Apollo 10 1/2: An animated ’60s childhood

by | Oct 29, 2022 | Acting, Blog, Filmmaking

You know that feeling when you’re in a Bed Bath and Beyond a few days before Christmas 2019, and your agent sends you an audition, just like the tens (or hundreds?) that have come before? You know, it’s almost the end of the year, and you’re tired, even cynical that your youth spent in acting classes and workshops and headshots and resumes was an absolute waste and you should just try to become a veterinarian, or something without so much competition? You know that feeling?

I do. It’s a feeling I’ll never forget.

A still from the film with me (I’m the one on your right!) and my favorite siblings.

As a 14-year-old wannabe actress, I hated auditions. I still do. They can be really intimidating, whether in-person or increasingly taped. You have to be the character, don’t act, and people from all walks of life give you advice, unsolicited or not, about exactly what choice to make or where to make eye contact. It’s overwhelming. I didn’t want to keep going with it. I was already losing steam.

But alas, I had representation, and I couldn’t let them down.

The audition was for a project by Richard Linklater, an Oscar-nominated director and creator of cult classics such as “Dazed and Confused” and, more recently, “Boyhood”. He was a big deal; some might even say the unofficial mayor of Austin, Texas, where I lived. Even from the pictures I looked up of him, I could instantly understand his vibe: chill, determined, cool-cool. Not quite a hippie but pretty close. Alright, I’d give it my best shot, but not expect anything in return. That’s essentially the life of an actor. A few days later I did the self-tape, consisting of a cutesy monologue and some questions. “What’s a great moment you’ve had with a friend?” “Favorite hobbies?” The list went on. Thankfully I was being taped by someone I knew well, so it wasn’t as terrifying as it could have been.

Getting hair-and-makeup ready to shoot a scene in my favorite dress. Seriously, hair and makeup departments deserve SO MUCH more credit for the work they do.

Fast-forward. I get an email calling me for a table read. Exciting! I’d never been at something like that before. Richard must not hate me! I would be reading for “Jana”, an accident-prone girl living in 1969, obsessed with the Monkees, the middle child of six siblings. A sharp contrast to my existence as an only child. There were a lot of kids in the waiting room, never a great sign. But my name was called and in I went.

A close-up in the family car. Constantly being surrounded by a green screen was quite a fun experience.

It was a tiny room filled with Richard and a few other people involved, as well as a boom operator (he holds and operates the microphone). I went in with a few other kids reading for different parts. I read the few lines I was given as if my life depended on it, which in my mind it did. I was right: he really was chill. It went alright, more or less. But of course, I wasn’t expecting anything.

“I think I like hippies.” Jana being iconic.

Fast-forward again. My agents emailed: Chemistry Read! I was going to the final stage of auditioning! Me! How? I could puzzle over it for ages, but I didn’t have time, because the next day there I was, my mom and I pulling into the parking lot of Trouble Maker Studios. That’s where I spotted my friend Danielle, who was also an actress. Thankfully she was going out for Jana’s younger sister. “Can you imagine that?” I said. “Us! Siblings!” It would be a dream, but it was unlikely, and that became increasingly clear as I walked in. Kids, teens, adults, everywhere. The odd thing was, everyone seemed to be having a blast. Kids were playing kickball, ping-pong, and foursquare with the adults. It was unlike any audition I had ever been to before. I even ran into Sam, someone I also knew. Imagine that!

After a few grueling––but fun––attempts at letting my lack of athleticism stick out like a sore thumb with a game of kickball (with Richard and some other guys scribbling down notes ominously in notepad, I might add), it was time for me to say my one line I had been preparing along with some other people, arranged into a little family. Richard gave us a few little notes, and a few minutes later he said thanks, and to stick around.

Sam, Danielle and I after one of our rehearsals. They were some of the best siblings I could ever ask for.

Eventually, the room emptied, and the only people who remained were Danielle, Sam, a few younger boys, a slightly older boy, two adults who had already been cast, and another teenager also going for the role of Jana. This was it. They were going to cast the blonde girl, I was sure of it. It was always the blonde girl. But…why was I still there?

Richard then had us sit in the style of a car and have a family argument. It was me, Danielle, Sam, Josh (slightly older boy), Milo (one of the younger boys), and the parents. It. Was. Amazing. We were all trying not to giggle as our “family”‘s antics ensued. If I remember correctly, I wanted a boyfriend, but my siblings were teasing me. They were certainly wittier than I was, but I saw Rick smiling, and my confidence went up just a tad. This was fun. Even if I didn’t get the part (I was still certain I wouldn’t), this was an experience to remember.

The sign on the door of our school room, where so many of our off-set antics ensued. It was always an interesting time whenever I was there.

Soon we were dismissed, and Danielle and I walked out together. Neither of us knew when/if we’d be hearing back from casting, but we hugged each other and went our separate ways with our moms. I did what I did, and there was nothing else I would have changed. Except maybe have taken some kickball lessons beforehand.

That night, I was just about to record a birthday video for my uncle.

My mom: “Oh wait, before you sing I just wanted to tell you something.” My eyes opened embarrassingly wide. It couldn’t be.

“You got the offer. Congratulations. You’re Jana.

A clip stolen from my instagram as my mom told me I had gotten the part. Check out the full video on @Jessa.cohen. It was the kind of joy that’s almost indescribable, unreal.

All hell broke out but in a good way. The rest of the night was a blur as I called some family members and jumped up and down all over the apartment. I was Jana. I was going to be in Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 1/2. I was going to be in a Netflix film. I was going to become Sag-eligible.

Oh my god.

I didn’t have too much time to swim in my infinite joy. Rehearsals began Monday.

The weekend breezed through, and I saw that both my friends Danielle and Sam were going to be my siblings. In other words, a dream.

Daydreaming in my trailer, where I would spend a lot of time changing into my 60s’ attire.

Monday afternoon we drove to Trouble Maker Studios, where we would be rehearsing and filming for the next six weeks. This film was going to be rotoscoped, which meant that we were going to be animated, but not in the traditional sense. Basically, it was going to be a normal set, except nearly everything would be behind a green screen. I highly encourage you to look up some rotoscoping examples. It’s absolutely gorgeous and weird in a perfect way (i.e A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life, both by Linklater).

So in I went into the same room as the chemistry read, more nervous than ever. I couldn’t let Richard down. I couldn’t let anyone down. And of course, that wonderful imposter syndrome followed me into the room. But I tried to ignore it, even as it kept clawing at me. I don’t deserve this. I’m not a good actor. I’m a failure, deep down. This was a misfiring of fate. No, I tried telling myself. I should be here. I’m Jana now, damn it, time to start acting like it.

My beautiful space-age family (minus Josh).

The rehearsal was a sort of table read, but first, we all got to know each other a bit by talking, each one of us exhilarated. Everyone had a different story and a different background. Some of us had some experience. Some of us had zero. Some of us had worked with Richard before. Some of us hadn’t. Everyone was so nice and humbled, it just felt right. The script was wonderful, and filled with voiceovers that would be filled by the legendary Jack Black. By the end of the rehearsal, I knew that this would be an experience of a lifetime.

Having a blast on a road trip in the back of a pickup truck without seatbelts. Being a part of this film was a history lesson on how kids grew up in the 60s’ (spoiler: it could be dangerous).

The two weeks of rehearsal flew by, full of learning to ride a bike for the first time (long story, thank you Danielle!), gradually learning to call Richard “Rick” like everyone else, and practicing living a green screen-filled 1960s life, from our busy living room to a road trip without seatbelts.

Rick knew he was working with some people, myself included, who hadn’t had a ton of professional acting experience. Certainly not a feature film such as this. He was so kind and attentive, and I admired how dedicated he was to his work. You could tell when he was pleased or when he gently nudged us to try something new, but ultimately he wanted us to have fun. I couldn’t have asked for a better director in a million years.

“Pancake!” Rick always made the set super fun.

The first day on set finally came, and I was called in that night to do my first scene, along with my sisters.

A trailer. I had my own trailer. Rather, a room in a trailer, but it had my name on the front, I had my own steps, and I had my own sink! No such sink had ever made me as happy as it had that night. But I had no time to sit and take everything in. I was given clothes to change into, my favorite outfit I ever wore on set. Next was hair and makeup, in a separate building a minute’s walk from the trailer. They brushed my hair (which they had cut slightly a few days prior) and gave me some extremely light makeup. Afterward Danielle and I had a blast being ecstatic together as our mothers had to fill out some paperwork that apparently hadn’t been completed. Acting when you’re young gives you the advantage of not having to handle that, something I was extremely grateful for.

Stepping out of my trailer for the first time to get my hair and makeup done. In the back is my wonderful sink.

Soon a PA (production assistant, a lifesaver who does various important on-set tasks) came to get us and take us to the set, the same green-painted studio I had grown accustomed to, where my Apollo journey really began. We were going to be filming the scene involving my two sisters and an ouija board. We skipped the whole way over, but nothing would prepare me for what was inside.

Everything was hushed, and the studio had been transformed into a true movie studio. There all the crew was scattered around the room, each doing their respective jobs that were so vital to every aspect of production, and there was a sense of focus and splendor.

The full family, rotoscoped.

My older sister was in the middle of filming a shot involving her putting up pictures of the Fab Four, Rick intently watching the monitor. Everything was so precise, so clean, and so awe-inspiring. This was what it was like, huh? This was what I had been missing in my fourteen years of life. How had I truly lived?

We had to be silent and still until they finally wrapped the scene and set up the ouija board. The three of us sat on the floor in a circle and Rick came up to us, smiling in his signature cool-guy way and explaining what we’d be doing. I tried listening harder than I ever had in my life, because in that moment. nothing else in the world mattered. All that mattered was that I was here, in Trouble Maker Studios, being directed by Richard Linklater, working with incredibly talented people. Everything floated away.

One of my favorite moments of the whole experience. I was shocked to hear that this was a normal thing people did in the 60s’, and I’m tempted to try it for myself, for old times’ sake.

Everyone set up as I tried to stop shaking. It was time for our first scene as a trio. My first scene ever.


We did this scene several times. I don’t remember the exact number, but it was enough that each time was slightly different than the last in wonderfully imaginative ways. We were electric. I wanted to cry, out of stress, out of fear, but mostly out of pure joy, after each take. But I let that energy overcome my body with this one thought: this is what I want to do. Being on set. The feeling is truly indescribable, and I urge everyone to strive to get onto a film set at least once in their lives. It’s life-changing.

Eventually, we finished. We’d be there at 8:30 the next morning to start our first full day of filming. I changed and went home, dreaming about the next day, and the day after that, and every day that followed where I’d get to be on set.

(Most of) our entire cast and crew on our last day. Looking back at this makes me incredibly nostalgic, but it also makes me smile (why did I look like that?)

I started becoming more comfortable each day with what I was doing, although that imposter syndrome was still there and would likely never leave. But it was alright because the long days on set at least partially distracted me from these self-deprecating thoughts. That other girl should have been Jana, not me. Why on earth would they ever choose someone like Jessica Brynn Cohen? I’m not good enough and I never will be.

I grew close with every member of my little film family, and of course, we had our own inside jokes. (Let’s just say I was a bit of a Welch’s Fruit Snacks fanatic…)

The four youngest siblings in their trailers together one last time. I want to get this picture framed so I can stare and smile at it for eternity.

On the days I wasn’t on set, I was just waiting for the next day when I would be. Even on set, I would be dreaming about the next day I could be on set, doing literally anything. Hell, even sitting in the background of a scene made me shiver with excitement.

All good things must come to an end. I wrapped my final scene, screaming at a yeti, along with Danielle the day before the film was to wrap. I hugged Rick and my family that really was my family. I was terrified of the fact that this was the end of an era, even though it was really just the start. Even now, nostalgia overwhelms me when I think about every aspect of being Jana. Even if I’m lucky enough to be a part of another feature project, nothing will ever be quite the same.

Rick and I at the premiere. He’s just so cool.

This experience is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Just writing this made me a bit emotional as I think about the friends I made and the things I learned. Film is truly incredible. It brings people from all walks of life together to create something truly unique. I’m forever grateful.

Us (minus Josh, plus Glen Powell) at the SXSW premiere after party. I’m usually not a big party person but this time I was soaking everything in.

Apollo 10 1/2 premiered at SXSW in March 2022 and is finally available to stream on Netflix.