College Grad Is Someone to Watch

Photograph: Jean Louisa Kelly.
Photograph: Kelly, far right, at the '94 commencement with friends Andrea Rosenthal and Kong-lin Lee.

She's every high school music teacher's dream come true--a great singing talent. And when Jean Louisa Kelly, CC '94, walks on stage to audition for the school musical in the film Mr. Holland's Opus, she walks away with the picture.

Richard Dreyfuss has won an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance as the teacher in the film's title role. But Kelly, cast as Rowena, his star pupil, has scored a hit both onscreen and off with her heartfelt rendering of Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me." With her fresh glowing face, lush dark curls, bright eyes and picture-perfect smile, she almost manages to convince us--and Mr. Holland--that she really is a little lamb lost in the woods. She sang the song again for Barbara Walters and 5 million viewers on Good Morning America Jan. 31, and for millions more, just as affectingly, on the Late Show With David Letterman Feb. 6.

How is this bright young star--though no newcomer to stage or screen--taking the sudden rush of attention?

"It's sometimes overwhelming," she said in a recent interview. "But my parents are very supportive, and it's good to have some grounded people to look to for advice."

Although her experience is "just the opposite" of the star-struck small-town Rowena, who leaves high school to seek her fortune in New York, Kelly says she came to Columbia "because there really wasn't any other choice for me. I wanted to be in the city, and I wanted a good education. I didn't want a theater school, because I had spent so much time when I was younger doing theater. I wanted a real college experience. I wanted to broaden my horizons."

When she entered Columbia as a freshman in fall 1990, she was already an experienced actress and performer. "I've had an agent since I was 14," says the now 23-year-old who began taking voice and dance lessons as a child in Massachusetts, where her father, a Teachers College graduate, taught high school English and her mother, piano.

"I've always done musical theater," she says. "My first professional show was Annie in Rhode Island summer stock." By the time she was 16 she had appeared in the movie Uncle Buck starring John Candy and as Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel in Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods on Broadway.

While she was at Columbia, she appeared in several television movies, Breathing Lessons, for Hallmark Hall of Fame with Joanne Woodward and James Garner, and One More Mountain with Meredith Baxter for ABC.

She did theater at Columbia, too. She was Emily in Our Town for the Columbia Players and Louisa in the Columbia Musical Theater Society's production of The Fantasticks during her junior year.

"I had a great time at Columbia," she remembers. "I wasn't the kind of person who spent hours in Butler, but neither did I buy a lot of Cliff Notes."

An English major, her favorite classes were two she took with one of the theater world's most beloved teachers, Howard Stein, now professor emeritus of theater arts. "He taught me a lot about drama and a lot about writing. I would say I learned the most from him. He was so good."

In addition to her roles in television films, Kelly may be most familiar to viewers as the phone attendant in an MCI commercial who says over and over into the camera, "Are you out there, AT&T?" That spot, she says, was an important breakthrough for her after graduation. "It took my financial worries away."

After seeing Mr. Holland's Opus,--and bring a handkerchief; the film, fine-tuned through many pre-screenings, leaves audiences misty-eyed--catch Kelly in April in the CBS movie Harvest of Fire with Patty Duke, where she plays an Amish girl in a community plagued by arson. And after that?

"I can't discuss anything now," says Kelly, but the phones haven't stopped ringing.

Columbia University Record -- March 8, 1996 -- Vol. 21, No. 19