Having just finished out her role of Gabby Dawson on NBC’s Chicago Fire, actress Monica Raymund was looking for a change. That change would come soon than later with the lead role in the Starz original series Hightown, created and produced by Rebecca Cutter. Raymund stars as Jackie Quiñones, a National Marine Fisheries Service Agent in Provincetown, Massachusetts, with a “messy lifestyle and confused heart.” After finding herself embroiled in Cape Cod’s opioid epidemic after discovering a woman’s dead body at the start of the series, the show has evolved to delve deep into Jackie’s personal story, one of a muddy relationship with drugs and alcohol, and her own purpose in life. Season 2, currently airing, has shown us tremendous growth for Jackie and her sobriety journey, in large part due to Raymund’s nuanced portrayal.
Raymund sees herself just as much as a director as she does an actress. Having directed an episode of Hightown this season, she also took up the post behind the camera for shows like Law & Order and The Sinner, with continuous plans to direct throughout her career.
We chatted with Monica Raymund about her Hightown character’s growth throughout season 2, as well her various director credits and plans for the future. Read the full interview below.
Over the years you have become known for some impressive film and TV roles such as Chicago Fire, The Good Wife, Blue Bloods, Arbitrage, and more. How did you initially get into acting?
I think it all started with music. I began playing piano when I was five years old and played all the way through my teenage years. Music led me into musical theater, singing, dancing, and acting. I performed in local plays and attended numerous summer conservatory programs. My senior year I auditioned for The Juilliard School where I would go on to receive my BFA in acting.
How did the role of Jackie Quiñones on Hightown come about for you? What attracted you to her as a character, and how did you prepare for the role?
The audition for Jackie Quiñones came on the heels of my departure from Chicago Fire. I had been starring on the NBC show for six years and was ready to do something totally different. When I read the script for the pilot, I knew in my heart that I was supposed to play this role. I was attracted to Jackie’s messy lifestyle and confused heart. She looks outward trying to fill a void within her, and I loved the trouble she got into. In preparing for the role, I had a hybrid process of drawing from personal experiences as Monica in the world, and marrying that with some external elements in Jackie’s world. It was important for me to create Jackie’s look with extra care. Rebecca Cutter and I were very thoughtful about Jackie’s hair, her clothes, her apartment, her car… these creative elements tell her story and helped me fill her with a (hopefully) grounded life.
You’ve mentioned previously that with Hightown, you were looking to change things up and take on different kinds of roles. How was your role of Jackie that change?
Hightown is my first experience staring on a premium cable TV show. I have years of experience working on primetime network shows and as you can see when you watch television, each format has its own characteristics in the kind of content it delivers. Primetime networks operate within specific guidelines and rules – this allows for a more vast audience sector. With premium cable TV, you see grittier, more adult/explicit content. Cable doesn’t have as much regulation so there is room to take more risks. Playing a struggling dark horse who uses sex and alcohol to cope with her trauma belongs in the world of cable. I got to take the gloves off and get beat up a little bit, leaning into the gritty and naturalistic story elements.
Season 1 of Hightown saw Jackie struggle a lot with sobriety and her own obsessive tendencies. How much of those struggles still follow her in season 2? How have you seen Jackie’s character grow from season 1 to season 2?
At the top of Season 2, Jackie’s sobriety is thriving. She has a little time under her belt and we start the show with her clear, bright, and working the AA program. In season 1 she was actively searching for a purpose. In season 2, we see her ambition manifest in working two jobs as a fisheries liaison to the narcotics unit. She is finally a legitimate cop! As the season progresses, we see this solid Jackie begin to falter. That sobriety gets rocky and we see Jackie try to stay upright on shaky ground.
How does the show’s settings of Cape Cod and Provincetown influence Jackie as a queer character? Had you been to Provincetown before you started working on the show?
Provincetown is famous for its queer and inclusive community, so it just makes sense that Jackie runs the joint. It’s a small town with lots of tourists who come in for flashes of time to celebrate queer pride, and the vibe is joyful, loving, colorful, and electric. In season 1, Jackie thrives in that atmosphere because she loves to party and hook up with beautiful girls. It’s a perfect recipe for her deflection and avoidance.
I had never been to Provincetown before working on the show and I can think of no better way to be introduced to the iconic town than to be a queer actor, playing a queer character, filming in a city that embraces my queer community. It’s truly a blessing.
Tell us about NBC’s initiative Female Forward, which you were in the inaugural class of. What was that experience like, and what opportunities did it present you with?
Being a part of NBC’s Female Forward program was the opportunity of a lifetime for any director. It allowed me to shadow a director and guaranteed me my first directorial debut of episodic television. In addition to that, we had access to some of the great television directors in Hollywood with numerous master classes. This program changed my life because it allowed me to begin carving out my career as a director.
You are quite prolific as a television director as well, having directed episodes of Law & Order, The Sinner, and Hightown itself. What made you want to get behind the camera?
I love working with people. I got into this business to collaborate and create something greater than myself by way of making art with talented humans. As an actor, I found my experiences on set to be varied and became passionate about the art of directing because I wanted to be more involved in the storytelling process. I wanted to be collaborating in making the story come alive.
I didn’t have the opportunity to attend film school, so I used my acting jobs as my directing school. I shadowed numerous directors, I asked questions of the camera departments, I researched and took my own technical camera class and read books on cinematography. I took advantage of the access available to me when I went to set every day as the actor.
Do you see yourself equally as an actor and director, or do you put more emphasis on one or the other in your career? How do you balance both roles within your career?
I see myself equally as both director and actor. I love living both careers because each one always informs the other — I feel like I will forever be a student because I learn so much with each job. The only way I know how to balance both roles is to make sure I’m giving both roles the space that they deserve. This means I have to plan thoughtfully what my schedule looks like and how much time I can dedicate to each role.
Back in 2016 you directed the short film Tanya. Do you have any plans to create any other shorts? What about a feature length project?
I do have plans to create more short films. I am working on a short film script right now: a drama with notes of magical realism that is inspired by my mother’s story as a Dominican girl having just moved to the United States. I also absolutely have plans to direct features.
You are known for roles in a lot of law and crime-related shows. What about that genre do you find so appealing to act in?
As an actor, it’s always my desire to play characters in worlds with extremely high stakes. Roles in law and crime-related shows are always facing high stakes and extraordinary circumstances. Often times, they’re in situations of life and death. And that is FUN.
As a queer and Latina actress, what progress have you seen for the queer and Latinx communities on television over the last few years? What does the industry still need to improve on?
There has been much progress made for queer and Latinx communities on television because the people have demanded it. We are creating space for our stories that for so long have been repressed or ignored. I hope to see more studios and networks continue this mission of inclusivity because we are in the storytelling business, which means we need to tell all the stories of all the kinds of people in the world.
Do you see yourself as a role model for women, Latinx, and/or queer people in the entertainment industry? If so, how do you plan to continue to inspire?
[laughs] No I do not see myself as a role model. I do however, see myself as an artist compelled to tell stories that move me and hopefully, move others.
How did the pandemic impact the filming of Hightown season 2? Similarly, how did you keep busy and creative during lockdown?
The pandemic made an enormous impact on the filming process. All cast and crew have to test throughout each week and there are strict rules in place when someone tests positive. It has slowed down the filming process a little, but as I like to say, Hollywood is the most adaptable industry on earth!
During the lockdown, I cooked a lot and was able to improve on some traditional Dominican dishes. Wanna come over for lunch?!
Do you have any personal philosophies you stick to when it comes to acting and directing? What about for everyday life?
No one will believe in your art as much as you do. So you have a responsibility to believe in yourself, more than anyone.
What other upcoming projects can you tell us about? What’s on the horizon for you in 2022?
I just wrapped the new Billy Eichner queer rom-com Bros. In the film I play one of his best friends. I’m about to head to NYC to direct an episode of NBC’s new show The Endgame, and then I’ll head to Louisiana to direct an episode of National Treasure for Disney+/ABC.