By Kristi Evans

Porter Kelly ’93 BA has maximized her many guest appearances on popular television shows, fully immersing herself in diverse roles that demonstrate her nimble versatility in comedy and drama. On a recent episode of New Amsterdam, she played Dr. Iggy Frome’s mother in a flashback. In the Sex and the City spinoff series And Just Like That, she was a nurse who greeted Carrie Bradshaw at the registration desk of a surgical center, handed her a disc-like device and said, “Ms. Bradshaw, take this buzzer and when it lights up, we’ll take you back.” Bradshaw responded, “Really? Are we at Applebee’s?” Kelly’s retort was, “You wish. Lucky for you, our knives are sharper.” 

Her first TV credit was on Without a Trace as an FBI agent interviewing to be part of a Missing Persons Squad. In what she considers her career turning point, Kelly later appeared on The Office as a woman standing in line who asks two men behind her if they’ll hold her place while she quickly uses the restroom. The cold response from character Dwight Schrute was, “No, we will not.” After Kelly’s character says, “Excuse me?” in disbelief, he follows with the snarky, “Oh, I’m sorry, were you raised in a household with no consequences?!” 

“Getting to appear on that show was really cool and created new opportunities for me in comedy,” said Kelly, who is based in Brooklyn. “From there, I got to do New Girl and Superstore [a scene in the latter features her and star America Ferrera playing tug of war with a shopping cart in the parking lot."

"Once you start putting together a reel of roles, people see what you’re capable of and they’re more likely to call you in for other parts. All of the roles I’ve done have been so different. Some of my favorites, honestly, have been quirky parts in little indie films, short films and web series.” 

Examples include the web series Road to the Altar. Kelly portrayed the bride’s sister, who happens to be in love with the groom, played by Jaleel White, formerly Steve Urkel on the sitcom Family Matters. Another is Girls Like Magic, in which her character is at a vet’s office with her dog—Kelly’s adopted chihuahua mix, Peaseblossom, was her costar—and makes a couple in the waiting room very uncomfortable by rattling off worst-case-scenario diseases that could explain their dog’s condition. 

Her 45 credits on Internet Movie Database (IMDb) are almost evenly split between comedy and drama. While most are single-episode television appearances, Kelly acknowledges that her ultimate goal is to be a series regular, ideally on a dramedy that more accurately reflects the highs and lows of real life. 

“Obviously if you’re in a full series, you make a lot more money and you’re not always looking for work,” she laughed. “I love auditioning and I teach classes on how to do it, but job security would be great. I’ve gotten close a few times, making it through callbacks to the final stages of casting. There are more roles for actors in general today because of cable and streaming platforms, but we’re also seeing more diversity in ethnicity, gender, ability, and even age and body type. It’s not perfect yet, but if you’re a well-trained actor and know how to audition well, you’ll be able to find work. 

Kelly states unequivocally that she would not be a professional actor if she hadn’t gone to Northern. It wasn’t her first choice; she had a full-ride offer at Michigan State. When her dad became terminally ill and she made a last-minute decision to attend NMU to remain closer to family, she found the university extremely accommodating and supportive. Her family had moved to a property on the Ford River outside Escanaba from Los Angeles when Kelly was 8. She helped to raise prize-winning goats and rabbits, 50 chickens, two cats and a dog, but also was heavily involved in high school activities. As a senior, she nabbed the title role in the musical Annie and was bitten by the proverbial theater bug. 

Still, Kelly planned to become an English teacher when she entered NMU. She added a second major in theater after getting “sucked into the program” by successfully auditioning for shows and enrolling in related classes. One of her favorite roles was Little Red Riding Hood in the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods. The late Forest Roberts Theatre Director James Panowski praised her performance in professional letters of recommendation as “the best Little Red Riding Hood I’ve seen on any stage, and this comes from a Sondheim fanatic who saw the original work eight times!” 

Kelly recalled Professor Shelley Russell, now retired, calling her into her office one day and saying, “You know you could make a living doing this, right?’’ Kelly had never considered that. She figured she would teach English and maybe theater classes somewhere, but Russell’s encouragement gave her the confidence to pursue acting as a career. 

Northern’s program was small and had a conservatory feel, Kelly added. It turned out well-rounded graduates who could not only act, but had practical experience in every aspect of theater, from doing makeup and creating costumes to building sets and installing/running lights 


Porter Kelly Character 2

Porter Kelly Character 3

Porter Kelly Character 1

“I’ve enjoyed the challenge of being a guest cast member, entering a family-like production atmosphere and winning them over with my work ethic. Most of the time, everyone’s very kind, welcoming and appreciative, especially if you’re prepared on set by doing your research and having your lines memorized.”

“In order to receive a performance degree, we were required to take a Saturday audition class,” she said. “They prepared us so well that all of us got callbacks at the Southeastern Theatre Conference auditions. That was almost unheard of. All sorts of doors opened to me after that. Northern clearly put me on the path to where I am now.” 

After receiving her NMU diploma, Kelly toured with Missoula Children’s Theatre before moving to Chicago, where she performed in theater productions and many improv shows after graduating from the Second City Conservatory. Upon relocating to Los Angeles, Kelly quickly broke into commercial work. She starred in dozens of national ads for clients such as Hallmark, American Express and AT&T before landing her first TV role. She also continued her passion of long-form improv with companies such as ACME Comedy Theatre. 

Based on her belief that “actors are storytellers and should be writing,” Kelly has channeled her English major into co-writing two TV pilot scripts. She is hopeful that contacts made through her membership in the Television Academy might enable her to pitch projects to prospective production companies. She has also completed screenplays for two movies, including one based on finding her birth mother. Kelly began the search in earnest after she learned that an anonymous caller was inquiring about her following her appearance on NBC’s Today show. 

“My mom who raised me always said she’d support me if I wanted to look for my birth parents,” Kelly said. “She found out the name on the original birth certificate. When I moved to Chicago, I emailed all 15 people I could find with that last name. One guy who responded that he was my uncle connected me with my birth mom. She and my adoptive mom wrote amazing thank-you letters to each other and met on Mother’s Day. It was almost too perfect. In another twist, I also discovered my little sister, who was born in Switzerland, was living three blocks away from me in Chicago.” 

Kelly plans to move back to Los Angeles this fall, in part because she misses volunteering with WriteGirl, a program that matches underserved teenage girls with women who mentor them in creative writing. Amanda Gorman, who eloquently recited one of her poems at the last presidential inauguration, was a participant. Kelly said 100% of WriteGirl teens are admitted to college. As a member of the education team, she shared her Northern experience to demonstrate the importance of not fixating on one school to the point that any other is seen as a consolation prize. As Kelly discovered, Plan Bs can end up as “the best place in the world” for students willing to go all in. 

When people who aspire to get into acting reach out to Kelly for advice, she has found that “Nine times out of 10, these kids aren’t doing much acting. I’m like, ‘I think what you’re really saying is that you’d like to be famous.’ 

No judgment, but that’s a whole different thing. If you aren’t taking acting classes, pursuing every opportunity to be in school or community productions or making movies with friends on your phone that you share on social media, I don’t know what to tell you. There’s no shortcut.” 


Porter Kelly Character 4

Here are Kelly’s other takeaway tips on the business: 

  • Don’t head straight to Los Angeles or New York. Go to a smaller market first to get some experience and save money. Shows are being produced all over, from Chicago and Atlanta to Santa Fe and New Orleans. They need local hires. 
  • Try to volunteer on the casting end, like she did as a reader for auditions, to get an eye-opening perspective of the process. 
  • Consider any callback a win because there are thousands of submissions for one teensy role. Take those wins when you can. If you get the part, that’s huge, but it’s not the only win. 
  • Don’t take rejection personally. “So many factors beyond your control go into who gets the parts,” she said. “If you get called into a casting office for a major TV show, they already assume you’re professional and a good actor. They’re just determining whether you’re right or wrong for the role.” 

To see demo reels of Kelly’s work and more information on her career, visit the link below.