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Department of Theatre and Dance

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Alum Takes On Role in BET's "Bobby Brown Story"

MFA Acting Alum Yvonne Senat Jones on her most high-profile role to date, making it in Hollywood, and how she's learned to make auditioning a "snap."

You can take the girl out of LA, but you can’t take the LA out of the girl.

That certainly proved true for alumna Yvonne Senat Jones, who graduated with an MFA in Acting degree from the University of SC in 2013.  Like all MFA actors, Jones was inundated with roles and responsibilities during the intense first and second years of the program.  In addition to extensive training, she taught classes, created original work, and juggled it all while being cast in demanding parts like Blanche DuBois and Lady Macbeth. To sum it up, she hustled. 

And that's just what the LA native would do when she returned to her hometown for her third-year internship, which she spent establishing the foundation for a professional acting career that has, in her words, “really accelerated this last year.”  Since beginning that internship year, she has appeared in national commercials (for brands like Scion, True Value, and Sylvania), several short and full-length films, a regional premiere of the musical In the Heights, and television shows like Code Black, S.W.A.T., and The Orville.  Most of this was accomplished while working part-time at several side jobs, from teaching to retail to Lyft driving.

Again, the girl’s got hustle.

In the last year, she has gone full-time in her acting pursuits, leading to her most high-profile role to date -- appearing as Robyn Crawford, Whitney Houston’s longtime friend, in BET’s The Bobby Brown Story, which premieres September 4.

While filming in Atlanta earlier this year, Yvonne stopped by the University to speak to current students, and sat down for a brief interview about her latest role, the challenges of the audition game, and how UofSC taught her to “snap” herself into shape.


Let’s start with your third year MFA internship in 2012-13.  You spent that time basically interning for yourself, doing the work of getting a professional acting career started.

 I went to LA in my third year, which was awesome and gave me an opportunity to get a leg up and get started.  I had a game plan of what I was going to do when I was there and just hustled, and then kept sending follow-up emails to Robyn [Hunt] and Steve [Pearson] letting them know what I accomplished, which was great at keeping me accountable, too.   I knew that’s where I wanted to end up.  My family’s from there, I’m from there… I already had a commercial agent, so I knew that once I was back in town I could start booking again, and I did.  I booked a few national commercials that year.  My commercial agent had formed a new agency, and I applied to the theatrical side [of that agency], but didn’t get in, so I was kind of on my own, building up my reel and doing a lot of film classes, and auditioning for film because that was a new beast.  Auditioning on a regular basis is not really something you can prepare for.  You can get the training on how to do it, but to conquer the waiting room mentality, and in-room mentality, you just have to experience it, and that in itself trains you.

I started auditioning for student films, thinking the experience of being in the audition room would hopefully transfer over, so I wouldn’t be so petrified if I was in the room with a big-name casting director.  And that was a good way to get some contacts.  I was able to book a role in a short film at USC (California), and that film ended up going to festivals.  That gave me a name among USC grad students, and I ended up involved in another film that was able to win the Hollywood Short Film Festival and was a selection in the American Black Film Festival.

Thankfully, I didn’t get picked up by that agency when I wanted to, because I got married, and that year was incredibly hectic with the wedding and still working part-time but not being very flexible in my part-time job.  When I did get taken on a year later, my agent informed me that she had done several cuts of actors who were not as available, so I probably would have been cut had I been picked up before I got married.  When I look back in hindsight, everything had its timing.  I just had to have faith at the time, and it helps me have faith now, that everything happens when it’s supposed to happen.


You were working part-time while pursuing your acting career?

Yes, I just went full-time [with acting].  I’d actually had the same day job since graduating from high school, working for T-Mobile.  Even in graduate school, I would go back to T-Mobile during the summers.  So, when I came back to LA during my internship year, I had income coming in.  This January, I was finally able to become a full-time actress.  It’s definitely a little bit tighter on the budget now, but the benefit is that I did get a lot of auditions as soon as I left.  Within three weeks, I had to be in Atlanta filming for a three-week shoot [for The Bobby Brown Story].  It was again perfect timing.


Tell us about your role in “The Bobby Brown Story.”

It’s a made-for-TV, two-night event on BET.  I believe my character is just in the first night.  I’m playing Robyn Crawford, who had been Whitney Houston’s best friend since aged 16, then executive assistant, then creative artistic director until she left in 2000.  I wanted to stay true to who she was and not just create what I felt like the media perception of her is — and everyone had their opinion on their relationship and who she was to [Whitney.]  I was able to find one interview from Robyn, and from that I was able to get her mannerisms and how she spoke.  It’s completely different from any other role I’m used to playing.  I usually play very girly, feminine women, so to be offered the opportunity to play someone different was exciting, and the fact that I played it well enough to book it was equally exciting!


You also landed roles in the TV shows “S.W.A.T.” and “Code Black” in the last year.

I actually booked S.W.A.T. and Code Black within a week of each other!  Code Black is funny because I’m a surgical nurse, so all you see are my eyes and eyebrows because I have a mask and hat on.  But I do have my lines!


It’s a benefit to get more auditions, but it’s also a challenge in that you hear “no” more.  You can see it as a negative — “I keep going into rooms and not booking, what’s wrong with me?”  Or, you can see it as a positive — “I’m getting into rooms, thousands of people apply, and they usually only pick twenty or thirty to come in.”   Getting those auditions themselves are all little successes, and it can be really beneficial if you see it that way. 


Are there any lessons you’d like to share that you’ve picked up over the last five years of pursuing this career?

I’d love to share!  The biggest thing I have come to grips with this year is the time frame that I’ve given myself for acting — I’m not putting limits on it anymore.  For me, it works better as a full, life-long career path.  If I’m getting into audition rooms and not booking, but I still keep coming back in, maybe I’ll book a year from now or three years from now.  That’s given me a lot more freedom mentally, and less pressure in the room, which is huge.  It kind of goes back to theatre [at UofSC].  Here, we were booked all the time, so instead of focusing on “Am I going to book it,” it was like, “Who am I going to play?” and “I can’t wait to focus on that character.” If I just take that mentality, then I get back to the heart of the matter, which is that I love to act like someone else, and I’m just going to be this character, and no one else is this character for those few minutes.  I’m going to show what I’ve decided about them, how I see them, and then feel satisfied I did the best job I could.

I went to a SAG workshop and one of the things [the instructor] said is that [in an audition] the probability is that you will not book the role, and he put it into metrics.  Honestly, a 10% booking rate is very strong for an actor.  The probability is that you won’t book more than you will.  There are tons of different reasons why they book you that are completely out of your control, and you just have to trust that the right roles are going to be for you.  I feel like even this booking [The Bobby Brown Story] was like mental and emotional gymnastics around the idea that what’s meant for me is for me.

It’s a benefit to get more auditions, but it’s also a challenge in that you hear “no” more.  You can see it as a negative — “I keep going into rooms and not booking, what’s wrong with me?”  Or, you can see it as a positive — “I’m getting into rooms, thousands of people apply, and they usually only pick twenty or thirty to come in.”   Getting those auditions themselves are all little successes, and it can be really beneficial if you see it that way.

That actually allows me to have a really strong community of actors around me.  Even actors who are “my type,” who book the same as me, we still help each other out, and share resources.  It’s kind of like being back in grad school, with that group of people who are all trying to help each other.  I strongly suggest finding that kind of community of actors who are selfless and encouraging, which isn’t as hard to find as you would think in LA.  Most people are good people who don’t want to sabotage you.


Is there any training from your days at UofSC that shows up in your work now?

A lot of things!  We did an exercise of walking a tight rope with Steve, and at the time it was just fun.  You don’t think about how it’s going to be helpful in the room.  But, during this season of having a lot of auditions, I remember thinking about the tightrope because when we were first shown it, we were like, “How are we ever going to get across this thing?”  And, I remember that we practiced and practiced and eventually everyone made it across, and Steve told us, “Once you’ve already made it across and are starting to doubt yourself the next time, know that you already did this. You have the skill set and the know-how to do it.”  And then he would just snap, which meant to sink into your core, trust yourself, and just go.  I’ve actually snapped in the waiting room to remind myself when I start doubting that I have the skill set already, I’ve done this before, and I need to trust myself and just go.  It has actually been such a great help because it’s something physical I can do that my body responds to.

I recently told [Associate Professor] Erica Tobolski that I was working on my vocal technique for The Bobby Brown Story.  Robyn has a lower vocal register than mine, so I used some of the vocal exercises I learned when I played Lady Macbeth, who I also played in a lower register.

I think honestly just the experience of being on the main stages was such a gift.  I got to play Blanche Dubois.  I go to that when I get ten pages the night before an audition that I’m supposed to be off-book for.  I’m like, “Yvonne, this is nothing, stop whining.  You did an entire play where there were only two scenes you weren’t on stage for.”  I think it’s the accumulation of all of it — knowing that I went through it and was successful — that has been such a strong encouragement when I start to doubt myself, especially as audition opportunities are starting to get bigger.

I’m very, very grateful for UofSC.





















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