Friday, October 04, 2013

Slicing: Pie with Jen Lilley - Interview

Pie with Jen Lilley

I’ve often wondered if Jen Lilley might have been born in the wrong century; she’s got the classic, heart-shaped face and enormous eyes that remind you of a ‘20s-era Clara Bow or Mary Pickford, with the petite stature and carriage that could pull off a flapper outfit with utter perfection.

It’s the eyes that get you, though – I’ve told her more than once that if the Japanese ever got hold of her, she’d make a mint as an anime character. Huge.  Those big green poppers can alternately make you laugh and freak the hell out of you, depending on what she wants to do, and she knows how to use them.

She tells me about an audition she had not long before her stint as Maxie Jones on General Hospital -- auditioning for the daytime drama as a different character only described as a ‘woman in white’.  That was, she says, pretty much all she had to go on as far as the character.

“I went as the Woman in White,” she relates gleefully, shaking her head at the memory. It was a defense mechanism of sorts, she says – not really quite knowing what else to do with the character, she simply went all-out.

As Maxie Jones on General Hospital
“I completely creeped out Mark Teschner, the casting director. I went with a cross between Tilda Swinton’s White Witch, and Cate Blanchett’s  Galadriel. I got right up in his face, like this – ” and Lilley is suddenly in my space, eyes boring into me, as she recites some line I know I’ll never remember, because she’s gone from laughing pixie to menancing monster in under five seconds flat. Then she sits back into her chair and laughs again, joyfully amused at herself and at me and at the memory.  

We’re at a little coffee shop/café in Studio City which she recommended; knowing of the mutual love we have for coffee, pastry, and good food.  The air is redolent with the scent of pastry and cappuccino, rich, pungent and mouthwatering. Jen’s a girl after my own heart. She’s a fearless lover of food and life, unafraid of fully enjoying both as they are meant to be enjoyed. I also know she loves funnel cake, all things pumpkin, biscuits and gravy, and anything fried.  To me, it stands to reason; we’re both Irish, both southern born and bred – she from Virginia, and me from West Virginia. Both of us grew up in the cleavage of rolling Appalachian mountains, bred on bluegrass that pulls your heartstrings, in households where food was not just sustenance, but a way of expressing love – and a way of experiencing life. 

One of four children –an older brother and two younger siblings – her plans to become an actor were almost diverted by her love of science and geology.  “I love that stuff,” she admits, her enthusiasm evident. “I’m probably one of the only people in the region who gets excited about earthquakes. I’ll call the US Geological Survey at the first sign of a tremor.”  Los Angeles is her geek paradise.

Enrolled in the University of Virginia’s theatre program, she actually ended up taking so many science and geology electives that her professor finally pulled her aside one day and informed her she was just two credits away from a degree. “Aren’t you a drama major?” the professor asked in confusion.

Most people would probably grapple with the choice of finishing one or the other course requirements. Not Lilley. She simply went ahead and double-majored in both, graduating Magna Cum Laude with a BS and a BA.  Offers were on the table for her to teach geology courses, and she actually did teach kindergarten for a time before she felt she had to give acting a real shot.

“I gave myself seven years,” she says. Seven years to see if she could make a living at being someone else, to see if she could persevere through what is undeniably one of the most difficult professions in the world, particularly for women.

But as delicate as she looks, Lilley is made of strong stuff, the backbone of which is founded on her faith.  Which, by the way, she didn’t always have. She didn’t come out of the womb quoting Ezekiel.  She was raised with it, but she questioned it, challenged it, demanded of it – the empiricist in her wanting more than to know it just from a book. She wanted to feel it in her gut.

“I’m the one who said, ‘Yeah, okay, if you’re real, I’m not gonna just buy it. You need to prove it to me.”  She’s trusting, but not willing to simply accept blindly what’s put in front of her. Give her a reason to invest, and she will, completely and with everything she has, and with no regrets. “I wake up every morning and choose not to be jaded.” Lilley contemplates her tea thoughtfully. “And I made a pact with my family:  If I ever start acting like a diva…please call me on it.”  She smiles again. “Nobody’s more honest with you than your family.”

So she moved out West, to California, got an agent, started auditioning. Her first love is comedy, having worshipped Lucille Ball since she was a child – another woman who took the Hollywood system in both hands and shook it.  Lilley’s heroes are the women who took chances, the women who stepped outside the boundaries, the women who were called bitches because they dared to be more than cookie-cutter pretty faces.

Lilley didn’t get the role on GH as the Woman in White (Cassandra), which is probably just as well, since the character was offed just a few weeks from debut.  But two months later Teschner called again and asked her to read for another part.  

She got food poisoning the night before the audition.

“I was sitting there in my bathroom at 3am, thinking, ‘I’m gonna have to cancel this audition’. And I’ve never cancelled an audition.”  Like the saying goes, if she can walk, crawl, or roll, she plays – and Lilley is nothing if not determined. “I remember staring at myself in the mirror, going, ‘You will not back out of this.  All you have to do is act like you're not sick for ten minutes at the audition, then you can throw up again’.

She had never acted in a soap before; she didn’t even know she was auditioning for the part of Maxie Jones. Kirsten Storms had played the role since 2004, and had gone on medical leave. Lilley herself was a huge fan from Storms’ Zenon days. 

She was understandably terrified.  One minute she was auditioning, and the next, they told her she had the job – and who she was playing. 

“I had to learn forty pages of dialogue that night for the next day’s shooting,” she recalls. “And a fitting session, too.  It was very intimidating.”  

The Book of Esther
Ensconced in Storms’ dressing room, she thought briefly of telling Teschner he had made a horrible mistake.  But she went on to play the role for almost a year, keeping her head and her wits about her even when some viewers were less than polite about their opinions.  Lilley dug in, did the job, and won most of them over without responding in kind.

It helped that she has a rich and diverse life outside of her job, with family and friends who remind her of who she is. She also worked other gigs; a hilarious commercial for Sprite and stints on Disaster Date that drew on her sense of fun, absurdity, and romance ("I had a hard time keeping a straight face.") – and a turn as the heroic wife of the Persian King Xerxes in The Book of Esther. Then there’s her faith, which is as much a part of her as those eyes and incongruously huge belly laugh. 

She’s also a fierce advocate of ChildHelp – a nonprofit organization that helps victims of child abuse and neglect.  One, of the largest abuse prevention and treatment agencies in the country, Jen lobbies tirelessly on their behalf to raise funds and awareness, even though the stories can break your heart and spirit so easily. But once Jen’s in, she’s in.

“Jen’s heartfelt commitment to helping some of the most severely abused children in the country shines through in everything she does.” Childhelp founders Sara O’Meara and Yvonne Fedderson wrote to me. “Whether it was her fabulous t-shirt campaign, supporting our mission at events or just sharing from the heart through social networking, she leads with her inner beauty and is showing the next generation of philanthropists what love looks like.”
Her perspective and pumpkin-loving heart intact, Jen was ready for the next step when her stint on General Hospital ended. And what a step it turned out to be.

Theresa Donovan is no Maxie Jones, that’s for sure. But the experience gained from her stint on General Hospital stood her in good stead for the part of the scheming, conniving, hilarious, and troubled daughter of two iconic Days of our Lives characters.  Lilley’s huge eyes light up with an unholy glee as she begins to describe the girl she spends the better part of her day with. 

Theresa Donovan, up to shenanigans.
“She’s really self-aware about how she’s fallen short,” Lilley acknowledges.  While most might see Theresa as devilspawn, Lilley gets the wounded, angry part of her -- there’s a rationale behind the rage.  “She’s not really getting anywhere with this, is she?  I think she’s so afraid of people seeing who she is…and being so disappointed.” 

At the time we were sipping cappuccinos on the patio, she wasn’t sure if her TV parents, Charles Shaughnessy and Patsy Pease, were returning to the canvas.  But not long afterward, news came out that indeed they were, which I think thrilled me even more than it did her.  She’ll laugh when she reads that.

Angry, confrontational, and sneaky, with a boatload of Daddy issues and an insecurity complex about being part of the vaunted Brady clan, Theresa is everything Jen isn’t. And it’s a character that Jen created on her own from the ground up, rather than stepping in for someone else --- as she did for Maxie.

She’s also a front-burner character with a lot of visibility and screen time.  Soap actors work hard, memorizing 40-60 pages a day and shooting 70-80 scenes. Not every actor has the ability – or even the inclination to work in daytime.  It makes me wonder: for a girl who didn’t really set out to do soaps, why did Jen take the job?  

“Well,” Jen grins over a forkful of pie, big eyes twinkling.  Somebody has to do it. I do know I get to give her these moments – where she’s a little empty inside. I want people to feel they can relate to her.” 

But that’s not the whole reason, you know.

Jen really, really loves a challenge.  Doesn’t matter how scary it is; doesn’t matter if she’s bent double with anxiety or food poisoning.

Set a bar. Jen Lilley finds a way to clear it, welcoming the possibilities and eyes open to the other side.

Lilley will appear on ‘The Crazy Ones’ next Thursday (October 10) at 9pm on CBS. You can also read about her other work and accomplishments on the Internet Movie Database.  She can also be found on Twitter @Jen_Lilley.

Many thanks to Alicia Mayer for additional editing and proofing. @RealAliciaMayer


Roc N Rose said...

Angela, this interview is insightful and stunning, just like the person you are interviewing. At first glance, some might think there isn't much there. But there is a depth to Ms. Lilley that belies her years, which you so adroitly delivered on the page. I admire her dedication and perseverance to her craft and humane treatment of others (i.e. ChildHelp).

You are an interviewees' dream of an interviewer. Thank you for sharing her story.

Laurie McRae said...

Thank you for this lovely interview, Angela! It made me feel like I was sitting there chatting over coffee & pie with you two! Jen is one of the most kindhearted, beautiful, genuine, open, caring, friendly actors I've ever had the honor & pleasure of meeting...and she's a fellow animal & pumpkin lover to boot! :-)

Frances said...

Angela, thank you so much for sharing this interview. While I have had the pleasure to meet Ms. Lilley, your story brought out more of her personality and determination than a 2 hour dinner did. Kudos to Jen for her faith and thank you again for this wonderful interview. I felt like I was there with you two, very evocative!