Paula Goldstein

Jaclyn Bethany: a Delta Girl on making Hollywood dreams come true.

Paula Goldstein
Jaclyn Bethany: a Delta Girl on making Hollywood dreams come true.
Jaclyn Bethany.jpg

Jaclyn is a filmmaker and actress currently finishing her M.F.A. in Directing at the American Film Institute. She is currently based in Los Angeles, but has roots in New York and London. "I’m a multi-hyphenate," she explains.

Her can-do attitude is something that I've noted many of LA's ambitious young women have these days.  More and more actresses are giving themselves more interesting roles by writing and directing their own projects.  Just like Bethany, they are head-strong and driven global citizens- even if they have small town roots. These women are certainly not the lost girls of yore, losing their way in the big city lights.

What was growing up in Jackson, Mississippi like?

Growing up in that part of the South was a really interesting and beautiful experience. It has a strong literary culture and history (Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, and William Faulkner are all from Mississippi) so I read a lot and wrote stories - I had my mom write the text before I could write myself. I think that was probably my intro into the creative world. I was eight when I produced, directed, and starred in my own production of Annie in my backyard.

In general, Mississippi is very green, spacious, and beautiful.  I am an only child and lucky to have very supportive parents, even though they actually don’t have any kind of artistic background themselves.

Of course I'll admit that Mississippi is a very conservative place, but I didn't really realize this until I left. 

One of my most vivid film memories growing up is actually one from high school. When I was about fifteen, I went to see The Aviator with a group of friends while knowing nothing about it. I'm not sure why a bunch of high school girls wanted to see such serious material, maybe it was required for a class? But I remember the screening was sold out, and that was the first film that I can remember really transported me. I remember thinking when Cate Blanchett came on screen - who is that?? I want to be like her. 

Your short film Indigo Valley, which you are developing into a feature, was filmed in Iceland after a visit there. What inspired you? Why did that trip have such an effect on your imagination?

I think because it looks like Middle Earth. Iceland looks like another planet, without any kind of (special) effects. 

When I went there the first time, as a guest of the Reykjavik Film Festival, I met several women who have been very influential to my career. So I think that has something to do with my draw to Iceland as well. And Icelandic cinema, though there is not tons of it, is extremely beautiful and special. There's definitely something in the water there, talent-wise.

Tell me a little more about the story of Indigo Valley?

Indigo Valley is the story of a young couple, Louise and John, who elope and go to Iceland for their honeymoon. They are unexpectedly joined by Louise's sister, Isabella (my character), a damaged young woman who seeks to make amends with Louise but also harnesses much more than that. From her entrance, she drives the story and things start to spin out of control. It is a very dark story that questions human relationships and morals, and explores boundaries and power between the sexes, something I am really interested in exploring. 

While filming we all stayed in a house in Grindavik (a fishing village in the middle of NOWHERE). There were about twelve people in a house with one shower. I mean that's pretty funny. Apparently the one shower thing is really common in Iceland, because everyone showers at the pool. We didn't see one single person just out walking in the town. The town was surrounded by lava rock, so it really felt like you were on the moon.

We will not be filming the feature, there! Haha.

I guess something that I also found funny was the Icelanders' reaction to the weather. It was raining and freezing most days, all of the non-Icelandic crew was complaining (it was July!) and the weather didn't bother them one bit. 

You grew up in Jackson, Mississippi which has about the same population as Iceland's capital Reykjavik. Did you find similarities or just differences between the two places?

Yes, I did (find similarities). I think that's one reason that I related to it so much. It is a small city, so everyone knows everyone within their community. There is a thriving, rich artistic culture in both places.. Each place is heavily influenced by it's landscape, though strikingly different. I think that's reflected in the stories that come out of each place. Iceland and Mississippi also both have a great sense of hospitality! 

You decided to base your upcoming American Film Institute thesis The Delta Girl in Mississippi. Why do you feel like it's important to address the issue of race from a perspective we don't normally see? 

This is a tricky question. The story and the topic alone sparks conversation and controversy. This is a great thing, but also scary. That said, this is the first film I have directed that pulls on where I am from, so it is hugely important to me. The Delta Girl is a huge emotional task and a brave thing for me to make. I think Magnolia's journey in the film is unique - she is an observer of her society, much like I was.

However, I wasn't observing racism in the 1960s right before the height of Freedom Summer (as in the film), but there are similar politics still evident (when I grew up there), and I was forced to do things because society told me to do them. I was scared to speak up. That's how I relate to the character. 

Magnolia is not a traditional, active protagonist. She is indifferent to the world around her and is seeing the world through her violent and racist brother Beau, and her progressive best friend Delilah, who ends up running away with an African American boy. So she's torn between these two worlds. I don't want to give away the end - but she comes to an important realization. 

I do feel like this story is crucially important. It's interesting - our generation wants to believe that we have come so far from the events that happened in Mississippi in 1964. In many ways, we have, (but) in some ways, we have not. Regardless, this era of history happened. Although my story is fictional, it is based on true events. It's been too long that these kinds of stories have been brushed aside. Mississippi and its history is certainly hard to understand for a millennial living today (in LA). But it happened, and it's my job as the director of this project to make it relevant. And I don't want to be apologetic about it, because that's where the problem starts. But so many people living during that time actually had no idea of the extent of the violence and atrocities happening around them. For Magnolia, it's a realization: a crushing guilt that she has been a party to (via) this hateful society for her entire seventeen years. 

As a Brit, Mississippi has always conjured up a dark and spooky sense of another place, a place that is quite alien somewhere time forgot with stories of dark rural areas and overt racism. Or of Southern debutantes and polite young men. How much of these myths are real?

I think historically that's probably accurate. I don't think that's accurate now. Though some weird stuff still exists. I was a debutante. I had never been to the Delta (the poorest region of America, where a lot of these myths come from) until I was in my early twenties. People are pretty sheltered in the South. Although I do think that's a choice that's been passed down through generations.

Most people who are born in the South don't leave. There's a great fear of the outside world- still. 

What are your favorite things about the South? 

I think the humidity, the people, and the food. The minute I step off that plane in Jackson and smell the air, it seems so warm- fresh, and untouched by time. 

If I were to visit, where should I go to have a real Mississippi experience?

The Delta - visit Clarksdale & Greenwood, going along the Historic Blues Trail. In Clarksdale, go to the juke joint - Ground Zero, which is owned by Morgan Freeman. 

The Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, which just opened - better late than never, I suppose. Since Jackson is my hometown, I would recommend getting a delicious local meal perhaps downtown at The Mayflower or The Elite, both which have been there forever - or try the trendy eclectic Southern fare at Parlor Market or Walker's. 

Natchez, Mississippi (is also good to visit). On the river, Natchez is the jewel of the South and was considered too beautiful to burn by Union troops in the Civil War. You can stay in one of the old plantation homes - I'd recommend Dunleith. One time, I went to the Natchez Opera Festival, which yes, actually exists. 

What would a visitor expect to find out about Southern Hospitality when staying there?

In Mississippi, there's no sense of urgency in the passing of time or its people. It is much more relaxing to live there than in a big metropolis city. I think this slow pace of life is reflected and ingrained in its people. There's a sense that everyone has a great story to tell and wants to put you at ease. You might learn some interesting Southern traditions - or how to correctly pronounce certain Southern slang like "ya'll." 

What is next for you? 

I am working toward my M.F.A. in Directing at the American Film Institute which ends in June. I am currently traveling to festivals and screening two shorts Indigo Valley and The Last Birthday. I hope both will have future longer-form lives. I am developing Indigo Valley as a feature to shoot in late summer 2018, and The Last Birthday into a series eventually. I have two smaller projects in the works - one set in the New York theatre world, and one following a group of nuns in WWII France. At this point, I am open to wherever this career will take me. I want to write more, a novel maybe, or poems. I want to get back into theatre. I want to do it all. 

Honestly, it's difficult to have any kind of set plan in this industry, other than to keep working hard and creating. And... I think want to move back to New York to start the next chapter. 

@jaclyn_bethany