For the young Jessica Biel, taking voice lessons was like trying on her mother's high heels. One day Jessica's mother needed to go to a voice lesson, but couldn't get a baby-sitter. So she took 8-year-old Jessica along. Jessica wanted a crack at it too, so her mother gave her the appointment. And so Biel's love of singing was born.
Now, 19 years, 18 films and a decade as a regular on the hit TV show "7th Heaven" later, the member in good standing of young Hollywood is finally making her professional singing debut on stage Friday in the Frank Loesser musical classic, "Guys and Dolls in Concert at the Hollywood Bowl." Biel, 27, said it took her all that time to summon the courage to take her singing beyond the shower stall. "I've struggled a lot in the last five years or so with my own insecurities, having done some film," she said recently. "Will I be accepted? Is my voice good enough? I think I finally feel confident enough to do it."
If Biel's newfound confidence tipped the scales for her, she's certainly going to need it. She's making her debut as the pious Save-a-Soul Mission Sgt. Sarah Brown opposite one of Broadway's biggest stars, Brian Stokes Mitchell, who stars as her love interest, Sky Masterson. And she's doing it in front of the Bowl's substantial audience of about 17,000 people.
"Hopefully faceless people," she said with a laugh. "17,000 faceless people."
And then, of course, there's the pressure of singing opposite Mitchell "because he's such a talent and his voice is strong," Biel said. "I definitely know I have to match him and not get swallowed up by his incredible sound. It is kind of a daunting idea. But working with that caliber of people, you have no choice but to take your game up to the next level and just bring it. I know that sounds dorky, but you really do."
Biel, who played a magician's love interest in the 2006 period film "The Illusionist," discussed her latest venture during a break in rehearsals at the Hollywood United Methodist Church gym. The fresh-faced actress, her hair pulled back into a messy ponytail, was relaxed and eager to talk about her surprising incarnation. The rehearsal set-up was a far cry from a cushy big-budget film set, which may offer stars such amenities as 45-foot trailers, Diptyque candles and the like.
Today, the closest things to amenities were five fans scattered around the gym to battle the steamy afternoon heat. Biel, wearing a simple black tank dress, lace-up church-lady shoes and no makeup, rehearsed some lines she improvised with Beau Bridges, another film actor not known for his singing voice. (Scott Bakula plays Nathan Detroit, Tony nominee Ellen Greene is Miss Adelaide and Ken Page is Nicely-Nicely in a production featuring an interesting mix of Hollywood stars and Broadway bluebloods.)
As she voiced her concern about her love for a gambler, Bridges, who plays the mission's founder, Arvide Abernathy, reassured her and softly sang "More I Cannot Wish You." As he did, he twirled Biel around and ended the song with a kiss on her head.
When Biel auditioned for director Richard Jay-Alexander and music director Kevin Stites at Stites' New York apartment, Jay-Alexander was so mired in the theater world that he didn't know who she was. But by the time she had finished, he said, he "got chills three times."
"Her voice is silvery," said Jay-Alexander, who directed last summer's "Les Miserables in Concert" at the Bowl and spent 10 years as the executive director of producer Cameron Mackintosh's U.S. company. "It glimmers, and the higher it goes, the more it shimmers. It's a very interesting instrument." And she's been training for the role "like a triathlete in a decathlon," working with a coach two hours a day for the last two months.
Biel hopes that the role of Sarah will confound an industry that often makes assumptions about the limits of beautiful women. Her concern about that has at times ricocheted awkwardly across the Internet, as it did in May when she told Allure magazine that she wants a career like Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman's, but her beauty "really is a problem" in Hollywood and has cost her roles.
Outside the box
After dropping out of Tufts University (which she said she regrets), Biel has tried to forge an eclectic career that has embraced drama ("Ulee's Gold" in 1997), comedy (2007's "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry"), action/sci-fi ("Next" the same year), horror ("The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" remake in 2003) and Noel Coward (2008's "Easy Virtue," singing a couple of songs on the soundtrack).
"I just don't want to be in a box ever where anybody feels I can only do one thing, because it's boring," said Biel, born in Minnesota to an international business consultant and a homemaker. "I feel I have a lot to explore and a lot to give and try and probably fail doing something, but I want the shot to do it."
That probably won't include performing with her longtime boyfriend, Justin Timberlake, at least for now. "I never thought about doing an album," she said. "I'm more interested in incorporating music into film or onstage. I am his No. 1 fan when it comes to music, but we're doing our own things."
Now she's finishing filming David O. Russell's healthcare industry satire, "Nailed," playing a waitress who gets a nail lodged in her head, and then moving on to Garry Marshall's star ensemble romantic comedy "Valentine's Day." She's also pursuing several projects for her production company, Iron Ocean Films, including seeking financing for "The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," a drama about the friendship between a widower and a homeless girl, for which Timberlake would act as music supervisor.
She started Iron Ocean with her partner, Michelle Purple, she said, "to come up with my own material, to have more control of it, to understand what a producer does and the business aspect that I don't normally see. Suppose there's a time in my life when I don't want to be on screen. You want to have a family and still work and still have independence and something of your own."
But mostly, Biel doesn't want to be told she can't do something.
"The only destination I'm hoping for is longevity," she said. "I want to be able to keep working until I'm 105 years old. I want the choice. It's difficult for women in general in entertainment. They peak earlier and the men peak at 30, 40. It's kind of scary. But you can't tell Meryl Streep she can't do a part. You can't say to Cate Blanchett 'I don't believe her in that.' They do anything they want because they have explored the range, which is endless for them. That's what I want."
'Guys and Dolls'
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood
When: 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Price: $10 to $116
Contact: (323) 850-2000