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Jill Hennessy Talks City on a Hill [Exclusive]

[Warning: General spoilers for the season so far.]

Season 1 of City on a Hill hasn’t been a cakewalk for anyone, but I’d wager that Jenny Rohr has had the biggest upheaval vs. where we found her when the season began. A much beleaguered stay-at-home wife and mother to a crappy husband and rebellious teenage daughter, Jenny hit reset on her life with a decision to go back to school—until her daughter’s sexual assault forced her to revisit her own experience. It’s been a terrific part for actress Jill Hennessy, and this week she kindly agreed to talk about the role in an e-mail Q & A.

City on a Hill

Hennessy was offered the role after a chance meeting between her husband and Michael Cuesta, who was directing the pilot. She had no idea how rich Jenny’s arc would be, but was involved in filling out the character’s story. “My husband ran into [him] on the street. I had worked with Michael a few years back on Roadie with Bobby Canavale and Ron Eldard. A week later, I got the offer to play Jenny Rohr,” she recalls.

“[I knew] nothing at all before the pilot. During filming, [showrunner] Chuck MacLean disclosed two scenes from Episode 2 that hinted at a fascinating character. I then sat down with Chuck and [executive producer] Tom Fontana to spitball a lot of ideas about Jenny’s background and arc. We are all pretty dark individuals. As an actor, it’s actually pretty exciting to have a horrific secret color all of your behavioral choices with a character.”

“Jenny’s POV felt pretty crystal clear. I love being able to play between the lines of Jenny. So much is said in her silences and it’s beautiful to see a character who has so much bubbling up underneath the surface when all the other characters around her are so vociferous and loud.”

City on a Hill

One of the things that nagged at me after the reveal last week that Jenny had been abused and impregnated by her father and that her mother knew, dismissed it, and drove her for an abortion was how Jenny could still live in any house with her, much less her childhood home. Hennessy says that’s a deep-seated issue. “I think sometimes when abuse is enacted upon children by their own parents, they don’t realize it’s even abuse until a later point in their adulthood,” she explains. “There’s a scene in episode 10 that will definitely [address that].”

A significant disappointment early in the season was Jenny’s seemingly budding friendship with Father Doyle that Jackie quickly torpedoed with a payoff. Hennessy would like to see that door opened again. “I’m sure that Jenny has seen many people cave to Jackie‘s threats and pressure over many years but I have great hope that Father Doyle will come back for Season 2,” she shares. “And who the heck knows what will happen then?”

One of the few moments of levity for Jenny happened late in the season when Rachel tried to ambush her with an interrogation about Jackie and Jenny twigged to it and left Rachel on the street. Hennessy loved getting to cross story lines. “I was so psyched to work with Sarah Shahi and get a chance to walk on the other side of the show. That scene was a little too much fun to shoot,” she says.

City on a Hill

“I truly hope that we can do it again! I also love the fact that Jenny was so empathetic to [Rachel’s] situation in that scene and completely ready to help her in any way she could. But I guess after years of living with Jackie, her BS meter was very sensitive to the fact that she was being lied to.”

Most fans recognize Hennessy from NBC’s Crossing Jordan, which ended its six-season run in 2007. In it, she headlined as the titular Boston medical examiner, and she’s enjoying representing Boston again more than a decade later. “I’m so honored that I’ve even been associated with the amazing city of Boston through the work that I’ve done. It is a little bit of a mind-bender going back to ‘92 to work on this character in this show. I’ll take all the Boston I can get baby,” she says.

City on a Hill

Given how tech-heavy present-day shows can be, the dial back 25 years erases cell phone screens and Internet searches as plot devices, and Hennessy appreciated being unplugged as much as we did, saying it lends a richness to the storytelling. “I think a lot of tension can be created from the lack of opportunities to communicate with other characters; i.e. walking next-door to find out what happened to your daughter…” she explains.

Our Canadian friends saw Hennessy more recently on CBC’s comedy series, Crawford, which doesn’t have U.S. distribution yet, but hopefully one of the streamers will pick it up for us. She had a ball on the show before switching gears to play Jenny. “That show was hilarious to work on. Mike Clattenberg is a rare gem,” she points out. ”But it was a rather icy dip in a cold lake to suddenly jump into the dark depths of City on a Hill after that.

Thankfully, we know we’re getting  second season. Until filming begins, Hennessy is hard at work on her third album. City on a Hill wraps its first season Sunday night at 9 pm/8c on Showtime. I’ll be back tomorrow with a preview.

Images courtesy of Showtime.

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