Jeryl Prescott shares how a well-rounded life experience led to her career as a writer, director and actor. She mined her experiences working in trucking, in college classrooms, and as a mother and wife to sink her teeth into character development in roles like “Jacqui” on “The Walking Dead.” Prescott deepens her engagement with the public with “Ignore No More,” a campaign to promote women’s health awareness of sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that disproportionately affects African American women. ABLITY Magazine’s Dr. Tom Chappell and Chet Cooper spoke with Prescott, while in LA, in between trips to Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta and found out why the campaign is close to her heart— literally and figuratively.
Dr. Tom Chappell: When did you first get diagnosed with sarcoidosis?
Prescott: I was diagnosed about 17 years ago, upon the birth of my first son. I was a late-life mother, had my first son when I was 38. When he was several months old, maybe seven to nine months old, I had a very red, red eye. I thought it was just exhaustion from being a new mom and being older. But my pediatrician noticed it again, at another visit, and she was like, “Hmm, I saw that eye before. You probably should get it checked out.” I was telling her, “I’m just tired.” And then she saw it at another appointment, and she said, “I don’t know. You probably should get someone to look at it.” And when my doctors examined it, they said I had an inflamed eyeball. It had an abnormal white cell count. So, we started looking for stuff. Lupus was their first suspicion. And then we did a lung x-ray and saw scarring from previous inflammations that had come down. That was the beginning of my diagnosis.
Since then, I had nothing. A rather asymptomatic experience, until about seven or eight months ago, when my general practitioner noticed a heart murmur. That led to a series of appointments with a cardiac specialist who discovered that my heart was enlarged and functioning at 15% of what it should be and that I had cardiac sarcoidosis.
Prescott: Yeah. I did get an implanted cardiac defibrillator about a month or so after that. I went from taking zero medications to almost 10 pills a day.
Chappell: A lung test, right?
Prescott: Yeah, all kinds of stuff. You can imagine. But I’ve been tolerating it very well. I haven’t had a lot of the troubling symptoms. I haven’t had a lot of shortens of breath. I’ve been pretty active. I feel good most of the time. Fatigue, certainly, some fatigue, but no other prominent symptoms.
Chappell: You look good, too. You look great.
Prescott: Oh, thank you. I feel good. I’ve been on the Prednisone now for a couple of months, and I haven’t noticed a lot of changes. Some gastrointestinal stuff that I think is either the Prednisone or—I’m on Methotrexate, I think it’s called. I think that might upset my stomach sometimes. I’m taking it once a week, but several extra pills that day on top of the 10. On those days I might take 16 pills or something. I feel like that day I have a lot of gastrointestinal stuff. But otherwise, I’ve been feeling really good and really fortunate to have such good care.
Chappell: How long will they keep you on the Prednisone, do you think?
Prescott: Well, we are lowering the dosage. I started, I want to say, in November on a fairly moderate dose, I think it was 30 milligrams. And I’m down to 10 now.
Chappell: Good. I’d like to see you get off of that. It does cause long-term side effects, I’m sure they told you.
Prescott: Yeah, me, too. I’d love to get off of it. I’ve been a real irritant with my doctors about reducing the Prednisone, getting me off the Prednisone as soon as possible. Also, I’m always asking questions about when we can take me off of some of the other medications. But they have convinced me that we should probably be pretty aggressive with the heart medications that we have right now because we want to improve the heart function. As I mentioned earlier, when we looked at the first ultrasounds and MRI, etc., we saw that my heart function was down to 15% of what it should be. What is it called? The ejection fraction?
Chappell: The ejection fraction, yes.
Prescott: Yeah, that it was really low, so we want to be aggressive about improving that. That’s what a lot of the medication is designed to do. So, I stopped pressing so hard to get rid of that stuff, but we are trying to get rid of some of the Prednisone.
Chet Cooper: Can you talk about the device you said you had implanted? What’s the difference between that and a pacemaker?
Prescott: Yeah! It’s a pretty cool little secret weapon I have, I feel. It is technically primarily designed to do what the external defibrillators that you see that they grab in all the medical shows and put on people’s chests and give them a shot. That’s its primary function. It’s an internal defibrillator. So, if my heart stops, it is designed to give me a shot. But it also has a pacemaker function in that it monitors irregular heartbeat. So, if I have too many or if they persist too long, it will also try to regulate my heartbeat. I don’t know if it does that with a certain kind of shot, but it monitors my heartbeat and communicates with some computer somewhere and sends data that my doctors can see. And it can do something in case I get too many irregular heartbeats in a row or I have the irregular pattern for too long. It does all of those things. Sounds amazing, right?
Cooper: And it helps start your car, which is great!
Prescott: (laughs) Which is fabulous, that’s what I’m sayin’, you know? It helps me get—I’m thinking, I should have one of those wonderful decals. I need a decal on my car so I can get all the great parking spaces, all that good stuff. I’m not getting the most out of it yet. (laughter) I need to do more.
Cooper: Earl Bakken invented the pacemaker, and he created the company, Medtronic. Is that a Medtronic product?
Prescott: It is. I have the Medtronic card.
Cooper: A side story: I was lucky enough to spend time with Earl Bakken, who invented it. He was in Hawaii when I met him. The irony of it is, when he was in his 80s, he started having heart problems, and he had to have a pacemaker himself. If he hadn’t invented it when he was in his 20s, he would have not been alive.
Prescott: Wow, that’s amazing! You know, I’m sort of proud of my little scar. It’s just the tiniest little scar here, I don’t know if you can see it. It’s just a little scar. When I found out that I was going to have to get it, I found out that my physician would be a female who put it on me. We were talking about where that little scar should be because on YouTube, I saw these guys who had the surgery, and it was like right here, right in the middle of their chest, their scars, and I was thinking, what’s going to happen to all my cute little shirts and dresses that I want to wear, when I want to have—you know, some sexin’ is happenin’? (laughter) I was like, “What can we do? I have to give up all of that, too?”
Prescott: She’s brilliant. The surgery, I’m sure, the post-recovery was as comfortable as I could have imagined, and she did a great job of hiding it over here and the corner for me. It’s healing very nicely. I did feel just so well cared for, I have to say. My cardiac specialist, Dr. Anousheh, who I’m going to see in a few minutes, he made sure that I was pushed up in the calendar. Because, at first, when we were checking on dates for the operation, the facilities were giving us dates months down the line. He let them know that it was very important for me to get this device as soon as possible because he feared that the worst outcome was possible. The scariest thing with cardiac sarcoidosis is sudden death from the stress on the muscle with the inflammation of the heart, which continues to be inflamed and gets bigger and bigger and bigger. Mine was already—I think he said, like, one and a half times bigger than it should be, as well as the function being reduced so much, to 15%, which is well below the 30% standard that they usually use to define heart failure. He was really assertive about getting me a spot for an operation as soon as possible. My recovery was as great as I could have hoped for.
Cooper: Yeah, we had heard that you have a big heart, but we didn’t understand the—
Prescott: Exactly, exactly, you know what I’m sayin’? I’m thrilled to represent that, absolutely.
Cooper: How has that affected your career, your workload?
Prescott: Well, I think it’s still yet to be seen. I have worked since the operation. It was a great day, a couple of days that I worked in the Tyler Perry Studios on a show called “All the Queen’s Men.” I don’t get to be the queen, but I get to be the judge. My wardrobe doesn’t allow me to be sexy, so I didn’t have to worry about showing off my scar this time. But maybe I’ll get to do something sexy later and I’ll get to show it off a bit. It was completely uneventful regarding my health issues or health concerns. When I packed, I had to pack all my medication. That was different. I went to Atlanta–This particular show shoots in Atlanta–So, I did have to pack my medication and make sure I had enough of everything in case the schedule got moved. When we actually shot, it was a few weeks after the initial plan. That had to be changed because of COVID, but it all went well.
Cooper: Do you have any other projects lined up right now, work-wise, acting-wise?
Prescott: Nothing I’m allowed to talk about yet.
Cooper: OK, let’s hear it then. (laughs)
Prescott: Not yet, not yet! But I do have a movie on Netflix right now, “Resort to Love.” It’s been out a couple of months. That one is fun. It’s a romantic comedy starring Christina Milian, the lovely Christina from Disney and beyond. Now she’s a grown woman who’s a mother herself, with beautiful kids. It also stars Jay Pharaoh, whom you might know from all of his multiple voices. He does all the wonderful impressions of people. In this particular movie, we get to hear him, his own voice. He plays my son. He’s getting married, and I’m not terribly thrilled at this event. It’s a fun romantic comedy, and it’s on Netflix. More to come, I hope, this year.
Cooper: Where do you live right now?
Prescott: I live in LA. Like I said, I was shooting “All the Queen’s Men,” which is a BET show, the second season. We have a season that’s already streamed on BET+, and then the upcoming season also is set for BET. I have to go to Atlanta to shoot that.
Cooper: I heard Atlanta. I thought for some reason you were in some part of Georgia and you had to drive down to Atlanta.
Prescott: No, I had to fly out, yeah. I’ve been living here for about 15 years. Just after my diagnosis with sarcoidosis, maybe about three or four years after, I moved out to LA.
Cooper: Are you familiar with some of the different diversity issues going on beyond the standard diversity, about actors with disabilities in Hollywood?
Prescott: Well, I guess, superficially, because I have noticed, in some of the shows that I’ve seen, that there appear to be more actors with various other abilities working. At least from what I remember in TV. One show that I enjoy that’s on Netflix is called “Raising Dion,” for example, had a wonderful young character who uses a wheelchair, and she is incredible. I loved everything that I’ve seen her do in the show. Her presence is not the only example, it’s the one that comes to mind most readily for me in recent months. But I feel like I’ve seen a few.
Cooper: You’ve now fallen into the area of hidden disability. You mentioned it, about getting a placard. You were somewhat joking, but not joking at the same time.
Cooper: There are a lot of people with invisible or hidden disabilities who can’t walk a distance, for example. There’s the controversy of people seeing you with a placard saying, “Hey, you don’t use a wheelchair,” but they don’t understand other medical conditions. Lots has been written about that—Jeff Charlobois who writes our humor section has an interesting idea of different colored placards that helps identify hidden conditions.
Back to the entertainment industry, there is a movement right now for casting to try to tap into authentic actors with disabilities. Let’s say you’re casting something that connects to someone with a typical condition that you already have, the movement is, talk to you. Get you in to do a casting call. It’ll still be your talent that gets you the job or the gig, but the first see if there is talent out there, somebody who’s an amputee, who’s deaf, blind, heart disease, cancer, whatever the condition. That’s something else you might look at.
Prescott: Oh, yeah, I would love to do that. And it makes sense because it has to add not only to the authenticity of the representation, but it’s going to add to whatever the screenwriter is trying to do. It’s going to give them another resource of reality to pull from. It only makes sense to do that. But I’ll let you know, everything in LA certainly does not make sense. Everything in Hollywood doesn’t make sense. But yeah, I don’t see how the industry could lose in moving in that direction.
Cooper: We’re actually quite involved in all of it. Just this morning we were talking with Netflix Animation. They are looking to cast a female South Asian wheelchair user for a voiceover, because the animation has a young woman who uses a wheelchair. Even in animation, they’re trying to do authentic voiceover, which is great.
Cooper: The site is called abilityEntertainment, abilityE.com. It’s a database of thousands. Of talented performers, union or non-union. We met with SAG-AFTRA, CSA, and most of the studios.
Prescott: Wow. I think it’s relevant and necessary.
I do want to mention, before I forget, and we can get together again if you guys want to, I want to mention “Ignore No More” because it works so well with what we’re talking about, the campaign that the Foundation for Sarcoidosis Research is promoting encourages us to stop ignoring the fact that we all have these health issues, and that African American women are even more impacted by the disease, sarcoidosis. We experience, unfortunately, a worse outcome, and that’s probably because we get diagnosed later. We need the healthcare industry to be aware of this so that they can help be advocates and pay attention to the potential for this disease among African American women. And we need African American women ourselves to be more proactive and be advocates for ourselves and for each other. That’s what “Ignore No More” is designed to promote, to remind us to pay attention, to share our stories and talk about it so that we can remove stigma, both inside and away from the workplace. I think that, too, is an issue among actors. Everyone wants to seem invincible. “Yes, I can jump out of that plane. Of course, I can do whatever you need me to do. I have no limitations.”
We need to talk to each other and share our vulnerabilities as well as our abilities. I think it’ll help all of us, help our work and our lives. So “Ignore No More,” the Foundation for Sarcoidosis Research has a lot more information than you’ll find most places. I know when I first found out I had sarcoidosis, I had a hard time finding information about it. The foundation is working on being a resource for people who want to be educated and for people who have been diagnosed. I didn’t want to forget to say those things.
Cooper: I’m glad you did. What got you into acting?
Prescott: Oh! OK! Let’s see. That was so long ago. I could say I kind of stumbled into acting, I guess. Some people do that. It’s not something that I studied a lot at first. I started studying really after I started booking, I started studying more. But I did some theater first, before doing any television and film.
Cooper: Is this high school? College? What age was that?
Prescott: That would have been college. I did one theatrical presentation in high school, one, when I was a senior, and then in college I did a couple. And then I started to do community theater in the summers, like, every summer, wherever I was living, I would do community theater in the summer. And in that way, I found some wonderful mentors and ended up spending a lot of time with Larry Leon Hamlin, who was the founder of the National Black Theater Festival that happens every year. It switches from North Carolina to Georgia every year, on alternating years. He was wonderful, he helped me a lot. And I also met and began working with a couple of other directors in the North Carolina area who were teaching at the North Carolina School of the Arts, which has given birth to quite a number of people in the industry, actors as well as directors who have done really well.
They were on faculty there, but they were, in the summers, sometimes working on independent projects or on theater projects, and I was able to really begin some training with them. That was really valuable for me. And then I met the father of my boys, my first husband. At the time, he was working for Spike Lee. He was an editor, and he had worked on about eight of Spike’s films.
Prescott: And I invited him to a play that I was doing. He came to my play, and he’s the one who said, “You know you’re pretty good. You should take it more seriously and get an agent, take some more classes and things like that.” I was like, “Oh!” Because I had thought of it as a hobby, something I was doing for fun. I loved the people I would meet, always in theater, just wonderful people. It attracts such great people. After he said that, I enrolled in a class with one of the professors who was teaching at the School of the Arts. I got an agent, and things started to happen. So yeah, that’s sort of how it happened.
Cooper: What were you taking in school before you started dabbling in—what was your major?
Prescott: Oh, Lord! I don’t know if you want to reach that far back. I consider this my third life as an actor. I have a B.S. in industrial management. I worked in the trucking industry for a couple of years for the now-defunct Roadway Trucking, do you remember them?
Cooper: I remember that banner on the sides of those rigs, sure.
Prescott: Yeah, those big orange trucks. I think Roadway Trucking merged and no longer exists. That was my first job out of my undergraduate program at Clemson.
Cooper: That got you on the road!
Prescott: (laughs) Yeah! That put me on the road! That was cool. But then I decided I was bored after a couple of years doing trucking and that I needed to go to graduate school. So, when I went to graduate school, I studied African American literature, women’s literature, and I ended up doing a lot of studying and got a PhD. in American Literature, early American literature before 1900.
Cooper: Wow! That’s great background for writing.
Prescott: And then I taught, I was teaching for about 10 years on the college level. I did some adjunct teaching when I first came to California, and then I started to act more. I was doing the teaching while I was looking for acting jobs. It was my little side gig, teaching a couple of courses in writing, seminars in literature, things like that.
Cooper: When you say “writing,” what type of format in writing were you teaching?
Prescott: Mostly critical writing, critical analysis, essay writing, teaching the kids how to write good essays and how to do good critical analysis of texts, which I think is what has helped me as an actor. Because when I get hold of a script, it’s my Bible, of course. And yeah, I can see all the themes and subthemes and all the character details, all the hints about the things that the character cares about, all of that good stuff. So that was very meaty for me, and it’s really helped me with character development, having that background.
Cooper: What about writing yourself? Have you written things?
Prescott: Yeah, I wrote a film called “Stand Down, Soldier.” I was able to produce that. That was quite an experience. I need to write more. I’m always thinking about writing more. I have fragments of scripts all over the place. It’s something I need to do more. That’s how it all came to be. So then eventually, the acting took over the teaching, probably when I got “Walking Dead.” I was teaching at that time at the Art Institute of Hollywood, teaching probably three classes in critical writing, two in critical creating and one in technical writing. I believe that particular first summer term ended at the time that I was supposed to go to Georgia for a couple of months. So, I left LA and went to Georgia to shoot “Walking Dead.” I don’t think I took another teaching job after that.
Cooper: What do you see yourself doing now between acting gigs? Go back to teaching? Focusing on writing?
Prescott: Yeah, I need to do both. These days, the world is so upside-down, it’s hard to look at life the same. These days, I yearn to be back in the classroom, honestly. I want to teach. I want to find out what’s on the minds of young people. I’m curious about what they’re thinking about, what they would want to write about, what they want to read these days, and how they interpret what they read, what’s going on around them, in their world, what are they thinking? And it might be my age, too. I don’t know. My children–I’m soon to be empty nest.–I have two boys, and one just went to college. He’s finishing his first year at Arizona State. And I have a second who is 16. So, he’ll be off in the couple of years. I sort of want to follow them around, maybe teach wherever they are, that would be fun.
Cooper: (laughs) They would love that. “Mom’s the teacher!”
Prescott: (laughs) Right? It would be fun for me. So yeah, I really would love to do that. I was bugging my agents because I’ve never—I did a couple of episodes of “One Tree Hill” back in the day, before “Walking Dead.” But other than that, I don’t think I’ve ever been in any of these shows that are set in a school, on a university campus or anything like that. And there are several of these shows, and I’m like, I should be on those, and I should book those jobs. It’s just one of those things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, getting back to the classroom in some way.