If Jillian Armenante looks familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen her in one of her many roles on television and film in the last 20 years. From Girl, Interrupted to Scandal, to her newest role on Fresh off the Boat, the out actress has been consistently working since she arrived in Hollywood. With her new series Kittens in a Cage, Jillian is both in front and behind the camera, as she wrote the show and also plays Barbara, the cannibalistic inmate who enjoys a good nudie mag.
A fan of 1950s women in prison films like Caged and Cell Block H, Jillian says she read the script for the play the show is based on and immediately saw it on screen.
“I’d gone up to Seattle and went to go visit my old theater and a very talented playwright named Colleen Conway Blanchard had written a play that was running away in the Seattle theater and I said ‘Send me a script, I want to look at it,’ and I laughed my hiney off,” Jillian said. “I just thought, ‘I can see this. I can visually see this.’ And so she allowed me to sort of write on top of her writing and adapt it, make it a screenplay-or teleplay or webby play, whatever you call it!”
Only a month after finding and adapting the two hour series (which is now separated into seven episodes and available on Vimeo on Demand) Jillian launched a Kickstarter for the project, raising $54,000 and shooting the series in 16 days.
“It was fast and furious,” Jillian said. But what made it fun was that Jillian wrote each character specifically for the person cast in the role, including Rebecca Mozo, who stars as Junie.
“I pretty much worked with almost everybody in the cast in some year or another,” she said. “Mozo is a Jersey girl and I’d cast her at a reading in USC. She’s a classically trained actress and then she’d walk around outside and say [in Jersey accent], ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ And because I’m a Jersey girl, I was like Who’s that?! She’s trouble! I gotta hear her read.’ And the two of us got along ridiculously famously.”
Erin Anderson plays Junie’s love interest, Vickie, and even though she was brought on last minute after another actress had to drop out, Jillian says they also became “fast friends.”
“We’ve been a lovely sick family ever since. The cast, the crew—everybody. It’s like we can’t stop getting together several times a week,” she said. “They’re a fun group of people.”
The fun resonates on screen. Following a ragtag group of women in prison (and the women who keep them in line), Kittens in a Cage is a campy 1950s tale of a good girl gone bad enough to end up behind bars, but where she fatefully finds the love she’s been hoping for. Jillian said that when she was was pitching the show to distributors, she never emphasized it being a lesbian love story.
“It’s a very interesting thing because I sort of didn’t see [Kittens in a Cage] as a gay story even though it is. I know the struggle of coming out from my youth was great, but in my day-to-day dealing with the world, I don’t think like, oh this is different, I’m different! I just direct a love story, you know what I mean? And they both happen to be women,” Jillian said. “I feel like Rebecca Mozo’s character, Junie, is just sort of abandoned by bad choices and abandoned by her mother, and it just shows the world closes in on her, in a way, and then she finds this other hurt, defensive person and the world becomes a hopeful possibility again. Which I think is universal. That’ s the way I feel the world, and that’s what makes it important. Yeah, it’s a gay story.”
Prior to Kittens, Jillian has written several award-winning plays, including In Flagrante Gothicto, which she co-wrote with her producer/screenwriter wife of 19 years, Alice Dodd and was “loosely based” on their getting married. Before moving to L.A., Jillian ran a gay theater company in Seattle.
“I’m queer and I’ve always been queer, and I haven’t come out in Hollywood—I sort of showed up in Hollywood that way, ” Jillian said. “So I didn’t hide it and then announce it when I got on a big show.”
Jillian and wife Alice
Currently starring on ABC’s Fresh off the Boat, Jillian said she knows how important it is for minority communities to see themselves represented on screen.
“I’m watching the Asian community be like, ‘Wow, I get to see myself on network television for the first time in 20 years!’ and that’s how I feel,” Jillian said. “I grew up holding onto those movies like Entre Nous—all those films that you go ‘Oh! I’m not alone in the universe.'”
Jillian on “Fresh Off the Boat”
Jillian says her roles on film and TV tend to be “lovable sort of geeky people,” which is not what she is like in real life. In the theater, though, she says she plays “strong people,” which is why she wanted to bring that part of her to her Kittens in a Cage character.
“Well I just thought Barbara was such a fantastic character and the sidekick, the side car, the wingman. And I like that the wingman does have a dimension,” Jillian said. “She doesn’t speak very much, which is sort of great when you’re directing a two hour feature on a micro budget. [laughs]”
While Orange is the New Black comparisons will likely be unavoidable, Jillian admits she hasn’t watched the Netflix series.
“I have not seen it, purposely. Because honestly, we started this easily six months before Orange is the New Black aired and I do actually have friends at Netflix, so it was a hope that hopefully something there would happen but then Orange is the New Black came out and I thought, ‘Oh god. Oh god, really?'” Jillian said. “And so I purposely didn’t want to see it until this is out in the world and so I can’t compare to it. I mean, I know interestingly enough, while we started creating this, Wentworth was being made—I mean there’s a lot coming around and I had been a huge fan of women’s prison movies for many years: Caged or Cell Block H—all those TV shows and moves that I grew up on that were fascinating to me and women being contained, or women behind bars, any of that stuff. Especially in the 1950s when it was such an odd restraint in terms of sexuality. So you have that whole torn butch/femme aesthetic; hide in order to survive. It’s interesting to me. So I haven’t seen it but they’ve been pretty swell about tweeting us out so I’m very happy about that and I do know a bunch of the actors so I think that may be my show for this week! I didn’t want to be influenced at all, or be like, ‘Oh man! They have three million dollars and we don’t!'”
While they might share similar settings and a blonde protagonist, Kittens in a Cage is decidedly different in its campy setting and 1950s vernacular.
“My parents fell and love in the early ’50s so we sort of had it in our house anyway: ‘Gee, swell! So’s your old man? Have a cup of Joe!'” Jillian said. “I’ve just always loved that kind of speech because I think it’s how my parents are speaking. I just feel like that time period is a little more contained and there’s more of a conflict to brush up against. And in terms of camp that is wonderfully based in reality by the actors, we retained that because we had such, I think, amazing theater actors as our inner-core team. … I let the actors play and let them do what they’re doing on camera.”
Jillian has already begun working on the next part of Kittens in a Cage, which she is hopeful will be funded and filmed very soon.
“We’re writing already and would love to get another one in the can early, depending on how what kind of budget we can get and where and all that. So I’m ready to go!” she said. “We’re very excited We’ve been writing back story for all the other characters and we have really amazing, funny ideas I won’t get into but would love to keep going.”
Watch Kittens in a Cage now from Vimeo on Demand.