CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Jenna MacFarlane and Steve Kesler are laughing out loud at the memory — of the day Steve turned down Oprah.
It was January 2007. Jenna, Steve and his wife, Karen, had just wrapped an interview with Juju Chang that aired on “Good Morning America,” which highlighted how Steve and Karen had “adopted” Jenna as she settled into middle age, and the most famous talk-show host in the world wanted a crack at the three Charlotte residents next.
“We were traveling, in Del Rio, Texas, near the border,” recalls Steve, who says he and Karen took a detour to meet Jenna and “GMA” in San Antonio. After the appearance, he says, “We got back to the campground and here’s Oprah on the phone wanting us to come up.”
“They wanted to fly them up in a helicopter,” Jenna says, while sitting with the Keslers in the living room of her cozy Elizabeth home. “‘We’ll land you on the roof!’”
“I said, ‘We’re not doin’ that,’” adds Steve, chuckling and shaking his head.
The attention didn’t just come out of nowhere. Jenna brought it on herself, to some degree, by revealing in a December 2006 column in Glamour magazine how and why — three years earlier, at 43, single, essentially family-less — she’d placed an old-school classified ad with a unique hook: “Seeking family.”
But after a mini-parade of press opportunities wound down with NPR’s “Weekend America” featuring her in a May 2007 episode, Jenna, Steve and Karen faded happily into relative obscurity, the trio’s unique relationship remaining mostly nobody’s business since.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that a movie based on Jenna’s experience with “adult adoption” has been gestating for years, and that distributor Vertical Entertainment is releasing “Adopting Audrey” to streaming services via Video On Demand and in select U.S. theaters.
One of those is The Independent Picture House, Charlotte’s new nonprofit art-house theater.
The film — which had at least two other titles before settling on the one its got now — opens with two hooks as head-turning as its premise: a recognizable actress in the lead role (Jena Malone, whose credits include three installments of “The Hunger Games” and 1997’s “Contact”) and the words “A surprising amount of what follows is true.”
‘I WAS SURE I WAS READY’
The original classified ad, first published in The Charlotte Observer on Sunday, Jan. 2, 2005, was simple.
“Healthy, self-supporting, loving woman … w/o family, seeking adoption by mature parents. Seeking to give/be accountable to a supportive family group.” She included a link to a website with more details, and a P.O. Box to which “sincere replies” could be sent.
The motivation behind Jenna’s plea, meanwhile, was much more complex.
“I grew up in a household where people struggled with love, and showing love, and expressing it,” she says. “I mean, they did the best they could. I don’t really have anything negative to say about my childhood home. It’s just that people struggled to show affection for one another — and I also was unable to experience the feeling that people would always be there for me. …
“So I thought, Well, I do want to mature as a person. I do want love. Because I knew love would be the X factor for me. That it would have a healing influence. And it’s different than romantic love. A family love is — I envisioned it as an anchor, and an island, and a place to go to, where you know you have a place in the world no matter where you are. I had not had that feeling. But I thought, Oh, yes! I know I can handle it.
“I was sure I was ready.”
Jenna says she was fortunate to connect with a sales rep who took her seriously and helped her get the wording right. On top of that, Jenna happened to be in a local writers group led by Emily Achenbaum, who at the time worked at the Observer as a reporter; Jenna had mentioned her idea to Emily, and Emily ultimately wrote a short story the first day the ad ran that pointed readers to it.
Steve says he and Karen never would have come across the ad if not for the story.
“I thought, What a neat idea,” Steve says. “And we were reading it and I said to Karen, ‘Why don’t you just send her a letter of encouragement?’ We were not applying for the job. We just were gonna send her like an ‘Attagirl’ type of thing.”
Jenna says she received about a hundred letters, but that something about the one Karen ended up writing was particularly moving. The words still hit her in the gut all these years later.
“‘By now you must have received many letters from families wanting to adopt you,’” Jenna says as she reads Karen’s letter, which she’s pulled from a box that also holds copies of Glamour, a DVD of the “Good Morning America” segment, the original classified ad, and other memorabilia. “‘I am really impressed by your desire.’”
Jenna interrupts herself. “I hope I don’t — I’m gonna start over. I don’t want to get emotional here — ‘by your desire to want to be included in a loving family. I don’t think think it’s strange at all. There is nothing better than the warmth’ —”
She pauses again, taking in a deep breath. “Can’t get through this without crying. ‘There is nothing better than the warmth of a happy, well-adjusted family.’”
Karen included her number, and just a few days later, Jenna gave her a call. Not long after that, the Keslers had her over for dinner.
But the rest is not, as they say, history. There’s an ultra-condensed explanation for why finding the Keslers and why their parent-like overtures didn’t immediately help Jenna meet her goal of maturing as an individual:
“I struggled,” she says, “because I had to develop a whole new paradigm for life. I had to let go of my anxiety, my fear. I had to accept that I could be in a family that is a functional family. That I was part of something bigger than just me.”
Or, if you want to see an artist’s interpretation of the emotional roller coaster Jenna rode while trying to create a familial bond, there’s this movie …
‘FASCINATED BY FAMILY STORIES’
Jenna says she started getting calls from film producers about her story as a result of the post-Glamour media blitz in 2007.
At one point, she says, she started working on a script herself, not feeling like anyone else could be trusted to interpret her experience and her feelings. At least, not until she was introduced to southern California-based writer and director Mike Cahill.
Cahill was intrigued for many of the same reasons Glamour was, and “Good Morning America” was, and the Keslers were.
“Obviously, the story of her experience — an adult woman puts herself up for adoption — I’m fascinated. I’m always fascinated by family stories,” says the filmmaker, whose resume includes the quirky 2007 dramedy “King of California,” starring Michael Douglas as an unstable dad who tries to convince his daughter that there’s gold buried under the local Costco.
The road from idea to finished film has hardly been a straight line. At one point very early on, a couple of producers Cahill was developing the movie with were convinced it should be more of a broad comedy.
But Cahill says he “didn’t like what it was becoming.”
And after spending some time with Jenna, he “got a sense of what it could be. Which was a more humanist story. More realistic. Which is what I’m interested in.” Those comedy-centric producers moved on, eventually replaced by Joanna Colbert (casting director for films including “Dear John” and “Mr. Nobody”) and Lawrence Inglee (producer of movies like “Swiss Army Man” and “The Messenger”).
After gaining Jenna’s full trust, Cahill bought life rights from her in 2016.
Inglee would get Jena Malone interested in the starring role; the production discarded the initial idea of shooting in Jenna MacFarlane’s home state of North Carolina and settled on the tiny town of Saugerties, New York, because of its upstate charm (but perhaps even more so the state’s alluring film tax credit program); Cahill and Jenna would become fairly close long-distance friends, with him routinely asking for her input and showing her various drafts of the story; and the production was fully off and running. They just needed to work out one thing: the film’s title.
‘THE PORCUPINE’S DILEMMA’?
Originally, Cahill’s film was called “Hatched,” as a nod to Jenna having raised a chicken born in an incubator she was given as a young girl — a tidbit included quickly but poignantly in the finished movie. But the word itself didn’t sound right to him.
During shooting, they used the working title of “Audrey” (the main character’s name, as well as the name of a cat Jenna had as a younger adult).
Then in the course of editing, amidst the pandemic, Cahill came across a concept called “the porcupine’s dilemma,” made famous by 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: The idea is that, in winter, porcupines want to huddle for warmth, but if they get too close, they hurt each; however, if they move too far apart, they get cold. Ultimately, it’s a metaphor for humans finding the optimal emotional distance.
Cahill thought he’d landed on the perfect title, and the film actually made the rounds on the film festival circuit late last year as “Porcupine.”
“Then it was determined that ‘Porcupine’ could be misunderstood by someone looking at their screening platform as perhaps a wildlife documentary,” he says, chuckling. “Or who knows what? But, you know, it’s a novelistic title. It doesn’t tell you what it’s about.”
Finally, just a matter of months ago, it officially became “Adopting Audrey.”
And while, yes, a surprising amount of what unfolds on screen is true, like all “based-on-true-events” films or TV shows, a goodly amount of the story is … not, exactly.
For instance, in the movie, Audrey doesn’t start her quest by placing a classified ad in the newspaper, but rather by recording a selfie-mode video on her cellphone. Audrey’s eventual “adoptive” mother (played by Emily Kuroda) sets up her and her husband Otto’s (Robert Hunger-Bühler) first meeting with Audrey without telling Otto what’s going on.
Oh, and Otto is an engineer with a thick German accent who is gruff, cantankerous and emotionally reticent. Steve Kesler, Jenna’s real-life “adoptive” father, is none of those things.
‘I JUST KNEW THEY WEREN’T GOING ANYWHERE’
So then who are the Keslers, and what are they all about? Well, frankly, Jenna would rather you not know.
It did seem at one time like it made sense for Steve and Karen to share the spotlight with her, so many years ago, when the national media was interested in hearing her story. For years now, however, all three of them have been in agreement that it no longer does.
In fact, Cahill didn’t speak with the Keslers while writing the script or shooting the film, and still has yet to meet them. “That distance … was important,” he says. “I wanted to respect their privacy.”
Jenna does, too, which is why she declines on their behalf to allow Steve, now 82, and Karen, 80, to appear on camera for this story; and is why she skips the paragraph that reveals information about their biological children while reading aloud from Karen’s original letter to her. (She also takes pains to avoid talking in much detail about her biological parents, though she offers that efforts in recent years to reconcile with her birth father have been fruitful.)
Those things, they all agree, aren’t important for others to know. What they do want people to know is that — even though it took Jenna years of personal growth, and even though Steve and Karen never formally adopted her — there is what feels like a real familial bond.
“There were times early on … that she struggled accepting someone could love her without reservation,” Steve says, his voice shaking.
“It was kind of strange at first,” he continues, referring to the concept in a more general sense. “But … I think we’re very comfortable the way it is now. We encourage each other as much as we can, and we see her as a member of our family. Our children do, too. I recognize her and accept her as a member of the family.”
Jenna is overcome with emotion, too, as she sums up her feelings about Steve and Karen: “They were like my rocks. I just knew that they weren’t going anywhere.”
Beyond that, Jenna is careful not to overshare about their relationship. She repeats over and over that she prefers that the conversation focus on “Adopting Audrey,” which she calls “a film that feels more authentic than real life itself” because Cahill “was able to take my internal landscape of how I feel, and turn it like inside-out.”
And, finally, when asked what she hopes audiences will take away from the movie, which so far has earned universally glowing reviews from critics, Jenna replies: “That it helps people who feel like they’re in families where they lack love, where they maybe haven’t felt love. It’s the power of asking. This was just one way of asking for love. There will be many, many ways.”
She smiles across the living room at Steve and Karen.
“This was the way I found.”