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Mississippi actress stars in her first lead role in a full-length feature film

Mississippi actress Jennifer Mathus will star in her first lead role in a full-length feature film during next week’s Oxford Film Festival.

The film, titled “Door in the Woods,” was shot in Mathus’ native Arkansas in late 2016. Filming lasted three weeks and the majority of scenes were outdoors. Mathus says these conditions made for a challenging but rewarding shoot.

“One night it got down to 5 degrees, up in the Ozarks in Fayetteville,” she said. “It was a challenging shoot on a lot of fronts, but I absolutely loved every minute of it. We shot in the rural area outside of Springdale.”

The film is a supernatural thriller, which Mathus, who plays Evelyn, says is perfect because of her love of scary movies. However, it took years of hard work for her to get to the lead role in “Door in the Woods.”

“I got there through 344,786 original miles on my 2000 Nissan XTerra,” she said. “Growing up in the South in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there weren’t a lot of art mentors in the world of acting, so you kind of had to create your own opportunities to find your own way.”

Mathus began acting as a child, but says she really cut her teeth while she was in Red Octopus Productions, the oldest theatre troupe in Arkansas. The troupe would write and perform everything from original sketch comedy routines to reinterpretations of classic Greco-Roman tragedies.

“We really did what we wanted to do and had such freedom. I wouldn’t take anything for those years,” she said. “In that process, I got my first agent in Little Rock and began doing commercial work. That’s where I really learned about working in front of a camera.”

At one time, she had five different agents in five different states across the Southeast, and had to manage all of them while working her way into bigger opportunities in bigger markets.

Today, she has representation in Atlanta, as well as agents in Memphis and Little Rock. She says keeping her options open and making genuine connections is one of the reasons she was selected to appear in the film.

However, she says she hasn’t forgotten the importance of where she came from.

“I would say I am where I am because of that underground art community in Little Rock and Fayetteville,” she said. “Those communities are what’s keeping art alive throughout the South, and it exists here, too. That’s what makes Oxford a special place.”

Oxford, Mathus says, is a place that fosters creative spirits, especially in the acting and filmmaking communities. She also says she values the way she is able to work with other artists, and the way they all try to help each other advance in their craft.

“It is so important to utilize the resources that are right around you. That’s how I’m able to do what I do,” she said. “We’re really competing at a global level. The fact that there are so many actors in Oxford getting good work speaks to the talent pool.”

Mathus isn’t stopping at “Door in the Woods,” however. Since December, she has participated in 40 different auditions and counting. She also recently wrapped up shooting for NBC’s “Good Girls,” alongside her friend Christina Hendricks, of “Mad Men” fame. She’s done all of this while holding down a “myriad” of day jobs, too, including administrative work for Saint Leo, teaching barre fitness in Water Valley, and doing PR work for Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale.

She says she couldn’t do everything she does without the support of her husband, singer-songwriter Jimbo Mathus.

“I’m fortunate to have a partnership with my husband where he really supports my pursuits,” she said. “He’s far more creative than I am. I’m so blessed to have a husband who wants to see me succeed doing the things I love. We try to support each other in a variety of ways. I couldn’t be doing this without him.”

Mathus says one of the most important things to her, as an artist and Mississippi resident, is advancing and fostering the crafts of acting and filmmaking in the state. She also says she wants to see more filmmakers choosing Mississippi and surrounding states as a backdrop for their work.

“I hope that we can get to a point, in Mississippi in particular, where the work is here. I’m hopeful that Mississippi can open up in terms of tax incentives to bring more film work to the state,” she said. “The state geographically can look like a lot of different places, and you’re close to big cities. I think it would be a big boom.”

The 15th Annual Oxford Film Festival will be held next week, from Feb. 7 through 11. Some 204 films – 35 features, 169 shorts and music videos – including 29 world premieres and six U.S. premieres, were selected this year, which is more than 30 films from last year’s lineup.

“Door in the Woods” will be screened on Feb. 9 at 2:15 p.m. and Feb. 10 at 6:15 p.m. Both showings are at Malco Oxford Commons Cinema Grill. To learn more or purchase festival passes, visit http://oxfordfilmfest.com.

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