September 29, 1991
of her past
By Claire Bickley
HOLLYWOOD - When actress Jessica Steen took a role that would repeat history,
she prepared by remembering her past. The 25-year-old Toronto native found
her own family the best source of information about the post-World War
II period in which her series Homefront is set. With
a video camera in hand, Steen set out to record the war-era memories of
her grandparents and other older relatives. "They weren't too keen on
being videotaped, but I sat them all down and talked to them about the
times," recalls Steen. In
particular, it was her great-aunt Phyllis McCoubrey who became, the model
for Steen's character of Linda Metcalf, a wartime assembly line worker
fired when the soldiers return from Europe. "My great aunt is a single
woman and worked for many, many years and never married. So she
has a very good idea of what it was like to work during that period,"
she says. "I've always been very interested in her and the choices that
she made, and thought she was very brave. I'm proud of her and she
made strong choices." Steen's great-uncle "a family favorite" died
in a bombing on his way home from the front. Her father and his parents
were prisoners of war in a Japanese-held concentration camp in Indonesia
for nearly five years. "My grandmother's grave was dug four times, so
the stories are quite something from her. She's got stories that
would blow your mind," says Steen. She heard the other side of the war
the tales of life at home during those years from her maternal grandparents,
because her grandfather was prevented from serving by health problems.
They told her about the blackouts and the rationing of gas and food. Steen
also found a lot of similarities between herself and Linda Metcalf.
While Metcalf is enraged by the unfairness of losing a job (that she can
do perfectly well) simply because the men have come back home, Steen isn't
keen on many media portrayals of women. "The way I feel today, she felt
then. It's the same kind of concern and frustration," she says.
"I get frustrated at beer commercials, I get frustrated at music videos.
It irritates me, it frustrates, me that there aren't many films that come
out that focus on women. So there are still frustrations today about
being a woman." Like Linda Metcalf, Steen feels no need to fit into the
crowd. Here, at a chi-chi Hollywood bash where most of the cast is dressed
to the nines, she turns up elegantly casual in taupe and cream silk. There's
not a lick of make-up on her face, but she's arguably the most beautiful
woman in the room. (Even with her extracted
wisdom teeth hanging from her ears and neck on silver mountings!).
The daughter of actress JoAnna Noyes and actor/director Jan Steen, she
grew up "at Yonge and Bloor." She's not kidding. Number one Yorkville
Ave. in Toronto is the first address she can remember, and she went to
school at Jesse Ketchum and Jarvis
Collegiate. Always determined to act, she guest-starred on several
U.S. series, and in 1989, she won her biggest role to date in the movie
When Toronto work slowed down, she moved to New York with her best friend,
TV production co-ordinator Ann Marshall. She describes the manner in which
she won the Homefront role as "very wild." Last December she'd shot a
pilot for another show, then got word that it wasn't going to make it.
Disappointed, she headed home to Toronto to see her family and lick her
wounds. When she got back to New York to her fill-in role on the ABC daytime
soap Loving, she got a more encouraging phone call. "They said they want
you to fly out to Los Angeles and read for the network. I said,
'What script?' I hadn't seen a script or anything," she recalls. She devoured
the Homefront script on the plane to California and got the part the next
day. And the rest, as they say, is history.