Jessica Campbell, a former St. Louisan best known for her role in Election, died unexpectedly, at age 38, on Dec. 29, 2020. News of her death only began to circulate through media outlets on Jan. 13.
Cousin Sarah Wessling told TMZ that Campbell, who worked as a naturopathic physician in Vancouver, Wash., and lived in Portland, Ore., had complained of congestion following a normal day of work at her practice. She collapsed on her bathroom floor while her mother — a former ER physician — and aunt were present, but attempts to revive her were unsuccessful. The family does not believe Covid-19 was the cause of death, but an autopsy is pending.
Though born in Tulsa, Okla., Campbell was raised in St. Louis and graduated from Webster Groves High School. In 2001, the St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF) paid tribute to Campbell with an Emerging Actor Award, which the fest presented for several years in the early aughts to young St. Louis actors gaining national recognition. Campbell was the first honoree.
She was discovered at age 7 by casting director Carrie Houk, a longtime board member of Cinema St. Louis and now the executive artistic director of the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis.
On the occasion of SLIFF’s presentation of the Emerging Actor Award to Campbell, Houk recalled: “She’s very instinctual, very natural. Her acting is layered, multileveled. Jessica’s so much more real and has a better understanding of human behavior than most young actors, and she’s been that way since she was a child.”
Campbell’s national professional debut was in the TV movie In the Best Interest of the Children (1992), but she made her first major impact with her role in Alexander Payne’s scabrously funny Election (1999), which earned the actress an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Debut Performance. Co-star Reese Witherspoon remembered her on Twitter: “So heartbroken to hear this. Working with Jessica on Election was such a pleasure. I’m sending all my love to Jessica’s family and loved ones.”
Director Payne told Rolling Stone: “Jessica was the last of the four leads chosen for Election. I think she’d done only a little high school and nonprofessional acting in St. Louis, and her local agent there sent up to Omaha — where we were shooting — a VHS tape with Jessica’s perfect audition. She even had braces. We never met until the night before her first day of shooting, so there was no time to rehearse this nonprofessional actor; she just had to start working right in front of the camera. Her instincts for the character were always spot on and her discipline was exemplary. If she was ever nervous, she never showed it. Her mother was with us, too, an ER doctor — and Jessica later became a doctor as well. Jessica went on to act a lot, too, but it never went to her head.
“Of the four leading protagonists of Election, her character was the grounded truth-teller — and there was little difference between the character and Jessica herself. She was very smart, very grounded, very funny and kind, and you could see those qualities in her mother as well. Really good people. I can’t tell you how sad this recent, out-of-the-blue news made me, as I’m sure it does all who knew her.”
In 1999, Campbell also appeared in a two-episode arc of the wonderfully insightful series Freaks and Geeks. Judd Apatow, the show’s executive producer, told Rolling Stone: “Jessica’s work on Freaks and Geeks was so heartfelt, vulnerable, and really sweet and funny. We all knew we were collaborating with a very special person. Several of the key scenes were improvised with Seth Rogen, and they were magic together. She created a character with strength and grace.”
In 2001, Campbell co-starred in Rose Troche’s The Safety of Objects, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and screened at the 2002 SLIFF, with Campbell in attendance. Writing in the New York Times, Elvis Mitchell said of her performance: “The acuity of Ms. Campbell — first seen in movies as the petulant, scene-stealing sister in Election — is remarkable. Her access to a complicated interior life is disconcerting in one so young, and even when she’s in a comic scene, there’s nothing glib about her.”
In 2002, she appeared in both Junk and the short feature Dad’s Day, which was directed by local filmmaker Peter Carlos.
After that brief but memorable run, Campbell then retired from acting, earning a degree in cultural anthropology from the University of California-Berkeley and eventually pursuing her subsequent career as a naturopathic physician and acupuncturist.
Campbell is survived by her husband, Daniel Papkin, and 10-year-old son, Oliver. Her cousin Sarah Wessling has set up a GoFundMe page to help with expenses and provide for Oliver’s future. She writes on the page:
“A true adventurer in every sense of the word, Jessica packed a staggering amount of experiences into her tragically short lifetime. Listening to her talk, excitedly recounting her tales at a mile-a-minute, one could be forgiven for thinking ‘is this b*tch for real?’ But she was in fact for real and there was no one else like her. Traveling the world, acting, becoming a doctor, being Mom to the coolest kid ever; these bucket list items wove the quotidian fabric of her reality. Her passion for life and the people in it was astounding.
“In addition to the impressive energy she poured into her own life, Jessica, on multiple occasions, dropped everything to travel across state lines and care for her loved ones in need. She was fun, she was loud, she was compassionate and loyal; no matter what she did, she was always uniquely Jessica. Our phone chat is full of hilariously inappropriate memes. She could always be counted on as the instigator of, or at the very least a willing accomplice to, various forms of mischief and hijinks.
“To know her is to have an over-the-top story involving her. To know her is to have known true friendship.”
In the coming weeks, Cinema St. Louis will post a video tribute to Campbell by Peter Carlos.