Jennifer Hope Wills: ‘Everything was worth it’

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Jennifer Hope Wills might have been born in Baltimore, but the Lower Shore claims her — and her immense theatrical talents — as a local-girl-makes-good story.

While Linda Hamilton and John Glover might be the better-known locals to gain fame in the acting profession, those who know the business will tell you that Wills surpasses even those local favorites: her singing matches the best of the Broadway stage; her acting is utterly compelling and keeps a theater crowd completely engaged; she exhibits incredible charm that leaves theater-goers forever enamored.

Salisburians used to venture down to Ocean City to the Parker Playhouse to see William and Sue Wills and their children perform. For 17 of the 20 years that Parker Productions was under operation, Jennifer Wills performed alongside her mother, father, her brother, Dan, and sister, Rebecca.

She graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 1991, Salisbury State University in 1995 and earned a master’s degree in Vocal Performance from Indiana University in 1998. She headed to New York City in 2000 and made her Broadway debut four long years later.

Her greatest role has been that of Christine in Broadway’s longest-running musical, “The Phantom of the Opera.” Other Broadway credits include her critically acclaimed portrayal of Eileen in the revival of “Wonderful Town” opposite Brooke Shields, “The Woman in White” and “Beauty and the Beast.”

Wills will be back home on the Shore in time to celebrate her 42nd birthday on May 8, and then perform with the Salisbury Symphony Orchestra at Salisbury University on Saturday, May 9.

She will guest star in her alma mater’s annual Spring Concert, “A Broadway Star Comes Home: Music From Stage and Screen.”

The performance is at 7:30 p.m. in Holloway Hall Auditorium.

Q. You’re on a string of regional performances right now. What’s it like when “home” appears in the middle of your packed schedule?

A. Well, it’s always wonderful to come “home.” Every time I’m back in the Ocean City area, I dream about leaving New York behind and coming back down here to live.  There is a calmness, a simplicity and a beauty about the Eastern Shore that I miss greatly.

Trips like this are crazy though because there is never enough time to see everyone you want to see.

Q. You are someone whose big dreams literally came true. What’s that like?

A. I can’t tell you how grateful I feel!

It’s just terribly gratifying to have years of hard work and perseverance pay off. It just feels as if everything was worth it in the end and I know how special that is.

Q. When you’re circulating in those big-time Broadway social circles, does the “Eastern Shore Girl” in you sometimes come out?

A. (Laughs.) Well, part of the reason I haven’t had an even bigger career is that I am terrible at socializing and getting out there and mingling with people in the biz.

I’m actually a terribly shy person and sometimes that can come off as awkward and dorky.  I’m definitely not a city girl. That “Eastern Shore Girl” comes out quite often and some find it charming and other’s don’t know what to make of it I think.

I do think that’s what helps me appear youthful, warm and open though and has certainly helped me to fit into that “old fashioned” ingenue mold for so many years.

Q. You’re known for your performances in many large Broadway roles, but would Christine in “Phantom of the Opera” be your biggest role?

A. I suppose I would say yes. Not only was it a high profile role, but it indeed very challenging, and therefore very gratifying.

We “Christines” always laugh because the Phantom really has about 20 minutes of onstage time while Christine is working her tail off by either being onstage or changing her clothes every moment of the show.

There is a joke that it really should be called “Christine of the Opera.”

Q. How hard was it to get where you are in your profession?

A. It was actually very hard.

Today so many of the top people come out of these conservatory schools and they come out with agents, often with Broadway jobs, casting directors knowing them and also an entire slew of connections they can use.

So, in a sense, their path is paved in gold. I came not having a connection to anyone.

Even though I went to Indiana University, I studied Opera and it’s an entirely different world.  So I was a nonunion actor without a single connection, so those first two years were spent standing in line in the freezing cold at 6:30 in the morning, just to get into open-call auditions, and just going to any audition I could get into just to be seen.

Agents wouldn’t even take a look.

You spend lots of time and money on going to open auditions which often never meant much, sending out mailings that mostly go in the trash, getting lots of doors closed in your face. It was hard.

It wasn’t until I managed to get a leading role at a high profile regional theatre (Paper Mill Playhouse) that I was able to get an agent which helped to open some doors.

But, I think it’s always a constant struggle.  Even with some of the high-level success that I’ve had, my new struggle has been trying to get back into the game after hanging on the sidelines a bit while my son was young and entering a new age bracket and figuring out what all that means. It’s certainly not an easy career.

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Q. What role has proven to be the most challenging and how did you tackle it?

A. I would say Rose Vibert in “Aspects of Love.”  It was a role I didn’t even see myself as being able to do but they wanted to audition me so I went in and got it.

I have always played the sweet ingenues and this was a very different kind of a woman: Much more manipulative, extroverted and very sexual.

I just had to relax and open myself up to finding hidden sides of myself, and it actually ended up being a lot of fun, and honestly, little sips of Brandy helped.

Q. Everyone knows your parents, Bill and Sue Wills. They are pretty amazing people. They must have been an inspiration to you.

A. Absolutely! They are my inspirations in every way.

Not only in how to find ways to make a living doing what you love, but also in the way they are the most amazing couple I have ever come across.

A true model of love at it’s purest. An inspiration on how to live a full and happy life.

Q. You’re quite the veteran, but are there still moments in shows and performances that move you?

A. Oh most definitely. I think as an actor, you are very close to your emotions so I find it easy to be moved.

Most recently I would find myself choking up listening to the beauty of King Arthur’s speeches in “Camelot” as done by Clark Scott Carmichael and on Broadway; crying my eyes out at this one particular moment in “The Bridges of Madison County” with Kelli O’Hara and Stephen Pasquale. Also seeing an 82-year-old Chita Rivera dancing with a younger version of herself in “The Visit” was a moment that will stick with me.

Q. What classic theater role would you like to play that you haven’t?

A. Well, as far as the classics, I’ve been very lucky and have done almost all on my list except for Rosabella in “Most Happy Fella.”

More importantly, I would love to do something new. I think everything about me is so “old fashioned” that I just haven’t gotten that chance yet. There’s still time …1930199_20013629466_9605_n

Q. What did you learn at Salisbury University that you still carry inside of you?

A. Really, just to be true to yourself.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in what you think people want you to be but you will only be your best when you are truly being yourself.

Harder to do than you might think.

Q. Do you get back to the Eastern Shore very much? Your son is 6 — have you taken him all over Ocean City?

A. About once a year we try to get down to Ocean City and he LOVES it and always asks when we are going back.

It’s so fun to see my hometown through his eyes and reliving all my favorite places and favorite foods with him.

A trip to OC with him in tow is not complete with heading to the Boardwalk and Trimpers, Jolly Roger, and mini-golf, Thrashers, Fishers, BJ’s On The Water, Seacrets, Lombardis and, of course, the beautiful free beach.

We have to pay to go to the beach in Long Island!

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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