At only 21 years old, Jennette McCurdy has already been in the public eye for seven years, though she’s been acting for even longer. The petite blonde started her career at the ripe age of eight before landing her first major role in 2007: Sam Puckett on Nickelodeon’s iCarly. The rest is history.
I met with Jennette at a friend’s house in Los Angeles during her hiatus from filming her new Nickelodeon show, Sam & Cat – a spinoff of both iCarly and Victorious co-starring Ariana Grande. It’s chilly for California, but Jennette seems comfortable in her faded skinny jeans, a white, short-sleeved t-shirt and Converse sneakers that she has doodled all over.
Jennette may not be necessarily be dressed like a stereotypical television star, but she has had quite a bit of success. In June, Sam & Cat premiered to 4.2 million viewers and was ordered for 20 additional episodes (bringing the first seasons total to 40) just one month later. But Jennette also faced tragedy this past year. In September, her mother passed away after a 17-year battle with cancer. But despite the drastic highs and lows last year, Jennette remains positive, grounded and mostly just busy.
Jennette was born in Long Beach, Cali, and grew up in a small house with her parents, three older brothers, two grandparents and three dogs. “It was never short of conversation or company,” she says. Growing up, she did everything her older brothers did and began watching shows like Saturday Night Live and movies like Saving Private Ryan at a young age. Because of that, she feels like she was exposed to a lot of good entertainment very early on, and that sparked her initial interest in acting. After watching a Star Wars film at the age of six, she turned to her mom and told her she wanted to act. Being a persistent little girl, Jennette harassed her mom for two years before her mother eventually gave in and got Jennette an agent when she was eight. “I literally harassed her,” Jennette laughs.
The early years of her career consisted mostly of indie films and guest appearances on various television shows like Law & Order, but once she got involved with Nickelodeon, her life completely changed. “Most of my roles were sad, now that I think about it,” Jennette recalls. She made a few comedic guest appearances on shows like Malcolm In The Middle, but never worked on a kids show before booking a one-episode guest role on Nickelodeon’s Zoey 101. “Even from that one episode I started to get recognized in public,” she says, “Adults won’t come up you and ask if you were on Law & Order, but kids have no problem running up to you.” Two years after Zoey 101, a producer at Nickelodeon remembered Jennette and wanted to cast her in their new project, iCarly. “Within six months of the show airing, I couldn’t leave my house without being recognized,” she says.
When she filmed the pilot for iCarly, she suspected it would get picked up and have a decent run, but she never expected it would go for 110 episodes. When the show came to an end in 2012 after five years, Jennette says she “felt an emptiness” walking away from the cast and crew. “I was very scared, to be honest,” she recalls, “We really were like a family.” Though she still sees her co-star Miranda Cosgrove three times a week, she admits it’s not the same as spending 12-hour days together everyday. She relates the experience to ending high school, but was luckily able to find some comfort with Sam & Cat, which has the same crew as iCarly.
When iCarly wrapped productions, Jennette had no idea Sam & Cat would soon be in the works. She had heard that Nickelodeon wanted to develop a show for her a year before iCarly ended, but tried not to take the rumor too seriously. “Until you actually go and shoot something, nothing is for sure. That’s my mentality,” she says. When she was first approached with the idea of Sam & Cat, she didn’t like the idea of playing Sam Puckett again. “I did not want to play Sam anymore – I was over it. I’m sarcastic and blunt enough in real life that I wanted to do something different,” she admits. She starts to say executive producer, Dan Schneider, convinced her her that the project would be great, but cuts herself off. “I think really I just knew he was the boss,” she laughs. Jennette was critical of the first few scripts, but eventually realized Sam & Cat had its own voice. “I’ve come to terms with it,” she jokes. It’s a good thing, too, considering a 40 episode season is a huge commitment.
But as much as she is enjoying her time playing Sam, she’s ready to try something different. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have that itch,” she says. Even just the process of auditioning for new projects excites her because she always wants to challenge herself. At the same time, she likes the comfort that comes with knowing she still has a job if she isn’t cast elsewhere. “Having your own show is a crazy thing in itself, and I’m extremely happy about that and that it’s been successful,” she says. Though there’s no word on a second season yet, Jennette feels that she and Ariana won’t be able to convincingly play teenagers for much longer. “I’m open to more episodes, but I’m planning as if they’re not happening,” she says.
While filming Sam & Cat consumes most of Jennette’s time, she does make an effort to make time for her other passions – Jennette also loves music. “In a professional way, music is on the back burner for me,” she explains. During the iCarly days, Jennette had a career as a country singer with the help of Capitol Records. She released a few EPs and a full-length record, and had some success on country radio, but ultimately the path wasn’t for her. “It sort of fell into my lap – Capitol Records heard a twang in my voice in some covers I posted,” she explains. During that time she had to move to Nashville and spend a lot of time on the road and neither of those things were for her. She missed her friends and family in California and wasn’t able to focus on acting at all.
After ending her professional relationship with Capitol Records, she also stopped posting covers because she felt that there was too much pressure for her to do music in general. Though Jennette isn’t opposed to pursuing music again in the future, she won’t unless the timing feels right. “I was really burnt out on music for a while,” Jennette admits. She continued working on songs in the comfort of her own home, and just recently began posting cover videos on YouTube again – which have been extremely well-received by fans. “I don’t want to take it too seriously though, because I feel like it’s really easy to cross the line of doing something fun in your bedroom to being stressed out about a career,” she explains.
Jennette is interested in writing. Lately, she’s been working on stand-up but hasn’t gotten the nerve to perform it anywhere – though that is one of her goals for 2014. In addition, she’s been writing essays, a screenplay, and comedy sketches. “For me, writing is therapeutic. I can’t even compare it to anything else,” she explains. Jennette will sit at her computer and write for three hours, though sometimes she needs to force herself to. But after 40 minutes or so, she reaches a point she describes as “the wall a runner goes through and can’t stop after.” As long as she can remember she’s been a writer – even completed a 115 page screenplay at the age of ten. She admits that it was terrible, but just finished it was an accomplishment on its own. For Jennette, it doesn’t matter if her words are “good” or not – writing has been her go-to way to express herself – there are no limits or restrictions. Through her writing, she’s been able to become more in-touch with her emotions, which helps her to portray more emotion in her acting.
When Sam & Cat eventually comes to a close, Jennette has a few goals: get a staff writing job, perform stand-up and act on a network comedy. Though she has incredible connection with the Nickelodeon team, she definitely wants to expand in the future. But it’s not that easy for Jennette – she’s the face of the channel and out of all of Nickelodeon’s current stars, she’s been with them for the longest. “It puts a lot of pressure on me,” she explains. Her face is associated with the channel and the brand, and completely breaking away from that into more mature territory is not going to be an easy task. “I feel more pressure from the network than the kids watching it,” she expands. She recognizes that with the help of the Internet and social media, kids are more advanced than they were a few years ago. “There’s nothing they haven’t seen, and the things that they’ll do or say are far beyond that I would myself,” she says. Though regardless of her ties with Nickelodeon, Jennette doesn’t think she’s be doing anything all that scandalous even if her fanbase was a little older. Jennette was brought up in a religious household and because of that, she has certain standard for herself. She believes the way she was raised is a key component of the art she creates, whether it’d be writing, acting, or music. “My brothers and I have all grown up in various ways, but our family has stuck together and that’s all you can hope for, really,” she says. While some of the things she posts online (such as a crude but funny tweet or a semi-provocative photo on Instagram) may not directly reflect her fostering, her family has never stopped supporting her.
Social media is a huge part of both Jennette’s career and personal life. At first, she was completely overwhelmed by it and only used Twitter. “I didn’t understand why I couldn’t just post a picture to Twitter and be done with it. I didn’t see the point of having Facebook and Instagram in addition to Twitter,” she says. She has since realized that there is a place for each and now utilizes all three, in addition to Vine, and keeps them all separate. Her Vine account is strictly for comedic posts, and she never posts about any of her endorsements on that network. Twitter is also for comedy, but is also her #1 source for sharing important information or spreading links. Instagram is her least used site and mostly just consists of photos of her and her friends, whereas Facebook is what she uses most. It is filled with generic posts, photos, and videos that she shares for her 8.3 million followers. “If you have a certain type of career, you have to use social media,” Jennette explains. She notes that actresses like Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence don’t need Twitter accounts simply because of the level of their careers and the projects they are associated with. But for Jennette, it’s vital. “I feel like it’s a way for people to connect with you and also make you stand out,” she explains. In a world where actors may not get cast in a role because someone else who auditioned has more Twitter followers, social media can be that extra push for a casting director.
My time with Jennette is running out, as she has to get to an audition across town – something a little more adult than her past projects, though she can’t share many details. She’ll be filming Sam & Cat through April, but after that she’s really not sure. “In this career, you have so little say in what happens,” she explains. If Sam & Cat ends after one season, she’s going to spend some time focusing on herself instead of her career. “I’m luckily in a position where if something new doesn’t come right away, I don’t need to worry about a paycheck for a little while, so I can do something I really want to do, like taking weird classes or going strange places,” she says. For seven years, she’s felt comfort in playing Sam Puckett, and for the first time in a long time she knows she may not have that security for much longer, and that’s ok for her. “Whatever happens, I’m going to embrace it,” she says as she gathers her things, ready to move onto the next big thing.