's Exclusive Interview: Jill Hennessy

By Michael J. Lockhart

Jill Hennessy reveals what goes on behind-the-scenes on her new series LUCK.

Born in Alberta, Jill Hennessy has fought crime on the streets of New York on Law & Order as Assistant DA Claire Kincaid; solved mysteries of the flesh as a forensic pathologist Jordan Cavanaugh on Crossing Jordan; and glorified stages and subway stations with her musical talent.

Her new series LUCK, is fast-paced look into the belly of horse racing; and the dealings between the trainers, the owners, and of course, those betting for their lives. Directed by Michael Mann and created by David Milch; LUCK stars Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, and airs Sunday’s on HBO.

Jill sits down with to talk about her role as a track veterinarian; balancing a singing and acting career; and what it’s like to hang out with Dustin Hoffman in a barn late at night. Welcome busker-turned-actor extraordinaire, Jill Hennessy. Tell us about your character Jo on LUCK.

Hennessy: She’s a veterinarian for race horses. She’s involved with this Peruvian trainer named Escalante [John Ortiz]; who’s a rather suspicious dude. Incredibly talented, incredibly good at what he does, but he resorts to questionable tactics to get what he wants; and what he wants is a little suspect as well, it’s unclear. She’s got an interesting background, but we haven’t really revealed any issues from her past. What drew you to the role?

Hennessy: My agent just called me up and was like, “There’s this project with HBO with Dustin Hoffman, and Michael Mann is directing with David Milch writing.”

That’s all he said, and I was like, “When’s the audition? I’m in. I’m going to that audition; I don’t need to read the script.” It turns out only one scene was available; there wasn’t even a script yet.  It’s a scene where I’m giving a horse a rectal exam. I was going to ask. What did you think of that first scripted scene on the show?

Hennessy: I thought that David Milch is one of the most brilliant writers around. That’s such a gutsy choice for introducing a female character. I thought, oh gosh, that’s me! I can do that.  She was just giving a horse a rectal exam and as she looks at the trainer, she’s pulling on this shoulder-length glove and says “Don’t you wish this was you?” That’s just a cool chick. I was incredibly impressed. What did you do to prepare for your role as a track veterinarian?

Hennessy: I did a lot of shadowing. I would accompany vets on their rounds, and just hang out with them for hours. I’d help them with vaccinations, examinations, probes, all kinds of stuff. I witnessed a couple surgeries – it’s a fascinating, different world, a different form of medicine. What was it like to work with Dustin? What did you learn from working around him?

Hennessy: To be generous with yourself. It’s a pleasure, every scene I’m in with him. It’s just fun to close your eyes and listen to his voice – and also, to watch his approach. He’s so good at making you feel good about yourself. He’s incredibly encouraging, he loves what he does, and he loves playing with people. He’s like a little kid, such a joy. I learned a lot from him. Would you like to work with him again?

Hennessy: I would do craft service for Dustin. I would bring him his Cappuccino in the morning…or his juice. I just think he’s tremendous, one of the best I’ve ever worked with. Jo and Escalante’s relationship is interesting to watch on screen. How would you describe it?

Hennessy: I think she’s wondering what she’s looking for in this. I think he thinks he knows, but then he realizes he doesn’t. They’re both in the same boat. There’s a guy and girl here from very different backgrounds, but there are a lot of similarities. They don’t want their relationship to get out, but she’ll end up turning up on his doorstep. They’ll have some wine and cheese, watch the races, and go to bed together. There is nothing that is really black and white, which is what I really like about David Milch. What’s your personal view of track gambling? Have you ever bet on a race?

Hennessy: I’ve seen it going on. I’ve watched other people gambling. I’m just not much of a gambler because I’m just too cheap. I don’t get enough joy out of it to merit losing money. Vegas – I’d go to an all-you-can-eat buffet, or go people watching. I’m too used to remembering the days I was living on five dollars a day, looking forward to my cup of Lipton soup and bagel for dinner. So why would I go spend my money on gambling? As far as the culture though, it’s fascinating to watch.

To check out Jill’s take on gambling, smart roles, and what comes next, click below. Do you feel the racing-gambling world is as gritty as the show portrays?

Hennessy: To be honestly I find a lot of nobility to it. There are obviously darker sides and areas, particularly on the backstretch side.  I’ve met so many people that I find so honorable, and worthy of incredible respect. People that are so good at what they do; they’ve refined what they do as an art form and have so much respect for the other people that they work with. I’m talking everybody from trainers to exercise girls. What about the gamblers?

Hennessy: There are some pretty awesome people who’ve figured out how to bet, and I’ve got to admire that. If you can do it and not lose your shirt than hey, god bless ya! I don’t know how one would do that, but I’ve got to say my favorite characters on the show are the degenerate gamblers. I keep hoping David Milch will write some romantic storyline with me and Kevin Dunn, Marcus -the guy in the wheelchair. From forensic pathologist to a veterinarian, what have you found in common with these scientific roles?

Hennessy: Integrating research with acting performance. It can actually be an acting aide, and I’m one of the least educated people, which is so ironic, because I keep getting these educated characters. Scientists, Doctors – I left school when I was 17. I’m not sure how I get these roles but I’m very happy to do it. It makes me feel that I’m not quite as ignorant as I think I am. You recently did a film called Roadie. What can you tell us about your character Nikki?

Hennessy: Nikki wanted to be a singer-songwriter and she ends of marrying this guy who’s a little verbally abusive and ends up convincing herself that it’s ok , and that this is the right choice; and that it’s OK to sing for thirty people in Queens and get completely cooked out of her mind before she goes on stage. It’s a fascinating thing about human nature. What was the changing point for you that got you from there to a well-known actor today?

Hennessy:  I did have an acting agent, but it was hard. A friend of mine was auditioning for The Buddy Holly Story and he needed somebody to accompany him on guitar. He was kind enough to ask the casting director if I could come on stage.

That was his effort to get me an audition when I didn’t have one for this show. I’ll always be grateful to my friend Ken for that. So I did that show, a Canadian-American-British production, two month of the Royal Alex theater, then a month in San Francisco which took me to Broadway. That’s where a casting agent saw me here and I started auditions – and flash-forward to Law & Order. So that’s how it happened; so I think of Buddy Holly as my little guardian angel. What was your first time reading Playboy?

Hennessy: My roommate Steve and I bought the one with I think La Toya Jackson was on the cover. I ended up reading it a lot, because the writing is so great. But we had to get the La Toya Jackson one. What’s the next big film you have coming up?

Hennessy: That’s Dawn Rider with Christian Slater. My character is Alice; she’s from the Wild West. She’s very comfortable keeping a gun under her skirt. She can take care of herself; she’s a whacked out, funny character. It was a very cool – very ballsy. It was a wild ride. We completed it at the end of October. If you had to choose between acting and music for the rest of your life, which would it be?

Hennessy: I might have to say music, because it’s such an immediate connection with the audience. You can convey so much through acting, but when you add a melody to anything it’s such a stronger conduit of emotion. It’s like a lightning bolt strike, so music.

Want more LUCK? Check out our Femme on Fire interview with jockey Chantal Sutherland: CLICK HERE


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