‘What does a veteran look like?’ 'Stranger Things' actress and Navy vet on breaking into the industry

Matt Saintsing
December 21, 2018 - 3:29 pm

Photo Courtesy of Jennifer Marshall

Most people know Jennifer Marshall as the actress who plays Susan Hargrove on the Netflix hit-show Stanger Things. But before the bright lights of Hollywood came calling, she was serving in what she calls the "world's finest Navy."  

She recently sat down with Connecting Vets to talk about how she went from breaking waves aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt to breaking into the acting industry. 

Thank you!!! This morning I woke up to emails, text messages, DM’s on Instagram, DM’s on Facebook, etc. Everyone has been so kind. This role meant a lot to me and I cried during the episode last night too. I want to thank you all from the bottom of my heart for all of your support. It means so much to me! #Actor #Actress #Veteran #Vet #hawaiifive0

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After five years in the Navy, which included deploying in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, she did what many veterans do after their service: use the GI Bill.

“I didn’t know how to sign up for college, I didn’t know what semester hours were versus quarter hours, I didn’t know any of those things,” Marshall tells Connecting Vets “It was really, really overwhelming, but I knew if I had a GI Bill I would be paid to go to school. That’s kind of a no-brainer.” 

And at Virginia Wesleyan College, she got bit by the acting bug. 

In Virginia, she quickly hit the ceiling on what was possible with acting. By 2009, she had been in four commercials and did all the local television shows she could. When her husband retired from the military two years later, the duo headed west to Los Angeles. 

“I’ve always approached my acting career like I did while I was in the Navy; it’s an operation, and there are steps,” She says. “You have to have a very strong foundation before you build that house.” 

Marshall says her “ticket into the room” was her military experience, but it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. Casting directors were skeptical that she could play a military role, an ironic slight given her resume, but in their eyes, she didn’t look like a vet. 

Well, what does a veteran look like?” she says. “I was very frustrated.”

“Veterans look like anyone,” she adds. “Anyone on the street can ‘look’ like a veteran because we’re a microcosm of society.”

Slowly, the rest of Hollywood got onboard with a six-foot-tall red-haired woman playing military roles. Veterans, says Marshall, “bring something a little different, a little extra at no added cost.” 

“It takes us two to three months to learn to be a sailor, soldier, airman or marine, and it’s not something you learn overnight,” adds Marshall. 

It was that low-effort/high-impact authenticity that she says veterans can bring to working in entertainment. 

Marshall says there are some 2,800 veterans apart of Veterans in Media & Entertainment working in all aspects of film, television and gaming industries. They do everything from acting on camera to operating it and beyond. 

“You name it, a vet can fill the position,” she adds. 

For vets itching to break into the industry, Marshall says it’s helpful to have thick skin and to be prepared to hear “no” 90 percent of the time. 

“This career is not linear, you can put in so much work and go nowhere, then there are others who put in very little work and catch a lucky break,” says Marshall. “Coming into it, you have to be aware it’s a marathon and not a sprint.” 

When it comes to her role continuing in Season 3 of Stranger Things, mums the word, you’ll have to tune in and see like the rest of us.  

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