Susan McMillan on the set of “Jeopardy!” with the guest host, Dr. Mehmet Oz ‘Jeopardy!’ photo

For Susan McMillan, getting to the “Jeopardy!” stage was a lot like that old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall.

Sure, it took a lot of practice. But a little knowledge about opera sure didn’t hurt.

On Friday, McMillan, 35, a professional Arabic translator and Army reservist who lives in Portland, will buzz into prime time as one of three contestants on the long-running TV quiz show. She said her journey onto “Jeopardy!” started in 2019, when longtime host Alex Trebek told the world he was fighting pancreatic cancer.

“When Alex announced he was sick, it took on new urgency,” McMillan said. 

She took the 50-question, online qualifying test in April 2020. Although the producers do not officially tell you how many answers were correct, McMillan said she filmed herself taking the test and checked her responses later. Her score was in the 40s, she said.

McMillan is a former reporter for the Kennebec Journal in Augusta. She left the newspaper in 2014 to enlist in the United States Army Reserve, where she received Arabic language training.

Some record number (of people) took it last year,” McMillan said of the “Jeopardy!” test in a phone interview Saturday from Fort Huachuca, an Army training center near the Mexican border in Arizona. “I knew I was good enough, but it’s such a huge pool of people who pass the test that it’s a very, very small chance that you’ll get called upon.”

After passing successive rounds of the audition, “Jeopardy!” producers called her with the big news in December. Could she come to Los Angeles? McMillan asked if she could delay the taping for one month – her brother was visiting from out of town. Putting off the producers had one side benefit: more time to study.

Fans have compiled every “Jeopardy!” question asked on television, and by looking at patterns and trends in what topics the producers select, McMillan said she was able to drill down into subjects that many contestants avoid, like classical music, ballet or opera.

When she arrived on the set in February, filming was an all-day affair, she said. During Trebek’s tenure, his experience meant filming was done by 5 p.m. most days. But the guest hosts who have filled his shoes take longer when they have to do multiple takes.

Because her episode was to air on a Friday, McMillan watched all the other contestants make their attempts before she took to the lectern.

How did she do? McMillan cannot say – she is sworn to secrecy until the episode airs. As for that opera knowledge, and the rest of her study topics? They came in handy, she said, but couldn’t reveal more.

“That board that you’ve seen on TV your whole life is right in front of you,” McMillan said. “I was so nervous. You get one chance. If you get on ‘Jeopardy!’ you don’t get to come back. You get one shot. It’s like 20 minutes of actual game time.”


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