Actor JT Neal might have stumbled into acting back in middle school, but he’s been able to make quite the career for himself ever since. He’s booked roles in several TV series and even had a supporting role in the Netflix film Sierra Burgess Is A Loser. But I have no doubt that his latest role as Jacob on ABC’s newest comedy Bless This Mess will be his biggest and most notable role yet.
JT and I talked about how being a troublemaker in middle school made him find acting, why he wants to play Elvis Presley one day, how he relates to his character Jacob on Bless This Mess, his love of vintage t-shirts and so much more. Keep reading to see what he had to say!
Tell me a little bit about how you first got into acting.
I was kind of a troublemaker in middle school; I was always talking in class and entertaining everybody because I’d get really bored. I was in English class one time and my teacher had just kind of had enough, so she said, “Alright, JT. You can either go to the principal’s office again or you can go audition for the one act play, but figure it out cause I can’t do it anymore.” So I was like, “Well, I definitely can’t go to the principal’s office again. I guess I got to audition for this thing.” I went and did it to avoid going to the principal’s office and I fell in love with it. I was like, “Oh, wait a second. This is kind of awesome.” And I’ve been in love with it ever since.
That’s so funny. So I’m curious though, is that the experience that you would credit with helping you decide that acting is what you wanted to do for a living? Or was it something later on where you were like, “No, this is the thing that I need to be doing for the rest of my life”?
Well, I think that was the first experience that I have with acting. I grew up watching movies with my dad all the time, and he’s such a big cinephile. We were always watching movies every single night, The Princess Bride, The Mask of Zorro, these are all films that I was so obsessed with as I was a kid. And I love the sword fighting, swashbuckling thing, all of the Errol Flynn films. I don’t remember this, but my dad says I asked him as a kid, “What do they do? What is this?” And he’s like, “Oh, they’re actors. This is a movie, blah, blah, blah.” And I said, “I can do this for a job?” and he was like, “Yeah.” So I think that was kind my first kind of thought that, “Oh wait. This is a job that I could do and I could sword fight, and entertain people”. And then when I got the opportunity to audition for the one act play, it was like, “Oh, wait a second. This is that thing that I remember from when I was a kid that I loved to watch.” Ever since then, this was the only thing I wanted to do.
Over the years, you’ve had a lot of different roles on a lot of different mediums. Do you have a personal acting bucket list of roles you’d like to play?
I have always wanted to play Elvis Presley. I don’t care in what capacity it is. That’s my dream role. I’ve always wanted to play him and I think a lot of it is because, first of all, I’m such a big Elvis fan. I’m such a big fan of all the music of that era. My grandma really was the one that introduced me to all of that, and so selfishly, I kind of want to do it for her not just for the sake of the role, just so I can show my grandma and say, “Hey, I did this. Check this out.” So that’s kind of the number one [reason] that I’ve always wanted to do. But I also really want to do a big epic dramas like the Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile and the movies that they’re not making anymore. So hopefully they start making those types of films again.
I mean in this era of “reboot culture”, you would imagine that those kind of films with would come back around at some point.
Yeah. I mean, I just don’t know if there’s a market for it anymore. I think our attention spans are so short that these giant three hour epics, like Braveheart, aren’t getting the credit that they deserve
I mean, Avengers: Endgame is supposed to be over three hours. So who knows? Maybe it’ll be a test [laughs]. So let’s talk about Bless This Mess. What was your audition process like for this show?
It was just a traditional audition process. So I had the pre-read with Seth Yanklewitz, who has cast a bunch of other shows. I went in for him and I just read with him. When the character breakdown came out, I was like, “I don’t really know if I all the way fit this, so I’m just going to go in and do what I can do.” I tried to play to my strengths a little bit, brought a character that I thought would work for the show. I guess they really liked it because he called me back and I had a chemistry read with Lake Bell, where she was just kind of throwing improv at me and just kind of seeing how I could play. From there, it went to a test; it was a network test, but it was taped, so it wasn’t in front of 40 people in a room at Fox. It was just Jake Kasdan, Liz Meriwether, Lake Bell and Seth Yanklewitz; they were all in there and I just kind of got to improv with them and talk a little bit. So yeah, I mean it was the process that most of my auditions have taken and I’ve ended up booking. So it wasn’t like a crazy thing.
But there was a moment in my test where I referenced an episode of Freaks and Geeks and I didn’t realize Jake Kasdan had directed [that particular episode], so they totally thought that I was sucking up to him and I had no idea that he had anything to do with it. But it wasn’t a bad thing. I was like, “Hey man, it was kind of like that episode of Freaks and Geeks where this happens and it was so funny.” And he was like, “Oh yeah, I directed that episode.” I was so embarrassed. I was like, “Oh my God. I’m so sorry.”
So funny how things work out like that.
Oh, I know.
So on the show you play Jacob. What is he like and how does he fit into this story?
Jacob is a very sweet, innocent, wide-eyed kid and he’s so excited to have new people in town that he can talk to. He wants everybody to be happy all the time. I am actually the son of the neighbors and my parents and Lake and Dax’s characters have this beef happening. And I’m just kind of in the middle of it, watching it go down and I’m on everybody’s side. So my mom will say something to diss them and I’ll be like “Awwwww yeah”. Then Lake will say something to diss us back and I’m like, “Awwwww yeah.” So it’s kind of interesting how I can just kind of play in the middle of it and just smile through all of it no matter what, completely oblivious to the slights that people are throwing around.
Yeah. So would you say that you, JT, are more different or similar to the person that Jacob is and why?
I feel like I’m very non-confrontational in everyday life [laughs] and Jacob and I are very similar in that way, in that I just kind of want everybody to be happy so that I don’t have to clean up any messes or deal with anything. You know what I mean? I can just kind of laugh and smile and hope that everybody else does the same.
The entire series is set on the farm in this rural town in Nebraska. So prior to the fake circumstances set up on the show, did you ever spend time on a farm at any point in your life or even just in Nebraska or was that world completely foreign to you before you started filming the show?
No, I’m very familiar with it. I grew up in this really small town in Texas called Pilot Point. It was 4,000 people and my whole family lives in south Texas; my grandparents, my aunts, uncles all live in south Texas. So we have a feed lot in south Texas, it’s this giant ranch with a bunch of cattle and horses and everything. That’s where we would spend the summers and we’d spend holidays down there. So I’m very familiar with working on a ranch and the inner workings of livestock and how all of that kind of comes together to create this product that being in a city you don’t ever see. You always just kind of see the result. You don’t see the work that goes into it and it’s hard work. Even before the sun comes up, you’re starting everything; I mean, it’s sun up to sun down. It’s a very hard job and kind of thankless a lot of the times. When I got the opportunity to portray that, I was like, “Okay, I have to do this justice because this is a whole section of the country that doesn’t get the recognition that it deserves.” So I was so excited to get to show that on primetime TV.
The cast for the show features so many insanely talented actors. What was it like getting to work with everyone on set?
It was completely surreal working with all of them. I grew up watching them in movies and on television my whole childhood and then to be sitting in a room with them, working on the same project, not even as an audience member, just as a co-worker sitting there listening to them tell their stories about working with John Belushi and Richard Pryor; I mean, there’s so much history and knowledge within this cast that I just, for the most part, kind of sat back and listened to them because I don’t get that of access anywhere. You can’t get it from a book. You hear it from the direct source. So I mean getting to be part of this show is a dream come true. I find myself just having to pinch myself and remind myself that this is real. I’m a part of this. It’s insane.
Was there any one cast member in particular where once you met them for the first time, you were like, “Holy shit. I can’t believe this is the person I’m going to get to work with” or was it just kind of like that with everybody?
It was like that with everybody because everybody is so brilliant at what they do. Everyone is so good at everything. So when I got to meet Pam Grier I was like, “Oh my God, this is Foxy Brown. She’s worked with Tarantino, she worked with Tim Burton. This is insane.” And it’s funny because she’s kind of the same as me because she doesn’t even live in Los Angeles, she lives in Colorado on a ranch. So it’s kind of funny that she and I are both kind of starstruck that we get to work with all of these things. She’s like, “Oh my God, can you believe that Ed Begley Jr. is standing right there?” It’s kind of awesome.
Last question — our website is called Talk Nerdy With Us because we all have an inner nerd. So what is something you are currently nerding out about?
Vintage t-shirts. I am obsessed with collecting and finding vintage t-shirts. I go to all the flea markets, Goodwill, Salvation Army. I’m always looking for the 70s/80s/90s movie tees. The more obscure the better. I found a Buckaroo Banzai shirt from 1984 a couple of months ago at a flea market and it was one of the greatest days of my entire life.
How many do you think you own?
Oh my God. 60?
Okay. I thought you were going to say a thousand or something like that. That’s not that bad.
Oh no. Well I just started last summer, so it’s slowly growing. They are so much money!
Oh I know. Especially the vintage ones that you’re looking for. What made you want to start collecting t-shirts of all things?
I always wore band t-shirts and movie t-shirts when I was a kid. Then when I started finding these original ones, I was like, “Wait a second, these are even cooler because they’re from that year.” And it just became this obsession. I love finding things and I used to antique all the time and so when I found vintage t-shirts, it was kind of my way of hunting for antiques, but in a way that I could wear them and use them and they served a function, not just an art piece. I love them for the statement and for the look and it’s just so exciting for me. When I see a tag and realize it’s an old tag, I get so excited.
Do you have a favorite one or too many to pick from?
A favorite t-shirt?
Oooh. My favorite t-shirt? Let’s see. I just got a 1978 Styx Grand Illusion t-shirt. That one was a big one because Styx was a huge band growing up for me. Other than that, I would say Buckaroo Banzai was probably the most obscure find that I’ve acquired and I love that movie. It’s so kind of cheesy and brilliant at the same time. It’s got Jeff Goldblum and Christopher Lloyd.
Photo Credits: Photographer – F. Scott Schafer/Styling – Cassy Meier/Grooming – Angelina Broyles