Eleven years ago, Jeanine Mason won over our dancing hearts with her impeccable technique and passionate stage presence, and was crowned the Season 5 "So You Think You Can Dance" champion. But rather than go the typical dancer route postshow, Mason used her newfound accolades to launch herself into the acting industry. That's why these days, you probably know her as the star of the CW's science-fiction drama "Roswell, New Mexico."
Mason as Liz Ortecho in "Roswell, New Mexico" (Richard Foreman/The CW)
Growing up, Mason looked up to triple threats like the legendary Rita Moreno for inspiration. "I always trained with the idea that if you wanted to be a performer, you had to do it all," she says. "I started thinking like an actor early on in my dance career because, to me, it was all about storytelling." Putting herself out there as an actress was one of Mason's early keys to success. "I had no connections in Hollywood, not even a cousin of a cousin. But in one of my 'SYTYCD' packages, I got to say that I was pursuing acting, and that's how I met my manager, who still reps me to this day," she remembers.
After the whirlwind of winning the show and going on tour calmed down, Mason found herself taking multiple acting classes a week, attending college part-time, and figuring out how to break into the acting industry. Despite Hollywood's hurdles, Mason felt she had a leg up (literally) thanks to her dance experience. "At first, I was so afraid I would be isolated into just one medium, and not seen as an artist that could cross over like so many greats do," she explains. "But so many casting directors reflected back to me that they wanted me in the room because I was a dancer. That title gives you huge currency and respect in the acting industry." From applying corrections to thinking on your feet and being able to push through long rehearsals, the dance skills she learned naturally prepared Mason for the demands of her acting career.
Mason competing at a young age (courtesy Mason)
Mason's first major gig came as a guest appearance on Nickelodeon's "Big Time Rush." "My character was a fighter, and super-physical," Mason recounts. "I had to jump over hedges and do fan kicks. In the beginning, those were the kind of jobs I focused on, because I knew I had an edge there." Case in point: One of Mason's next gigs was a recurring role in ABC Family's "Bunheads." "It was a show about dancers, but still, I was hired as an actress," she says. "It was then that I started to really believe in my abilities and stopped counting myself out of all the big roles I wanted. Making that connection for yourself is huge as an artist." Mason's growing confidence paid off. Her next recurring role was as Dr. Sam Bello on "Grey's Anatomy," where she had the opportunity to cross paths with dance legend Debbie Allen, an executive producer for the show.
"Starting out, everyone has this mentality of grabbing whatever they can get. But that's never a good energy to introduce into your career," she says. "You want to make sure you're taking care of yourself and aligning yourself with people who are going to take care of you." This has been one of Mason's guiding principles throughout her career, and it's led her to some pretty incredible people and opportunities. "In the last five years, I've connected with this group of actresses called Fiercely Latinas. It's amazing to have a group of strong women all rooting for each other, and to see how everybody has something specific to offer. There's abundance and space for all of us in this field," she says.
These days, "Roswell, New Mexico" keeps Mason plenty busy. "It's fascinating how even now, after 10 years, I can whip out my dance training for a specific role or moment," she explains. "I approach acting from the outside in, always exploring ways that my body language can inform my characters—the way they walk, the way they hold themselves. Physicality is everything to me, and as a dancer, I have a heightened awareness of how I can use my body to tell my character's story."
What's next for Mason? "I feel like I have command of my dancing and acting, so singing is next for me," she says. "I would love to try eight shows a week on Broadway at some point, or act in a straight play, but ultimately, I'm most excited about finding people I love to work with, wherever that may be.