Jen Tullock Talks Career and Hometown Connection
Writer / Julie Engelhardt
As you drive through downtown Louisville, you’re greeted by gigantic Hometown Heroes banners hanging on the sides of buildings, honoring Louisvillians from a variety of professions. There’s one for boxer, activist and philanthropist Muhammad Ali. Journalist Diane Sawyer has one, as does actress Jennifer Lawrence. There are many other entertainers and entrepreneurs from Louisville who have made their mark on the world, and possibly one day they will have their photographs flying high above the city. One person who might come to mind is actress Jen Tullock.
Tullock has been working very hard for the past 16 years in the entertainment industry, in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Her professional credits include guest-starring in the HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and on ABC’s “Bless This Mess,” plus she’s appeared in shows on Amazon, Hulu and Showtime. She’s done a great deal of sketch and improvisation work at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles, The Peoples Improv Theater in New York, and the Broadway Comedy Club. She’s been in quite a few commercials (you may have seen her as the harried assistant to actor Jon Hamm’s lead character in H&R Block spots). Her film credits include supporting roles in the Netflix movie “6 Balloons” and in the Hulu film “Door No. 1.” She was the lead in “Red Light,” and the lead as well as co-writer for a film called “Partners.”
Tullock was born at Baptist Health Hospital and grew up in both Jeffersontown and Crescent Hill. She attended Christian Academy of Louisville for many years, but spent her final year of school at Eastern High School. Tullock explains that her performing and writing skills were somewhat self-taught. “I was kind of doing this on my own from the beginning,” she says. “I was like a lot of creative, hyperactive kids – constantly writing songs and plays, and performing with my friends in the neighborhood.”
She and her younger brother Ryan, a multi-instrumentalist, composer and bass player in the band Tennis, grew up in a household brimming with talent. Their parents are both musicians. Their mother is a singer, pianist, piano teacher and recording artist. Their upbringing definitely shaped the siblings’ future. “My brother and I were very privy to not just music, but to the music industry as well,” Tullock says. “We were in recording studios and we were able to attend live performances, so that was kind of a cool entryway to being on stage. I learned the value of why people feel connected to a live performance and I realized I wanted to make that a career.”
When Tullock was a teen, her family began spending summers in Poland. “They were working there doing music education,” she says, adding that her brother even had the opportunity to play in the Warsaw Youth Symphony. “I’ll be honest, it was a very strange chapter of our lives. It’s quite complicated, but what I will say, in the end, it provided a very cool addendum to an otherwise very American life. It’s been an incredible opportunity to have a community outside of the one we were previously accustomed to.”
Tullock says she didn’t do a lot of theater in the local Louisville scene because her family didn’t have a lot of money to spend on classes. “That was tough and it made me jealous of kids who had those opportunities,” she says. “But, the positive in that is it required me to be creative.” As she entered her high school years, she spent time with Music Theatre Louisville, plus she performed in plays at Trinity High School.
After graduation, Tullock headed to Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. Although she had been accepted into larger schools, she felt that staying in the Midwest suited her both financially and geographically. Her knowledge about the world of acting and associated disciplines flourished while attending the university.
“What’s cool about Millikin is they have an entirely functional and student-run theater called Pipe Dreams Studio Theatre,” she explains. “I was attracted to that school because you could build an interdisciplinary degree, which is what I did. I was studying playwriting and essay writing, and all the time you had this adjacent student-run theater where you could do more experimental stuff and put on your own plays. I already knew that I wanted to be writing plays, so that was very cool.”
One important lesson Tullock took from her time at Millikin was knowing she would have to be diligent about finding her own way in the world. “It wasn’t the kind of school that dumped you right out into a closely connected community like you’d have in New York or Los Angeles,” she says. “I also think what I got out of the program is that there are so many options for creativity out there.”
Tullock decided to stay in the Midwest after graduating in 2006 and headed to Chicago. She appeared in plays and even wrote a one-woman show centered on her childhood obsession with singer and actress Barbra Streisand. She also began producing mockumentary shorts, but all the while knew she wanted to do something bigger. “Chicago is a great city, but it wasn’t where I saw my career longevity,” she says. She then packed her bags and headed to New York.
Her arrival at the Big Apple was, as she describes it, “pretty classic and almost obnoxiously romantic.” She had her belongings in a suitcase and $30 to her name. Fortunately, Tullock was able to find work at a variety of places. She was an assistant to a man who ran a media program at a graduate school, she waitressed, and she was a jazz singer at a tapas bar. “Eventually I began writing stuff, and I slowly made friends and kind of became part of the downtown and Brooklyn comedy scene,” she says. She then went on to make a political satire video that went viral, and that led to her getting her first manager. She began making commercials and eventually headed to Los Angeles, where she began working steadily in television.
Tullock now makes her home in what she describes as a “cartoonishly lovely scenario,” in East Los Angeles. “We jokingly call it the compound,” she says. “I live in a beautiful, old Victorian craftsman house, and four of my six neighbors are my closest friends. We grow avocados and lemons and pomegranates, and so there’s constantly people harvesting in the backyard. It’s really cute.”
A variety of opportunities have come Tullock’s way. In 2019 she and her best friend and collaborator Hannah Pearl Utt had their feature film “Before You Know It” premier at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Tullock says she and Utt met while waitressing in New York and they came up with the idea of writing a script together at the time. They worked on the film through several years, and after meeting up again in Los Angeles, they finished their script and took it to the Sundance Institute’s lab project. Tullock explains that the lab is somewhat like a camp for filmmakers. “The Sundance Institute at large is as supportive as can be, as far as helping to connect you with film markets and giving notes on drafts, and mentoring,” she says. “They changed our lives. I absolutely owe a huge portion, if not all, of my career to them.” Tullock even had the opportunity to work with her brother on the movie, as he wrote the score and played most of the instruments.
Their film revolves around two sisters, played by Tullock and Utt, and the trials and tribulations of their family. In the wake of a sudden family tragedy, the sisters learn that their mother, presumed deceased, is actually alive and working as a soap-opera star, which leads them to deal with new issues. Tullock and Utt had the opportunity to learn from and work with three highly respected actors through their association at Sundance, including Judith Light (“One Life to Live,” “Who’s The Boss”), Mandy Patinkin (“The Princess Bride,” “Yentl”) and Alec Baldwin (“Beetlejuice,” “The Hunt for Red October”).
Tullock’s most recent project is a dramatic series called “Severance” on Apple TV+. The program stars actor Adam Scott (“Parks and Recreation”), with Tullock playing the role of his sister. Others involved with the production include show creator and writer Dan Erickson, actor Ben Stiller, who will direct the series, as well as Patricia Arquette, Britt Lower and Zach Cherry. “I’m really excited about it and I think Ben is an incredible director,” she says. “It’s really cool to be working with the show creator, Dan. I think he’s an incredible talent and it’s very special because we knew each other at a very different point in our careers. It’s cool to come back together for something like this.”
Someday, Tullock says, she’d like to return home to Louisville to work on two projects she’s creating. “I’m writing a feature that I’ll also direct, produced by one of our producers from ‘Before You Know It,’” she says. “It will be like a love letter to Kentucky.” The other idea is for a semi-autobiographical television series. She says she can’t divulge much about it, other than the fact that it’s about theater that takes place in churches.
Tullock says she feels incredibly lucky to be working in different mediums. She says she loves working in television because it’s so much fun, but film will always be close to her heart. And before we know it, we may see her picture smiling down on us from one of the tall, tall buildings in downtown Louisville.