Jennifer Spence loves to work on projects that get people talking, and the Vancouver actress’s latest series, the TV comedy You Me Her, has given audiences plenty to talk about.
You Me Her premiered at South by Southwest in 2016 and returns for its second season on Valentine’s Day. The locally shot series stars Greg Poehler and Rachel Blanchard as Jack and Emma, a married couple who embark on a polyamorous relationship with a 20-something escort named Izzy (portrayed by Priscilla Faia). Spence plays Carmen, Emma’s best friend.
Spence, whose lengthy filmography includes scene-stealing roles on Continuum, The Killing, SGU Stargate Universe and Travelers, and a Leo Award-winning turn as a timid painter in 2013’s Down River (directed by her husband, filmmaker and actor Ben Ratner), relishes the fact that You Me Her casts a light on polyamory, a relationship practice in which individuals have more than one partner with the knowledge and consent of all involved.
“You might talk about polyamory with friends or you might talk about it in hushed conversations, but it’s not really something that people are that open about in general,” says Spence.
How You Me Her sets itself apart from the bulk of other series that attempt social commentary is that it’s also surprisingly funny, says Spence. “It’s not done in a heavy-handed way. There’s a lot of humour and lightness.”
As the best friend to one of the polyamorous protagonists, Spence’s Carmen is “the voice of reason, even if that reason is delivered in a crass kind of way,” she chuckles. Carmen is happily married with two kids, and “watching her best friend go into this with her husband and another woman is somewhat threatening to their friendship, in a sense, and that’s one of the things that the show talks about, is how alienating it can be for the trio, or however many there are in the relationship. Friendships erode. Other relationships in your life can fall away.
“There’s a lot packed into that one show, and I love it.”
The second season of You Me Her finds Jack, Emma and Izzy ramping up their relationship, and Carmen navigating through everything the trio’s unconventional relationship brings up for her. “The situation that her good friends are in has sparked some things in Carmen that she has to look at and figure out how to move through in order to still be happy,” says Spence.
Spence’s journey to the BC screen scene began in Toronto. She was a stereotypical teenager, she says (“I filled journal after journal with angst-ridden boredom, which was kind of my goody-two-shoes version of rebellion”), imagining herself pursuing any number of careers, including marine biologist, lawyer, pilot and vet. It wasn’t until her final year in high school, when she was cast in a community theatre production of The Crucible, that she found her calling. “I just kind of realized, ‘I don’t want to do anything else but act.’”
She uncovered her specific passion for film and TV while an acting student at the venerable National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal. “There’s that intimacy and that realism to film and television. You can’t lie. You can’t get away with anything. And I especially love the medium of TV, because it allows you to go on a tremendous journey with a character, hopefully over many seasons.”
Spence has embarked on several such tremendous journeys since moving to Vancouver in the early 2000s, including her role as police-cyber-specialist-turned-spy Betty Robertson on the sci-fi crime procedural Continuum (“Betty was really liberating, because she was so much ballsier than I am”), and, before that, as Dr. Lisa Park on SGU Stargate Universe. The SGU gig was “where I really cut my teeth as an actor, because that was the most I had ever been on set, and that was the most I’d had to sustain a character over an extended period of time,” says Spence, who reunited in 2016 with SGU showrunner Brad Wright on his new series, Travelers.
Travelers stars Eric McCormack (Will & Grace) as the leader of a team of time-travellers attempting to save humanity from a terrible fate. Spence plays Grace Day, a high school counselor and tech programmer.
Wright “knows how to make a good show,” says Spence. “It was a wonderful experience to come back and to play a character that was so different than the character I played on Stargate Universe. Yes, the person is still kind of a tech person, but that’s the only overlap. There was a lot of new, fun stuff to do.”
You Me Her returns to Audience Network for its second season on Feb. 14.
Web exclusive: More from our interview with Jennifer Spence
On her first role upon arriving in Vancouver: “It was Da Vinci’s Inquest. [Showrunner] Chris Haddock directed that episode, so it was an extra thrill. [My character] was a witness to an accident. It was a great first gig, because it was getting to work with Chris and getting introduced to that world – the legacy that is Da Vinci’s Inquest, but also the scene entailed doing it all in one shot, which is something I’d never done before as an actor. I remember they gave us the heads-up the night before. The AD is calling the actors and saying, ‘You’ve got to be totally off-book for this, because there’s no fucking around. We’ve got to get it, otherwise we’ll have to start the whole thing again.’ I was like, ‘This is a different kind of pressure!’ It was fun to get to be able to do something different and to have to be on it. And then Nicholas Campbell – he’s such a great actor, and he was improvising and stuff, too, so that kept me on my toes. It was a great first gig to have, especially because I was challenged in a couple of different ways that are not often the norm.”
On Betty, her character on Continuum: “What a joy to play Betty. She had more sass and more guts about things [than I did]. I think there was one situation I was in where I could feel my old patterns coming, and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m feeling shy. I don’t want to say hi to this person’ – whatever it was. And then I just thought, ‘What would Betty do? Betty would go and hug the person!’ And that’s what I did, and it ended up being this really positive thing. Sometimes you can learn things from your characters. I thought she was a really liberating character to play.”
On how she copes with the quiet times in her career: “You make a choice to stick with it or not. That’s all you can do, and in the meantime, if you do make the choice to stick with it, then you have to do everything you can to keep building. The building never goes away. It comes back to, are you in class? Are you in some kind of peer group where you’re challenging each other and putting yourself on tape? Are you watching quality shows on television and in theatre? Are you reading plays and challenging yourself in some way? Are you trying stand-up? [Actor] Mig Macario said something early on that resonated with me. It was at a really lean time when I wasn’t booking anything, and he said, ‘Just keep showing up.’ And that really, really resonated. That’s something I can do. I can’t guarantee my attitude’s going to be great, I can’t guarantee that I’m going to ace the audition, but I can guarantee I will show up. You lump together all of those times you showed up, and it adds up to something, eventually. But at the end of the day, it’s sticking with something, and putting in the time and work.”
On working with husband Ben Ratner in the critically acclaimed film Down River, which Ratner wrote and directed: “Down River was super-transformative. I’d never worked that deeply before, and that’s one of the great gifts that Ben gives as a director and writer and teacher and actor. He’s generous. He really challenges you to go deep. You have to show up. You have to be present. You wind up getting the most authentic and courageous performances out of people because they’re forced to step up and they’re forced to confront themselves. Ben will challenge you, but you know he always has you at the same time.”
On advice she received from director Peter DeLuise while working on SGU Stargate Universe: “Peter DeLuise came up to me, Patrick Gilmore and Peter Kelamis – we were the scientist bunch – and what he said really impacted us: He said, ‘Make sure you’re making your own choices of where you want your character to go, and how your character feels, and where your character is and all of that. Don’t just let the writers do it for you.’ He said, ‘Is one of you in love with the other? How do you feel about this situation? What’s your point of view?’ That really changed things for all three of us. Then we started, ‘Oh, yeah. We’re actors and we’re also creators. We should collaborate and not just wait for stuff to happen.’ And so we started making our own choices. And some of those, the writers ended up writing into the show. Peter had a huge impact. It was tremendously helpful.”
On how she defines success: “Success is balance. Success is having more ease, not as much struggle. Of course there are going to be challenges. Life is full of struggle and suffering and all of those things, too: the richness of life. I think success is working on something that you care about and that challenges you, and having love in your life, and feeling like you’re having an impact. I think that’s what success is. And also having growth. How much are you growing through the years? How much have you improved yourself or learned something? That’s a huge part of it, too. Can you consider yourself a good person or the person you want to be? Can you say that you’re trying to be your best self?”