Jill Hennessy - Life After Law & Order


by Shaun Fawcett

(The following Jill Hennessy article was written for MENZ Magazine in late January 2001. The interview was based on a one-hour phone conversation I had with Jill from her hotel room in L.A. where she was visiting on business at the time. Both the article and the interview presented here are complete and "uncut" versions, as submitted to the magazine, and are not edited-down to make room for ads, photos, and/or other articles. MENZ is a Montreal-based lifestyle magazine for men. The article was published in the Sping 2001 Edition. For a look at the MENZ Web site, click here.)

Life After Law & Order
Jill Hennessy Is Staying One Step Ahead …

In the world of television and film entertainment, it is sometimes hard to shake a label or a stereotype. Take actor Jill Hennessy's connection to her Law & Order alter ego, assistant district attorney (ADA) Claire Kincaid, for example.

Jill recently illustrated the point when we spoke. "I was at the Golden Globes in January to promote Nuremberg, which had been nominated as best television miniseries. I found myself walking down the red carpet with the beautiful Catherine Zeta-Jones in front of me, and gorgeous Julia Roberts not far behind me. I thought, no one's going to notice me with this kind of competition, I'll just sneak across the red carpet and head for the free food tables when I get inside.

Suddenly, I hear some people behind me screaming, "Jill! Jill! Jill!" I turned around, and there was this group of people in the bleachers, all waving and screaming - "Jill we love you! We cried when you died!" I knew right away they were talking about Claire. It felt good, I was flattered. I waved back and yelled, "I'm sorry I made you cry!"

A Tough Act To Follow

Such is the burden of this former cast member of NBC's acclaimed Law & Order television series. Despite doing some tremendous work since she left that show some five years ago, Jill is still best remembered for her three year acting stint as assistant to New York district attorneys Ben Stone, and then Jack McCoy, played by Michael Moriarity and Sam Waterston, respectively.

Since that tragic final episode in which Claire was instantly killed when her car was broad-sided on a dark and rainy Manhattan night as she drove a drunken colleague home, many hardcore fans have had trouble accepting that sweet Claire is gone forever.

Indeed, a little Internet surfing will confirm that both Jill and the Law & Order series have developed a bit of a cult following, with many committed online devotees. Interestingly, of all the Law & Order characters over the years, it is Jill's portrayal of Claire Kincaid in particular, that has won more hearts than any other. This might explain why Jill still ranks among the top 90 of a current online celebrity poll of some 250 showbiz personalities.

Cult-Like Status

Claire Kincaid may be resting in peace evermore, but I have good news for you men - Jill Hennessy is alive and well, and thriving in New York City! I'll save the bit of bad news I have for a little later on, so as not to distract you at this point.

For the handful of you who may have spent most of the 90's preparing and stocking your Y2K bunkers, and are therefore not quite up to speed with me yet, I'll give you a couple of hints. First, Law & Order is one of the most acclaimed and honoured dramatic series that has been aired on television in North America over the past decade. Second, and most noteworthy, the dark haired beauty in the accompanying photos, is Canada's very own Jill Hennessy who co-starred in that series for three memorable years during the mid 1990s.

Tune in to the Arts and Entertainment (A&E) cable television network any weekday evening at 7:00 p.m. or 11:00 p.m., and the odds of you running across Jill and her legal colleagues are extremely high. That's because Law & Order re-runs are aired at those times during the week in most parts of Canada.

Canadian Born and Bred

Born in Edmonton, Alberta on November 25, 1969, Jill (nee Jillian) doesn't remember much about that city because she was quite young when the family moved away. At birth, she was accompanied by an identical twin sister, Jacquie (nee Jacqueline), who is currently is working her way up the corporate ladder as a writer with Chatelaine Magazine in Toronto.

Predictably, as kids they were known as "Jacq and Jill." After leaving Edmonton, Jill's family made a series of moves that took them to such far-flung places as: Cranbrook, B.C., Calgary, Alta., Burlington, Ont. (twice), Ottawa, Ont., White Rock, B.C. and finally, Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. She calls Kitchener-Waterloo her home in Canada because she still has family and friends there.

Although she did well academically in high school, when she was 17 years old Jill decided to forego grade 13 and made the move to Toronto to study improv-comedy with the Second City company. Her acting career began in 1988 when she and twin Jacquie were cast as a pair of hookers in David Cronenberg's film Dead Ringers. After that, she did some Broadway and off-Broadway stage work, including Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story in 1990-91.

The Road To The Big Time

During this formative period while Jill was still finding her way, she played supporting roles in a number of movies, including Robocop 3. Her first important break came when she starred in Ron Howard's 1994 feature film The Paper. During that period she also got her feet wet in television, doing episode guest appearances on a number of series, including: War of the Worlds, The Hitchhiker, Friday the 13th, and Flying Blind.

Jill's big break came in late 1993 when she was cast as ADA Claire Kincaid in Dick Wolf's Law & Order. At the time, it didn't necessarily look like such a big break because although the critics had raved about the show during its first couple of years, the ratings were lukewarm and the series was almost cancelled.

As it turned out, the casting of Jill Hennessy as the first female ADA was one of the important changes that helped the show improve its ratings and go on to achieve its current, almost legendary, status. In fact, not only is Law & Order still being made by NBC, but a spin-off series, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, is now in its second season.

Has there been life after Law & Order for Jill Hennessy?

Life Does Go On...

The answer to that question is a resounding "absolutely!" In fact, for Jill, her association with Law & Order was just the beginning. It was an "incubator" of sorts for her, where she could grow and mature, and refine her craft as an actor. Leaving that series has given her the opportunity to demonstrate that, not only is she beautiful and talented, but she is also very smart, and multitalented to boot.

Since departing L & A she has worked on over a dozen television and film projects in which she has demonstrated incredible versatility, playing a wide range of interesting, and sometimes off-beat characters. Her feature film credits over this period include: I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), Most Wanted (1997), A Smile Like Yours (1998), Molly, Komodo, Dead Broke, (1999), and Autumn in New York (2000).

Most recently, Jill has played a number of challenging roles: as a lesbian in the film Chutney Popcorn, as the wartime private secretary to Alec Baldwin's character in the critically-acclaimed television miniseries Nuremberg, and as the American icon Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy in the 2001 NBC television mini-series Jackie, Ethel, Joan: Women of Camelot. Chutney Popcorn won a number of awards at various film festival showings in the U.S. and abroad during 1999 and 2000.

Jill Wins A Golden Satellite!

Not only was Nuremberg nominated for a Golden Globe Award as "Best Television Miniseries", but in January 2001, Jill Hennessy was awarded a Golden Satellite for "Best Performance by an Actress in a Miniseries or Film Made for Television" at the 2000 Golden Satellite Awards ceremony, for her outstanding acting in that production.

Although the Golden Satellite Awards have only existed for five years, and therefore don't yet receive as much publicity as the Golden Globes, the "Satellites" are voted on by the more than 250 full-time professional entertainment journalists from both the U.S. and abroad that make up the International Press Academy (IPA).

To win this prestigious international honour, Jill had to overcome some extremely formidable competition including: Jennifer Beals, Holly Hunter, Vanessa Redgrave, and Gena Rowlands. For Jill, this was significant recognition from the film and entertainment industry worldwide, and is definitely a large feather in her professional cap.

Doing Her Own Thing

Perhaps Jill's most ambitious, courageous and accomplished achievement to-date has been the making of her own film The Acting Class. Not only did she act in this production, but she co-produced it, co-directed it, and wrote the screenplay as well. Released on the film festival circuit in 2000, the film is a humorous behind-the-scenes look at the world of acting schools based on some of Jill's personal experiences over the years.

The ensemble cast is a veritable "who's-who" of Jill's friends, colleagues and acquaintances from the television and film business. It was shot on the set of Law & Order, with some of the actual staff from that production helping out. Making appearances in the film are Jerry Orbach, Angie Harmon, Chris Noth and Benjamin Bratt, all of L & A fame. Alec Baldwin, who Jill worked with in Nuremberg, also took part, as well as Jill's sister Jacquie, and Jill's actor boyfriend Paolo Mastropietro.

The The Acting Class has only received limited exposure thus far on the film festival circuit but when we talked recently, Jill hinted that something is now in the works that could lead to wider distribution of her little masterpiece. Be on the lookout for it.

Jill was very busy in 2000, working on a number of film and television projects. Last summer she was in Italy filming Steven Seagal's latest thriller Exit Wounds, with a March 2001 release date. In that film she plays a police supervisor who must force Seagal's character to undergo some "anger management" training.

"Jackie" and Jill

Jill's major achievement of 2000 has to be her performance as Jackie Kennedy in the NBC miniseries Jackie, Ethel, Joan: The Women of Camelot. When she saw the final cut she even surprised herself, "I was shocked at the job I did playing Jackie. I didn't know if I would be able to pull it off. That's why I wasn't sure about doing the role in the first place. I was incredibly insecure, and really doubting myself at the time.

But, when I saw the final cut about a month ago, I've got to say, I bought it hook, line, and sinker; and it was me, I was watching myself playing Jackie Kennedy and believing it!" she exclaimed with a mixture of pride and genuine amazement.

"Nine Scenes About Love"

Jill's latest project is entitled Nine Scenes About Love, a film by writer/director Peter Mattei. Set in Jill's own backyard of Manhattan, it is billed as " … a dark comedy, about betrayal, lust, money, deception, bad karma, ambition, and love set in the millennial mayhem of present day Manhattan." Jill says that this film forced her to take more risks as an actor than she has ever taken before. She just completed her part in that film and expects that it will be released sometime in the latter part of this year. I can hardly wait to see this one.

Jill Finally Ties The Knot!

Oh yes, I had promised to give you the bad news. Well, I'm sorry to say guys, but the bad news is that Jill is no longer footloose and fancy free. She and her longtime boyfriend Paolo Mastropietro quietly tied the knot last October in Italy during a break in the filming of Exit Wounds. Maybe in another life?


Jill Hennessy Talks to MENZ

MENZ:
Are you still a Canadian citizen, and if so, do you intend to stay that way?

JILL:
Yes, absolutely, through and through. I also consider myself a New Yorker. I've spent more time there than in any other one place. When I was a kid we moved an average of every three years. To me, New York symbolizes a lot of elements about life that I really embrace, that I relate to. Particularly because of the fact that it was built by immigrants, I feel that I can be a Canadian in New York and be a viable part of that society, and I don't have to change who I am. So yeah, I do consider myself both a Canadian and a New Yorker.


MENZ:
What's your favourite place in Canada?

JILL:
Nova Scotia. One year my boyfriend and I decided to go there on a motorcycle trip. We hopped on the BMW in West Manhattan, rode to Portland, Maine and then took the ferry over to Yarmouth. We rode the entire periphery of mainland Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island. To this day, it's one of the best places I've ever been to. I loved the seafood; the scallops and lobster. I was in heaven. The nicest people run these little bed and breakfasts; usually women who would tell us the stories of their lives.


MENZ:
In your early years you studied improv-comedy with the Second City Company in Toronto. Did you ever see yourself going the direction of many Second City alumni and ending up on Saturday Night Live, and do you have any regrets that you ended up going off in the direction of playing mostly serious roles?

JILL:
Yes, I have always revered the SCTV people and Saturday Night Live. That was where I wanted to be at that time. But, I enjoy serious roles too. You know, the reason I became an actor was to play a wide variety of characters. I feel I've already accomplished a lot of that, and that makes me happy.


MENZ:
In 1994, how big a challenge was it for you to move into the role of assistant DA Claire Kincaid on Law & Order?

JILL:
Oh boy, that's a good one. To be honest, when I heard about the audition, I hadn't seen the show yet, and it had been running for three years. It was terrifying. I had never really done serious television work before and this one involved copious amounts of technical dialogue. To be honest, I felt like I had just pulled the wool over everybody's eyes. Also, I was totally intimidated by some of the accomplished actors already on the show when I joined, like Michael Moriarty and Steven Hill.


MENZ:
This question is for all the true Law & Order fanatics. Although it was never brought totally into the open on the show, many people have theorized that there was something going on between Claire and Jack behind the scenes. At times, there seemed to be some sexual tension in the air. In your mind, was anything romantic happening between them?

JILL:
I can tell you that at script meetings, some of the "powers that be" wanted something to be going on. At first, I didn't see it as appropriate since Claire had already been in that relationship with a judge earlier in her career. And Sam Waterston (D.A. Jack McCoy) really didn't think it was appropriate either. But then after a while Sam and I thought, "why don't we play with this a bit." I've got to say that, not only do I love Sam as a human being, but he's an incredibly sexy guy. We just loved to tease the camera.


For example, we'd be shooting a scene involving the crossing of a New York street. I'd say to Sam, "ok I'm going to try something here, just play along and react in kind," and he'd go along with it. So we'd do the take and I'd just sort of lightly pat his butt as we crossed the street. If you look very closely at some of the episodes you'll see little body language things like that happening. I think there might have been something there when I watch the episodes now, more so than when I was shooting them. Now when I think about it, I liked Claire and Jack together. As an audience member, I would want to see it happen!


MENZ:
What do you think about the cult following that both you and Law & Order seem to have developed?

JILL:
I love it that people like to watch the show. There are a lot of worse things one could be a member of a cult for; you know what I'm saying?


MENZ:
What do you consider your best work to date?

JILL:
That's tough because they're all so different. Maybe I can break it down to three. One was a film I did fairly recently called "Chutney Popcorn." Making it was a wonderful, joyous experience and I really liked what I did in that. Next to that, I must say that I was shocked at the job I did playing Jackie Kennedy. I didn't know if I could pull it off. That's why I wasn't sure about doing the role in the first place. I thought that this could be the perfect place to fall on my face in a really public arena. I was incredibly insecure and really doubting myself at the time. But, I just saw the finished cut a month ago and I've got to say, I bought it hook, line, and sinker; and it was me; I was watching myself playing Jackie Kennedy, and believing it!


And, then there's the one that I haven't seen yet. Its called "Nine Scenes About Love" and its being produced by Robert Redford. Doing the actual work of this film, I took probably the most chances I've ever taken in my career as an actress. It's incredibly well-written and its very courageous emotionally. It's all about how these people relate to each other and their craving for intimacy and not knowing how to get it.


MENZ:
Which character role has been the most difficult for you to play so far?

JILL:
Oh, that was Jackie Kennedy, for sure. Because she is, and I use the present tense here, such a unique individual who has left such a lasting impression on so many. She's such a part of the world consciousness, and will be for quite some time. The challenge was, how to do that part justice? She is so beloved by so many people, you don't want to exploit or taint that in any way. Then there was the technical aspect too. The behaviour so unique to her; the sound of her voice, her vocal inflections, her pronunciation.


MENZ:
Speaking of the Kennedy's, do you know Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood who just played JFK in the recent film "Thirteen Days"?

JILL:
I actually met him for the first time at the Golden Satellite Awards ceremony about a week and a half ago. I was aware of him but we had never met. I think he is one of the finest Canadian actors we have going today. I would love to work with him. I've actually been putting it in my agent's ear about finding some way that I could do something with Bruce Greenwood.


MENZ:
Now let's talk about your very own film "The Acting Class." You wrote it, acted in it, co-produced it, and co-directed it. Is there any aspect of that film you weren't involved in?

JILL:
Well, I never drove anybody! Actually, I wanted to create an environment where all the actors could take the script that I had written, use it as a springboard, and then improvise. If they wanted to use their own personal experiences, they could, or they could use the fictitious circumstances that I had created. It was so much fun! I'm very happy with it.


I've been in many wonderful, healthy, incredibly helpful acting classes, but this film is based on some of the insane and incredibly abusive experiences that I've had in some classes over the years. I've left out the really depressing, bad stuff. I think anybody who has had a bizarre mentor-student relationship can relate to this film. I've tried to take a very light-hearted look at it.


MENZ:
Turning to your recent television miniseries "Jackie, Ethel, Joan: Women of Camelot." What did you think of the final product when you saw it?

JILL:
To be quite honest, I was kind of blown away. When you're working on something like that, you pray every day that the overall project will work out. You can only get so much of a sense of the big picture when you're shooting individual scenes separately. I could see that all of the other actors in the cast were phenomenal, both male and female. In particular, Daniel Hugh Kelly as JFK is simply unbelievable. And the director Larry Shaw, shot it like a film; and the final product does look like a film.


MENZ:
Can you name two or three recent films that impressed you?

JILL:
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is definitely the best thing I've seen in years. Seeing that film makes me excited to be working in this industry, and yet it makes me feel like I've never acted in my life. I've truly never seen anything like that and I've seen lots of martial arts films. The incredible, poetic physical work and the choreography that went in to this film are amazing. Besides that, I think the anchor of this film was incredible acting and exceptional directing.


The subtlety of those performances was awesome. I mean, I was in tears, sobbing. It made me care so much about these characters. I haven't felt like that for ages. A lot of people at the Golden Globes were really shocked that Ang Lee won Best Director. But now, having seen the film, I just want to get down on my knees and pay homage to Ang Lee.


I also enjoyed "Traffic" a lot and thought it was incredibly well done. I'd say that is my second favourite recent film. I have to say that Benicio Del Toro was truly amazing. The screenplay was also excellent. Someone who I think should get a lot of credit for that film is the editor. Without exceptional editing of so much disjointed material into a coherent whole, a complex film like this could have easily fallen apart. I think Steven Soderbergh is one of the best American directors around.


MENZ:
Can you tell me a bit about the recent film you did with Steven Seagal, "Exit Wounds"?

JILL:
It's coming out soon. It's a big action movie starring Steven Seagal and DMX. I play a police commander at a ramshackle precinct house in Detroit. The Steven Seagal character gets demoted there due to "anger management problems." I end up sending him to anger management classes. DMX who is known mainly as a singer, is quite fascinating. He is incredibly popular and his fans were storming the set all the time. He's an amazing guy, a true artist who can compose poetry on the spot. He's incredibly sexy too, and quite brilliant in this movie.


MENZ:
Can we talk about your future as a professional now? Will your focus remain on acting in films, or will you be shifting more to producing, directing and writing? What direction do you see yourself going in?

JILL:
Oh boy, that's a tough one. Well, I'm always looking for new material whether that's in films or television, or by writing it myself. As for writing it myself; I've got a couple of ideas that I've already started to outline. Just pursuing new material excites me. Again, I've got no aversion to television. They're doing some amazing stuff on TV these days. For example, if I were to see a pilot screening of a TV sitcom that I liked, I would love working on it. If you can get me a role on SCTV I'd be really happy to work on that!


MENZ:
How about your namesake Hennessy's Tavern in Northvale, New Jersey. Is that still going strong?

JILL:
Yes, Hennessy's tavern is going strong. In fact the NBC show "Ed" shoots right next door to it. Apparently, the cast and crew eat there all the time. I'm not actually into that business though. That's totally my husband's thing, he just named it after me. I helped with the painting, the decorating, and the sign outside. Ben Bratt came down and helped out with the drywall. He's so sweet. But the tavern is really all my husband's doing.


MENZ:
What do you do for fun and relaxation when you have the time?

JILL:
I play guitar. When I'm lucky enough to get away for a while I love to go snowboarding. Actually, Paolo (husband) taught me snowboarding. God, I love it. It really is a zen-like, joyous experience. Maybe even more joyous than that is going anywhere in Italy. I seem to have this special connection with Italy. I cannot shake it from my subconscious.


MENZ:
What do you consider to be the main characteristics of the ideal man?

JILL:
Oh wow, let's see. Someone who is funny as hell. I like a person who expresses things clearly; when they're mad, they're mad, and when they're sad, they're sad. They express things and don't hold it in. I like someone who embraces life; who wants to be on a long journey but has no particular plan or destination in mind. An adventurous man, open to the concept of living life in the moment.


MENZ:
Thanks for this Jill, and all the best in the future.

JILL:
Thank you, its been great! I already feel like I know you!


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