Alum Makes Feature Film

Although Vanessa Parise ’92 concentrated in biology as an undergraduate in Kirkland House, she has spent most of her post-college career outside of the sciences. After receiving acceptance letters from the medical schools of Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Cornell, and Stanford, she deferred for ten years in order to pursue acting in New York.

“It was a really hard decision and an ongoing one. I kept deferring and coming up with a choice each year. For ten years I did that,” she said in a phone interview with The Crimson last week.

Instead of medical school, Parise delved into the world of theater acting and eventually film. In 1998 she wrote, directed, and starred in “Lo and Jo,” a short film that won numerous accolades. In her new movie (and second feature film to date), “Jack and Jill vs. the World,” Parise again takes on the numerous roles of actress, director, producer, and co-writer. Juggling all of these responsibilities proved a tremendous challenge.

“Actually, the writing happened first, so that’s isolated and fine to do along with everything else. The acting takes a lot of preparation. The producing and directing happened simultaneously. It’s probably not something I’d like to do again because each one takes so much time and so much effort to do well,” said Parise.

The main character in the movie, Jill—played by actress Taryn Manning—suffers from cystic fibrosis, a disease that Parise became interested in while writing the screenplay. “My co-writer and I actually heard a segment…that was about a young girl who actually had cystic fibrosis but was living her life with so much enthusiasm, really living her life fully. This is something we really believe in and could hold true for everybody,” she said.

Parise and co-writer Peter Stebbings used this idea as the inspiration for Jill. “She lives in every moment, takes risks, is messy, and is funny. She makes mistakes, she fixes them, and I felt like that was something everyone could learn from, myself included. That’s why we got involved with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.”

When the film premieres in Providence on April 9, the event will double as a benefit for the Foundation. Parise said that working with the charity has been a rewarding experience. “It’s something that’s totally new to me, to be working with a charity. It’s an unexpected area that’s now involved in my life. It’s really rewarding to be working with them and all the people in all the offices are really appreciative. People in L.A. sometimes get tired of movies I think.”

She describes “Jack and Jill vs. the World” as “a love story for cynics.” In the film, the title characters create a list of ten rules to live by, until Jill breaks one of them (always be honest). Parise said this was one of her favorite parts of the film. “I think that’s one of the key motifs that runs through the movie, that we should all come up with our own rules to live by. Some are more cynical and some are really romantic,” she said.

“My co-writer was far more cynical and I was more romantic. He would say ‘abandon the pursuit of happiness’ and I would say ‘believe in fairy tales.’ But we like that because that’s what life is. Some days you’re going to say ‘promote beauty’ and some days you’re going to say ‘abandon the pursuit of happiness.’”

On the success of her film, Parise said, “My hope is that people will come to the movie and they’ll enjoy themselves and they’ll laugh but that they’ll also feel something deeper and think about something in their own lives in a new way. If that can happen then all these four years of nonstop work and play will be worth it.”

—Crimson staff writer Jessica A. Estep can be reached at jestep@fas.harvard.edu.