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For Toronto native Jessica Steen, reading the pilot script for ABC's Homefront (also CHCH) was a downright eerie experience. The writers of the small-town post World War II drama had her character, Linda Metcalf, losing her fiancÚ - killed en route home after the war. The writers didn't know it then, but Steen's own family had suffered through a similar tragedy.
Her great-uncle, Steen says, "a very outgoing guy, a live wire and big family favorite, was on the transport ship Enterprise, very happy, of course, to be heading home. For some reason, he exchanged bunks with another guy. There was some freakish bombing-and he was killed. If he'd been in his regular bunk, he would have survived."
The producers of the series also weren't aware when they cast Steen that for her father's side of the family, the war meant four years of dire privation in Indonesia. "My paternal grandfather was in the Dutch army," Steen notes, "and he, my grandmother and father were all taken prisoner by the Japanese. The men, women and children were all in different concentration camps in jungles. Most of the stories I've heard from my grandmother are just astonishing stories of survival. She had malaria and ran a fever for two years. A grave for her was dug four times. When she finally got out, she weighed 60 pounds and was curled up in a fetal position from years of lying on a mat. Straightening her legs out was a long, agonizing process."
Steen's father, Jan, now an actor and director in Vancouver, and her grandfather also endured four years in PoW camps. "My father was 7 when he got out. He had a terrible pot belly from hunger-one of the few things to eat were hot peppers. My dad's taste buds are a joke to this day; he can't taste anything unless he pours cayenne and crazy things on food."
In the '50s, Jan relocated to Calgary, then England, then Toronto, where Jessica was raised. Both her parents were active in Toronto theatre before divorcing; her mother, Joanna Noyes, is now a Montreal-based actress.
"It wasn't predestined that I'd be an actress," Steen says. "It snuck up on me. We'd have family skits on holidays, where you'd be encouraged to make a fool of yourself. That was considered normal. It was great fun. Then I found myself on TV in some things, and it all mushroomed from there."
Before Homefront, probably the most fan mail Steen received was as Jennifer Chase-better known as Pilot -on the syndicated Captain Power series, which was shot in Toronto. In addition, she guest-starred on Wiseguy (as Sonny Steelgrave's niece), Street Legal and The Campbells, and in various TV-movies ("Young Again," "Easy Prey" and "The Truth About Alex").
Then Homefront came out of the blue. Back in February, she was cast for a brief role on ABC's daytime Loving, which is shot in New York; her schedule would have prevented her auditioning for this new prime-time series from David Jacobs (Dallas, Knots Landing). "ABC had my schedule changed on the soap to accommodate David, so I knew something must be up. I was flown to L.A. to read for the producers and ABC people the next morning, and by that afternoon I had the part. Three days later, we went into production. It was stunning. I didn't know until later that hordes of actresses had read for the character."
On the series, Linda's late fiance was the son of powerful Mike Sloan Sr. (Ken Jenkins), owner of the town's factory, which during the war had thrived on multimillion-dollar defence contracts and the cheap labor of women and 4-F men. As things currently stand, Linda is debating whether to jump on the bandwagon to get a union rolling at the factory or to take a secure job offered by management in an attempt to head off her labor agitation. "it creates a lot of tension, even within her family," Steen says. "I think it's an issue that was peculiar to that particular time in a way, but on a broader basis it's also a liberation issue that women still face all the time. There's also that 'fit-in' question: Am I fitting in like other people want me to in society and in the family, or am I doing something different, and is it worth it?"
renewed for the season, Steen is doing her best to adapt to Los Angeles
(although she much prefers Toronto as a city), has a relationship "with
a very important guy" (who isn't in show business), and feels that the
series is only now hitting its stride. "It's kind of soapy, so there are
quite a few storylines to follow, and it's an ensemble series, so it takes
a while to get into all the characters. The big thing, though, is that
almost 40 years later people are still groping with the same basic problems
and issues: women's rights, strife between the sexes, misunderstandings
in families. Looking at it that way, I think the show speaks to today."
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Last update: November 1, 2000 3:31 AM