Jen Lilley (FayesVision/WENN.com)
Jen Lilley (FayesVision/WENN.com)
"They're life partners whether they like it or not."
Jen Lilley stepped into the role of Maxie Jones on "General Hospital" last fall when Kirsten Storms took a medical leave of absence. The actress spoke with Soaps.com last week about her experience on the ABC soap, her newfound fans and appearing in the much buzzed about movie "The Artist."
Soaps.com: You were in a tough spot temporarily taking over the role of a popular character from a popular actress. What did you think when you landed the job?
Jen: The first thing they asked me was if I got overwhelmed easily because I didn’t know I was going in for Maxie originally. I started the next morning and I remember sitting in my dressing room – the dressing room at least they put me in that day – and thinking, "Okay. There were two other girls at the callback. Maybe they would want to do it. I don’t know if I can do this." [laughs] So I Googled it and it was already out on Google and I was like, "Okay. Here we go." I was pretty nervous. The "GH" cast always says, "You came on and you weren't nervous at all." I'm like, "Yeah, I was super nervous." Because Kirsten Storms is amazing and she's such a beloved character. I grew up watching her on "Zenon," so, I felt a lot of pressure. Also, Jill Farren Phelps [former executive producer], the day I booked it, which was the day before I started, she sat me down in the office and the last thing she said to me, she goes, "All actors are nervous. Everybody gets nervous before doing a soap because it's a lot of work and I don't want to add any more pressure on you, but just so you know, it's the most critical time in history for our show and the most critical time in this character's life. So, I really need you to pull this off."
Soaps.com: No pressure at all.
Jen: Yeah. [laughs] So I was very nervous, but the cast was super gracious and really nice and just really welcoming considering it was an awkward situation. They were really great.
Soaps.com: Did anyone in particular show you around or take you under their wing?
Jen: Yeah. Bradford Anderson [Spinelli] was such a little champion of my heart. I mean, I love him and once I met Kelly Sullivan [Kate], she also took me under her wing and kind of sat me down, she and Bradford actually both sat me down and were like, "Okay. We just want to prepare you for how it's going to be with the fans at first." And Bradford said, you know, he's been working on this show for however many years, and he's so good. People that are not a Bradford fan, I can't understand that. At least from an acting perspective. I think he is crazy talented. He said he's been on the show for however many years and people still send him hate comments. He's like, "So, you're not alone. We all get it and it's going to be really bad for like a month." I was like, "Okay." So when the comments would come in I'd go to set and be like, "Here's the comment that I got." So, we would trade awful comments that we got that day. They both really took me under their wing and I appreciated it immensely.
Soaps.com: The fans seem to have really come around and accepted you as Maxie.
Jen: Yeah. They've been wonderful. I don't ever fault them for being a little mean at the beginning because soap fans are so loyal and I respect that a lot. They've been so nice to me, especially with the news that Kirsten is coming back. They're like, "I'll follow you wherever you go." A couple people are literally sending hundreds of letters to Frank [Valentini, executive producer] and Ron [Carlivati, head writer] and It's just really endearing and I'm super grateful for it because it's been going well on set. I know [Kirsten] is coming back in a couple of weeks. I'm really glad about it actually because, you know, she is Maxie and I think wherever the show goes, she should be Maxie for the final run of it. But Frank has taken to me. Yesterday he said, "I really wish with all my might there was a way I could keep you." I said, "I could go brunette, Frank." He was like, "Okay." [chuckles] It's kind of up in the air. I think he's mulling it around in his brain, but right now they don’t have any room for me to stay. The soap fans have been super loyal about telling me they'll follow me wherever I go.
Soaps.com: Well, once you have soap fans, they're pretty much fans for life.
Jen: Yeah. That's what I hear.
Soaps.com: Did you watch Kristen Storms in the role beforehand?
Jen: No, because I started the next day. I remember I YouTubed maybe three episodes. I probably watched 15 minutes of her stuff. I remembered her from "Zenon" and Jill had told me, "I want you to do kind of Kirsten's take on Maxie for the first couple of weeks so the audience has time to transition into it. After that you can do whatever your take is once they get over the initial shock that it's not Kirsten." I watched a little bit of her stuff, but not really. I didn't study her too, too much. One of the reasons I got called into the audition is I had a character kind of similar to that, that I played on MTV's "Disaster Date" and it was on my comedy reel, which was ironic because it was for a soap. They were like, "Do this comedy character." So I kind of already knew what vein of energy it was in.
Soaps.com: So after a while did you go about tackling the role in a different way once you became more comfortable playing Maxie?
Jen: I did. Once I got more comfortable with it and once the initial shock was over and it had been a couple of weeks, I started analyzing Maxie based on her backstory. Just Maxie herself. Not as Kirsten. Not as Robyn [Richards] or whoever played her in the past. I was like, she's had a really rough life. Most people on soaps have, but if I'm taking her as a real person, anybody who's gone through what she's gone through with her family dying or BJ and all this mess she's gone through, being kidnapped, all this. I decided anyone who's gone through that is wearing a mask. In truth, everyone in life is wearing a mask, but someone like that has got to put on a confident persona of, "Okay, I'm going to create myself as a fashionista and that is a character I'm going to play in my daily life to cover up my vulnerable side." So I started thinking, when is she vulnerable and when is she not? There's got to be times where she takes her mask off and shows the vulnerable side of Maxie, whether she wants to or not. So I'm trying to figure out when does she take her mask off and when does she realize that her mask is off and she's standing there naked emotionally in front of the other person and has to scramble to cover it up? So, that's been really fun. I kind of took that approach.
Soaps.com: Based on your experience playing her, should Maxie be with Matt [Jason Cook] or Spinelli?
Jen: I think Maxie should ultimately be with Spinelli. Personally, as Jen Lilley, I love me some Dr. Hunter. I keep telling the fans, I'm like, "I want to come back as a brunette and steal Dr. Hunter away from Liz [Rebecca Herbst] and Maxie." Because I love Jason Cook. And I love Bradford too, but I feel Jason and I have really good chemistry as actors. I think Maxie's penguin is Spinelli. They're life partners whether they like it or not, is what I ultimately think.
Soaps.com: Are you still taping at "General Hospital" or have you wrapped?
Jen: I am still filming. I'm filming this week and next and then Kirsten will come back. I'm savoring my last few days in Port Charles.
Soaps.com: Since you've played Maxie for a couple of months now, will it be difficult to let go of the character?
Jen: It is. I mean, you know, part of me is like, "Yay, Kirsten's coming back." I have been praying for her. I'm so glad she's feeling better. She is Maxie. But part of me is like, "But I like my character. I've liked what I built with Maxie." And I'll really miss the cast. That's what's been hitting me the hardest. I've made friends there. "General Hospital" is such a family unit. I wish everybody could know that cast personally. They're all so, they're down to earth, but they're also humanitarians and I just really appreciate that. None of them, at least that I've met, have any stigma or any thoughts of grandeur about themselves. They're very grounded and funny. You know, we all laugh as soon as they call cut for a take. I really have bonded with the cast and that's sad that I won't be able to go back after that.
Soaps.com: Is there anything that surprised you about working on a soap?
Jen: It surprised me how much I really liked it because I have a comedy background and initially booking it, I thought, "Oh, wow. Okay, soaps. Um, I have the giggles as a person and I'm hoping it's okay that I'm going to have to laugh almost after every take." It surprised me that everyone kind of knows when the story is very soapy and sometimes ridiculous. I've also been surprised by, I know people aren't always very pleased with the writing, but I think the writing is actually really good for the show. I've been surprised to realize if they showed it on film, you really would not be able to tell the difference between "General Hospital" and "Grey's Anatomy" or some show that's highly revered in society. It's so good and if we shot on film no one would be able to tell the difference. That surprised me. How good it is.
Soaps.com: You are also in The Artist, which has received a lot of awards attention. What was your experience like shooting the film?
Jen: That was amazing. I have always loved silent film, even before I thought I wanted to be an actress. I've always loved the twenties and I love silent film and I love that era. I've seen every silent film that is available on Netflix and any one that's not been burned up in a fire. I have biographies of all those actors. So, working on a silent film in 2011 was the most amazing experience of my life and I would do it all over again. When we were filming it, no one thought it was going to go anywhere. My understanding is the director, it took him ten years to find funding for this project because everybody was like, "Why would you make a silent film? You're just throwing money into the toilet." It was just so amazing and the actors on that were incredible. They're both French, Jean Dujardin [George Valentin] and Bérénice Bejo [Peppy Miller], they're incredible French actors that I think are going to sweep the Oscars, honestly. Just working on it, it was literally like stepping back in time to my favorite time period for a couple of days and I would not have traded that experience for the world.
Soaps.com: What's next for you after you're done at "General Hospital?"
Jen: Pilot season is coming up, or it's here. I'm super excited about that. My agents and I are excited and I've been having a lot of auditions and callbacks already, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed. I'm not worried. I think 2012 is going to be a really incredible year for me. 2011 was incredible and now I have more to build on. I'm just looking forward to whatever is next. I believe in the old adage: If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. So, I'm just here for the ride.
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- Lori Wilson