It’s pretty much 100% guaranteed you know who Jillian Armenante is. She’s one of those rad character actresses that has been in pretty much everything. Jillian’s new web series, Kittens in a Cage, set in 1950’s Los Angeles, marks the actress’s directorial debut. Based on the play written by Seattle-based playwright Kellen Conway Blanchard, it’s the story of Junie, a self-proclaimed good girl who’s been in the wrong place at the wrong time her whole life. She ain’t a criminal, she swears it. So when her greaser gang of juvenile delinquent pals set Junie up to take the fall for a bank robbery gone awry she gets sent straight to the clink, no thanks to her friend or her dirtbag mother. Junie’s prison experience includes a sadistic warden, the warden’s faithful lapdog of a guard, and various inmates who run the spectrum from sexy to vile to cannibalistic. It’s 2 parts Orange is the New Black mixed with 3 parts Cry-Baby, shaken and served with a twist of Rebel Without a Cause. And it’s fucking brilliant. Here, Jillian gives us the skinny on what she’s watching, how she came upon the source material, and her years as a Seattle theater fixture.
So the series is based on a play that was originally a Seattle production. Can you tell me how you got hooked up with the source material? There’s a bunch of Seattle folks involved, what’s your connection with our fair city?
I came to Seattle back in 1987 and immediately fell into with Annex Theatre, where I acted, directed, wrote and even tech directed over 30 consecutive shows. I stumbled upon the play Kittens in a Cage because it was being performed at Annex. I never got to see the original production, but I read the play and thought it was hilarious. I was put in touch with the playwright Kelleen Conway Blanchard, a veritable stranger at the time and got her permission to turn the script into a screenplay for a new media series. She and I have forged a great friendship since. There is something about that Seattle theater esthetic, the satire-taken-seriously style, that I feel is really where I like to live. Most of the plays I directed during my 8 years in Seattle fell into that spectrum of “camp that pulls your heartstrings” to wildly heightened comedy. So the play was a perfect fit. It is a spoof of the sexploitation women’s prison movies of the 50’s, but it takes the roots of the story very seriously. I’ve been working in Hollywood for over 18 years now, so, I was able to call some actor friends to help me out. Many of my friends were from back in the day in Seattle – Joel McHale, Lauren Weedman, Kim Evey, William Salyers – the list goes on and on.
Was it important to you to have a predominantly female cast?
The play was predominately female due to the constraints that it took place in a prison, and I instinctively look for material that can use all the brilliant female performers I know, but it wasn’t in the forefront of my mind when I went looking for a piece.
I also noticed there is a pretty serious lesbian bent to the show, is that something you set out to represent or did it just kind of happen because women’s prison and all?
The lesbian theme was just a happy accident that came with the play, but it sure is the icing on the cake. I am gay and it is important to me to represent the honesty of that relationship. To keep it real and grounded in and about the craziness of the world around them. Plus, my actors really throw it down. in that department.
I love that it’s set in the ’50s! What connection do you feel to that era?
I love that time period – the clothes, the cars, the tough yet innocent sexiness of it. I’ve always been a little sad that I live in the era that uses massive lawsuits rather than a simple punch on the jaw to solve disagreements. I know it’s cliche, but the 50s were a simpler era, and that setting lends itself to characters dealing in black and white decisions and primary colored emotions. Nothing is muted or wishy-washy.
There’s definitely a high camp factor. What are some style influences for the show?
The movies that inspired Kelleen are the same I’ve been in love with all my life: Caged, I Want to Live the tv show fro the 1970’s Prisoner of Cellblock H. Fast-talking, hard-boiled dames-gone-wrong, trying to find human love in an inhuman environment. There is definitely an acting style I guided everyone to find that has its source in those films, and the material itself demands a level of commitment to make it fly. And boy, those gals flew.
Tell me more about the music. What made you want to give the show a musical vibe?
The play in Seattle was a musical, mainly focusing on the lead character, Junie, and her ukulele songs. I am a musical geek at heart, so I wanted more. We use three of the original songs from the play in the show, one of them a particularly fabulous hard-rock thrash number. We were lucky to get American Idol’s LaToya London as one of our actors, so, I wrote her a great torch song; our love scene has a very hot tango ballad sung by Constantine Maroulis, another “American Idol”. And last, but not even remotely least, was our theme song, a killer off the hook track by Vintage Trouble. I love using music to express the characters’ inner thoughts in a way that they couldn’t with pedestrian dialogue.
What kind of shows do you watch? What are you feeling right now?
Orphan Black, Happy Valley, Orange is the New Black
My wife and I finally decided to watch Orange is the New Black. We launched our Kickstarter for Kittens in November of 2012 and had already shot Kittens and put it in the can by early March of 2013. OITNB wasn’t released until July 2013. I didn’t want to see OITNB until I was out of post on Kittens, even though everyone told me it was a VERY different show. And now that we’re watching it, I can confidently say it is indeed totally different, but it does scratch the same kind of itch. They both use the crucible of women’s prison to examine what happens to a widely disparate group of women when the heat gets cranked up. A monstrous situation creates monsters. What is insane becomes normal when the chance of normal becomes a distant dream.