Watching her navigate a tricky scene in her first starring network role, you'd have no idea of the weight settled on the tiny shoulders of Tampa native JoAnna Garcia.
This moment holds all the typical acting pitfalls: long stretches of dialogue; quirky asides and a wide range of emotions. Garcia works with a seasoned pro's focus, playing with the pace of her character's emotional meltdown for maximum effect.
Most notable is what's not happening. No tense attitudes. No needy actor antics. No tiptoeing around her "creative process."
As the star of the new CW series Privileged, Garcia is applying lessons learned from six years on the sitcom Reba: Relaxed professionalism makes everything better.
"Reba McEntire (showed me) that you can be a really nice person and still be really successful," said Garcia, who dyed her trademark blond mane a deep auburn 72 hours after snagging her new series. "Trying to be a leader on this show, I'm emulating the things that made Reba not only a successful experience, but pleasant. . . . More than ever, I feel very prepared for this responsibility."
On Privileged, Garcia plays Megan Smith, a quirky Yale graduate forced to tutor spoiled, wealthy twin sisters in Palm Beach.
Adapted from Zoey Dean's tween novel How to Teach Filthy Rich Girls, the show turns on a percolating mix of rich kid decadence and fast-paced quips that executive producer Rina Mimoun once defined as "if the Gilmore Girls were teaching the Gossip Girls."
And Mimoun credits Garcia's last-minute casting for saving the series.
"The night before we were going to have to pull the plug on production because we didn't have a star, I got the call . . . that JoAnna wanted to come in," said the producer, who once worked on the Gilmore Girls.
"I think I said, 'She better be Jesus.' Then she came in and she was Jesus. What Lauren Graham did in Gilmore Girls is what I was looking for. And there are not that many Lauren Grahams out there."
In Privileged's first episode, Garcia plays Smith as a bubbly mix of unfocused ambition who lands in Palm Beach after blowing a New York tabloid job.
Accidentally Tasered by the Paris Hiltons-in-training that she tutors, Smith eventually curbs their excesses and faces down co-star Anne Archer — stately and imposing as the twins' wealthy grandmother — all while ducking her own dysfunctional family in Fort Lauderdale.
"I really feel passionate about girls banding together and supporting each other," said Garcia, who wept in front of CW executives after she got the part. "I felt like Megan was a really strong voice saying what's important is your brain, your humor — being beautiful inside and out."
It's a long way from her first acting gig: a 10-year-old Wendy in the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's children's production of Peter Pan.
Raised in North Tampa's Avila neighborhood by dad Jay Garcia, a gynecologist, and schoolteacher mom Loraine, Garcia balanced a normal kid's life with professional acting jobs — including Nickelodeon's Clarissa Explains it All and Are You Afraid of the Dark?
By 1998, she'd scored supporting roles on Party of Five and Freaks and Geeks, and earned enough one-shot jobs (Dawson's Creek, Boston Public) that her mom began calling her "the guest star queen."
Even her setbacks turned to success: Cut from the NBC comedy DAG in 2000, Garcia instead joined Reba. (DAG lasted 13 episodes, Reba lasted until 2007.) A co-starring role in CBS's ill-fated February sitcom Welcome to the Captain fizzled just in time for her to snag Privileged.
Garcia tops a growing list of youthful Tampa Bay area natives building impressive TV resumes minus the tabloid scandals dogging so many young performers. A short list: Brittany Snow (American Dreams, Nip/Tuck), Shawn Pyfrom (Desperate Housewives), Carter Jenkins (Viva Laughlin, Surface).
"My dad delivered Brittany (Snow) . . . and I can attest that we would probably get our behinds kicked if we weren't well-behaved," Garcia said. "We're working actors, you know? I have 11 animals and a house and a fiance . . . I don't really have time to go clubbing these days, or getting into trouble."
Still, she's never far from that world: Her fiance is Trace Ayala, business partner and longtime friend of paparazzi magnet Justin Timberlake. But hearing Garcia recount how she took time to travel with Ayala on a Timberlake tour to make sure their relationship was solid only reinforces how star-crossed yet grounded her world remains.
"You have to sell (viewers) on people that they like, characters they want to watch," said Garcia, citing TV star Mary Tyler Moore as an idol. "TV lends itself to fans who are familiar with you, watching you while they're eating popcorn in their boxer shorts. I'm way more the girl who comes into your home."
Eric Deggans can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8521. See his blog, The Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media.