Interview with Jen Lilley by Amber Kenneson
We’re making efforts here at LTBM to bring you interviews with some Christians in the entertainment industry. Whether they be actors, authors, artists, or anything in between. These folks are trying to live out their dreams while being a good example of Christ. For this our first interview, Amber sits down to chat with Days of our Lives regular, Jen Lilley.
Talk with Jen Lilley
Daytime television may not be the first place one looks to find a bright spot in the spiritual darkness that is Hollywood, but that is one of the (many) reasons why Jen Lilley is so special. Jen is a film and television actor, and a series regular on Days of Our Lives (she plays the role of Theresa Donovan); she is also a dear friend. I had the privilege of meeting Jen a couple of years ago through my job at a non-profit organization (The Thirst Project)—Jen avidly supports causes such as the effort to end the world water crisis and the fight against child abuse. She is always smiling and is one of the warmest and most joyful and lovely people I am blessed to know (plus she is laid back, fun, and silly, which makes us kindred spirits). Most importantly, Jen passionately loves Jesus.
Amber Kenneson: What made you want to act in the first place? When did you decide to make the leap and move to LA?
Jen Lilley: I always had an interest in acting, but I grew up in Roanoke, Virginia. And there, if you want to act, it’s a recreational thing—you do local theater and that’s all you can do. I auditioned for community theater when I was in the 4th grade, and I remembered seeing these actors and admiring their complete lack of inhibitions. I didn’t get the role, but later, in high school, I auditioned for Annie—kind of as a joke—and was a finalist for the role. I was still in the play, but I didn’t really care about it. Then when the show was over, everyone was crying, and at first I didn’t understand why—I thought the very worst. But they were crying because it was over, and I couldn’t understand why everyone was so upset.
I went to college at the University of Virginia to pursue being a court interpreter for Spanish—or a lawyer, or a teacher; later on I even got really interested in geology. One day I saw a poster on campus for open auditions for the movie The Loss of Life, and sort of dared myself to try out. I got the lead and began working on set and just fell in love with it; I got along great with the production crew, because they were all so down to earth, and I loved working on the project.
I felt like God called me into acting. As a little girl, I never knew what I wanted to do, I just knew that I wanted to make money and give it away. My overall goals were: make more than enough money so I could give it away, and be in a position in which I would have a voice and a platform to support causes that matter. Acting could do both of those. Plus it’s fun—I get to play dress up and get paid for it.
The first thing I had to do was learn about the business of acting. A lot of people come out to LA expecting to be famous, and they think that talent is all that matters, but it’s SUCH a business. I feel like it’s 70% business, 20% talent, 10% luck. The best book I read—and that I recommend to everyone—was Acting is Everything by Judy Kerr, which is the “bible” on the business of acting. I decided to move to LA after I finished my college degree; I got a degree in theater, which at UVA is in production. I loved learning about production, because the production crew is so important and I never want to be the actor who takes people for granted. I graduated from UVA early, December 2006. After that, I worked as a substitute teacher during the day and waited tables at night and saved ALL my money in order to be able to move out to LA. I got married in May of 2007 and then my husband and I moved here together.
AK: Is there someone in the industry whom you look up to?
JL: I really admire Meryl Streep for the roles she chooses. Talent aside—and her talent is out of control—she chooses strong women. I admire Angelina Jolie for her charitable endeavors; she balances motherhood with acting with philanthropy with directing—she just does everything with such excellence. And I admire Jennifer Lawrence for her humor, because she doesn’t play the smoke and mirrors game. And Tatiana Maslany from Orphan Black; she’s an incredible actress.
AK: When did you come to faith in Jesus?
JL: I grew up in church, but I fully committed to Jesus in a really passionate way when I was nine years old. I’ve always been someone who has an opinion about everything—which on some days gets me in trouble—and I would always challenge God. I would tell Him, “If you’re real, show yourself to me.” I could hear Him laugh at me—because of course He could reveal Himself to me. I went to Catholic school, and there we were taught just that we needed to believe that God exists. But then I read the story of Elijah when I was nine, and it made me realize that people can experience the presence of God in such a way that enables them to do miracles. THAT was the God who I wanted to know. Until that point, I didn’t know I could be used by God, and I wanted Him to use me. I decided I wanted to read my entire Bible that summer—during the three-month break. My friends would come over and ask, “Hey Jenny! Want to come ride bikes with us?” And I would say, “No, thanks. I’m reading Leviticus.” That summer when I was nine was when I first really understood who God is, and I got really excited about it.
AK: What role/project would you consider to be your “big break?”
JL: Oh wow. I would say that MTV’s Disaster Date was the one that gave me the most momentum, and General Hospital was my big break—which I booked because of my comedy work on Disaster Date. But in a sense, I’m still waiting to be a common household name. There are different kinds of breaks in a career, and those were the most significant for me. I’m hoping to get one that gets me nominated—Academy Award, Golden Globe, etc; but I’m enjoying the ride.
AK: What role does your faith play in your career? How does your faith make your career different from those of your colleagues?
JL: My faith influences the roles I accept. I will not do horror movies. I’ll do psychological thrillers, but I will not dabble in demonic roles because I think it opens up your spirit in a really negative way.
I don’t know how anyone does life without Jesus—especially in this business. Pursuing an acting career is one of the most depressing things that you can ever put yourself through, because you are going to get rejected 99% of the time. Sometimes it’s because you’re not talented, sometimes it’s because of the way you look—it’s a career you have very little control over. And I feel like I have such an unfair advantage, because when the world tells me I’m not good enough, God tells me I am. When Hollywood tells me that I have no future, God tells me that I DO have a hope and future, and that it’s good—Jeremiah 29:11-13. I have joy when it doesn’t make sense. I have hope in the most hopeless of circumstances. And I have the strength to keep going.
AK: What are your own rules/boundaries for roles you will or will not agree to play, or what projects you will or will not participate in?
JL: My basic rule is that if the role does more good than harm, I’ll do it. Never say never, because God calls you to do things that don’t makes sense, and He has a bigger plan. I’ll play a character that is so evil if it lends to the protagonist realizing something good. For example, Theresa on Days of Our Lives is all about drugs, sex, and money, BUT she doesn’t get away with anything. The way I play her is that drugs and sex don’t fill that void. She is still longing and searching for something to fill the God-shaped hole in her heart. I don’t know how other actors would play her, but I play her with that sort of vulnerability. And God told me to take that role—because I didn’t want to do it at first. When I asked Him, “Why this role?” He said, “Because I love the Theresa’s of this world, and they need to know that they are not beyond redemption, that they are not hopeless, and that I love them when no one else does.”
AK: That’s awesome. What an incredible mission field.
JL: Yeah, people have told me that they became a Christian because of her, or they started going back to church because of Theresa. That role has been a lesson in increased empathy for me.
AK: What has been your best experience in the industry so far?
JL: Being in The Artist was maybe my favorite. It was such a unique and wonderful experience. I’d say overall, learning new ways to empathize with people has been the best thing; because I want to love people so relentlessly that closed-minded people become offended. Because that’s what Jesus did.
AK: What has been your greatest challenge?
JL: The most challenging thing is to choose to ignore fan criticism. When I was on GH, for the first 6 months of the 11 ½, there was just absolute hatred toward me—and it didn’t have anything to do with my acting. It was stuff like, “You’re fat.” “You’re head is too big.” “You’re voice makes me want to kill my own child.” That was a difficult lesson, but one thing I learned from it is to respond in the opposite spirit. Respond to hatred with kindness. Respond to yelling with silence. Whatever people said or did, I always responded with grace. Over time, it creates transformation and redemption. And that’s why I have a fan base. If you respond with grace, it will take time, but you’ll win. Grace won them over.
AK: Los Angeles is a crazy town, and Hollywood is a crazy industry—both have many demands and are full of people with disordered priorities. How do you keep yourself grounded?
JL: Reading my Bible and praying, and choosing to give God the glory. I was praying yesterday and was thinking about how God says that He is our anchor, and that He goes before us, but He never leaves us—which is a paradox—and that He is the God of the past, present, and future. He has seen my future and it is good. How can you not want to follow a God that promises that? His word is a lamp unto my feet, and I find that interesting because it means that you can’t see the path ahead of you. You just have to daily take one more step. If you want to pursue God’s path for you, you have to pursue Him on a daily basis.
AK: What is the reaction of your industry colleagues when they find out you are a Christian?
JL: They’ll be like, “Well, you’re a rare bird, Jen Lilley, because you love me, and I’ve never felt judged by you.” But then the follow-up question is, “But you’re not one of those Christians who believes the whole Bible, are you?” And I always say, “Yeah, I believe the whole Bible is the literal word of God, unless it explicitly says it’s a metaphor or parable.”
AK: How do you balance your professional life—particularly the demanding shooting schedule for Days—with your personal/family life?
JL: Sometimes poorly. In 2015 I’m trying to prioritize family and my church, because I learned, in 2014, that charity is awesome, but service is an altar—and you can put your family on the altar of service, and that’s not good. But I find that passion is better than coffee, and God is faithful to give you energy when you’re trying to do His will.
AK: What are some of your long-term professional goals?
JL: I want to have a children’s book series. I want to have a cookbook (at least desserts, but probably everything). I want to have a home décor line. I want to have a worship CD. I want to be a speaker and an encourager—wherever that takes me. And I want to have a fashion and accessory line. Oh, and I want to endorse a make-up line. I also want to learn how to direct—I would love to direct and produce. I’m ambitious.
AK: What project(s) do you have coming up?
JL: The first project I have coming up is Hollygrove shooting in Boston next week. It’s a romantic Christmas movie, but it defies the generic/formulaic plotline. Of course I’m still doing Days. I’m recording a full Christmas album this year, and possibly an album of 1940s covers. I also have a movie coming out called Turnaround Jake—it’s a romantic drama-dy, and it will be available in stores on February 10.
AK: What are you most excited about this year?
JL: What I’m most excited about this year can be summarized in this quote that I came across: “Instead of saying, ‘God, I can’t do this without You,’ say, ‘God I can’t wait to see how You’re going to do this.’” That’s going to be my anthem for 2015. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m really really really excited to see what God does.
Big thanks to Jen for the wonderful interview. We’ll be keeping an eye on her as her career progresses, and we hope you do too! You can follow Jen on Twitter @Jen_Lilley, and on her personal website: www.jenlilley.com