about the artist //
Jesse Swatling-Holcomb is hard at work. When we spoke with him he had just moved to New York City by way of a brief, if not exciting, stay in Los Angeles. Finding extra work in long-running, successful shows like How I Met Your Mother and landing a spot in a film to be featured in the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, Jesse proved that working hard and dedicating one’s self to the craft may not always be glamorous, but it does pay off. Now in New York City, Jesse hopes that the same work ethic might land him a role on stage amongst cast members.
Originally from Oakland, California, Jesse attended Hope College, a prestigious liberal arts college in Michigan. Jesse has a maturity and confidence in his craft that you would expect from an actor ten years in, not someone a year out of college and in his early twenties. While he has a long road ahead of him in a city full of aspiring writers and actors, he remains determined, and that’s what we admire about him.
BC // In a way, you kind of define what it means to be an aspiring artist. You're an actor who studied theatre at a liberal arts school in the Midwest, and then went on to live in Los Angeles for some time, working as an actor, and now you're living in New York City. What brought you to New York?
JSH // I couldn't stay away! The city has a character to it that pulls you in. I really missed the thrill of performing live on stage, and I like wearing scarves.
BC // You grew up on the stage, right?
JSH // I did, without really meaning to at first. I started performing at a very young age. I sang my first solo in church when I was two-years-old and joined the Piedmont Boys Choir when I was seven. It was such a natural thing for me to be on a stage that when it came time to audition for shows in middle school I couldn't imagine not participating.
BC // Were your parents musical or theatrical?
JSH // My parents are both in the sciences. My mother is a molecular biologist and my father is a chemical engineer. That said, they are some of the most musical people I know. Both are singers, and my dad plays the piano, guitar, and trumpet. My earliest performances were always with my family, in talent shows, etc. We had a bit of a family band: My father on guitar, my sister and I trading off on keyboard and percussion. And, of course, we all sang.
BC // Oh, wow.
JSH // My parents have also been creative enthusiasts for a long time. They really made sure that my sister and I were exposed to plenty of art. We went to see plays, heard plenty of live music. My parents were the "museums and churches" type of travelers. Vacations for us were full of culture.
BC // So they weren't surprised, then, when you decided to pursue acting?
JSH // You'd have to ask them for the whole story on that. I really don't think they were. There were signs that I was headed in that direction my whole life. I was probably more surprised. I thought for the longest time that I would end up a teacher!
BC // Was there a moment when you knew you just didn't want to stop acting and that maybe you didn't have to?
I feel like there were so many little moments where that shined through for me.
My senior year of high school I had a man approach me after a production of Damn Yankees. I had no recollection of meeting him before, but he told me that he had seen me perform four years earlier in a production where I played a US soldier in the Vietnam era delivering the news of a soldier’s death to his grieving wife. The man, a veteran himself, told me that my performance—that performance from four years ago—had moved him to tears. He said to me, "I hope this is what you are planning on doing with your life."
It was such a small thing, the words of a stranger. But there are a lot of little moments like that.
And it's astounding to get to affect someone like that.
That certainly doesn't seem small. That type of recognition is what any artist hopes for.
Making art that resonates with people and means something.
JSH // Definitely. It's the beautiful part of it. The human part.
BC // Have there been similar types of moments, then, as you acted in college and out of college, where you've connected with an audience member in a moving or profound way?
JSH // Yes. Certainly. One of the ideas I left college with is that there is a truly cyclical energy to a theatre experience. That is, the energy of the performers is so inherently linked to the energy of the audience and vice versa. It's one of the wonders of live theatre. It's what's so unique about it. Every performance is a living thing, based on the interactions in the theatre space. That all sounds very ethereal, but it's not.
BC // So then what took you to L.A.?
That is a good question. A few things. I don't like to turn down an opportunity and I think there is artistic value to being open to possibility. I decided to go to college in Michigan in part because I figured I would probably end up living in L.A. or New York afterward. I didn't realize how much I'd fall in love with that part of the country.
I had a great opportunity to live in L.A. with two of my closest friends from high school—two really brilliant comedians—and I wanted to give that a try. I learned so much during my time in L.A. I had some incredible experiences, from acting in a film that can be seen in Sundance this year, to working as a recurring background actor on a network TV show. Plus, you can't beat California's weather.
BC // You were in How I Met Your Mother!
JSH // I was! Got to sit in MacLaren’s Pub and everything.
BC // But there's a difference between theatre and studio acting for you right? Beyond the obvious? Is that what led you back to New York City?
JSH // Yes. There are so many differences! For me, it really comes down to the audience and cast. I appreciate the importance of really building a cast mentality that is so important in theatre.
BC // Would you say it's more intimate? There's a more profound connection between you as an actor and your audience? Or maybe it's less intimate because your audiences rotate. You don't have the same audience twice, as you might if you're on a television series.
I would say it's more intimate. There's a blessing to the fact that theatre isn't necessarily made for "general consumption." The timeline is longer.
Audiences do rotate through the theatre, but the people involved tend to come back. It's work to go to the theatre. There's so much entertainment we can get from the comfort of our own homes these days. If people are willing to trek out to a theatre for a couple hours, there's a certain level of dedication in that.
BC // So are you working on any projects currently?
JSH // You know, this interview comes at a very exciting time. I actually just moved to New York a week ago. So my current project is job hunting.
BC // And you do have some connections in the city because you—prior to graduating from college in Michigan— spent a semester in NYC working with playwrights, correct? So are you primarily auditioning for plays? Or are you looking for other work while you audition?
Both. All of it! Everything. The beauty of living in New York is that there is always something to do to continue honing your craft. There's always an open mic or an improv jam going on somewhere.
I do have connections I'm tapping into as well. When I was living in NYC I worked with a non-profit called New Dramatists. It's dedicated to giving playwrights a positive place to work and it's a wonderful network.
BC // So this lends itself well to an overarching question here at the Byway Collective, which is: What brings you back to acting each and every day? Certainly finding a sustainable and productive career as an actor is neither simple nor easy, and I'm guessing you're committed to working other jobs outside of acting until you land a bigger role in a play, but why do you keep pursing acting?
JSH // I continue to pursue acting because I believe in the power that storytelling holds, and the value that art has in a global sense. So that is, I guess, not why I pursue acting, but why I think what I'm pursuing—why the art of acting—is worthwhile. I personally pursue acting because I love the things I learn as I act. I love the conversations I am witness to. I act because it's the best way I know to start a conversation.
BC // What do you hope for the future, then? What's the dream?
JSH // My hope for the future is that I will be able to continue performing for a living. The dream would be to one day host some sort of daily comedy news show. Something filmed in front of an audience, that keeps people laughing, and therefore also listening.
BC // Have there been any moments where you've wanted to throw in the towel and, as you mentioned earlier, just teach?
JSH // No. I've taught theatre to kids already. It's exceptionally hard.
BC // Do you have any advice for other aspiring actors or artists that are either deciding to pursue acting or are about to graduate from college and want to move to either L.A. or New York City?
JSH // Check out Gypsy Housing. It's a great group for artists looking for affordable living situations.
BC // (Laughs) Any advice about the artistic side of the endeavor?
JSH // My advice would be to find an encouraging community. It can be anything. It can be online. It can be through a certain theatre. It can be a good friend who encourages you to write everyday or recommends new work to you. Sometimes it can be difficult to feel valued as an artist. Find a community that encourages your creativity and also welcomes your individuality and personality.
BC // Do you think having a supportive community is the difference between an artist or actor being able to sustain themselves on their art or having to give up on their dreams?
JSH // I don't think it hurts. Whether or not someone pursues his or her art is always a very personal choice. No one can force you to stop your creative process. However, having a supportive community can be definitive in the business sense, especially for actors. Actors need so many people. At the very least we need writers. We also need directors, we need producers, and we need technicians. Having a supportive community is important. But actively being a supportive member of that community is more important still.
How can you support Jesse? Make sure you follow him on Twitter and Facebook to learn more about his upcoming auditions and performances. If you’re in New York City and you work in theatre, don’t miss your opportunity to work with him. If you’re looking for an immediate way to support him, head over and check out a few more of his videos with Crazy Street Crew, a web series Jesse created and starred in while living in L.A.