Everything happens for a reason and everything happens for the best — Although I’ve had my family tell me this since I was a little kid, I had a hard time believing it as the way life really works. It is hard to see the good in the times of struggle as the good may come much later. At times, it may seem as life is unfair. Blaming one’s misfortunes on the rest of the world and forgetting that we learn and change from such periods. But, these events can allow for other opportunities to appear in front of us. It may seem that that one audition or meeting was everything you wanted and needed but it really allowed for someone else to take notice of you which was an even better opportunity for you. I once had an audition that seemed like such a big deal that I couldn’t afford to blow it. Although I was fully prepared and did everything in my power to get the part I had no idea the audition itself led to a much more meaningful relationship formed later on with a casting director and writer present in the room than the part itself.
As a part of my series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jeff Kenny. Russian born Jeff Kenny is one to watch as a rising talent in Hollywood. With diverse acting abilities, Kenny can play the most divergent roles. From the malicious love interest in Harper Finch to starring as the adorable stoner physics genius in the upcoming October feature film release of Manifest Destiny Down: Spacetime, directed by Jonathan Baker (Sundance Film Festival Winner Crown Heights), his range doesn’t go unnoticed. A man of many talents, Jeff is a world class dancer and singer. From performing ballroom competitions all over Europe and placing 3rd in the World Ballroom Championship in Poland, to being a multilingual rapper. Yes, a rapper! Performing in both Russian and English. After studying acting at Scott Sedita Acting Studios and Anthony Meindl’s Actor Workshop, he went on to study film at Bennington College and at the Prague Film school under Nancy Bishop, where he performed, directed and produced numerous films. Jeff Kenny’s multitude of talents allow him to bring creativity and charisma to all of his projects.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born and raised in Russia into a very artistic family. My mom is an artist who teaches classes from our home and has had multiple art exhibitions. My dad is a former physicist who plays the trumpet in his free time. When I was four years old, my parents signed me up for dance classes. I performed with a traditional Russian dance club called, “Donskiye Kazachki”. Later, I moved on to ballroom dancing and after a lot of classes and hard work I started to compete weekly in worldwide competitions. I danced Latin, which includes Samba, Cha-cha, Rumba, Paso Doble, and Jive. I also danced European which included slow waltz, tango, Viennese waltz, slow fox, and quickstep. Aside from my dance career, I also took piano classes when I was five and I studied music for six more years, as well I learned to play the drums and Djembe. My siblings are both in the arts as well. My sister is a musician and attends Parsons, and my brother is a world champion ballroom dancer, full-time performer, coach, and judge.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
Growing up, I didn’t have much and experienced hardships. So, my siblings and I had to be creative about coming up with entertainment for ourselves in our free time. When I was younger, I would make my own toys by building planes and kites out of paper and car models out of wood. I also spent time impersonating television celebrities, and I was actually really good at it. I would recite lines to my family members and it always made everyone laugh. A big part of the way I grew up was due to my grandparents who spent a lot of time with us outdoors. They took us camping, hiking, skiing, and exploring. It definitely made me see the world as a land of possibilities. My mom would host fun trivia nights with questions about art, history, philosophy and logic, which definitely ignited my mind to seek self-improvement and my push my limits. I left home when I was 18 and then studied in Switzerland and then the U.S. Later. After having taken filmmaking classes where I learned acting, writing, camera operation, lighting and editing skills, and participating in school plays, I got accepted to an acting program in Prague Film School in Czech Republic run by Nancy Bishop. There I studied Meisner Technique, extensive on-camera training, dancing, singing, Alexander Technique, and stage combat where I acted in about 20 short films. After all of that, I had a good base for me to make my move to Los Angeles. Shortly after my arrival, I was lucky to enroll in fantastic classes locally at Scott Sedita Acting Studios where I took on-camera drama, sitcom, and scene study.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
The law of attraction and manifestation of things into one’s life has been an unbelievable part of my journey. When I was a kid my mom made me memorize two poems a week for a few years so that I could get more educated and train my memory. Little did she know that would later on make me want to write my own poems, eventually leading to becoming a fan of hip-hop and rap. In middle school my friend and I started performing and writing our own songs, and for the last few years my favorite artist has been Yelawolf, Eminem’s protégé. A few months ago, a friend of mine who is a hip-hop music writer and producer casually asked me if I have ever heard of him. Five minutes later there I am in his studio, listening to Yelawolf’s new song he was working on. What’s fascinating about my career is the way it has been unfolding. Chance and coincidence play a big part in the entertainment industry and I feel like you just never know what little interaction with someone can bring into your life. More and more, I find myself realizing that what may seem like a meaningless occurrence often turns into a chain of events down that road and its effects popping up years later. For me, it feels like my life has been an action movie, and I have been directing it. My career has been a surreal experience watching seemingly impossible things become a reality. Some days I feel like I am a character in a sitcom and others going through an emotional rollercoaster in a heavy drama.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As I was working to join SAG, I was a stunt performer on a feature film. There were only a few other stunt men that day and while on set we were escorted into a holding area. I then started talking to one of the guys in there and half-way through our conversation I told him he looked like Ken Jeong from the Hangover movies. Low and behold he revealed that that’s who he was and that they just didn’t have a separate room for the stunt men and the rest of the cast. We both started laughing really hard. So, what I learned from that is to just go with the flow, be prepared for surprises and adjust according to the situation as you just never know what will happen.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
The most exciting project I played a lead role in, about to be released October 29th, is called Manifest Destiny Down: Spacetime (MDD). I play ‘Toby’, an intelligent, adorable, stoner, self-absorbed, kind-hearted, genius. He struggles with mental challenges such as OCD, narcissism, panic disorder, paranoia, agoraphobia, derealization and depression, and reputedly failing to connect with ‘Kara’ (played by Lexie Lowell) as they each see and approach obstacles and tasks from different angles and perspectives. I really enjoyed tapping into his world exploring, finding and connecting with characteristics, motivations, desires, addictions, point of view, dreams, fears, hopes and drive in myself. It would be amazing for MDD to result in a sequel as it has so much room for great exciting future plot twists. I recently auditioned for the part of ‘Riff’ in Steven Spielberg’s new film adaptation of West Side Story. Being a part of a project like that where I could combine all of my skills such as dancing, singing and acting and work with such a legendary director would be amazing. I believe there is no limit for self-improvement. While auditioning for new projects, taking a class, research, working on set, is extremely important in order to be ready for action when the next opportunity comes. I have been wanting to take classes at The Groundlings for a while now and really looking forward to enrolling soon and working on my improv skills.
We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
We live in a very diverse world, therefore representation of diversity in the entertainment industry is extremely important. Women, people of color, LGBTQ, and people with disabilities all need to have equal opportunities. Hollywood holds great power in what millennials look up to, relate to, and see on the big screen on a daily basis. Therefore, there needs to be a balanced representation in this industry in order to influence what viewers see. Our world’s views and perceptions are changed over time and they need guidance from society in order to change. So, it is important that this industry addresses issues like racism, homophobia and so on in order to guide us down the right path. I also think that striving for diversity needs to be approached with caution and a middle ground needs to be found as extreme actions can cause an unwanted backfire and the opposite effect can result. Stereotypes and type casting also need to be addressed. For example, Russians are often portrayed as mafia bad guys, blacks as criminals, etc. This results in adding to stereotyping in society, and that is not what this industry should be contributing to the world.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1) Always do you best — I wish someone told me that one’s best is not going to be the same every day. We can’t punish ourselves for not reaching what we think we could’ve done. Things happen in life that affect our productivity, abilities and maximum potential for that particular moment. Embracing things can be very helpful and channeling one’s experience in your own benefit is a great way of achieving a win-win situation. I had to do a heavy emotional scene one time and having had a tough week prior, I was really not looking forward to tapping into dark places in class that week. Nevertheless, I made myself go to the studio and once there allowed myself to use what I had going on in my personal life help channel those feelings through my work. Which resulted in both a great scene that night and a personal relief.
2) Everything happens for a reason and everything happens for the best — Although I’ve had my family tell me this since I was a little kid, I had a hard time believing it as the way life really works. It is hard to see the good in the times of struggle as the good may come much later. At times, it may seem as life is unfair. Blaming one’s misfortunes on the rest of the world and forgetting that we learn and change from such periods. But, these events can allow for other opportunities to appear in front of us. It may seem that that one audition or meeting was everything you wanted and needed but it really allowed for someone else to take notice of you which was an even better opportunity for you. I once had an audition that seemed like such a big deal that I couldn’t afford to blow it. Although I was fully prepared and did everything in my power to get the part I had no idea the audition itself led to a much more meaningful relationship formed later on with a casting director and writer present in the room than the part itself.
3) There is no such thing as a free lunch — My high school economics class teacher used to say this, but it really started sinking in years later. Entertainment is one of the most competitive industries and tons of nepotism exists making it hard if not impossible at times to even have a chance to get one’s foot in the door and make income in Hollywood. Many actors complain about struggling. When I ask them about their work, I find out they never had a headshot, are not working on their reels, not signing up for classes, avoiding improv, not doing enough research, are not submitting on casting services and are just waiting for things to happen on their own. There are already too many people who have been doing all of the above for years and to compete with them you need to be at least on the same level or above.
4) Not everyone is looking out for your best interest — Hollywood is a cutthroat business with everyone looking out for their own good and are ready to do anything to achieve their goals even if it means throwing ethics out the window. Always being on guard, ready, and approaching every meeting and interaction with caution can decrease risks of running into problematic situations down the line. There will be times where people will take all your hard work for their own credit and blame everything that went wrong on you to feed their self-esteem and make you appear at fault in front of others. Which sadly leaves no opportunity for you to do anything about it other than be forgiving of them and being kind in return.
5) There will be lots of rejection but it is up to the artist to not let it define one’s worthiness — It is a numbers game just like anything else. I once auditioned for a part that I thought was perfect for to later find out it was totally cut out months later. You are auditioning for your career and not the job. One needs to exercise patience and be kind to oneself and keep pushing. You may define your value by how others treat you, sign you, give you the part etc. but all of that is external value and is very different from internal value which you make by giving back to the world.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I would strongly recommend meditation as it has helped me find myself, calm down in stressful moments, get grounded, and connect to oneself tremendously. Getting to know your body, checking in with oneself every morning on how one is doing spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically. Remembering why you chose this path and enjoying the process. Staying active and doing at least one thing for your career every day whether it is getting involved in a local theatre group, enrolling in a class, updating your resume, taking new pictures, looking for representation, watching material, or recording your own monologue. Nowadays one can make material with a phone so there is no room for excuses. Research is a very powerful tool as lots of information can be learned over the internet and books and I find people don’t use them enough. Things you do today may cultivate into something huge in years to come. So, not giving up and being patient is extremely important. I had casting directors reach out to me years later after an audition, so you just never know.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
In the world of instant gratification and social media I feel like people’s values have changed or are becoming non-existent for some reason. With a constant need to fulfill the void by receiving more, trying to make more money, buy better car, house etc. one is left with no purpose. I would create a simple wanting to help others group. Achieving happiness by giving back to the world, participating in charity events, donations and service is what really brings purpose into my life.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
It is a journey on both personal and professional levels as one goes hand in hand with the other for performing artists. There have been people along the way who without a doubt have helped me grow, created opportunities, and provided guidance. But the one that stood out the most in times of hardship is definitely my dad. He has always been there for me. Having support is huge especially in moments of doubt, uncertainty, and hesitation. He has always been able to make me see the whole picture in a completely different way and change my outlook on things, no matter how busy he was at the time or how things were going for himself at that moment.
Can you please give us your favorite, “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own” — Bruce Lee. I really like this quote as in Hollywood some say no one knows anything. Agents, managers, producers, directors, casting directors, acting coaches, friends, family all will try to give advice and suggestions and one needs to be able to stay true to who they are and identify other people’s agendas and intentions. As often times, most don’t have your best interest at heart.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I’ve always loved Seth Rogen and James Franco both as artists and human beings. I feel like they have a lot to offer to the world of comedy and having a conversation with either or both of them over a breakfast would be absolutely awesome.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Facebook Page: @jeffkenny05
Personal Website: jeff-kenny.com
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!