Thousands upon thousands of actors in Los Angeles go from audition to audition doing what they can to fulfill their performing dreams. They wait for someone to hire them. But when Los Angeles-based actress Jill-Michele Meleán couldn't get cast, she took matters into her own hands. Meleán co-wrote, co-produced and starred in the film Witness Infection. The film is heating up film festivals around the country.
Meleán’s path began early. At the age of three she native declared to her parents that she was going to be on Saturday Night Live and win an Oscar. “I got the humor of SNL when I was three-years-old,” she shares. “Looking back, it was the costumes and physical humor that resonated with me.” Although her parents never watched the show, her grandma who lived with them would fall asleep in front of the TV as SNL played.
As much as Meleán wanted to perform, her parents weren’t entirely on board, especially since they didn’t known anyone remotely involved in the entertainment industry “They thought it was an outrageous idea to become a star from the middle of Florida,” shares the Miami-born Meleán, whose father was a pilot who worked for a South American commercial airline.
“Many times they didn’t know how to guide their hyper-creative kid who loved to sneak away and watch Mommie Dearest, The Golden Girls, I Love Lucy, All about Eve and Benny Hill with her grandma.”
Meleán couldn’t wait to get to Los Angeles. But she got her lucky break in her Miami hometown. She auditioned to be a body double and stand-in for Jennifer Lopez who would star in the movie Out of Sight. “Luckily, I’m about the same height and skin tone as her,” says Meleán. She booked the gig, was flown to Los Angeles and got her SAG card.
Once in Los Angeles Meleán enrolled in Improv Olympic, Second City and the Groundlings. She always loved making people laugh and had a keen natural sense of comedic timing. She knew it was her super power.
“I went to a strict private school and participated in Bible monologue competitions. I would put my physical humor into the monologues and win with laughter. I always knew there was strength in making others laugh,” she says. “It gave me a rush through my body and reminded me why I’m on the planet.” Now it became her Los Angeles calling card.
Longing for her “stage fix” she ventured into the world of stand-up comedy. For months she stood for hours waiting in line for a chance to get a few minutes on stage and showcase her talent at open mics.
But getting an open mic slot at comedy meccas like The Improv, Laugh Factory and Comedy Store prooved challenging. “During that time I cried myself to sleep every night,” she recalls. “Once I got stage time, it wasn’t enough money to pay rent so I lived off credit cards.”
Nevertheless, Meleán persisted. “I kept going because I wanted to prove everyone wrong who said I couldn’t succeed and that I should move back to Miami, get married and have kids.” Her tenacity and drive made her a stand out in the boys’ club of comedians and got her noticed.
Ultimately Meleán was cast as a series regular on Fox’s MAD TV where she developed memorable impressions of Britney Spears and Drew Barrymore. Her parents also shifted and began to believe that their daughter could put her imagination to good use. She seemed on her way.
But that major MAD TV milestone brought more challenges. She did the show for two seasons and was the show’s first and only Latina cast member. But when the third season didn’t come, she had to dig deep to find what roles were out there for her. The parts she booked were slimmed down and in the “Latina” category. All too often she found herself on set slapping on gold hoop earring and getting a few lines with a Latin accent.
When the industry got more woke Meleán thought that would change things for her. “I was excited to finally have more opportunities when there was more of a push towards diversity,” she shares. But they didn’t come to her. “Basically I was told, 'Jill-Michele is a great actress but she’s not Latin enough.’”
She decided that instead of letting others dictate her destiny she had to take agency over her career. Refusing to quit she knew she needed to find a way to make herself “bookable” without giving into the stereotype.
Meleán produced a one-hour stand up special, White/Latina, on Amazon Prime. She began writing television pilots and feature films to create her own opportunities. “Tackling a new path was and still is scary. But I cope taking one forward motion at a time,” she advises.
She tries to stick to her methodical mantra: take a good idea, write it, attach actors or a director, find finance, lock it in, make the set a productive and happy place, walk through post production, find distribution and pray to make a profit. “I know that’s a lot,” she says. “But if I get caught up in the “how,” I will feel discouraged before the process even begins.”
That attitude helped Meleán to launch her web series The Mr. Jack Show. She is producing and starring with her good friend and fellow actress Jenica Bergere, The program pays tribute to Meleán’s beloved late dog. “He was my pup but everyone who met him knew he had the soul of a little “yoda,” says Meleán. “By creating Helping to carry on his legacy Jenica turned my tears to joy by creating.” Their goal is to expand to more platforms, feature charities and sell merchandise with profits going to animal rescue organizations.
Meleán’s passion even helped draw opportunities her way. When Carlos Alazraqui who played her brother on Comedy Central’s Reno 911 asked her to write a comedy/horror film with him. she jumped at the opportunity. The two had been touring together for years as stand up comics and both shared a peculiar fascination with horror films.
In less than a year the duo crafted a script that managed to be both funny and scary. “It was in the vein of Shaun Of the Dead, combined with John Hughes movie vibe,” says Meleán. They had a table read to showcase the material receiving excellent feedback. Word spread fast. A production company contacted Alazraqui to buy the script on the condition that the duo would not star in it.
After much contemplation they decided to make it on their own. “We knew that if we didn’t carve out that opportunity for ourselves, this fun movie could sit on a desk in perpetuity,” says Meleán. Feeling confident that they had something special, Alazraqui and his wife agreed to finance it themselves. Suddenly her best friend and writing partner was now the executive producer.
“I was so excited because I knew that we could make the exact movie we wanted and not have someone over our shoulder telling us to make changes,” says Meleán. “ I have known Carlos for so long. He would never disappoint. That to me is the true meaning of family.”
They attached experienced horror director, Andy Palmer, whose credits include Camp Cold Brook, and set out to make the film. Witness Infection centers around two rival east coast families who are transferred from the Witness Protection Program to the same town in Lake Elsinore, California, by mistake. In addition to Carlos Alazraqui and Meleán the cast features Erinn Hayes, Robert Belushi, Monique Coleman, Joseph D. Reitman, Tara Strong, Gary Anthony Williams, Maurice LaMarche and Bret Ernst.
When writing and producing Witness Infection her top priority was to make the audience have the experience of being on a ride. Literally. “When I interviewed directors I said, ‘I want people to feel like they are in line at a haunted house,’” she says.
In competition on the film festival circuit, Witness Infection won Best Film in several festivals including Die Laughing Film Festival and Horror Hound Cincinnati Virtual Film Festival. However, since the pandemic it’s been hard to celebrate or showcase the film for a larger audience,” says Meleán. “Until now.”
Witness Infection has been distributed by Freestyle Media, streaming on all digital platforms around the country. Meleán continues to think of how her love for television and film has brought her to a place she never imagined.
“I have to keep showing Hollywood that I am more than one thing,” she explains. “I’m latin, female, a writer, producer. I have a passion for storytelling. It all runs through my veins and I create the opportunity to express it.”