At 26, actor Connor Jessup talks like a Hollywood veteran. He jumped from cheesy soap The Saddle Club to Steven Spielberg’s gritty sci-fi Falling Skies in the span of a year, and then went on to feature in the grunge-laden anthology series American Crime and horrific flick Closet Monster.
Currently starring as key character Tyler Locke in the supernatural Netflix series Locke & Key, Connor has proven that he has what it takes to play diverse, norm-challenging roles on both the small screen and big.
Antonino Tati chats with the talented young actor about television’s abuse of youth, the perils of ‘child star syndrome’, his thoughts on Australia, and the art of acting.
Hi Connor. Tell us a little about your history in TV.
I started acting when I was 11 so it’s been a decade and a half now. I was always interested in drama and film when I was younger, and I had friends of friends of friends who were in commercial production so I enlisted my Mom to help me get an agent. I did a couple of commercials, like for KFC; a play or two; and some early dramas on TV.
What was your first big break?
When I was 13, I got the lead part in the Australian series The Saddle Club. So I went to Australia for a year and worked there. Then I focused on school and later auditioned for the pilot of Falling Skies.
I’m intrigued to know what your experience in Australia was like.
We shot, for the most part, in a place called Daylesford, which is about an hour and a half north of Melbourne. I spent the vast majority of my time in rural Victoria. I was working pretty constantly but spent my weekends in Melbourne. I saw a few other places, too: we went to Ayers Rock, to Sydney, and to the Great Barrier Reef. So we got a little touring in. I wish I’d had more free time to see more though…
With actors who started out an early age, a lot of people may assume you had a ‘Momager’ constantly by your side, pushing you to succeed. Was that ever the case?
Not at all. I’ve seen kids even younger than me – at four, five, six – starting out in this business, initially because they’re talented and they’re interesting, but then they have these parents who are quite overbearing and forceful. But with my parents it was really quite the opposite. I was always the one driving my own ambitions forward. When I first tried to convince my Mom to take me to acting classes, she had friends who were in the industry and she knew what it was about and was kind of resistant to it. So I was the one doing the pushing, and I feel very lucky to have parents who are encouraging but who leave the ultimate decision – to be a part of this industry – to me.
“I can’t think of anything good to say about child beauty pageants. In my eyes, it’s exploitation; exhibitionism and voyeurism to a tragic degree.”
There was some controversy in Australia a few years ago about kids as young as five taking part in beauty pageants. I know it’s a different industry to acting but I’m wondering what you think of such pageants?
Those sorts of pageants are very prevalent here in Canada [where Connor is often based] and especially in the US. And it’s a real shame. I can’t think of anything good to say about them. In my eyes, it’s exploitation; it’s exhibitionism and voyeurism to a tragic degree. There’s something very degrading about, not just the girls who participate in them, but the people who watch them.
Do you think there ought to be a certain age reached before a male or female becomes a pinup or model of sorts?
I think so. But I also think there’s a big difference between being an actor or a musician or even a model, compared to being a pageant entrant. You see kids modelling in Gap ads and even then, that’s very different to the pageant scene, which is exploitation.
Well let’s cut to the chase; it’s kids acting all sexy-like who actually haven’t the slightest notion what sex is.
Exactly. It’s having these young girls dress up and perform in a way that they really can’t relate to. It’s an innuendo they couldn’t possibly understand.
There is also the concern of ‘child star syndrome’ where the TV and film industries have left individuals high and dry once the cuteness wears off. Were you ever warned of this as one of the downsides to being a child actor?
I guess with child actors starting out, there are always people who have advice to share, and usually that advice is along the lines of don’t let the acting career take away your youth, or be sure it doesn’t go to your head. And for a lot of kids there can be problems with ego, because these are your development years and if you’re surrounded by people 24/7 telling you that you’re the best , you’re talented, and you’re a genius, it can really stuff a kid around. There’s also the concern of rejection. I think a lot of kids can’t handle the rejection. Nine out of 10 of the auditions you go to, you don’t even get a call-back. So at the age of five, six, seven, you’re basically being told that you’re not wanted and that there’s somebody ‘better’ than you out there.
So you need a solid family network around you that is not so much forceful as supportive and constructive in their feedback?
Yes, because it’s a very thin line between having enough confidence, and being able to take that rejection and having too much confidence; or parents that are too encouraging, or too forceful. Then you could become incredibly selfish and ego-maniacal. I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum: people who are humbled by what they’ve gone through in this industry, and I’ve seen people who used to live modest lives and are then suddenly famous and become the centre of their own universe.
Is there an age you think is just too young for acting?
I always wonder when I see kids who are three or four that are starting out, and I wonder how can they say at that age that this is what they want to do? But I realise that there are kids who are naturally talented, and I welcome those kids to the business, but you’ve got to keep an eye on the sort of parent that pushes them too hard.
Do you find you need to research more than a veteran actor might, considering you haven’t lived as long as your elder contemporaries?
For some roles I should think so, but for my role in Falling Skies, for example, I didn’t. My character got kidnapped by aliens and I don’t think there are any adults who’ve been kidnapped by aliens, or many adults who’ve been to war or suffered post-traumatic stress, for that matter. So I don’t think they’re much better off on those accounts in terms of experience.
But there are things you gain through experience both as an actor in terms of technique, and of course in terms of life experiences that you can draw on. And it does mean things are a bit more constructed than organic on my behalf. Child actors, especially at say 10 or 11, aren’t exactly expected to be brilliant. They’re expected to be good, but not brilliant. When they are brilliant, it’s much easier to be called genius than it is for an adult. Usually the parts you play are of kids who’ve had the same experiences that you’ve had. It’s not like you have to play a character who is much wiser than you, or much worldlier than you. Unless of course you’re playing a 200-year-old vampire stuck in a 12-year-old body… But those parts don’t come around too often, and I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.
Does acting come naturally to you?
It’s never natural. I’m not sure what makes a good actor and what doesn’t. Acting is a lot of hard work. There’s a lot of ground work involved in finding continuity in your character, finding a flow to the role, researching the emotional setting…
“People-watching is really interesting, I think; studying other people in your life: this is what my brother, or my Mom, or my Aunt looks like when they are depressed…”
Do you study other actors in preparation for roles?
The interesting phenomenon with TV and film is that, whether consciously or subconsciously, people of every age base their performances on other performances. I think TV very much shapes how we view moments and feelings and stereotypes. So if a line in a script says, “After this line he looks to the ground with a downtrodden look on his face”, my mind will go to another time when I saw another actor do that. You can act ‘humour’ or you can act ‘joy’ exceptionally well, and yet never actually have experienced what you’re acting. It’s simply from having seen other actors do it: this is how this character in this movie looked when they were depressed. And studying other people in your life: this is what my brother, or my Mom, or my Aunt looks like when they are depressed. People-watching is really interesting, I think.
What are some of your favourite films?
I’m a fan of the sci-fi genre, particularly films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters and Bladerunner. I turned to those movies when I was doing research for Falling Skies; a lot of study on things like post traumatic stress disorder, Stockholm Syndrome, and the effects of war and kidnapping on children. All very cheery subjects, obviously [laughs].
You currently star in the supernatural series Locke & Key. Are you aware of just how different television is today compared to, say, two decades ago? In the 1980s and ’90s, things were fairly formulaic, if you looked at shows like Family Ties and even Friends. Now things are all over the place, with polygamists, serial killers, mind-readers, and vampires and ghosts being heroes of the day.
It’s true that writers and producers are having to delve deeper to find something original, and that the stories are becoming richer, but what I think is fundamentally the same is the way emotions are portrayed. Personally, I like when emotions get mixed up. Whenever I watch a movie or TV show and I see a character that has just gone through something horrible and they do something unexpected, like smile or start laughing – something that is completely against the grain of what that situation calls for – that to me is true originality, whether it’s a story about a polygamist serial killer, or a dysfunctional couple. It’s small moments like that, I think are truly original.
What actors do you admire?
I think Daniel Day-Lewis is probably one of the greatest working actors in the way he inhabits roles so soulfully. And I like actors like Meryl Streep, who can take characters that on the page might not be overly exceptional but on screen turn them into something extraordinary.
Wouldn’t you say, though, that a lot of that has to do with the ultimate myth of someone like Meryl Streep? That these actors have a CV that is so vast and impressive, even when they’re playing a smaller role, it becomes a big deal?
I agree. And the internet only adds to the hype. You’ll read so many times about how great Meryl Streep is in blah-blah-blah and then when you watch it, your mind is preconditioned to think that her performance is amazing. Meryl Streep could give a mediocre performance and she’d probably still get a lot of attention, while another lesser-known actor might give a brilliant performance but will go unnoticed.
Still, though, the ability to play such varied roles across so many decades is really what makes them great, wouldn’t you agree?
Yes. As opposed to if I’m watching someone like Tom Cruise in a film. There’s never a moment when I’m not thinking, “That’s Tom Cruise”. I think what makes actors good is the ability – whether it’s over-the-top, incredibly nuanced, or somewhere in between – to draw the audience into a character. I think any actor that can draw you into their character – whether it’s a psychopath or a housewife; for two seconds of a film or ten minutes of a film – is doing a good job. You’re right in what you say about other people’s ideas of the likes of Meryl being genius… that the idea of genius builds on itself, but they are very brilliant actors. And I can only hope to work towards that.
‘Locke & Key’ is currently streaming on Netflix.