Crime procedurals are a big part of Jill Hennessy’s body of work. Homicide: Life On the Street, Law & Order and Crossing Jordan, of which Hennessy played the lead character, are some of the notable projects that stand out on her résumé. But with City On a Hill (COAH), the Edmonton native feels she’s playing one of the best roles of her career. The 10-episode Showtime series that stars Kevin Bacon and Screen Actors Guild Award-winner Aldis Hodge (Underground) in the leads, takes a fictional look at the local corruption and racism that was rife in Boston during the early 1990s. The Beantown credentials for this project run deep from the top down as creator and executive producer Chuck MacLean hails from Boston, as do fellow executive producers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. The depth of writing is further enhanced by the involvement of executive producers Tom Fontana (St. Elsewhere; Oz) and Jennifer Todd (Memento; Alice in Wonderland). Throw in a solid stable of character actors that include Jonathan Tucker (Westworld; Justified), Mark O’Brien (Hannibal; Halt & Catch Fire), Amanda Clayton (NCIS: Los Angeles; The Mentalist) and Kevin Chapman (Blue Bloods; Sons of Anarchy), and Hennessy knew that she wanted very much to be involved with COAH.
“I’d worked with [executive producer/director] Michael Cuesta on a movie called Roadie, with Ron Eldard and Bobby Cannavale. I’d heard through the grapevine that Cuesta was at it again with Showtime and a project that Kevin Bacon was involved in. One of my agents mentioned that, so we started investigating from that end. I remember my husband ran into Cuesta on the street because we live in the same neighborhood too. I was pushing from my end—begging—to work with Kevin Bacon,” Hennessy explained. “You sort of have to turn off that fan instinct and deal with him as a beautiful human being, which is exactly what it is. I was ready to throw my hat in the ring in any way humanly possible and thank God, they went with it and decided to give me a shot.”
Bacon’s character, Jackie Rohr, is a decorated and deeply corrupt FBI agent who winds up throwing his lot in with Hodge’s Decourcy Ward, an idealistic assistant district attorney from Brooklyn. The duo’s unlikely alliance forms during an investigation of a family of armored car robbers from nearby Charlestown. The subsequent investigation starts to unravel Boston’s disreputable criminal justice system. Hennessy plays Rohr’s beleaguered wife Jenny, who grapples with her husband’s infidelity while living under the same roof with her mother and daughter. The mix of vulnerability and pain Hennessy infuses into her character is in line with the complexity the writers infuse into all of COAH’s roles.
“It’s some of the best writing I’ve seen. Chuck MacLean is a voice that I’ve never heard on TV and I think people are going to be blown away by him. But again, it’s a new entity that I’ve never really seen except inside of my little, demented imagination,” Hennessy said. “You’re pushing boundaries that you didn’t know you had and thinking that you have to walk on a tightrope in a scene or that you’ve got to completely let go of any control. To do this scene, I have to have absolutely no sense of self—what I look like or how I sound. Or what I consider to be offensive dialogue—a racial epithet. You’ve got to let go of all these things and throw this crap against the wall and be forced to look at it, which is what I think great film making is. You’re telling a story and you’re not supposed to judge it. The toughest part of this is what I love most about it—Chuck and all the writers here aren’t afraid of revealing the ugly sides of life and human behavior. As an actor, to play that is terrifying and it’s absolutely thrilling.”
Boston looms large as a character in COAH and while parts of Yonkers and Staten Island stand in for scenes set in the early ‘90s of this Massachusetts metropolis, it’s all deja vu for Hennessy, who has strong ties to the city dating back to her Crossing Jordan days, given that show was set there.
“I’m actually so flattered and honored to get drawn back to Boston, because while I was born and raised in Canada, for me, Boston is such an iconic city. I’ve had so many friends from here. I dated a guy from Boston and ended up coming here to different suburbs of Boston. I’ve got family and a sister-in-law and brother-in-law from here. So I’ve been coming back and forth,” she explained. “I’m just so psyched that I have any sort of association with Boston via Crossing Jordan and other things. I love it. It’s all the things I studied in school in Canada about what America is. Oh my God. Paul Revere was over here. And here’s the State Building and Boston Harbor and the Great Molasses Spill. I love that stuff.”
While Hennessy and her family call Manhattan home, the Canadian province of Alberta was where she was born, alongside identical twin Jacqueline and younger brother John Paul “J.P.” Hennessy. When her parents’ marriage was breaking apart when she was a teen, Hennessy developed an interest in the Holocaust as a distraction from what was going on with her family. Having read Sophie’s Choice, a home video screening of the film adaptation led Hennessy down the road to acting.
“My pursuit of knowledge and research of the Holocaust had led me to Sophie’s Choice and Meryl Streep’s award-winning performance. It’s one of my favorite films of all time in terms of performance, direction and cinematography,” Hennessy recalled. “So I’m watching Sophie’s Choice twice during summer vacation, back-to-back, while nobody was home and thinking that was what I wanted to do—tell the truth. She played one of the most brutalized characters that I could think of and here’s this actress who looks so joyous, vulnerable and powerful, while painting every color of the rainbow and I’m thinking that I wish I could do that. She’s telling an incredibly important story—she’s telling a person’s truth. From then on, it sort of resonated that this was what I really wanted to do.”
A teacher in her school heard Hennessy read in class and recommended she attend an acting festival in Stratford, Ontario. Hennessy dropped out her junior year to pursue her dream, try and find a good acting school and wound up also busking on the streets of Toronto. She started landing roles and developed a side career as a musician (she’s currently wrapping up her third album). Given the impressive string of television series Hennessy has worked on, she has high hopes for COAH.
“I feel like I’m doing the best work I’ve ever done on this show. I’m so happy that I can even say that,” she said. “During the summer, we’re really sitting on our hands, waiting to hear about a possible pickup for City On a Hill. My mouth to God’s ears. I’m really knocking my head right now—knock on wood. I’d really love for this to run many, many years.”
City On a Hill airs on Showtime. Check local listings for times.
Stay tuned to read about Jill Hennessey’s favorite musicians.