Naomi McDougall Jones is an award-winning writer, actress, and producer based in New York City. She is currently in post-production on her second feature film, BITE ME, with producers Jack Lechner (THE FOG OF WAR, BLUE VALENTINE) and Sarah Wharton (THAT’S NOT US), which she wrote and also starred in opposite Christian Coulson (HARRY POTTER), Annie Golden (ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK), and Naomi Grossman (AMERICAN HORROR STORY). Naomi’s first feature film, which she also wrote, produced, and starred in, was the 12-time award-winning IMAGINE I'M BEAUTIFUL. The film received a theatrical release and is now available on iTunes, Amazon, and GooglePlay (www.imagineimbeautiful.com). A pilot she wrote, THE DARK PIECES, is now in development for television in Canada after having been named on The 2016 WriteHer List as one of the top 16 unproduced pilots by a female screenwriter. Naomi was one of the writers for Amazon’s prestige series THE NEW YORKER PRESENTS, which premiered at Sundance. Naomi has become an advocate and speaker for bringing gender parity to cinema. She gave a virally sensational TEDTalk, What it’s Like to Be a Woman in Hollywood, which has now been viewed almost 1 million times and can be seen on TED.com. She additionally hosts the podcast Fear(ful)less: Filmmaking From the Edge about her adventures as an indie filmmaker, available on iTunes and GooglePlay.
What do I do best?
Fundamentally, my superpower is as a storyteller – the ability to process some facet of the human experience and translate that in a way that other people can feel, understand, and relate to. Whether I am literally telling stories through my films or communicating the story of the need for more female voices in film in my activism, I consider myself above all a conductor for and translator of stories.
What makes me the best version of myself?
I suppose I have an underlying optimism about myself and the world that allows me to march forward through the hard and discouraging times with the vision of something better on the other side.
My optimism about myself led me to set out on the journey of making my first feature film, Imagine I’m Beautiful, fueled by the (largely unearned) sheer belief that I and my team could pull it off, despite having never gone to film school and without any formal training besides having acted on a lot of other people’s film sets. The fact that we, as a team of nobodies with no connections to speak of, managed to pull that off was certainly only possible because of the sheer conviction we had that we could do it.
My optimism about the world as a place that is moving constantly, if circuitously, towards a more equal and inclusive time gives me the energy and passion to continue standing up and speaking about and working toward bringing more women’s voices into film. That work is exhausting and, at times, feels impossible to the point of wanting to simply say, “Never mind. Forget about it. Just keep doing what you’re doing.” A core optimism that each of us fighting forward in the limited ways we can will ultimately lead to a greater cultural shift is the only thing that keeps me lifting myself off the mat.
What are my aspirations?
I am in the extraordinarily privileged position right now of being able to say that I am already largely living my dream professionally.
I am now in post-production on my second feature film, Bite Me, which, like with my first, I was able to write, produce, and star in. With both films, I have had the inexplicable joys of getting to tell stories I care deeply about and collaborating with teams who are passionate, dedicated artists and have made me better every day by continually raising the bar on the work.
I am currently writing my third feature film and I look forward with great anticipation to getting to do the same thing with that one. The public response to Imagine I’m Beautiful was intensely fulfilling to me as it has led to conversations with people truly all over the world about what the film meant to them, how it has moved their hearts, changed their minds, or challenged them in some way. The ability to produce that effect on another human being and, in some way, to make them, for the period of two hours, feel more seen or less alone than they do normally is the one and only purpose of making art, as far as I’m concerned. I have been extremely blessed to have experienced that divinity many times in my career. I can’t wait to go through that process again with Bite Me when it is released later in 2018.
If I get to continue doing that for the rest of my life, not only will I continue to be happy and fulfilled, but I will consider myself to have lived a good life.
It is my passionate hope that we will see absolute and inclusive gender parity in front of and behind the camera within my lifetime (my moonshot is to arrive there by 2028) and I strive to continue to do everything in my power to be part of making that happen. But, even if we do reach parity in this generation, my assumption is that we will never be able to take our hands off the wheel of that particular cause, so that is less of an aspiration than a presumed state of being for the duration of my career.
On a personal front, my word for 2018 is going to be “ease.” I have worked with a ferocious single-mindedness these past ten years to get to the point of living my professional dream and, frankly, I have not always done a good job of making sure I held enough space for myself in the middle of that. While it seems unlikely that I will be able to work less in this coming year, my intention is to approach that work with greater ease – allowing myself to enjoy how far I’ve come and releasing some of the struggle of the early years. I have been so far running what is a marathon as a sprint and I’m aware that if I don’t ease up on myself that I’m going to pull something.
My Biggest Success?
The thing I’m proudest of is that the career I have built is so wholly and authentically born out of who I am and what I believe in. The funny thing about is that my life now bears so little resemblance to the dream I had as a child, teenager, and college student.
The laser-beam focused dream of my life was that I was going to be an actress and only an actress and that was it. Then I got out of college and began auditioning and quickly realized that a) the roles available to women were almost exclusively demeaning, two-dimensional, outright exploitative, and/or wildly uninteresting and b) that fundamentally in who I was and what I looked like, I was the wrong sort of woman to be hired as an actress in my industry – too smart, too strong, not-quite-pretty-enough, too opinionated.
Confronted with that reality, I started writing plays so that I’d have more interesting female characters to play, and then, through that, began to realize that I, as an artist and a human, actually had some things I really wanted to say to the world. Eventually that led me to writing and producing films because I wanted to reach a wider audience than just the theater-going populace of New York City. Except then I discovered, to my surprise and horror, that the film industry was expressly not interested in women making films or women’s stories being told by women, so then I had to figure out how to get my films made truly independently – which also ended up allowing me greater artistic freedom than I would have had making them “in the system.” That also led me to begin speaking out against the rampant sexism in the film industry (many years before the Weinstein revelations began bringing that into mainstream conversation), which, in turn has led to a whole rainbow of incredibly interesting and fulfilling opportunities, such as giving my TEDTalk and co-founding The 51 Fund, a venture capital fund to finance films by women, and has also led to a larger platform to reach people with my own films.
It’s been this amazing and strange journey. It has often felt like that trick where you’re asked to pull a handkerchief out of a magician’s hat, but that handkerchief is attached to another, is attached to another, and so suddenly here I am standing here holding this whole colorful pile of fabrics, when I only set out to grab the one. But now, in addition, to being an actress (and getting to play the richest, most interesting roles I can dream up in my films), here I am in the middle of this career that is infinitely richer and more fulfilling than anything I could have imagined: as a writer, an actress, a producer, a soon-to-be author, a speaker, an activist, an entrepreneur, a podcaster…and every one of them on my terms and without having had to sacrifice any part of myself to fit into someone else’s box.
That feels like a very good kind of success.
My Most Challenging Moment?
Oof. There have been such a very great many that it’s hard to pick just one.
The one that leaps to my mind was two years ago, right around this time of year – New Year’s -- which can be a particularly confronting occasion when things aren’t going your way and you’re looking at what hasn’t happened over the last year. I was two years into trying to get my second feature film, Bite Me, made and we were just running into brick walls no matter what path we ran down. The process of trying to get a film made is much like some demented game where you have to get 17 cats into a room with 15 doors. And so, for two years, we’d go through the cycle of getting maybe 13 cats into the room and it would look like it was going to happen and then suddenly they would all run out again and we’d be back to square one. This cycle had just happened again and we were looking down the barrel of having to start over again trying to put the pieces back together again.
Now, in fairness, this is the story of every indie film that has ever been made – you can go through this cycle for ten years and then suddenly it all comes together and you have a smash hit (as famously happened with Blue Valentine). But the knowledge that this is just the way it goes, never makes the process easier, particularly early in your career before you’ve been through it enough to develop a more Zen feeling about the whole enterprise.
So, there I was, and another year had passed without the film being made and suddenly finding ourselves once again at square one. And my optimism was slipping – I was starting to feel this really grasping sense of despair: how could we have beaten all the odds and worked so hard to get the first film made and it won all of these awards and gotten distribution and now getting the second one made is still this hard?!
I went over to visit my friend, Caitlin Gold, who had produced Imagine I’m Beautiful with me, and I was sitting in her kitchen and she asked me how I was and I just absolutely lost it. I sat there sobbing for over an hour, completely unable to pull myself together, and I remember wailing to her, “I’m just not sure we’re ever going to get to make this film. We’ve tried absolutely everything and nothing is working and I’m not sure I’m ever going to get to make another film and maybe I’m just not good enough and I don’t know what I’m going to do if I can’t tell stories…etc, etc.” I had such a sensation of drowning, of blackness – I couldn’t even feel the possibility that there would ever be light again.
It would be another six months after that conversation until we got our first investor in the film and things really turned onto the path that eventually allowed us to make the film, so it wasn’t that there was light right after that. But I did eventually stop crying that night and the next day and the day after that, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, and doing the work and kept moving forward and trying things until, eventually, they worked.
We often hear stories of actors or filmmakers who are on the verge of leaving the business right before they get the phone call that is their big break and completely turns their career around and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. There’s a period of time in most artistic careers – I call it “the middle years” – that I think is really the hardest. It’s after you’ve been in the business for a while and the cute 42nd Street days of the starving artist struggle are over – you’ve attained some level of success. But you haven’t yet “made it” and, usually, you are still in the same dire financial straits you’ve been in since day one and you know you’re good because you’ve gotten somewhere, but there’s a serious question that’s starting to creep in of whether that will be enough, whether you will be enough, and you’re just plain tired from struggling so hard for so long. It’s that thing about it being the darkest right before the light. That, for me at least, was the very hardest time I’ve ever been through.
I don’t really have a pithy motto that sums this up, but what I’ve arrived at is this:
Perhaps you’re religious and/or feel like you know some greater meaning of life, but I am not and do not. As far as I’m concerned, the fact of consciousness or that any one of us happens to be alive is probably just a wild and fairly bizarre accident of cosmic history.
Maybe there’s something more or something after, but we can’t know that – I, at least, don’t know that – so what we know, then, is that we are alive and consciousness right now. What an utterly extraordinary and improbable gift that is. That you are alive and aware and able to read this interview and move your body or do anything else in this moment is so unlikely and awesome in its truest sense. We’ve been given this time as living, conscious beings. None of us knows how long we get – but we have gotten some amount of time so far and, unless we are extremely unlucky, we’re going to have some amount of time past this moment.
What you choose to do with that gift of time is absolutely everything. When thought of in that context, fear becomes truly ridiculous. What are you afraid of? How can you allow fear, or anything else, prevent you from mining every last experience, act, and emotion out of this time you’ve been given? Waste no time in doing what you want to do and being the person you want to be
My Favorite People/Role Models?
My favorite people and role models are the ones who are most richly their own selves and bring their uniqueness to their lives and work in service of sharing their light with the world. Some of those are people that I have the pleasure of knowing and/or working with (Sarah Wharton, Meredith Edwards, Katie Morrison) and some are people I hope one day to know (Ava DuVernay, Jill Soloway, Meryl Streep).
(Imagine I'm Beautiful)
My Favorite Places/Destinations?
There is no place I feel quite so physically happy as my own bed, particularly if my husband is in it too.
I feel the most peacefully connected to the pulse of the universe when standing on a beach alone, looking out at and listening to the vastness of the ocean.
I am the most filled up by the beauty of and my connection to Colorado’s Rocky Mountains and the mossy green fairy hills of Scotland.
My Favorite Products/Objects?
I am not very much an object person. I am happiest when I am walking through the world carrying nothing at all.
For a wedding present, my husband bought me this beautiful antique writing desk, with all little cubbies and inlaid wood. I love that desk for the sense of history it gives me. I feel like a writer when I sit at that desk.
Maybe also my slippers. It’s not the specific slippers themselves so much as the fact of slippers. I travel a great deal for work and I long ago learned to always pack my slippers. That way, wherever I am, at least my feet are warm and comfy.
My Current Passions?
I have just discovered the great joy of Poké Bowls. Have you had one? Go have one.