To honor Mental Health Awareness Month and shed light on the issue, actress Jessica A. Caesar (from Kenan, Grey’s Anatomy, NCIS: LA and Atlanta) created, produced, directed, wrote and starred in her own sketch comedy series called Caesar’s Special.
In the show, Jessica plays a fictionalized version of herself, as a therapy patient who uses drama therapy to better her condition and change her outlook on life.
Jessica is a strong believer that humor and laughter can be a powerful coping mechanism to help us deal with our individual mental health struggles.
In the premiere episode, Jessica embodies Naomi Campbell, to learn how to be more blunt and honest with people.
Shine My Crown caught up with the rising Hollywood star to learn more about her life, her work and what’s next for her.
Talk to us about Caesar’s Special. What was the impetus behind the show’s creation and production?
It had been six years since I produced my last project. I was definitely going to do another comedy, but this time I wanted it to be fun, but also challenging. I’ve always been a huge fan of In Living Color, SNL, Chappelle’s Show and Key & Peele. Then one day during the creative process, it hit me, and I said, I’m going to do a sketch show. Whenever you produce something independently, most of the time, you’re dealing with a modest budget. The first thing I do is think about what locations I could have access to for filming. After that, I began writing the show based on where I could film each sketch. The initial plan wasn’t for me to direct each episode. I never saw myself as a Director. I never directed anything and the thought terrified me. But I told myself I wanted a challenge and because of the budget I was working with, I wasn’t able to hire the Director I wanted for this project. When I start something, I always have to see it through. So in order for Caesar’s Special to happen, I had to direct it and I’m glad I did.
In a recent interview, you spoke about how your work aims to use humor as a coping mechanism to deal with mental health issues. Can you expound on what you mean by that?
I think humor can help relieve stress, provide a temporary escape from our problems and lighten our mood when it comes to dark thoughts and depression. I’ve also heard people say that comedy comes from pain. Sometimes people make jokes about their past or traumatic experiences to help them cope. Unfortunately, mental health is still a taboo in the Black community. We need to put an end to the stigma, so I incorporated humor in this show to shed light on mental health awareness. I can give you two examples of when comedy has helped me. One day in December, years ago, I was feeling really down and depressed. I didn’t want to come out of the house. All I wanted to do was stay in the bed and sleep. A friend of mine wanted me to go to a taping of Steve Harvey’s Talk Show when it was filming in Los Angeles. I really didn’t want to, but didn’t have a valid excuse not to go. I went anyhow. While I was at the show, in between takes, Steve tells a lot of jokes and he is so good at improv. The entire studio audience was cracking up until tears were coming out of our eyes. You had to be there to experience it.
After the taping was done, Steve candidly talked to the audience and gave us some food for thought, but it in a humorous way. I couldn’t believe how powerful laughter was that day. I went from feeling down in the morning, to feeling empowered, motivated and good about myself by evening. This all came from laughing, enjoying myself, and having more positive thoughts. Another experience was when I was filming Episode 5 of Caesar’s Special. I was on my way to set when my Mother let me know that my Grandfather passed away. It was a punch to my gut. I had two options, I could call off the shoot, lose a day of filming and cry all day or I could show up and use humor to help deal with my grief. I chose the latter. I had to play two different characters in the same sketch. I got through it and I dedicated that episode to my late Grandfather.
Who have been some of your influences growing up and how did they help propel you to pursue acting?
Halle Berry, Cameron Diaz and Kristen Wiig were my influences growing up. Halle Berry is the main reason why I am acting today. Growing up watching her on screen inspired me so much because she played so many different roles that were not intended for a Black actress, at a time where this was very difficult to do. If she could do it, I know I could too. Halle defied stereotypes and after 21 years is still the only Black woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading role. Cameron Diaz propelled me to pursue comedy. She has such great comedic timing and is a joy to watch on screen. Kirsten Wiig is just a comedic genius and I also admire her because she is a multi-hyphenate.
You do so well with roleplaying several different characters in the show! What is the process like before you begin shooting a character different from your main role in the show?
Some characters are in my wheelhouse. So as soon as I change wardrobe or put a costume on, I’m already them and start shooting. With Tina Turner though, I usually have to do the intro to Proud Mary first, then once I felt like Tina, we started filming. And with the others, I’ll change the cadence in my voice or try different mannerisms to help me get into character.
What can viewers expect to see when they tune in?
When they tune in, they can expect to laugh so much until their stomachs hurt.
Anything else you would like to add?
To stay up to date on everything I’m doing, follow me on Instagram: @JessicaACaesar