Secret Lives Of College Escorts Director Ashley Jones Is Always Learning - Exclusive Interview

Ashley Jones is no stranger to a film set. She filmed her first commercial at the age of 5 and has been on stage or set ever since. She's been nominated for two Emmy awards for her work on "The Young and the Restless." She's a regular on "The Bold and the Beautiful" and had a recurring role on "True Blood." She also boasts a wide range of Lifetime movies, including "The Secret Sex Life of a Single Mom" and "You Killed My Mother."

For the first time ever, Ashley brings her wide range of experiences to a new role: Director. Her new movie, "The Secret Lives of College Escorts," is her directorial debut. In an exclusive interview with The List, Ashley describes the movie as "a little bit of a guilty pleasure. It's a little bit of a morality tale. It's glossy. It's quick. It's fun." Filmed during COVID restrictions, Ashley and her crew worked had to keep filming on schedule. They filmed in LA and Ashley says that Los Angeles serves not just as a backdrop, but almost another character in the film. 

Her Directorial Debut

Have you always wanted to direct?

Yep. I remember being really little on sets, aged five to 10 and then in my teenage years, thinking, "I don't know how they would ever do that," because no matter what time I got to set, [directors] were there before I would be. No matter what time I left, they were still there. I'm like, "Who would ever want to do something like that? That sounds crazy. I just want to be an actress." 

You evolve, and you grow up, and you learn who handles the strings of everything. It's not like I think actors are puppets by any stretch of the imagination, but there are so many other pieces to the pie that the audience doesn't see. I was curious about the other side of the camera.

What was the best part of directing and what was the worst?

The best part was working with the writer of the script and the actors ... I loved editing. That's where the real magic, I feel, happens. Once you get everything laid out, you put the puzzle together, and you can create some magic, but you have to have all the pieces there prior to getting to that point. 

The worst part is dealing with budgets. COVID was a real issue. It took up a lot of our time to test every morning. If someone tested positive, we had to rework the whole schedule and figure out how to get someone else in. Honestly, every single day was some sort of an issue.

On top of the protocols of the Screen Actors Guild and all the other unions that we were working with, every location had its own COVID protocols. We had these COVID counselors to help us keep it straight. There's not a person in the industry that's worked in the last two or three years that doesn't understand what I'm saying. Honestly, there's not a person in the world that doesn't understand because every job was affected by this, whether you were at home or out ... the whole world went through it. I'm not complaining or singing a sob story, but it was hard making a movie in the middle of COVID!

On being an actress behind the camera

How does your experience as an actor inform how you direct?

It informed a lot of how I talked to the actors and communicated with them. I took some time going over the script before we started production and I would try my best to go through and think about each character, their perspective of where they were coming from in the story, and try to remind our actors and actresses about where they were in that time period and their arc.

Sometimes you need very little for actors and then sometimes you need to actually give them something. You get to know them, and then you hear about their life experience, and you try to remind them of something that you know will be of value to them in that scene. Sometimes, it's simply like, "You were brilliant. You broke my heart, but I need you to keep your eyes open, so don't blink." Sometimes, it's very technical.

Being an actress for so long, I was able to work with some brilliant directors and writers and producers for so many years. I knew how they spoke to me and the ones that I didn't like and the ones that I thought, "Oh, that was a really good note. Okay." 

Personally, as an actor, I like notes because I'm in the moment and that's all you want. You want to listen and react. Sometimes, you need someone with a bird's eye view to give you what it's going to look like to the audience. Sometimes it's something super technical like, "That was so brilliant, but we couldn't see you because we need you to look closer to the moon so we get your moonlight."

It's interesting that you learned as much from the directors you didn't like as you learned from the ones that you did.

It's like everything else — the bosses that you work for, the [people] you date, the teachers that your kids go to school with. Whatever it is, you learn from every [experience.] You have to be open to try to learn, or I'm trying to be open to learn from every experience and not categorize them as, "I don't ever want to do that again." It was like, "Okay, this was valuable." There's value in everything if you want to find it.

Teaching others to trust their intuition

What does the lead character in "The Secret Lives of College Escorts" face?

My favorite thing about this lead character is that she starts out really naïve and you see the arc of how she starts to delve into her own intuition and gains her confidence as a woman. It's not really a story of female empowerment, but in another way it is. It's about not being taken advantage of. The irony of the whole thing is the mastermind behind it all is a woman. It's not like it's men taking advantage of her. It's an interesting take on the whole thing.

It's learning to trust your own intuition and what your own moral compass is. What feels right and what feels wrong? When something doesn't feel right, question it. It's okay as a female. You don't have to go along with whatever your boss says. Within reason and in a respectful way, question it. If you are getting all the red flags that this isn't right, it's probably not right. There's some life lessons in this. 

On the other hand, it is a fun and guilty pleasure that goes by fast and it's very satisfying at the end.

Is there a connection here to your work with the charity Our Daughters International? 

That's a really huge passion project for me and my family and the work that they're doing is incredible. This movie is a little bit more subtle in the way that they are bringing girls into their web. Our Daughters International serves girls that are going from Nepal to India that are told they're getting a better life and they're going to make more money. And that's the exact concept of the girls in this movie.

Our Daughters International gives these women a better life and teaches them trades that can give them a sense of purpose and career, and then they can actually make money and feel good about themselves and give real money back to their family if that's what they choose to do.

This movie is similar in the sense that we follow this lead character Eve and she's desperate for money. She comes from a single mom, and it's a very similar story. She's not living in poverty. I wouldn't want to compare the two in that sense because I would never want to disrespect what's happening in these other countries, but [the need for money is] happening everywhere right in front of us.

Human trafficking is happening all over the world in different ways. It's happening on social media with our youth. It's happening in colleges. It's happening on dating apps. You have to be really wise and really do your research and don't take what's being handed to you as the truth.

Back to acting and thoughts on thrillers

Tell me about "What Happened To My Sister?"

I don't play the typical character that I normally play in these types of movies or what I've played on soaps or the movies I've been in. [In] the last couple of movies I've done, I haven't necessarily played the protagonist. I don't want to give anything away, but she's definitely not the protagonist in the movie. She would be the villain in the morality tale.

It's about deep sorority connections and really wanting [success]. I play a stage mom willing to do anything to make sure that their child is perceived in a certain way and achieves a certain thing. I don't want to give too much away because it is a fun movie to watch!

All of these movies ... There's part of them that's slightly devastating. It's because really major things happen, but I don't think we want you to sit home and sob. It's not that kind of movie, but there's a thriller aspect. It takes your breath away for a little second and you want to keep watching and figure out how it happened. It makes you ask, "Wait, who did this, and why would that person do that? There's got to be a motivation behind it." 

By "fun" I mean ... taking someone out of their own life and letting them escape for a second and figure out someone else's tragic story instead of their own.

Advice for young actors

You were working with a bunch of actors who were newer to the acting scene. Did you spend a lot of time doling out advice? What advice would you give a newer actor?

There's downtime on sets and they're turning around on lighting, or they're figuring out shots. I was in this room with a bunch of very young new actors and actresses. Most of the time I was checking on my son or learning the lines for the next scene,  or I was also still working on my last movie.

But then they start asking questions, and they open up, and it is fun to chat with people. They have these big eyes and big dreams and you know they're going to probably [make] it. They're really young, and they're already so far ahead of the game. They're really talented, and you can sense their work ethic. These are long hours, and they show up, and they do their job, and it was really fun to get to remind myself of how it felt when I first started.  

The main question they asked was, "When do I move to LA?" There's no right or wrong answer to this type of stuff. My main answer was if you are already working in Texas or Alabama or Oklahoma, stay put. There's a lot of stuff coming to those states, and they're going to want a lot of local hires. They're not going to want to fly people in from LA and pay their rate and put them up in a hotel, the whole drill. 

It might behoove them to see how far they can go until they are really emotionally and financially developed in a way that they can feel okay out here on their own two feet. I'm like, "You're working right now! Why don't you stay until you feel like it's necessary?" I learned a lot from them, too. Sometimes, working with people that are fresh and new on the scene, they have a different type of un-jaded, authentic take on things. It's nice to look at that and be reminded of that.

How directing made her a better actor

Did your experience directing impact your acting once you finished making your movie?

Quite a bit, because I'm seeing the big picture now and once you start that, it's really hard to take yourself out of it. I wanted to see the monitor a little bit more. I still can act and not do all of that, but I also was trying to learn from another director. I was curious how she was setting up the shots. I was very aware of more details. I was focused on video village and how the director knew when to move on because she already knew she had it in her head. 

I was so aware of angles and lighting because I had seen that so much as a director. I could feel when it wasn't working and I could feel when it did work. I would even start to move the other actor to an angle and say, "You're in my light or you're not in my light." You can't help but become a little bit more involved in the whole process. I definitely am respectful and more of a viewer from the outside in that stuff, but when it's obvious, it's easy to fix from my spot on set.

What's next on the schedule?

Imagine you have a free Friday night. How would you spend your time? 

I did find myself with a free Friday night recently. My son was with his father, and I had a bunch of stuff to do, but I ended up taking a bath.

I got in bed early to watch a show and read and do some other stuff, but I went to sleep because that is rare that I get to do something like that. There's always some event. There's always so much going on. I don't see a lot of free nights where I don't have to put anyone to bed or brush their teeth or answer to anyone! 

What is next on your agenda?

I still go back and forth with "The Bold and the Beautiful" and I'm up for a couple of acting things. They're not solidified yet so I can't say them. 

The next thing that's going to be really fun to talk about is hopefully, there'll be another movie I direct and fans of "The Bold and the Beautiful" might find it interesting. I've been talking to Heather Tom from "The Bold and the Beautiful." I want to shadow her because she's been directing quite a bit and what she's doing is really awesome. We're basically the same age, but she's paved the way a little bit. She started soaps before I did. She's phenomenal. She's won so many awards and all that stuff, but now she's directing and it's fun to see. There's always new things I want to do to stretch and I'm always learning.

"The Secret Lives of College Escorts" premieres tonight at 8:00 p.m. ET on LMN. "What Happened To My Sister?" premieres on September 23 on the same channel.

This interview has been edited for clarity.