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Growing up in Forest Hill, Jessica Steen never dreamed that some day she would be starring alongside screen icons like Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck
by Karen Hawthorne
Dr. Seuss is her hero. So it's no wonder that in real life, TV and film actor Jessica Steen, likes to "play" anything from juggling, kayaking and throwing wild theme parties to rhyming things for a kids' book that's in the works.
"I'd like to learn how to walk on stilts," she says, her laser blue eyes and quick bursts of laughter turning heads at the posh uptown pizza joint. Even munching on salad greens, she's got magnetism galore. "I love seeing adults play like children and let loose."
But her novel preferences come in stark contrast to the no-nonesense characters she plays on screen. Steen, now 33, was the steely-nerved space shuttle copilot in last summer's blockbuster Armageddon and the hard-nosed prosecuting attorney alongside Michael Richards (Seinfeld's Kramer) in the 1997 comedy flick Trial & Error. She's also had numerous guest spots on TV shows like The Outer Limits and ER. Slated for release later this summer, the Village-area born and raised actor takes the lead in the award-winning independent film Question of Privilege, and plays a computer techie in Smart House, a movie for The Disney Channel.
"The parts I play are fairly upstanding characters," she nods, her thumb rings flashing mischievously in the natural light. "Now the fun for me would be to do comedy. I don't know if it's too late to convince people that I can do that. I want something unique so you don't have a lot of control. The things you want so badly become more elusive."
That said, she doesn't have much to complain about except for landing plumb roles that the "big names" are always going to be up for first, she says. She doesn't have to wear suits to an office job and she can be casual in a low-key sweater, jeans and white running shoes for off-camera interviews, She's "occasionally" recognized by fans and hangs out with other Canadian actors because -"everybody's 'on' and funny, you have a lot in common and run up against the same kind of challenges artistically and to your ego. So it's good to hash out stuff.
She also has two cats, Sazi and Zak. She found Zak abandoned on the median of the Don Valley Parkway during a visit to Toronto and took him home. For a number of years now, home is with her boyfriend (also an actor who shares her passion for sports) in the hills of Los Angeles. Her house actually overlooks Paramount, Universal and Warner Brothers studios, so she can ride her bike (only about eight minutes) to work when she's filming on a studio set. Just ask her and she'll rave about the outdoors - mountain-biking, rock-climbing - you name it. She has a kind of physical exuberance to test her limits that's tempered by her love for meditative peace and quiet. Her regular routine includes hiking three times a week.
"I love getting elevation and looking around at all the studios. It puts everything in perspective, to squish your head. And to be in touch with the seasons. It takes a while to tune in to the changes of the foliage. Everything is popping out now so it's really vibrant green. January to June is absolutely great."
She's quick to make a pitch for environmental conservation, naming several organizations she supports. There's the David Suzuki Foundation, which researches solutions to environmental problems, and the Western Canadian Wilderness Committee, devoted to saving areas that are vitally important to ecosystems. "Their work is so important. If I was going to plug anything, that would be it."
Although the climate is pretty near perfect for transplanted Torontonians, and life is sweet with steady work and supportive friends, it's clear that Steen is staunchly Canadian. She's happy when a part she's auditioned for goes to a fellow Canadian. In fact, her most memorable role was not playing next to Armageddon's testosterone heavyweights Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck. It is a leading part in a modest, feel-good Canadian film called Small Gifts about a New Brunswick family trying to scrape by and still celebrate Christmas. It also nabbed Steen a Gemini award a few years ago.
"It was very 'slice of life,' very touching and something that only the CBC would make. It makes me proud. I think it is the CBC's job to help define who Canadians are and help make one coast familiar to the other coast and how we all live. They do it well, and whatever funding can go toward it, the better. I really appreciate that coming back to Canada and I wish I could get CBC Radio or more shows that are made here down in the States. I feel cut off that way."
He absence has also developed an appreciation for Canadian culture and having a say in the politics and changes that go on, given she can't vote in the U.S. as a green card holder. "Coming back here, there is a sense of belonging and comfort that I don't have in the States,'' she explains.
Ties to family and childhood friends have been top priority all along. Truth is, with a stage director father and an actor mother, Steen was born holding a ham bone. The house was always bustling with theatre friends of her parents and by the time Steen was eight, she was a regular alongside her mother on a Canadian children's TV series called The Sunrunners. "Honestly, because of my parents and what they do, I was sort of skewed toward it. Christmas was always a huge concert with everybody dressed up and singing and putting on a huge show. We were all very boisterous folks, so that paved the way for me."
Growing up, Steen has fond memories of her education at Jesse Ketchum Public School and her Grade 6 teacher who taught Greek mythology and theatre improv. Steen ran into her in the Eaton Centre on her last visit and offered a personal thank-you. "So many kids ended up in the business of entertainment or art. And a lot of that had to do with what the teachers provided for us." She followed her love of theatre at Jarvis Collegiate Institute, that she quickly dabs a "very artsy school." If there were big high school reunions like, there are in the U.S., she'd undoubtedly be the first to arrive. She met some of her best friends at Jarvis.
Her mother, who Steen says does a rousing rendition of "Oklahoma!," also had special status in the neighbourhood. When the family lived on Hillsboro Avenue, Steen spent a lot of time with other kids in Ramsden Park.
"We would be freezing to death and my mother would come storming out. She would stand on the balcony of our house and she would bellow. From her years in the theatre, she had an excellent voice that would carry through the buildings out to the park. I knew that kids could hear her half a mile away and then I would skulk home for dinner."
At 24, she moved to New York City and ended up substituting for the pregnant leading lady on the soap opera Loving - long enough to give birth to the character's baby and raise her profile. What followed was a starring role as a union organizer on the TV drama Homefront and the role of a genetically enhanced doctor in the sci-fi series Earth 2.
So, after several years at a comfortable plateau below mega-stardom and paparazzi, what keeps her interested? Filming a perfect scene. The dream of working with Harrison Ford. Meeting strangers and diving into comfort and intimacy levels that are hard to come by in life.
"I love it when it's challenging. The chattering monkeys in my head are hard to keep out. So something that keeps my attention, where you get lost in the work. And you're not talking to yourself all the way through it. When acting does that for me, it is exciting."
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Last update: November 1, 2000 3:27 AM