Resist the urge to compartmentalize Newtown native and Renaissance woman Jenna von Oy into the kinds of sassy, fast-talking roles she made her own on hit TV series like Blossom and The Parkers.
Today, at 36, the 20-something-looking Ms von Oy is neither letting those meaty television roles define her, nor is she falling into the sometimes career-ending pattern of reliving those characters over and over again, only with different names.
In fact, she has spent the past half-dozen years breaking free from life as an actor, penning a young adult novel; writing and producing two very different types of musical projects; exploring painting, photography, and poetry; and more recently, tying the knot with her soulmate, Brad Bratcher, and delivering the light of their lives, their daughter, Gray, now 19 months old.
She has also since launched a popular weekly blog on celebrity motherhood called The Cradle Chronicles, which is picked up once a month by People online. And while she won’t even hint about them, there are apparently a couple of new film or TV projects waiting to happen in the new year.
While she considers herself a seasoned Los Angelino after spending more than a decade there working close to the entertainment industry, she loves the Nashville area home where she and her family currently reside.
But above all, Ms von Oy considers herself a Newtowner. She has returned many times since her graduation from Newtown High School, especially for milestone events like her wedding and the baptism of her daughter at St Rose of Lima.
During her most recent visit, to celebrate Christmas with her parents and extended family, Ms von Oy also spent time catching up with her hometown friends, and a few minutes chatting with The Newtown Bee.
Newtown Bee: It’s hard to ask what’s new and exciting because so much has been happening with you. Let’s start talking about your literary projects. You have two books in the pipeline?
Jenna von Oy: I’m working with a literary agent now but we haven’t started shopping to publishers yet. I’ve got a book based on my ‘Mommy’ blog with all of my zany motherhood anecdotes called Situation “Mom”edy, which is a nod to my sitcom days. It’s part of the natural progression of things.
The Blossom fans who grew up with me are now moms as well, so a lot of us are on similar paths and it’s nice to commiserate a bit. And I do the Mommy blog for People.com. They asked me when I was pregnant and I had so much fun doing it that it segued into me doing my own blog. That’s where the book came from. Too many people were telling me that I have to put all my stories into one place.
Bee: And there is a young adult novel waiting to be published?
von Oy: Yes, about three years ago I finished a young adult book called The Betweeners — sort of Harry Potter meets The Goonies. It’s the kind of book I would have wanted to check out of the library as a kid. I used to spend hours and hours at the Booth Library.
Bee: Does that novel draw its roots from your childhood experiences here in Newtown?
von Oy: Most of the book actually takes place in Europe, but so much about the character I’m writing is drawn from me, it’s inevitable that my developing years made their mark on that subject.
Most of the story plays out in France, which has been a place I’ve always been enamored of since I was very little — it holds a lot of mystique and interest for me from a historical standpoint. I’m still tweaking it, though.
It’s easy to do the blog, but a work of fiction is a little more challenging, and I probably will still be doing that until I shut myself down. I think it also lends itself to being on the big screen. When I’m writing, the movie is playing out in living color in my head. And truth be told, it’s already cast, too.
Bee: Then that has to mean you have a plan for the lead character beyond The Betweeners.
von Oy: Absolutely. I actually have a solid concept of what book number two would be. She’s me when I was 15. She loves to read — not the most popular girl in school. She has big dreams, wants to be accepted by her friends, and spends a lot of time in the library.
Bee: Has the process of delivering the blog become an easy task to fit into your schedule?
von Oy: People has been really good to me in that they’ve given me an open forum to talk about whatever I want as long as it relates to motherhood. I am a really sarcastic person, and I really love those funny, tongue-in-cheek blogs, and I think that’s what my readers like as well.
Writing isn’t a chore, but when there is a deadline, or a legitimate writer’s block, I have that freedom to contact my editor and let them know I may need the month off, or a couple more weeks. I think the readers also appreciate that I’m giving them real stuff every time, not just putting something out there for the sake of filling space. I have deadlines, but they aren’t set in stone.
Bee: How much of the monthly People blog is taken from your own weekly blog?
von Oy: One week a month the blog is the same, but the other three weeks of my blog are all kinds of stuff, like recipes. Or sometimes it’s about a photo that made me laugh, or an interesting anecdote.
The People blog came first, but I had so many requests to try and write more I thought, I don’t want to overly express myself on this site. And they are more lengthy blogs on People, where the weekly blog can be sometimes just a short thought or story.
Bee: You also have a couple of music projects out there, including your country debut Breathing Room and something more recent?
von Oy: Yes, I erroneously called it an EP, until I was gently reminded that if it has 12 songs on it, it’s an album. It’s called Coffee and Men: An EP for Childish Adults, and it’s really a wacky, kitschy project.
I grew up doing shows and Broadway is in my background, so some of the music I like to write has that showbiz kind of flair to it. Breathing Room, which came first, was sort of a cathartic project that happened when I was moving out of LA. Having grown up in Newtown and moving to LA — that strange bubble — I had to get some grass back under my feet. It had been 17 years and I was ready. And I think if I hadn’t spent most of it living on a sound stage, I wouldn’t have lasted. I mean when you grow up in a quaint place like Newtown, LA is a bizarre, frantic environment. It can also be brutal, and very much a closed culture.
So when The Parkers ended, I started writing music to pitch to other artists. So I said, ‘I’m gonna do this.’ Nashville was a place that wasn’t familiar to me, I had a few friends there, and I knew I was never going to meet the man of my dreams and fall in love in Los Angeles. And sure enough, after about three years in Nashville, I did. In fact, the first song I wrote, which ended up being the last track on Breathing Room, I wrote at my computer in LA right before I left. It took all of ten minutes and I never changed a word of it. It was like a purging process and when I was done, I knew I was ready to move to Nashville.
Bee: So did your second musical project basically extend from your first, or is it songs left over that were not stylistically appropriate for Breathing Room?
von Oy: Once that album was done, I looked back and it had everything I wanted in it. But I started craving doing something less serious, something that a was little less raw and vulnerable and representing more the silly, sarcastic side of me.
I never intended to do a second album, but a friend of mine and I sat down and wrote the title track, and it was so silly that everybody I played it for said I should do a whole album of that. So I looked at it as something I could pitch for TV and film, for stories that have a more fun, silly feeling to them.
Bee: You always had a career as a voice actor as well, with your work on shows like Family Guy and The Goofy Movie. Is that something you specifically trained for?
von Oy: There was never any training involved. I voiced a lot of commercials as a kid. And here’s a interesting bit of trivia: I voiced the recording of the Penny doll from Pee Wee’s Playhouse, so when you pulled the string, that was me talking. When I was doing Blossom, I got a call to do The Goofy Movie, and then I started doing a lot of that. I think it helped that I was also a singer, it really opened up a lot of other opportunities.
Bee: So what is left as yet unexplored for Jenna von Oy: poetry, painting, photography?
von Oy: Well I do all of that. It’s a cliché, but I really am a jack of all trades and master of none. What’s funny is there are artists out there who are so incredible, they can’t be anything but a singer. But as with anyone, there are always going to be people out there better than me.
Bee: But there is something to be said for being able to master each of those things to the degree that you feel good about it — and successful doing it.
von Oy: Because I’m so passionate about so many things, I would just die inside if I was forced to do just one thing. I’d be so hard pressed to choose a single creative outlet. Some days I get up and I don’t feel like writing music, I just want to paint. So my ‘adult’ goal is to mesh all the things I do so they collectively further my success. Obviously success isn’t how many people read the book, the success was finishing the book. I don’t necessarily feel that everything has to be successful as in being consumed by the masses. You have to be comfortable enough with your own creativity to call yourself an artist. But part of being an artist is being OK putting yourself out there and not caring what people think. I love what I’m doing and I wouldn’t want to give any of it up. And the void isn’t filled by people applauding you, it’s filled by expressing yourself and getting that expression out there.
Bee: So what is it about coming home to Newtown that is so important?
von Oy: Oh gosh, everything. We got married here, baptized our daughter at St Rose. I know so many people who say they grew up in such and such a place, and even refer to it as their hometown. I don’t think I ever explained being from Newtown as just my hometown. I don’t know anybody from Newtown who doesn’t think of it in a very special way. It represents my history, but I can still come back here and hang out with my friends and eat french fries at the Blue Colony Diner. This town has a feeling, and I don’t think most people understand being attached to their hometown. I would move back in a second if it made sense.
Bee: So what does 2014 have in store for you, film or stage?
von Oy: I have a couple of projects I’m looking at for 2014, but I’m not allowed to talk about them. I would love to get back to comedy. And I wasn’t craving going back to live theater until I went to see a friend in a Broadway show yesterday. I just wanted to get up there and sing and dance. But I really want to be there for my child, and moving to a one-room apartment in New York would be challenging with my daughter, my husband, and our five dogs.