Hailing from an ethnic background that quickly boxes you into a stereotype is no joke, for many. I have identified with this issue myself in being Arab in the west. Growing up in America, you are given equal opportunity as with all citizens and you are equally raised to believe that your citizenship holds shield from any ethnic discrimination. Until a world event that devastates an entire planet strikes at your ethnicity, race and/or faith. While being true for many, this issue has not stopped many ethnic talent in fighting stigma and rising above the crowds, proving capability beyond color, culture or faith with exciting projects in their pipeline.
Meet one of these diverse ladies that we would like to both celebrate and introduce to you- Jenna Bosco, an artist to keep an eye on, with a passion to de-stigmatize the last decade’s culture norms. People may see Jenna Bosco as an oxymoron of an Arab girl from New Jersey. But behind all the labels she has received from the industry, she delivers herself as a regular Jersey girl who wants to be known for her work and craft as an actor, more than anything else. In an all heart conversation, Jenna speaks to us about her childhood and family, how her life altered after 9/11, her brilliant work on NBC’s New Amsterdam, The Blacklist, and her webseries, New Heights.
Her story; childhood.
I grew up in Teaneck, NJ, a diverse suburb of NYC. My dad’s an Egyptian immigrant who came here in 1978. My mom’s a Jersey girl with Italian/German roots. I grew up in an eclectic swirl of a family. My Dad’s side of the family is in Egypt, and they’re all Muslim. My mom’s side of the family is in New Jersey, and they’re mostly secular Catholics. I grew up speaking to my Egyptian family on the phone, trying to communicate through laughter and my limited Arabic. I was physically closer to my mom’s side of the family, and this is who I’d celebrate holidays with. But my family here was diverse, too. I was raised by a Cuban aunt, a Colombian aunt, and a Jewish woman who my dad lived with when he first came here, who became my Grandma Fritzie. I always joke that I grew up with a Catholic grandmother, a Muslim grandmother and a Jewish grandmother.
My maternal grandparents were in the arts. My grandfather was a Broadway actor, and I grew up attending theater shows and events. Being around theatrical communities had a huge impact on me and when I was in the 7th grade, I decided I wanted to be a New York actor. I went to NYU Tisch to study Drama, graduated and have been at it ever since.
Work in theatre and television
Over the last 9 years, I’ve been in lots of different shows, met a ton of awesome artists, but I haven’t been on Broadway or in a majorly reviewed show yet, so unless you’re a downtown theater junkie, you probably don’t know me. I suppose I’m best known for my webseries, “New Heights,” which I wrote and produced over several years. The webseries ran at several web festivals. Season one is on YouTube and season two is on Facebook. Writing, producing and starring in that show allowed me to explore my artistic voice. Writing and producing your own work is hard, but it’s worth it. I’m currently booking co-star roles on TV shows, small parts on NBC’s “New Amsterdam” and “The Blacklist.” Next year I’m playing Officer Finley on CBS’s “Tommy” opposite Edie Falco, which will be the most lines I’ve had on TV yet.
What was it like growing up with an Arab ethnicity?
Because of my mixed heritage, my “Arabness” wasn’t something I could fully grasp or contend with. I was proud to be Egyptian, but my Egyptian-ness felt diluted, unauthentic, phony, and not enough. I couldn’t speak the language fluently, I didn’t go to the mosque, I didn’t call my dad “baba,” and whenever I tried to, it felt performative. Was I even Arab? People would ask me “what are you?” and make assumptions based on the ethnic ambiguity of my looks. But my identity crisis got worse after 9/11.
Out of fear at our country’s paranoia and Islamophobia, my father decided to change our family name from “Mahmoud,” my birth name, to my mother’s maiden name, “Bosco.” He had experienced a lot of prejudice as a Muslim immigrant, and after 9/11 he was even more worried for our futures. Now that I’m older I can understand why he unfortunately felt this way, but at the time it felt outrageous. “I’m just going to walk into seventh grade with a new last name!? What is everyone going to think?” It completely changed my world. I remember a teacher saying to me: “Whoa. What is your dad hiding?” He said it like a joke, and I laughed it off like one, but it hurt me. On top of the terrorism jokes and all that nonsense, I felt a wave of shame over the name change. I felt like I had to hide who I was, even though my dad insisted we weren’t doing that. I became aware that maybe people wouldn’t see me as a person…they would see me as “an Arab Muslim”… but what does that even mean? And why is that a bad thing? And what did that even mean for me?
It doesn’t mean anything. I’m just a person, like anybody else. I’m unique. I know that now. But at the time…it messed with me.
Out of fear at our country’s paranoia and Islamophobia, my father decided to change our family name from “Mahmoud,” my birth name, to my mother’s maiden name, “Bosco.”Jenna Bosco
Did you at any point realize and feel that your ethnicity was affecting your career or relationships
In the film business what you look like dictates the roles you will get. I’ve certainly felt frustrated by the lack of imagination that the industry has for people from diverse backgrounds. But today, the industry is experiencing a small step towards change and I don’t let those limitations frustrate me. I’m more concerned with staying true to myself and what I want to say as an artist.
Did you find a community that cherished and shared a similar story?
I’m a member of the MENASA facebook group, which is a great resource for Middle Eastern/North African/South Asian artists to connect and share opportunities with each other. I’m surrounded by a community of artists that I admire and respect. Every artist has to find their people. You have to have friends and family who support you and love you.
What was your experience like as a woman in entertainment in the last 10 years?
As a woman in entertainment I think it’s so important for us to be in charge of our own narratives. Women are vastly underrepresented in this industry, and women of color even more so. The statistical numbers of representation often feel discouraging. But we have to believe we’re living in an exciting time.
Technology and a changing media landscape have made the industry more accessible to underrepresented voices. There are so many more opportunities for us now than there ever was. I feel optimistic and hopeful about this moment for the arts. New stories and true equity are on the horizon.
Women are vastly underrepresented in this industry, and women of color even more so. The statistical numbers of representation often feel discouraging. But we have to believe we’re living in an exciting time.Jenna Bosco
You mentioned being ‘boxed’ in roles due to your ethnically ambiguous profile. When did you start noticing this and how do you feel about it?
The first agent I signed with brought me in to meet the legit department, and I remember he kept referring to me as “ethnic.” That word is used in the industry to imply “minority,” but I dislike both of those words because they imply that I’m other than, different, exotic…. when really I’m just a woman from New Jersey. The shit I’m going through is the shit a lot of millennials go through. So why am I not referred to as just an actress? It’s weird. A lot of people tell me “OMG you’re so lucky, you look like you could be so many things, (Latina, African-American, West Indian, Arab, etc) that’s a good thing!” but I’ve found the opposite to be true.
I don’t only need to be a good actor, I need to learn to speak another language to compete. I’ve had casting directors tell me: “You should only go for Black and Latina roles, you don’t look Arab to me. Don’t lead with that.” Excuse me- but have you even been to North Africa? A lot of people look like me… which is why I feel that there is a huge gap in imagination and maturity in the industry, for the world at large, and it’s also rooted in white supremacy.
Nowadays I use this as an opportunity to fuel and spearhead change. My mission is to write stories about the other, the marginalized, and the communities that are made to feel less.
Does this issue exist in other countries, cultures?
The main reason this problem exists in the US entertainment business is due to our own country’s issues with race. The entertainment industry is a microcosm of society, and it’s problematic. Look at what happens when a black woman gets cast as Ariel in a made up Disney movie about a mermaid. (White) People go nuts! We are not in a post-racial society, at all. But I am a big advocate for “color-blind” casting, and these types of choices give me hope that perhaps we will be seen as just people one day. And there are so many TV shows and movies doing this today. It’s very exciting. I think it’s so important to have people from marginalized communities play normal, regular-degular people, in addition to playing the culturally specific roles.
Do you think larger networks are becoming aware of this issue for actors?
I do think culturally the industry is becoming more open and aware of these issues. Things are changing. Until there is diverse equity in the back of the room (writers, producers, directors, executives) as well as what we seen on screen, it won’t change fast enough.
What are your personal goals for the industry from your current perspective?
I’m very hopeful for the current and future state of TV and film. It’s an exciting time for underrepresented artists because of the changing industry:
– Streaming services and online platforms are offering us opportunities like never before.
– Studios are taking chances on different perspectives, and this is thrilling to me.
My mission as an artist, is to create diverse and colorful worlds, and to tell unique, specific, and truthful stories about the “other” – people who exist outside of the traditional molds in society.
Any tips for aspiring artists with similar challenges?
These are the two rules that I abide by in my writing:
1) Be authentic to yourself and your own vision. This will serve you the best. Don’t try to emulate what you think other people want. Your job is to be truthful to your own unique voice, and to practice and cultivate your craft.
2) Attach yourself to a mission, not a job. Figure out what it is that you want to create and go do it. This sets you up for success because you aren’t heartbroken when you don’t get one job or one opportunity. This keeps me motivated.
I’m currently in post-production on my short film, ‘Baladi (My Country)‘, and we’re gearing up for a festival run. I’m also writing an original TV pilot, a new short film, and adapting ‘Baladi’ into a feature script.
I would like to see the industry continuing this trend of bolstering unique and authentic voices, and I’m happy to be a part of this movement. I also believe we need more diversity in decision making roles in media, beyond what we see in front of the camera. More writers, directors, producers, studio executives that are as colorful and varied as the world we all inhabit.
What’s in your future that is exciting you right now?
Last year I wrote, directed and produced my first narrative short film called “BALADI (My country)” It’s a fish out of water story about a new Egyptian immigrant in the United States, and the retired Jewish widow he befriends. I plan to submit the film to festivals and we’ll see where it ends up. I’m feeling very excited about it! I have a feeling 2020 will be a good year for me.
A quote you live by
My favorite quote in the entire world is from the famous dancer Martha Graham. Whenever I get frustrated, I turn to it. It fuels my artistry and reminds me to never give up on myself or doubt my vision, but rather to focus on the work and get it done (which is of course, the hardest part!)
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased… There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
Jenna Bosco is a New York City based actress, writer, and filmmaker. She is the creator and star of “New Heights” Webseries, which was an official selection at NYC Webfest, Brooklyn Webfest, New Media Film Festival and the Black Woman Film Festival. Jenna is an NYU Tisch Grad, a diversity scholarship recipient at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, and a former member of The Flea Theater’s resident acting company, “The Bats.” She is currently editing her first short film, “Baladi (My Country),” which is a fish out of water immigration story about an unlikely friendship. In her spare time, Jenna enjoys taking care of her garden and making traveling films.