IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Jill Hennessy talks 'Roadie' and HBO's 'Luck'

Tuesday, 03 January 2012 10:47 Written by  Rocio Anica
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Jill Hennessy talks 'Roadie' and HBO's 'Luck'

One thing that makes Jill Hennessy such a joy to watch is the way she speaks her lines. The flow of her words are rich with texture, and deep with a clean timbre. She has spoken those lines through a myriad of characters in film and on television. From Law & Order (1993-1996), Las Vegas (2004-2006), and Crossing Jordan (2001-2007), to characters in feature-length films of various genres, Hennessy has acquired enough solid acting credits to out-talk anyone … or out-sing them. Her performing experience extends beyond the screen. In 2009, Hennessy released an album titled “Ghost In My Head”, which she wrote and recorded herself. Hennessy has been a singer/songwriter for many years, performing shows in between her many acting gigs, and was even invited to perform at the 2010 revival of the illustrious Lilith Fair.

That’s why Roadie, opening in theatres on January 6th, is such a delicate surprise of a film. While it’s about middle-aged, ex-roadie Jimmy Testagross (Ron Eldard), who suddenly finds himself forced to go back to his hometown and deal with his arrested development all in the scope of twenty-four hours, it is often Jill Hennessy who steals the spotlight as Jimmy’s high school sweetheart and small-town amateur singer/songwriter, Nikki Stevens. When Nikki picks up her guitar and her voice transitions into a controlled Natalie Merchant-esque wail, the story picks up on the movie’s theme of music as sanctuary, music as a time capsule of emotion. Indeed, the characters in the movie are propelled by the idea that music is bigger than the sum of its parts, and that music can save them or help save them from themselves.

I recently had a chance to speak with Jill Hennessy about her role as Nikki Stevens in Roadie. Refreshingly laidback and thoughtful, she relayed her feelings about working with Ron Eldard (Super 8), how she got director Michael Cuesta to incorporate one of her songs in the film, and her excitement over her role in HBO’s new series, Luck.

Here is what she had to say:

IAR: To begin with, who brought this script to your attention, and when you first read it, did you know that the script had your name all over it?

Jill Hennessy: Well, as I read it, I hoped that it would have my name all over it. I did know that I loved it. There were so many things I could relate to with this character, particularly because she was a singer/songwriter. She seemed to have such deep passion toward it, even though she had suppressed that passion and taken a certain path in life. But I loved it and one thing I loved was that it was pretty evident that Michael Cuesta and his brother, Gerald, are so passionate about music. You can tell that it really got them through their adolescent period; that they used music as a real sanctuary and a source of inspiration, which I could really relate to.

The scenes where you were playing the guitar and singing were awesome, and the songs that your character sings are pretty important in letting the audience access Nikki’s inner world. Who wrote the songs, and what was the learning process like?

Hennessy: Well, the song that I sing in the hotel room is a song that I wrote and it’s from my album called “Ghost In My Head”, it’s the title track. I know Michael Cuesta was looking for an original song that Jimmy could help Nikki finish for that scene. Michael had told me that there’s one scene where Jimmy says, “So you guys have any kids?” and Nikki says, “Oh, no, no, it didn’t work out”. So, I approached Michael and said, you know, what if they actually lost a child, what if she lost a pregnancy? He said, “Oh, yeah, that might be interesting,” and so I said, I happen to have a song that’s actually about loss, as well, that might work for that. As an actress it’s nice to play things that are very specific, it just helps you in the accessing of the emotion in that moment, in the situation. I said, yeah, check out the song “Ghost In My Head”, tell me what you think. He did, he actually came to a show I had at the Highland Ballroom, too, and he said, “Ah, that song would be great, let’s use it.” So then we used that in the hotel room scene, and then for the sound-check scene, at the bar, I was actually playing a cover of a song by LA Guns called the “Ballad of Jane”. Michael wanted at least one ‘80s metal cover song and that’s the one we went with.

The bedroom scene between you and Ron was very bittersweet and reminded me of being super young and having butterflies in your stomach. What was it like working with Ron and can you talk a little bit about your dynamic together?

Hennessy: Wow, I’ve been an admirer of his anyway from, particularly, Bastard Out of Carolina, and what I love about him is that he’s such a gutsy actor. He is not afraid to really go out on a limb and do things that I think a lot of actors would be kind of terrified of. He’s such a lovable guy, too. He’s just a very sensitive, open human being. So it was very easy to look at him, and play all those scenes where I’m looking at him, and feeling so inspired by him. I really think that Nikki looks at him and he just sort of reawakens this piece of her that’s lying dormant for so long. She sort of deferred her dreams and pursued a “safer” path in life.

Part of the charm of the script is that there are certain elements to it that transcend the generation and place. Was there anything about the bigger picture in the script that spoke to you personally?

Hennessy: I think that desire to constantly evolve, to confront fear through failure and to take a jump off the cliff, man, that’s always been a motif in my life. The selfishness is something that I’m very used to, and it was something that I kind of loved about her. It looked like she had sort of built this safe wall around herself and had forgotten how much she wanted to just bust out of it, until this guy comes back into her life. I loved playing something like that. She has such deep passion, which is something that was so fun to play.

My favorite sequence is the motel scene; there was so much going on! It builds slowly, but at the end of it, as a viewer, you know that you’ve witnessed something very special. Can you talk a little bit about how you prepared for that scene?

Hennessy: Yeah, that was a very memorable scene, and volatile, even in rehearsals; the whole scene is all about not knowing when an explosion would occur. Actually acting a scene like that and shooting it, you know what’s going to happen according to the script, but you also don’t really know what’s going to happen when you’re shooting it. There’s always this element of, holy cow, what are we going to do in the moment, which really adds electricity to the scene. Predominantly, that scene’s dialogue is between the two guys, there really isn’t that much on the page for Nikki, at all. So for me, it was all about reacting. How does Nikki feel about all this stuff? I had very specific feelings about what Bobby Cannavale's character was saying about her to Jimmy. It’s just this complete anger and frustration of these two juvenile guys throwing a bunch of crap at each other. You want to just tell them to grow up, especially Bobby’s character who’s so threatened by Jimmy. So it was pretty electric, we were shooting in very close quarters in an actual pretty rough hotel. So every crewmember worked really hard to make that scene come to life. It was intense but it kind of made it even more exciting to shoot because of that.

Finally, my last question is about your role on HBO’s new show, Luck. Can you talk a little bit about shooting the series and do you share a lot of scenes with Dustin Hoffman, and Nick Nolte?

Hennessy: We shot thirteen episodes for the first season, and we’ll probably resume filming in February. I had a scene with Dustin, and I had a scene with Nolte, but predominantly I do most of my scenes with horses, and with Jon Ortiz (Fast & Furious), who’s this genius Brooklyn actor. It’s a killer series, man. Michael Mann (Miami Vice) is the producer, and directed the pilot. Every episode is a film. It takes us the same amount of time to shoot an episode of Luck that it took us to shoot the entirety of Roadie. Dustin Hoffman is just a joy to work with. He’s such a generous, beautiful human being. He’s got this talent for making people feel really good about them selves. So, it’s just been amazing! I get to work with some of my favorite actors. Nick Nolte was sweet as hell, and so great to work with. He’s good with horses, too; we had this beautiful scene with a gorgeous horse, and other actors that I’ve admired for years like Joan Allen (The Contender) and Denis Farina (Midnight Run) and Richard Kind (A Serious Man). It’s a joy. Plus, it shoots at the Santa Anita Racetrack, in Los Angeles. I only shoot for like five days out of the month, so I come back to New York, and I get to live here in the city. I can raise my kids, take them to school everyday, go to all the school events and stuff, and still work on an amazing HBO show like that. So I’m pretty lucky.

Wow, that sounds like a real dream gig!

Hennessy: Dude, it totally is and David Milch (Deadwood) is writing the script. It's such a gift!

Luck premieres January 29th on HBO.

Roadie opens in select theaters on January 6th. 

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