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Interview

The Jill Factor

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Jill Hennessy needed to change clothes. Fresh from the set of her NBC series Crossing Jordan, still in her character's costume of jeans and a simple blouse, she wanted to put on a different outfit for her photos. She disappeared into her trailer to, I assumed, slip into something more comfortable. Less than two minutes later, Hennessy emerged wearing a slinky black gown that seemed more suited for the red carpet than the Universal Studios backlot. With every hair in place and her makeup perfect, Hennessy made the transition from casual coroner to stunning cover girl appear absolutely effortless.

She gamely posed for photos against a decidedly unglamorous background of trailers lining the soundstage where Crossing Jordan is shot. Passersby couldn't help but stare at the brunette beauty; at one point a pickup loaded with admirers suddenly slowed down as the men craned their necks before reluctantly disappearing around the corner. Something told me people are more apt to obey the studio's speed limits when Hennessy is around.

Being one of the most gorgeous women on television certainly has its advantages, but Hennessy doesn't dwell on it. I mentioned the many websites dedicated to her, and she groaned in good-natured embarrassment. She claims to be a simple girl at heart—she loves to play guitar, watch The Simpsons, and spend time with her husband of two years, Paolo Matropietro. Of course not many "simple" girls speak four languages, have starred on two hit series, and have a song named after them: "The Ballad of Jill Hennessy," by Minnesota band Mollycuddle. In the coming weeks, Hennessy can be seen on the big screen playing a dissatisfied Park Avenue wife in the independent film Love in the Time of Money, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. In addition she is hard at work on the sophomore season of Crossing Jordan.

She'd already spent a 12-hour day on the set, and her call time for the next morning was 5:30 a.m. "My life is not my own," she said of the schedule that often requires her to perform seven pages of dialogue a day, 10 months a year. "It's hard not to get overwhelmed."

Killing Claire

Hennessy first came to prominence as assistant D.A. Claire Kincaid on the long-running series Law and Order. After three seasons, she made the difficult decision to leave the show. In a scene that many fans have yet to recover from, Claire was killed off in a car accident. Hennessy didn't realize what an impact Claire's death would have on the audience until after she was gone.

"When I was on the show I was just focusing on the show and you don't have an audience there," she recalled. "It's only been since I left that people come up to me and say they cried the day I died. I feel so guilty." It helped knowing that Law and Order was a plot-driven show. She reasoned, "It's always tough when an audience bonds with characters, but [creator] Dick Wolf strategized the show not to be dependent on a single actor."

While she loved her co-stars—she can still do a great impersonation of Steven Hill's D.A.—and the program, Hennessy was eager to try new things. While still on Law and Order, she appeared in the Mary Harron film I Shot Andy Warhol and realized her passion for independent films. "It's an awesome show, but as an actor it doesn't really allow you that much range, and I suddenly found myself being really typecast in the film world, and I wanted to go off and do independent films, which is exactly what I did."

Hennessy cited several reasons for her love of independents. "I just enjoy the latitude you get," she said. "Usually that's where you find the most risk-taking, because you're not trying to create a product that is safe and uncontroversial. You try to create something that's new and innovative, and I just find that exciting." And she's not afraid to get down and dirty for a role. When starring in the lesbian love story Chutney Popcorn, Hennessy found herself wearing several hats. "I was moving equipment, I did my own hair, I brought along my own wardrobe and it was a joy," she said enthusiastically. "I loved the people I was working with, and I loved what we were trying to do."

She is particularly fond of the feeling of community on a low-budget shoot, and she brought that spirit of adventure to her short film The Acting Class. A tale of a dysfunctional acting teacher, the film starred former Law and Order castmates Chris Noth and Benjamin Bratt, her husband, and her twin sister. In addition to co-directing with Elizabeth Holder, Hennessy served as writer, cinematographer, makeup artist, and even fed the crew. "I was most proud of the craft service credit," she joked.

Which is not to say that Hennessy isn't a fan of the big Hollywood movie, either. She played Robert Duvall's daughter in the Ron Howard-directed The Paper and even starred opposite Steven Seagal in Exit Wounds. Indeed she might be the one person within a hundred-mile radius of L.A. who has only nice things to say about Seagal. "He was actually very sweet, really charming," she said. But Hennessy finds that independents offer women the more challenging roles. "Look, it would be wonderful to do a huge Hollywood movie and play a character that's really exciting," she said, shrugging. "I've seen great independent films and great Hollywood films. But even when I see something bad, I always admire the effort, particularly with an independent film. If someone's doing something from the heart, it doesn't matter if it's perfect."

Better Kisser Than Buscemi

It's that same risk-taking in her roles that has led Hennessy to take chances with some less experienced collaborators. Writer/director Peter Mattei was making his directorial debut with Love in the Time of Money, and Hennessy didn't think twice about working with a first-timer. "It's such a Catch-22," she said of getting experience in Hollywood. "You can't even get in the door unless you send them tape of a feature film." For her part she found Mattei "tremendous" behind the camera. "Every performance was brilliant, which is a testament to him," she said, raving. She compared him to Ron Howard in his excitement and ability to take suggestions and work with the actors. "To me it's all playing. If it doesn't feel like you felt when you were 5 years old in a playground having a really good time, something's off," she said. "If you can't get together with people and collaborate and enjoy them. The truly great directors have that spirit."

In Love in the Time of Money, Hennessy is part of an ensemble of familiar indie film faces, including Steve Buscemi and Rosario Dawson. The plot is a modern-day update of Arthur Schnitzler's classic play La Ronde, in which seemingly unconnected characters are tied together in a series of stories about love and sex. Hennessy's Ellen Walker is trapped in an unhappy and sexually frustrating marriage with her husband, played by Malcolm Gets. Gets is more interested in a scruffy artist, played by Buscemi. During filming, Gets was required to passionately kiss both her and Buscemi. A huge Buscemi fan, Hennessy admitted she asked Gets to compare the two experiences. "Malcolm told me I blew Buscemi out of the water," Hennessy said, beaming. "Just to be mentioned in the same sentence as Steve Buscemi, I was thrilled."

Hennessy was drawn more to the role of Ellen than to any other part in the script. "I loved her pain, how terrified she was," she said. "She was looking so desperately for love. I just found her loneliness so endearing." The movie also offered Hennessy a welcome chance to play a character completely unlike herself, although she did manage to find certain similarities. "As an actor, you're required to empathize and find things that you can love about a character," she noted. "You have to, otherwise I don't think you can play the character honestly. You're going to be playing a two-dimensional perception of what this character is."

Coroner's Makeup Tips

Shortly after wrapping the film in December 2000, Hennessy got the call to do Crossing Jordan. While she had some reservations about returning to network television, she loved the complexities a character like Jordan Cavanaugh provided. The crusty coroner is strong, stubborn, and sometimes downright unlikable. "You never see females portrayed that way," Hennessy stated. "Actresses are always demanded or required to be likable. Men aren't." She cites recent Emmy winner Michael Chiklis as an example, having been lauded for creating one of the most unlikable antiheros on television. "That's what acting's about. It's always a joy for an actor to try to play somebody who is unlikable and also find the places where the audience can relate to them," she said. "In day-to-day life you don't always like yourself. That's what I love about Jordan. She is imperfect, but she's lucid."

In its first season, Crossing Jordan suffered from critics' comparisons to that other forensics-driven show, CSI. Hennessy remembers early stories referring to her as "Quincy with lip gloss." In her opinion such statements revealed how little people knew about real-life medical examiners. In doing research at the L.A. County Coroner's Office, she saw all kinds of people working there: "Male, female, different racial backgrounds, different ages, they're just human beings. And some of them are incredibly funny and warm and so generous when I was doing my research."

She credited creator and executive producer Tim Kring with the high quality of the program. "He really writes from the heart and adds elements of mysticism and comedy and a lot of warmth," she said enthusiastically. "Tim and the writers are so gutsy because they didn't try to fit a proven formula, they tried something new." And the critics seem to be coming around: TV Guide had high praise for the season premiere, and, in perhaps the biggest endorsement of her status, the magazine conducted a poll asking viewers how they would feel if Jordan straightened her hair. For the record, 82 percent said it would have no effect on the show's popularity.

Hennessy can't help but be amused by the fascination with her appearance. She, however, raves about Anna Magnani, the Italian star of The Rose Tattoo. "She was so powerful and sensual, she was stunning, and not a conventional beauty," said Hennessy. "We don't really have actresses like that now. I think in our country our idea of feminity is so narrow as to what's attractive with regards to age, weight, skin pigmentation, we're cutting ourselves off from all this beauty."

When I told her this story is for our Health and Beauty Issue, she couldn't help but laugh. With mock horror she realized, "Oh, no—I offered you a beer." She then launched into the "I couldn't get a date in high school" story we've heard from so many celebrities, but she was completely sincere and believable. "I sort of still carry this image of myself from high school. I was so unattractive, sort of the outcast drama geek," she recalled. "I didn't date, my clothes were never cool, and I never thought there would be a day when people would be asking me what beauty products I use." She graciously agreed to answer the question. "I will tell you only because I get tired of people pawning off really expensive products on people," she said. Her beauty secret? Neutrogena moisturizer for sensitive skin and Clean and Clear facial wash, both available for about $5 at any grocery store. Maybe she really is a simple girl at heart. BSW

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