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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Jenna Dewan

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-04-07

Jenna Dewan of Connecticut was reborn in Hollywood.

"I've been blessed," she said yesterday.

A longtime professional dancer, Ms. Dewan became a movie star overnight after an agent spotted her performing at the Grammy awards and obtained for her the title role in a horror film, "Tamara."

That film became a success at the box office. In it, the character played by Ms. Dewan dies violently, and then comes back to life to wreak vengeance on those who'd been responsible for dispatching her to the beyond.

"I know that breaking into movies can be hard - I'm friends with lots and lots of people who've spent years struggling in the film business and have yet to get a break," the actress said yesterday. "This is a very uncertain business, and there's little stability for actors. But I was fortunate to get my big break - maybe this was part of my destiny."

Ms. Dewan's new film, "Take the Lead," opens across America today. She came to New York along with fellow actors, including Antonio Banderas, for the premiere. Having just completed a three-week shoot in Japan for her next film, "The Grudge 2," she also wanted to relax a bit, taking in the sights of a city that she'd lived near but never lived in.

But the clamor of her fans and the calls from friends and business associates made such relaxation impossible, Ms. Dewan said. Then there were also scripts to read.

"The scripts are piling up," she said. "I'd rather curl up and read the 'Harry Potter' books - but the movie business is relentless. The glamour is not what people think it is. If they only knew what it takes."

It takes formidable self-discipline, for one. Ms. Dewan's days typically begin at dawn, when she meditates. Two hours of vigorous exercise follow. And although Ms. Dewan no longer dances professionally, her long years with Janet Jackson, P. Diddy and other performers who took her on global tours inculcated a reflexive inclination to practice at least a few moves each day.

It also takes constant attention to industry trends, and awareness of openings for young actresses such as her.

"Early success hasn't meant that I no longer have to audition," Ms. Dewan said with an expression that suggested that her time might be better spent.

And it takes an ability to deal with criticism and rejection.

"One gets rejected for roles all the time," Ms. Dewan said. "If you can't handle rejection, then it's best to get out of the movie business. Criticism can be hard, too. I tend to be a perfectionist - so I often tear myself down when I should be living in the moment."

There's also the question of the vulnerability of young actresses in Hollywood.

"The younger you are, the more vulnerable you are - it's all about what you can offer," Ms. Dewan said. "Hollywood is extremely competitive. Men can be predatory. Women can be catty about one another. But is Hollywood evil? No, I don't believe it is. But a young woman needs to look after herself."

Are there certain roles she will not accept?

"I don't believe in saying 'Never!' - but I tend to shy away from roles that require nudity," Ms. Dewan said. "But who knows? Perhaps there'll be some compelling role that calls for things like that. But I have morals and standards that I live by - ones that I don't compromise."

She attributes her values to her parents, Darryl Dewan, who's of Lebanese origin, and her mother, Nancy Smith. Although they divorced when she was very young, Ms. Dewan remains close to both of them.

She was born in Hartford, Conn., but grew up largely in her mother's home in Houston after her parents divorced.

"I was a very focused girl - I knew from the age of 13 that I wanted to be a dancer," Ms. Dewan said.

That desire found expression in her high school's cheerleading squad, where she excelled, and then at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where she grew enamored of jazz dancing.

Responding to an offer to dance professionally, Ms. Dewan found herself launched on a career in show business. Stints with P. Diddy, Janet Jackson, and other artistes took her around the world. Then an agent, Lena Rocklin, saw her performing at the Grammy awards.

"I really hadn't thought of acting," Ms. Dewan said. "Even now, if you asked me if, two or three years ago, I'd have thought that I'd see my name up on the big screen - I'd say, 'Oh my God! That's not me!"

It during an earlier visit to New York some months ago that it hit Ms. Dewan that her name was indeed up there.

"I saw the billboards for 'Tamara,' and said to myself, 'Is that really me?'" she said.

Ms. Dewan walked anonymously into a theater to gauge audience reactions to her film.

"It was surreal - I was actually on that big screen!" she said.

And what did she think of the audience reaction?

"I was so nervous," Ms. Dewan said. "I kept thinking, 'What if these people don't like the film? Movies are all about enthralling and entertaining people. Actors worry about that."

Since "Tamara" has developed a cult following among those who enjoy horror flicks, how has she dealt with her newfound celebrity?

"I can't allow myself to believe the hype," Ms. Dewan said. "I'm actually well grounded, well anchored in myself. Of course it's wonderful to be praised, to have fan clubs and Web sites. But I also know that the film business is about moving forward. It's about finding the next project."

She hopes that after "The Grudge 2" - also a horror movie - she would be offered a role in a musical.

"I can already see myself dancing across the screen," Ms. Dewan said. "I'd like to also do various kinds of role. With my determination and tenacity, with the support of my agent and friends, my willpower, I believe it's going to happen. I say to my parents and friends, 'Things are really good. We can't stop right now!'"

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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