is not to say she’s mean or nasty, but the ones that she’ll put a big hug around [are] the little-little grandchildren. One of her daughters has two little people, and so it’s that backwards kind of love that all of us have experienced from a relative at some point in our lives.
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Explain how your own experiences growing up with and around the women in your own family helped enhanced your journey with Anne.
Erica Ash: I think for me, the biggest thing is channeling things about me to actually play Anne, not necessarily my relationship with the people – with the other ladies in the cast. I think it was more so just me figuring out the character and then once I had the character set in my mind in terms of nuances of her I wanted to highlight, everyone else was a new experience, and that’s how I was able to make it fresh. That’s how I’m able to make all of my characters fresh. I try to find some aspect of the character, no matter how outrageous the character is, that relates to Erica. And once I can find that connection, then regardless of who I’m in the scene with, or who I’m acting with, or who else the story revolves around, I see each situation as a new situation and I tackle it from the perspective of, ‘Okay now, what would this character do in that situation?’ How would this character relate to this person?’ It’s a little bit too much for me to try to also relate a character to different people for the sake of me trying to act with them, and try to connect with them. It makes it less fresh for me.
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Do you identify with any of Anne’s strengths or weaknesses?
Erica Ash: Yes, as a matter of fact. So with Anne, even though her love life is not all that she would love for it to be, and she’s dealing with housing her niece and having her space invaded, and she’s dealing with other personal issues, Anne is a solider. She soldiers on. She keeps things going. She knows that there are responsibilities that she has regardless of what’s happening in her personal life and regardless of how she feels, and she continues to do that. And I’m very much the same way. I can compartmentalized things for the sake of taking care of what needs to be taken care of. I really respect that about Anne. She’s able to shrug things off, which is another really good quality that I share with her. That’s not to say she’s unaffected, she is, but she’s able to keep going.
Describe Anne’s relationship with the other women of the Jones family.
Erica Ash: It’s not the closest family in terms of conversations, but I think Anne being the baby of the family, she’s got her own separate relationship with each of her sisters and with her mom. I think they give Anne a lot of leeway. It’s how she grew up. If you grow up a certain way, you don’t know any other way but that way, so you don’t know anything is necessarily wrong with it. It just kind of goes along with life. It doesn’t necessarily affect her negatively that she can see, so she’s not bitter, sad or upset. She’s not complaining. It just is her life. And what I like about Anne is that she has this free-spirited quality about her that just goes with the flow of what is. She’s cooky and strong and funny and fun and she’s responsible all at the same time, which is a great combination.
Were you given any liberties to create a backstory or an elaborate emotional history for Daphne, or did Stella provide all the backstory that you needed to occupy Daphne’s headspace?
Michelle Hurst: Let’s put it this way….part of it is things I’ve absorbed in my life. I was brought up in Brooklyn, New York, and I live in Brooklyn, New York, and if nothing else, the different kinds of people that you see give you ammunition for creating whoever you have to create. Whether it’s the accent, whether it’s the attitude, whether it’s the idea that this is how these people do what they do, or this is how a mother treats her child. So in that sense, it’s a lot of observation of my own. Stella actually took me to meet her godmother-auntie that the character was sort of based on. So in a sense, the softness of her is what I kind of observed for Daphne. I think one of the other keynotes in this movie is that everybody in the film, all of the women, has a secret of some sort, including Daphne. So the way that families handle secrets and the things they don’t talk about, that’s kind of how I see Daphne. She’s got her own set of values. She’s got her own set way she looks at the world. But she also has a few little secrets on the side too.
Speaking of secrets, do you think there are elements to this film that will inspire women to open up about their pain and exchange secrets?
Michelle Hurst: I’ve always been taught as an actor that the way to get people to pay attention is to make them laugh. There are some wonderfully insane, and also wonderfully close to the best kind of laughs in this movie, and if that can inspire… I think we sort of took for granted that what we brought to the table as actors, as women with senses of humor — almost everybody in this movie has been in the business for a while, so they have some sensibility of how you do what you do. So for us it was like, what will work in terms of our interaction that will not only make people laugh, [but] maybe make them think, and what will make them open up? We have that habit of keeping things close to the vest cause we think we’re supposed to, and I think a lot with this movie is that maybe, just maybe, people will say ‘Ya know, maybe I need to sit down and ask my grandmother… she’s always talked about that sister but she never tells us anything about herself when she was growing up.’ You gotta ask the hard questions or you never learn.
This is such a talented group of women assembled for this project.
Erica Ash: I always like to be able to find the connection with the people that I’m working with and I was able to do that in week one of working with these ladies, and just being able to find that ease to just relate to them off camera made it so much easier and better to work with them on camera. We were able to kind of have that dynamic of family that we were trying to portray, and that was just lovely, and that’s what I try to do in every production that I’m in, just on a personal level, is connect with the people that I’m working with and it makes it easier. Your guard is down, you feel like you’re in a safe space, and it’s something that I want to always be able to share with someone because it feels so good when someone shares that with me. So that’s something that I definitely take away from working with them. I mean, Gloria, Sherri, Taylour, Michelle — everybody was just so amazing, and we hung out a lot outside of work. We found that connection.
Did you find the type of creative energy that Stella fostered on set rejuvenating in any way? .
Erica Ash: I think every director brings their own nuances to the gig, and with Stella, I really enjoyed the fact that she was so open and so free and allowed us to be able to find the nuances that we wanted to highlight and to express them the way we found most comfortable. I love that about her. I love that she let us go til she had what she needed. She was just as eager to learn from us as we were from her, and that really made it a great experience working with her. It was more of a workshop type of atmosphere and we all were learning from each other, that made it fun.
“Jean of the Joneses” premieres on TV One today, Sunday, October 23 at 7 p.m. ET with an encore at 9 p.m. ET.