After 'Chicago Fire,' Monica Raymund Channels Her Dark Side in Starz's 'Hightown' (Exclusive)


Monica Raymund is channeling her dark side in Starz's gritty new crime drama, Hightown, as free-wheeling, drug-addicted, hard-partying investigator Jackie Quinones, whose journey to stay clean is riddled with sharp edges and numerous obstacles. Things take a dramatic turn when she discovers a body on a Provincetown beach, the latest victim of the opioid crisis. As the show unravels over eight episodes, Raymund's Jackie is forced to face her own personal demons -- and, as one can imagine, it gets ugly fast.

Hightown is a vast departure from the actress' most well-known role, firefighter Gabriela Dawson, on Chicago Fire. After fulfilling her six-season contract on the NBC series, she didn't have another gig lined up, but knew it was time to "move on to different storytelling." "I took the risk, having hope that I would work again," Raymund tells ET over the phone. "I did know that my goal, my desire, was to work on a different kind of character on a different kind of show. I wanted to lead a show as a flawed character, something messy and gritty."

Raymund found her answer in Hightown, which doesn't hold back in its depiction of an out woman carelessly going through the motions of her life until she can hang the badge up. "She's very challenging to play as an actor," she says. "[She's] multi-dimensional and has many layers. I've made my wish list and each item checked off." Ahead of Sunday's television premiere, the 33-year-old actress discusses the decision to leave Chicago Fire, why she was desperate to play Jackie and the most challenging aspect of portraying a woman afraid of vulnerability. 

ET: What was it about Hightown and Jackie Quinones that intrigued you?

Monica Raymund: I'm really driven to complex, interesting, strong characters, but also characters who have a lot of fear around vulnerability and the progression, growth of a character's personal journey and integrity. So when Jackie came on my desk, I could see that she was a broken, pained woman who relies on sex and drugs and alcohol to avoid dealing with her vulnerability, to keep from having to address her trauma or her pain head on and continue living in this alternate reality of glamour, party fun and indulgence. I was interested in living in that character, because as a human being, I also have oscillated between darkness and lightness. I'm in a place in my life where I'm trying to figure out who I am as an adult and I related to that in Jackie's character as well. I wanted to step into Jackie and stretch my acting muscles and also discover something about myself. [She's] perfectly imperfect.

What was the biggest concern for you? What made you the most nervous or the most uncomfortable about playing Jackie?

Anytime an actor plays somebody who's got a full-blown addiction, that's scary, because it's a serious disease and so many of us are affected by it on a daily basis. Unfortunately, most people can raise their hand, because they know someone, or a friend or family, who have suffered from the disease of alcoholism or addiction. Being so entrenched in that world was a little daunting and scary for me. But it's also a very harsh truth and it's something that I believe, not only is it topical, but the way we discuss it in Hightown is very realistic and I think we show a pretty accurate portrayal of what the road to recovery looks like. It's never a straight line. It's very messy. It has a lot of turns and twists and that was really important for me, for Rebecca Cutter, the creator, to tell honestly.

Did you do any specific research in that area to make sure it was a realistic and respectful portrayal of how an addict operates on a day-to-day basis?

Yeah. Rebecca Cutter is public about her own sobriety, so she has a wealth of personal experience in this world and in that community. I was able to lean on her a lot. She was the leading resource for all of us on the show. Anytime I had questions or collaborated with her on certain themes, I could always rely on her and trust her to give an honest portrait.


Why was it important that Jackie is a queer woman?

As a queer woman myself, anytime I see an opportunity to represent my community, I'm going to jump on top of that. And it's such a well-written story, what more could I want? And then thirdly, this is a show where the character's sexual identity is not the main event. It's a characteristic of her. This is the backdrop setting of the show, the opioid epidemic, the LGBTQ party atmosphere that Jackie constantly inhabits, these are all characteristics, but they're not the event.

The show is about a murder investigation and following all of the characters in that web and watching as they intersect. It's another step in representing marginalized communities such as Latinx and queer characters, and not make it about the color of their skin or their sexual identity. But now it's becoming normalized and accepted where if the story itself is more important and the character just happens to be gay, that's a change in the conversation that I've seen in the last five years to 10 years or so. It's an honor to be able to play this character and represent my own community, who I am as a woman in the world and also be able to play this fictional character.

Are there any similarities between Gabby and Jackie?

I do think there are similarities. They're both incredibly stubborn women and Gabby, her life's purpose as a first responder is to help people and Jackie, eventually, she learns that she does in fact feel this need to help people. It's just that Gabby Dawson works in a way that is a lot healthier -- in her work/life balance and mental state -- and Jackie's definitely still battling her demons and is still trying to find herself.

Was this the most challenging role you've had in your career thus far? How did you decompress after a heavy day of filming?

That's always a constant struggle, right? How do I create a healthy balance between the character that I'm playing, my work and my personal life balance? That's always a tricky line to walk, but I'm really lucky and I'm grateful that I have really good training I depend on. I trained at Julliard and they kicked my butt, so I have a pretty good foundation of tools to make sure that I'm always putting my safety, my mental health first. That being said, I do love to live in a character and immerse myself fully, as long as it's for the right reasons, which is always story first. Everything else will fall in place. As long as the story is clear and specific then it shouldn't be too difficult for me to step out of the character and oscillate in and out. I don't know if we can be an expert in the process -- it's personal for every single actor and every artist really -- and my process is specific in that I don't believe that it's necessary to completely lose yourself in a character. That's unhealthy. It's dangerous, as we've seen and read, for some people who really go that far. 

Did you have a soundtrack or a playlist that helped you get into Jackie's mindset every day?

That's such a good question. I was listening to music. Sometimes I was listening to some music that some personal friends of mine made and it was during a really hard time. Some covers of Nirvana. I listened to a little bit of Radiohead. Nice emo, angsty.

It was great seeing you back on Chicago Fire for an episode last season. Are you keeping that door open for a possible return?

Yeah. I like to say that Chicago Fire is family and I have such a good working relationship with the producers there, and I spent a lot of my life with that group of people. I always will love them and I'll always keep the door open. Anytime they call me, I pick up. So who knows?

You also directed another episode of FBI. What else are you working on that we should be aware of?

Like you said, I had just directed an episode of FBI that ended up being the season finale, which is the crossover of Chicago P.D. and FBI, so it was pretty amazing to be able to direct that. And also having been Gabby Dawson for six years on Fire, I just knew the world and Tracy [Spiridakos]' character [Chicago P.D.'s Hailey Upton] pretty well. It felt very natural. Right now, I'm writing my next short film and I'm in talks right now potentially working on a couple of new projects. To be honest with you, everybody's unsure and anxious about how we're going to proceed forward in Hollywood, so we have a couple of roadblocks to get past before people start figuring out what kind of projects they're going to do.

Hightown premieres Sunday, May 19 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Starz, but subscribers can watch the first episode early on the Starz app, Starz on Amazon, Starz On Demand and other streaming devices such as Roku, Apple, Xfinity and more.

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