Jerry Della Salla
Although he grew up in New York City, I could tell Jerry Della Salla’s roots must be New Jersey from the accent and tone. He has a commanding presence even over the phone, yet I feel relaxed speaking with him. A personality dynamic no doubt that is the result of a rough and tumble nature combined with a career background as a classically trained actor in the theater. From Off-Broadway plays, to serving our country as an Iraqi veteran, and ultimately acting alongside Matt Damon in ‘Green Zone’, Jerry has had an accomplished and diverse career that seems to only just be beginning.
As we connect via phone for this interview, I look forward to hearing about how his life journey that took him from theater, to fighting in one of the most noted historical battles since the Iraq War began, and eventually Hollywood to act in a major film.
Jamie Hope: You used to live in New York, are you from there originally?
Jerry Della Salla: No, I’m from New Jersey. A little town, East Hanover. I’m second generation American.
I knew you had a Jersey accent!
Well, it’s a lot less now, so it’s just a slight one.
I can tell. When you come from the Midwest like me, it’s much more noticeable. So, growing up in a small town in New Jersey, when did you know you wanted to act? Did you always have a desire for it?
No. It wasn’t until college. I was originally an athlete in football, boxing, and a little baseball. I excelled in football when I got to high school. I didn’t have any interest in acting at all, in fact, in fifth grade I was in a school play called, ‘Animal Olympics,’ and it was a traumatizing experience. Ms. Fox made us do this play where you had to build your own costume and perform in it. And at the time I was an athlete, not this theater stuff, so I was just miserable. My parents saw I was not happy about it but made me make my costume and be in it. On top of everything else, I was cast as a duck, and I was in a race, and I was the one that was going to lose.
So, you’re an athlete in real life and now not only do you have to play a duck in a school play, but a losing duck?
And I was dating this cool girl in school. You know how it is in fifth grade. You just have someone ask you if you like her and vice versa, then you’re “going out.” So, she came to the play and so did my family, it was awful.
How did you go from this traumatizing experience of a loser duck to professional acting?
Ten years later, in Kean College—a division three school—I was playing football. I took an acting class to fill up credits. Then after that, I did one of those study abroad programs and went to London to study acting that summer, and came back. My acting teacher asked me to try out for Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it was a big production.
So I tried out and I got the part of Demetrius, one of the four lovers. Now, I had to decide to show up for football practice or rehearse and be in the play, because they were both going on at the same time. So, you know, I decided not to show up for football. A while later right before the performance I run into my football coach on campus and he’s like, “What happened to you? I was expecting you to show up.” I told him I got one of the main rolls in the play, and I remember exactly where we were, because we were standing right near the banner that had the name of the play on it. So, I pointed to it and said, “Do you want to come, coach?” And he just looked at me like, “Get out of here.”
Did he come?
No, he didn’t.
You worked with Philip Seymour Hoffman, tell me about that.
It was my last semester at NYU, I had transferred from Kean College. We worked behind a cheese counter together in a delicacy store. So, one of the other guys told him I was an actor. We would talk about theater and go over lines together. It was his first year out of college. A few months later he came in to turn in his apron and I’ll never forget what he said to me. He said, “Yeah, I got a role in a movie.” I was like, “Oh that’s cool.” Thinking he got a couple lines in a movie. He then says, “Al Pacino is in it.” So I was excited for him. But again, you know, I figured it was just a small roll with a couple lines.
A year or so later, I go to the movies with a friend and it was ‘Scent of a Woman.’ I had forgotten Phil told me he was in a movie with Al Pacino. So we’re watching it and in comes Phil in a scene and I thought, “Wow—that was a pretty big scene.” Then here he comes again, and again, and I realize he got a major role!
You worked with him on stage too, right?
They are all phenomenal actors. Peter Dinklage’s character in Game of Thrones is brilliant. What was it like working with him?
It’s been nineteen years I think since I worked with him, but we were good friends that summer and hung out a lot since we were in similar shows and all. It’s funny because we used to have push up contests. We also were both from Jersey and survived going to rival Catholic High Schools. He went to Dellbarton Prep. and I went to a school called Bayley Ellard. I believe that’s what led us to doing the push up contest backstage in-between our entrances. He’s a very funny guy and has a great sense of humor.
That’s awesome. What great memories to have.
They really are great memories.
What has been your most memorable roles?
Daytime television working on soaps. Understanding and learning the different mediums in stage acting versus theater, you know, it’s a whole different level of acting. The approach, technicalities, finding a level of patience as a screen actor because there are so many things coming into play.
I remember coming from a theater background and that was the hardest thing because in theater you don’t stop a scene. But in film if something goes out, I mean, there’s the sound guy, boom guy, a grip girl, this or that. Then shot-cut-shot-cut. When you are in the moment and have to come back to that moment again, it’s learning to be patient. And, of course, working with Matt Damon was a great experience.
Speaking of Matt Damon, tell me how you got the role acting with him in ‘Green Zone.’
I had come back from Iraq a year or two prior, I was in New York and a producer friend of mine knew the casting people and so she pushed me to make contact with them. I’ve been here before, the door never shuts. It’s a revolving door of people going in for this and I had the kind of attitude that, I’ll do this, I’ll present my credentials as a soldier and an actor, then I’ll leave. But, they called me back, and then they called me back again. They needed a team with that military experience that Matt was going to be commanding. They wanted veteran actors—my age, my type for that role—it just all worked.
When I met Paul, there was a scene we had to improv based on a scenario, and I stood in the middle of the scene after and thought, ‘You know, there’s just something not right about this.’ Because the scene they had to do was a Humvee scene. And you never have less than five people in a Humvee. You have five people for a reason and we only had four to do the scene. So I made a motion of that, and he got up out of the seat and said, “Tell me more. What goes on here?” And you know everyone else in the room like me was an actor and when we went back out and came back in to do it again later, my team of actors for the audition were like, “Tell me what to do.” And then after that, I got the contract a month later.
That’s great that they were interested in having veteran actors. People like you can bring so much to the table for a movie like this. What would be your dream role? Do you enjoy playing military roles or do you want to do something different?
My dream role would be something that, something I could show my chops or dialect, particularly British, which I’ve done for numerous productions on stage.
Wow, that’s interesting, and a lot different from the roles I’ve seen you in.
I’ve been type-cast now in my career because of my background, and it’s sometimes been a hard pill to swallow because of my training and experience in theater. I mean, it gets me in, but it gets me in doing the same thing. I don’t begrudge it, you know, it’s part of my commitment to that soldier experience but you need to branch out as an actor if you’re going to take it seriously.
I’m sure that’s tough because maybe you feel like you’re going to end up being forever type-cast.
Yeah, it’s a cross to bear. But, you know, I think with enough good roles you can separate yourself.
You are in a new play produced by Golden Globe nominee, Noah Wyle, ‘The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare)’, tell me about your role.
Yeah, I actually play two historical parts connected to JFK’s assassination. I play Carlos Marcello who was a mobster from New Orleans, and the late Jack Valenti who was a movie producer and assistant to Lyndon B. Johnson. Valenti became the head of Paramount when he left politics. The whole play is done in Shakespeare’s text, using speeches and scenes from his greatest plays to streamline the story amid the backdrop of 1963 and 1964.
Congratulations on that! When is opening night?
Opening night is October 1st at the Skylight Theater in Los Feliz.
Let’s talk about ‘At Ease’ for a minute. This is a short film you are acting in and also producing. So, you met Christopher (the director) at a—was it a Starbuck’s?
Yeah. He was wearing a ‘168’ hat, which is a Christian film fest and I made notion of it. And Christopher had taken part in it for several years and I was going to a workshop the next day. I said, “Hey, I have to be there tomorrow.” And said I had been there once a couple years ago. He was with this producer because they were location scouting for his new movie, ‘Youth Group.’ So, I went through the line and got my stuff and went and sat down. He was waiting for his coffee and as he was leaving Stephen Baldwin came in and then they all left together. And that was it. I looked him up and contacted him a couple weeks later.
So, when you connected he passed on the script for ‘At Ease’ to you? What was it about the script that compelled you to want to join as a producer and actor?
I liked the platform and layout environmentally as far as setting. I liked the characters that were depicted as far as veterans. They went into a domestic kind of exploration and the male POV behind loss. You know, you are looking for meaty roles as an actor and more things that are depth. And here are two guys who have suffered loss and it is intimate. For the character I am playing, you see kind of a walking ghost, and if there is any kind of arc, and there should be, where they grow and they learn something and become something more than what they were in the beginning. Here he is in his uniform, going through the motions. It’s different, it’s more heavy. Then he meets John, and they have this interaction and at the end of it all, you know, I’d like to think that, where there once wasn’t hope for Chris, there is now.
And that’s an interesting and difficult thing to do in a fifteen to twenty minute film.
Yes, yes it is. But that’s the point. That’s one of the major messages of the script. And of course the male POV and how they deal with loss. You know in the war, we have so far lost over 5,000 servicemen and women, and you see how women deal with loss. But now, we show how the men deal with it. That’s what I loved about it.
Obviously, I’m sure this touches you because you served our country. When did you enter the military and why?
I entered eight months after 9/11. And I entered because of 9/11. I was banging on every door in New York City that was a firehouse and I got the BS speech that you’re too old and I was thirty two. The problem is I was too old technically speaking. As far as any kind of civil service job in the city of New York and tri-state area for fire department, police etc. you have to be thirty or under. It’s a brutal strict thing, and I think it’s garbage. But it’s about budget and the way they structure their pension plans.
You would think they would want people a little bit older because a lot of times that’s when you have more wisdom. As long as you can physically meet the demands.
This was the frustrating thing to me, I was saying I’m able bodied and could certainly blow away a lot of these 25 year olds. At the time I was in crazy shape, college educated. You lost 300 plus men, change the rules.
So, my friend said, “Look, I’m in the reserves,”—and he was a firefighter—he said, “They will take you because you are under the age cap,” which at the time was thirty six. He said, “Why don’t you go into the reserves?” And it was a smart move. I did five months training and my unit was getting ready to deploy right as I got back from AIT. So, I think the first few years of my time in the service I did a couple plays, a couple shorts, but really didn’t have much activity. Then when I got back from Iraq in 2006 I was kind of like, not into even wanting to deal with actors. So, I jumped into corporate.
Why is that? That you couldn’t deal with actors?
You know, you see a lot, you do a lot and get discouraged—a little PTSD—and knowing how you have to be walking into an audition room and I just wasn’t ready. I had a commercial agent send me on audition three weeks after I returned for a commercial and I remember looking around the room before I went in, and I was just so pissed off that, you know, I just did this entire thing for a year, just got back—I mean, my agent was awesome, she kept up with me the whole year. She was just trying to do good and get me back in the cycle. But, she didn’t know. And neither did the knucklehead actors in the world that are just keyed up on their career—
You felt like they were maybe oblivious?
The theater is very liberal and of course I knew a lot of these people were against what we were doing and I believed that what we did in Iraq, as far as soldier population, we shouldn’t have had that many there. We should’ve flipped the numbers to Afghanistan if we truly were on the hunt for terrorism. That’s where Bin Laden was. So, I would listen to this chatter that was like, oh this is our Vietnam. And I’m like, no it’s not.
And you’re coming fresh off of deployment and were in the battle of Abu Ghraib too. I can’t imagine what that felt like.
Yeah. So, long story short, I called my agent and was like, I need some time. She said it was fine and to call when I was ready. I did book with her years later when I did Green Zone and commercials, but that was what I needed. To just get into corporate, get a job and something stable for a while, which was good. I did that for a year and a half and then ‘Green Zone’ came around.
But, as you mentioned, before that when I was deployed and dealing with things like Abu Ghraib, it’s hard to be a creative creature when you’re in a combative situation. I needed to find that center again. And God was telling me, you’re not ready. And God is faithful because when I was ready two years later I got that role, and a national commercial among other things. He wanted me to work on myself.
The Battle of Abu Ghraib is one of the most notable battles the US has fought in since the inception of the Iraq War. On April 2, 2005, insurgents attacked the prison with grenades, IED’s and other munitions resulting in all branches of the US military fighting alongside each other. Jerry was involved in the battle serving as military police sergeant with the 306th MPBN, Uniondale, New York.
To learn about Jerry’s time serving in Iraq, and how it has impacted his life, read part two of this interview.