French-Canadian actress Jessica Malka talks us through her fascinating career, from her early beginnings in Quebec to moving to the US and seeking further opportunities in Hollywood.
From regular TV appearances such as on the long-running Providence (2005 -) to more recent short films, LA Psycho (2018) and RE-Artists (2019), we discuss the work involved in finding a project, as well as advice for budding actors, such as acting unions and union work.
Moving to the USA: finding teachers and finding yourself
FF: Would you like to say a little bit about yourself?
JM: Hi, I’m Jessica Malka. I’m bilingual, French is my first language because I was born in Montreal and my parents are French. I grew up in Montreal, born and raised. I studied acting, worked in film and television for over a decade in Quebec, in both French and English. I also did a finance degree from Concordia University.
Once I was done with my degree, I moved to Toronto, where I pursued acting, studying and working. Then in 2016/2017 I moved to Los Angeles to pursue my career in the US, and I was studying with the greatest here and working as well, luckily, because it’s a tough market.
FF: Absolutely, yeah. What was it that was the catalyst for moving to LA, taking your career there? Was there a course that you were wanting to do or did you have a role set up? Or did you just decide, ‘I’m going to go for it, I’m going to go out and see what happens’.
JM: Well, luckily, my partner wanted to go to Los Angeles as well, to work. I was fortunate enough to get a green card. So I felt the need, it was always something I was curious about. I did study with a great teacher here for a few years, her name is Deborah Aquila. She’s a famous casting director, but I think an even more tremendous teacher. So that was so wonderful, to expand my work like that. But the US was really challenging. Getting representation here was so much more challenging than when I went from Montreal to Toronto. That was a huge challenge. There’s so many people here, you want to differentiate yourself in a certain way. But I’m really happy I made the move.
The Big Move to Hollywood
FF: Awesome. So how long did it take you before you got some more notable roles, being in LA?
JM: I will tell you it took some time to even just get representation. I got my first commercial representation, which was easier to get, then I got theatrical representation later. I felt like I came from a pretty known country, obviously, Canada, upstairs neighbours, and I had worked on a few American projects there. But still it’s such a big market that it takes time for people to even pay attention to you. So it’s been a struggle, but worth it, it’s very humbling. You really get to the core of yourself, as a person, as an artist – what really matters and what doesn’t.
Getting started – Your first gig in the acting world
So, when did you start acting? Was it something that you picked up in your teens, or were you much younger when you started?
JM: Well, I would say it was my teens. I was a child gymnast growing up, I did gymnastics pretty seriously. I was training 20 hours a week for years. So between the ages of 8 and 12, I was training 20 hours a week for four years. That gave me a lot of drive and determination and consistency and routine that is very useful for acting. But then what happened was, I was such an outgoing kid, I’d love to do gymnastic tricks in front of people and my parents and their friends. Luckily, one of them was a producer, and they thought I was such an outgoing kid that they gave me a trial on a music video.
So, that is how I got started, in a music video. I was playing a battered child, it was a very emotional role. But I started like that, just a few music videos until eventually I think I did commercial work, I did my first episodic. And then, in Quebec, I did a couple of shows that were really popular. Eventually I had a bit of a name established for myself there, but that took between the ages of 13 all the way through my first recurring series regular role when I was 18.
FF: And what was that?
JM: It was a French TV show in Quebec called Fred-dy (2001 – 2002). I was on the show for two years. It was entirely shot in studio so I learned about things like blocking, and how they rehearse for four days and shoot for a few. I was a series regular for two years. All the while, I was going to school at night to finish my studies in mathematics, so I could get into university and do my finance degree.
FF: Wow, that’s really amazing managing to juggle all of that at the same time.
JM: I think it was just me being young, with a lot of energy.
FF: Yeah, and obviously very focused and driven to be able to achieve two such contrasting things, finance and a presence in TV. They’re often thought of as two sides of the same coin, but opposites.
Transferable skill sets and having more to bring to the table
In terms of your gymnastics skills that you mentioned, have you ever had to use your transferable skills from gymnastics in any films or TV?
JM: This is a funny story. I did once audition, and the character was a martial artist, and I don’t do martial arts. I love martial arts, but I don’t practice martial arts. So, I was able to manage for an audition…I think it’s called a back walkover or front walkover before a scene, right? So, I did a move to get into position to start a scene, and although I didn’t get the part it did catch the director’s eye, I did get a call back from that. So, it’s something that if I can incorporate it, I will. I’ve never been asked though, to play a gymnast or anything of the sort. But I would say when you have those skills it resembles martial arts, so I was able to marry the two.
FF: If you look at most of the really successful stunt people in the industry, they are gymnasts as well as martial artists. They may have taken up one before the other, but gymnastics certainly plays a role. If you look at things like Spider Man, or Catwoman or any of those…you need to be able to have that body awareness, which definitely comes with gymnastics.
JM: ` It’s just nice for your body, for yourself, and for the work.
FF: I know, for example, a stunt guy in LA called Tim Storms. He’s a very well known former gymnast. That was his main training, and then he went into martial arts at a really young age. Those two things have gotten him amazing roles to be the stunt double of Patrick Stewart, and he’s done a lot of movies, he was one of the stunt doubles for Spider Man.
So it’s definitely good to have those other skills to bring to the table, because it just opens up a whole wealth of other options, even doing your own stunts. I’m from a martial arts background, not from gymnastics, unfortunately. I always admired it, it was the only part of the Olympics I wanted to watch, honestly, but it wasn’t something that I really trained in. We did it at school but that was all. It’s a beautiful art.
Upcoming work: the world of short film and advertising
So, at the moment, you have quite a lot of things that are due to come out, quite a few independent short films, is that right?
JM: I did a couple of short films here, absolutely. I did a very interesting project called LA Psycho (2018). This was shot by Gintare Minelgaite, she is from Lithuania if I’m not mistaken. I met her in LA, she’s been carrying this project, she does a lot of visual arts. When she met me, I was with another actress, and she envisioned something on the spot. We went out shooting, guerrilla style, and it turned out to be such an interesting, cool project.
This was a very masculine role. Both her and I were dressed in tuxedos the whole time with latex gloves. Very interesting makeup. It was a really interesting project. I totally see more coming out of LA Psycho (2018), potentially a feature, because the characters were so interesting. There’s something to go visit there, there’s something to explore there.
Then I did another short film, called RE-Artists (2019). I self submitted, which I think is very interesting. A lot of actors should self submit for projects, whichever city they’re from. I went in and auditioned, got a callback and booked the role. So yes, representation is great, but there’s nothing stopping you from going and getting your own projects. And it’s always really nice for your agents, as well, to bring them work, to say, ‘Oh, I booked this on my own. I’m bringing this project to the agency’.
This actually recently happened to me, and this is one of my upcoming projects. I’m booked to do a voice for Calvin Klein, the perfume Eternity.
FF: Oh wow!
JM: So that’s gonna air throughout Canada. I did it in both French and English because I’m bilingual, I do the French Canadian accent and then the English Canadian. So that’s going to air for the holidays at all big department stores, the major Hudson Bay in Canada, and Shoppers Drug Mart.
FF: That’s exciting, really really exciting.
‘A lot of actors should self submit for projects, whichever city they’re from.’
Marketing yourself, you the artist
So talking about self submitting, I know that that’s something that a lot of actors do, but are sometimes maybe scared to do. Where do you find your castings? Where do you tend to look?
JM: So in the US, there’s a site called Actors Access, that’s the main one. And then there’s LA Casting, Casting Networks, Backstage…there’s a few options. It’s nice as an actor to feel like you have some control over your career, that it’s not just left to agents, that you can look at the work that’s out there, see who needs your casting, approach them and submit yourself. You can submit your demos and submit some notes if you have them, how you relate to the role. They will look at your submissions.
FF: So how did you approach marketing yourself as an actor, they always say to find your brand. Did you do much of that or did you just go with the flow?
JM: It’s interesting. When I got my first recurring role, my hair was blonde, very blonde. And then I booked a movie and my hair turned red, I was a natural redhead, then in the same movie, my hair turned black. Then eventually I just stayed a natural brunette for many, many years until last year when I lightened my colour.
In terms of look, I mostly stuck with my natural self for the longest time. I find myself going back to my natural self, because I think that’s where I’m the most comfortable. I think it’s also where I shine the most, because I feel so comfortable. I find it hard when some people say, ‘Oh, you’re this type or that type’. You have that essence in you, if people look at you and judge you in such a way, so the important thing is to never lose that essence within you, and to make it shine through every character.
Because when they say, ‘Be yourself in every role’, well, this role doesn’t look like me at all, not every role looks like us. But the important thing is, and what they mean by ‘be you’, is finding that unique character in you and keeping it, being true to yourself. Whether you’re a sweet girl, or the nerdy type, it doesn’t matter. Make it work within that role. Don’t lose yourself, that’s what they want to see. They don’t want to see the same character over and over again, they want to see, ‘What if this character was a bit of a nerdy type? Or what if this character was a soft spoken girl?’ And that’s what you have to offer. Believe in yourself, and just deliver it.
‘ I’m booked to do a voice for Calvin Klein, the perfume Eternity.’
FF: Awesome advice. Thank you for that. In terms of networking do you do any of that? Have you attended film festivals?
JM: To be honest, it’s not my favourite thing to do. I’m more of an introvert than an extrovert. I’m both, but I’m more of an introvert. So getting me out there, to these events, is sometimes a struggle…but I’m happy to do it. I love people. So I get to meet tons of people, great people.
I do recommend going to film festivals, going to screenings if you can, attending events. Unions tend to do a lot of little projects, little get-togethers. But I feel like even in the non-union world, I’ve gone to church basement get-togethers about acting when I first got here, just because I didn’t know anyone really. I learned a lot of great insight on how actors work here, through these little get-togethers. So yeah, I do some, I’m just not solely focused on those things.
FF: I totally understand that. I’m rather socially awkward myself. To some degree I force myself to appear confident, I get that.
‘It’s ironic, because the first project I got when I arrived in LA was a French commercial for Europe.’
Talent agencies and unions – the differences and benefits
So, have you done any international work, or is that something that you’d like to pursue?
JM: So much. It’s ironic, because the first project I got when I arrived in LA was a French commercial for Europe, for Norwegian Airlines. I had to come to LA to book my first work in Europe, and because my parents now live in Europe, they were able to see the commercial there – which was incredible for me, for them to see my work all the way in Europe. I would love to do film and television there, of course. My agency here in Los Angeles, Seven Stars Talent, joined forces with an agency in London.
FF: Oh, wonderful.
JM: It’s absolutely wonderful. The agency is called Vamos Talento, and they’re going to work together for their European clients to be seen in America, and vice versa. So that’s really nice. I recently joined Spotlight, which is the UK version of Actors Access, I believe. This is all new to me.
FF: That’s phenomenal. That’s really cool that you’re gonna have that crossover that can provide so many opportunities for you. It’s such a big market.
JM: In the UK there’s no union, if I’m not mistaken?
FF: Ours work slightly differently from the US. That was actually going to be my next question for you, to tell us a little bit about US unions, like SAG-AFTRA. I’m aware of them, but I know that some of our audience might find that a little bit intimidating.
In the UK we have one called Equity, Actors Equity, and it is definitely a good idea to join if you’re already at a professional level. There are prerequisites, the same as there are for SAG-AFTRA, but they’re not quite as strict. I think as long as you’ve earned a certain amount in your career, then you can join. It’s good because they also provide insurance and liability insurance and help with any issues with being paid from a project, they have legal advice and can help you out. So it’s definitely worth joining. I think it’s maybe £30 a month. It’s not too bad. I can’t remember to be honest, because I’m not a member at the moment, but it’s a fantastic thing to be part of, and it is the industry standard as well.
JM: So in the US, it’s exactly the same thing. SAG-AFTRA is now a group, one institution. So when you join one, you’re under the same umbrella. I don’t know the exact requirements to get into SAG, I’m sure it’s after a certain amount of union projects, you get vouchers, and eventually you become a ‘must join’, and for your next project you have to join the union.
But I will strongly suggest when you’re starting out, here in the US, there’s a lot of work that’s non-union. Most of the commercials shot are non-union. So, even as a non-union actor, you can find yourself with good representation and with a really busy schedule of going to auditions all the time. Now, eventually, when you do feel like you’ve been out there, you’ve booked a few projects, you were able to put a demo together, then I absolutely recommend joining SAG.
SAG, like Equity, is such a great organization to have to back you up. They do a lot of panels, especially during the pandemic, they’ve been doing a lot of virtual rooms where you’ll have casting directors and actors talk about where the industry is going or even doing classes, such as voice classes. It’s worth it. Once you’re there, it’s totally worth it. But then it does get tight, the competition gets tougher as well, because a lot of the actors we see on TV right now are all SAG, are all really well represented and are all competing for those union jobs.
FF: I understand as well that if you’re a member of SAG-AFTRA, you’re not allowed to do non-union work. Is that correct?
JM: That’s correct.
FF: That’s the main difference between Equity and SAG. They still allow you to do it, they just don’t advise it, because obviously they can’t guarantee you’re going to have a fair contract. They don’t ban you from it, essentially, they just say, ‘Well, you can do it, but it’s at your own risk’.
JM: With SAG, it is a little bit stricter, but the main difference between non-union and union is what you said, those contracts. With SAG you have an eight hour work day, with overtime, you have your lunch break, everything is there to protect you, the artist. Whereas in non-union production you have producers really wanting to get the most out of you. It’s just not the same thing.
FF: It often comes with lower pay, obviously, being non-union as well. But it doesn’t mean, like you said, that you can’t keep working and keep getting things. I’ve had a lot of work that’s non-union, and it pays, so I completely agree with you on that. I think it’s good to join a union once you’re established.
Any tips for finding a coach or training?
So, if you were to give any tips for someone looking for acting training in LA, what would that be?
JM: In LA, what’s really interesting is, the comedic and theatrical sides are very separate. Even when it comes to agencies, you’ll have certain agents that have better contacts in the comedic worlds, and some in the drama worlds. It’s very much separate. Here they really invite you to train in both areas.
So when it comes to comedy, you’ll have places like the UCB, and the Groundlings, which are two schools that teach improv. There’s also The Second City that’s very famous here. So that’s really fun. You do a lot of improv work. Most of the comedic actors, the actors on SNL, all have this really great improv background. For the US, it’s really important, if you love comedy, to have that improv background. At UCB, Upright Citizens Brigade, and then the Groundlings, which is another great school.
When it comes to dramatic acting there’s definitely a lot of great teachers here. I highly recommend Deborah Aquila, she has her own acting studio. But there’s a lot of well known acting teachers here. I particularly like Deborah’s technique, it’s very much backstory, very much developing. Like a detective, you get all the clues you get out of the text, and then form a backstory, because when you have that detailed understanding of your character your work becomes so specific, and so real, and so meaningful. I’ve watched her transform actors, and just even the transformation within myself…it feels great.
FF: Are you aware of Katt Shea, she’s an acting coach, and director in LA. Are you aware of her?
JM: I’m not!
FF: She’s really good. We had her, I did a course in LA myself a few years ago with Learn in the Sun and it was so much fun. We did stunt work, and then we did acting as well. It was with a company called Learn in the Sun. Katt Shea, she directed Poison Ivy (1992), do you remember that film?
JM: Oh, yeah. Amazing.
‘…it’s a hard industry and it might take a while before you make your first dollar.’
FF: She’s a really good acting coach, I have to say. She recorded us before the coaching and then recorded us after, and the difference was insane. It really showed me how beneficial it is to work with an acting coach, because it wasn’t something I’d done prior to that. I’d been to classes and stuff like that, but it’s not the same as having that really close contact with someone.
JM: It’s hard to decipher when you, as an actor, get an audition. You get so excited. You think, ‘Okay, what am I going to wear? Where am I going to tape? Who’s going to read with me? How am I going to prep for my role?’ It’s really easy to just lose yourself, just lose the core of the work, because there’s so many other elements to think about.
I think that’s what’s great about having a coach, they have such an expertise in the human condition that they bring you back to the essence of the work, which is not so much hair and wardrobe, or your reader and where exactly and when you’re going to shoot your tape. It’s all about what’s new that you’re going to bring to this? Where’s it going to take us? I feel like often they’re hiring you almost for your imagination, they’re looking for who has the most imagination and who’s the most specific about it.
FF: Have you ever done any of the workshops that happen in LA, where you perform in front of a panel?
JM: No, but I have friends that have, and they’ve been successful. Sometimes you wonder, ‘Is it even worth it? Are they actually looking for talent?’ But they are. If they’re there, then they are, and they’re just waiting for that special person. It’s a roster they’re looking for. That’s why you never take it personally. They’re looking for types more than anything. But they will, if there is an incredible performance, they’re so sensitive to that. These agents and casting directors, they want to be blown away.
The price of the business – be prepared
FF: I know quite a few people who have had call-backs, as well, so I do agree with you. I think sometimes the costs of being an actor can start to rack up. When you think about headshots and your memberships, and I’ve been to different custom websites and workshops, gotten training, it is quite a lot. Obviously, they’re all worth it. They all bring something to your career, for anyone successful like yourself, that’s apparent.
JM: When you’re starting out, it’s important to not start spending all kinds of money everywhere. You need to save it for the things that matter. I think a really good headshot matters. You don’t have to go with the top tier photographers, the second or third tier works for you, you’re just starting out. You’re getting to know yourself in front of a photographer, in front of headshots, it’s not going to be your last time, that’s for sure. Having a good pair of headshots, and going to class is very important.
But a lot of the things you can do, only require basic memberships, a lot of casting directors don’t need to see a million photos of you up there. Because that’s where they get you, it’s when you upload your photo and you want to upload your demo, and all these added costs. Having the latest phone is not necessary, you want to shoot in 720p anyways, because you’re going to want to compress your video.
It’s really easy to feel like we need to spend a lot of money, but I think it’s smart to not overwhelm ourselves financially, because it’s a hard industry and it might take a while before you make your first dollar. It can be really hard on the psyche too, to just disperse money all the time and not feel like there’s a reward at the end of it. I don’t think you need the best equipment, the best headshots, all of that. You can easily book a role with regular decent things.
FF: That’s really good to hear.
Finally, what would you say are your final tips for someone who is thinking about moving to LA to pursue their acting career?
JM: So I think my best advice would be to not have any expectations. I know it’s hard. But I first off want to congratulate you if you are doing that journey, because it’s not an easy one, and it’s absolutely brave of you to do it. That’s what you need in this industry to make it in the long haul, you need that bravery, because acting is a journey. I think most people want to be on the journey for the longest time possible, not just, ‘I want to do it for two years and then I want to move on to other things’. If that’s the situation, it could be hard, and you could be disappointed because things don’t just happen.
You really have to put in the time and the work, but I promise you, it’s worth it. Not only because you will learn, if you take classes in LA, you will learn from the best, and the actors around you, you will have a community of people around you that are coming from everywhere that are just as brave as you. That’s a really good thing to have. A lot of business people go to business school to make all those business connections, so eventually they can help each other out. It’s the same thing, you’ll meet people, you’ll make a community and that’s worth it. Because a friend will be shooting a short, you have an idea for a script – you want that community. Then eventually you’re hoping to work your way up and book some projects in the US.
But I think the best advice is not to have any expectations like that, not to think, ‘Oh, my goal is to have that’. It’s nice to have goals defined and everything, but just enjoy the journey and be proud of yourself for doing it. It’s not gonna be easy, but it’s definitely going to be worth it. Because even if you come to the US and you don’t book anything, the knowledge as an artist that you will acquire is priceless.
FF: And also just knowing that you gave it your best shot!
JM: If you have the desire in you, I hope you fulfill it. Because you wouldn’t want to be back four or five years later wherever you were, not having done those things. You’ll always be wondering what it could have been like. LA offers a lot of grit, is what I say. A lot of my beautiful friends that came here were very innocent and vulnerable and now have this sense of self from having to fight and hustle. It gives you that strength and grit. It’s definitely a growth in oneself.
FF: Well, thank you very much for your time, Jessica.
Presenter: Aiysha Jebali
Video Editor: Ivan d’Avoine
Visual Effects & Artwork: Richard Williams
Transcribed & Edited by: Ben Kelly & Keren Davies
Sub Editors: Richard Williams & Aiysha Jebali
Scottish Tunisian actress. Yes, that’s a thing. BAME. POC.