This article was originally written for Talk Nerdy With Us.
“Sun Records” is CMT’s first original scripted drama series and tells the true story of Sun Records, a record label in 1950’s Memphis. Started by Sam Phillips, the record label went on to become a legendary rock-and-roll institution. Talk Nerdy With Us recently got the chance to talk to one of the shows’ stars, Jennifer Holland. Jennifer talked about how she got into acting, her character, Becky Phillips, and her nerdy love of astronomy and theoretical physics.
Tell me about how you got into acting.
I started acting in high school. Actually, I started acting in middle school; I was doing plays. Then, in high school, I got into the drama program. There was also a film program at my high school so we were making short little films. At that time I thought I wanted to be an architect, that’s what I thought I was going to be doing with my life. I was very studious. I loved math, but was also very artistic. I would draw and paint a lot. I was also always very interested in architecture and architectural photography, so I thought it would be a great thing for me to go into. But then I took a drafting class when I was doing my pre-college courses in high school, and I realized that it was just not what I wanted to do. Architecture these days is really just sitting in front of a computer entering numbers; a very small amount of architects ever want to do anything creative. So I was looking for something that filled that creative part of myself, and I was in drama at the time and realized it was something that I loved to do. When I was in gymnastics as a kid I think I had gotten the taste of what it is like to perform in front of an audience and what it felt like to get the instant gratification of making someone feel something. So I think I already had a taste of performance in that way and it just sort of extended when I went into drama programs at school.
Then I met some agents and managers, they came up to Florida at the time and I met with some people, including the person who would become my manager at the time, and he was sort of like, “Hey, come out to Los Angeles for pilot season.” And I was like, “What’s pilot season? I don’t know what that means.” So I moved to LA when I was pretty young.
What was your first professional acting job?
Oh my gosh. I don’t know. [laughs]
Were you still in high school?
I was not. At that point I had gotten my GED. I finished my high school courses online and had gotten my GED when I was 17. I think I worked my first acting job around that time, I don’t remember how old I was. I think my first real acting job was either on this [Nickelodeon] TV show called “Drake and Josh” or this movie I did called “The Sisterhood,” which was like this low-budget indie, sort-of…I don’t want to call it a horror film…because I think it was supposed to be a horror film, but was really just this weird, sexy drama. It was a very odd film about vampires, but it’s not very scary. We filmed that in the Caribbean. There was this production company that was making all of these films and they were filming them all in the Caribbean. So I did a couple of things with them early, early in my career. So I got to Caribbean and hang out on the beach while I filmed these crazy little movies that I did.
What would you say is the best career advice you’ve ever received?
Someone once told me that there is a lot of bad advice in Hollywood…a lot of people want to give you a lot of bad advice…so to stay grounded and take everything with a grain of salt, take what works for you and throw away the rest.
If you gave advice to an aspiring actor, would that be the advice you gave them or would you tell them something else?
Sure. I would probably say that to any aspiring actor, because I think it’s very true. There are a lot people, I’m sure in any business that you get into in life, who have their own interests in mind. They don’t necessarily have your best interests in mind, and no one is going to believe in you as much as you believe in yourself, and no one is going to put you first, you have to do that for yourself. You really have to be in touch with your own needs and your own desires and definitely listen to everything people say, but also just take it in. I think that it’s really easy to get discouraged, and it’s also easy to get lost, because opinions are, excuse my French, but like assholes; everyone has one. Just because someone has an opinion about something doesn’t mean they are necessarily right. There is not one way to do this business. A lot of people come at it from different angles and a lot of people are still successful regardless of the fact that they came at it from different angles. So I think that in this business you just have to find what works best for you. There’s not a path like there generally is for a lot of other professions you go into. A lot of other professions you start at a ground level and work your way up and it’s sort of like a step by step process. It doesn’t really work that way in this business. So, yeah, I think I would use that as part of what I might say to an aspiring actor.
I think some other advice that I got early on in my career, that I think is also very true, is that this career is not for everyone. And you might go into it thinking that it’s what you really want to do, but you should be open to finding out that it’s not really what you want to do. Don’t get stuck thinking you have to stay in this business, just because at one time you went after it. People get stuck thinking, “Oh, if I quit, then I’m a failure.” But some people just find out that this isn’t what they want to do with their life. They actually start working as an actor, or in the entertainment industry, and realize, “This isn’t what I thought it was going to be. This is way harder than I thought it was going to be. You mean I’m not going to be famous?” You have to be open to the fact that, maybe, it’s not what you want to do and that you’re not stuck doing it.
Our website is called Talk Nerdy With Us, so I always like to ask the question: what brings out your inner nerd? What do you “nerd out” over?
I love role-playing video games. As a kid I really got into this computer video game. I’m not so much into shooter video games, or anything like that, but I like things where you sort of have to figure out what’s going on, sort of like a mystery-suspense sort of thing. I’m a little nerdy about that.
I also get, more than anything else, super, super nerdy about the universe and space. I’m really into astronomy and astrophysics, and I get really into theoretical physics and the different theories people have about what’s out there and how we came about and all of those sorts of things. I just get really excited when I learn, and talk about, the different possibilities about the things we don’t know about our universe and where we live, because we live on this planet which is so small in the scheme of where we are in this universe that we know nothing about. That really gets me so excited. I think, had I gone into something else in my life and had taken a completely different path, that I would have done something related to astronomy or theoretical physics, anything in that realm. It gets me giddy inside.
Moving on to talk about “Sun Records,” what can you tell audiences about the series?
The show takes place in Memphis in the 1950s. It’s about a famous music producer named Sam Phillips who discovered and created and recorded some of the most iconic artists in American history, like Elvis and Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner, Carl Perkins, BB King, all of these incredible artists who started the birth of rock and roll. That’s basically what the story is about. You know, it takes place in a time in history when we were going through the civil rights movement and that also plays a part in our story.
What was the audition process like for the show?
My agent sent me the audition. I was sort of in and out of Atlanta, because my boyfriend was filming a role there at the time. So I put in a tape and sent it off to casting, because I was not in town. I put it on tape in the living room and my friend helped me read the audition; I knew nothing about it. I didn’t receive a script. I had no idea what the story was about. All I basically had were my lines for my scenes that I had. All I knew was kind of who they had written my character to be, at the time, and a very small portion of who she was. I didn’t know very much.
Then, they liked me for it. When I was in Atlanta they asked me if I would be able to make it to Memphis for a day to meet with the producers there. So I was able to do that, and I met with them, and did sort of a callback. It went great and, as I was on my plane back to Atlanta, they were like, “Can you stay and meet with the network people at CMT?” And I was like, “I can’t, I’m already on the plane.” [laughs] So I sort of flew away hoping that didn’t ruin it for me. But it didn’t. I found out, a little while later, that they wanted me for the role.
When I first read the sides I told my friend that I was working on the audition with that I had no idea why I was even reading for this, no one is ever going to let me play this role. Because, up until this point, I haven’t had a whole lot of opportunity to play women who are not outwardly very sexy and modern in that way. It just didn’t seem like it would be something that anyone would let me play. But they did.
How would you describe your character Becky Phillips?
Who Becky was as a person, in real life, is a little bit different than the way she is depicted in our story, for dramatic purposes obviously; you do have to take some creative control and do things to make the story a little more dramatic. So who she was as a person was…she started working in radio when she was in her teens. She was a career woman, she was a hard-worker. She also had a beautiful voice, she was a singer in her own right. And that’s how she and Sam met. They met while she was working in radio, at a radio station she was working at. She maintained her own career through a lot of her life. She did become a caretaker to Sam. There are a lot of parts of our story that are true, which are that Sam had some mental issues and he was crazy-pants. He was kind of a crazy guy. She was his caretaker and his support system and she was also a strong mother. A lot of those parts of the story are shown in the way that we depict her in the story.
Also, the way she’s used in our story, it’s really important to tell the story of what women were going through at that time. Women were still stuck to the stereotype that women don’t work; they stay at home and are home keepers and facilitate a man’s life and take a backseat to men. So that’s the way Becky is used in our story. She struggles with the fact that she does have her own desires, and she does want to have her own career and break out of the mold that she’s in, even though she’s still stuck there.
But really she is a caretaker, she is a mother and a wife. I think that her concern for her husband’s health and well-being trumps her understanding of his creative desires. She knows what he needs and wants is to work, to have this music studio, but the stress of it is causing him a lot of mental issues. So she is trying to balance giving him what he wants while still having a healthy husband.
Would you say Becky is similar or different, and in what ways, than the person that Jennifer is?
I think she’s really similar to me in that I became very independent at a very young age. I grew up in a family where there was a lot of alcoholism and I went in a completely different direction than that, because I didn’t want to see myself have the same struggles that I saw in my family a lot. So I’ve never drank or done drugs or anything like that in my entire life. I didn’t really make a conscious decision to do that. I think it just never became attractive to me, because I saw how badly it was in my family life. Because of all of that I became a caretaker to a lot people in my family, a lot of people who were older than me, and I became very mature at a very young age. I started working at a very young age, at 15 years old. So those are ways in which we’re very similar as people. She’s the same way; she’s the strength and she is sometimes the voice of reason.
I think we’re also very different, because I am a completely different person than Becky. Becky is stifled, and she is very politically correct, and she’s sort of inside of her shell, like she hasn’t broken out of her shell. I’m very opinionated, and I curse a lot, and not a whole lot embarrasses me as a person, and I have a crazy sense of humor. So those are some of the ways that we’re different. I think some of the most challenging things for me were having to step out of that part of myself which is strong and opinionated and not shy.
I’m sure it’s always interesting to be involved in something that’s based off of real life. How did you go about researching your role? Were you familiar with the story of Sun Records before reading the script?
I wasn’t familiar with it at all. I hate to admit that, but it’s true. Of course I know who Elvis and Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis and who all of those incredible artists are and I’ve seen some of their stories. Like of course Johnny Cash’s story has been told many times and I knew a bit about Elvis. But no, I didn’t know anything about Sam Phillips or Sun Record, or that all of these people knew each other and that they came together. I didn’t know any of those parts of the story, so I really had to do a lot of research. When I started researching, I mean, thank God we are living in the information age and I was just able to go online and just start searching articles and things like that. And I read, there’s a book, a biography on Sam Phillips by Peter Guralnick that I read, which is nice because he talks a little bit about Becky in there.
There’s not a whole lot that you can find on Becky Phillips, which is so interesting because she did a lot in her life, especially as a woman in the 1950s. She and Sam started the first all-woman radio station in the country called WHER in Memphis. And in the 50s, I mean for today’s standards I think that’s really ballsy, but back then that’s unheard of, especially in radio. That was such a male-dominated profession. So the fact that I never heard anything about these people is shocking to me. And it’s really cool that we are telling this story, in a narrative way, sort of before anyone else has really taken it on. A lot of people have told parts of this story before, but we’re kind of the first people to be telling Sam Phillips’ story, and the whole story of Memphis in the 1950s, which is really cool.
So yeah, I did a lot of research, read as much as I could about Becky. You can find a couple clips of her when she was a radio personality, but mostly later in life, not too many from early on. Then, one of the coolest things was, when we were in Memphis, we got to meet Jerry Phillips, who is Becky and Sam’s real-life son, one of their sons. He currently runs Sam Phillips Studio in Memphis, which is Sam’s second studio that he opened, and he gave us a tour of that studio. After, we got the chance to sit in the middle of this big living room in the studio and kind of pick his brain, because he was a kid when our story is being told. Throughout his whole life, he knew all of these characters, even Dewey Phillips, who plays the shock-jock radio personality, who was sort of the first one in America. He knew all of these people, he met all of these people, and of course he knew Becky and Sam. So getting to pick his brain was one of the coolest experiences honestly I’ve ever had. We take a lot of artistic liberties in our story, but at the same time there is a sense of responsibility when you’re playing real people in history to still take them into consideration, who they were and their memories. Because, there is a chance, should our show become very popular, that we could be affecting in some way, no matter how big or small, the memory of these people who lived.
CMT has really started to step up their game in terms of adding a lot of great original programming. Can you talk about what it’s like being a part of this change and being a part of the greater CMT family?
So far, getting to work with CMT, in general, has been kind of a treat. As a network, I feel that they are less stuffy than a lot of other networks may be. It just feels like we’ve been welcomed into a family. There is sort of this down-to-earth quality that I’ve been feeling getting to work with CMT. And it just sort of feels like being welcomed into a family, if that makes any sense. Jayson Dinsmore, who is one of the top producers at CMT, we saw him a lot and just was very supportive of us while we were on set and filming. So the experience with them has been very positive.
And also, I feel like it has been sort of a challenge for me, being part of this show during this turning point with CMT’s programming, they’re rebranding themselves in a way, and expanding themselves, and they’re in this turning point with their network, and I think that, because of that, and because we are their first original scripted drama, I mean they’ve had “Nashville,” which they acquired from another network, and they’ve had their scripted 30-minute comedy, which was an original program for them, but we’re their first original scripted drama, and because of that there is a lot of pressure in succeeding for them, being a success for them so that they can really kickstart their original dramatic programming. So I feel like there is some pressure there for us, but they have also been so supportive of us that it just feels really exciting to be a part of this turning point in their network. Hopefully we get to be a part of their network for a much longer period of time. But, if not, still getting the opportunity to be a part of their network, and be a part of this change that they are going through, has been really exciting.
And while I say it has been a lot of stress, they haven’t been putting a lot of stress on us. When I say they aren’t stuffy like a lot of the networks I’m sure can be, they haven’t been feeling cold and business-like. They’ve been nothing but welcoming.
Someone on Twitter wanted me to ask you about the cast. The cast is full of a lot of extremely talented actors, both really well-known and unknown. What it is like working with all of them?
I’ve done so many interviews where I say the same thing, but it’s really true. Here’s what can happen if you have such a huge ensemble cast and you go off to a foreign location, and by foreign I mean not Los Angeles, and you’re stuck in this place with all of these people for a long period of time: it can be rough, because people don’t always get along and there are all of these different personalities in such a large group of people. So it can be a weird experience. But we got so incredibly lucky, because everyone is just so down-to-earth and so cool. Even the people we have on our cast like Keir O’Donnell or Billy Gardell or even Chad [Michael Murray]. I mean they’ve been around forever, and have worked on huge projects, and have really got a big resume behind them. They could have been sort of dismissive of the rest of the cast, but they weren’t at all. They were so friendly. We hung out together, when we were in Memphis, all of the time. We played, a lot of the bars in Memphis have outdoor areas where you can play darts or corn hole, we played poker a lot together, we had barbecues on Sundays with some of the cast and crew, and we just kind of became a big family in Memphis, which is just such a great experience.
It just kind of felt like going to summer camp or something like that. While we’re all working really hard, and it’s a semi-low budget production, because we’re not on a huge network, so we only have a limited budget to work with for all eight episodes, and so we’re working really hard, and long hours and crazy schedules, but at the same time [I was] around some of the coolest people, and everyone was so supportive, and we got together and ran lines with each other and rehearsed with each other. Everyone was awesome, just down to the twins who play Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart, Christian Lees and Jonah Lees. I mean they came out here from London and they are just so smart and they’re young, but still so mature and just the coolest guys. My co-star Margaret Ann [Florence], who plays the other female lead on the show, is such a freaking nice person. I mean she’s so cool and there was no cliques. We had Dustin Ingram, who plays Carl Perkins, come in really, really late in our shooting. We were almost done shooting, because he comes in so late in the show, and so we all had already had all of these experiences in Memphis and it would be so easy to come in and feel ousted from the group or somehow separate, but he was just part of the group and welcomed in. It was such a unique experience if for no other reason, and I mean there are a millions reasons, I would love to go back to Memphis and shoot another season with them. We’ve all continued to be friends [after wrapping] and we watch the show together on Thursday nights and live-tweet with fans and stuff like that.
Your show is based around and features a lot of music. What type of music do you listen to? Who are some of your favorite musical artists and/or bands?
There is not really a genre specifically that I listen to. I’ve recently gotten into this artist called Daughter. And then there is this artist called Wet that I’m really into. And then Khalid, his new album called “American Teen” I’m really into. And then Ed Sheeran’s new album is really good. He’s really interesting, because I feel all of his albums are sort of, they each have their own sort of feel. With this album, I feel that there are some country influences to the album, but I don’t want to say that he is a country person. There is this thing that country music has, this down-to-earth vibe, that seems to have seeped into this new album. So those are the artists I’m into right now.
The series is currently only scheduled for eight episodes. Do you think there might be more to come? What can fans expect in the few episodes left to air?
Well, as far as what fans can expect for the last couple of episodes, it gears up in the last two episodes and picks up speed and a lot of things happen and change for the characters. We had a short amount of episodes to tell a story for season one and to get to the place we needed to get to for season one. So there’s a lot about to happen in the next couple of episodes and a lot of the characters’ stories are heating up. We’re going to see some more Elvis in the studio and some more drama. I can’t say too much beyond that.
As far as whether we will get picked up for another season or not, again I can’t really say anything either. I think we all really have high hopes. I’ve heard that the network is very happy with how things have been going. But, there is no guarantees on either side. So what we really need is just to keep our audience, to have people continue to tune and show their support as much as they can. So far we’ve had a really loyal audience; we’ve been able to sustain our audience regardless of the fact that we lost our lead-in, which was “Nashville,” and we’ve still kept out audience. So if we can keep them, and continue to build the audience, that would be fantastic. Everyone keep their fingers crossed. I think we will be hearing, one way or another, very soon.
“Sun Records” airs Thursday nights at 10 pm on CMT.