Veronica St. Clair offered a private peek at Riley’s Velez’s music playlist. The former didn’t have to swipe the latter’s iPad or hack into her Spotify account. No funny business because the two women are actually one in the same. St. Clair is the Hollywood actress with Houston ties who’s brought life to Velez, a principal character in NBC’s new standout series La Brea.
“For sure, when it comes to my professional work, I make playlists for every single one of my characters that I play. I have a Riley playlist,” St. Clair told us recently in a chat which shed light on the sci-fi action show and the actress, who also shared a song of particular brilliance in her life. “I actually have ‘Black Skinhead’ by Kanye West, but then I also have ‘Lovecats’ by The Cure. And then there’s ‘What You Waiting For?’ by Gwen Stefani, ‘Ring the Alarm’ by Beyoncé. There’s ‘Keep Your Distance’ by Ameer Vann who is maybe a younger rapper but I think he’s absolutely incredible. ‘Elastic’ by Joey Purp and ooh, there’s Led Zeppelin on here, ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.’
“There’s like a darkness to it, there’s an edginess, but there’s also a strength in the music that she would listen to,” St. Clair said of her breakout character. “She’s a 19-year-old, she’s a sophomore in college, she gets what she wants, she’s precocious and she really is a loving person but I would also say that she knows who she is, she’s grounded and confident, and I thought that the music that she would listen to would be kind of anthemic in that way and maybe a little bit edgy and in some ways gritty.”
St. Clair admits that her character’s music selections aren’t necessarily ones she would listen to frequently, but she has a healthy appreciation for music and how it enhances lives, both imagined and real. In the real world, music’s been part of her journey, from a show choir kid in Burbank, California to your TV screens on Tuesday nights. Growing up in Burbank meant going to school with kids whose parents worked in the industry. Hers did not. So, she took the long route to the profession and may not have even wound up acting if not for an English teacher’s freewriting prompt asking what stoked passion in her life.
“That question truly haunted me for days. I was walking around thinking I don’t even know if I am passionate about anything,” she recalled. “I remember I was wracked with this question of what am I passionate about and I had a rehearsal for show choir and it felt so silly to me because here I am standing on stage rehearsing, spending hours and hours a day going in and performing and enjoying it so much and I’m sitting there on the stage thinking ‘What am I passionate about?’ And it felt like a coconut fell from a palm tree and hit me on the head. Oh, of course, this - I love to perform.”
She said she had to push past the notion that acting would never feel like a viable professional pursuit and reasoned, “I love this, I’ve always done this, it is like the one thing that has been a constant in my life forever.” So, she studied theater performance in college and started acting as an undergrad. She’s had small roles on big hits, including Netflix’s Unbelievable and 13 Reasons Why.
La Brea gives her the chance to keep adding tunes to a character’s playlist, new music as she and we learn more about Riley Velez over time. If you haven’t caught the show yet, a quick spoiler-free synopsis is a mysterious sinkhole opens in Los Angeles and separates a family between the above-ground world we know and a strange primeval land.
“I obviously was given this opportunity to really sink my teeth into a larger role. I have a character who has an arc. You watch her story unfold across 10 episodes instead of just one scene or one episode, so it has been such a gift as an actor to get to step into another person’s experience which is, of course, what you want to do as an actor,” St. Clair said.
“What’s funny actually is the parallel between what my character Riley Velez is going through, getting thrust into this new world once she falls into this sinkhole, paralleled against my experience of also getting thrust into this whole new world having to travel and move to a new country I’d never been to before for six months and rely, just like Riley has to in the show, on this cast and crew around me and essentially they’re all strangers too and we’re all getting to know each other. We’ve since, of course, become family because we all lived through something together but it’s just so funny how similar these two experiences are in so many ways.”
The actress said the St. Clair side of her family has Houston roots.
Photo by Veronica St. Clair, courtesy of The Initiative Group
We’ve seen plenty of these shows manifest their ways onto televisions recently and ask St. Clair what keeps La Brea from being “Lost Down a Hole.”
“While it is a sci-fi show - there are supernatural elements, there are elements of time travel, it is a disaster show - even with all of that, at the heart of it is a story about a family that has been unfortunately pulled apart and they’re just trying to get back to each other,” she said. “The show really is a story about relationships, which is really what we want to see because without that sci-fi really doesn’t work.”
La Brea is also a perfect pandemic show because it’s about people's reactions to unfathomable circumstances. On screen the characters of La Brea reflect those we’re surrounded by in COVID times - some who are self-interested and lacking empathy and others who commit fully to their fellow humans. St. Clair said the cast and crew of 300 who worked in Australia to bring the show to life fall into the latter category. During production, 7,000 COVID tests were administered to people working on the project “and we got not a single positive case back. There was not one,” she said.
“That is a testament to the hundreds of people working on this production that are committed to the craft and committed to each other and committed to our safety. Of course, all these people had to go home to their families and they also had to commit to not seeing their friends and staying in their bubbles and staying safe and following their protocols. And what that is, that’s passion. Those are people that were banding together and committing to each other to stay safe for each other. And again, isn’t that just a perfect metaphor for the show?”
St. Clair said she has family in Houston and neighboring Louisiana but hasn’t been in our neck of the woods since 2019. She enjoys traveling, painting and baking when she’s not working and music always has a role in those activities.
St. Clair likened the improvisational nature of jazz to the art of acting.
Photo by Veronica St. Clair, courtesy of The Initiative Group
“Music is so integrated and woven into every piece of my life and has been that way my whole life. I’m often questioning what is it that draws people to music in the way that we are drawn to it? Why is it that certain music really lights people up and other music doesn’t? Why are we so drawn to music in the way that we are? It plays such a huge role and in reality it’s just noise. I think it’s so funny too when humans dance. That certain noise makes us want to wiggle our bodies. That makes me laugh when I think about it in those terms.”
We asked for a single song of particular brilliance, one that seems to resonate at this exact, exciting moment in her life.
“This is a tough question because obviously music is hugely paramount in my life, right? First, I do want to tell you, to preface this, jazz is my favorite genre. That is how I describe myself. And that is because I find that jazz has so many elements of surprise. It surprises you all the time. The time signature, it can change whenever, that’s what’s fun about it, it’s improvisational. It can be anything it wants to be,” she said, making music akin to acting. “I don’t only listen to jazz, of course, but I find that when I do it starts walking into other genres that I hope will keep these same jazzy elements that can surprise you and change things up. I really, really like that.”
The song she selected is by a La Brea castmate named Josh McKenzie.
“He’s also an incredible musician and his artist name is yosh,” she said. “He has a song called ‘End of the World.’ Oh my god, this song, I think it really has all of the same elements I just mentioned. It’s surprising and it’s really fun.
“What I like about this song is that it feels cathartic. Josh has such a wonderful way. He’s an artist out of New Zealand and I think because he is not with a label currently he still is able to create. He’s still so creative and he’s still so raw and human in the music that he makes. And I think because of that, this song is really cathartic,” she said.
“It feels like a desperate plea. It’s passionate and it’s quite melancholic. There’s something depressive about it but I think that’s so much of what the human experience is,” St. Clair continued. “So much of the human experience is you can only experience so much joy because you have experienced so much pain and sadness. And this song is that, I feel, encapsulated in the three minutes that it is.
“It starts with this distorted doo-wop,” and she sings a bit of the melody, much to our delight. “Then there are acts to the song. It’s endlessly surprising. It contains multitudes. I love so much that a castmate is behind its genius and its brilliance. Truly, truly, you have to believe me, I know it sounds like such a fucking plug, but truly I am such an aficionado of music, as I said before, and I wouldn’t be bringing this up if I didn’t think it was so singular in its creativity, in its joy and in its brilliance.”
St. Clair noted that the song will always remind her of the people she’s shared her La Brea experience with and that maybe it’ll fittingly work its way onto Riley Velez’s playlist someday.
“I can say honestly and I can say confidently that every single one of the people that worked on this show, cast and crew alike, are some of the best people that I could ever know,” she said. “Truly loving, wonderful, hard-working people who are in it for the right reasons. I think because of that, this show, you will be able to feel that as an audience member consuming the show, how much love we poured into this.”
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.