BETHANY JOY LENZ [PEARSON]
WORDS BY BETTINA ESGUERRA
Actress and singer-songwriter Bethany Joy Lenz is known for her unforgettable roles on the seminal show One Tree Hill and the longest-running soap opera Guiding Light. We caught up with the actress as she appears on the much-awaited Suits spin-off Pearson as Keri Allen, a no-nonsense city attorney who butts heads with Gina Torres’ iconic character Jessica Pearson. The star talks about the various roles she plays in her life – actor, theater geek, writer of musicals, and perhaps most especially, being a mother to her beautiful daughter.
What can you tell us about your role in Pearson?
I play the city attorney of Chicago, Keri Allen. She is the youngest city attorney in the country. She’s got a lot to prove, grew up in a typical Catholic family in Chicago. Her dad was a cop. She’s got brothers, and she is engaged in a complicated relationship with the mayor. One of my favorite things about playing Keri is that she’s so multi-dimensional. You really can see all the layers of somebody who is not an outright villain or a sociopath, which a few people are, but somebody who is butting heads with Jessica Pearson who’s the clear heroine of the story. It’s not that Keri is a bad person, she just makes choices based on the lesser of two evils so many times, or what she perceives as the lesser of two evils. I don’t think she’s had a lot of guidance in her life to really help her make the wisest choices, so she’s really just kind of fumbling her way through life, which is one of my favorite things about this character; is how messy she is. She’s trying hard to hold it all together but she is also kind of unapologetic which I really appreciate.
How similar are you to your character, Keri Allen?
I don’t feel like I’m slipping on the skin of someone completely different when I go to work. There’s an element of understanding the scrappiness. You know I grew up in Jersey, I’m a Jersey girl at heart. I fought with all the Jersey girls in sixth grade, you know. I earned my stripes. (laughs) And I am from a blue-collar family also. I relate to the fact that she has a moral compass and I relate to how easy it can be sometimes to convince yourself that you’re making the right choice when sometimes you know deep down that the motive is coming from a selfish place whether you’re trying to protect yourself or whether you want to get away with something.
I think those are all very human emotions so I understand that struggle in Keri. I also understand what it’s like to be a woman in the workplace who is in a leadership position and especially being so young and being in that position. I can relate to that and not necessarily knowing what to do with that; and how to best lead the people around you and just have to put your head down and plough through because if anybody smells blood, you’re the first to go, you know. (laughs) So you gotta be the shark, you gotta be the one to smell blood in the water and go after everybody. And those are defense mechanisms that I think I probably established in childhood and I think Keri probably did too so it will be interesting to see how she navigates through those issues, maybe in the same way or maybe in different ways that I have.
You have been in ensemble TV shows before. What makes Pearson different from your other roles?
Well, for me is every character is different. Every character that you step into brings something else out from you; something that you maybe don’t spend a lot of time within yourself.
What makes being part of this ensemble different is that it’s a different cast so it’s always a different dynamic of people. But I’ll tell you what makes it the same: it really does feel like we caught lightning in a bottle with this cast, which is rare; that it feels like every single person who was hired – you just watch their work and realize, oh man, no one else could have played this part. This is yours, you are so, so, so meant to be here. So I feel that way about everybody on Pearson, and I felt that way about our ensemble on One Tree Hill. It was very much the same way – we served a very particular purpose in the body of the story and everybody fit their body part or their story part to a T. And It’s different, I guess, because I’m older and I just have a better understanding of how to function in the workplace like I didn’t really get when I was 20, and I also have more appreciation for everything that I’ve been given, so that’s really exciting. Not sure what makes Keri different from other roles. Everything and nothing. It’s different ‘cause she’s a completely different person and she ‘s the same because we’re all just playing humans as far as I know, there’s no robots involved or anything. (laughs)
There have been so many exciting roles for women in film and television nowadays, and Jessica Pearson is just one of many examples.
Yes, that’s true. I mean, there have been for many years, I don’t know about nowadays, I guess there’s maybe a little more, but you know, there have been fantastic roles for females since storytelling, theater, and all that began thousands of years ago.
Does personal advocacy affect your choice of projects?
It does, only from the sense that I feel an element—I have a conscience that affects my ability to feel comfortable doing a role that may promote something that I don’t agree with. And it’s not that I wouldn’t play a character who’s doing things that I don’t agree with ‘cause that’s different, but when I feel like the film itself or show itself is actually glorifying something that I really believe is detrimental to people or society or a certain demographic or something, then I feel a social responsibility to not participate in that.
Because of One Tree Hill, I think many millennials can say they’ve grown up with you. Do you look back on those days with fondness, and what did you learn most from playing the role of Haley James-Scott?
I do have an immense fondness for those days. I get asked this question a lot, what did I learn the most from playing Haley. I don’t think I learned anything from my character; I think I learned from the experience of being on set and participating in this fantastic ride with some really amazing people and I learned a lot from going through hard times. I learned a lot from things not working out the way I thought I wanted them to in a lot of different areas of my life. I think those are the things that we really learned from. I would love to say that I learned a lot from Haley, but I didn’t. She was a character in a page so yeah, I think I learned more about the creative process and more about who I am and who I wanna be just from the experience of it and not so much from her in particular.
What is your dream role/project?
I just saw Hadestown, and I wanna play Euripides. (laughs) I wanna come in and play that part. It was such an amazing show. Anything on Broadway and musical theater, I’m just dying to do. It’s something that I have been offered on Broadway and I wasn’t able to do because of some personal conflicts and schedule conflicts and stuff. And I have gotten down to the last five girls on some huge Broadway shows and it didn’t go through at the end of the day. So I have recently gotten back to my voice lessons and dance lessons and just preparing. I’m really a big believer that if you want something, you have to prepare for that and make space for that because a) if the opportunity comes and you’re not ready, you’re a fool, and oftentimes the opportunity won’t come until you are ready. And I think there’s something about—I don’t know if you wanna call it the secret, or whatever, but I think God honors people, I think it’s not so much manifesting, I think there’s an element of faith. You step out in faith, and I think God honors faith. So yeah, anything where I get to sing and dance is like, really all I ever wanted to do so I’m hoping next summer I can step into a great role on Broadway or in the west end. That would be a dream come true.
Who has inspired you the most?
My daughter; my daughter has inspired me the most. I learned more about who I am and who I wanna be and how to be the best version of me that I can be and how to recognize when I’m being the worst version of me. Just through being a mom and listening to her simple perspective on life that is actually really wise on so many ways. And it’s been amazing to be her mom.
You are also known for your music. What can we expect next from Bethany Joy Lenz, the singer/songwriter?
Well, I’m writing a musical right now. I’m writing my third musical. I did do a full musical of The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks and we did a workshop on Wilmington and it was met with a great response. The rights got tied up, there was some stuff with the studio and the rights ended up with a Broadway production team who just refused to look at my work so it’s been really heartbreaking and frustrating. It’s just sort of sitting there in a pile, this completely fully baked play with great music. I worked with Ron Aniello who’s Bruce Springsteen’s producer, this Grammy-winning, amazing producer. So that broke my heart when they—somebody else took over and refused to even look or listen to my work that I spent six years of my life doing and I really shut that down for a while. I just couldn’t write; I was really heartbroken. But recently i got inspired again and dove back in again and I have something that I do have the rights to now, I’m writing another musical and I’m hoping to be finished with that soon. (laughs) In the next year and ready for production of some kind. So that’s really in terms of music, what I’ve been focusing on. I do have some daydreams about doing a jazz album or something but it’s not the first and foremost in my mind. I’ve just been writing for the musical.
Who are some of your top music influences?
Billy Joel, Sheryl Crow, oh my gosh. Tom Waits, Elton John. I listen to so much music. I used to listen to so much. I’m inspired by so many different musicians. I have to think about that and probably send you a list, there are so many. But growing up for sure, it was Billy Joel. And the Beatles too. I listened to the Beatles, a lot of Motown growing up. A lot of Mariah Carey also, and Whitney. A lot of classic rock, I was always on the classic rock station in New Jersey, 104.3. Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I remembered that.
If you were a book, what type of book would you be and why?
I guess I’d be a book of poems, short stories and songs, just little bursts here and there. My life happens in so many little bursts, different seasons, different chapters. There would definitely be some antique—did I just say antique? There would be some vintage photos in there. (laughs) I swear, I’m not that old. There would be song lyrics, and it would just be like a scrapbook. If I was a book, I think I’d be a scrapbook. Yeah, I feel good about that. A scrapbook. Pieces of more memories than you can count. Fragments of letters, notes postcards, torn photos, magazine tear outs, mood boards, poems, lots of journal entries. Yeah. A scrapbook.
See Bethany as Keri Allen on Pearson only on USA Network.