Monica Raymund as Jackie Quiñones in Hightown.
On the way out of her audition for the role of Jackie Quiñones in the moody Starz crime drama Hightown, Monica Raymund turned around and told the producers, “Hey, you can hire anyone you want, but I’m Jackie.” Thinking back on that now, Raymund says, “I don’t recommend anybody doing that, because it was a little ballsy. But it was true.”
At the time, Raymund was ready to connect with a character like Jackie — a woman hungry to achieve something better in life. Jackie has lived her whole life on Cape Cod, and while Provincetown, Massachusetts, is a great party town for tourists, it has a seedy underbelly, with organized crime and a raging opioid epidemic. Jackie is technically a federal fish and game agent — a fish cop, as it’s sometimes unflatteringly put — but she’s itching to do more, to catch a higher class of criminal.
Raymund could identify with Jackie’s aspirations. After six seasons on NBC’s Chicago Fire, she had walked away from playing paramedic Gabby Dawson and set out in search of something more complicated. “There were things happening in my personal life that helped me understand this girl,” the actress says. “I knew I could do the job. I just knew it.”
Raised in St. Petersburg, Florida, Raymund studied at New York’s Juilliard School, where she found she had a natural talent for performing on television. Her first big role upon graduation was on the Fox series Lie to Me, which prefigured her future in a way. Her character, Ria Torres — a natural at reading people — joins a team of deception experts (a real job title) studying micro-expressions, facial tics and body language to bust bad guys.
It was the first in a series of law-enforcement and first-responder roles for Raymund (eventually including prosecutor Dana Lodge on CBS’s The Good Wife). Ria Torres was also the first of her roles playing someone naturally gifted, as opposed to rigorously trained, as she herself was.
Jackie of Hightown is also a natural, but her past trauma and learned survival mechanisms drive her to use drugs, engage in too-casual sex and pursue big police cases that might be out of her league.
Raymund found a way into the character through her physicality, and specifically her posture. “So much of her physicality has to come from an intention,” Raymund explains, “which is usually to hook up and party — not only because it’s fun, but because she’s trying to forget there’s a huge hole inside her and she’s trying to fill it up. So when I’m standing, my hand is on my stomach and my body is sort of concave. This sounds so geeky, but it’s an example of how it informs Jackie, like the hole lives right in the center of her gut.”
At the start of season two, Jackie is trying to get herself together. She’s staying sober, trying to be dependable and learning to commit to one romantic partner. The question now is, how long can this last? “It’s scary for her,” Raymund says, “but we’re leaning into the fear. We’re peeling back some layers and seeing that maybe it’s not all tough-girl in there.”
Raymund also got to slip into the director’s chair — for the third episode of the current season — and she’s especially proud of one scene. “I feel really lucky that I got to direct a sex scene between two women,” she says. “It’s a fresh take, having a female gaze.” During the encounter, a handheld camera moves in close, capturing Jackie’s struggle to finally let go. “It was so challenging and exhausting to direct myself, I think I lost eight pounds,” Raymund says. “I’m not even kidding!”
This article originally appeared in issue #12, 2021, of emmy magazine under the title, "What Comes Naturally."