Fun fact about Jill Hennessy: Before she landed leading roles on shows like Law & Order and Crossing Jordan, she busked on the streets of Toronto, playing radio hits on her guitar for spare change. Though she’s gone on to bigger and better things, Hennessy never actually gave up her guitar.
The two sides of the Canadian entertainer come together in indie flick Roadie, where she plays a Queens singer-songwriter who has had to make do with taking the safe path in life. Not only do viewers get to see Hennessy performing (yes, that’s her real voice), but they get to hear one of her original songs, off of her debut album Ghost in My Head. We spoke with her about living out her own rock’n’roll fantasies (she performed at Lilith Fair last year) and learning life lessons from Dustin Hoffman.
ELLE: How was it to work on a project where you get to be both an actor and a musician?
Jill Hennessy: It was such an added bonus to what was already an awesome script. It’s always nice when you read a script where you can tell the writer is coming from their heart and coming from personal experience. I got the sense right away that Michael and Gerald [Cuesta, the film’s writers] both used music through their adolescence as a sanctuary and a source of inspiration, which is my background as well. So I was like, I know where they’re coming from; that struggle of performing and putting yourself out there and just trying, period.
ELLE: Although you started as a musician, you’re best known as an actor. Was there ever a time when you took a break from music, or has it always been a part of your life?
JH: I’ve always played other people’s music. When I was busking in the streets for money I would just play whatever was on the radio—that would earn you the most money on the subway or in a park somewhere. It wasn’t until eight years ago that I started writing my own material, purely out of necessity [because] it was very therapeutic. I had my first child, I was thinking a lot about my own childhood, about what my parents went through; my mom moved out when I was 12 and there was a lot of mystery surrounding that. I was really thinking about all the obstacles she had to face. So I started writing to get my head around all that stuff and my own feelings about that and my own youth, living on my own at 17…that’s kind of what this first album is about, and it’s been very therapeutic to me—and I can’t really stop. I’ve always loved playing, it’s my main inspiration.
ELLE: Did you ever imagine you’d be performing your own original songs in a movie when you were busking?
JH: No! Music’s really given me some of the highest points of my life. There have been so many moments I’ve experienced through performing music where it’s like, this is where I want to be. It’s so not a cutthroat world, it’s the complete opposite.
ELLE: In that sense, is the acting world much different from—and more cutthroat than—the music world?
JH: I wonder….Maybe it’s just the circles I’m traveling in, you know? [Laughs] It’s weird, the only doors that have slightly closed are people who know me as an actor. I’ve had people actually say, “We don’t allow actors who become musicians to perform here.” Well, actually, I started out as a musician and just happened to get a job as an actor which led to some more jobs—and I’m sorry. I didn’t know that there was such a stigma, and some people don’t have that at all and some people do. I like to just let my music speak for itself; if they don’t want to listen to it, that’s cool. I just keep doing what I can do.
ELLE: There’s a scene in Roadie that jokes about rock star riders. What’s on your rider?
JH: I’m a veggie fanatic—I just love vegetables—and I can’t really eat vegetables before I sing. Which is kind of sad, because it’s my favorite thing in the world. I can do whole wheat crackers and water. So no crazy drugs or alcohol, not even M&Ms, not even tea. Water and crackers—it sounds really pathetic, doesn’t it? Whatever works.
ELLE: Any exciting projects for 2012?
JH: I’ve been working on an HBO series Michael Mann is producing called Luck. That’s just a dream cast, dream job—I play a veterinarian for Dustin Hoffman’s race horse. [He’s] one of the nicest guys, because he really is a mensch in the true sense of the word; he has a true talent for making people feel better about themselves whenever they’re with him. I’ll do these scenes with him and he’s so brilliant and he’s tackling some very difficult dialogue and I’ll see him be like, “Oh no, let me do it again.” Dustin Hoffman is beating himself up over what looked like genius….Can I use this as a lesson for myself? It’s incredible to work with actors I’ve admired anyway from afar. I have fun hanging out at craft service just to talk to people.