Accomplished actress Jessica Waldman is performing in the upcoming TAPS production of Hamlet as Ophelia. This production of Hamlet is her senior project; the culmination of a number of years of working on and perfecting her acting style. She recently spoke to the Stanford Arts Review about how she developed the role of Ophelia, her meditations on Shakespeare, and what she hopes to do when she graduates this year. Petite in stature and compassionate in demeanor, she speaks with confidence and charm.
Stanford Arts Review: How did you start acting?
Jessica Waldman: I started before I can really remember. My mom signed me up for community theatre classes by the time I was three or four, and I’ve been doing it since then. I went to a charter high school for the arts, where you had to audition to get in. There were sixteen different conservatories, and I was in the theatre conservatory. I had acting classes, and then stage combat classes, design classes, directing classes. I was really lucky because I was exposed to all of it very early and I discovered Shakespeare there too. One of my teachers was really inspiring—it was his class that made me realize I had to do this for the rest of my life.
How do you generally prepare for a role in a production?
I like to read a lot about my character. If you know you’re going to do a role, you go through the rehearsal period looking for anything that could serve as inspiration for your character. I’ve gotten really into reading poetry and cleaning out the library. Sometimes I keep a picture blog where I post inspirational pictures so that I can have a mosaic of images to drawn from. I also like listening to certain kinds of music, so I’ll pick sounds that in some way trigger some kind of emotion that is related to my character.
How have you prepared for your role of Ophelia?
I feel like I have been preparing for Ophelia since my sophomore year of high school. I used to do scene work in my acting classes, and my directors would say, ‘You should do Ophelia’, and then throw the nunnery scene at me. I did it many times and loved it. Since then, I have been a Hamlet nut; I read so much on Hamlet, and have been constantly researching. Once we started rehearsing, I worked with Rob [Guest Director of the TAPS department] to further develop who I thought this Ophelia might be. You can create your character, but you have to create your character in view of the production you are in. This Hamlet is not any Hamlet, it’s a specific Hamlet, so it was both important to work with Andre Amarotico [Hamlet] and Rob and see what the dynamics of the cast were. Seeing what we manifest as on stage when we are all together has really influenced the way I have perceived Ophelia. I think if I had played her again, she would come out completely differently.
What is it like working on such a famous play?
It’s so hard. When we were studying Hamlet in class, we talked about how you can’t possibly say anything new about Hamlet anymore, because it’s all already been said. At this point, you are sucking the plate dry. The funny thing is that this holds true in academic discourse, but in a play, when you have living breathing people, you can do it a million different ways–there’s no limit to how many ways you can do Hamlet on stage. Reading into it is one thing, but because it’s a group of people getting together and each person is a new person that has never come before, they’re going to add their own style and mood and instincts to Hamlet, and it’s going to change the play.
What have you enjoyed most about working on Hamlet?
Working on Hamlet is the greatest pleasure, it’s the richest language, it’s so beautiful. There’s a lot of confusions in it, a lot of questions you have to ask yourself. You really have to make some decisions before you do Hamlet about who your characters are. You have to ask questions, like: Does Gertrude know that Claudius murdered the King? Have Ophelia and Hamlet slept together? How much do these characters know about each other?
In our generation, Shakespeare is often thought of as overplayed and overstudied. What continues to draw you to Shakespeare?
If you approach it as an actor it’s so much more exciting than if you approach it in an English class, sitting down as a reader. All of these words were meant to be said aloud. When you’ve grasped the idea that Shakespeare’s verse is written in a heartbeat, you’ll understand that when he’s manipulating his verse, he’s telling you that the character’s heartbeat has changed because of what’s going on. If it’s really slow there’s something going on there; if it cuts off short, there’s something going on there. It’s so internal, and also instinctual. It makes so much sense when you approach it as a living breathing person and not as words on a page.
What do you plan to do after Stanford?
I’m definitely pursuing an acting career. The rest really depends. I know I’m going to end up in New York, but I might try to find some work in the Bay Area to get my Equity status before moving.
How do you feel about the lifestyle that is associated with acting?
It scares me, but it’s so worth it. They say if you can do anything else and be happy, do it; but if you can’t, then do acting. Of course there are other things that I enjoy doing, but this is everything to me. The sacrifices that will most definitely come will be well worth it. Even if I fail, I will always regret it if I don’t try.
Photos courtesy of Frank Chen.