Tampa native JoAnna Garcia Swisher takes another shot at network TV stardom on NBC's Animal Practice
LOS ANGELES -- When we first met, 10 years ago, JoAnna Garcia was a bubbly, eager blonde transplant from The Big Guava; a graduate of Tampa Catholic High School scoring her first big showbiz success in the cast of The WB network's hit sitcom, Reba.
And when we reconnected last Tuesday, chatting poolside at the Beverly Hilton during an NBC party which featured GOP star Sarah Palin and a trained monkey -- more on that later -- what surprised most was how much of that energetic, good-natured performer was still there.
Her hair is a deep auburn now and the name is different (she's billed as JoAnna Garcia Swisher after marrying New York Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher two years ago). She's also joined the cast of NBC's new comedy Animal Practice after lead roles in comedies on ABC, CBS and the CW.
But Garcia Swisher, 32, remains that rarest of breeds in Hollywood; a professional, positive, steadily working actress who always seems one big part away from superstar status.
"I feel like a lot of that has to do with coming to work, being nice and grateful and kind and loving," she said. "I've been around and worked hard -- the work ethic is important. And I think that goes a long way, even though sometimes that doesn't get the most attention in our business."
Her most recent burst of good fortune came in May, when NBC snapped her up for the cast of its new comedy not long after CBS passed on buying a pilot she developed with producer Greg Berlanti (Green Lantern, Brothers and Sisters). The only drawback: She was replacing actress Amy Huberman, who had originated the role in an early version of the Animal Practice pilot.
It's a typical move in Hollywood; once some pilots are rejected and actors become available, better-known performers are often added to shows moving forward. Still, Garcia Swisher was cautious (she was on the receiving end of such treatment back in 2000, when NBC cut her from the comedy DAG, which freed her to join Reba).
"I've never done that before; obviously, I was very nervous and wanted to have a lot of respect for the actress that worked on the pilot," she said. "But I also had a lot of ideas. And I think everyone knew what type of comedic actress I was and what I bring -- good or bad."
That, I would realize later, is a trademark for Garcia Swisher, who often follows any statement which might sound bold or boastful with a self-deprecating aside, swiftly undercutting any perceptions of pridefulness.
Since Reba, she's had many at bats in TV comedy: CBS' Welcome to the Captain, ABC's Better with You and The CW's Privileged. It's the culmination of a long career which began with playing a 10-year-old Wendy n the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's children's production of Peter Pan, through the '90s Nickelodeon series Are You Afraid of the Dark? and supporting roles on classic shows such as Party of Five and Freaks and Geeks.
Her biggest lesson? "It's a business; it's not personal," she said, acknowledging a resume dotted with promising series which came to untimely ends. "Anytime a show doesn't succeed or you really don't understand a big decision...you feel like 'Is this a knock on me?' I realized I had to go Zen and resign myself to knowing there's a bigger picture. All you can offer is your best work."
Garcia Swisher is on a cusp of an important trend, as NBC tries to develop so-called "broader" comedies to pull itself out of third-place in the race for young TV viewers. For some critics, the word "broad" is a substitute for "dumbed down," and Animal Practice's use of a cute monkey for borderline slapstick moments -- Garcia Swisher plays a no-nonsense administrator taking over an animal hospital where her antisocial ex-boyfriend is the top veterinarian -- has led to some barbs.
But the actress shrugs off those notions, noting that the comedy really centers on humans like Weeds alum Justin Kirk's dysfunctional veterinarian George Coleman, who finds humans so annoying he gets along with the pets better than their owners.
A whirlwind courtship led to her to marry Nick Swisher -- two days after she moved to New York for a part on The CW's Gossip Girl, she met the Yankees outfielder; 10 months later they were engaged and six months after that they were married in a Palm Beach ceremony where former co-star Reba McEntire served as a bridesmaid. The two have tried to live as down-to-Earth a life as possible, visiting troops in Afghanistan and buying a home in the same Tampa neighborhood where she grew up.
"We didn't buy for any other reason than we wanted to put roots down," said Garcia Swisher, the daughter of physician Jay Garcia and ex-schoolteacher mom Loraine. "Our hope is to give our children a real shot at a good old Tampa life. My heart is there."
It may not make her a fixture on TMZ or the latest gossip sheet, but Garcia Swisher hopes to pull off a seemingly impossible feat; building a solid career in TV and film -- she's in The Internship, an upcoming film with Wedding Crashers co-stars Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson -- while keeping a low offscreen profile.
"I was never that girl hired for my big boobs or perfect body and I'm very comfortable being in this place at this point in my life," she said. "I sit back, don't overthink anything and follow my heart. I've resigned myself to enjoying the journey...in the most lovely way."