Continuing the Work: A Conversation with Jenna Harder
I caught Jenna at the perfect moment: a Monday morning. For her, this wasn’t a Monday, but a Saturday, the only day a week she is afforded one.
Her recent short film, The Breakup, has been accepted to the Chelsea Film Festival. Harder’s work frequently revolves around female-driven stories, with casts led by, and uplifting, underrepresented voices in the entertainment industry.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s been going on for you recently?
Recently has been a really exciting time for me… I got a Canada Council for the Arts grant to make my last short. With this, I was really able to hire the people I wanted to and do the full thing, you know. My first short was a “credit card film,” as they say, so I begged, borrowed, and stole for everything, but during lockdown, I put a lot into the grant proposal for “The Breakup”. It was an all-female, non-binary identifying cast and crew, and we had such a positive, wonderful onset experience. It just got accepted into a festival in New York, so that the world premiere will be at the Regal Cinema in Union Square as a part of the official selection for the tenth anniversary of the Chelsea Film Festival.
I just found out that I got another Canada Council for the Arts grant to make my next short film, and this is an even bigger grant, and it’s a huge endeavor. We’re in preproduction for it now, and will be shooting at the end of November. And I’m working on another project where I’ll be acting in it, and a big name in Canada, who, I can’t say just yet, will be directing it. We’ll be working on the script, polishing it up, and hopefully shooting it by the end of the year.
Wow. Very busy!
Yes, it’s wild and super unexpected, and I feel very, very lucky!
Yes, no kidding. What was the transition from The Academy to more of the production side of things? Did you choose that path, did it choose you?
It was a mixture of both, actually. I’ve always been very into writing, I find it very cathartic, and at The Academy, they talked about making your own work… but that didn’t happen until later because I’d been working pretty steadily in theatre in New York, but theatre doesn’t really pay, as you know… when I moved back to Canada I started to work a lot more on camera. The theatre industry in Toronto is incredibly hard to break into, and with my resumé being all from New York, they had no idea what to do with me… it was like, “I don’t know any of these people! I don’t know what you’ve been doing!” So much of theatre up here is about Canadian playwrights, and I wasn’t as versed in it as others. Doing the indie vibe, I started to realize how attainable this was.
I started picking up some producing gigs, and during COVID and the changes that it brought, I realized that I could really do this, and make some money at it. And that’s more or less how it all funneled down. At one point a few years ago, I was about to give up acting, I was so depressed, I felt like I wasn’t being seen… and then I had this audition. It was about a character going through something very similar to that, and the filmmaking process was challenging, but the project got into a bunch of festivals, and it did super well—which was a pleasant surprise! The filmmaker ended up really helping and inspiring me to make my own work. It’s so empowering to make your own work, especially since it can really go either way with projects. It was so funny, the last short I was in that ended up at tiff actually ran out of the film and wasn’t able to shoot my coverage, so the only part of me is ADR (totally slayed the Voiceover, by the way).
And I’m certain you did! Do you have a mantra you follow about theatre, creativity, about film?
As far as the business side is concerned: make your own “yes’s.” When I started out, it was difficult to find opportunities, but success breeds success breeds success, you know? And in terms of the art, I think it’s really important to ask questions, to have the conversation. That’s what I love most about this work, things that make you think and feel… it doesn’t necessarily have to answer anything.
That’s the crux of it, giving the audience some sort of catharsis, or making them think, yeah. How about if you could go back and tell yourself something, or today, give advice to younger actors… what might you say?
It took me a long time to figure out that it’s about balance. In drama school, they really hammer in the idea of “You need to be working all the time!” And there’s value in that, and I think you really need to fully immerse yourself in what you’re doing at The Academy, but you have to have a well-rounded life in order to be a well-rounded artist. So don’t feel like you’re not doing “it,” if you get joy and fulfillment out of your day job, you know? My first film was actually about that, finding balance as an artist… There’s a whole mystique around the “starving artist,” and yes, it’s hard, and the industry is really tough, so you need to find joy where you can.
In a similar vein, what about insecurities and the “inner critic?” Just speaking for myself, I’ve felt so hindered and crushed by mine, and they’re all completely ridiculous and probably made up in my own head. It’s so difficult when you’re out of the “bubble” that is drama school when you’re polished… and I’m not as polished as I feel as I used to be. I just can’t shake the feeling that I’m not doing enough, and that I’m not good enough.
Oof. You said a mouthful there… and I remember that feeling all too well. I think that’s where the balance comes in. You know, I used to think that if I went to therapy, I wouldn’t have direct access to my trauma, but it’s been quite the opposite. When I did my grad plays, I remember it was so hard to take off the character… but therapy is a huge thing, a huge help! And then just remember that so little of it actually has to do with you. I can’t say this enough: you need to find joy in your own practice and be gentle with yourself, because the rest of the world isn’t going to be.
That’s the advice I’ve been getting from people lately: just be nicer to yourself, August!
You must. Once I dealt with my anxiety, I found it so much easier…those things quieted down. My acting coach in Toronto calls it “the squirrels,” they like to tell you you’re not good enough… RuPaul calls them the “inner saboteur,” and you can just say, “Okay, yes, I hear you go away!” I have this little jar in my bedroom, full of post-it notes of all the great moments and lovely compliments I’ve received, and I just put them into the jar, and it’s this physical reminder that I can do this! I have done this! It’s nice to have it because it gets you out of yourself too.
And it’s so easy to get stuck inside yourself, to get stuck in your head… The last questions are: what’s next for you, and where can people find you?
We’ll be going to New York in October, and hopefully shooting two films by the end of the year. And I just became ACTRA, too! So that’s a huge thing for me, being part of the union in Canada. Toronto is a big TV city; a lot is filmed up here. So I’m looking forward to getting into bigger rooms as far as acting is concerned, and I’m really excited to act in something I have written, that hasn’t happened yet. It’ll be a really cool experience, hopefully by the end of the year!