The Long Road: From Woodside to Hollywood with Jodi Long

Jodi Long, seated

By Jess Berry

With five Broadway shows under her belt, appearances in feature films like RoboCop 3 and The Hot Chick, roles in popular TV dramas like Desperate Housewives and Sex & the City and now a starring role in the popular television series Sullivan & Son, Jodi Long comes off as a born and bred Manhattan girl.

But Long grew up with her vaudevillian parents in Woodside and then Jackson Heights. In fact, while Long was performing on Broadway starting at age seven, she was also starring in the school plays at IS 125 in Sunnyside.

It’s Queens had the pleasure of talking with Long about growing up in Queens, how she got into television, what the set of Sullivan & Son is like, and how living in Queens helped her throughout her successful career.

It’s Queens: I guess we can start with your childhood. For what period of your life did you live in Queens?

Jodi Long: Well, I was born in Manhattan and then I guess my parents moved to Queens sometime before I turned one. We moved to Woodside, and we lived in Woodside until I was 18. And then my mom moved really far away to Jackson Heights. I didn’t really live there, because I went to college. She moved the summer that I graduated high school, and then I went to Purchase College. I would just come home in the summer.

IQ: So when you were living in Woodside, what was that like? Because I’m sure it was a very different pace of life than you have now. Did you enjoy growing up there?

JL: I lived on 69th Street, which is right where the train is, a couple of blocks away towards Woodside. Actually, the building that I grew up in is still there, it’s a little two-family brick building. I went by there recently, in the last year. It was a neighborhood. All of the kids, we played on the streets and I walked to PS 12, which was my elementary school, which is still there. It was very Irish and Italian and I think there were some Greek families. It was very lower middle class, working class. I was the only Asian kid in PS 12, and I think there were only 600 kids in the school at the time. So it was a very different neighborhood than it is now. We all knew each other, we all knew the people in the houses around there. I think Queens is very neighborhood-friendly, or at least that’s my experience of it.Jodi Long, cover

IQ: You said that you eventually ended up at Purchase College. How did you get into acting and into the arts?
When did that start for you?

JL: My parents were vaudevillian, so I was really born backstage. It was very natural for me. I was seven when I did my first Broadway show. They were looking for a little Asian girl that could sing and dance, and so I went and auditioned, and I got the job. Then I did a tour of Flower Drum Song with my dad one summer right after that, as the kid in the show, and then I did the school plays at IS 125. I played Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! at IS 125, which, believe or not, that was a big deal in those days. Then I left Queens in terms of my education, and I went to Performing Arts High School in Manhattan in the drama department. I got hooked as a classical dramatic actress, which is very funny to me. Then from Performing Arts I auditioned for Purchase. I went to Purchase, and I graduated with a BFA in theater arts and acting. I was out of school for a year when I got my first job at the Public Theater, and then I went straight into another new play that ended up going to Broadway with Kevin Kline. That was Loose Ends, and that played on Broadway for almost a year. So I was pretty much on my way. You see my trajectory, and from the very beginning that path was set out, but I could have walked away from it at any time, and it wasn’t easy the whole time. Now people look at me and I’m on a television show, but there were lean years and there were years where you’re like, “Is this the right thing for me to be doing?” But I think somehow the universe and the powers that be always sort of guided me back.

IQ: You’ve shown up on a number of movies, you said that you started on Broadway, but you’ve also been featured in shows like Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City. How did you end up getting into TV?

JL: As a theater actor, you’re literally living from hand to mouth. You may be doing a lot of great work, but it’s really job to job, and you never know when your next job is going to be. So at a certain point, in the late eighties or something like that, I went to Los Angeles in hopes that I could break into television. That was actually a hard transition, because they would look at me and go, “Oh she’s a theater actor.” I think my first success in television, even though it only lasted a season, was Café American. It was like it all of a sudden put me in a different place. And then I went on to do Margaret Cho’s mom in All-American Girl. So here I am.

IQ: During all of the time that you were doing Broadway shows and a lot of dramatic theater, did you ever think that you would end up in comedy?

JL: I never saw myself as a comedic actor, really. But I realized that I really grew up on watching I Love Lucy reruns with Lucille Ball. I watched it every night for years as a kid. Then working for almost a year with Kevin Kline — he’s a brilliant comedic actor — and he was very funny. Even though Loose Ends was a drama, I learned so much from him. Being funny is really about being relaxed. It’s being relaxed in your own skin and allowing moments to happen. You get more relaxed as you get older, you get more experienced as an actor, and it’s just a lot easier. But no, I never saw myself as a comedic actor. Isn’t that funny?

IQ: And now you’re working on Sullivan & Son and you have a pretty big role on that show. Has it been a fun thing for you to take part in?

JL: It’s been a blast from the very beginning, I must tell you. I am working with incredible people. Steve Byrne, who plays my son, is not only so funny, but he’s the nicest guy. I got the job and he called me up and he was like, “Jodi, I’m so happy you’re playing my mom.” It was just the sweetest thing. And it’s been like that from the get-go, and it just gets better. This season Steve is there, Dan Lauria — who plays my husband and was the dad on The Wonder Years — we’ve all become such a tight-knit family. Just everybody, it’s this huge family. And we make each other laugh, it really is true. Steve said [about] my character, he said, “Nobody makes me laugh more than Jodi.” Steve can’t even look at me sometimes. And I’m in character and he just turns and he’s like, “I’m losing it.” Because they all know I’m not like that, and I feel like I’m channeling this woman. I grew up with these women who are really kind of hard-nosed, Asian mothers. My mother wasn’t really like that, but all of the aunties who I grew up with were. I feel like I just step out of the way, and I just learn the lines and somehow this force comes through me.

Jodi Long, leaningIQ: So you would say that you are not like your character?

JL: No. First of all, I don’t have a Korean accent. And I don’t take out weapons of mass destruction to hit people. I mean this year, I was like, “Oh my god, I am so violent in this show.” And I’m so not like that at all. I’m a yoga person, like peace, love and all of that stuff. So it’s pretty funny.

IQ: Now, besides Sullivan & Son, are you working on anything else outside of that?

JL: Yea, I’m actually in Chicago and I’m working on a new play, which has funny moments in it, I think, but it’s a drama. It’s called The World of Extreme Happiness at the Goodman Theater, and we will be bringing the show into New York in January. It’s about China now and the industrial economic revolution that has happened in China over the last twenty years, what it’s done to its citizens and how it has affected the working class in China.

IQ: So you did a lot of drama, you’ve done a lot of comedy, and you kind of are bouncing around between the two. Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on?

JL: I have a documentary movie out called Long Story Short, and it’s about my parents in vaudeville. That was really a labor of love. It came about because I had been cast in the Broadway revival of Flower Drum Song, and that was the same show that my dad did fifty years before. So it’s sort of tracing that family history. My parents were on the Ed Sullivan Show back in 1950, long before I was born, so I went about trying to find that show for them, because in those days, there was no TiVo or DVR. So the movie is partly the hunt of the Ed Sullivan Show and giving back to my parents what they had given to me. So that was really a great project for me and we did really well. Then another project that really spoke to my heart is a one-woman show that I wrote called Surfing DNA. That’s about all of the DNA in my blood, which is partly my Chinese-Japanese-Scottish-Australian heritage, and then there’s the Queens girl as well. But it’s also the imprints that are put on us, not only societal, but also from our families, like being born into show biz. Those are the projects that I like, but I also love making people laugh. We have great writers on Sullivan & Son, and they give me a chance to do a lot of fun stuff. And I just have to say this, because she’s also from Jackson Heights, but Lucy Liu, when she first started, I met Lucy because she was my dresser. She was working in the costume department, and we became really close friends because she was from Jackson Heights. She was like, “You’re from Jackson Heights! My parents live there!” and I was like, “My mother lives there!” And she actually stayed at my place when she first got to L.A. There’s something about us Jackson Heights, Queens girls.

IQ: So growing up in Queens, how has that affected your career path and the life choices you’ve made after? Do you feel like growing up in Queens helped you get to where you wanted to be?

JL: I think that the most important thing is in Queens, you’re right up against everybody, right? Getting on the train, going to work, you’re in it. And you have to somehow get along with everybody. I mean, you don’t have to, but I think there’s a kind of humanity that you have to get beyond what people look like and the color of their skin and all of those things. One of my mentors was Bill Cosby, because I had gotten onto The Cosby Show, and he liked me. He was very kind to me and I learned a lot from him in terms of comedy, as well. And one day I said, “Why me? Why are you talking to me?” And he said, “You can hang with anybody.” And I think that that was true, because I grew up with everybody. Especially when I got to junior high school, it was a big mixed bag. And you get to be able to navigate the world, because that’s real. And that’s what I love the most about Sullivan & Son. We’re not only a mixed-race cast, but we’re mixed in terms of our age ranges, and you don’t see that a lot on TV on one show. And we can make fun of ourselves and the prejudice and all that stuff. It’s always there. But in the end, we all have to get along, we’re all part of this melting pot of this country. And so I think that’s the main thing for me that when I look at growing up in Queens, what that taught me.

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Posted by on Oct 30 2014. Filed under Featured Articles, Features, Main Story. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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