Jessica Sutton: South African star on “Motherland: Fort Salem”

Jessica Sutton stars in the Freeform drama series Motherland: Fort Salem, from Claws creator Eliot Laurence and Gary Sanchez Productions. She could recently be seen opposite Joey King in the hit Netflix feature The Kissing Booth, as well as Netflix’s Inside Man: Most Wanted and Sony’s Escape Room. Most recently, she completed production on the feature Rogue, opposite Megan Fox.

Jessica Sutton got her start in National Geographic’s four-part mini-series Saints & Strangers. [IMDB]

headshot  948x1024 - Jessica Sutton: South African star on "Motherland: Fort Salem"
Jessica Sutton

Welcome to TV Series Hub, what is something interesting about you that people don’t know?

I have dyslexia and as a child, had to find strategies to cope. But I suppose this was what ultimately led me to have an intensely focused work ethic.
Also, Phoebe Waller-bridge is my spirit animal.

You began your acting career in 2015, how did it all begin?

I guess you could say I started acting from when I could play dress up with my brother and entertain my parents. But as a career, since 2015. After I matriculated in 2012, I attended ACT Film Academy and did their two year diploma certification in advanced film acting. During this time I got involved in the industry by any means I could: student films, audition workshops so I could get familiar with the casting directors here. Finally I got my first agent and started being sent for auditions, which wasn’t ideal since I had to juggle class and castings, but I didn’t care, I just wanted to go out and start batting. It started with commercials and then when I graduated from ACT, I was being sent for whatever happened to be shooting in Cape Town.

Who inspired you to join the industry?

There was quite a seminal moment for me at my ACT graduation, our work was screened and it was the first time I saw myself on a big screen. During my performance, I could barely breathe and it felt like the whole auditorium went deathly quiet…in the darkness I felt my dad grab my hand and I turned to see tears in his eyes. After the screening he told me that this was something I had to do. I think his belief in me was what gave me the courage to try…I always say that my ‘big break’ was perhaps being born into the family I have…I wouldn’t have been able to pursue acting without my parent’s financial support in those first years, allowing me to squirrel away any money I did happen to make and offered me time and unwavering support, while I got my bearings in the industry.

You put yourself out there in “The Kissing Booth.” How did you land that role? Any memorable experiences from the movie?

I auditioned for The Kissing Booth after returning to Cape Town from studying in Vancouver at The Actors Foundry with my mentor and coach Matthew Harrison. He had gifted me the opportunity of a life-time to come study for free as long as I could get myself to Vancouver and find myself accommodation. Those four months that I studied with him exposed me to a whole other level of craft and audition technique in an industry that felt boundless with opportunity. On returning home, I felt like I was on fire and so ready to start the audition season. It was December 2016 and The Kissing Booth was the first audition of the season I went to. I remember my South African agent and the casting director say I wasn’t right for the role but wanted the director to just see me. I distinctly remember putting on my leather mini skirt and knee high boots, walking into what would be a four hour callback with such a carefree attitude. I remember having so much fun in that room and when Bianca and Zandi were paired with me, the chemistry was immediately palpable. That palpable chemistry was there from the first table read when the whole cast met each other for the first time and we just clicked…we became a family.

mms 20190422 225003 1 - Jessica Sutton: South African star on "Motherland: Fort Salem"
Jessica Sutton on set with Taylor Hickson and Ashley Nicole Williams

How did Motherland: Fort Salem happen?

It was 2018 and I knew all too well we were gonna have a bad season when the drought hit…it seems to be the way of this industry: one good year, followed by a bad year, followed by a good year and because this was my third year in the industry, I remember feeling like I had nothing to lose. I was frustrated and eager to do more auditions, I had heard about selftapes but knew I needed to somehow get an American agent or manager.
The Kissing Booth had just dropped on Netflix and it was receiving some exponential attention. As a result my IMDB ranking went way up. I decided to just throw out a line to an American manager I had met three years prior at the Saints and Strangers premiere. I reached out to him basically with hat in hand and asked firmly if his offer still stood and asked if he would represent me… to which he responded by sending me a selftape.

My impression was that this wasn’t a proper tape just a test for them to see what I could do. I taped it and sent it back as fast as I could. We skyped two days later and he agreed to represent me. I felt so incredibly stoked that my persistence had paid off and I was finally gonna do this thing that actors call Pilot Season. Four days later I received a call at midnight from my team saying that Freeform had seen my tape and wanted to meet me. I only realised then that tape had been an actual selftape for an actual role on an actual pilot called Motherland: Fort Salem. Following my skype meeting with Freeform in the early hours of my morning, to signing a six year contract to play Tally Craven…to the next day call confirming that I had landed the role… happened in a blur. Before I knew it, I was sitting in business class, flying to Vancouver …the place I had longed to go back to ever since my studies there. If I wasn’t a believer in manifestation…I was now.

How would you describe the show?

Motherland: Fort Salem is set in an alternative world where witches have escaped persecution 300 years ago, by making a deal with the US government to fight on the front lines.
What really struck me about the world that Eliot Lawrence created is not only the apparent gender role reversal but how the symbol of the witch is portrayed. So refreshing to go beyond the clichéd Halloween crone or the temptress who fornicates with the devil… the world and characters in this show speak of a vision of empowerment.
“ Waking the witch, waking the woman.” is how I have described the show to my friends.

What is in store next?

Not sure…it’s rather unprecedented times we are living in, so much uncertainty. The ground feels like it has shifted under my feet. If I’m optimistic, hopefully in the next few months I hear word that Motherland has been picked up for season 2. My partner Steve is in Vancouver and I’m really hoping to join him there soon. If not, I hope that the industry starts up again and I’m back in the audition room batting once more.

Opportunities in South Africa are usually limited, how were you feeling when you landed the role?

Well, every single opportunity I have received has been achieved right here on home soil. From Saints and Strangers, The Kissing Booth, Escape Room, Inside Man 2…I selftaped for Motherland from here. I believe that while the ceiling feels lower in SA, we are in an incredibly fortunate position. In my opinion, we have the best crew in the world, the most diverse locations, the international work has only grown and I think our actors are proving that we can compete internationally. Just this past year I witnessed myself along with two other South African actors, land leading roles on international series : Masali Baduza on BBC’s Noughts and Crosses and Alex McGregor on Vagrant Queen. Not to mention two years before that, Kim Engelbracht was on The Flash and I remember her messaging me saying it was only a matter of time: It’s When not If. I have more hope in our industry than ever and I am so proud to be a part of it.

How did everything change for you?

I can say after the 5 years I have now been in the industry, the biggest change has been in gaining international recognition, I have gained exposure…all actors are looking for a way to stand out from the crowd. I have a solid work ethic and incredible support system and a reputation which I’m proud of. I have received such a beautiful education from following this career…and with each role and connection, I experience an expansion.

Are you going to be US-based now?

Nothing is off the table but immigrating to Vancouver is the ‘plan’ as my priority is to obtain a dual citizenship. This would help my ease of travel for work. And like my team is always reminding me, it doesn’t matter where I am, I can selftape from anywhere. But my whole family is here, South Africa will always be home and I like to think I can have my cake and eat it too – my dream has been to work and travel for half of the year and then come home for the rest. Choosing when to work and when to play is the ultimate idea of Freedom in my mind.

IMG 20191201 103639 533 1024x1024 - Jessica Sutton: South African star on "Motherland: Fort Salem"
Jessica Sutton and her co-star Megan Fox on “Rogue”

You are also going to be on “Rogue” alongside Megan Fox. Can you share any details about the movie? What are you looking forward to in the movie?

It’s an action packed feature directed by the bloody brilliant MJ Bassett who I met on Inside Man 2. We worked together again when she directed episode 5 of Motherland and it was there where she pitched me Rogue. A passion project she and her daughter had written and planned to shoot in Gauteng. It was the first time a director had ever offered me a role flat out without an audition and the relationship we have forged over these three projects has been one of the greatest gifts to come out of the last two years…she is without a doubt the best director I have worked with. Release date and details have yet to be disclosed but hopefully by end of the year.

So far, what would be your most memorable experience?

That’s an impossible question but…seeing the Motherland billboards in Times Square is something my brain still battles to comprehend.

ar18Rs8Q.jpeg 768x1024 - Jessica Sutton: South African star on "Motherland: Fort Salem"
Jessica Sutton’s most memorable moment

You also have eyes on producing, you’ve had some of your own projects already such as “Beautiful Boy” and “His Turn”, what are you looking forwards to in this aspect of your career?

Both His Turn and Beautiful Boy where shorts created for the 48 Hour competition, my partner Steve directed and I produced which would be the start of our dream to one day have our own production company. I really crave more control beyond acting…I am first and foremost driven to storytelling and acting is one medium of that…but producing has really captivated me. I’m deeply inspired by the likes of Reese Witherspoon and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, to name just two powerhouse women in the driver’s seat for putting out the stories they want to see in the world. To have that control to pick and choose stories and pull your own team together, is seductive and is definitely where I intend to aim.

Where do you see yourself in the next few years?

Hopefully with a dual citizenship, on some awesome set, with the most incredible people receiving one hell of an education and telling a story that I want to see out there in the world.

What advice would you give to other aspiring actors/actresses?

Trust your gut. Read your contracts. Never stop educating yourself…let your curiosity and compassion drive you to always dig deeper and draw that much closer to the world that surrounds you. To quote one of my mentors and acting coaches, Matthew Harrison, who says “ the audition is the actors job.” So keep showing up.

How has COVID-19 affected you? How are you coping?

Some days better than others, it’s been a time of deep reflection and evaluation. My coping has been in the form of facetiming my partner Steve in lockdown in Vancouver. Making food with my mom. Having dance offs with my brother who is always introducing me to the best music. Masterclass has such great seminars on everything and I’m currently re-listening to Neil Gaiman on creative writing. I’m a huge advocator of taking naps and the ten minute tan when the sun is out. And I love reading, my current book recommendation; Educated by Tara Westover and Whatever by Saskia Bailey.

What do you do for fun? Any hobbies?

Does reading, tanning, napping and eating count?

Thank you for joining us, where can fans find you?

If you are interested in following me find me on Instagram @jessicalaurasutton, Twitter @JessLauraSutton and Facebook @therealjessicasutton.

You can see Jessica Sutton on Motherland: Fort Salem every Wednesday 9p/8c on Freeform

Also See: Kai Bradbury chats about “Motherland: Fort Salem”