Monica Raymund is a pretty special person with whom to speak about the series Hightown. The new STARZ show is a jolt of adrenaline and is set and filmed in Provincetown (in Cape Cod), and manages to be both picturesque but also really seedy at the same time. Raymund, in contrast, is entirely a ray of sunshine. Although it was our first time speaking with one another, we had an easy rapport and she clearly loves her series, which makes all the more pleasant to hear what she has to say about Hightown and what the role of Jackie Quinones represents for the multi-hyphenate.
There are a few minor spoilers ahead, and the following is a condensed and edited version of our spirited phone conversation with the bold Monica Raymund of Hightown.
Brief Take: This show was awesome, I was blown away by it. Tell me it was a blast to film it as well.
Monica Raymund: Oh it was so much fun. I mean this is a dark crime drama in which I love and the character I play is a challenging role – she’s messy and multilayered, and so this was such a joy for me because I got to really challenge myself as an actor.
BT: Yet if your character was a straight white male, perhaps would we be lauding him for being a rule-breaking player and, most of all, likeable?
MR: It’s a really good point. Jackie is a very compulsive woman, she doesn’t think too far ahead, she acts on impulse, she knows what she wants and she decides to pull the trigger in order to get it. And it is more of a male characteristic that we are used to seeing on tv. So when you put a woman in that role, a queer woman, no less, and then you add on top of it the battle of addiction and the journey of her sobriety and her attempt at recovery, all of a sudden it changes the context because we’re not used to seeing this type of person in this type of role, so I feel like the audience is in a way going to relate to the character differently. I hope that the audience does like her, but also, understanding that the same battles and the same obstacles that you would see a straight white male play [chuckles] this role, a Latina queer female has to encounter as well. Those adversities are just as challenging and harrowing, and I think, actually, that it helps to bridge and normalize that these kinds of difficulties, whether it’s crime or addiction or recovery, they don’t have a gender, right? They transcend any kind of boundary.
BT: It’s almost like you actualized this show and this role into existence. How deep do you go into your characters and this one in particular?
MR: It’s so funny you’d say that, I was just talking about that the other night. I kind of did will it into existence, didn’t I? I was basically trying to live Oprah’s role [chuckles] and I thought about what I wanted to do and I tried to make it come true, and it did. This character, getting to play someone like Jackie, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I have had my own history of pain, of trauma, and as actors, we sometimes rely on that to build a foundation for a character. Sometimes as an actor you find yourself having things in common with the character that you play, sometimes you don’t, so it’s our responsibility to imagine as if we did and to play as physically as we can to the circumstances of that character. So it was really fascinating to be playing a character steeped in that world, with the backdrop of the opioid epidemic and trying to figure out her recovery and her relationship to alcohol and drugs, and also feeling like she has found this weird hypnotic purpose of trying to solve this murder, to find redemption in this obsessive need to solve the case.
BT: This series is brilliantly directed, and as a director yourself, you must have greatly appreciated this aspect. What was it like to work with Rachel Morrison?
MR: Working with Rachel Morrison was amazing! She’s such a talented cinematographer, a world-class cinematographer, so when she got behind the camera as a director, she has an eye – such a curated eye – that she’s able to approach the work I think from a very specific point of view. Playing the lead role, having this female lead role and then having such a strong woman behind the camera, and then in addition to that having such a strong woman create the show, it sort of felt like this extremely empowering experience. Rachel is someone who directs from her heart and her gut and she’s got so much technique as a cinematographer that, of course, I would dare say that is a big part of what supports her in her direction, but she’s also an artist. And an artist leads with their emotions and their passions and their instincts, so she’s very much a beautiful dance partner with whom to work when creating film.
BT: I’ve been to Provincetown a few times and your show is great at capturing the beauty of the town but also the underbelly as well. When you’re doing location-based shooting, how deeply do you feel it and how does it affect your performance?
MR: So this was the first time I’d ever been to Provincetown, I’d never actually gone before. I had never been to any part of Cape Cod before. So when I went to the Cape I was blown away by how cinematic it was, being I grew up on the Gulf of Mexico, in Florida, I did not grow up on the Atlantic Coast at all, [laughs] so that was such a cool experience. Having the beaches and the water and the landscape, the scope of the territory there, it definitely helps inform the character because now the context is finding bodies washed up on the shore, being a National Marine Fisheries Agent, on the water all the time…the life of these people is kind of entrenched in the water. And sort of that coastal living, you know, lends itself to a very vibrant, colourful vibe during the day, but also this dark underbelly, as you said, at night, because a lot of darkness and crime can happen on the shore at night, so it was incredible that I get to do less work, I rely on the geography and the location of the environment to inform my choices as an actor.
BT: With the parallel stories going on in the first couple of episodes, will your character get to meet James Badge Dale‘s soon?
MR: Ah! Yeah. I think that’s kind of the point. I mean Rebecca Cutter did such a great job of telling these narratives from specifically the point of view of these characters, but what we will see later on in this season is an intersection of these stories. Eventually they’ll intertwine and you’ll see that they will become part of the same story, part of the same world.
BT: When you were directing FBI in New York, didn’t you say that you had to hustle back to Los Angeles immediately – this was right at the beginning of the outbreak?
MR: Let’s see, my episode was episode 19 and FBI was slated to have 23 episodes. I had finished filming my episode, that was the crossover episode with Chicago P.D., and I flew back to L.A., it was just when everything was starting to bubble with the pandemic and the rumours were happening, [chuckles] and we started to see businesses shutting down. I flew to L.A., I was in post, on my third day of post, Wolf Films pulled the plug on all their productions, so my episode was the last episode to be fully completed by the time the pandemic hit and all of Hollywood shut down. So my episode ended up being the finale of the season.
BT: This series is very cinematic and it would have premiered at SXSW, which was really the first big event that got cancelled. What is the best way to watch a series like this one now?
MR: Yeah, it was a major bummer when South By was cancelled, not just for my show, but for all of the tv and film debuts and all of the artists who were going to participate, it was a big deal, it was a big letdown and it was scary. You know, we are [chuckles] a very adaptable species. This industry, in particular, has no other choice but to adapt. We kind of freezed it, right, but now we’re figuring out what to do in Hollywood, I don’t think anybody has an idea of what exactly is the right thing to do. I think right now it’s sort of an experimental phase and we kind of play it by ear and see what happens. Hightown is coming out May 17th, we’ll probably all still be in quarantine in these large cities. And because of that, we’re not seeing a lot of new content being produced or distributed, so I don’t know? Maybe people will be excited to have a new show on their screen during a time in which not a lot of new stuff is being released. So that might be a benefit, but this is a cable show, it’s on Starz, so people are going to be able to watch it off Starz, you can sign up easily, you can also watch StarzPlay, so there are a few options for people to see it!
BT: This is a fun but intense series and after the first two episodes, I’m hooked on it and want to see where it goes. Did you have a particular episode or scene in which you look back and think this is something I really wanted to do?
MR: Yeah, I think that the moment…I can’t give it away without spoiling. I think that having played a character who’s walking the line of recovery and sort of fluctuating between being an active alcoholic and trying to get sober, that’s a really tricky line to walk, and it’s kind of a gift as an actor because the more obstacles and stakes that you have, the more interesting your choices can become. So I have a lot of experience on procedural network television, so the obstacles are different, the format is different, how deeply you go into the character is different, it’s just a completely different recipe. So now that I’m on cable, and I’m working on a new recipe, I have the freedom to go deeper with these characters, try to be a little more diverse with my choices, because I’m supported in doing that, because of the nature of the material. So for me, it’s really exploring Jackie’s turbulence and the addiction and the recovery from it.
BT: You are magnetic as a lead in this series, but you are also a generous scene partner. Who is someone that you think is as willing as you are to give it back?
MR: Eamonn Walker is the first person who comes to mind. Eamonn Walker, you know him from Cadillac Records, Oz, I met him through Chicago Fire and he plays the chief on that show. He’s one of the most generous actors with whom I’ve ever had the pleasure of working. Him. [laughs] He’s my number one. Number two, I will keep it relevant to Hightown, I love working with James Badge Dale. That guy, I mean we come from the same school of thought. Like we’re down to play, he’s open, he’s trusting, and as long as I meet him halfway, we expect the best of each other. It’s a really good working relationship – I hope that it translates to the screen. As you asked, you’re like: “Did you guys ever meet?”, eventually, you’ll see us on screen together and I hope it translates. He’s such an incredible…you hope to work with somebody that giving and compassionate, too. There’s a way to be courageous in this industry without compromising your graciousness, [chuckles] you know? And he embodies both, he’s such a phenomenal acting partner.
BT: You seem like somebody, even on your procedural work, you’re giving everything. You seem like a person that does not give less than one hundred per cent when it comes to acting, performing, directing.
MR: I really appreciate you saying that, Charles, that’s really sweet. I don’t get to talk to a lot of people about my work, so it means a lot to me that you said that.
Yeah! I have a rule. One of my mottos is if you’re going to do it, do it right. If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do this to the best of my ability, otherwise, I’d rather not do it at all. I don’t like to half ass, I will not settle for mediocrity. Now, what other people think of me is none of my business. [laughs] I mean if you hate me, it affects my career of course, but it’s out of my control. So everything that is in my control, which is my work ethic, my professionalism, my interaction with human beings, my behaviour, my kindness towards people—all of that is in my control, which means my approach to my work and my craft is within my control. And yeah, I absolutely throw myself to the wall, I do the best that I can, I’m very committed and I believe that what I do is extremely important for the world, because I’m a storyteller. And I think that all of us out there, whether you’re a journalist or whether you’re a director or a producer or a writer or a painter, language is the most important thing in my life. And I believe that it’s one of the most important tools to change the world. So I take what I do very seriously, because, well, it’s all I have. [laughs]
BT: Do you get obsessed with shows and movies? And which projects have recently interested you in this way?
MR: Yeah! Totally. Yeah, I get very obsessed. I re-watch things. For example, the most recent experience I’ve had was watching Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I watched the film about two weeks ago and it is absolutely the most beautiful, perfect film I have seen in the last couple of years. And you can tell that the artists, the director Céline Sciamma, the actors and the production designer and the colourists, you can see the artistry of all the collaboration between these artists and how they didn’t leave anything out, everything they left is on the floor. For me, you can see that as a viewer. So if I see that kind of work being put out, I’m a huge appreciator and connoisseur of those passions. Yes, I become obsessed with work that I love. [laughs]
BT: Your creative team on this project makes superb shows, but had you eve seen a series like Hightown?
MR: No, no, no, I’ve never before seen a show like this. You’re right, everyone’s pedigree is incredible, this is Jerry Bruckheimer’s first cable premiering show that he’s doing. So he’s taking the risk and challenging himself in that way. Being on Starz, in which we all know the shows: Outlander, Power, Vida – I’m already part of a network that takes much bigger risks than other networks, and you can see the reward when they show their shows. I’m really honoured and grateful to be a part of this because I do feel like we’re breaking new ground. Very much importantly to me is that I’m playing a queer woman who is Latina and I’m the lead and the show isn’t about me being queer, [chuckles] it’s the backdrop. The story is about solving the crime, it’s the action of solving the crime, but on the backdrop of the opioid epidemic, with her recovery as a big part of the story, too. This is really cool, to be playing a queer character in mainstream television in which it feels like it’s starting to become much more accepted, so much more normalized, and it’s more just a characteristic, rather than the event of the story, so that’s pretty cool for me to be able to be a part of that.
Hightown premieres on May 17 at 8pm ET on STARZ