One set of local twins have caught the acting bug and followed it all the way to New York City and soon to Los Angeles.
JJ and Jeana Mahan are the twin son and daughter of Jim and Lori Mahan of Ripley. While attending Ripley High School both JJ and Jeana decided to join the theatre group and they haven’t looked back since.
During JJ’s junior year of high school was when he says he realized he seriously wanted to pursue acting. He had the privileged of attending a thespian festival and that is when he knew it was what he wanted to do.
“The festival really changed me and kinda showed me the direction I wanted to go.” JJ said.
“We had always grown up doing church plays and stuff,” Jeana said. “Then in high school, our junior year, we did ‘The Wizard of OZ’ and that was kinda it for us.”
Jeana recalled a performance her senior year when she played Miss Paroo in “The Music Man,” afterward someone approached her and told her that she should really continue to do theatre. At that point she said, “Me? Me? I could never,” but that really got her thinking and she decided it WAS something she wanted to do.
Other than acting in school and church, they also starred in piece of Jackson County history. Through the Ripley Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, the two were approached by Mike Ruben to participate in the docudrama, “The Last Gallows: John Morgan’s Farewell.”
“When mom called and told me it would be airing on PBS, I was shocked,” Jeana said. “I thought it was going to play at The Alpine Theatre and get good attention for the weekend, but it just kept showing and showing and I was like, ‘Wow, this is incredible.’”
The Mahans credit a lot of their love for theatre to Christina Iman, the director of the Ripley High School theatre department.
“We love Mrs. Iman,” Jeana said. “She really encouraged us. She made us believe if we really wanted to do this we could, and we believed her.”
Following their 2016 Ripley High School graduation, JJ went off to college at Marshall University and Jeana attended WVU in Morgantown, where JJ later joined her.
As Jeana was sitting in the cafeteria her freshman year of college at WVU, she saw an ad pop up on her phone for ARTS International auditions that were being held that same night in Morgantown.
According to artstalent.com, ARTS International helps adults and youth aspiring to be actors, models, dancers, and singers cut through all of the red-tape in this industry to find healthy success. The goal of their experienced team is to guide talented individuals to the top with integrity, professionalism, and talent.
Jeana knew with auditions being that evening that they would be hard to make, but she auditioned and was accepted.
“I couldn’t get to Morgantown because I was in Huntington at the time, so Jeana told the coordinator of ARTS about me and she e-mailed me and said if I could just send my audition in tomorrow, they would look at me,” JJ said. “So I pretty much had a day to put everything together and send it in. I sent it and we both got in.”
ARTS International hosts a showcase in Florida where they bring in agents, producers, and others from the film industry.
After coaching with ARTS International for a year, both JJ and Jeana went to Florida for the showcase. While in Florida they met Roger Del Pozo who is the director of recruitment with the New York Film Academy (NYFA).
The Mahans performed their showcase, sang together, and participated in acting competitions. Del Pozo met with them after they performed a duet, and told them that he really liked them and offered them each a scholarship to attend the New York Film Academy.
JJ and Jeana were off to the NYFA for a one-year conservatory. Although attending the academy together, they were split up into two different groups.
The groups are structured by a read and audition type process. From that they see what the students strengths and weaknesses are. This is how they determine who is in what group. The groups then spend six days a week together, nine hours a day for the entire time.
Occasionally people are switched to other groups. Jeana was switched to a different group after a few weeks, but feels it helped her to learn more and get to know a wider range of people.
“NYFA was honestly the greatest experience of my life,” Jeana said. “I met people from all over the world, the United Kingdom, Iceland, the Netherlands. It was the best thing to date that I’ve done.”
She says she woke up everyday excited to go to school. Even though it was a long intense day, she knew it was something she wanted to keep doing.
Jeana’s classes were nine hours a day, either from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. or sometimes from 12 noon to 10 p.m. including lunch and breaks.
“All of my teachers that I had were currently in the industry, they were working actors so sometimes they had to miss to go be on a TV show or be in a movie, something like that,” Jeana said. “It was cool to see working professionals on a daily basis and get those connections.”
They were in an Acting for Film program, which focused on on-camera acting, something they admit they had little experience in other than the John Morgan story.
“I learned so much about how to be on camera, how to present yourself, where your viewpoints were, things I would never think of,” Jeana said. “It is truly an art form. I loved it.”
“For me, I feel very fortunate to have gotten that experience,” JJ said. “I realize how few opportunities, we had the biggest class ever of theirs and we only had 100 students, so to be in that group was very humbling and we felt very honored.”
JJ says he was very inspired, he knew acting was always something he wanted to do, it was his dream, but he didn’t know how and didn’t think it was possible. Until he met Del Pozo, who gave them a chance to make their dreams come true.
“Before, I would be so angry if I had a 9 a.m. class in college, but with this, it was like, ‘Oh, I have to get up at 6:30 a.m., no problem, I’ll get up at 6:30 a.m.,’” JJ said. “When you are driven to do something or passionate about it, it makes not only the work easier, but the time you spend doing the work easier.”
They were taught many things about the film industry other than just being on camera. They were taught how to audition, what to know and look for in a contract, how to get an agent, and how to be professional in the workplace.
Not only did they learn the in front of the camera things, but also the behind the scenes stuff. They had to work as part of the crew to learn the structure of a camera, the different angles, and how to shoot their own videos through self-taping, which they say is popular in today’s industry.
“It was such an eye opening experience,” Jeana said. “I was like a sponge, once I learned something, I wanted to learn more.”
They feel it was a lot to learn in one year, but it was well worth it.
Besides the “stellar” education, they made lasting connections and friendships with people from over 50 different countries who were in their classes at NYFA.
“We learned about their lives and they learned about West Virginia,” Jeana said. “By the end of it, they all knew the words to ‘Country Roads.’ Honestly, most of them new it before. They would say oh you’re from West Virginia, ‘County Roads!’”
JJ and Jeana said the experience brought them so much pride and gave them a new appreciation for West Virginia and Jackson County that they didn’t have before because they were here.
“By the end of the year we had people from Brazil and England asking to come home with us to visit Ripley for the fourth of July,” JJ said.
“They would say just the way we talked about our hometown made it sound amazing,” Jeana said.
Growing up in Ripley with people that are supportive of each other, almost like family, the setting of New York threw them for a loop.
“Not everyone waves, or smiles,” Jeana said. “Leaving made me realize how wonderful it is in Ripley, and how wonderful the people are.”
“You realize everybody there is just trying to support themselves, or trying to make a better life for themselves,” JJ said. “They have this hustle mentality and I think that was so important for us to acquire because it showed us if we want it, we just have to go get it.”
The New York experience allowed them to learn how to do things for themselves. It showed them that no one else can do it for them and if they truly want to achieve certain goals, they need to do it on their own.
The next stop for the Mahans on their acting journey is Los Angeles, California to the LA campus of the NYFA. They will continue their education with a two year program, six semesters back to back with no summer break. Classes will be divided into 50 percent acting classes and 50 percent general courses, but fortunately, with their undergraduate studies, they have credits that will carry over.
“The cool thing about the general education classes is that they taylor them specifically to acting, like if we had psychology, it would be psychology of the actor, so that would apply to our craft,” Jeana said.
The LA school also offers extracurricular classes in dance and sports clubs that help their students hone their skills in different types of programs.
“The cool part to this, is the connection to our industry,” JJ said. “One of the floors in our school, the top floor, is Quincy Jones Productions.”
“The main campus is on the Warner Brothers studio lot,” Jeana said.
“We will be doing projects, working, and taking classes on the Warner Brother’s lot instead of in a regular classroom setting,” JJ added. “Just knowing we have access to the lot is priceless.”
Upon completion, they will graduate with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree with a specialization in acting.
Through all of the experiences they have had, they have met filmmakers and have even had the opportunity to be in some films.
“I was fortunate enough to meet a crew of filmmakers at the school in New York and I have done five projects with them,” JJ said. “I am doing another film with them in July and in August I’m doing a film for another filmmaker. That’s the part where you grow, you learn in the school, when you are out there doing it, it’s just another level.”
Following graduation from LA, Jeana hopes to begin TV acting.
“My dream, let’s just shoot for the stars why don’t we, is to be on a sitcom like ‘Friends’ or ‘Young and Hungry,’” Jeana said. “I love the playfulness of a sitcom. We actually had a class called Acting for Television and the teacher, Michael Laibson, was the producer for the soap opera ‘Guiding Light.’”
In the Acting for Television class is where Jeana learned about comedic timing and says she “fell in love” with it and the style of TV. It was a class she never missed.
“I was excited to hit the comedic timing right, or to land the joke, or make the audience (her class) laugh,” Jeana said. “That’s what I want to do, this will make me happy for the rest of my life if I can do just this. That’s my goal.”
JJ on the other hand feels TV is amazing but his goals lead towards the film side of acting.
“With film, it’s more motivating to me to create characters that tell people’s stories, because that is so important to me,” JJ said. “Just like John Morgan, that story needed to be told. There’s so many other stories out there that need to be told and they need actors to portray these characters. At the end of the day we are just people, trying to tell other people’s stories and to me that’s just so powerful and inspiring. That’s what I want to spend my life’s work doing, helping other people get their stories out there to the world.”
With everything they have been able to do at this point in their lives, they have learned some very good life lessons.
“For me, one of the biggest lessons I learned is that you don’t have to change who you are for your art,” Jeana said. “I’ve noticed in both film and television that the industry is changing, people are getting roles for who they are. I want to show people one day that you can be from a small town in West Virginia and still live your dreams.”
Jeana was given advice by one of her teachers on the very first day of class that has stuck with her through everything.
“They said, ‘You are the most interesting thing in the world,’ and I said, ‘What, me?’ and they said, ‘Yes, just by being you, you are the most interesting thing in the world and that’s how you will get roles, just by being you.’”
“The biggest take-away for me was that the people there, the people we worked with, these are the people that are going to help our careers for the rest of our lives,” JJ said. “They aren’t just classmates, they are colleagues, they are the people who are going to look for you to join them on a film set or a TV show. That to me is exciting to see.”
JJ feels his greatest compliment came from Laibson who not only produced the soap opera “Guiding Light,” but also won an Emmy for “As the World Turns.”
“He directed a scene for me and then he sat me down and told me I have so much potential to shatter this industry and to make waves,” JJ said. “To me, coming from an Emmy winning producer, that is the highest compliment you can get.”
Both Jim and Lori Mahan are overjoyed with everything their twins have accomplished and learned in their lives so far.
“I am just so proud of their drive and determination and their lack of fear to try new things,” Lori Mahan said. “Their father and I are glad they have each other on this journey. Life is short and we want them to live.”