Actress Jena Sims Talks Transformation: A Journey from Beauty Queen to Movie Screens
Jena Sims, a self-proclaimed nerd, has risen to fame in what can only be called a modern-day fairy tale. Or at least a wholesome plot for the next big teen movie. A native of the small Georgia town of Winder, the 25-year-old actress made her own dreams come true by believing in herself and in her myriad of talents.
Now, not all kids know whom they will be when they grow up (in fact, even many college students are undecided in their first year), but as a little girl, Sims already had an idea. Besides a short detour when she thought she wanted to coach gymnastics, becoming an actress had always been the plan for the blonde bombshell. For hours she would watch soap operas with her mother and aspired to be one of those pretty ladies that she saw on television.
Now a pretty lady herself living in Los Angeles, she enjoys the ocean breeze and paddle boarding. The shift from a small town to the big city can be challenging, but she says she has never felt like an outsider. This was her calling and she snatched it right up. Nevertheless, no matter how famous a person gets, being homesick comes with being human. The glitz and the glamour are all wonderful, but she’s glad that she also has a place to go back home to in Georgia. Sims calls it, “the best of both worlds.”
Before making the big move and committing full-time to her acting, Sims participated in many beauty pageants. She credits these shows with helping her personality to blossom; two rewards from the experience have been her friendly demeanor and blissful disposition. These competitions also helped grow her self-confidence, which ultimately pushed her into a successful career as an actress and philanthropist.
In fact, it was after being crowned Miss Teen USA that she founded her own charity, HBBQs (Has Been Beauty Queens) Inc. — a name that was inspired by a speech given by motivational speaker, Gale Smith-Thomas, who constantly referred to herself as a “has been beauty queen.”
The organization holds a non-competitive pageant (Pageant for Hope) for kids facing challenges such as mental or physical disabilities, cancer or other illnesses. The best part about the event is that every participant leaves as a winner in order to build self-esteem and raise self-confidence in those who especially need it.
While her career thus far has mostly consisted of smaller movie parts and walk-on roles on TV shows such as Dexter and The Vampire Diaries, she has also appeared on-screen beside well-known actors such as Morgan Freeman and Robert De Niro, and most recently, Jeremy Renner in Roger Corman’s Kill the Messenger (a genuine story about journalist Gary Webb, played by Renner, who uncovered the truth about America’s crack epidemic and the conspiracies behind it and didn’t necessarily come out on top for it). Sims believes the story did not get its proper voice when it initially happened and is honored to be a member of a cast that will hopefully do the story justice.
Recently, the rising star opened up to GALO about her past, present and future acting ambitions. She also tells all about getting involved with pageants, appearances on the big screen and her philanthropy, while encouraging others to get involved with HBBQs Inc. through donations and by attending their shows.
GALO: As I understand, you studied business and marketing at Belmont University in Nashville, TN before deciding to take on an acting career. Prior to making that decision, what were your original plans for your degree? Did anyone ever question you when you chose to pursue acting instead?
Jena Sims: Actually, I was infatuated with Nashville. I had planned on pursuing acting in Nashville, which was very limited, so I did a lot of music videos and a lot of modeling, [instead]. I wanted to get a degree, especially for my non-profit work, just to have that as a backup if I were to pursue non-profit more seriously and live in Nashville. Every time I did a job that was an on-camera job, I just fell more in love with it. Now I am grateful that I get to be in L.A. pursuing what I really love to do.
I have a very supportive family. My dad was sort of a tough sell, but I guess it was in the time that the economy was really terrible in 2008. So I told him that when I got out of college, there probably wouldn’t be any jobs for me anyway, so I might as well pursue my passion of an acting career in L.A. And he was like, “Well, I guess I can’t argue there.” My mom was just like, “Go for it, no looking back.”
GALO: In an interview with Starburst magazine following your performance in Roger Corman’s Attack of the 50 ft. Cheerleader (2012), you said that you identified yourself as a nerd at heart. While being a nerd in today’s world is not looked on as unpopular as it once was, what are some of your interests or hobbies that you would say classify you as a “nerd?”
JS: It’s a really cute movie and gathered a cult following. Actually, I was at dinner last night when my friend texted me a screenshot of Netflix where the movie was under the Cult Classics section, so I was like so thrilled.
What makes me a nerd? Well, I DVR Jeopardy. I’m not always home whenever it comes on and I just really enjoy learning things. I love game shows. Sometimes my friends and I will all get together and drink wine and watch Jeopardy. I read and I made great grades in school as well. I mean, I had no social life in high school other than my extracurriculars and pageants. I guess that just carries through my life now. I am very determined and driven, and I guess that falls sort of into that “nerd lifestyle.”
GALO: Just listening to Morgan Freeman’s voice while watching a movie can be intimidating. What was your favorite part about working with him and other Oscar winners in your last movie, Las Vegas? Were you ever nervous?
JS: Morgan Freeman is probably the most accomplished person I have ever worked with, and on the same breath, he is the most humble. I didn’t know he was going to be [like that] in real life, he could have been stuck up. You never know with actors. But he was the kindest person on that set. He took time to take pictures with whoever wanted to take a picture with him. He would just tell stories and talk. He didn’t hide away in his trailer. He really just enjoyed being there and being in the presence of other actors.
I feel like I don’t really get nervous on set because once I book the job, that’s the easy part — it is all fun from there. I haven’t really had to do any serious, dramatic type of scenes that would require hours of preparation. I just really enjoy my time I get to spend on set. I don’t really get scared.
GALO: I understand that in Kill the Messenger (2014), you are Ronald J. Quail’s (Robert Patrick) girlfriend. Please explain to our readers your role in the movie a little further.
JS: I actually shot more than ended up in the actual final cut of the film. My character and Quail’s character is sort of a side vignette. We open the film and sort of establish Gary Webb’s character as a journalist. Gary is coming to interview Quail, who is a very big drug dealer. He’s basically trying to bust up what he’s (Quail) got going on, and that ends up happening. I had this awesome epic kidnapping and that is the end of us. I guess we are in jail somewhere right now.
GALO: What would you say is the most stressful part about filming a true story?
JS: In this new movie, my part was just a side part and probably wasn’t necessarily in the book or in the actual story. But I have been in other true stories, like the Anna Nicole Smith story on Lifetime. I played an actual person. I guess you just want to honor that person, but still be yourself — like still have a little piece of you in it. In that movie, I played one of the exotic dancers who kind of put the bug in her (Anna Nicole Smith) ear. It was an integral part of what made her who she is.
GALO: When Woodward and Bernstein uncovered a conspiracy that involved President Richard Nixon, they were praised. Journalist Gary Webb did not have such a happy ending after his career. Do you think Jeremy Renner did a good job in his role as Webb?
JS: I think because it was such a serious story dealing with drugs and the U.S. profiting off Nicaragua, it was more touchy. It was highly illegal. And the journalist (Webb) ended up killing himself. They never said why, but I guess it had to do with the fact that he was never able to earn a living as a journalist anymore. I mean, it is such a serious thing. We all want to think that the government has our best interest at heart, and he sort of uncovered that that wasn’t necessarily the case. Jeremy is a very talented actor. Actually, when I first met him on set, I didn’t recognize him. He looked identical to this Gary Webb guy, and then at the premiere it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s Jeremy.’ I think he never really left that character. I think this is some of his best work and I really do hope that his performance gets the accolade that it deserves.
GALO: I see that you have also had some roles on several TV shows — if you could star on any current TV series, which one would you pick and why?
JS: Probably any new sitcom that is out right now, like that new show Marry Me or The Mindy Project — anything funny, like Baby Daddy. I just love comedies.
GALO: There are probably thousands of girls who watched you walk across the stage during your beauty pageant years. What would you say was the best and worst part about those times? Have you used anything you learned during those years to help you with your acting?
JS: Pageants were my life, like I had to miss out on a lot of things in high school because of pageant related things. Now I am sort of indifferent about those things. If I had been able to make my senior trip, it probably wouldn’t have been the best trip of my life, but at the time, I was pretty bummed about it.
I think the best part was all the contacts I made. It taught me stage presence and communication skills. It really brought me out of my shell and is probably part of the reason that I’m in L.A.
Miss Teen USA was my first live television experience, and without it I would probably be in Nashville still. It has definitely taught me how to work a room. You have to know how to walk into a room and sort of own it, and be able to entertain people who you never knew before and have to get to know in a short amount of time. That’s how pageant interviews go, and the interviews aren’t too far off from auditions in Hollywood.
GALO: Many people are involved with Relay for Life (myself included), but have not gone as far as to start their own charities. What would you say was your biggest motivation for founding HBBQs Inc.? Have you accomplished all that you set out to do from the beginning?
JS: Relay for Life is how I initially got involved with my passion for giving back. I lost both of my grandfathers to cancer when I was 10. My grandmother was doing a Relay for Life team, and she brought me and I was freaking out about the positive experience, and after that I just had to create my own team. I was the youngest ever team captain in my county, or maybe even ever, and my first year we raised maybe $2,000 or $3,000. Every year after that, I had a Relay for Life team until my senior year of high school, and we raised $88,000.
Cancer was the first tragedy that struck me in my life and I was pretty gung-ho about funding a cure for cancer at an early age. Then I started meeting all of these kids who were affected, and that is when I sort of decided to create the Pageant of Hope — to bring these kids something to look forward to. There is still a long way to go, but I have hit every major goal that I have set for myself. We have been on ABC, and I also wanted to get more of an international presence and I’ve done that as well. I’ve been all over the world now. Presently, I just need more of a steady flow of donations so that I can do more of these pageants, because now I have the time and the know-how.
GALO: Being able to put a smile on the face of those going through challenges that many of us couldn’t even imagine has to be an incredible feeling. I am sure your charity work makes you feel like a superhero, even if just for just a little while. Tell us a little more about that feeling?
JS: It’s crazy how much I don’t get sick of doing it. I get something out of each pageant. I tell myself I’m not going to cry every time and then toward the end, I get all teary-eyed. Every single pageant totally blows my mind. I always gravitate toward a couple kids. [There’s] one in particular, who was in college and has since passed away from cancer, that was the first one I sort of held on to. Since then, there’s been a little girl named Addison, who was actually in the Huffington Post recently because she got her wish granted from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. It was a very big story where the little girl got to meet a unicorn. So, she’s famous now. But she was a participant two years ago in a pageant where I’m from and she just stole the show. I found out that she lived super close to where my mom lives, and whenever I go home, I go visit her and bring her presents. I try to stay a supportive part of her life. She’s actually going to help us out with the pageant in Georgia on November 30, and she’s in remission now.
GALO: Some fans look at their favorite characters as superheroes as well, and as 2015 nears, you probably have several new projects in the works. Can our readers expect to see more of Jena in the near future?
JS: I have two horror/thriller projects coming up. One is called The Forest and the other is called Down Angel. I am supposed to be shooting another horror/anthology series in New York City, which I do not know the name of yet because they are still writing it. So yeah, I will be branching out into the horror genre. I guess I was due for a little scare. It’s tough to break into the comedy industry because they sort of already have their people, but hopefully I will get some more opportunities. I try to get into as many short films in that genre as possible, and hopefully get more auditions [that way].
Video courtesy of Focus Features.
Featured image: Actress Jena Sims. Photo Credit: Ricky Dorn.