You may know raspy-voiced brunette Jill Hennessy best from her lead character in NBC’s long-running series Crossing Jordan or from her stint in the ’90s on Law & Order. With over 24 years in the game on screen and stage to her name, the Canadian-born talent has more than made her mark in Hollywood, and she is also a dedicated musician, mother and wife.
2012 may be “the year” for Jill Hennessy, as she celebrates the big theater debut of her latest film Roadie alongside Ron Eldard and Bobby Cannavale on January 6, and a role in HBO’s newest series Luck with Dustin Hoffman which debuts on January 29. She is also touring in support of her latest album Ghost in My Head and working on a follow-up album.
UrbLife.com recently spoke with Hennessy about all of her projects and the ways she balances her home life and busy career. We also got a few words of her wisdom on how to maintain a positive outlook every day. Read on for some Optimism Rules with Jill Hennessy!
Did you do all of your singing in the movie Roadie?
Jill Hennessey: [laughs]Yes I did. I’m actually flattered that you think that I did not. We didn’t even have a real singing mic, we recorded using body mics in all of the scenes.
Did fans of your acting ever know that you were a singer?
JH: Only if you saw me playing in the subways years ago. I started off as a subway/street musician when I was 18 or 19-years-old, which I did to pay my rent and to pay for acting classes… one of my favorite jobs of all time. I just started pursuing music seven or eight years ago when I started writing. Before that, I was playing with bands. When I got Law and Order, I was playing with a band and I had to quit the band to make time for the shooting schedule.
Your character Nikki in Roadie seems to be a little desperate for the type of success you’ve achieved in real life.
JH: There’s such an air of desperation, but she hides it so good, because it’s like she’s hidden from that desire for so long it’s like she’s living in an island of denial, where she’s telling herself, “Oh my marriage is great and I’m happy playing in this little bar for 30 people once a month.” When Jimmy [played by Ron Eldard]comes back, he represents possibility and the dream that she’s kind of let go of years ago.
When it comes to playing characters that are lost, compared to characters like the lead in Crossing Jordan – what are some of the qualities you’d say are similar or different in the personalities?
JH: I think that Jordan was also kind of lost too. She was doctor but I think that she was mildly messed up to say the least. It’s what I liked about Nikki [in Roadie], I saw her as a really strong, loving, joyous person because of her circumstances and her upbringing. “Ok, I married this guy, he works at a car dealership that you’ll be taking care of and you can still play your little guitar. Whatever you do, don’t date that Jimmy guy who’s going off to play with a band.”
She made what she thought was sort of a safe choice and I think a deep part of herself has always regretted it. I find that fascinating to play, because it has a lot going on. A lot of dualistic characteristics – someone telling themselves that everything is great and they’re happy, to someone who’s like, “Please, please get me out of this life, I want to go out and sing and write songs, take me away!”
How were the songs developed in the movie?
JH: It’s actually a song that I wrote for my album, it’s called “Ghost in My Head”. I started writing after I had kids and I started really thinking about my parents. My mom moved out when I was like 12. After I had my own kids and I suffered some loss, I saw that writing music was the only thing that kind of helped me deal with that.
“Ghost in My Head,” the song that I’m singing in the hotel scene in the movie, is the title track to my album. Michael Cuesta had mentioned to me that Nikki and he husband couldn’t have kids, so I said, “What if they lost a child…” something very specific that I could work with. I had like 14 other songs, but that one helped with the character.
When does the album come out?
JH: That album has actually come out. I’m working on my second album now. I’m probably going to finish that when I go back to LA and work on this HBO series. My friend/producer/mixer is out there like two blocks away from me. We record in his garage. It’s a guy who I met at a coffee shop who was actually a mixer for Guns n Roses. We got together completely by accident, just love his sensibility. We’ve already put down three different tracks, I still have a whole eight more to go.
So Roadie sort of parallels your life in a way?
JH: Yes, it’s much closer to who I am than any TV character I’ve played. Lately a lot of the films that I have been doing are a lot closer to who I am, and what I feel like I’m more capable of doing as an actor. I’ve shown a lot more versatility and range.
How are you going to juggle your life in the next few months?
JH: That’s a really good question, but it’s always been catch and catch can. I started writing on Crossing Jordan, and at that time I had a 3-year-old son. He would be in my trailer with me, with my husband, or with my friends, and I would go to the bathroom and write a couple of lines for a song. Or I would do it during my lunch hour or when I had insomnia.
Now with this HBO series, I only work about five days a month. Here in Manhattan, I get to take my kids to school, and I get to raise my kids. I fly off to L.A. for four or five days, come back and I’m writing music and playing out. We did a little tour through Italy in July. We had so much fun, we’ve played 10 different towns across northern Italy. I never would have thought I would do something like that.
Have you ever had a roadie on your tour?
JH: My husband always says that he’s a roadie. God bless him. When we bring the equipment around, he’s carrying the guitar case like he’s the musician. Actually he’s just carrying my guitar for me. My 8-year-old son sometimes does some roadie type work, helping break down the stage and carrying cables.
Do your kids want to be like mom when they grow up?
JH: I haven’t asked them specifically what they want to do. My oldest son loves music and loves singing in a very sort of shy way. He’s kind of obsessed with Adele now and with Usher. He’s actually got great pitch. My younger son loves dancing and loves Lady Gaga. I love Lady Gaga, and I usually throw on a cover somewhere in my gig. It sounds a lot different on the acoustic guitar.
What can you tell us about your character on Luck?
JH: It’s a tremendous series! Michael Mann is the producer and main director. David Nilch is the main writer. Dustin Hoffman is a producer, but is also the lead along with Nick Nolte. It’s a huge ensemble cast, which is why the work schedule is so evenly distributed.
John Ortiz is in it too, he plays my boyfriend. He actually originated the role of The Mother*cker with the Hat [prior to the Broadway debut], and Bobby Cannavale was [nominated for]a Tony for that [in 2011]. So that’s sort of an interesting coincidence… going out with John in Luck and married to Bobby in Roadie.
In Luck, I play a veterinarian for race horses, and I’m a veterinarian for [Hoffman’s] horse and Nick Nolte’s horse. It’s such a brilliant show, and working with HBO, it’s like shooting a movie every episode. You also have the luxury of time, you shoot an episode in the same amount of time that it took to shoot Roadie. I never had that type of luxury before. You should see Dustin Hoffman, it just blows my mind.
Have there been any professional cues or advice you have taken from Dustin Hoffman?
JH: Yeah, definitely! Not to be hard on yourself, and that it’s a good thing to love what you do and to always make it fun. Make it fun for other people, it will only make you feel good if you make other people feel good. That’s the one thing I got from him. So many people don’t do that. He’s such a great talent, he has a way of making everyone on set feel better about themselves, and that’s something that I totally want to emulate.
What advice would you give anyone in their 30’s or 40’s trying to start something in their life that they haven’t tried yet?
JH: Just go for it. Don’t ever feel like anything is over. I know people that are in their 70’s that are trying new avenues and trying to explore new passions, and they’re the happiest they’ve ever been in their lives. I feel younger than I did than when I was in my mid 20’s. I was like, “Oh I’ll never get another acting role, this is it. Now I’m on my second album, I’ve done things that I never thought that I would do.”
Can you give us seven pieces of positive thinking advice – your Optimism Rules?
1. Don’t criticize yourself.
2. Feel free to smile at people.
3. Try to make someone smile at least once a day.
4. Sing to yourself or with somebody.
5. Treat yourself to something regularly.
6. Listen to how kids play and scream and laugh, incorporate some of that in your day to day self expression.
7. Do something physical – you’ll feel better.
Editor’s note: After conducting this interview in December, I went to see Jill perform at New York’s City Winery. It was evident from each song she performed that her family and a long line of friends and supporters have greatly influenced her songwriting. If you’re a fan of folk rock or American country rock, I highly recommend her album Ghost in My Head!
Watch the Roadie film trailer
Watch the trailer for HBO’s Luck