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Rising to Juilliard: A Profile of a Gifted Young Actor

By The SENG Editorial Board.

Citation: From The SENG Update, March 2010

Jeremy Tardy knew he wanted to be an actor when he was five years old. At first glance, it might look as though his path from those early years to his being a member of Juilliard’s drama class of 2013—one of only eighteen freshmen—was a charmed one. After all, by the time he was in sixth grade, he was acting in Milwaukee’s First Stage Children’s Theater productions, in which child actors typically are in twenty performances per show for runs of three weeks to paying audiences. In high school, he performed in plays by Oscar Wilde, Molière, and Shakespeare, including landing the lead roles of Othello and Macbeth. He won awards and scholarships and gave the commencement speech at his public high school graduation ceremony.

However, Jeremy is the first to say that his path has been far from easy. “I had to sacrifice a lot to reach my goal of getting into Juilliard,” he says. “First, I spent a lot of time doing plays throughout high school and middle school, many times sacrificing grades. I faced a lot of skepticism in my pursuits, especially being a young black actor, and even more in auditioning for Juilliard.”

Everyone knows how to get to Carnegie Hall (practice, practice, practice), but is practice enough to get to Juilliard, especially from the north side neighborhood of Milwaukee, Wisconsin?

Mentors and Family Support

Karen Arnold, in her fourteen-year study of high school valedictorians, Lives of Promise, found that many gifted students require adult mentoring and scaffolding to help them to make the transition from academic success to a career that is right for them. Otherwise, these students may view college narrowly, as “vocational training for upward mobility” rather than a step toward a personally satisfying and meaningful career.

In Jeremy’s case, actors and instructors at Milwaukee’s First Stage Children’s Theater Academy prepared him not only for auditions but also for what it is really like to make a living as an actor, giving him an inside look at the profession he plans to enter. One of these mentors, John Maclay, Academy Director, says of Jeremy, “He has great instincts as an actor, which are complemented by one of the strongest work ethics I have ever seen in a young actor. He is smart, kind, passionate, collaborative, and fearless.”

While he credits Maclay and First Stage’s Academy Headmaster, Laura DeMoon, for their support and guidance, Jeremy says his most important mentors have been his mother and grandmother: “They are my spiritual and religious foundation and have helped me so much. Without them I could not be here today. My family has always supported me in acting. They have come to all my shows—many times more than once—and they continue to support me in my goals.”

In terms of screen and stage influences, Jeremy’s favorite male and female actors are Denzel Washington, Marlon Brando, Angela Bassett, and Meryl Streep. He says, “I have seen most of their works, and I truly admire what they have done on film. Denzel Washington has most influenced me as he is a leading black actor who works against many stereotypes that the film industry portrays with other black actors.”

A Passion for Acting and Life

Finding and working with knowledgeable mentors is important for gifted youth, but, as the authors of Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure remind us, “No teenager will develop talent unless he or she enjoys working in the talent area.”

Why does Jeremy love acting? “This is a question that I constantly ask myself,” he says, “and one that can only be answered by getting on stage. Many times I feel that the stress, frustration, and work that go into performing are not worth doing, but the blissful feeling of being on stage and giving my heart and soul to the audience makes me want to do it all over again.”

His performance ritual is music: “I love music, especially soul music. There is so much passion in the songs of soul singers like Al Green, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Tina Turner, Nina Simone, and Curtis Mayfield that makes you feel. I listen to this music many times before performances. It is something that always infuses me with passion, and I try to emulate this through acting. One needs only to listen to these singers to understand what I mean.”

He says that having intensity of emotion is a valuable asset for an actor: “I must be emotionally available to my fellow actors and to my audience. I must be able to have a deep emotional connection to the characters that can only come from being an emotional person. In my training here at Juilliard, I am learning to heighten all my senses as an actor so that I will be much more sensual in life and on stage.”

In addition to passion and emotional intensity, Jeremy also displays intellectual curiosity: “I am a very curious person. I love to read books and plays, as well as biographies and autobiographies. I always want to know more.”

His Biggest Challenge

“We learned to place less importance on what this society thinks of us, and more [on] what we think of ourselves…” ~ And Still We Rise

Jeremy knew early on that his inner drive set him apart from many around him:

“From an early age I was driven to get out of the financial and environmental circumstances that I was born into. Most kids focused on just being children and the things children do, but always, in the back of my mind, I felt that I was wasting time in getting myself to where I wanted to be. Although I had a very nice and full childhood, I did not indulge in most things that kids my age were into. Many times I chose to stick to doing what I love to do as a means to rise out of my circumstances.

The biggest challenge I have faced was the challenge of staying on the right track as a teenager with everything that is happening in our world and the things I have been exposed to. I have had many friends get caught up in the street life and the trouble that comes with it. My biggest challenge was to stay out of it, and it was certainly a challenge.

With this biggest challenge behind him, Jeremy can now focus on setting new goals and getting used to his new home: “This is a moving city with so much culture, style, and noise. There is never a dull night here in New York, as there are always places to see.”

He is currently working on a show called The Less Than Human Club. “I am very excited about it,” he says. “Although becoming a student here at Juilliard was a big goal for me, my bigger goal is to make a successful career in mainstream film and theater. I would also love to perform at the Globe Theatre in England and to travel the world, spreading my craft.”

For Further Reading

And Still We Rise: The Trials and Triumphs of Twelve Gifted Inner-City Students, by Miles Corin (Harper Perennial, 2001)

Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians, by Karen Arnold (Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995)

Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Kevin Rathunde, and Sam Whalen (Cambridge University Press, 1996)

The Juilliard School

First Stage Children’s Theater

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