Taking on the Role

By Kevin Tankersley

“Hard Miles” star Jackson Kelly chases his dream in L.A.

Jackson Kelly has always been an actor. He might not have called it that when he was a kid, but he had a costume box in his bedroom, and he and his brother would “play pretend” in the backyard of the family home.

And it wasn’t until he realized that the people he saw on TV and in movies were playing roles, and they were getting paid to do so, that he decided that’s what he wanted to do, too.

His first role wasn’t glamorous, but it was a paying gig. In a corporate training video for the entertainment and game company Main Event, he was a kid at an arcade, playing games and eating ice cream, probably not much of a stretch from him in real life.

“I got paid very little to do it, but it was the first time I had gotten a check from a company paying me to act on camera, and it was very important,” he said. “And I remember getting the call for it and freaking out and thinking it was the biggest deal ever. It was a big moment for me.”

Kelly grew up in Waco, attended school at Midway and Vanguard College Preparatory School, and moved to Los Angeles in April of 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. He didn’t know a soul.

His first job in L.A. was delivering groceries for Instacart, which he described as “scary,” trying to find his way around the second-largest city in the country with a population of nearly 4 million people spread out over 469 square miles.

“And it seemed huge,” he said. “It’s a very sprawling city and delivering groceries was great because it would take me all over town. I was driving to a new place, like, 10 or 15 times a day to deliver groceries. I really got to see the city and drive around and look at different parts of it. And, yeah, there’s a big difference between Waco and L.A., for sure.”

Shortly after that, the film industry started back to work after being shut down due to COVID, and he landed a role as a production assistant for a company making commercials “for underwear, Barbie, just random things,” he said.

“It’s an important job, but it’s a lot of manual labor and doing what needs to get done.

He then began working in front of the camera doing commercials and appearing in independent films “with zero budget,” he said.

His first credited role after moving to Los Angeles was as a young Tyson Ritter in a music video for the band Cheat Codes, made in 2021. After that, he got busy, and stayed busy. Kelly has had roles in several films and TV series, and his latest work, the film “Hard Miles”, will be released this month. He plays Smink, one of a group of teen convicts who are led on a 1,000-mile bicycle ride to the Grand Canyon. The social worker who organizes the trip, Greg Townsend, is played by Matthew Modine, and it’s based on a true story. It premiered at the Bentonville Film Festival in Arkansas last July and is scheduled for release on April 19.

“I hold so much love for him,” Kelly said of the person on whom the Smink character is based. “We are similar in a lot of ways. He’s pure and he’s good. I learned a lot from playing him and grew a lot over the course of shooting that film.”

The real Townsend was on set during the shooting of the film, “and he would tell us stories about the kids that we were portraying, and hearing his story, Smink’s story, you want to do it justice,” Kelly said. “You really feel for him. And it kind of puts it into perspective, that it’s like, ‘Oh, this isn’t just a movie, this happened.’ And these are real people with real stories and real feelings and real experiences, and you want to bring that to life in a way that’s respectful and as honest as possible.”

In the film, Smink is a quiet kid with a good heart “who’s been dealt a bad hand in life,” Kelly explained. “And he just has to deal with it. But I think his heart really shines through in this film.”

After the filming of “Hard Miles” was completed, Kelly met the person on whom his character is based, “and he’s a great, great guy.”

“He’s doing well now in life,” Kelly said. “He’s got a job and he’s got a family and he’s doing great. So, it’s proof of Greg Townsend’s amazing work, and what these programs can do for kids.”

Still, Kelly emphasized, he was not actually portraying that person.

“I don’t look like him or speak like him or move like him,” he said. “But it’s the idea of him. We fill in the blanks and we create our own characters, but it’s sort of, the outline of the person is real, but the characters you see on screen are definitely our own.”

Kelly can also be seen in the upcoming season of “Chucky”, a TV series based on the “Child’s Play” film franchise which began in the 1980s. He played Grant Collins in four episodes last year, and reprises the role in the show’s third season, which debuts this month.

Kelly will also soon start shooting a new show for Peacock. He’s not allowed yet to say much about it, but he did say it will be a “sci-fi thriller.”

When he first began acting professionally, the work was inconsistent, Kelly said, but “I’m very, very thankful and very lucky and blessed that I’m able to support myself with my acting.”

“I pinch myself every day that I get to say that I am a working actor, and this is my job, and I don’t have to do anything else,” he said. “That has always been the dream, and the fact that I get to do that is not lost on me.”

Kelly had a “weird ignorance” about the whole entertainment industry when he first moved to California, and assumed he would figure it out once he got there.

“I didn’t spend too much time worrying about all the what ifs. I was just really ready to just start trying.”

Kelly lived near Lake Waco when he was growing up, and some of his favorite memories include walking there with his Australian Shepherd.

“His name is Shawn, and I miss him very much,” Kelly said. “He still lives in Waco. I would have him out here, but there aren’t many backyards in Los Angeles.

Shawn lives with Kelly’s parents, Stewart Kelly, who owns Kelly Realtors, and Tracy Kelly, who owns Ramsgate Veterinary Clinic. They gave their son their full blessing when he decided to pursue an acting career.

“I give so much credit to them for believing in me and giving me a chance and being in my corner, because that meant the world to me, because I was going to do it either way,” he said. “But the fact that they were supportive makes it a lot easier.”

He’ll still occasionally call his folks when he’s had “a kick in the gut,” as often happens in that industry, “and I want to quit and they’re there to pick me back up and get my head on straight.”

And even though things are working out for him in show business, Kelly isn’t sure if he would recommend that aspiring actors move to California anymore because there are so many creative outlets now. However, he does have advice for anyone who is serious about getting into the business.

“Make sure it’s something that you really love to do because it is really hard work and it’s gonna take everything you’ve got,” he said.

Kelly doesn’t have a lot of free time, he said. When he’s not working on a movie or TV set, he’s hustling to line up his next job.

“Throw everything you have at it. You can’t be halfway. I feel like it’s all or nothing with this career,” he said. “I cannot encourage enough just dedicating your life and then it’s your world and it is everything you eat, sleep, breathe, think about, and if you’re in that mental space, nothing’s gonna stop you.”

Kelly said he’s also open to helping aspiring actors who decide to dedicate themselves to the craft.

“Reach out to me because that’s what I’m here to do. I’m here to help people out. And we’re here to lift each other up. As artists, it’s hard. And if I can lend a helping hand to anyone, I want to do that. I wish I had someone like that when I was trying to come up.”

Kelly doesn’t have much of a public presence on social media — his Instagram page has two posts, for example — so the best way to contact him would be through his parents.

“Call my Realtor and call my veterinarian,” he said, laughing.