TORONTO -- During the Jan. 3 broadcast of ABC's "World News Tonight" Diane Sawyer introduced a heartbreaking segment from the Iowa caucus, featuring a distraught voter being consoled by Mitt Romney.
"Save the small families of America," she begged through tears, as Romney hugged her and promised he would.
As audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival recently discovered, that was no conservative Christian in Romney's arms. It was the actress Jane Edith Wilson, star of "Janeane From Des Moines," which might be called a mockumentary but which features a rather prestigious lineup of supporting players, including Romney, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. They were running in this year's Republican primaries as "Janeane" went shopping for a candidate to support.
ABC was certainly not the only news organization taken in by Wilson's performance, nor Romney the only politician. As Juana Summers of Politico reported during a campaign stop by Bachmann, "Janeane Wilson, 47, who drove from near Waukee, Iowa, to see Bachmann got more than 10 minutes with the presidential candidate but finished still unsure." Kathie Obradovich, a political columnist for The Des Moines Register, blogged about Janeane and her indecision about whether to vote for Santorum, Bachmann or Perry.
ABC News and Summers declined to comment, as did the Romney and Bachmann campaigns. But Obradovich was good-natured about the ruse.
"I do remember there was a camera hovering over her, but as far as I remember, I don't think she went out of the way to get my attention," she said, adding with a laugh, "When I interview people, I don't usually ask for a driver's license."
The license would have said that Wilson is 48, has red hair and lives in Los Angeles. What it wouldn't say is that she has appeared on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "ER," "The Bernie Mac Show" and "Seinfeld," and can currently be seen in commercials for Tide and Hyundai. Until she became a mother, she was a regular on the Los Angeles stand-up comedy circuit.
She met the filmmaker Grace Lee during the making of Lee's tongue-in-cheek "American Zombie" (2007), and they reconnected while attending a seminar on the crowd-funding of documentaries. Wilson had wanted to make a film about the Christian left (she is a socially progressive Episcopalian). Lee had another notion.
"I knew she was a great actress, and a great improviser," Lee said. "We were talking about politics and Iowa; she comes from Iowa originally. And I thought this would be a more interesting approach to these topics."
The topics include the Obama health care plan, Planned Parenthood and gay marriage, all of which the fictional Janeane fiercely opposes, until her husband, Fred (Michael Oosterom), loses his health insurance, she receives a diagnosis of breast cancer and Fred turns out to be gay.
As schematic as the plotline may be, Wilson's stealth performance as the frumpy, frazzled Janeane seems singular, and exhausting: Not only did she have to bulldog her way to the front of the press corps to get close to the candidates, she also had to stay in character even when the camera was elsewhere.