After 20 years of acting, Jill Hennessy rekindled her passion for music to help her cope during a time of stress. The journey drew her to her birthplace, Edmonton.
By Omar Mouallem | February 11, 2010
No matter how earnest Jill Hennessy’s performance is on her debut album, many will write off Ghost In My Head as a vanity project and lump her in with actors turned musical dabblers like Jennifer Love Hewitt, Kevin Bacon and Toni Collette. And she’ll still be television’s Jill Hennessy. But she’s not about to go all Billy Bob Thornton on anyone who brings up her acting career.
Since 1993, when the Edmonton-born actress snagged the role of Law & Order‘s brusque assistant district attorney, Claire Kincaid, she has been living-room property – and she knows it. “It’s a more intimate relationship with the TV audience [than the film audience] because they see you regularly, and they feel like they’re getting to know you,” she said last summer when she was in town to play the Edmonton Folk Music Festival.
But, she added that she finds the musical performances even more intimate.
Hennessy’s TV-star status was solidified when she landed the starring role as medical examiner Jordan Cavanaugh in NBC’s Crossing Jordan, which aired from 2001 to 2007.
But toward the end of the series, she was finding it challenging to balance the intense production schedule and the brand new world of motherhood, a role she never thought she’d be playing. “It terrified me. I always thought: I’ll probably never have kids, because it would be like trusting me to perform brain surgery.”
She suffered through some sleepless nights, but music helped her cope with that stress. On set, in between bathroom breaks and lighting setups, she would run off to a quiet corner to write song lyrics.
“It was just my own form of self-therapy in dealing with memories and things that were keeping me up at night,” she said. “Every time I sing one of these songs, I’m brought back down the path and experience it a different way every time. It’s an interesting way of enjoying the feeling of being alive, as opposed to feeling numb to something or ignoring the experience.”
Unlike some actors-cum-musicians, Hennessy isn’t using her celebrity power to find an audience. She did have two of her songs tucked near the end of the Crossing Jordan soundtrack in 2003, but now she’s paying her dues the way singer-songwriters traditionally have, with music festivals and concerts. This past summer, she played two Lilith Fair dates, where she got to perform with one of her favourite bands, the Indigo Girls. “I didn’t want [Lilith Fair] to end, and if it wasn’t for Edmonton Folk Fest, I don’t think I could have handled it ending.”
Hennessy was born in Edmonton on November 25, 1968, at the Royal Alexandra with her identical twin sister, Jacqueline, now a popular Toronto-based journalist and former TV show host. The family moved to Calgary three months later. Her dad’s executive sales job moved them across Canada a lot, but the girls and baby brother made frequent visits to their Ukrainian grandparents in Edmonton. Some of Hennessy’s happiest times were here, though the memories are fragmented: playing with her cousins in their “slanty closet,” watching Grandma scoop sour cream on perogies, Grandpa “sitting in his chair, in the backyard, always a beer, even at 6 a.m.”
In the fall of 2009, Hennessy, who now lives in New York City with her husband and two young sons, wanted to come “home,” so she asked her music agent to try to get her on a stage at the Edmonton Folk Fest.
Last May, when she had all but given up on the folk festival, she got the e-mail. “People talk about getting calls in the morning to say they were nominated for an Academy Award or a Grammy or an Emmy, and for me it was getting an e-mail about the Edmonton Folk Fest,” she said.
She performed for a medium-sized crowd at Stage 7, a stage that lacks the ground incline that gives an outdoor bandstand the illusion of being a concert hall. But for Hennessy, “it was one of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had.”
She premiered her song “Edmonton,” about her grandmother and the experiences of living as an immigrant and seeking a better life. She wrote it three weeks after getting the e-mail from the Folk Fest. The lyrics end with, “I’m finally coming home to Edmonton.”
Long before Law & Order, Hennessy was a musician. It’s her first artistic love. You can hear the musician within her every time she punctuates a sentence with “man” and in the way her voice deepens to an Elvis-like tone when she’s joking around. When she was a little girl, her parents encouraged her to listen to Ian Tyson and the Eagles. “My dad would only be home for a day or two at a time, but we’d sit on the kitchen floor together and listen to records.”
Hennessy picked up the guitar in her teens and later busked in the Toronto subway system and on Yonge Street. She played in a few bands and dreamed of strumming for huge festival crowds. But ironically, it’s the guitar that derailed her musical career.
She had worked as an actress in some small roles, but in 1990, the guitar led to a breakthrough. A friend borrowed it to audition for a Broadway play, Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, and Hennessy tagged along. She left with the part of Buddy’s wife, Mara Elena.
Twenty years later, her acting career is as strong as ever. She co-starred in Lymelife with Alec Baldwin in 2008 and now has a major role on Luck, HBO’s 2011 drama about horse racing, opposite Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte. But she won’t let her music get left behind again. Now she sometimes brings her guitar to set and even jammed with Luck‘s co-producer, Michael Mann, after a day of shooting.
Unlike the take-no-shit characters she’s used to playing onscreen, Hennessy’s music reveals her as vulnerable, though, she said, “I didn’t set out to necessarily show a different side.”
Her album is a musical memoir about her childhood, as seen through the eyes of a new mom. “I don’t think I could have written any of this if I didn’t have my two guys,” she said about her sons. “It reframed a lot of things: my perception of reality, my perception of what my parents went through, the sacrifices they made – sacrifices that so many people I see make every day. I’m kind of obsessed about it. I walk by a toll booth and see somebody working at 4 a.m. and I think, ‘Gosh, they’re probably trying to support a couple kids. So is someone home with the two kids? They probably don’t have a babysitter, or maybe they do. What are the kids eating?'”
Robbie Gjersoe is a 30-year music veteran who plays guitar with Hennessy on her album and in concert. “One of my first impressions of her was how formed the songs were that she had written,” he said. “I think the record hangs together really well as a perspective of redemption and loss and childhood – looking back and coming to terms with things.” He and his partners at Screen Door Music recorded some of Hennessy’s songs in their studio in Austin, Texas.
“Her harmony vocals blew me away. I was trying to sing with her demos. I thought, ‘This is impossible! These are really complicated lines. This could take awhile.’ But she just got behind the mike and, in one or two takes, had her harmonies perfect,” he said.
Gjersoe had no apprehensions about working on the actor’s album because he didn’t know she was an actor until after the first recording session, when someone told him Hennessy was the star of an NBC prime-time show. Even then, it didn’t matter: “She was a musician, like me.”
It wasn’t that simple for Hennessy. Though she was a musician first and said the musical craft gives her more personal satisfaction than acting, she’s well aware of what people think of actors turned musicians. “I’m always ready to guard myself against criticism,” she said. “It’s like holding your fists up in the schoolyard because the bully is going to be after you any second. I’m kind of used to doing that. [But] if there’s anything that I learned from this whole process, it’s, ‘Just do it. Get over yourself. Don’t criticize yourself, it’s a waste of energy.'”
Jill Hennessy – A Time Line
Nineteen-year-old Jill Hennessy and her twin sister, Jacqueline, appear in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers as twin call girls. While her sister pursues a career in journalism, Jill joins a couple of bands and acts in a Broadway play about Buddy Holly. That leads her to roles in serialized TV shows and B-movies.
After being passed over for the part of Dana Scully on The X-Files, she takes on the role of assistant district attorney Claire Kincaid on Law & Order until her character is killed off in 1996.
Hennessy appears in supporting roles in some indie movies, including I Shot Andy Warhol and Chutney Popcorn, and then some mainstream movies, including Exit Wounds (Steven Seagal) and Autumn in New York (Richard Gere).
She gets the starring role of Dr. Jordan
Cavanaugh on the TV series Crossing Jordan. Opposite Jerry O’Connell, she plays a crime-solving medical examiner.
Hennessy performs two songs on the Crossing Jordan soundtrack and reveals to audiences a musical talent they’ve never heard before.
After NBC cancels her show, she stars in a quiet, dark comedy opposite Alec Baldwin (Lymelife) and throws herself into writing and recording songs.
Her debut album, Ghost In My Head, is released in the U.S. and then in Canada with bonus tracks. It garners her performances at Lilith Fair, Edmonton Folk Music Festival and Canadian Country Music Week.
Hennessy returns to TV on HBO’s Luck, a new series about horse racing created by Michael Mann and starring Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina and Nick Nolte.