Parrots and Pandemics

Actress and screenwriter Jenna Lyng Adams on how she had to go through flames to make her pandemic thriller Before the Fire.

The parrots fly over my house every night at dusk, their screeches echoing across the dusty rose sky. I wonder if the mountains can contain them, or if they don’t bother to try.

These days, I’m home every night. And every night, I wait for them. Red-crowned parrots are lime green with bright flashes of red on their wings and the tops of their heads, but all I can see are their black silhouettes. They fly in hordes from tens to hundreds, unafraid to make noise and take up space. I mostly wear black and keep to myself.

The parrots’ near-extinct population in Northeastern Mexico found a new and conveniently similar habitat in Southern California. Some say exotic pet smugglers let them loose before they were caught in the illegal trade. Some say owners grew tired of their vocal companions and gave them up to the sky. But my favorite urban legend claims a fire erupted in a pet shop, and the surviving birds escaped the flames and their own captivity.

Many locals consider them a nuisance – loathe them, even – but I find them a comforting presence. The parrots aren’t native to California, but then again, neither am I. We all find ways to survive, and if we’re lucky, thrive.

Jenna Lyng Adams during the making of the forthcoming film Presence. (Photo by Caleb Phillips.)

Six years ago, I didn’t know there were wild parrots anywhere in Los Angeles. I moved swiftly between apartments, never settling in long enough to call them home. In my neighborhood, there was as much concrete as there was sky, and the dominant birds were crows. Their beady, knowing eyes told me they’d been here longer than me, and would be here long afterwards too.

I worked four jobs, and only two of them paid. The line between a broke actor and a working actor can be crossed in mere minutes, but it was the song and dance towards it that took real endurance. I screen tested three times for series regulars before I had even booked my first guest star role.

I called my manager, “Can I just get a small part? I’ll take anything.”

“We’re being strategic,” he said. “You’re a leading lady.” I didn’t feel like one.

I called my agent, and before I could say anything, he asked “What are you doing in the room?” I stammered in response, I didn’t know. “Well, you’re doing something wrong,” he said. “You’re good and you’re pretty, so you’re doing something to mess it up.”

My car kept breaking down. Without warning, the transmission would shift and lock in neutral while I was driving. It happened on the freeway a few times, and I’d be forced to an abrupt stop in the middle of traffic, cars narrowly missing me, their horns ominously approaching and angrily receding. “This is how I die,” I thought, driving home from a beer commercial audition. The first few times I brought it into the shop, the mechanic told me it was fine. And, again, I wondered what I was doing wrong.

It felt like I was being thrown at every wall to see if I would stick to something, before I even knew how this business worked. Bruised and desperately wanting to take control, I went back to the drawing board. I refused to die on the 405. I hate the 405.

Jenna Lyng Adams on the set of Before the Fire. (Photo by Drew Bienemann.)

So, I got my car fixed, dusted off my film degree, and started working in production to pay the bills. It wasn’t what I wanted, but my rent was more manageable and, unlike acting, all I needed was competence. Still, there were 10 changes of clothes in my car at all times. I could lead a tech scout for a rap video and read for the role of a sexy demon on a teen drama an hour later. Most days, I wasn’t in the same outfits long enough to dirty them, rapidly shedding each skin in my car and slipping on another. The perpetual game of musical chairs was draining, but I hoped eventually the song would end and I could rest in one seat.

After long days on set, in production meetings, at auditions, or all of the above, I worked a closing retail shift. Finally making it home after dark, I reveled in the quiet, uninterrupted time with my thoughts. My sacred space to create something wholly mine.

And, in the middle of the night, I wrote about the end of the world. I gathered all of my anger, frustration, fear and paranoia and poured it into a story about survival, identity, and finding inner strength. A story of fighting for my life felt more real than the monotonous existence I was leading, waiting for something to change.

When the script was finished in the winter of 2015, I drove back to the Midwest to shoot a film with too few resources but too much momentum to stop it. Sometimes the process felt like vengeance, mocking everyone who rejected me, who wouldn’t give me a shot, and who found me lacking in some capacity. The story was set in a global pandemic, a reality that seemed distant at the time. I placed my body in a burning house as if to test my luck. The flames licking me, my fragility calloused into invincibility. I ran through cornfields in freezing temperatures, broke my tailbone doing my own stunts, and stripped away the layers of makeup I typically leaned on for castings. If I could survive this, I thought, I could survive L.A.

Jenna Lyng Adams in Before the Fire. (Photo by Drew Bienemann.)

But afterwards, I went back to Los Angeles, and it felt the same as before the fire. The search for an apartment, the juggling of jobs, the defeat in casting rooms, the pressures of crisis management on set. “I don’t know if this is worth it anymore,” I thought.

I spent too much time trying to get the wrong people to take me seriously. The sexism I faced was so lazily blatant, I became numb to it. My cheeks burned as I blinked slowly in reaction, knowing there was nothing I could do or say without losing my job. Talking about sexism is exhausting. I don’t want to be a “female” filmmaker, I just want to be a filmmaker.

I’ve always heard the creative process hinges on connecting with your inner child, but it’s hard when she so desperately wants everyone to see her as someone serious. A serious actor. A serious writer. A serious filmmaker. How does a young woman let her inner child play in a world that wants to own her, touch her and consume her?

I had been gripping my heart so tightly in my hands, I got used to the feel of it. It took me years to let go. But in doing so, I finally surrounded myself with the right kind of people who treated me the right kind of ways. When you pull your hands away from your heart, you make room for others to hold it. I was pulled in so many directions for so many years, there were pieces of me all over the city. Some I left where they were, and others I gently scooped up and swept back into place. It became easier to smile, I became quicker to laugh.

I began to write about joy. I found light in the darkness, and humor in the absurdity. The more levity I brought into my scripts and performances, the more they came alive. I learned to soften into the hard edges of my female experience, one as deeply rooted in pain and trauma as it is in joy and compassion. It was like stepping into the sunlight after being in a dark room for a long time. My eyes struggled to adjust, but I took my time. Everyone wears sunglasses here, anyways.

Years later, when I opened my first payment as a screenwriter, I stared at the numbers on the check. “I’m a real writer,” I told my friend Emily. The bartender swooped by in response to our festive cheers, and we ordered a round of tequila. “She is officially a professional screenwriter!” Emily said, and the female bartender beamed back at us. I knew that smile. We are all many things. I wondered how many outfits she had in the trunk of her car. “Coming right up,” she said.

Jenna Lyng Adams on the red carpet at the 2020 SAG Awards, a nominee for The Kominsky Method. (Photo by Jackson Adams.)

I’m not where I want to be yet, but I’m grateful for the winding path towards it. Now I approach roles like a gift, not a prize. I write stories for their heart, their rage, and everything in between. We need to laugh as much as we need to cry, and love as much as we need to fight. Or maybe we need to do one so that we can do the other.

“I feel like there’s nothing between my chest and the world,” I said a few months into quarantine, a few weeks after a man was murdered under another man’s knee, and both my cities were burning.

“Write that down,” Emily said. I didn’t. But I remembered. How could I forget when I refuse to cover it again?

The poetic irony of creating a film about a fake apocalypse and now surviving what feels like a real one is not lost on me. I put myself through hell for a fictional pandemic, only to find myself in its reality. But I was forged from a fire I started myself. And every night, the parrots remind me of it. Sometimes you have to fly through flames to free yourself from captivity.

I believe the entertainment industry will be among the first to rise from the ashes of hatred and exclusion, thrusting new voices into the light. These creators who lurked in the margins for so long won’t sit quietly in the wings for the mic to be passed to them. They’re just going to take it.

Five years since production, my movie Before the Fire premiered last week. It’s a story about facing your trauma and finding redemption when all hope seems lost. For me, it’s like watching a stranger from a different life. I want to tell her that it’s going to be OK, she does belong, and she has the strength to survive. But like my character, I also know she will learn it for herself.
Featured image of Jenna Lyng Adams by Jackson Adams.

Twice SAG Award-nominated, Jenna Lyng Adams works both in front and behind the camera as an actor and producer in Los Angeles. The pandemic thriller Before the Fire, which she stars in and also wrote, is out now in virtual cinemas and digital/VOD through Dark Sky Films. She has produced music videos for major artists and digital content for a long list of big brands garnering millions of views online. Her most notable acting roles include the Golden Globe-winning Netflix comedy The Kominsky Method by Chuck Lorre with Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin and indie film Uncle John (official SXSW selection) with John Ashton and Alex Moffat. Jenna is currently penning a dark comedy TV pilot for HBO Max called So Much. She is a graduate of Emerson College in Boston. (Image by Jackson Adams.)