A fully-rounded arts education is available, for any student who wants one, through Pinellas County Schools. The program’s success rate has a poster child; her name is Alex Jennings.
A St. Petersburg native, Jennings has played a recurring character on ABC’s hit comedy The Goldbergs for five seasons, and is currently in a guest-star story arc on the CBS procedural crime drama Criminal Minds.
A sixth-generation Floridian, Jennings graduated from Gibbs High School in 2008.
“I’m really lucky,” she gushes in a phone interview from her Los Angeles home. “It all has to do with the schools I went to in St. Pete. I went to Perkins Elementary, John Hopkins Middle School and Gibbs’ Pinellas Center for the Arts, so that’s three separate public schools with arts magnet programs.”
She took her first drama class in Kindergarten – her initial task was to sizzle like a strip of bacon – and her public school days, for 12 years, were occupied with theater, music, dance and visual art alongside the regular general education subjects.
“Looking back, I realize just how unique my situation really was,” Jennings says. “I’m grateful that I was able to receive such good arts education – because arts education in this country is under attack now. Even though statistics show that good arts education improves attendance, and academics, and creativity. And self worth. Everything!”
Having supportive parents helps. A lot. Alex (short for Alexandra) is the only child of Laurie and Patrick Jennings, who attended every St. Pete play she ever appeared in. Patrick Jennings, who taught history teacher at Boca Ciega High School for 20 years, is now an administrator at Tomlinson Adult Learning Center.
Set in the 1980s, The Goldbergs is a situation comedy about creator/producer/writer Adam Goldberg’s growing-up years in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania.
It’s narrated by the “adult” Adam (voiced by Patton Oswalt) so, in a way, it’s like The Wonder Years, only much snarkier and with a bigger, more eccentric family – and therefore a wilder catalog of storyline possibilities.
Jennings plays Carla Mann, a school friend of Erica Goldberg (series regular Hayley Orrantia). Carla is a troublemaker and something of a con artist.
Therefore, according to Jennings, she is delightfully fun to play.
“In my first season, I was a harmless, kind of dumb girl who was friends with Erica and Lanie, who’s the big best friend,” Jennings explains. “I was just kind of the little sidekick to them sometimes. But by the end of that season I was bullying her brother Adam with (bad boy) Johnny Atkins. That first season I was slowly being poisoned, becoming a bad person. She turned crazy. She became a crazy, dangerous villain. Just wacko.
“It’s been super-fun how Carla has solidified into what she is now, five seasons later.”
Jennings, who reprises Carla on ABC’s spinoff series Schooled (depicting the characters a few years later in life), tried out for the role after The Goldbergs had already been on the air for two seasons.
“I auditioned for a two-line role on a Monday,” she recalls. “I got the part the same day. I had a fitting on Tuesday and I shot it on Wednesday. And I thought that was it. But almost immediately, they called me in again.
“It’s kind of like the actor’s dream. You audition with two lines, and then suddenly 40 episodes later, five seasons later, you’re still around. I hit the jackpot of getting into an amazing extended family – the crew, the cast, everyone, the kindest, funniest, best job ever. I just lucked out.”
Meanwhile, Criminal Minds is in its 15th and final season. “I was so grateful to finally get my crack at drama,” says Jennings. “It’s such a great part, too – and I was so lucky I got to do four episodes! Usually, you only get one, and you get killed off or something.”
Her character’s name is Grace Lynch.
“I’m the daughter of their last big bad guy, the Chameleon. And it was so fun, ‘cause I got to play every color under the sun. I end up in jail, and then I try to cut the police officer, and then my dad breaks us out of jail. I end up turning bad and killing a bunch of people. To impress my father.
“So I got to be a small, burgeoning Chameleon, of a sort. And play the victim, the bad guy and everybody in between. Which was cool.”
Jennings moved to California with her husband, filmmaker Will Stribling (a fellow Gibbs graduate, class of ’08) after a few years in New York, where she attended Circle in the Square Theater School’s two-year conservatory program.
“As a career path, it just seemed that New York was not loving me back,” she says. “I was an usher at Shakespeare in the Park. I was doing theater, but it was mainly Chekhov stuff in Vermont, that was really fulfilling but no one was seeing.
“So I decided to move to L.A., and I’m happy I did. I wanted to see if I could make a living, and L.A. seemed like a better shot at that.
“My whole life had been theater, theater, theater, theater. In high school, I was in so many plays. Even over the summer. So it was definitely a transition at first, to film and TV, but I just felt like I wanted to take acting … seriously, I guess?
“I didn’t want to become a famous actor – the goal was how to become a working actor. To make money by acting.”
A graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Stribling’s films include the well-received independents Bear with Us, Lies I Told My Little Sister, Beyond Belief, Down in Flames and Break A Leg. Jennings appears in two of them.
Life in La La Land, she has discovered, is not nearly as bad – not nearly as soul-crushing – as Hollywood hopefuls are led to expect.
“L.A. feels pretty normal to me – especially when you’re from Florida, with the sunshine and palm trees,” Jennings says. “It doesn’t seem crazy. It’s Florida without the humidity.”
On the other hand, “Some people hate this about L.A. – in that it’s impossible to meet someone who’s not connected to the business in some way. When I meet a marine biologist or a dentist at a party, I’m so excited to talk to someone who’s not an actor, a producer or a writer. Or a director or an editor! That can be exhausting, to be surrounded by it.”
It’s great being on a hit network series, of course, and it’s great to get recognized in stores and restaurants (well, sometimes) and on your occasional visits back home.
But acting, Jennings never forgets, is really just another job.
“It’s a weird mix of stability without true stability, because I never know if I will be called in ever again,” she says. “Every single time. Because I have a contract for each episode. It’s not like a series regular, where you know you’re going to be in every episode. Or maybe you’re not, but you know you’re getting episode guarantees.
“Compared to some other actors, to have some steady acting work – ‘Yeah, there’s a good chance they’re going to call me in this month’ – that’s considered stability. At the same time, I still have no idea what I’m gonna do next week, or next month. It’s about creating some sort of controlled stability for yourself, because it doesn’t really exist.”
Hey, it beats sitting at a desk and staring out a window.
“You’re always dealing with a certain level of nerves, still, when you audition. But this is all I know to do. I feel like I don’t have other options – there’s nothing else I’m particularly good at. So that makes it easier, when you feel like this is all you have.
“However, it keeps you motivated, and it keeps you on track, because it’s less difficult to get distracted. Because the weather is basically the same, all the time, and everyone around you is trying to do the same thing.”