A lot of my personal activism is about body positivity, or more radically, fat acceptance. The fat acceptance community is not only incredibly inspiring, it’s also helmed by mostly Black and/or queer womxn, and — unlike the popular watered-down white/cis/size-10 “body positivity” trend — fat activism is Black- and queer-centric. It’s a movement that embraces a huge percentage of the populus that has been programmed to believe that their bodies don’t matter: 67% of individuals are over a size 14. There has been so little media or societal support for us — fat bodies are rarely more than a joke in film or television. Fat bodies don’t have any federal laws protecting them against discrimination at work. Fat women make an average of $1800 less annually than a thinner woman of their same demographic, and the numbers are abysmal for likelihood of being hired over a thin body. Fat bodies are ignored and imperiled in the medical community, given slapdash advice — just lose weight — and treated as a nuisance. This has terrifying repercussions: Rebecca Hiles had her cancer go undetected for years because her doctor said she was “just fat.” Another woman died from endometrial cancer from that same lack of care. There is a moral devaluing of fat bodies that even the most liberal social progressives will engage in. It’s a classist, racist, sexist act of aggression. Fat folks (many of whom are further marginalized by gender, color, or sexuality) feel that they have no true allies — how could they when the same people saying “Love is Love!” are the ones mocking a fat woman on camera in a locker room? I could go on forever, but suffice it to say: I think true fat acceptance in our culture can heal and prevent a lot of trauma that has occurred ten-fold in further marginalized fat bodies.
I had the pleasure to interview Actress Jen Ponton. Jen is a comedic force, consistently serving up big laughs on screen. A Muppet enthusiast, horror fanatic, and body love activist, Ponton’s seasoned resume continues to grow. In 2018, Ponton recurred on AMC’s critical darling Dietland as fiery fat activist ‘Rubi.’ Ponton has also guest appeared on The Blacklist, 30 Rock, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Deadbeat, Orange is the New Black, Blue Bloods, Boardwalk Empire, Law & Order: SVU, The Slap, and The Good Wife. Ponton will also be appearing in a highly-anticipated Apple+ series. Ponton’s film credits include a starring role in the indie film Love on the Run with Frances Fisher and Steve Howey, the Warner Brothers film Going in Style, and Chuck with Liev Schreiber. Ponton is also a producer and writer with several pilots in development, including a web series. She produced and starred in concept pilots for two of her series — the one-hour period piece Queens of Daytime, and the half-hour comedy The Reunion. Her writing has been solicited by several production companies. This Jersey tomato of a gal graduated from Ramapo College of New Jersey and went on to work in New York regional theatre. She memorably tickled audiences and broke hearts off-Broadway in Halley Feiffer’s pitch-black play How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater). Ponton married her college sweetheart, and now lives in the woods of NJ with him and their very excited dog.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Thank you for asking me! I’m delighted to get to do this with you. 🙂
I grew up, for lack of a better word, as a complete weirdo. I was raised as an only child, in the middle of farm country, New Jersey. Literally more cows than people in a town that very few people know. I was sort of a feral, latchkey kid — I lived next to a graveyard on a street with no children, so was pretty much on my own for most of my young life. I was always in a book, always wandering around the woods alone. I was really a loner and outsider for my formative years. I was definitely an outcast in school, and I didn’t really make friends until I was a teenager.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
Despite the above, I was really extroverted — I wanted to be funny, I wanted to laugh and be loud, I wanted to talk and entertain. I just had nowhere to put my energy! I had a very active imagination and wrote a lot of stories as a kid, pouring my fantasies of having friends into fiction similar to the works of Tina Belcher. As an only child, I was also like a mini-adult — adults liked me and I was comfortable with them, so I had a more adult sense of humor and comic timing than most kids. I would sing and emcee family get-togethers; I would make countless sketch shows on our old ’80s camcorder. Performing and creating helped me embrace who I really was when other kids just didn’t get me. I felt incredibly alone, but it was also a fortifying journey.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I’d say that one of my favorite things of all time has been working with the-man-the-myth-the-legend Jeff Goldblum. He and I guest-starred on an episode of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt together, and the plot was that he was this bonkers psychologist talk show host. It was almost the holidays, and we were shooting in this studio full of extras, and Jeff was just leading them in Christmas carols, singing jazz standards with the cast on stage, and trying to make me laugh right up until the moment the director said ‘action.’ He has a rating system for how quirky, weird, and charming his takes are — he measures them in Goldblums. “How many Goldblums was that take?” He was so fun and irreverent, and by the same token, he had a way of making you feel like the only person in the room. We had such truly lovely conversations, and I would work with him again in a heartbeat.
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?
Thankfully, I made it through — but shooting my first sex scene was a real learning curve! It was for Love on the Run, and it was my first time leading a feature film. I was so nervous, and they kept postponing the scene — so I’d get ready to do it on Thursday, and then they’d move it to Friday. This happened over and over. By the time the day came, I was so anxious that I couldn’t stop shaking. My co-star (Steve Howey, Shameless) had done oodles of them, so he was reassuring me that it was fine, just a little awkward, goofy and weird. There were lots of towels and uncomfortable jokes and laughing when we weren’t supposed to laugh, and ultimately, I could feel myself relax and get more comfortable. It was a great lesson to just allow yourself to play and be in the moment!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I just shot a very exciting new project that will be on Apple+, but I’m afraid I can’t reveal any more details at the moment. I’ve also been developing a number of television series — really fulfilling work that centers women, mental health, and civil rights. One of them is a period piece set in the 1950s called Queens of Daytime, and we shot a pilot concept for that. It’s about the burgeoning soap opera industry in the ’50s and ’60s, and what a little-known paradise it was for women’s empowerment. Women were hired to write and produce because they were cheaper than men, and their taboo stories — that addressed reproductive rights, women’s health, LGBTQ rights, civil rights, racial integration, and much more — went under the radar by the men who underestimated them. I also shot a pilot concept for a comedy called The Reunion, which is a time-travelly story about a social media mogul who is on the verge of a mental health crisis. When she has an accident, she comes-to in her childhood bedroom, on the first day of her freshman year… in 1998.
I’m 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?
I’m a strong believer that what we see regularly is what we normalize, and that the media can be either our greatest ally or greatest foe. A primary reason that our culture is so white/male/cis/hetero/thin-focused is because we’ve been programmed to only see stories about those people. When minorities of any kind are portrayed and centered in a story, not only does that demographic feel seen and represented, but others develop more empathy, compassion, and understanding towards them. There are studies that show that the number one empathy-enhancing conduit is reading narrative fiction: allowing yourself to have a first-person worldview that is not your own. We have done minorities of all kinds such a terrible disservice by denying them the spotlight. As a human in 2019, the diversity of voices in media needs to take priority. And as an artist — I think we’ve also learned to vault and idolize a white/male/cis/hetero gaze because it’s all we’ve been taught to appreciate. I’m so curious and excited to see the real spectrum of great art that exists outside of that narrow filter.
From your personal experience, can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address some of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?
For the industry, a huge issue is risk — they don’t take risks in big film, and the middle class of film currently doesn’t exist. Indies are great, but they don’t keep the lights on. Wonder Woman, Black Panther and Hidden Figures were all incredible box office successes — and two of them were superhero movies. We need more diverse, big-budget risks with disenfranchised voices — it’s tough to have a track record when the whole system is built against you as a filmmaker. Outside the industry, society needs to keep standing up and speaking out for the underdogs among us. As a culture, we’ve been quite mobilized these last few years, so that changing worldview can fuel more stories and encourage diverse narratives to come to the fore. As a community, support! Yes, hashtags can only take us so far — but when it comes to what stays and what goes in entertainment, the support of viewers is huge. If you can, watch these shows and films. If you can’t, spread the word in creative ways — get on Twitter and engage with the show and the network; retweet and add your voice to the many social media attempts to salvage culturally prescient narratives.
What are your “things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
I wish someone had told me that no one ever really figures it out. I wish someone had told me that you always basically feel like a 16-year-old stumbling around in the dark. I thought something magically happened to us in our 20s — all of a sudden, ta da, adulthood — and that it had somehow missed me. Knowing that everyone is just a work in progress is not only hugely freeing, it’s great for building empathy among us.
I wish someone had told me that your worst enemy isn’t your competition, your field, or your skill set — it’s impostor syndrome. How many of us (womxn in particular) have missed out on a major promotion, exciting life event, or career shift because we felt we couldn’t possibly deserve it? The “Confidence Gap” indicates that men are far more likely to overstate and overestimate their capabilities and skills, and women are far more likely to sell themselves short. I wonder how much more I would have achieved and created if someone had told me this much earlier in life.
I wish someone had told me that you are constantly molting and changing in this life! I had assumed I would just be whomever I was after graduating from college, and that — of course — is light years from the truth. Who I am, who I keep close, how I operate in the world — all of those have changed substantially for me as I’ve grown older, particularly north of 30. Your sense of self grows, your boundaries grow, you gain more direction and perspective. I love getting older.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
My consulting producer, Bonnie Gillespie, taught me a ton about moon phases — in particular, how our cells and intuition ebb and flow with the waxing and waning of the moon. If we truly “go with the flow,” we’re in a lunar cycle of seeding, growing, harvesting, and resting. As a culture, we’re accustomed to prizing the growing and harvesting stages — make stuff and make money, ad infinitum. To do that, however, is a bit like energetically swimming upstream. My aha moment was this: we are meant spend just as much time dreaming and recovering as we do making the things and reaping the rewards. A companion to this methodology is Flow Theory, which I highly recommend. We need to prioritize recovery and downtime, because that’s the only way the magic truly happens.
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. 🙂
No pressure, right? 😉 A lot of my personal activism is about body positivity, or more radically, fat acceptance. The fat acceptance community is not only incredibly inspiring, it’s also helmed by mostly Black and/or queer womxn, and — unlike the popular watered-down white/cis/size-10 “body positivity” trend — fat activism is Black- and queer-centric. It’s a movement that embraces a huge percentage of the populus that has been programmed to believe that their bodies don’t matter: 67% of individuals are over a size 14. There has been so little media or societal support for us — fat bodies are rarely more than a joke in film or television. Fat bodies don’t have any federal laws protecting them against discrimination at work. Fat women make an average of $1800 less annually than a thinner woman of their same demographic, and the numbers are abysmal for likelihood of being hired over a thin body. Fat bodies are ignored and imperiled in the medical community, given slapdash advice — just lose weight — and treated as a nuisance. This has terrifying repercussions: Rebecca Hiles had her cancer go undetected for years because her doctor said she was “just fat.” Another woman died from endometrial cancer from that same lack of care.
There is a moral devaluing of fat bodies that even the most liberal social progressives will engage in. It’s a classist, racist, sexist act of aggression. Fat folks (many of whom are further marginalized by gender, color, or sexuality) feel that they have no true allies — how could they when the same people saying “Love is Love!” are the ones mocking a fat woman on camera in a locker room? I could go on forever, but suffice it to say: I think true fat acceptance in our culture can heal and prevent a lot of trauma that has occurred ten-fold in further marginalized fat bodies.
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?
I have a small group of female artist friends, and we span decades in age — the younger of us in our mid-30s, the oldest in our late 60s. We’ve been together for 8 years now, and the purpose of our group began so specifically: to help each other in our careers. We would have roundtable masterminds on new approaches, returning to theatre, strategic planning, and so on. What it turned into was even better: to help each other be the best version of ourselves. Over the years, we’ve helped each other address major psychological and behavioral blocks, disrupt negative patterns, reach new levels of self-actualization, and build better lives and habits for ourselves. In the meantime, we’ve had so much fun, and — of course — our careers have grown in the process. Their belief in me — and their insistence on me believing in myself — is the whole reason I started writing and producing! So my deepest love and gratitude to Deb, Catherine, Suzanne, Ingrid, and Beth.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This one is a mantra: “I’m right on time, all of the time. My life unfolds in miraculous ways.” It is such a loving acceptance of the uncontrollable unknown; that which we fear, but in the big picture, is always an important part of our journey. It’s a great touchstone for me when I feel like I missed out on something, or when I fear that my life is veering off the tracks. There’s a reason for everything, and if we can lean into trusting in that, we can make the most of those chapters of our lives. What’s meant for you won’t miss you.
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. 🙂
Dear Paul Feig — hey, hi, hello. I will match whatever ascot or pocket square you choose with a fun vintage dress and some dashing oxfords. Let’s share endless stories about childhood mortification and changing the world.
I’ve been a fan of Paul since his days as primarily an actor (‘sup Mr. Pool), but he really spoke to my angsty, earnest teen soul with the gone-to-soon Freaks & Geeks. Over time, I learned more about his life and how eerily parallel it’s run to my own. Of course, these last many years for him have been a mecca for funny women, but he’s done so much more — he’s prioritized female content-creators, writers, directors, and producers; he’s created whole initiatives and development engines for furthering stories by and about women. He’s a lovely individual, incredible ally, and has the most dapper fashion sense in all the land.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’m on both Twitter and Instagram as @jenponton , and they can visit my website here: www.jenponton.com