Veterans in Creative Careers: Jennifer Marshall, Actress and GM of VFT (Navy)

Jennifer MarshallJennifer Marshall served her country proudly in the United States Navy for five years, honorably separating as a second class petty officer (E-5). During her time in, she earned a Navy/Marine Corps Achievement medal, her Enlisted Aviation Warfare Specialist (EAWS) pin, and was Junior Sailor of the Quarter, among other awards. In 2003, she completed a deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. During her time in, she worked as an aircraft handler, forklift operator, logistics specialist, and also worked on the ships fire team and security defense force. She also worked for the command’s Sexual Assault Victim Intervention (SAVI) program, teaching policies and procedures to new sailors checking in onboard. Jennifer has extensive weapons handling experience and has maintained her military fitness level, utilizing her special skills on shows like The Last Ship and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Jennifer is currently featured as Ms. February 2015 in the Pin-Ups for Vets calendar, a non-profit that raises money for veterans and active duty troops.

Outside of acting, Jennifer donates her time to a variety of organizations including Pin-Ups for Vets, the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center, Grace Orphanage and Day School in Mukono, Uganda, is active in animal rescue and runs local 5Ks to raise money for assorted non-profit organizations.

In October of 2013, Jennifer was selected to be VFT’s Events Coordinator. Jennifer has donated hundreds of man hours to Veterans in Film and Television and is committed to helping the non-profit grow and thrive. She has found her second family in VFT and is excited to see how the organization will flourish in 2015! In January 2015, Jennifer was appointed to General Manager of Veterans in Film and Television, and specifically manages education, outreach and events for the non-profit.

Justin Sloan: Thank you for agreeing to share your experience and advice with us, Jennifer. To get us started, can you tell us what your main takeaways from your military time were? Do you feel this time largely shaped who you are today, and if so, how?

Jennifer Marshall: When I think of how the Navy shaped me, I go back to (ironically) the old Army slogan. Be all that you can be… but in any branch you feel fits you best, not just the Army. (Sorry soldiers…lol). I honestly feel like the Navy made the best version of Jennifer that could exist. It made me strong, motivated, and gave me an amazing work ethic that sticks with me today.

JS: When you approached your final days in the Navy, did you have a transition plan? How did you discover your passion for film, and at that point did you know what you wanted to do?

JM: I actually had no idea what I was going to do when I got out of the military but I did know that college would be first and foremost. I am the first college graduate on the paternal side of the family and will be the first to earn a graduate degree on the maternal side of the family. If Uncle Sam was going to give me a full ride to college with my GI Bill, I certainly had no excuse not to go to school.

As far as entertainment was concerned, I was always into theater, choir and performing arts in high school but let’s be real—those opportunities are far and few between while serving. While stationed in Virginia, I came across a musical theater group that was limited to active duty, dependents, and retirees. After returning home from deployment, I auditioned for a show and earned a tiny, no-name (but very fun) part in the Cole Porter musical “Anything Goes.” A year later I went on to play a lead–Glinda in The Wiz. Let’s hope those VHS tapes never surface because five years after I did the musical, I came to the crushing realization I, in fact, cannot sing! J While a member of this theater group, I met a retired Chief who had a commercial airing. I asked him how he made the transition into TV and he gave me the name of a director who had an acting school in the area. I started his class and within two weeks, booked my first project. I have been working in TV and film ever since. I have been very blessed. J

JS: What advice do you have for other military folks approaching their end of service dates who may not know what to do next? Does that advice change if they know they want to be involved in Hollywood or any sort of creative endeavor, but have yet to figure out the specifics?

JM: I would say first and foremost—get your education. Whether or not you are interested in Hollywood, you need an education to fall back on. In the film industry, it is literally feast or famine. Personal example—in January, I made more money than I have ever made as an actor in one month. I was excited and proud to have reached a new milestone. But in February, I didn’t work at all—not ONE day…I couldn’t even find background work! It is totally unpredictable and having another job to fall back on is crucial. You can’t just rely on the fact that you are a veteran to get work—veterans are everywhere. You have to be smart about the choices you make following the service and save, save, save your money. Having two guaranteed paychecks a month in the military really spoils many of us and once leaving the service, money management can be a struggle. Additionally, Los Angeles is expensive and brutal. Savings can dry up in a flash so learn to live lean.

If you know you want to be in the film and television industry, go to school for that. Get a tangible skill that you can market. Once in school, work as a production assistant and really get a thorough grasp on everything that happens on set. If you want to be an actor, then double major in college—one major in theater and one in something you can really use when times get tough. I have a double major in International Politics and Spanish but took acting classes at night on the side and continue to study to this day. My personal opinion is there is no sense in spending all your GI Bill at an acting school when, for most of us, that profession doesn’t pay all the bills. If you have something to fall back on, once you start acting you can then take classes at night with a teacher in LA. We have some amazing programs here, the best teachers in the world.

JS: Many of the veterans I’ve spoken with have great things to say about the Veterans in Film and Television (VFT) group. Can you tell us how you became involved, and what you see as the value of this group?

JM: I was new to Los Angeles in 2011 and thought, “Boy, I wonder if there are any groups out here for vets in the entertainment industry? Nah… there probably aren’t many of us.” I was wrong! Right about that time Kyle Hausmann-Stokes and Mike Dowling were putting together the foundation for what later became VFT. I think a lot of us had the idea for an organization like that, but they put their nose to the grindstone and made it happen! I stumbled upon VFT in 2013 through a friend of a friend, who happened to be a member. Literally, I went from knowing three people in LA to having a full social roster and an amazing bevy of opportunities from other vets I had met as a result of being a member of VFT. Because we are a networking and educational organization, VFT doesn’t outright “give” anything to its members, but it certainly gives them the tools and empowers them to help their own career and to take advantage of opportunities offered.

JS: Have you seen any direct success stories as a result of VFT?

JM: I have! There is actually something really amazing in the pipeline that I can’t share yet but one VFTer has an incredible opportunity coming up and I couldn’t be prouder of him. In the meantime, roll over to and check those out!

JS: What would you advise new members of VFT? What should be their expectations? Is it mostly a networking group? Should they bring business cards to meetings, and what else can they do to ensure they get the most out of it? How about how they can contribute to the group?

JM: I would say that like anything else in life, you have to be proactive. If you use VFT as a tool, it can be tremendously helpful. Come to the meetings, introduce yourself, get to know the members. We all want to hire other veterans, but we really have to know them before we can recommend them for opportunities, vouch for them, etc. Dress for success, bring your business cards, and just network, network, network. As far as contributing, we are always looking for volunteers to help us in a variety of positions. Volunteering is great because you get to meet a ton of people and we get to know who is dependable when other opportunities come around. Finally, seeing this as a chance to indulge in the camaraderie most of us greatly miss is a great frame of mind to have—come for the friendship and once people know you and your work, the opportunities will follow.

JS: Looking at your acting career, what would you say you’ve done right that helped you get to where you are now?

JM: Well, I certainly have a long way to go… but the successes I have had are because of three reasons—my driven work ethic, never feeling “too good” or “too above” something to do a shoot, and because I look out for others and try to help them whenever I can. As far as work ethic, I am constantly surprised by the number of people who don’t follow specific directions, can’t be on time, don’t want to drive across town for an audition, etc. Showing up is half the battle! Second, I have no illusions about my career and who I am as an actor. I do know my worth, but at the same time, I am never “too good” for something—even if it is low paying but an incredible artistic opportunity, I am snatching that up! J Lastly, I believe in the power of WE. I try to help other veterans because I feel like in the end, it makes us all better. If we can’t have each other’s backs as veterans…who will? Also, amazing opportunities have come my way because I have helped others.

JS: What about the opposite side of that question – what would you have done differently?

JM: Moved to Los Angeles sooner. No doubt about that.

JS: Going forward, do you have a career plan, or is it more take it as it comes?

JM: I don’t have a plan per se, as far as… in five years, I’d better be booking A, and in ten years, booking B. But I do have a plan as far as my training and types of projects I want to work on. More like a bucket list. I feel like if I had something set in stone for my career, I would have missed some stellar projects that came my way because I had tunnel vision.

JS: How big a role has networking played in your career? Has the military network helped you?

JM: Networking is huge. This business is 80% who you know. My military network has helped me to book jobs and make connections in the industry, but if anything, it has helped me maintain my sanity in this land known as Hollyweird. Knowing I have my brothers and sisters to turn to at any time makes a hard industry easier to palate.

JS: Do you have any fun or crazy stories about your time on set? How about crazy auditions or anything embarrassing?

JM: Oh my… where do I start? Well, I have to save many of my stories because I plan on writing a book about it but I will share this one. I received an audition notification for a loosely scripted “reality” show that was looking for “tough women.” It was pretty vague and I was new to LA so I submitted. The audition ended up being out in some nearby town… so far I don’t even remember! Lol! I get there and it is at a Kung Fu studio and women are walking around in black miniskirts and barely-there halter tops and 90% of them are wearing stilettos. The “casting director” has the camera in the middle of the room and it is basically open auditions where all the other actors are watching you. After each women spoke to the camera, he asked them about their martial arts experience and the “actresses” started doing karate and jujitsu moves to the camera, complete with “Hiyas!” and “Huhs!”. It was truly bizarre. I high tailed it out of there and didn’t look back.

JS: Good stuff! I have a similar story about auditioning for a stunt position at a theme park in Japan. I, however, stayed and thoroughly embarrassed myself. Do you feel you have had one or two main successes that you are proudest of?

JM: There are two projects I have worked on since getting to Hollywood that I am super psyched about. One was a short film called Darryl that will be soon making the festival rounds. All of the actors in the film except for the two leads were veterans. The short film stars Michael E. Knight, a three-time daytime Emmy award winning actor who is best known for playing Tad Martin on All My Children for over 20 years. Working with him was a dream come true… kind, caring, encouraging and an incredible actor. I played his therapist, Elizabeth, and feel honored that I could work with such a talent.

The second project was a sci-fi short film called Polis. It was entered into a science fiction competition to be turned into a feature and it won! Stan Lee even tweeted about the short film, which of course made me giddy. The film stars Parker Young (Suburgatory, Enlisted), Dileep Rao (Inception) and Mark Kelly (Mad Men) and was directed by the incredibly talented Steven Ilous and written by Daniel Perea. I had a chance to talk to Daniel on set and his ideas and energy blew me away. I have a tiny part in the film—I play Parker’s mother in a series of flashbacks. I am so excited for it to be a feature!

JS: I can’t wait to watch them. Let’s say a man or woman has just finished with the military and arrived in Hollywood to get started as an actor. What are the first steps? Are there other organizations they should join? Specific things they should consider when looking into classes, headshots, and agents?

JM: First thought—don’t get started in Hollywood. Find a solid secondary market like Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Philly, DC, Virginia Beach, etc. There are a ton of cities around the US where the TV and film market is thriving. If you come to LA or NY off the bat, it is going to be an uphill battle. Get some credits in smaller markets and then make the jump. You will know when the timing is right.

I would recommend different organizations for different people. We are all unique and what works for one may not be a good fit for the other. As far as classes, headshots and agents? Practice some serious Google-fu and make sure you aren’t getting ripped off. This industry can be scam central for the newbies.

JS: Thank you again for your time. Before we sign off, do you have one main piece of advice to offer veterans looking to pursue their passion for acting?

JM: Have respect for the art and treat it like a career. If you wanted to be a dentist, you wouldn’t simply make business cards, set up an office, and start pulling teeth. You’d be in jail with that business plan! With acting, I feel like people don’t take it seriously which gives a lot of us a bad name. Go to school, get your training, work on student films, practice the craft. If you approach it like a mission like we did in the military, you will have great success! Good luck!






These interviews will appear in an upcoming book on military members and veterans in the world of entertainment. As you wait, please read my book Creative Writing Career, on Amazon.

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