“An actor is something less than a man, while an actress is something more than a woman.”
— Richard Burton
There are times when Sylvia Jefferies feels very much like “something more,” as in several women rolled into one. And it's not just the characters she portrays. It's what an actress always has on her plate, sufficient for a bevy of supporting players.
Jefferies, who will star this fall in the ABC series “Nashville,” is a working actress. Which is a point of pride. Which also means no end of travel, auditions, study and waiting for word. Always waiting.
The competition is ferocious, and producers in television, features and commercials are forever looking for certain “types,” types many actresses feel compelled to embody.
“When I tell people I'm an actor, they tend to think that I don't 'do' anything,” says Jefferies. “As a great acting teacher in New York told me, civilians don't get it. They don't understand the work we have to do, the work that doesn't garner accolades or paychecks.
“When we are fortunate enough to even land an audition, we have to prepare. We put in countless hours of learning our lines, creating characters, coming up with wardrobe choices, changing our hair color, spending hours and sometimes hundreds of dollars driving or flying to auditions. And that doesn't include the valuable time that we are missing with our families.”
All to arrive at an audition and cool one's heels, accompanied by dozens of others jockeying for the same role. A role that may have just been rewritten from “a hoity toity Southern matriarch” to “a homeless crackhead.” So much for preparation.
“Then, after driving and waiting and stressing out over our families and caretakers and bosses, we are supposed to go into a room and be 'on.' I can go in, knock the read out of the park, and still not be what they're looking for.”
But Jefferies knows the territory. Her credits are proof. So is the usual actorly trajectory of ups and downs. Still, she retains her love of the craft.
“As children, many of us are brought up with the notion of Hollywood or Broadway and stardom and fame. It's enticing and exciting,” she says. “But while I actually never had that 'romantic ideal,' I still like to believe in the gloriousness of it all.
“I'm not disillusioned about it, and I'm clearly cognizant of the unglamorous angles. As I've matured, I've realized that much of the enchantment of the profession lies in the public's perception, which is critical in order to allow the entertainers to, well, entertain.”
Jefferies' learning curve on “Nashville” will be brisk.
“It's a story about a fading Nashville superstar who is forced to team up with a teen sensation or face the loss of her tour,” she says. “It's written by Callie Khouri, who is probably best remembered for 'Thelma and Louise,' and is directed by R.J. Cutler.”
Jefferies co-stars with Connie Britton, Hayden Panetierre, Powers Boothe and a number of other top-flight performers. The role is not that much of a stretch for Jefferies, the mother of a 4-year-old son, James.
“I play Hayden Panetierre's mom, who is quite interesting. I'm so jazzed to be a part of this project and intrigued to see how the story, and my character, will grow. The series is filmed in Nashville.”
Jefferies also will star opposite Emily Blunt, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis in the feature film “Looper,” tentatively schedule for a Sept. 28 opening.
It's been an unusually hectic campaign season for the actress, who began her career as a child with impromptu “commercials” for toothpaste and shampoo, performed in her bathroom with a cast of imaginary friends.
“Up to this point I've been able to make a living here in the South. I love Charleston, though unfortunately there's not a lot of work here. I was able to go to L.A. earlier this year for pilot season, which is typically the time of year when new series are being cast and there is a greater chance of being seen. I was fortunate enough to get a fantastic manager, and I haven't had to pound the pavement.”
Yet having spent comparatively little time in Los Angeles prior to pilot season, Jefferies says the level of competition was an eye-opener.
“I had relied on my laurels for booking jobs. But when you're consistently going up against name talent for roles, well, it's just what I needed to step up my game. It's definitely a reality check. It's what every actor needs. It's all about going in prepared, doing my job and staying in the face of the casting directors.”
Plenty of colleagues are in her corner.
“Sylvia is a very talented actress,” says Charleston-based producer and casting director Matthew Sefick. “I've had the pleasure of working with her on several occasions, including the first feature film I worked on out of college, 'Walker Payne,' and she played a significant role in the 2007 film I produced, 'The Four Children of Tander Welch.'
“It has been exciting to follow her career.”
No looking back
Jefferies is the daughter of the late James Jefferies, a lawyer and former mayor of Greenwood, and Polly Jefferies, a retired emergency room registered nurse. Though her parents might have preferred she take up the legal profession — Jefferies was accepted, simultaneously, to law school and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York — she chose the thespian's lot.
Apart from her starring role in the HBO series “Eastbound and Down” (2009-10), the actress' resume includes the features “Leo” (2002), “The Notebook” (2004), “End of the Spear” (2005), “Deja Vu” (2006) “Walker Payne” (2006), “The Four Children of Tander Welch” (2008), and “96 Minutes” (2011), as well as two films with Charleston-based director Brad Jayne: “The Song of Pumpkin Brown” and “Le Croisment” (2004).
Jefferies also has appeared on the TV series “Surface” and “Near Wild Heaven.”
“My parents struggled to give me every opportunity that they could, as most parents do. (But) the only thing that I ever felt that I was good at was acting, and it seemed the only way to have the flexible time I wanted and still have the potential to have a payday. My needs are simple. Family. Security. And being happy and at peace in one's life.”
Jefferies, who is single, says the real challenge to that serenity is not the waiting to learn if she's won a part, but the whole business of flying solo.
“The toughest part for me is being strong and resilient, yet having no one in your life that you can truly be vulnerable with to break down in front of once in a while when the going really does get to be too much.”
But she takes comfort in her successes. And her failures. In the end, she's proudest of her resolve.
“I always knew that this was my path. I had a lot of people telling me, 'You'll never be an actor.' But I'm good with my choices, and I'm desperately proud of them. If there's one to be made, I've either done it or am going to do it. You have to try things. You have to risk. I'm proud of who I've become. And I'm excited to see who I'm yet to be.”
Reach Bill Thompson at 937-5707.
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