Jessie Collins is an actor whose been on Broadway with a few of the biggest talents out there, starred on many TV shows, and been in some great films. Juilliard trained and rural Texas raised, she grew up in a cattle ranching family with a young single mom and three sisters. Acting wasn’t something she even knew was a career possibility until luck, fate, or divine intervention showed up in the form of a high school acting teacher. She tells her story of moving from her hometown to NY, to navigating her career highs and lows, to marrying her writer husband, and then juggling motherhood for the past three years. She’s one of my best friends, and I think it’ll be easy to hear why. She’s the most honest and warm soul a person could hope to know.
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Jessie Collins: The Stars At Night Are Big And Bright…
My sweet, Jessie Collins, came. She is an extraordinary actress. She has done Broadway. She’s done television. She’s been in movies. For the past few years, she’s been busy having babies, but now she’s getting back in the game. She’s one of my nearest and dearest, my most true-blue friends. It was hard to think about having her on the show because all I want to do is chat and gossip and have inside jokes with her, but her story of how she left Texas and went to Juilliard is pretty incredible. She told me about it. I hope you like my talk with Jessie Collins.
Jessie, I’m so happy that you’re here.
You’re one of the people that it’s hard for me because I love you so much. You’re one of my best friends. I’m going to try and keep it professional and not go into some fangirl gosh about you.
I feel like we should go anywhere and everywhere.
Let’s do it.
I also feel like, this time around, I’m embodying the title of your show. I feel like I am Greatness Adjacent at this moment.
I am literally Greatness Adjacent because I’m next to you. You always downplay everything that you are. I get to set the matter straight. I set the record straight right here. You’re an amazing actor. An incredible actor. You’ve been on Broadway. You have done television. You’ve done films. Few people can say they’ve done all those things multiple times. You have, so right there, I am Greatness Adjacent and not you.
I feel very lucky. They were always childhood dreams.
We need to talk about your childhood. I met you because you dated my brother for a long time when you were tiny a handful of years ago. I have known you for a very long time. You are a lifer to me. You are a sister. We should probably talk about your real sisters. There are four girls.
I grew up in a house with three other sisters and a single mother.
Your mom had all four of you by the time she was 28.
She was also a child. It was crazy and incredible and intense. It was like Trojan Women.
You were five girls with a single mom.
It’s a super unique experience.
She had you all except for the fourth girl. She had all the three first ones within two years of each other. Is that right?
Pretty much, the gap there is three years from my oldest sister to me.
That’s three girls in three years. That’s no joke. We both had two boys now and the thought of doing that, no.
I could never. I guess that’s the benefit of being nineteen or twenty years old. She is super skilled with young children. Motherhood is where her heart is.
I’ve seen your mom with my older son when he was fifteen months or eighteen months. She is a magician with a kit.
She goes full-tilt boogie. My sister sent me a video of her with her two-year-old at his little gym music class. My mom who’s in her 60s is doing all the dances and feeling it. She’s climbing up mountains and rolling down.
She’s doing all the exercises and everything.
She’s pretty incredible.
We share that wild, wonderful mom.
I think it is good to have this larger than life ladies to come up against and be inspired by. Life wasn’t always easy for all of us.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up near the Mexican border, a town called Los Angeles, Texas. My grandfather had a cattle ranch there. It was right before high school when I moved to San Antonio. Our early years were spent there. We were super poor, but also with all the things that come with white privilege also. We certainly have had the experience of poverty, but we did have a big piece of land and ranch that’s my grandfather’s. We were privileged to have that as a place to go and a place to explore. Heavily, it used to grow our imagination. If we were hearting for food, we go to the ranch and we go hunting or eat what somebody had gathered from the lancet. We’re very lucky.
Did you always want to be an actor?
No, I didn’t know what I wanted to be for a while. I have two older siblings that are incredibly talented Music is a talent in my family.
Your father is a country musician.
Yes, my father was a one-hit-wonder country music artist. Dolly Parton found him in a bar, in obscurity. She encouraged him and shotted him into his first record deal. He had this hit called Statue of a Fool. It was in the ‘60s. That was the crowning moment of his career.
Music is in your genes.
I have these sisters who are musically talented. I remember feeling so left out. I can’t sing.
I’ve never heard you sing.
If I can sing, I would be doing musicals. I would absolutely have cashed in on that.
My mom, you know her well. She is prone to exaggeration. One of the things she told me is that you’re secretly an unbelievable singer. She told me this years ago. She heard you do karaoke. She was like, “She’s knocked it out of the park.”
I think we had some margaritas together. I don’t think she remembers it correctly. I love your mother so much. She’s a hoot. I feel like she’s the most encouraging person I know, but she is wrong. I cannot sing, but I would look up to my sisters and my father had this musical talent. I’m talking about siblings that see an instrument in the corner. They’ve never touched them, pick it up and it’s like they’re writing. It’s like Dolly completely. I always felt out of place in my family. I didn’t know what I was good at. I thought, “Maybe I’m good at athletics.” I joined the volleyball team.
How did that go? That would be my instinct.
I was like, “I’m the smart one. I’m going to get into academics.” That was the whole thing. I was like, “I’m a dancer.” I joined the dance team. It finally dawned on me that they were all roles and costumes. I was like, “We are trying to play parts.” There was a moment in our home life where it wasn’t very ideal. My oldest sister who was in the drama department was doing cool plays. She was singing and acting. She was like, “You should try to get into theater because it’s the only escape and a good place. You can stay there as much as you want after school. You can keep doing plays.” I was like, “I’ve tried to get into every middle school play, and I was never cast in.” She made me do makeup backstage, which is fine. I used to do my sister Kellys’ makeup because Kellys can sing. She has an incredible voice. I would be doing her Charlie Brown’s makeup. I was thinking about all the ways. I wish I was out on that stage. During high school, the dance team was not working out for me. Volleyball was no, so I auditioned for a play. They were doing a straight version of Les Misérables. That was a divine intervention on my part.
Did you counsel them because this would be a bad choice?
I wasn’t very cultured. I had no idea. I didn’t even know Les Misérables was a musical. I was like, “Whatever is happening, I’m getting into this place where I can stay here.” I’ll be around all the cool people that I saw my sister around.
This is high school now.
Yes, and I got it. I was in Les Misérables.
Did your high school have a strong drama program? Was the teacher wonderful?
Yes, it did have a strong drama program. The teacher running it at the time was a wonderfully incredible man named Mr. Hueg, who retired in my sophomore year. I was introduced to this whole world and then he retired. In came another life, I feel like it’s a divine intervention moment. I don’t know how to describe it, but Eric Porter was my drama teacher for the next few years. Thank God is all I can say. Thank God he had come through a conservatory program. He knew that world. He pulled me aside my sophomore year and he said, “I think you could do this for a living.” That was the first time I’d ever heard anything like that.
I love this part of the story. From a small town with not a lot of money, having no idea what you want to do, you grew up in a world where your parents did it or you had connections in any business.
My father was absent. That’s the part of the story I left out. My father was not around when we were young. I come from cattle ranching people. My relatives were in the FFA. They’re doing agriculture stuff there at Texas A&M. The path towards that was not even on my radar at all. You would be speaking a different language, but I knew I loved it. He told me that I could do it professionally. The next question was like, “What do you mean? How?” He was like, “There are programs that you could go to college for acting.” I was like, “What?” My mind was blown. It wasn’t like everyone knew that you could go study acting. If you weren’t playing football or sports or all of that stuff.
What were you doing with your life?
He helped me to step onto that path. I felt confident, which is so important for children to have that person that tells them and believes in them.
That was a ginormous pivotal moment.
That moment changed my life.
Once he said that, were you like, “Okay?”
Yes. I was like, “I want to try it. This is what I’m going to do.”
Were you in plays all throughout high school?
Yes, all throughout high school.
You went to Juilliard, a little tiny acting school. How was that process?
It was crazy. The story is my drama teacher, Eric Porter, literally drove me to the post office to turn in my application on time. He coached me through everything. My family couldn’t afford to fly to do the audition in New York nor could we afford to visit the schools that I was applying to. He kept saying, “Trust me, they are good places. You will be fine.” He is incredible. What I could afford to do was an audition in Houston. The flight that we could afford is a flight to San Francisco because they were holding a big mass audition for a bunch of programs there. It was affordable for whatever reason.
It is way cheaper than flying to New York.
There was a special.
Going to San Francisco, you could audition for not just Juilliard, everything you were doing.Every actor’s goal is to invoke a piece of the character and something that would make them feel like the character. Click To Tweet
I ticked off four schools in Houston. I did the next four schools in San Francisco.
Did you audition for eight conservatories?
A couple was conservatory programs and a few were universities that had a good drama department like NYU, USC, those types of Boston universities. I auditioned.
He drove you to the post office to make sure you got your application in on time. The Juilliard audition, was it in Houston or San Francisco?
It was in San Francisco.
Did you know at the time that it had gone well?
Yes, I did. In fact, when I left I said, “That’s where I’m going to go.” My drama teacher was like, “I’m glad it went well.” I said, “No, I really like to dance.” That’s how I was naive and confident. I was like, “I like those people.”
What were your two pieces? You have to do two monologues when you auditioned for conservatory programs, right?
Yes. I was Queen Margaret from Richard III and I was Harper from Angels in America.
Those are good ones. Did your teacher help you choose?
Absolutely, he did. Thank God.
How many people are in a Juilliard class at a time? Is it twenty?
Somewhere from 20 to 24.
I don’t know how many, but thousands audition. Half are women, maybe? Twelve are women.
Yes, something like that.
The chances of getting into Juilliard are very slim.
It turns out I got into only two programs of the eight. It was USC or Juilliard. I didn’t get into NYU. I did not get into everywhere else basically.
You didn’t need to.
There was a moment in high school that I was still uncertain. I was scared of the path. I was scared of the unknown. No one in my family had even conceived of doing anything like this. What if I also needed to take an academic road? What if I needed to support my family and all this stuff? There was a moment where I was considering going to USC. What if I changed my mind? Eric Porter, the saint, was like, “If you do not go to the Juilliard School, I will pare you.”
When you told him you got in, what was his response?
We cried together. We had lunch together.
Did they send you a letter? Did they tell you got in?
They call you. I was home by myself and the phone rang. This was before the iPhone. This was a landline moment. There were no iPhones. That is so scary. I was home alone and I got the call. I was like, “Okay.” I tried to call everyone I knew, but no one picked up. I was sitting with it for a while and then my phone rings again. I pick it up and it’s a future classmate of mine from Juilliard who had requested immediately everyone else’s phone number. He had called and he was like, “I’m excited to see you.” I was like, “Who is this person? What’s happening? This is so crazy.”
Is he the social director of your class?
Sort of, he did not stay the whole way through our program, but he was a super big light while he was there.
I auditioned for Juilliard in New York. I did not get in. I got into NYU, but when I didn’t get into Juilliard, the deep devastation that I felt because it is a really go into the building and being in the space in them and the big black or heard the black-walled rehearsal.
How intimidating. I feel lucky that I never saw the building, that I never understood the scope of it. I might’ve collapsed. It was, “Thank goodness.” I was in a weird community room in a performing arts hall somewhere else. That seems so neutral because I think that helped. It was all luck.
Luck and talent and it were meant to be and all of that, but I had to sing in my audition.
I did too.
What did you sing?
Since I can’t sing, I did not prepare a song. I sang a jazz version of Hey Diddle Diddle, The Cat and the Fiddle.
Did you call an audible in the room and say, “I have my song prepared?”
I think I made a joke about it. I was like, “I cannot sing, but this is what I can sing right now. This is what I got for you.” I hammed it up and I sang it ridiculously.
My audition for Juilliard was terrifying for all the reasons that you mentioned.
Do you remember what you sang?
What did I sing? No, my mother counseled me to sing something from the musical. She even told me that I should do an accent, which was maybe not the best decision. I’m a terrible singer, so that was bad. There was an added element that I had terrible acne in high school and went on Retin-A. My mom told me that I should wax my eyebrows and lip because those were the days. My skin peeled off. I had probably third-degree burns on my lip and my eyebrows. My mom didn’t see this as a problem. I wanted to postpone the audition. She got me some green burn coverage makeup to keep the whole thing in retrospect. It was insane. I’d like to blame it on my skin problem. That’s why I didn’t get into Juilliard. You get into Juilliard, which is so phenomenal. My brother also got into Juilliard.
That is how I met your brother.
That is a crazy story. He was at a year or two ahead of you. What was it like getting to New York and you had to find funding to go?
The first time I had seen New York City was the day I was moving into my dorm room. I had never been to before. I remember feeling completely overwhelmed.
Did your mom take you?Putting on a costume changes you. You behave, act, and feel differently. Click To Tweet
My mom took me. We were completely overwhelmed, shell shocked. I was also determined. I wanted to go and I wanted to find my way. I wanted to experience something different from what I had experienced growing up. I was ready and also in a lot of respects. It was incredible. The second or third day of school was September 11th. I wish I could recall exactly.
Was your mom there still?
No, my mom had dropped me off and then that happened, which was also a complete game-changer too. My mom and all of my real country relatives were ready to come to rescue me in their F-150 pickups. I felt more than ever that I wanted to stay and be there because I felt incredibly connected all of a sudden to my classmates and this city finding a way out of that trauma. That was a big forging moment for me.
You were four years at Juilliard.
It’s different, four tough years at the jailyard.
Is that what they call it?
It’s what I call it sometimes. I had an amazing time there.
How many shows a year do you do there?
The last year, it’s three shows. It changes every year. You might be doing maybe three or four shows. They don’t put shows out to the public until you’re in the third year. The shows of little one acts or discovery projects you’re doing in the first two years. No one’s seeing them. It’s for us to learn the process. They happen in little rooms with cubes and four people and that’s it. You’re constantly doing scene work. It feels like you’re doing a million plays.
By your fourth year, is it agents are coming? Everybody is readily trying to make the transition into going into the profession.
Agents sneak in much earlier. Some of them sneak into guest-invited second-year shows. I don’t know if they allow that anymore.
Juilliard has a rule that you are not allowed to do professional work while you’re in the program. You are supposed to complete your four years to get major contracts.
People obviously do not follow that contract and do get professional work and either stay or figure it out or something like that. My roommate for the first three years in New York and during that time left for professional work. Michael Arden, who is now a brilliant not only actor but the director. He was a nominated director. It works well.
I stayed in that apartment with you and Michael. He is so nice.
I remember it very clearly. He’s incredible.
He is amazing. After school, did you book work right away? I don’t remember. I feel you did.
I did. That was a blessing and a curse. Right out of school, I was very successful. I’m 22 and I got out of school. I had nowhere to live. I was broke. I somehow ended up on an old high school friend’s sofa in the Seaport district. I was like, “I have to work because I am here.” I can’t go home. I don’t want to go home. Right away, I got a play at Playwrights Horizons. Thank God.
What play was it?
It was called Manic Flight Reaction. Sarah Schulman, who’s a great writer, wrote it with a fabulous actress named Deirdre O’Connell. She still works and she’s amazing. That was awesome. Trip Cullman, who is also an incredible director, was directing it. As I was doing that play, I booked a TV show. No big deal, as things happen. That was The Nine for ABC.
You were a series regular. How many seasons did that go?
That was half of one season. It was very short-lived, but it set me up to do lots of TV work for a while.
You had a big story arc on CSI. You were the miniature killer.
I wasn’t there in a lot of episodes, but a lot of seasons of CSI were working up to exposing and finding who this serial killer was and it was me.
You were really good.
It was scary. I’m good at the psychodramatic crazy people.
You’re good at everything.
You’ve got a lot of television.
I did and as things go, work wasn’t always that easy to get. That was a huge change. In some ways harder to come out of the gate working and then have some hardship in that later for no apparent reason.
You don’t learn the muscular strength yet of hustling and not getting anything.
I’m not a very good hustler, I have to say. I’m not at all playing the game, hustling, auditions that kind of stuff. I’m not great at it. I like the job and I like the process and all that stuff, but it’s not quite my forte. Unless I am divinely inspired, then I will. It comes easy. There was a lag period and then I had babies. I took some time off.
You’ve been having babies for the past few years. You have two gorgeous sons. They’re amazing. I want our boys to grow up together.
They already are. We are so lucky.
You’ve also done Broadway, which we haven’t talked about. I know your first show. You did Dangerous Liaisons with Laura Linney.
Yes, and Ben Daniels.
Shakespeare in the Park, you did with Annette Bening.
I was with John Lithgow in King Lear.
How were those experiences?
It is incredible and unforgettable. Some of the best experiences I’ve ever had. When I was doing Dangerous Liaisons with Laura Linney, the play wasn’t greatly received. It had a mixed bag of reviews. It made me sad at the time. She was like, “This is okay. You’re going to have worse experiences than this. If you can believe it, then you’re going have better experiences. The point is, now you are an actress getting to walk out on a stage and do a play. You have to take that. It doesn’t matter what the experience feels. It comes and goes. That’s part of having a job.”
That’s some good advice.You can feel very safe with someone who says what he means. Click To Tweet
She was delightful. That’s the other lucky thing is Laura and Ben, I’ve worked with some delightful people. I have not had the experience of a big ego drama written a terrible time. You hear those stories, it was so awful or whatever. I haven’t had that experience.
I think that the vast majority of the projects that you’ve worked on have been artistically pretty amazing. You were in Zero Dark Thirty. Later on down the line, years later, you ended up marrying the writer of that movie.
I’m a serial dater of writers, but I landed on the best one.
You got the best one. When I was still trying to be an actor, but not getting anywhere with that. You were auditioning a lot as I’m sure you will be again. I always admired the way that you went into the auditions. With me, I would go into a panic mode. I don’t know what to wear, how to be. I always thought that you handled the audition process, especially if it was something you were excited about, really well. You would not wear a costume, but I felt that in whatever you wore, it was a little touch, a little hint of that person without looking ridiculous. Even for period pieces. You would walk around LA in something that I’m like, “That’s perfect.”
You’re so sweet. My goal always is to invoke something that would make me feel like the character. I learned this from stage work that when I put on the costume, it changes me. It does something to me. I behave differently, I act differently, I feel differently. I learned that and I do this now in rehearsals, I request costume as early as possible because I want to wear that. It will change my performance. With TV and film acting, I try very hard to find something that will make me feel that character. If it’s a period piece, it’s hard for me to show up in a T-shirt and sneakers because I don’t feel it. I don’t know the restrictions of the era, but you also don’t want to be the crazy person that shows up in the party city version. It is a fine line.
I felt that you walked that line. You met me for a drink after an audition where you had been auditioning to play a prostitute from hundreds of years ago in the west.
Those are the only prostitutes I get to play from the wild turn of the century.
You arrived at the bar in a corset or something, but it didn’t look ridiculous. It looked amazing. It was spot on. You have a great talent.
Sometimes I nail it, sometimes I don’t.
Your hair and makeup are always well done. A little hint of it. I think you could give a masterclass on this, on the app. When you arrive, where you always off-book, one of those?
I’m one of those.
Did you walk in carrying the side?
I always hold the sides because it’s a rehearsal. They should remember that. This is not my end performance. That I’m giving you a rehearsal, a version of what it would look like. I have to be off-book. If I feel freedom there, then my performance is more at the moment and more nuanced. I’m not the type of person that can look down and look up and read it like that. There are so many people that are good at cold auditions. I am not. It gives me the anxiety to think that I may not know what’s coming next.
I listened to Dax Shepard’s podcast and he interviewed Busy Philipps. They both said they always have the sides in their hands because they said if you walk in without the sides, that is also to them saying to the people like, “This is all I got. This is the best I got it. I can’t ever be better than this.” It’s not the end of the road.
This is a work in progress and we all need to be reminded of that.
Didn’t you do a big civil war movie? I do not remember it.
I did a small part in the Free State of Jones, which is that Matthew McConaughey.
How is that? I didn’t see it.
That was fun.
Did you get to do an accent?
I certainly did.
I need to see you in this. You’re a mom and you’re an actor. I know that you’re going to come back to it. Your second child is nine months old.
I’m starting to get the urge. It goes away and then it returns. It’s so hard to be a mother. It’s so hard to be with the career.
Having babies, at least for me, and I know for us because we share everything. It’s all-consuming for a long time. It’s crawling your way back to life as how I feel after number two.
I’m feeling like, “Am I still relevant?” in the workspace that I used to have and getting your mojo back. Some people find having children is suddenly for artists they feel even more inspired. They’re working a ton. They feel free like it does something magical to them. I’m not that person. I had a crazy postpartum depression with my first one that wrecked me for over a year. Right away, I got pregnant with my second one. I feel like I’m now starting to see little bits of light. I’m excited to see what comes.
I’m so excited too. I want to say that besides being a tremendous friend and amazing sister and wife, you are also a fantastic cook. You have these parties in your home and you cook everything. Did you always know how to do that?
I love cooking. My mother is a great cook. I started cooking in New York. The first thing I made in New York City was fried chicken in someone’s apartment during our junior year. That’s when I knew that cooking somehow was related to home for me. When I felt homesick or anxious, I would start cooking. I would try to make the things my mom had made me because I missed home, but I didn’t want to go home. I want to eat enchiladas so I started cooking a lot. Cooking is like anything, the more you do it, the better you get.
You’re good at it.
You have to keep doing it.
We share everything from makeup to things to the nitty-gritty like the indignities of that hard stuff. The times when our husbands are awful.
The times that I am awful. I’ll admit it.
It is the best. I love that I can be with you at my worst and at my best. Your home is so welcoming. You always make it a sanctuary to come over to. Thank you for that. I love you so much. I can’t wait until you start working again.
I’m so excited. I want to work with you though. We wrote something. We are a very good team at writing.
I want to write with you again. When you get back on the auditioning circuit, which I know is going to happen.
I have an audition for The Purge 5.
Congratulations. I feel that maybe one of these show segments because I’m old. I know that young hip podcasters do fun, exciting things. They go on the road and do the little video things. I think you are getting ready for an audition, at least for me, I will go watch that.
The description is a no BS farm girl type. Maybe I’ll steal your overalls. Jenny has incredible overalls. It’s fine.
I got them 40% off. Are you going to do an accent?
No, I don’t think so.
I want to write with you. I want to see you acting again, which I know it’s going to happen. I want to have you’re incredible, intimidating, scary, wonderful, lovely husband on here.
He’s dying to do it. He’s going to do it. He can’t wait. He’s incredible and very intelligent.
We should say who he is. His name is Mark Boal. He’s a little bit smart.
He’s very smart. He is a wonderful person.
Am I allowed to tell this story here of when we wrote our script that no one will ever see, but we’re going to write more?
We sat down with him to get his opinion. Jessie and I spent nine months writing a script together that we found hilarious. We would often go and eat and write. It was fun. We wrote something and then her husband graciously and generously offered to read it and give us his opinion and his notes. We met for breakfast and coffee. We sat down. I think he was on a call but coming in. Jessie sat down with me at the table really quick because he was on his way over. She was like, “Don’t worry, are you familiar with the movie, Whiplash?” Mark sits down. I started sweating and my face turns red. I love him because as he sat there, I think he had a reader on while reading it. He asked me directly. Maybe it was for both of us. He was like, “Was this supposed to be funny?”
We’ve been crafting a comedy for a few months.
It was a blind joke. I think there is a scenario that we found particularly hilarious and hysterical, “Is this supposed to be funny?” We started laughing nervously. He’s like, “Why? What part of this was amusing?” It was amazing, but he also gave unbelievable notes. His suggestions on how to tighten it up and how to write what a pitch would be if we were to do it and how to do that.
He was wonderful. I think also talking about giving somebody confidence. I think at the end of that, what he said was the hardest part is constructing the house of a script. Whether it’s good or not, are all the nuts and bolts there? Does it have working windows? Does the plumbing work? Was it a fully built constructed house? I thought that was such a good little analogy. He was like, “You guys did. You wrote a script that functions. It works from beginning to end. It’s not drifting. There are no holes.”
That was something that I did feel incredibly proud of. We learned how to write. I think we might be done having babies, but I don’t want to speak for you. I am done having babies. I think that also comes from Mark, who does not compliment lightly.
He is a very curious man. This is an amazing thing about Mark he’s incredibly honest. You will never get BS even if it’s the most hurtful. It was like, “How could you say that?” He’s like, “It’s what I mean. It’s what I think.” He’s so forthright that it can be shocking and sometimes abrasive to people. As you get to know him, you learn that there is no BS.
There is no BS with that man. I love it and I appreciate it.
Somebody like that you can feel very safe that what he says is what he means.
One of the things if he does ever come on that I hope he’ll let me discuss is the toast he gave about you at your wedding. It goes down in history as one of my very most favorite, the sweetest, most romantic, hilarious. It was the best toast in the world. I’m going to ask him if I can talk about that if he comes on. I love you.
Thank you. Bye.
About Jessie Collins
Jessica Collins was born on March 8, 1983 in San Antonio, Texas, USA as Jessica Ann Collins.