Performing her civic duty

For alumna, success comes from combining comedy with character

Whitney Rice (’09), right, laughs with Rubén Graciani, left, dean of the college of Visual and Performing Arts, during her March 5 talk about civics and comedy at the Forbes Theatre Recital Hall. PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHRISTOPHER TIMOTHY

SUMMARY: Coming off the success of 2023’s award-winning reality hoax “Jury Duty,” Whitney Rice (’09) addressed an audience at the Forbes Center Recital Hall to discuss how to make it in Hollywood while staying true to yourself.

On March 5, JMU welcomed Hollywood actor and writer Whitney Rice (’09) to share her perspective on how civic duty and comedy can go hand in hand.

Rice told the audience in the Forbes Center Recital Hall that for years after graduating from JMU, she avoided her passion for acting, until she couldn’t deny it any longer and made the leap to Los Angeles. “Why won’t you just do what you want to do?” she recalled asking herself at the time.

“There are a lot of people that are going to tell you what you should do,” she said. “I wish in my 20s I would have just listened to what I wanted to do and quit doing what other people thought would make me successful.”

Whitney Rice talks about her acting career
Whitney Rice (’09) began her acting career with stand-up comedy before gaining notoriety through her YouTube channel and landing a job in L.A. She said it’s not as important to find an agent or manager as it is to be good at your job.

She began her career in stand-up comedy before gaining notoriety through her YouTube channel doing celebrity impressions of Melania Trump. Then, when invited to try out for a paid role, she auditioned and succeeded in landing it. She stressed that it’s important to try several things to get your foot in the door. 

“It’s a hard path to get in,” she said of acting, “which is why you have to try a bunch of different methods.”

One of those ways is to practice creating various characters, which she said helped her land the role of the eccentric Jacqui in Jury Duty, a 2023 reality hoax sitcom that starred a cast of actors portraying courtroom roles alongside one unwitting juror, Ronald Gladden, who didn’t know the trial was fake.

“I love to observe people in public,” Rice said of her process. “There’s always a way to create a character off of a tiny, little tic or interaction.” Often, after developing a character and finding a costume, Rice visits restaurants or stores in character to improvise a storyline and figure out more about the character.

At JMU, Rice majored in Anthropology and Political Science, but she credits her freshman public speaking class with helping her realize a love of performance. After joining the Speech Team, she said, “It made my experience at the university so much richer.”

Graduate school at Cal State University Long Beach and an attempt at teaching brought her to California. She later taught public speaking and argumentation at Cal State Northridge before deciding to pursue acting, writing and producing.

Making a living as an actor is incredibly difficult, Rice shared, especially as AI and streaming services continue to change how actors are employed and paid. TV used to be for the unknown actor, she said. Now new shows are reliant on an A-list actor or someone who has at least 500,000 followers on social media, ensuring a built-in audience.

Recently, with many film studios still shut down and not pursuing projects after the 2023 Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes, independent films are seeing more success, she said.

Whitney Rice talks about her career
Whitney Rice (’09) talks with Rubén Graciani about the difficulties of making it in Hollywood and the importance of setting boundaries.

Asked by moderators Bernie Kaussler, of the Madison Center for Civic Engagement, and Rubén Graciani, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, what advice she would offer students, Rice told them having an agent or manager isn’t as important as being good at their job.

“Focus on the work,” she said. “I’ve learned to just focus on being really good. Get really good and get really creative and put yourself out there, and the thing will come.” Making and building relationships is also essential, she added.

Proud of Jury Duty’s success in garnering attention and awards, including multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominations and a recent Independent Spirit Award win, Rice said it wouldn’t have happened without social media.

“What I’m most proud of with this show is there was no budget, we had no idea what was going on, we thought it would never see the light of day, and thanks to TikTok, it blew up. … That was millions and millions of views. It was the young people that really … helped get the name out there and the nominations started happening, and Ronald became a millionaire.”


Back to Top

by Josette Keelor

Published: Friday, March 8, 2024

Last Updated: Monday, April 15, 2024

Related Articles