Q&A: ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ Actress Jillian Armenante Talks Her New Online Series

Jillian Armenante Kittens in a Cage
Image courtesy of Jillian Armenante

Jillian Armenante is most recently recognizable for her recurring role on ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat.” But before entering the sitcom world, Armenante spent years on stage in Seattle and Los Angeles as well as appearing in a long list of films and television series.

Now, she has “Kittens in a Cage,” a seven-episode scripted comedy that she exec produced, wrote and directed, set in a women’s prison during the 1950s. The series is available on Vimeo on Demand and Hulu, and features appearances by stars like Joel McHale, Misha Collins, Felicia Day and Michelle Monaghan.

You executive produced, wrote and directed “Kittens in a Cage”… what’s the origin story?

I worked at the Annex Theatre in Seattle in my ratty-tatty days, and I’ve always kept in touch with it and remained friends with all the old buddies. I was there in the late ’80s, early ’90s when Sub Pop Records was ruling the roost and Kurt Cobain and Nirvana played in our theater. We wrote all original plays — sometimes 12, sometimes 20 new productions per year. So this one play script was getting a lot of attention, and I had one friend who directed the play send it to me and I laughed my little hiney off. I got in touch with the playwright, Kelleen Conway Blanchard, and I called her up one afternoon standing in my backyard and I said, “Can I have your script to try to make it into a show?” And she was like, “OK!” And so I had my way with it.

I made it a screenplay, we had a reading that nearly took the paint off my walls with people just having such a great time. And then I tapped all my buddies — anybody who I ever bought a beer for. TV talent, Internet talent, film actors and everybody just rolled their sleeves up and hopped up on into the pool.

For people who haven’t seen it, how would you describe its sense of humor?

My sense of humor is grounded in a reality so the relationships are real, but the circumstances are a little ridiculous. I find my life is that way, and I find that’s what I’m attracted to when I’m producing or directing or acting. It’s a little heightened, a little ridiculous — real, but pushed to an extreme. It’s not apologetic.

This show is about women in prison… kind of like another show people might be familiar with that’s gotten a lot of attention in the past few years — yes, I’m thinking of “Orange Is the New Black.” How do the shows compare?

This script was written, and we had already raised the money to shoot it well before “Orange Is the New Black” was ever released. So because of that, I felt it my duty to not watch “Orange Is the New Black.” I’ve been told that they’re incomparable, probably not just because their budget is just a wee-bit higher than ours. They’re also being very wonderful to us. They’re tweeting us out, and Laura Prepon who is really great friends with one of our actors, told everybody to watch our show. So they’ve been very, very supportive. Now I’ve just got to sit down and watch it.

You produced this show independently and released it on digital platforms. What was that experience like?

I’m not one to dip my toe in the shallow end, so I just jumped in — kind of naked — and had to figure it out. As a ratty Seattle actor, I learned how to run sound, and how to edit, and how to do all that stuff, so I already knew that I could do all the things it would take to take a production completely to fruition. But I like having a rock to push up a hill. I like having a challenge because I feel like that’s where growth occurs. It would be easy to sit back and drink a beer, and shoot some squirrels in my back yard, but I think making art and being creative is something that propels me. I don’t really have a choice in the matter and I never have.

It’s a tiny but mighty show. Trying to get people to support independent projects… there’s no studio, there’s nothing. It’s a character actress and her dreams pushing this to completion in her garage. One day it’s a script in your dining room, the next you’re playing in 137 countries. And we want to go again because we’re getting so many people [watching], and we’re winning all these festivals. It’s a dream to be able to take the spark of a creative idea in this town where there are so many hurdles. When you work independently, you can just make it.

You’re also in “Fresh Off the Boat.” What’s something I wouldn’t know just from watching it?

I have the best time working with Paul Scheer who is the super mad genius. He and I laugh like hyenas when we’re filming the show. I’m super proud to be able to throw down a bit more comedy. The pilot episode we shot with a donkey — and that was directed by Lynn Shelton, who is a Seattle female director, which I always like to highlight because she’s a babe — and we definitely had a donkey and all that came with that. They’re not particularly potty trained as I recall, and sometimes they don’t want to quite walk, and sometimes they do and therein lies the comedy. When you wanted the donkey to walk, he didn’t, and when you wanted him to walk, he did. And there were a couple of camera takes as I recall that probably would have been banned by the FCC.

And what about the rest of the cast?

It’s just a pleasure to show up to work every day. I think Constance Wu does an amazing job being the badass. She’s a really good actor with great training and great comic timing. And Randall Park is just the funniest dude ever, and so nice. And Lucille, the grandmother, has been slugging in this town for years, and she’s gorgeous. I read the book [Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir by Eddie Huang, on which the TV show is based], which is hilarious. It just hits me where I lived with the time he grew up and where he grew up, and the music he was listening to. And obviously they can’t run with the language in our current time slot with the kids, but the book is really, really an inspiration.