Inside Dorm Life
Jessie Gaskell is both artist and innovator as creator of Dorm Life. She is also the writer and star of the Internet TV series sensation. Gaskell spoke to SheKnows exclusively about the show.
Gaskell portrays Steph Schwartzman, one of the most compelling characters on the hilarious show. Dorm Life showcases a college scene many don't remember happening -- and therein lies the humor. Anything is on the table for this comic troupe of actors. For one, their Spring Break episode has gone viral from its Hulu home and is currently becoming the stuff of legend. Check it out at www.dorm-life.com.
As a multi-faceted talent, Gaskell has serious comic clout. She was a producer for E!'s The Soup and performed with the Upright Citizens Brigade and at the famous Comedy Store.
Taking SheKnows to school
SheKnows: First of all, the actress hatâ€¦ Is the biggest challenge pushing out the producer/creator voice in your head?
Jessie Gaskell: It's hard, when you're involved in the show at so many levels, to put all the logistical questions out of your head when you're worrying about costumes, continuity, is this going to edit together, and all that. But we're really lucky to have two great directors, Chris Smith and Mark Iversen, whom I trust wholeheartedly. I put myself in their hands when I'm acting. Plus, we had an extremely committed cast that honestly spent more time in character during the filming process than out of it. And sometimes even that was exhausting because, let's be honest, nobody gets Steph's energy without abusing some kind of prescription drug. But what came out of that was both really fluid character work for all of us and some great improvising.
SheKnows: Having an Internet hit in an age when writers and studios, actors and studios, are fighting over future web revenue -- how does it feel to be a true groundbreaker?
Jessie Gaskell: Well, it's kind of like being at the forefront of the hug industry. It's great, and everyone loves it, but how do you make a living without going dirty? I think Internet content is going to keep getting more popular, and Hulu is a great model for how it can be. There are still a lot of kinks to work out because people are so used to getting things for free on the Internet, and nobody wants to sift through tons of ads and pop-ups. But I think advertisers are realizing that Internet content is cheaper than TV and reaches almost as many people. Dorm Life gets 50,000 to 100,000 views a week, which is as much as a small cable TV show.
I'm just so proud of what we've done with Dorm Life and how many people we've reached without a big studio backing. It's been such a grassroots effort, and we've been able to maintain so much autonomy over the creative content. I think that's huge and validates that we're doing the right thing, that this baby of ours really does have wide appeal and can gain an audience just on its own virtue. And it is virtuous; we maintain a no-partial-nudity rule -- only full frontal [she laughs].
Dorm Life beginnings
SheKnows: Creator hat time: Where did Dorm Life come from for you?
Jessie Gaskell: Dorm Life came out of an amalgamation of ideas we'd had as part of a sketch group at UCLA. And when Attention Span Media (the production company that produces the show) approached us about developing a series, we took a smaller sketch idea and realized we could make it into an episodic thing. And then we started developing the individual characters, and it became so much bigger. It had its own life and momentum.
The characters and the storylines came out of experiences we all had at UCLA, combined with more general dorm room lore. Though we tried to make it relatable, it wasn't until it started airing that we realized, hey, a lot of people have stories like this or knew people like this, and it really is a good comedic interpretation of real experiences people had in college.
SheKnows: As the person behind a show, casting is integral. First, why cast yourself, and second, how has the cast brought your vision to life?
Jessie Gaskell: I think, for all of the writers who play characters in the show, it was truly destiny. As we started talking characters and then writing their dialogue, we began giving them voices in the writing room -- so when casting time came around, we honestly couldn't imagine anyone else doing those roles.
For me personally, Steph Schwartzman is an archetype sprinkled with very specific traits and aspects from my own childhood. So truly, she is a labor of love. The other cast members who weren't part of the writing team auditioned for the roles, and for all of them, the actor who played the part really informed where we wanted that character to go. And when the time came to write the whole first season and then second season, we had all this new information about the character based on what we saw in the actor's performance. Now we knew exactly what that person would say, and they all had such a specific voice.
Josh is my favorite because, when we cast him, we had only written the pilot. All we knew was that this was a character who would provide a lot of comic relief and be that strange artsy person everyone knows. But Pancho made that character into so much more. I can't imagine it any other way.
SheKnows: Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, IO West, the Improv and the Comedy Store! What role does improv play during the filming of Dorm Life? Is there room for it?
Jessie Gaskell: Tons of improv takes place on set. It doesn't all make it into the show, but someday we will release a 45-hour Special Features DVD and you will see all of those gems with director's commentary.
Sometimes, we just stayed in character to imagine the rest of what a scene would be and keep the cameras rolling. All the actors are strong improvisers, and so much funny would come out on the third or fourth take.
Our Spring Break miniseries, which is out right now as five episodes, is almost 100 percent improvised. When we watched it, we were like, "Wow, there is so much funny here!" But the good thing about a script is that it keeps it tight and concise, and that's important with Internet audiences. They have the attention span of a fly. If you just zoned out while reading this, I'm talking about you.
SheKnows: We love The Soup. How was that three-ring circus?
Jessie Gaskell: I was actually an associate producer and worked there for about two years before I started writing on the spin-off show, The Dish. I love The Soup, and apparently a lot of other people do, too: The brand is now expanding into four shows on all of the Comcast networks. There's just so much TV out there to make fun of -- there's an infinite supply of material. Just Bret Michaels alone ensures we'll have jobs for a long time to come.
SheKnows: What does yoga bring to your life?
Jessie Gaskell: I love yoga. I did yoga on the set of Dorm Life, in secret at first. Then the other girls saw I was doing my yoga podcast, and they were like, "We want to do yoga!" The boys wouldn't understand. Yoga is such a treat because, for an hour and a half, I don't look at my computer, I don't make a to-do list in my head... I just focus on the moment. Plus, so much of the time when I go to the gym, I'm thinking about how to work my abs while I do cardio, or I'm feeling insecure about my butt. Doing yoga, I remember, "Hey, I have this wonderful body that does so much for me. Why do I care how it looks as long as it moves?" We forget to appreciate that our bodies are healthy and get us places.