Hennessy: Life beyond the morgue

Thesp eager to explore all things creative

Several years ago, Jill Hennessy could be found playing guitar and singing on the streets of Toronto. Nowadays, she whiles away many of her hours composing songs and strumming a guitar in her on-set trailer.

In between, not much has happened really, other than the resounding success of her acting career and the remarkably sustained popularity of NBC’s “Crossing Jordan.”

What has also remained noticeably constant is Hennessy’s eagerness to explore all things creative, whether it is her character, Dr. Jordan Cavanaugh; the penning of introspective ballads; the creation of dishes for the New Jersey restaurant she and husband Paolo Mastropietro own; directing a mockumentary film; acting in indie movies; or simply the cracking of jokes to alleviate boredom on the set.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” says Dennis Hammer, one of the executive producers on “Crossing Jordan,” “and I’ve seen very few actresses who have the endless enthusiasm Jill has. She is without ego. All of her energy is about the work.”

Hennessy has relished her experiences both on “Law & Order” — the Dick Wolf series in which she became familiar with the machinations of network TV — and “Crossing Jordan,” but her interest in music is a persistent lure.

She is a fan of thoughtful songsmiths such as the Indigo Girls, Patty Griffin, Melissa Etheridge, Bruce Springsteen and Tracy Chapman and strives to bear her soul in her own music.

“It’s so much fun, so cathartic,” explains Hennessy, who fronted a band called the New Originals before “Crossing Jordan” took off and is slowly compiling a CD of her own compositions. “I feel so much more naked writing music than acting. I figure life is short. I always wanted to write my own music and put out my own CD.

“If I could write a great pop song, I would. But every time I pick up a pen, it’s more personal experience-type of content.”

When there’s downtime on the set, Hennessy and some of the other actors get together and compare musical notes.

“On long shoot days, she’ll get out the guitar and start jamming,” says Steve Valentine, who plays Dr. Nigel Townsend on the show. “She has a lovely voice. She’s really multitalented.”

Valentine has also been on the show from the beginning and recalls a pilot reading when they first met. “We spent the first 10 minutes going back and forth quoting ‘Spinal Tap’ to each other,” he says.

“We’re very lucky. We don’t have a set with divas. Especially on a show in its fifth season, you usually hear about all kinds of nightmares. Jill is the figurehead and the leader and sets the tone for the rest of us. She’s like one of the guys, one of the team. As an actress, she’s incredibly available and incredibly open to whatever suggestions you may have, which is rare. And she can drop a dirty joke at the right moment to alleviate tension.”

Hennessy has also co-directed a satirical film called “The Acting Class”; has acted in independent features, most recently in “Oranges,” due out next year; and occasionally checks in on her and her husband’s eatery, Hennessy’s Tavern, in Northvale, N.J.

But she remains as focused on the main job at hand.

“This business sets you up to always criticize yourself that you haven’t achieved all that you should have,” she explains. “I was living on $5 a day and eating Cup-a-Soup, and I was happy to get the occasional $300-a-day job, a small walk-on on a TV show.”

“I’m shocked and thrilled that I am where I am. I’m thrilled that people are fans of the show and want to tune in and watch. It’s staggering.”

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