So several months ago I was contemplating a book idea that related to Dwight Eisenhower. I did some preliminary research, Googled around, looked high, looked low, wrote a proposal, had the proposal semi-discarded … and, in the process, discovered Jennie Eisenhower.
The Philadelphia-based actress is the great-granddaughter of Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Philadelphia-based actress is the granddaughter of Richard M. Nixon. That’s a whole lot of history in one woman. Which, of course, makes her the ideal Quaz candidate.
Here, Jennie talks famous names (and why she doesn’t use hers for advantages), big roles, acting dreams and how one makes herself cry. Also, do yourself a favor and don’t ask her about a certain political scandal. She’s heard that one, oh, a couple of times before.
Jennie Eisenhower, f-bomb dropping future president, welcome to The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Jennie, so the first question is sort of obvious, but I have to ask: Your great-grandfather is Dwight Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon is your grandfather. Let me repeat that, because it felt crazy to write: Your great-grandfather is Dwight Eisenhower, your grandfather is Richard Nixon. Yet on your website, this little ol’ fact is mentioned, oh, nowhere. Literally, not once. Why? It’s sort of a big deal, no?
JENNIE EISENHOWER: I made the decision early in my career to not lead with my heritage. Basically I don’t hide who I am and if people ask I am more than happy to talk about it, but I also don’t use it to draw attention to myself. I felt that it was important for me to know that if I “made it” in the business that I made it on my own merits and not because I was using my family connections to advance things in some way. Additionally, while the fact that I am related to presidents is an interesting “fun fact” I don’t know that it really would help me in the theatre world anyway. If Liza Minnelli was my mom, for example, that would certainly be a different story! I would also probably wear a lot more sequins.
J.P.: So you’re a summa cum laude graduate of Northwestern University’s theatre program. You’ve obviously had a very strong career in acting—a gazillion plays in different markets, commercials, movie roles. I wonder, however, what the road has been like. How hard is it—“making it”? And do you feel like you have? Did you dream of Broadway superstardom, or standing alongside Denzel on the big screen? What’s satisfaction for you?
J.E.: My definition of “making it” is something that has changed and shifted over the years for me and continues to change and shift. When I first graduated from school and moved to New York I did so with dreams of Broadway superstardom. But as I began to tromp the boards in New York City I realized that the lifestyle of the New York actor didn’t really jive with the personal life I had pictured for myself. I am a creature of habit and like to more or less remain in one place save the occasional vacation. The New York actor has to be somewhat of a gypsy, going where the work takes them. In my 20s in New York I worked Off-Broadway, but I also worked in New Hampshire, Florida, Washington, DC, etc. That was fun for me but I began to wonder how a family would fit into that picture. When I found my way to Philadelphia and realized that there was a vibrant theatre scene that didn’t require me to move around, I felt things clicking into place. Suddenly I could do what I loved without having to sacrifice the lifestyle I desired. But that meant giving up the idea of “making it” as a Broadway superstar. Eventually I got over that and realized that if I am paid to do what I love and get to be surrounded by people I love I have “made it.” As for Denzel and I, I am still waiting for his people to contact my people about shooting that major motion picture in Fiji!
J.P.: You offer private acting lessons. I wonder, do you ever get students and immediately know either, “This person has absolutely no chops—and never will” or “This person is destined for stardom”? What gives either/both away? And if someone’s god-awful, will you say something? Pull the parent aside? Anything?
J.E.: Let me say, on a side note, that I love your questions! I am enjoying answering these! As to the student question, I don’t feel like it is my job to tell someone they are “good” or “not good”—art is subjective and my opinion is just one. My goal with students is to guide them and help them be the best artists they can be. Anyone can improve and grow if they have passion. If they flat out ask me “do you think I can ‘make it'” (we’re back to talking about “making it!”), I am very candid with them about my opinion and can have an honest discussion about the business of show. But if they are taking lessons to explore who they are and grow as an artist and they want me to teach them, I am game regardless of where they are in that journey.
J.P.: What’s it like having your last name? I don’t even mean people knowing who your great-grandfather is. I mean, how often do you hear, “Oh, like the president?” or—jokingly—“Are you related to Dwight?” Is it cool? Annoying? Neither?
J.E.: I occasionally get the “Oh, like the president?” line, and I just say, “Yes, like the president.” Then, if they press the issue and ask more about it, I tell them. It is actually really fun to talk about it because it happens far less often than you would think and it seems to really make people excited to hear about it. It used to annoy me when I was in my early 20’s, I think because I was trying so hard to prove that I was an individual and not defined by my family, but I have mellowed so much since then and actually look forward to talking about it with people if they ask. Being related to who I am is a true honor and I am proud of it and willing to share with people about it. And often people tell me really interesting things about their personal connections to my grandfather and great grandfather. They served in World War II, for example, or they voted for Nixon, etc.
J.P.: How did you get here? What I mean is, why acting? I know you were born in California, raised in Philadelphia; your father is a public policy fellow and Penn professor. But when did you first know this was what you wanted? How did you pursue it? What’s the journey?
J.E.: I was just a showbiz kid from the moment I could walk and talk. I always loved to sing and dance and put on plays for my family. I blame Shirley Temple, Julie Andrews and my parents for being so supportive and for encouraging me. I first knew I could do it for a living when I went to a summer acting camp called Stagedoor Manor and all I did for six weeks straight was act from the moment I woke til about 11 pm. I was 15 at the time, and I had the sense to realize that if I could do something that intense every single day and get up the next day and still be incredibly excited to do it all again, then there was something special about it. It was after that summer that I decided to major in theatre when I went to college and that is what I wound up doing. There have been times in my life where I have left the business to pursue other things full time in order to make sure this was truly what I wanted—I was a full-time public high school music theatre teacher for a school year, for example. But I keep coming back to theatre. It is in my blood. It is a part of me.
J.P.: Greatest moment as an actress? Lowest?
J.E.: I think starring in Forbidden Broadway at the Walnut Street Theatre has so far been the greatest moment for me as an actor because it was the most unfettered experience I’ve ever had. I was basically given carte blanche to be as weird and wild as I wanted to be. The bigger and more bizarre, the better. I spend a lot of time toning down my natural tendency to be incredibly over the top so to not have to worry about that in the slightest was very freeing. And it was a well received show as well and it was thrilling to have people enjoy my weirdness! I won a Barrymore Award for my work in that (which is the Philadelphia equivalent of a Tony) and though awards shouldn’t mean anything because that isn’t why I do this, it definitely made me feel fancy!
As for the lowest … ooh, lord. Well, I was in a show once that will remain nameless where I literally sucked. I was so bad in it. And the director started to notice I was bad during rehearsals and he gave me a thousand notes. And the more notes I got, the worse I got. Then, because I was so nervous, I started falling onstage for no reason. It was like I couldn’t walk. I would make an entrance and fall on my face. I think I fell seven times or something in course of the show. I guess I was paralyzed with fear or something! It got to the point where the rest of the cast didn’t want to hang out with me. Like I was the dying animal that the herd has to shun in order to survive. I hated going to work just to suck in front of hundreds of people every night. It was hell. Being miscast is the worst because you’re stuck. But I survived, the show closed, I moved on with my life and I like to pretend it never happened.
J.P.: You appeared in the 2011 remake of Arthur—a film that received universally awful reviews. I’m asking you this because I’ve always wanted to ask an actor this: When you’re in a film—even in a small-ish way—do you know whether it’ll be good or bad? Can you get a true feel before it’s completed? And what do you recall from that experience?
J.E.: I thought Arthur would do well. There was a great atmosphere on set and the director (Jason Winer) was fun and relaxed and not at all stressed out. Russel Brand was doing really funny and specific work. And then it didn’t do well! I was shocked. On the other hand, I was an extra on The Stepford Wives (the remake) and that one was a movie I could tell had troubles. The producers were hovering nervously the whole time and writers were thrusting rewrites at the actors. And they were way off schedule and obviously over budget. And everyone seemed super stressed out. I just ate a lot of cookies at the craft services table and watched it all go down. It was definitely interesting.
J.P.: I’m not sure if this constitutes a touchy question, but your grandfather, obviously, holds a controversial-yet-fascinating place in American history. Has that made your life … weird? Are there questions people ask you that, normally, wouldn’t be asked? Do you know what I mean?
J.E.: Totally. Sometimes people even have the audacity to say negative things about my grandfather to my face. It’s like they don’t comprehend that he is someone I love and care for and am related to. It used to really make me enraged but now I just see that kind of behavior as a flaw in that person and not something I should feel upset about. I know who my grandfather is to me and how I feel about him. If I see a negative article or a negative show or movie, I look the other way and don’t pay attention to it. That attitude has definitely made things easier for me. As the saying goes, “what other people think of me is none of my business”—I am a big believer in that and it definitely extends to my family.
J.P.: Serious question that eludes me: How does one make herself cry?
J.E.: Ha! If you’re super invested in the stakes of a scene and really living in the moment of the character and you have a fabulous scene partner, it will happen on its own. If these circumstances are not present, you have to recall really horrible things that happened to you in real life until it makes you cry—like, loved ones dying, etc. That’s the desperate and really awful plan B. And if you’re in a not-so-good show with a not-so-good scene partner, you have to do that every single performance. So it can be very unhealthy. Now, I understand that if you have to cry in an on-camera scene in a movie they can put some stingy drops in your eyes. I thank that is awesome.
J.P.: Chelsea Clinton is all over the news here in New York—sorta plotting future runs. Have you ever even considered politics as a career? Why or why not?
J.E.: I never felt compelled to run for office while in my twenties but now that I have a child and have a greater sense of civic duty and a greater concern for the future of our country I have started to reconsider. Both Ike and Nixon were Republicans and I feel an allegiance to the party but I have been so disillusioned by the direction the party has taken in the last decade or so. I registered as a Democrat several years ago. But I feel like if I were to run it would be with the goal of getting the Republican Party back on track. I am socially liberal and fiscally conservative and I think there is a place for me as a moderate republican. It used to be an incredible party. I would love to be able to rejoin it or help revamp it. But then I would probably have to stop swearing and start wearing suits and I am just not sure that I am ready for all that yet. Ask me again in 10 years. I may be there.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): James Franco, Entourage, Northwestern, ZZ Top, Pac-Man, the number 18, Ishtar, “The Descendants,” Peter Criss, Burger King, french fries, Robert Kennedy, snowy days, fake Christmas trees, Elvis Costello, seltzer: Seltzer (OBSESSED), Northwestern, Entourage, snowy days, Pac-Man, James Franco, fake Christmas trees, Robert Kennedy, french fries, Burger King, Ishtar, Peter Criss (had to Google him), The Descendants (haven’t seen it yet and probably won’t get around to it even though I have the free screener from SAG–just not interested)
• Oh, my—I just watched this insanely adorable video of you singing to your baby girl, Chloe. Awesome, awesome, awesome. You’re a new mom. How have you been able to manage the performer/director/mom balancing act?: So far, the performing has been going really well. I went back to a theatre job (starring in the musical “Parade” at the Arden Theatre) when Chloe was 2 months old. I had family support – my husband watched her in the evenings and my mom and sister helped with day times and the whole rehearsal process. And I still taught at Temple University this semester and that went well. The thing that has suffered a bit is my private voice/coaching studio which has always been the thing I do in my spare time or in addition to the acting and college teaching. Because I was always creating my own schedule week to week with a lesson here or there whenever I could fit them in and whenever students were free it was really flexible for me. But now, in order to do anything, structure is required because I have to line up help. So it has made private teaching very difficult. I am still trying to figure out how to resolve this issue so hopefully by the time this interview gets out into the world I’ll have a solution. But Chloe is worth slowing down operation a bit! She is incredible.
• Five greatest actors of your lifetime: Julie Andrews, Vivien Leigh, Audrey Hepburn, Natalie Portman, Kate Winslet. I listed the ladies who inspire me.
• Celine Dion calls and offers you $5 million to work 365-straight days teaching her how to act. You also have to change your name to John Rambo and only speak French. You in?: I’m a total Francophile so the speaking-only-in-French clause works for me. And I’m all about the $5 million as I assume at some point she’ll either become a good actor and no longer need me or give up at acting and fire me. And then I can open my own theatre company. Can I renegotiate the John Rambo portion of the agreement? How about Jean Rambeau? More French and a little prettier to pronounce.
• Do you think Tim Raines belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame?: I grew up on baseball (my father is a huge baseball fan) so I am embarrassed to say I had to Google this one. Didn’t know about Tim Raines or the controversy. I’m just glad Mike Schmidt is in there. I was a huge fan of his when I was a kid.
• Five things you always have in your purse?: Cell phone, hand sanitizer, wallet, keys, pepper spray
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: My husband, my baby, my mom, my dad, my sister, my brother, my extended family, my friends, etc. etc. I am all about the people in my life—they are my life.
• Kanye West is really starting to irk me. What should I do about this?: Kidnap North West. Hold her for ransom. Your price for her life: his silence.
• The greatest movie line of all time is …: “Don’t fuck with me fellas. This ain’t my first time at the rodeo.” (from Mommie Dearest). Do you see why I can’t run for politics yet? I love the f-bomb too much.
• In 22 words, make an argument on behalf of Hall & Oates’ “Maneater” …: It’s a public service announcement, really. How else are we going to know to “watch out” for her? Thanks Hall & Oates!