2019 was a breakout year. Especially for Jessica Camacho.
The 37-year-old’s rebellious superhero role in HBO’s smash hit “Watchmen” is only the most recent addition to her brimming IMDB page, which also includes a tough-love performance as a medium on Netflix’s new sci-fi series “Another Life” and a moving depiction of an L.A. attorney on CBS’s “All Rise.”
That’s three new hit television series in just the last six months.
It was a long road for Camacho, who was raised in Chicago. She remembers that the early days of acting often felt “like you’re looking up and wondering, ‘How do I get there?’ ”
“Fear and doubt have always been a part of my story,” she says.“[But] I only have one life and I’m going to live it pursuing what I believe in.”
Today, Camacho lives in L.A. and has achieved what at times she didn’t think was possible. To stay focused, it helps her to think back to her past, which was all about persistance, faith, and family.
Having “bounced around” while growing up, Camacho treasures her Midwest roots. Going back and forth between Logan Square, Humboldt Park, and the South Side, she says, “I feel like the whole city of Chicago is my home.”
Her paternal grandparents were ministers who traveled between California, Florida, and Chicago on missions to start new churches while Camacho and her parents followed their lead and stuck together despite such widespread moves. During this time, the actor says she began to understand what it truly means to live with purpose.
“I always felt like I would end up forging my own path, [but] I never really knew what that was,” Camacho says, adding that starting at a very young age, “I was being summoned in a way — answering a call to have a different kind of journey.”
At 19 years old, Camacho entertained the suggestion of a friend and enrolled in acting classes while living in St. Petersburg, Florida. After her first classes at the Venue Theatre and Actors Studio, Camacho’s longing for a purpose was solidified almost instantly. “[Acting] clicked for me in such a visceral, undeniable way,” she says. “Once I found that thing that I knew was my destiny, it’s like any fear I had took a back seat to the knowledge that this was meant for me.”
In an attempt to get as close to Hollywood as possible, Camacho left Florida for San Francisco at 20 to live with her uncle while saving up money working at Starbucks and attending the American Conservatory Theatre. “I didn’t know anything except ‘move to Hollywood,’ ” she says.
The budding star landed her first acting role in the play “Antigone” after flipping through the Yellow Pages in search of local theatrers looking for talent. She found a community theatre in Antioch, California, which gave her new hope. “When I left there, I had the lead role.”
Three years later, her love for Chicago found her back in the city, where she would eventually earn her SAG card and star in her first big television series alongside Patrick Swayze in the last show before he died, the crime drama “The Beast.” But despite Camacho’s seemingly big break, the then-26-year-old was struggling to make a real go of things. “I had enough credits to feel like I really had a jumping-off point and Chicago was starting to come up [in the industry], but it definitely was no Hollywood.”
“The opportunities were scarce,” she says. “Every door had closed for me in a way it does when the universe is telling you it’s time to move on.”
In an attempt to keep her dream alive, Camacho would stuff envelopes with her headshot to send to industry execs while binge-watching episodes of “Entourage” from her Logan Square apartment. Even as profound doubt set in, she kept focused on landing the next gig.
“I know where I’m going… I can’t see it right now, but I have faith it’s going to happen,” is what Camacho repeatedly told herself during what turned out to be a “brutal” Chicago winter almost 11 years ago.
She leaned on her mom, who always provided encouragement. It was time for an actual push: Mom drove up from Florida to help pack Camacho’s apartment. “It was now or never,” the actor recalls. Six months later, she was living in Hollywood while working at the Cheesecake Factory at the Grove, going out on auditions, and searching for a talent manager.
After a couple of signs telling her that she definitely made the right move (including running into a Chicago casting director and old friend at the restaurant, who introduced her to a talent manager), Camacho finally started to land meatier roles, including parts in critical darlings like “Dexter” and “The Mentalist.”
While the turnaround seems quick in the world of Hollywood, Camacho insists that “it took a lot to get here.” “Every step I took since I was 19 was geared at crafting [my] career.”
Now, Camacho is one of Hollywood’s go-to actresses for crime-fighting characters. You can catch her playing Pirate Jenny on HBO’s “Watchmen.” The character is a cop based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who wears a facemask as protection from savage attacks rooted in racial tension. The series, based off Alan Moore’s 1986 graphic novel, debuted in October to 1.5 million viewers — the biggest premiere since the network’s “Westworld” in 2016.
Before her big HBO break, Camacho made a splash on Netflix’s sci-fi series “Another Life,” which in which she plays Michelle Vargas, a communications expert stationed in space on a mission to crack the code on alien existence. Camacho says the character has a tough exterior, but is actually quite vulnerable.
This kind of nuance is compelling to an actress who continues to find her footing in characters defined by grit and determination. The list goes deep: Camacho has also given orders as a former army captain on the hunt for a missing CIA operative in the NBC drama “Taken” and manipulated the energy of earth as a bounty hunter in CW’s “The Flash.”
Still, it’s the less obvious heroine that challenges the actor the most. Right now, it’s her public defender character on CBS’s “All Rise.” Camacho plays Emily Lopez-Berarro, who’s on a quest to fight an imperfect legal system in L.A. while dealing with a troubled marriage. “She’s just like me and you,” Camacho says, indicating that work-life balance is something most people face. “To play somebody who’s normal is scary for me… there’s nothing to hide behind.”
When stepping into these characters’ shoes, Camacho draws inspiration from the heroes she grew up admiring, like her ministry-driven grandparents and her own mother, who spent her life being of service to others.
Camacho’s other role models are icons. She names Martin Luther King Jr., whose story taught Camacho the importance of “facing fears for a greater purpose,” and poet Maya Angelou, whose autobiographical series helped Camacho stay positive during her career lull in Chicago.
“[They] really helped motivate and inspire me,” she says. “They’re my North Star[s].”
Inspired by the figures she looks up to, Camacho consciously resists stereotypes. That’s especially those “old tropes” that commonly accompany Latina actresses. “It’s wonderful to be sexy, but nobody is just that and only that,” she says.
To that end, the proud Puerto Rican is all for doing things on her own terms — at work and at home. Camacho laughs that she actually feels sexiest when she’s hanging out “in silk pajamas watching ‘Golden Girls’” in the company of her devilishly behaving terrier, Jules.
On set, Camacho will continue to explore what it means to be multi-faceted and unexpected. “I like characters who are sexy, complicated, rugged, vulnerable, and strong at different moments,” she says. “These are the complexities of humans. And it’s why I’m an actor. I just fly when I’m delving into the depths of some kind of emotional journey. It’s the feeling of being untethered.”
With a breakout year behind her, Camacho is looking forward to what’s next. One thing is certain: She has a lot of practice in adjusting to the unknown and, not only that, she’s learned to conquer it.
“I want to embody fearlessness,” she says. “And I’m ready to embrace whatever gifts and adventures and scary opportunities are waiting.”
When she’s back in town once or twice a year, you can probably find the busy actress at these spots, or remembering them from her past.
Restaurant of Choice
Jessica Camacho is a committed vegan, unless she’s back in town for her Italian beef fix. While she frequents Johnnie’s (7500 W. North), Jessica ultimately admits, “We’re a Portillo’s family.”
Before finding fame in Hollywood, Camacho would sit at the now-closed Johnny’s Grill in Logan Square flipping through the classifieds over a $5 breakfast. “It was my routine of looking for auditions. That used to be my spot.”
Camacho lived at the corner of Division and Mozart in the heart of Humboldt Park and just across the street from the famous Puerto Rican flag statues, which bookend the neighborhood. While in Chicago, she starred in the Urban Theater Company’s (2620 W. Division) production of “Eulogy for a Small Time Thief.” Of her time there, she says, “I’m so proud to bring art to that community and [share] stories from the Puerto Rican people.”
It’s all about tradition when she visits. “It doesn’t really feel like Christmas” without a trip to Petterino’s (150 N. Dearborn) followed by a performance of “A Christmas Carol” at the Goodman Theatre (170 N. Dearborn). And when visiting her old stomping grounds on the West Side, she heads to Café Colao (2638 W. Division) for pastries and sandwiches.
Camacho is a tourist in her own city when she visits. “[Exploring] downtown Chicago by bike is the coolest experience,” she shares. When not biking, she’s taking a ride down the river on the architectural tours or driving down Lake Shore Drive. “Windows down [and] music blaring” in the summer “is such a special vibe,” she says. “I miss that.”
Photos by Storm Santos