Naomi McDougall Jones: Acting is ‘Under her Skin’
May 31, 2012
ASPEN – Naomi McDougall Jones’ mother, Claire McDougall, is a writer; her first novel is set to be published next year. Jones’ father, Paul, plays a bit of violin. But Jones gives a knowing little laugh when the idea is floated that her parents directed her and her siblings into a life in the arts. An episode from her early years seems to confirm Jones’ belief that it was her own blazing urge to act, dance, sing and write that made the family’s Woody Creek home a whirl of creativity.
At 8, Jones whipped up a home production of “The Wizard of Oz,” and pressed her brother, Obadiah, a toddler at the time, and two of their cousins into service as cast members. The show, a line-for-line re-creation of the film version, spanned four hours. “I have no idea how it lasted four hours – the movie isn’t four hours,” Jones said. “It was epic. Epic! We acted it out for our poor parents.” (When I asked if she and her cast were in costume, Jones gave me a look that said, “How can a bunch of preadolescents do a four-hour home version of “The Wizard of Oz” without costumes?)
There was no question who the ringleader, the pint-sized Cecil B. DeMille, was in these productions. “I forced them to do shows with me, absolutely,” Jones said, referring to siblings and friends who became her co-stars. The theater offerings didn’t end with “The Wizard of Oz”; there was also a production of “Grease,” in which Jones played Sandy – but also took over the role of Danny when Danny’s scenes got especially juicy.
Whether genetic, or forced on them by their older sister, Jones’ siblings have the same artistic bug. Obadiah, who spent his teens as guitarist for the prominent Aspen rock band Slightly White, is studying music at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. Talitha, who wasn’t born in time for “The Wizard of Oz,” made up for it by starring in the recent Aspen Community School production of “Oz”; she also appeared last summer in Theatre Aspen’s “Annie.”
Jones also found more standard outlets for her creative desires. At 4, she requested to be signed up for ballet lessons. Around the same time, she made her stage debut, playing a “monster of the deep” in the Aspen Country Day School play, “Sail Away.” She went on to appear in a handful of Aspen Community Theatre productions, playing the oldest daughter Liesl in “The Sound of Music,” and appearing in the only non-adult role in “A Little Night Music.” She appeared in Aspen Theatre in the Park’s “The Princess and the Pea” and as the housemaid Mary Warren in a Hudson Reed Ensemble production of “The Crucible.”
In her senior year at Aspen High School, Jones began writing for the stage. “Walking Wounded,” her 10-minute play about two 9/11 survivors in New York, won Theatre Masters’ Aspiring Playwright Competition and was performed as part of the group’s Take 10 festival in Aspen.
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“That was the first time it dawned on my that I could write dialogue,” Jones said.
Jones, who has had seven of her plays produced, is now in the midst of making her first film, the psychological drama “Under Her Skin.” Jones has written the screenplay, and will star as the main character, Lana, a woman who moves from Utah to New York to get over the death of her mother. She is also co-producing, and she and co-producer Caitlin Gold are in the fundraising stage for the indie project.
Jones is hosting a benefit event, Daring to Dream, Friday at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen. (Admission is free; there will be a silent auction and donations for the film may be made.) The evening will include short performances – no four-hour marathons – by local arts groups including Aspen Community Theatre, the Aspen Historical Society, the Aspen Writers’ Foundation and others. The event will conclude with a screening of the two-and-a-half-minute trailer for “Under Her Skin” and a talk by Jones. Also, Jones will present the winner of the Dare to Dream competition, in which Roaring Fork Valley artists, age 10-21, submitted a short video about an artistic project they would like to make.
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Lana, Jones’ character in “Under Her Skin” has not really moved to New York in order to get over her mother’s passing. Lana’s mom is still kicking and, in fact, is living in New York herself. In writing “Under Her Skin,” Jones wasn’t interested so much in death and mother-daughter dynamics, but in people who can pass off untruths as reality.
A few years ago, Jones was close to two instances of people who had fabricated significant parts of their existence. “Which is a very interesting psychological disorder,” said the 25-year-old Jones, who was still in the outfit – tank dress, black tights, cowboy boots – she wore on her trip from her home in Brooklyn to the Roaring Fork Valley. “There are people who are charismatic, good friends, but they can believe in multiple, contradictory stories. They believe in the lies they’re telling. I got interested in a person who seems normal, and you get sucked into their version of reality because it’s so enticing.
“I hadn’t seen that before. Usually in a movie, if someone is crazy, they’re crazy all the way, ‘Single White Female’-style, where they end up stabbing people in the eye with a stiletto.”
Jones believes “Under Her Skin” continues the thematic thread of the plays she has written, including “May-December with the Nose and Clammy,” a two-person romantic comedy that earned positive reviews at the New York Fringe Festival and was staged in Aspen by Theatre Masters, and “The Threadbare Sex,” which places the ancient Greek female figures Cassandra, Antigone and Electra in three different time periods.
“Most of these are about trying to understand people who would normally be misunderstood and written off very easily,” she said. “I think people are quick to judge one another. But people don’t generally do bad things – they do things they think are good and it winds up bad. I’m interested in that.”
Another way of putting it is, Jones is interested in exploring herself. Devoting herself to dance, theater and music weren’t bad things, but they did make her an outsider for much of her life.
Jones says there is “no question” she was seen as a theater geek in school: “I don’t think it helped my social life. But I don’t think that’s why I felt outside. I think I was awkward to begin with and I don’t know what I would have done without theater. I found my people there, getting to hang out with grown-ups who didn’t think I was weird. That was important – maybe they thought I was weird, but they didn’t tell me.”
Jones spent a year at Cornell, long enough to form the opinion that the university’s theater department was lousy. She transferred to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan. “That was amazing. Life-altering,” she said. Jones and her fiancee Stephen Grimes, who works for a nonprofit that does humanitarian work in Africa, live in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park, where she still feels like an outsider. The neighborhood, she notes, is half Hasidic Jews, half traditional Pakistanis.
Since graduating four years ago, Jones says she has been “acting and writing like a crazy person.” Apart from the seven plays she was created, she had a lead role in a 2010 Off-Broadway production of Chekhov’s “The Mire,” which earned a glowing New York Times review; and was cast last year in the season finale of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” playing a secretary who comes across the dead body of one of the series’ main characters. (Jones also works part-time for Theater Masters and works several mornings a week working for Rock-a-Baby, singing to little children.)
Much of Jones’ work lately has been in film. (Imdb.com lists nine projects she has been involved in in 2011-’12 alone.) Being on film sets got her interested in trying a screenplay: “My co-producer said, ‘Write a film and we’ll make it.”
So far, Gold’s production company, Nine Lives, has gotten as far as hiring a director, Meredith Edwards, and making a trailer – a 150-second clip that took two 15-hour days to shoot. Assuming the money is raised, Jones expected shooting to begin in October. Jones, who has been writing the “Under Her Skin” script for more than a year, can’t wait to get in front of the camera as the semi-psycho Lana.
“This character is very much in my blood at this point,” she said.