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June, 1997

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by: Elaine Madsen
photography: Elisa Haber
hair/make up: Jeri Delgado

pic from Venice MagazineIn Trial and Error, a comedy in the tradition of the 1930s madcap-romps of Claudette Colbert and Constance Bennett, Canadian born, girl-next-door Jessica Steen co-stars with "Seinfeld's" lanky comic, Michael Richards. An apt foil for her well known co-stars-Richards, Jeff Daniels, and Rip Torn-Steen is wonderfully adept at delivering well-timed and well-deserved zingers at their expense.

Trial and Error tells the story of Charles Tuttle (Daniels), an uptight straight-laced lawyer doomed to marry the boss' daughter and occupy a comfortable corner office for the rest of his days. Charles' best friend Richard Rietti (Richards) is an underemployed actor who's determined to throw a bachelor party for his buddy whether he wants one or not. Things go awry when Charles has to go to a remote desert town to get a continuance for Benny Gibbs (Torn at his sleazy best), an inveterate unrepentant con man on trial for bilking elderly innocents. After Richard surprises Charles with a bachelor party at his cut-rate hotel, Charles is rendered unable to appear in court so Richard decides to "do a walk-on" as Charles in order to gain the continuance. But when the judge (Austin Pendleton as a deliciously long-suffering jurist) denies the motion, Richard is trapped in the masquerade and now a sobered-up Charles must pretend he is a legal aide to his own trial. Things take their inevitable comic course when Richard really gets into the role of playing Charles and finds himself attracted to Elizabeth, the beautiful but seemingly no nonsense prosecuting attorney who's determined to see justice done. As Elizabeth, Jessica Steen demonstrates her remarkable ability to play straight man to Richard's zany courtroom antics.

Steen's career includes several leading dramatic film and television roles. She has won a Canadian Emmy and has received a handful of best actress nominations. jessica-clown1.jpgKnown for her portrayals of the genetically enhanced turncoat doctor of Spielberg's "Earth 2," and Kyle Chandler's union-organizing big sister on the low-rated but much loved "Homefront," Jessica is no stranger to playing no-nonsense strong women. Her work on Trial and Error, however, opened a door to a new avenue of exploration, and her current enrollment in the Groundlings improv class has proved to be a revelation for Steen. "I definitely want to have fun. I want to play and be playful. That's why I'm taking this improv course. I'm having a good time with the spontaneity, imagination, and willingness to make broader choices. I've found that with the sort of roles I've done so far, you start coloring inside the lines a little bit. Now I'm being silly and wacky and maybe I'll get to filter that into things. I'm just glad to play with my imagination and wake it up. Hey! I can be that kooky, silly, problem-causing person!"

Steen admits that at first she had trepidations regarding her co-stars who were culled from the front ranks of comedy. "I was a little overwhelmed. I thought, these are FUNNY people! I'm going to get there and things are going to start popping and I'll be like 'Uh ... Uh... Ummm?' I've done mostly drama. Realistic. Straight. Reasonable. But to my surprise, they were sober folk and easy to be with. Michael was very down-to-earth, soft-spoken. The fact is, he was as eager to make the film be all it could be as I was. He was really generous to work with. He is relaxed and playful, but is really a hard-working actor. He is someone who has every beat of something down, who works very hard at it-sort of like the dissatisfied painter who always wants one more stroke on something, that time is always at his back. When you see the final cut, it looks so easy, so fun and light and, you know, that's who he is-so perfect, so smooth. He had enough Kramerness to give his fans a fix but he created a new guy here."

The amount of work required to make screen comedy appear effortless came as rather a surprise to Steen. "It's like a dance. It's very set-one-foot-down, then the other. It's a choreography, finding the difference between one take and the next and the smallest difference in timing, looking this way or that. Just the littlest things can make the biggest difference. Michael and Jonathan (Lynn, the director) worked very hard to choreograph the best dance they could in order for the audience to get that sense of spontaneity."

If her costars were comic lions, Steen considers director Lynn a tireless lion tamer. "He won't rest until he gets it and that is a very comforting thing. An awesome thing. At one point I told him, 'You are a fearsome force!"' she recalls mischievously, adding, "And his sons agreed with me! He is totally open to ideas and wants to hear what you have to say, but he's got the whole picture and knows exactly what he wants." Jessica illustrates by referring to a particularly compelling scene in which Elizabeth seems to be choking , nearly driven to distraction by Richard's courtroom antics. "I'd freak out, my veins popping out of my face and Jonathan would say, 'Can't you get madder?' He wouldn't rest until I did!"

"We were talking about how a good comedian doesn't usually get the kind of recognition-say Oscars or anything because if it's bad you're not going to get one and if you're good you've made it look too easy and it just looks like you're playing and having fun; whereas if you cry or get furious and go through some major torment in a drama, it's easier for people to identify with. I saw Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor and just went, 'Wow! Why wasn't he nominated! Why didn't he win?"'

jessica-clown1.jpgEqual to the natural wonders of Trial and Error's Death Valley location were Jessica's on-set experiences. "I liked cross examining Jennifer Coolidge. She was like (imitates in a pinched nasal voice) "Carbohydrates and you..." She was a hoot so I had fun with her. I also liked the scene in the bar (with Richards). I just thought it was fun to hassle him." She also heaps praise on her fellow supporting cast members Rip Torn and Austin Pendleton. "I loved him (Torn) and months afterward I was still doing (mimics Torn's western character accent), "Bye-bye!' He just cracked me up and Austin Pendleton too, with his 'No!' (laughs). There were some very funny moments. I had a good time, worked with some great people and learned about an area I would like to play in more. And I liked the fact that I worked on a project that contributes to good feeling with a little moral something at the end."

Steen is the film's 'voice of justice' while Richards' character is only playing a game until he realizes she is absolutely right, and he "does the right thing." At that moment, an obvious response from Steen would have been a triumphant sneer, but instead she conveys a sense of respect and a wistful regret that this man, with whom she's gone through so much, is walking out of her life. It is her response which makes the unexpected ending so satisfying for the Trial and Error audience. She had a little concern that this turn for her character comes so near the end. "You wonder, 'Ooh, are they gonna' get that she's really an all right gal?"'

You bet, we get it, Jessica.

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