Joss Whedon had one question for the young, anonymous background actress: “Can you be scared?”
Yes, she said, she could definitely do that.
“But can you break down and cry?”
Yep, no problem, she replied.
“OK,” the director said, “now I just need you to look back at the destruction and give up on your life.”
Jillian Morgese, it turned out, was so good at dying inside that it launched her into a brand-new career.
By her senior year at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Fair Lawn, New Jersey, native had decided that acting, not a job in fashion, was her true calling; having taken drama classes throughout college, she began seeking out work in commercials and as an extra in TV shows that were filming in New York. A doe-eyed brunette with obvious talent, she began racking up background appearances in shows like Law & Order and Blue Bloods and featured parts in several commercials, even speaking Hindi while lying in a sunny meadow for a Nutrilite spot destined for India.
“The Hindi one is kind of one that makes everyone laugh that knows me,” she giggled in a phone conversation with BuzzFeed this week, “because I did not know going into it that I would have to speak in a different language. So I learned it while I was on set, so that was really fun.”
Morgese found herself on the set of The Avengers in the summer of 2011, dressed as a waitress in a café alongside actress Ashley Johnson. They were filming a short scene between Johnson and Captain America that would have established Johnson as a potential love interest had it not been cut in the editing process. But Morgese’s part, which consisted of looking on in terror as destruction rains down in every direction, and then running from an explosion that blasts through the cafe’s windows, remained in the final cut of the movie. In the United States alone, over 76 million people saw her trembling and then running like hell on the big screen.
During the downtime on set, Morgese and Whedon had a few friendly conversations, and clearly, she made an impression; a week and a half after her two days on the Avengers were over, the writer/director called and asked if she wanted to audition for a part in a little micro-budget adaptation he was planning of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
Like he even had to ask.
Whedon had her choose a Shakespearean monologue and connect on Skype a few days later. She performed the “Shall I Speak Ill of Him?” monologue from Romeo and Juliet, “And when I finished, he said, ‘I want you to play the part of Hero. We’re filming it at my house in about under two weeks, I’ll send you the script. Are you available then?’”
Once again, the answer was obvious.
The next two weeks were spent intently learning the lines of the naive young woman who falls in love with Claudio — played by Fran Kranz, a veteran of Whedon projects such as Dollhouse and Cabin in the Woods.
“I read it before bed every night, I slept with it next to my pillow hoping it would just go into my head while I was sleeping,” she said. “And then I’d be out to dinner with my friends and they’d be talking to me, and I’d be kind of listening and they’d say, ‘Are you even listening to what we’re saying?’ And I’d be like, ‘I’m going to be completely honest with you, I’m trying, but all that’s in my head right now are Shakespeare lines.’”
Because the movie was going to be made in secret, Morgese couldn’t tell those friends why, exactly, she was cramming Shakespearean English into her brain, or even why she was suddenly packing a few bags and heading to California for a month. All everyone except for her family knew was that she had gotten some “work,” and they’d learn about it later, when she got back from this mystery journey across the country.
The rest of the cast was made up of some of the most beloved actors and actresses from Whedon’s various television series — Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse — and as a fan of those shows growing up, Morgese’s first time on the Much Ado set was a lot like stepping into her childhood TV. There was Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Sean Maher, Amy Acker — with whom Whedon had flatteringly compared Morgese — and a litany of other familiar faces from the cult hits of the late ’90s and early ’00s, and the whole situation could have easily made for a very intimidating experience.
“When I got there, it was just like, it was the most special group of people, the most kind and supportive group of people I’d ever met,” Morgese enthused. “So when I got there, my nerves just completely went away — except for the good ones. You need a little bit of butterflies.” The relationship with Clark Gregg, she said, was an “instant father-daughter kind of chemistry.”
After a week spent rehearsing, the cast had 12 days to shoot the entire project. It helped that they set the entire thing in Whedon’s house — his children’s bedrooms and everything — and combined with the cast of familiar faces, the film has the air of the extremely well-scripted home videos of a large family of literature professors. Actually, for a week at least, it was a home video for Morgese, who took Whedon up on his invitation to stay in a spare bedroom at the house.
“The call times were, like, 4:30 in the morning, and it wasn’t like a normal set where you’d do your scenes and go home,” the actress explained. “You’d stick around, hang out and help people learn lines. So for me, this being my first big role in a movie, I just tried to be there as much as I could and just monitored Joss and all the actors, watching them work and learning from them. So I’d be there all the time. And so Joss said, ‘Do you just want to stay here, so you don’t have to keep going back and forth?’ And so I ended up about halfway through just staying there and working.”
The long working days flew by, the film wrapped, and they held a cast party as the universe of Whedon fans eagerly chattered about the just-announced movie. Soon Morgese found herself heading back to New York, where she had to somehow adjust from hanging out with her TV heroes to finishing up her degree and graduating from F.I.T. Still, she kept in touch with all her new friends and spent the next year flying back and forth to L.A., making at least three monthlong trips to Hollywood, taking meetings and seeking out an agent (a task she has yet to complete).
Morgese finally moved West for good several months ago, and was aboard the March bus tour that the Much Ado cast made to Austin for the SXSW film festival. “It was absolutely insane,” she remembers, laughing and noting that the idea of a cast-packed bus to Texas was initially proposed as a joke. “It was 30 hours just the way there. We had a lot of dance parties on the bus. There were a lot of boys on the bus, so we had to make sure everything was kept neat; there were clothes flying, and we said we have to keep it neat, there are only three girls and we’re being outnumbered! There was a lot of good music and wine, and we may have re-created the ‘Tiny Dancer’ scene from Almost Famous when we pulled into Austin.”
The Vines were insane.
The film opens on Friday, which means that after two years, Morgese will no longer be just a background player, but a full-fledged member of the Whedonverse. She’s already experienced the strange phenomenon of being featured in fan art — one creative artist superimposed the Much Ado actors’ faces onto those of the Avengers’, which the cast quite enjoyed — and there figures to be a lot more on the way.
“There has not been one person in the cast who hasn’t been helpful,” Morgese gushed. “Joss continues to be a great friend and mentor. They’re right on the other end of the phone if I have a question, because it’s a lot to learn about the business and the whole thing, I was just kind of starting to make my way into it. So they’ve all been incredibly helpful and always there if I need to call them up and ask them about anything.”