Chatting with Filmmaker/Actress Jillian O’Neil; Pittsburgh native, Cannes honoree

Note: While my original interview with Ms. O’Neil appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I just want to preface it a bit by saying how proud I am of Pittsburgh as it increases its national identity as an artistic, cultural, and altogether more relevant asset to the film industry. The fact that we’re producing such talent is beyond euphoric for me considering all the attention the city has been receiving over the past few years for the vast chunk of Hollywood elite choosing to make Pittsburgh a home away from home for the duration of production. The Dark Knight Rises, Adventureland, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Warrior, One for the Money, Love and Other Drugs, Unstoppable, The Next Three Days…Anne Hathaway, Tom Cruise, Christian Bale, Viola Davis, Marion Cotillard, Jake Gyllenhaal, Kristin Wiig, Denzel Washington…the list of esteemed films and those who create them increases ever so greatly and I couldn’t be more proud to call myself a Pittsburgher. I’ve also started an Internship with Warner Brothers, furthering my own pursuits of working in the film industry one day…hopefully as an actor, but for now I’ll stick with the reviewing/writing/screening side of things. I guess what I’m getting at is that I’m so thankful for people like Jillian O’Neil who are helping to pave the way for the rest of us Pittsburghers still working to make Pittsburgh’s star on the cinematic map that much bigger.

Originally Published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By Joey Nolfi (Me)

 
 
 
Jillian O’Neil portrays Lily in “A Separate Life,” which she also directed.

 

It’s not every day you bump into Jude Law on an elevator.

That’s exactly what happened to local filmmaker and actress Jillian O’Neil as she rubbed elbows with the Hollywood elite at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival with her film “A Separate Life.”

“I didn’t know what to expect other than that I was filled with excitement,” she said. “I was walking around a place I’d only seen on TV or in magazines. It was amazing to be there with my film.”

The Mars native wrote, directed, produced and stars in the short film about a man with terminal cancer and a family reunion filled with tears and final goodbyes.

“I’d been working on the story for quite a few years. I’m drawn to real-life stories that show personal, raw emotions people go through,” Ms. O’Neil, 36, said. “The film deals with recognizable characters. There’s a sister, a brother, a lost love, a current love — relationships that everybody forms in life. There’s so much drama that sometimes you don’t need anything additional other than a good story.”

“A Separate Life,” also starring veteran actor Patrick Gorman (“Gettysburg”), found a home at Shorts International after its screening at Cannes in May. The company will distribute the film to DirecTV users as well as AT&T U-verse subscribers on the West Coast. The film also will be released in 46 countries via satellite.

Ms. O’Neil also impressed audiences at the Action on Film Awards in Los Angeles. She took home the title of “Best New Director” for her work on “A Separate Life” at the ceremony in July.

Her career in performing arts began when she was only 7 years old as a child performer with the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera Mini Stars before pursuing acting at The Academy of Musical Theater and Point Park University. She didn’t complete her college degree, however; an audition for a part in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Starlight Express” led her to a five-year tenure in Germany instead.

“I figured why go to school for dancing and singing when I already have a contract doing something that I want to do?” she said.

Soon after a string of live international performances onstage, Ms. O’Neil set her sights on Hollywood. She moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film and television, eventually landing acting jobs in advertisements for Burger King, Kmart and Verizon as well as stints on TV shows such as “All My Children,” “Mad Men” and “Accidentally on Purpose.”

The struggle to maintain that career, however, hasn’t always been easy for Ms. O’Neil.

“The largest misconception about actors is that they do one job and then have so much money at their fingertips,” she said. “But, you’re always wondering where the next job is going to come from. Everybody in L.A. is waiting for their next job, too. The person that’s delivering your mail is a [Screen Actors Guild] member. Your dentist is a SAG member. When you go to an audition that calls for a certain type, you walk into a room full of 30 to 40 of ‘you’ and that’s very humbling.”

But it was acting that sparked her interest in taking a step behind the camera.

“As an actress, on set all I would do was study and watch,” she said. “I would learn what everybody behind the camera was doing. Watching all of the pieces put together and how much hard work it takes to get pulled together led me to find my new passion behind the camera.”

Ms. O’Neil has since moved back to Pittsburgh where she teaches industry hopefuls about managing the business end of breaking into the film industry.

She also founded Wright Road Productions in 2009. Her next project with Wright Road is another short film titled “Letters From a Soldier.”

A feature-length adaptation of “A Separate Life” is planned for production in Pittsburgh sometime next spring.

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