Interview with Juliana Donald

TBC — As part of my mission to prove myself worthy of blog-posting on the Mindset, I had a chance track down the great Muppet co-stars to discuss their unique insights into the Muppetverse. One who was kind enough to respond was the lovely Juliana Donald (known to us as Jenny from Pete’s Diner in The Muppets Take Manhatten). Juliana has stepped back from acting in recent years, has earned two Masters degrees (which we hope were essay questions, no sweat!) and is now starting her own business working in, believe it or not, fashion.


Interview with Juliana Donald
Conducted by The British Correspondent

TBC: Hi! Juliana, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. Is there anything I can get for you? Some coffee? A biscuit? Yankee bean soup?

Juliana: Would you happen to have any rat prepared pancakes? Rizzo makes the world’s flakiest and delicious.
TBC: So, wow, it’s been 26 years since The Muppets Take Manhattan in which you played the human character Jenny. How do you feel about that?
Juliana: Wow! Time flies. It’s amazing that I still run into people (grown adults) who tell me they grew up watching the movie. It’s pretty surreal. Kind of like Einstein’s theory on time, that past, present, and future events are only illusions.
TBC: From a Muppet fan perspective, The Muppets Take Manhattan is our main point of reference for you, but you have also done other television and film work. Would we have seen you in something recently? Can you tell us a little more about yourself?
Juliana: Well, I spent many years as an actress working in everything from movies and television to stage. I was in quite a few series television shows, one of which was NYPD Blue playing Dennis Franz’s love interest after his wife was killed on the show. Recently, though I went back to grad school and earned two Masters degrees in design and geology/gemology. The business has changed quite a bit since I started and I was not enjoying it anymore so, I decided to take a plunge into another creative avenue and see what happens. I am much happier which is what’s important in life.
TBC: Congratulations on the degrees! That’s great. Now, the Muppets Take Manhattan was your first movie. Was it exciting for you as an actress to be working on a film with characters that would already have a fan base?

Juliana: To be honest, I didn’t even think about that at the time. I was doing a show Off-Broadway and had this last minute call back for the Muppet Movie. I had not watched Sesame Street and so was not aware how big the fan base was. Also, you never know when you do something what will happen and at the time I was too young to realize just how wonderful getting the job was.

TBC: Were you already a fan of the Muppets yourself?

Juliana: Not really. Other than Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog, I wasn’t familiar with any of the other characters. That of course changed with the job and entering the wonderful world of Jim Henson; what a genius that man was.

TBC: Tell us what you remember about the audition. Was it different from anything you’d done before? Did you have to test your chemistry working with Puppets as part of the process?

Juliana: Apparently, they were trying to cast a star in the part and had been back and forth and all over the world looking for someone. I was told that the problem they were having was finding someone who looked like they were really talking to the Muppets, not talking “at” them. By the time I went in they had thrown up their hands and agreed to meet anyone and everyone that was remotely close to what they were looking for. I came into the audition about one week before they were starting. So, I think part of getting hired had to do with timing and part had to do with my audition with Jim Henson and Frank Oz. They said I was believable talking to Kermit.

TBC: Were there any particular challenges in working with Puppets rather than normal human actors?

Juliana: The biggest challenge had to do with the set. All the sets were built 4 feet above ground level. The puppeteers would stand inside these ‘pits’ very close to each other with headsets for their voices and monitors positioned in front of them on the floors to make sure the Muppets were facing the correct direction. It was actually really physically exhausting for them since they were standing for hours with their hands in the air holding the Muppets, which were not light weight) and manipulating the arms and mouths with attached sticks. For the humans it was important to watch your step so you wouldn’t accidentally step into the hole and drop on top of everyone’s head. Kind of hard to explain but hopefully you get the picture.

TBC: Before being involved with the movie, did you ever imagine your first major role would be as a waitress with a rat as a co-worker?

Juliana: Absolutely not. But, I come from Virginia and always had many pets growing up that I spoke to so it wasn’t that much of a stretch for me to talk to a rat.

TBC: This film was directed by Frank Oz. Was it strange to have Frank Oz directing when he was performing Miss Piggy at the same time?

Juliana: Not at all because he had someone holding up Miss Piggy, a stand-in, while he was directing the humans and the other parts of the scene. When it is his turn to take over Miss Piggy everything was totally set up so it was kind of seamless at that point.

TBC: Do you have any particular memories of Jim Henson?

Juliana: There is one experience I had with him that I will never forget. At the time of The Muppets Take Manhattan, Jim Henson was crazy busy with a number of other projects. Because of this Frank would only have him show up right before they were ready to shoot so as to not waste any of his very precious time. We were shooting the jogging scene in Central Park and there were a few camera problems which caused a delay. Before Jim’s assistant could whisk him away to the awaiting car a little boy walked up, his mouth agape at the sight of Kermit the Frog. The little boy started talking to Kermit, totally oblivious to Jim’s arm coming out one side, wide eyed to the wonder of the moment. It was so memorable to me because time just stopped; Jim started interacting with the little boy oblivious to all the commotion around him. Before long other kids walked up and soon Jim was entertaining an entire group of kids. It was a wonderfully magical moment where you experience someone’s true joy with their work.

TBC: Do you have any behind-the-scenes stories from the set?

Juliana: There are so many we would be here for days if I tried to list them all but a few that come to mind are:

– The Henson building in New York is amazing. It is a large brownstone with three levels of people making the Muppets. I was surprised to find out how expensive the Muppets were. For example, Rizzo the Rat cost $35,000 at the time for one figure. And we are talking many years ago. I never found out the cost of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy but was told they were even more. Everything is made entirely by hand by a number of craftsmen.
-The most popular extras on the set (and they were there pretty much through the entire shoot) was Martin Scorcese’s parents. They were so sweet and overjoyed to be extras. It was great because here they son was one of the all time greatest directors, and they could have had regular parts in any of his films but they only wanted to be extras. I think they liked the fact that they could talk to friends and have no stress on having to learn lines.

TBC: I’d like to talk about Jenny for a little bit. Do you have any insights into her character?

Juliana: Yes, Jenny was a bit out of character for someone living in New York City in that she was sheltered by her father and his world in the restaurant. Even though her aspirations and dreams lay in a much larger world than that of the diner, I think she felt a kind of obligation and responsibility and certainly love for her father, which explains her job at the diner. Raised by a single parent, she became the mother figure at the diner, which explains her concern with the Muppets and her father.

TBC: There were subtle hints of a romance between Jenny and Ronnie (played by Lonny Price). Was this ever discussed as a plot point?

Juliana: Yes, it was discussed at one point prior to filming but they decided it might take away too much from the Kermit and Miss Piggy plot, which is why it was finally just a good friendship.

TBC: Jenny can be described as the first human lead in a Muppet film that wasn’t cast as the bad guy. I would imagine that it is a challenge to work with such colourful, furred and feathered co-stars without feeling a little over-shadowed. Was it difficult to act alongside them while also trying to find the proper balance of sanity and insanity?

Juliana: You know that’s a really good point that you are making about balancing the make-believe with reality (or as you put it, the sanity with the insanity), which could be a challenge for sure. But, the puppeteers were so amazing and solid in their characters that, even though you were looking at felt covered puppets, they seemed real. Hopefully, that makes sense.

TBC: There has always been a debate in the Muppet fan community over whether humans should play the lead in Muppet films, such as Michael Caine as Scrooge in Muppet Christmas Carol and Jim Hawkins in Muppet Treasure Island. How do you feel about this?

Juliana: I can totally see both sides of the argument. Is it better to keep things consistent where all the characters are the same? Or, blend both worlds together? Personally, I think blending the two lends credibility to the characters and a reality that might not be there otherwise. For example, if humans can interact with Kermit the Frog then Kermit the Frog must be real. It kind of demystifies and humanizes the Muppet characters, which is really wonderful.

TBC: Have you been able to stay in contact with anyone involved with the film? Do you ever get postcards from Gonzo and Scooter and the gang?

Juliana: I got Christmas cards every year after until Jim passed away. I bumped into Jim’s son and some others from the Muppet family on a sound stage out here which was really nice but, unfortunately I haven’t really been in contact with any of them for quite a while.

TBC: The character Jenny was studying fashion. Are you interested in fashion yourself?

Juliana: Yes, as a matter of fact that is the line of work I am in now so, it’s interesting how life imitates art.

TBC: Since working with the Muppets, have you kept up with their new projects?

Juliana: Not really, unfortunately. Grad school is pretty crazy with the amount of studying one has to do. So crazy that it was rare that I had time to even go to the movies.

TBC: Did you ever see Muppets From Space? Do you have an opinion on whether Gonzo is really an alien or not?

Juliana: Yes, Gonzo is definitely from another planet. If he’s not an official alien yet he will be soon.

TBC: Have you seen the Muppets perform Bohemian Rhapsody on YouTube?

Juliana: No, but I will definitely check it out.

TBC: Are you aware of the new movie they have in production at the moment?

Juliana: No, like I said, my head has kind of been stuck in books so I haven’t followed things.

TBC: Let’s talk about your other work. As well as being involved with the Muppet franchise, you have appeared in Star Trek three times, have had reoccurring characters on Murder One and NYPD Blue, and have appeared in a variety of other tv-shows and movies. Do you have any favourites?

Juliana: Probably NYPD Blue because I loved working with Dennis Franz so much. He is really a wonderful person and was a pleasure to work with. The Star Trek jobs were really fun but I was sitting in makeup for over six hours a day for both so they were challenging in that way.

TBC: Are you working on anything at the moment? What are your future plans?

Juliana: I’m working on getting my business off the ground. Things are really busy for me at the moment.

TBC: Once again, so much for chatting with us! We wish you all the luck in the world with your new business! Before we go, though, we have to ask. What was it like getting a kiss from Kermit the Frog?

Juliana: You know what they say about never forgetting your first kiss? Well, that was my first and only from a frog so I have to say it’s deep inside my memory. Kermit the Frog is magic. Miss Piggy is one lucky pig!

We just wanna say again, thanks so much to Juliana for answering our questions and not finding us too stalkerish! We wish you luck with the new business and hope to speak to you again sometime. — TBC

7 thoughts on “Interview with Juliana Donald

  1. That is such a cute interview. What a great idea to interview someone like Juliana Donald. Would love to see more outisde-the-box interviews like these. It's fun to see people's favorite memories of Jim Henson and their experiences with all the Muppeteers. And I had no idea Rizzo cost $35,000, wow.

  2. Great interview, she really seemed to have fun with it, the story about Henson in the park was touching. I wish her lots of luck!

  3. I think this woman was so lucky having an experience like that because in that time Muppet show was one of the best ones, I watched it since i was child.

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