How does a talented, passionate actress build a career nowadays? Does she do something outrageous enough to get coverage on TMZ? Should she try to romantically attach herself to an A-lister? Is reality TV the best gateway to a shot in TV or films?

Montclair, New Jersey’s own Kristen Connolly, star of CBS’s buzzworthy new summer series “Zoo,” had a much more novel approach to pursuing success: she worked hard at her craft, fueled by a passion for the arts that was sparked at an early age growing up in the Garden State.

“I had really a pretty awesome childhood,” Kristen smiled. “Montclair is a great town. It’s close to New York, but I also had a lot of family down at the shore, so I spent a lot of time down in Spring Lake and Rumson as well.”

She continued, “My mom really encouraged us to do a lot of different stuff. My dad too, but my mom was really the one shuffling us off to all of these things…. A lot of sports and artistic stuff, and one of the things that I think is so special about Montclair is that it really is kind of an artsy town and there’s a real diversity of things that you can do and see and learn about, and I feel very lucky that I got to do that as a kid.”

connolly2015That freedom to express herself led to a growing interest in acting, despite an uncertain future in that field.

“My brothers and my cousins and I all did a theater group called Essex Youth Theater in Montclair when we were kids, and then I auditioned for a play in high school,” she recalled. “I continued to do it in college but I didn’t really think of it as something you could actually do for a living. It just seemed out of reach, I guess.”

As her passion grew, Connolly, 34, began to seek out different ways to hone her craft.

“I finished college and then I took an acting class in New York at the Actors Center and I loved it,” she explained. “I loved the teachers and they really put things in a vocabulary that I could understand and appreciate. I think that’s when I realized it was something I wanted to do with my life, so I applied to grad school and I went to the Yale School of Drama. After that, I felt a little bit more like someone had put their stamp of approval on me, like I could actually go for things.”

– – –

It didn’t take long for Kristen to gain a foothold in her chosen career path. From roles in digital shorts to extra work in a variety of films, she began to build her résumé and make connections. Before long, she was recurring on soap operas like “Guiding Light” and “As The World Turns,” leading to a starring turn in the Joss Whedon horror flick, “The Cabin in the Woods.” However, all of that paled in comparison to what would be her most well-known part yet, playing Christina Gallagher on one of Netflix’s first original programs, “House of Cards.”

“I had sort of heard about the show before I had even auditioned for it,” she said. “My friend was writing on the show, so I had heard through the grapevine that she was working on this thing, and I remember thinking how cool it was that Netflix is doing original programming. I read the script and loved it, and I wanted to work with David Fincher more than anything in the world, so I was like, ‘Whatever this is, I’m doing it.’”

At the time, the idea of watching a show exclusively online or via streaming devices was an unproven concept, but Kristen never doubted that the show would catch on.

“It didn’t feel risky at all,” she exclaimed. “I know some people were like, ‘How are people going watch it?’ I’ve always sort of binge-watched things, so it didn’t feel really that unusual to me. But I think the response to it was really kind of amazing. The way that it has changed just how content comes out is extraordinary. It’s amazing to have been a part of it.”

“House of Cards” caught fire, outperforming all expectations. As a result, Kristen’s life changed forever.

“I had certainly never been recognized for anything before, and now people will recognize me on the street,” she said. “I think as an actor, it’s always awesome to do something and have people see it and respond to it positively. Working on it, I think we all knew that it was special, but it was definitely a life-changing experience for me.”

Another significant aspect of working on “House of Cards” was the opportunity to work with the show’s megastar (and fellow Jersey native), Kevin Spacey.

“He’s awesome,” she gushed. “He’s an amazing actor, and he’s just such a smart and wonderful collaborator. His work ethic is unparalleled, and so is his attention to detail, and his intelligence. I learned so much from being on set with him. We never got around to talking about New Jersey, but I’ll have to ask him about it next time I see him.”

First BloodKristen’s latest project is another huge undertaking—CBS’s new summer drama “Zoo,” an adaption of the novel by acclaimed author James Patterson. The thriller chronicles a wave of violent animal attacks against humans and the specialists who look to investigate them.

“I’ve had an amazing variety of characters that I’ve been lucky enough to play, and I’ve also played a lot of characters where terrible things are happening to me,” she explained. “One of the things I really love about ‘Zoo’ and the character that I play in the show – Jamie — is that she really is very proactive. She is really driven and curious and focused, and it’s been really wonderful to play somebody who’s so sort of tough-minded and not a victim at all. It’s been a lot of fun.”

Looking to the future, Kristen continues to be open to any role, whether it is for TV, film or streaming media… as long as it’s good.

“To me, it’s about the content… when you can read a script and visualize what the potential is,” she concludes. “With this script for ‘Zoo,’ I had not read anything like it. I loved the role, I loved the story and I thought that it was really suspenseful and fun. To me, it was less important where the show can be seen. That matters, of course. But I think in the end, it really comes down to the content.”