From Amherst Leisure Service’s Community Theater and other local stages, to television screens across the nation, Julie McNiven has steadily worked her way to Hollywood.
A 1998 graduate of Amherst Regional High School who now lives in sunny Los Angeles, McNiven has starred in hit television shows like “Supernatural,” “Mad Men” and “House.” Most recently, she’s played a leading role — an expecting mom — in the independent film “The Babymoon,” which was released February 14.
And as art sometimes imitates life, McNiven assumed the role of a mother-to-be both on camera and off, as she first began filming “The Babymoon,” directed by Bailey Kobe, when she was pregnant with her son, Tasman Beck.
“The first part we shot in Costa Rica, and I was pregnant during that,” McNiven said during a recent phone call from California. “Most of the film I actually shot with a fake belly.” While filming the second part of “The Babymoon,” both her husband, fellow actor Michael Blackman Beck, and Tasman, by then six months old, accompanied her on the set.
“There’s a really cool shot of me holding my son and resting him on my fake belly,” McNiven said. “The belly we had was so realistic that I did everything that I used to do when I was pregnant. When I walked around the resort, everyone totally thought I was pregnant.”
An adventure-comedy, “The Babymoon” features McNiven as mother-to-be Hanna and Shaun Sipos as her flirty husband, Trace, as the couple go on a pre-birth vacation — a “babymoon” — to the fictitious tropical nation of Cartegentina in hopes of fixing their shaky marriage. But during their trip, they must deal not only with their personal problems but a big helping of chaos, as the country erupts in a political revolution.
“The husband gets kidnapped and basically from then on, it’s kind of this story of him being on his own adventure and me being on my adventure trying to find him,” McNiven said.
One critic has described “The Babymoon” as “the perfect date movie” with some appeal as well as a family movie. It’s available on iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, Amazon, and Cable on Demand.
McNiven, who’s 36, said she enjoyed playing a character who was so close to her age. Her career is at a “strange place right now,” she explained. “I have a very young feel to me … on camera I still look quite young, but I’m not. I can still play in my twenties, but I’m not in my twenties.”Starting on local stages
A number of people who worked with McNiven when she was growing up in Amherst — her parents, Sandy and Becky McNiven, still live in town — remember her as a talented, hard-working performer who could sing and dance as well as act. Wendy Kohler, a former director of many musical productions at ARHS, recalls the young McNiven as “luminous.”
“In high school, we’re trying to provide the opportunity to feature as many high school students as possible,” said Kohler. “So the fact that [Julie] had the lead for three years says a lot about her talent, her stage presence, her discipline and her dedication to the craft that she had so early.”
“She had a particularly strong ability as a young person to immerse herself in a character,” said Kohler, who now teaches at the School of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
McNiven began her theatrical career with ALS Community Theater, playing a flower girl in “Oliver!” the first-ever production by the group, in 1993. From eighth grade to her senior year, she performed annually in both ARHS productions and community theater musicals.
“She’s very relaxed on stage,” said Betsy Mullins, a family friend of the McNivens, as well as a board member of the community theater program. “You wouldn’t necessarily think of her, when you meet her, as being an actress. She’s a very unassuming type of person.”
Among her key roles was the lead in “Anne of Green Gables” when she was a senior at ARHS. Mullins recalls her performance as “wonderful … It’s a pretty demanding role, where there’s a lot of dialogue and monologue as well as solo songs, and she just pulled it off beautifully.”
For her part, McNiven says she feels fortunate to have grown up in the region: “The Pioneer Valley and Amherst area is so rich with culture and arts education.”
Indeed, it was her experience with ALS Community Theater and the ARHS musicals that prompted her to go on after graduation to Salem State University, where she initially studied musical theater. But after getting her degree, McNiven turned her focus to film and TV.
In addition to “The Babymoon,” McNiven has worked on another Bailey Kobe film, “The Caterpillar’s Kimono,” a comedy-drama that follows a 35-year old man who returns to Las Vegas after rehab in order to prove to his family he’s ready to be a good father.
Over the years, she’s played a number of characters, including Anna Milton, a fallen angel, on “Supernatural,” as well as Hildy, a secretary at the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency on “Mad Men.” But her role as Hanna in “The Babymoon” was different and perhaps her most enjoyable, she said.
During her phone call, McNiven passed on one piece of advice for aspiring Valley actors who want to go into film and TV: “Your passion for acting or whatever kind of business you want to be in, has to be so big. … When you’re on set and you’re working, you have to love it more than anything else.”
Given the competition in the industry, actors have to commit themselves “100 percent, or else it’s not worth doing,” added McNiven. “This might sound like a Debby Downer piece of advice, but really if you are 100 percent passionate, you have to honor that passion.”