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Jamie Denbo and John Ross Bowie aren’t splashed across the covers of gossip magazines like other Hollywood couples, but the duo — both writers and actors who met studying improv in the late ’90s at Upright Citizens Brigade — have been working steadily in Hollywood for the better part of two decades.
“We know so many more successful married couples in Hollywood, like Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell and so many other people,” Denbo told The Hollywood Reporter during a joint conversation with Bowie ahead of the launch of her new Lifetime series American Princess.
Cracked Bowie, “In all fairness, we don’t know them.”
“No, we don’t know them,” Denbo continued. They know of them.
But, said Bowie, “I worked with Kristen, she was lovely. But … she’s not in my phone.”
Joked Denbo, “This was all about you getting to say you worked with Kristen Bell. I also worked with Kristen Bell! The point is that I feel like we’re maybe Hollywood’s middle class? There aren’t that many of us. I hate to keep using Kristen and Dax but I’m sure their house is way nicer.”
Denbo and Bowie have both worked steadily as writers and actors for years, forging parallel paths in the industry. But, as Bowie says, “there’s a gulf in people’s understanding of the profession and that they think you’re either a movie star or you’re waiting tables.”
The Denbo-Bowie family, on the other hand, is actually somewhere in between.
“What makes me and John unique is that we are both sort of at the same level of struggle and success and maybe always have been,” Denbo said. “We definitely are always two steps forward, one step back. Sometimes two steps back, one step forward. But we’re always on the same floor, near each other on the staircase.”
While Bowie’s ABC sitcom, Speechless, was canceled in May after three seasons, June 2 marked the debut of Denbo’s Lifetime dramedy, American Princess. It’s a labor of love inspired by the time Denbo worked at a Renaissance fair, with Georgia Flood leading the cast and playing a New York City socialite who flees the city hours before her wedding when she discovers her fiancé is cheating on her, taking refuge at a Renaissance fair upstate.
Below, Bowie and Denbo discuss their career paths, and how they collaborate and set each other up for success.
You’ve both been consistently working for a while, and woking on a lot of quality projects.
Denbo: Oh, well, that’s just luck. We’ll take anything! And by the way, I don’t know if you’ve really scoured my personal IMDb. (Laughing.)
Bowie: Yeah, I’m not gonna name names. But I’m not going to throw absolutely everything I’ve done up for any consideration.
Denbo: Yeah, there’s a wide range. I used to tell people personally, I’ve been on one episode of everything, good and bad. I could tell a lot about you by whatever it is that you happen to catch my episode of.
What is your favorite project that people approach you about?
Denbo: Well, John tends to do more than one episode of his guest spots, right? [Bowie recurred on The Big Bang Theory and appeared in last month’s series finale.] I’ve gone into more of the show creator realm, which is just as consistent as parents of children in Hollywood. Just kidding! But, no, just as dependable.
Bowie: The things that I’m recognized for are the most are still Big Bang and Speechless. But every once in a while I get thrown a real curveball: I was in a bar downtown and the bartender was staring at me so intently and then finally snaps his fingers, points at me, and goes, “The Larry David show!” Yeah, you know, 11 years ago Jamie and I did a Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Denbo: I could be standing next to him in that scenario and he would be the one who is recognized. I’m very unrecognizable for my acting work which, by the way, is absolutely OK with me. It’s just somehow, I don’t know, maybe it’s just I change my hair a lot.
Bowie: I’m going to speak to that for a moment, if I may.
Denbo: Oh, he’s taking shots!
Bowie: Jamie’s curse is her versatility, and I mean this! I’m not just saying this because she’s sitting here and pointing a knife at me. She is much more of a chameleon than I am, I think, and, as such, her work is appreciated but she maybe isn’t stopped on the street as often as I am.
Denbo: Well thank you, John.
Bowie: Me and my limited range gets stopped on the street all the time!
Denbo: So yeah, John’s very limited.
Bowie: That can be the takeaway from this interview.
Denbo: Yeah, the takeaway is that I’m a chameleon and John is John. But you know what’s interesting? In all seriousness, I do think in some ways that has been one of the [reasons why] John keeps working as an actor. He does bring so much of his personality and his particular look to every role. And for me, I always can find someone very easily in a casting room that is a much better option than myself for the role. And that is not a dig on myself, I honestly, it’s one of the reasons I really love being on the other side of things now because I get to help cast people that are way better than me. And it’s a joy!
Bowie: I have a question I could ask you. After auditioning for the better part of 20 years when you were finally on the other side — not finally, but the more significant times you were on the other side of the table — for American Princess, what were the mistakes you saw actors make?
Denbo: I was still only thinking about myself. And I’m pretty sure I didn’t see as many mistakes that they were making as much as how affected I was in terms of trying to make them comfortable. Because I’ve been through so many auditions over the years where I was so uncomfortable or I felt that the people in the room were so not receptive or not warmed up, I probably overcompensated by laughing as much as humanly possible. Or probably doing everything I could to make people feel like they got the role, which, by the way, that’s not a great idea either because not all of them got the role. I empathize a lot with actors, and I think it’s something that has helped me in terms of my communicating with actors as a showrunner.
Bowie: Whenever I usually audition for an actor who becomes a director, the actor bounces out of their seat, comes over, shakes my hand, “How are you? Was traffic too bad?” They do everything. They’ve been in my shoes so often that they got out of their way to make me feel [comfortable].
Denbo: The only bad part of that audition experience is when you don’t get the role because, “I nailed it!” It’s like, “no, we just like you.”
Bowie: “We just know what you’re going through and we know you’ve got a really long drive back to where you were going.”
What’s your experience like as writers?
Denbo: We met at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade back in the mid-to-late ’90s. That was our training ground. We were trained as writer-performers. And as proven by so many of the alumni that we came up with, I would say a good healthy half of them have stayed in front of the camera, and a lot of them have stayed behind the camera, and then a lot of them do both. That’s what happens when you’re trained as a multi-hyphenate. In that way, I think we always kept multiple balls in the air, and it was incredibly beneficial. I feel for actors who just really, truly depend on the acting work, because when you hit those dry spells, as every single actor does, you’ve got to be able to rely on your creative side, and you’ve got to be able to rely on what you’re going to put up in front of an audience or what you’re going to create for yourself or what you’re going to write. We’ve been really lucky because that was just never even a question, you know?
Bowie: I think the early days at UCB — because Jamie and I started around ’98 when they didn’t have their own theater in New York yet.
Denbo: We got to train with the actual UCB four, which was cool.
Bowie: This phrase is overused, but there was something kind of punk rock about the place at the time, because they really encouraged you to make your own opportunities. If you were not being seen for whatever major television network was going on in New York, get up there and do a one-person show, you know? Get up there and write your own sketch comedy show. Create your own opportunities.
Denbo: And it was really before there was enough content on television that reflected all of that. It was live theater that, you know, you went up and did every week for three months or every night for three weeks, stuff like that. We didn’t know at that point that there would be all those end points. But it was a wonderful training ground and it kept us with this really great work ethic. So yeah, so we still fail on the reg. And keep ourselves busy.
Bowie: When we take to writing, I think we’re very conscious about writing dialogue that will sound good out loud. Because we’re both looking for stuff — this dialogue is clunky, it’s expositional, it doesn’t sound natural when it’s being spoken.
Denbo: I think everybody aims to write good dialogue.
Bowie: I think we’re better at it!
Denbo: Oh, wow! OK, I don’t want to go on rec— OK, yeah, we are fine.
Bowie: No, I think we’re very actor-conscious writers.
Denbo: Oh, I see! OK, yes. Look, we’ve been on both sides of this. It makes us very empathetic to all the different work on all other sides. I agree with you, yes.
Bowie: So, sometimes, I’ll be writing something, I’ll sit down, look at it, This is all necessary information but it is just pure exposition, it’s garbage. We have to completely start over. Or I have to make it funny or it has to be more of a conversation than just one person monologuing all this act one information, and I think it’s the UCB training and the years in front of the camera that have given me a little kick in the ass and helped me figure out how to fix it.
Denbo: We’ve always got multiple projects going on. I think it’s such a healthy way to live in Hollywood. If you can’t depend on one project or one route, it’s too heartbreaking and too impossible. Look, it never feels good to get rejected, but if you get rejected and then you have three other things open on your computer that you know you’ve got to get to, because you’re in the middle of them, then that takes the sting off.
Bowie: I was just going to say that — it takes the sting off just to have a Final Draft folder open on your computer when you get the call that they’re going in different directions. It makes things a little bit easier.
How much do you collaborate with each other, or just help each other out while you’re writing?
Denbo: We collaborate a lot, actually. We met improvising together and occasionally, when we were starting out as actors, we wound up doing a couple of commercials together. Then as we got into more theatrical representation [they] thought it was adorable to send us out together for things.
Bowie: And it is, but it’s a childcare nightmare.
Denbo: That was funny, but the truth is, I think people know us and they know us as being married. I think that they find it kind of fun and cute to sometimes throw us in to guest spots together, and it is. It is always delightful; it is always a childcare nightmare. I will say that because of that we have often tried writing together. It sometimes works, sometimes we abandon projects, but we are each other’s first stop on the “will you look at this for me please?” train.
Bowie: And it goes for acting too. We run lines with each other and she’s very good at giving notes and you’ve got someone who’s a good actor bouncing lines off of you, and it’s great.
Denbo: We do it often. There have been times in the past where, as actors, I’ve had to say “Yeah, I just need this for lines, I don’t want any notes. No notes!”
Bowie: There’s a time, if you’ve got a couple days before the audition, “let’s sit down and let’s—”
Denbo: You know, sometimes I genuinely don’t want your opinion.
Bowie: No, fair enough, but I also think there’s times where like, it’s that afternoon, I don’t want to get in my head about it, let’s just run these few lines, I don’t need feedback.
Denbo: I think the two most common things we hear, “Isn’t it hard to be married to another performer?” And “You guys must laugh all the time.” Let’s talk about the first one. I don’t know, I think something happens as you get older where you realize that you’re a team and that you are fighting for the same cause, and that you both live in the same house with the same kids and you have the same goals and you want those things for each other as much as you want them for yourselves.
Bowie: Also, I love being able to come home and have very specific complaints about the industry and not be like, yelling it at a carpenter. I need to be able to come home and be like, “Oh I went to see blank casting director with that thing that he does.”
Denbo: “Oh, I know exactly that you’re talking about.” Yeah, it’s good to have the common language and information. But it is also really delightful when John’s show just got canceled and that sucks, but he handed me the baton and he’s like “Hey, tag, American Princess is up, you’re it!” And I’m like “Oh, OK, you got the kids?” “I got the kids, I got this.” So we definitely have had this really fun balancing act that’s really worked in our favor. And then as far as when people say “You guys must laugh all the time.”
Bowie: We do. We probably laugh more than other couples, but the arguments can get pretty hairy.
Denbo: The arguments get very specific and the who, what and where is clarified. There’s a lot of improv tools that we use in our fighting too.
Bowie: All the stuff that makes you a good improviser, all that keen noticing of patterns and inflection, that only makes the fighting uglier. We’re just like, “Wait, hang on, what did you just say? No, no, no, that is not how you said it.”
Denbo: Yeah, exactly. The keen observation really makes for —
Bowie: It can bite you in the ass.
Denbo: It can bite you in the ass, that is true.
So that’s how your work can seep into your relationship, but what about how your relationship seeps into your work?
Denbo: The other thing that is either grotesquely adorable or just grotesque is that we do a two-person improv show more than a few times a year. We do it at comedy festivals, we do it at Upright Citizens Brigade, it’s called Super Married. And I would say at least half of the shows that we’ve done we’ve had an argument in the car on the way to the show.
Bowie: Not half!
Denbo: Alright, a few times. More than a few times.
Bowie: 40 percent.
Denbo: Great. It’s both therapeutic for us and delightful, and it reminds us of what we liked about each other 15 or 20 years ago. It’s still fun to work with John. He’s still the funniest person I know. So that does help. He’s not hilarious when he still doesn’t know how to load the dishwasher, that’s not so funny.
Bowie: There’s a lot of different ways to load a dishwasher.
Denbo: No there isn’t.
Bowie: It’s a versatile craft.
Denbo: I couldn’t disagree more. But, beyond that, doing Super Married reminds us of how we met in the first place, and how many couples get to return to their first date over and over and over again?
12 years today. Still the best wedding I ever attended.
A post shared by jamiedenbo (@jamiedenbo) on
How has the Writers Guild taking on agencies over packaging fees affected either of you?
Denbo: I had to fire CAA. It’s an interesting dilemma for someone like, I’m not going to speak for John right now, because John, again, has been primarily acting on Speechless as a regular. He’s done a bunch of writing work, but he’s still — it hasn’t been as much. I’m lucky because I’m not trying to get staffed right now because my show is about to air. It’s a different situation for people who are career television writers versus people like myself who are these multi-hyphenates, who have made their own work throughout the years.
If I had been staffed on many shows, if I were trying to get a staff job, it would affect me in personal ways that would be incredibly challenging. I’m very lucky because most of the work that I’ve put out there and gotten for myself, I have put out there and gotten for myself. Everything, whether it’s been Ronna and Beverly, whether it has been any of the pilots that I’ve written that have gone or been shot or not been shot, and then American Princess. It’s all stuff that I have been producing and putting out as opposed to trying to hook in to somebody else’s project. And I think that it’s just a different business model for how to be a writer.
So, in many ways I made it through a lot of my career without an agent — not to say that I don’t need an agent. I’m not upset by this whole apple cart falling over, but it does affect me differently than people who have career writing staff jobs, and I sympathize greatly with the people who are struggling right now to get staffed and to get their work. I’ll say this: I really wish everybody would just get back to the table. What is this, the U.S. government? Come on! This is Hollywood! We’re on the same page about abortion, sit down!
John, have you heard anything about shopping Speechless around or is that looking like it’s fully done?
Bowie: It’s hard to say. There’s always some chatter about that kind of thing nowadays because, well, you know.
Denbo: Well, because there’s a bunch of streamers that don’t have all their content yet.
Bowie: Yeah, I’ve heard some chit-chat about Hulu, there was something maybe even in this very publication, a roundtable where one of the executives talked about maybe shopping it elsewhere. I speak on behalf of the entire cast and the writers that we’d love to do more. [Creator Scott] Silveri was very careful to end every season on a note of closure and a note of ambiguity so if it was the end of the series, so be it. But if not, we had places to go. And we absolutely did have places to go. I feel like I’d have heard something by now yay or nay, so I’m not super optimistic, but also I’m just not super optimistic, period.
Denbo: I think John is also looking for a show where they’re going to want more nudity from him. So, don’t get me wrong, he’s disappointed, but he wants full frontal.
Bowie: I need a good streaming network to come along.
Denbo: You couldn’t do full frontal on ABC.
Bowie: No. Remember back in the ’90s you could show your butt all the time and it didn’t even have to be a good butt, it could be kind of like a doughy middle-aged butt and you could show it and it was like appointment television.
Denbo: Let’s just say John’s next job is going to be hot, hot, hot! NC-17, lots of warnings.
Bowie: Lot of TV-MA.
American Princess is based on Jamie’s personal experience, what has watching the evolution of that project been like?
Bowie: I would especially like to answer that, if I may, even though it’s not my project. Honestly, whether Jamie remembers this or not, on one of our first dates she took me out to a Renaissance fair in Westchester County.
Denbo: Oh, I remember.
Bowie: About an hour north of Tuxedo. And we took a video camera actually. Big clunky beast of a thing.
Denbo: Oh yeah, you put the VHS tape right inside.
Bowie: And somewhere in this house there’s a VHS tape of us on a very early date at the Renaissance fair. What’d you do? Three summers at the Renaissance fair?
Denbo: I did two summers and then a bunch of random one-off different other fairs.
Bowie: And it very much shaped her worldview, and also shaped her flexibility and her work ethic, I think, and she has been trying to tell a story set in the Renaissance fair as long as I’ve known her. I’ve seen American Princess go through, it’s not even fair to call them drafts, reincarnations —
Denbo: There was the one-person show, there was the 125-page Christopher Guest-style mockumentary screenplay that we did a reading of, there was a short that I made that was just kind of us walking around the fair. I was pregnant at the time. It’s a story I’ve wanted to tell for 25 years, and the alchemy wasn’t right until this version.
Bowie: There were a few different things aside from the version being really strong, I think there was something in the zeitgeist right now, where people could go for something that is sweet and escapist and not old-fashioned in its presentation but old-fashioned in its content. It literally takes place in a fake Renaissance, and I think there’s something really soothing about that in some rather troubling times.
Denbo: It’s funny Game of Thrones-ish, not really. But there is something also about this particular time when all of us if we’re not young enough to be millennials who are dogged by this idea that they’re completely attached to their phones, whether that’s true or not. As a Gen Xer, I can tell you Gen X are sure attached to our phones. And we’re constantly freaking out about our kids and screen time and here you’ve got a place where they’re not complete luddites, people use technology at the Renaissance festival, but so much of what goes on at the Renaissance festival is so retro and so old-school. It’s analog and it’s based on human eye-to-eye contact and connection, and that’s really something that people try to escape to and be a part of. And so to have that story told right now seems very, very, very appropriate. It just seems like a great fit.
Bowie: I remember you writing a version of this in like ’05, pre-iPhone, and us not being entirely sure why we couldn’t find a place to set it up or anything. And you look at it now and, like, oh of course now in 2019 is when we really need a show like this. Patrick Gallagher said something really interesting where he likened American Princess to Glee, in the sense of it’s about these communities of people that don’t necessarily fit in anywhere else, whether it be show choir or the Renaissance fair, and it was interesting to see someone who worked on both shows draw that connection.
Denbo: Yeah, and I think people are desperate for community and we’re finding more and more online communities, but how real is that? How much real connection do you get there? I don’t want to discount it, it’s just a question I’m asking. There are places where you can find IRL communities as well.
And honestly the cons, the rise of the con, the Comic-Con, the Star Trek Con, the Drag Con, the Beauty Con, that’s one way that people connect and they find themselves online and then they find themselves in real life connecting with all of these people. The Ren fair is almost like the O.G. Con. It’s been there since the mid-’60s, borne of the hippy movement and the desire to come and connect with people. So there’s a lot of meaning in it happening right now.
#tfw When the showrunner talks dirty to you. #AmericanPrincess premieres Sunday at 9pm EST on @lifetimetv. A privileged young lady’s (@georgiaannflood) life implodes and she finds refuge at the Renaissance Faire. Mead! Bosoms! Me in a leather hat in episode 2! Two part premiere is this Sunday – hasten to thine DVRs, good gentles!
A post shared by John Ross Bowie (@johnrossbowie) on
Is there anything else you want to ask each other, since we’re on record here?
Denbo: John, will you keep your hiatus beard until you get a new job?
Bowie: I will keep my hiatus beard. The fun thing about doing your show is that I got to work with my hiatus beard.
Denbo: Yes, because it was the Ren fair and we like beards.
Bowie: So that was fun. That was the only time I’ve been on camera with a full beard. And a “full beard” for me is, I’m putting it in quotes. I was more hirsute than usual.
Denbo: Was there anything you wanted to ask me?
Bowie: If it hadn’t been a show about the Ren fair, what would it have been? If not that, what’s the other subculture or world you’d like to explore?
Denbo: Working at Disney, in the theme parks, which is also something that I did. I’ve had a very unconventional past to this place we call Hollywood. Oh, one more question.
Bowie: For me?
Denbo: Yeah. Who’s picking up the kids?
Bowie: Uh, you are, ’cause I got a thing at 2:30.
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