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Dallas Native J.J. Nolan’s Latest Film Role Explores Her Wild Side

Watching Pretty Problems, you’d never know the actress and comedian overcame debilitating shyness to build an impressive resume on stage and screen.
By Todd Jorgenson |
still from the film pretty problems
IFC Films

J.J. Nolan figures she could be a prime psychological case study.

The Dallas native has been extremely shy since she was a child. But when she’s on stage or on camera, an outgoing extrovert emerges. Take the bubbly free spirit Nolan plays in the independent ensemble comedy Pretty Problems, her most prominent big-screen role to date.

Filmmaker Kestrin Pantera knows both sides of Nolan, her longtime friend. At the wrap party for the film last year, Nolan was standing around and not socializing. Pantera knew her upcoming karaoke number needed a jolt of energy.

“I was like, ‘J.J., back me up on “Wind of Change,” now!’ She belted it out on command, like an extremely talented savant,” Pantera said prior to the world premiere of the film at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin. “Then she wandered off, grabbed her drink, and was awkward again.”

That hearkens back to how the two met several years ago, when Pantera was in a band and Nolan served as an impromptu backup singer in a pinch.

Their first official collaboration finds Nolan playing the affluent and impulsive Cat, who wanders into a vintage clothing store and befriends a saleswoman (Britt Rentschler), then invites her and her boyfriend (Michael Tennant) to a remote estate for what turns out to be a hedonistic weekend of superficial excess among three couples. As they’re drawn into the wealthy lifestyle of their hosts, everyone’s relationships are tested.

“She’s on a constant search for fulfillment and purpose. I feel like I can relate, in a way. I wasn’t immediately drawn to Cat. I was kind of scared of her at first, to be honest. I started to fall in love with her slowly,” Nolan said. “Everything along the way was so much fun. She was intense and toxic, but also sad and vulnerable.”

Looking back, Nolan admits feeling terror when her mother “had to drag me” to a theater camp in Addison as a child. “But I really took a strong liking to it.”

She became involved in choir and later the theater program at J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson, under the tutelage of famed teacher Lynn Shaw.

“She very much encouraged me to go for it professionally,” Nolan said. “It gave me the courage to come out of my shell because I was always having so much fun when I wasn’t being shy. It was always very freeing to get on stage and perform.”

Instead of studying theater at the University of Texas, Nolan took a gap year and relocated to Los Angeles, where a friend of Shaw’s was a manager.

“I never left,” she said. “I’m still taking my gap year.”

Nolan, 37, has since built a lengthy resume in music, stand-up comedy, television, commercials, theater, and film. She’s also studied with the famed improv troupes Upright Citizens Brigade and The Groundlings. Like many performers, Nolan struggled during the onset of the pandemic. Just as her career was gaining momentum, she was ready to give up and return to Texas, where she still has family.

“It didn’t feel right to walk away,” she said. “I decided to give it three months, and I immediately started working more.”

Production on Pretty Problems was delayed for a full year, until May 2021, by the pandemic and by wildfires near the shooting location in Sonoma, California.

After screening at a few festivals earlier this year, the film will open this weekend at select theaters and on demand., giving moviegoers a chance to see Nolan in all her party-animal glory.

“She’s so self-deprecating,” Pantera said. “I knew there was a psycho to be fully unleashed upon the world, and it was my honor and privilege to be part of that process.”


Todd Jorgenson

Todd Jorgenson

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