Brent Jennings is a TV and theatre actor who has appeared in a long list of world renowned shows including Modern Family, Shameless, The Newsroom, Veep, Moneyball and is now known for playing Ernie Fontaine in critically-acclaimed AMC series Lodge 49, which has just been renewed for a second season. Here Brent dives deep into his acting process, revealing how he gets into character and performs for TV cameras, as well as sharing advice for actors on rejection and enjoying the creative journey.
How did you get into acting and acting for TV?
My name is Brent Jennings, I play Ernie Fontaine in the new AMC series, Lodge 49. I’ve been acting pretty much my entire adult life – about 35 years. I’m a journeyman actor who’s done a lot of TV and film, Broadway plays, off-Broadway, regional theatre, I’ve been just sort of making my way through the business. It’s been a great journey. I’ve done a lot of good work and worked with a lot of great people and am happy to continue that with this show. It’s a great cast, great material, rich material, fun material and it’s just been a joy to work with. I got into acting as a child. After a school play, our 6th grade teacher told me that I had a good speaking voice and a good sense of timing and I should become an actor.
I did research on it and I went into it quite naively thinking “oh wow, this is great, those guys don’t have to work every day, at the same job. They get new experiences, get to travel and you can just save your money and when you’re not working, do what you want to do.” I never thought there would be times when you’re not working and that I might need to get a proper job so I can pay this house bill. That’s how I got into it; it became a childhood ambition and one thing lead to another. I studied in Boston, got onto a New York stage career and then onto film and TV – that’s the short version.
How did you get involved with Lodge 49?
I was out of town visiting my mother in Little Rock, Arkansas, on an extended stay and was told I had an audition for this show and had to be back in LA before my scheduled return date.
I didn’t want to leave, so said I couldn’t get to LA in time. Then, I hung-up the phone, thought about it and thought, maybe I’d better see what it is. They sent me the script, I read it and fell in love with the script, the story, the concept and the character. It was a uniquely drawn character, multi-faceted, but I couldn’t get back, so I put myself on video tape and sent it to LA. They saw the tape and said “we want to see him when he gets back”. I went in, met the producers, went through the process and got the part. It was one of those things that was meant to be.
That’s what happens, you wait around for something that fits, creatively, where everyone seems to do everything the same way and understands the material and you feel like “I was meant to do this project and I’m glad it happened.”
Tell us about the character and what you brought to it, personally.
You hit a certain point in your life and something about what the character is going through connects with you. Ernie is a 59-year-old plumbing salesman, who is pretty much alone in the world. He’s lost his immediate family – he had a child that he lost – and this has all happened before we even meet the character. That’s his back-story. He’s at a point in life where he really wants to accomplish something. He’s a member of this lodge and that has really become his family, the place where he goes to assert himself.
He really wants to achieve the title of Sovereign Protector, which is sort of the leader of the lodge, and he’s also trying to make a big score in his business. A big development is coming-up in the town of Long Beach, where the show is set, and he wants to get the plumbing contract for that development and there’s a mythical character called ‘Captain’ who is a big, known deal-maker in the development world and he thinks “if I can just get to Captain and get a meeting with him, I can get this contract and I can get out of debt.” He’s living cheque-to-cheque.
He sort-of reunites with his childhood sweetheart; she comes into the lodge and he tries to rekindle that romance. So he’s looking for everything; success, a sense of accomplishment, for love and he’s alone. He’s sort of a desperate character, but there’s a lot of humour to him, a lot of compassion in him and also that other side, if he’s pushed up against a wall, he may do anything to survive.
And it’s a comedy in the classical sense of the word. It’s not a sitcom but these characters are put in situations that they never expected to be in and it’s how they deal with those situations that provide the comedy. It kind of has the point of view that life is full of unexpected twists and turns, that things happen randomly and we live in a world where we’re riding around in bumper cars just bumping into each other, experiencing things in a haphazard manner and it’s fun.
The members of the lodge are all eccentric, lustful people. It’s about the middle class working man and the things they are facing; losing jobs, this big contract. There’s also a big company called Orbis that’s closing and this development will go-up on the land that they own, but a lot of the people in the community are losing jobs. So some members of the lodge are dealing with that, they’re dealing with ageism – one woman loses her job as a journalist because they want to go younger. It deals with grief, with loss.
The lead character Doug has his world turned upside down when he has to deal with the unexpected and sudden loss of his father, who vanishes in a surfing incident and, as a consequence, his family lose their pool supply business, their home and find out that their father left them in debt. His twin sister is the responsible one of the two and is trying to cover those debts and it’s putting a lot of stress and strain on her. He’s going through a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome, he’s turned upside down, trying to find his way through this and comes upon the lodge and my character and they form a kind of knight-squire relationship. As flustered and disorganised as I may be, I become his mentor and we have our little adventures as we move through the world.
It was intriguing to find a project that doesn’t have an antagonist. All of the characters have their complications, their good sides and not so good sides. I fall into this relationship with a high school sweetheart who happens to be married to another member of the lodge. It really does reflect the complexity of human nature and how we get ourselves into absurd situations without even realising it. We kind of fight our way through it. I thought it was real to life in that way. At that time in my own life, I was dealing with the sudden loss of a very close family member, which left me with the responsibility of caring for my mother, so I was going through my own personal grief and sense of loss.
Being an actor the age of the character, you understand that sense of – have I done all I want to do in my business, in my life? You can understand that sense of the window closing and there’s not a lot of time left to make your mark on the world. Ernie doesn’t want to leave the world with no one knowing that he was on the planet. He wants to be recognised and make a contribution and do he comes from a noble place, but the desperation leads to comic circumstances.
What’s your process to become a character, in any production?
Your process is something you develop over years of doing it. You develop a distinctive way that you go about it.
The first thing that I try to do is improvise with the character to understand it. Even if you play a guy that happens to be a serial killer, there’s something about it, a hole there or something, that causes these rash, immoral actions. If you’re planning him, you have to find something that you can hold onto and say “I understand why this person is doing this”. Then you also have to be willing to find those connections between yourself and the character. Of course, I’m no way near to becoming a serial killer but you have to find a way to empathise, understand and realise what you’re doing is presenting a portrait of a person for an audience to look at and come to their own conclusions about who that person is.
You can’t judge that person. You can’t say “oh this is a bad person and I don’t like him”. I think that really puts you on the wrong path of creating something that’s true to whoever that person is. With Ernie, I think because I’m middle aged, there’s some regrets you may have, or a lack of fulfilment. In your private moments you think “I’d really like to get a great part, or a Tony or Oscar nomination, for my artistry to be recognised”. There’s something in everyone, a sense of failure, or a lack of accomplishment. So I had to identify with and accept that. I was going through a personal journey that a lot of people my age are going through; dealing with loss, with elderly parents which you’re caring for, that you understand this situation you’re presented with and this story.
I was willing to share my own pain and weaknesses and I think it’s that connection with the character you try to find that allows you to open yourself up. In school, you learn things like sense memory, a method technique where you try to recognise emotions within yourself that might help you to access things to express things in your character. I felt the script was very literary. It read like a really good short story novel, because it has a lot of nuance and subtlety and everything comes out of that. When you see that you can relax into it, go-with-the-flow and not resist it.
There’s an opening scene in the pilot, where Ernie has been disturbed by these crows, keeping him up at night. They are on his roof, squawking, and the first time we see the character, he’s walking out of his house in the morning with a pellet gun and he starts shooting at the crows. He comes out of the house in these little boxer briefs and I have a little pot gut so in a discussion with the costume designer we thought maybe I should just expose myself and let go of the vanity and walk out of there with my pot-gut hanging out. I shoot the crows, pat my stomach and walk back into the house.
That’s a microscopic example of being able to reveal who you are. I was once told that until an actor can forget himself, he can’t really play a role. Some things require you to let go of your own personal vanity and hang-ups and expose yourself in a way that allows you to express who this person really is. I think that’s the process – it’s great therapy!
What are you working on at the moment?
We finished the first 10 episodes at the end of 2017 and the show went out August 6. The show will go to a second season now. It got great critical reviews and everyone seemed to be happy with it.
I just finished a TV project, here in LA, called All American where I did a recurring role as the father of the lead actor. It was a really nice role. It’s so different from Lodge 49, which is unique material. I know that it’s been a blessing for me to have it, because it’s the kind of TV that doesn’t come across your desk every day – or every year for that matter.
What advice do you have for young actors coming up?
Develop thick skin. Don’t be afraid of rejection, don’t ever take rejection personally and don’t let it force you to lose your enthusiasm and confidence for what you’re doing. Be true to yourself and always realise that you are enough. What you bring to any project or situation is enough.
A lot of young actors go for auditions thinking “the producers want this” and I say “no you’re looking at it the wrong way”. First of all, you’re trying to please someone you haven’t met and that you haven’t had a conversation with. You don’t know what they want – what is it that you want? This is your opportunity to do the part when you go into the room, so do the part. Do what you think the part is. Make your commitment and choices to the role and go in and do your work and everything else will just fall into place from there.
And if you don’t get it, it could be for a lot of reasons other than you weren’t good enough for it, so always know that you are enough. You are good enough and you’re basically waiting for those kinds of opportunities that fit you. If you keep going and have patience and you keep at it, you’ll get them.
Acting is a thing you have to do as much as you can, the more you do it, the more you grow. You don’t always realise you’re making the steps that you’re making. But when you’re doing it, you begin to understand how you work, what your process is and that comes from staying involved in it. When you’re young and starting out, I think it’s really important to become immersed in the craft of it. Acting is a craft. We’re not really artists; the writer is the creative artist and we’re the interpretive artist, that’s why it’s important to bring your vision of what the artist has written into the room.
So don’t rely on tricks always work from your heart and your head – expose yourself.
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