EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Jen Lilley on 'Youthful Daze,' and What's Ahead for Theresa in 'Days of our Lives'

Jen Lilley. Photo Credit: Frederick M. Brown/Getty
Born in Roanoke, Virginia, Jen Lilley didn't start acting until attending the University of Virginia when she played the lead in an indie film called The Loss of Life. After that, she fell in love with acting and averaged six indie films a semester. In addition to acting, she is also a talented singer, dancer and comedian, performing in many improv casts, including the Upright Citizens Brigade.

Her many film and television credits include the critically acclaimed feature film The Artist, Disaster Date, Castle, Two and a Half Men, Rules of Engagement, Criminal Minds and iCarly. From 2011-12 she starred as Maxie Jones on ABC's General Hospital.

Lilley currently stars as mischievous bad girl Theresa Donovan on NBC's Days of our Lives, and will soon be seen as Natalie Cardin in Youthful Daze.

Serial Scoop recently caught up with Lilley to discuss her soap roles, and to find out more about her Youthful Daze character. Read our exclusive interview below:

SERIAL SCOOP: Serial Scoop named you as one of our top 10 Sensational Summer Performers as Theresa on Days of our Lives.
JEN LILLEY: What! Really? That's amazing! I’m having a blast on Days. I never knew how much I could love one job. I love it so much.

SERIAL SCOOP: Do you have your Emmy acceptance speech ready?
JEN LILLEY: I've said this before but I said it because I mean it. First of all, if I was even nominated I would pass out. If I won somebody would need to bring a defibrillator. I would need to be revived because I would definitely die of a heart attack. Meredith Scott Lynn (who plays Anne Milbauer) would have to bring me to the stage. I just decided if If I ever win I'm basically going to have my speech because everyone hates speeches, lets be honest, we all hate them. I’m basically going to be like, thank my manager, thank my husband, thank my agent, everybody else I love you I could go on for hours so I’m going to put a special page on my website where it's like 150 names because I will never get through it. There are way too many people to thank. You know what I mean? Nobody wants to hear that speech. [Laughs]

SERIAL SCOOP: So what’s next for Theresa? What’s happening with Brady (Eric Martsolf)?
JEN LILLEY: Brady and Theresa, "Thrady," is not completely over.  I will say that.  From the time she hits John (Drake Hogestyn) up until the end of December there is a complete unraveling of Theresa.  Honestly, by December people are going to be up in arms for her which we never thought would happen, so I’m loving it. Finally in January she is starting to get some of her fire and sass back, which I appreciate because there is only so much the audience will tolerate of you crying. [Laughs] But it’s very interesting.

Jen Lilley and Billy Flynn.
SERIAL SCOOP: What are these Chad (Billy Flynn) and Theresa rumors we're hearing?
JEN LILLEY: Billy Flynn started this crazy Twitter shitstorm and I have been shooting Youthful Daze, not sleeping, and have been so far behind.  One day I had five hours and went on Twitter and was going through all my tweets for the last five days, and I’m like what is this Theresa-Chad business? To be honest our characters haven't even met. But I’m on board with it because I do think that it can be EJami 2.0. You've got to have the Donovan-Brady-Dimera coupling. But no, it’s not happening. I don’t know whether we should have the fans write in because I’m open to it. Billy Flynn is an incredible actor. You guys don’t know that yet but he’s just really incredible and I really love his work. I’d be really tickled pink to work with him. I feel like our cast is super solid right now. I don’t think there is one weak link on the show so I’m open to work with anybody, and the fans are crazy about it, so he and I teased it with the lemon squares.  We might as well make a go of it. We're both too new to talk to the writers. [Laughs]

SERIAL SCOOP: What I've noticed with your acting is you have have chemistry with all of your scene partners, male and female.
JEN LILLEY: You know why that is, Marnie Saitta. Six years ago when I first moved to LA, I took a workshop with her, our casting director for Days. One thing I've exercised in my entire career before she even cast me, but is such a goldmine, is she said every scene is a love scene. Whether it's about shoes or not it's a love scene. Whether it's with a guy or a girl it's a love scene, and I took that to heart. I always try to play that. So thank Marnie Saitta for that.

SERIAL SCOOP: I was impressed that before you started on Days of our Lives you researched the background of Kim (Patsy Pease) and Shane (Charles Shaughnessy). That doesn't always happen.
JEN LILLEY: Yeah, and I think that’s ridiculous. I only want to get better. I always want to look at my stuff six months ago and think, oh, I could have done that better, then look at it now and think it's better than six months ago. I always want to get better and I feel like the only way you can do that is by giving yourself every tool you possibly can. Soap fans are smart and they are a lot smarter than people give them credit for, and if you don't honor the backstory... One thing I have to say about Days that I really appreciate is they don’t constantly rehash what's going on and who each other is to each other. You know what I mean with in the dialogue, "Oh, your mother's brother's sister's divorce three years ago." We don’t have as much exposition as a lot of other soaps. I feel like on General Hospital I was giving exposition a lot, and I like when people give the audience credit. We have a lot of smart audience members so I want to respect that by doing my research because I don’t want them to say she's not Jeannie. Obviously a lot has transpired since she was two but I want to respect the history of Shane and Kim and the Brady family.

SERIAL SCOOP: How challenging was the General Hospital experience replacing Kirsten Storms as Maxie?
JEN LILLEY: It was incredibly challenging. It was super awkward and I tried to navigate that whole situation with as much class and respect as I could because I really knew who Kirsten Storms was. I didn’t know that I was Maxie until I was cast. They changed the names and they didn't say this [casting] was for Maxie at all. As soon as they told me who I was playing it was like, "Oh my god, I grew up watching Zenon on the Disney Channel." She was one of the soap stars who I really knew who she was and it was incredibly challenging and hard because I wanted to be sensitive to the fans> I've said this a million times and I'll say it again, Dexter is my favorite series and it's off the air right now, but Michael C. Hall is a phenomenal actor who plays Dexter. Well, lets say Dustin Hoffman came in and played him. I love Dustin Hoffman, he's an incredible actor, and I couldn't say a bad thing about his work. But if he came in and tried to play Dexter all of a sudden I would be pissed and livid because he's not Dexter. So I tried to empathize with the audience but it was incredibly difficult.

My only saving grace with the whole situation from the get go was that they put me in these crazy high heels that I was not used to walking in, and the audience said they walk the same. The truth is, Michael, there is only one way to walk in nine inch heels, so of course we walked the same way. [Laughs] I respect Kirsten a lot and I think her work is really solid so I’m really excited to basically originate a role. I know toddlers played Jeannie but it's really nice to be able to create something as your own and put your own spin on it.

With Maxie, I got cast and started the next morning. I had forty pages my first day. Jill Farren Phelps sat me in her office and did the whole spiel about how people are always nervous going on soaps and I've taken that note to heart. Every time we have like a new character, one just started on Days, I lead him around. Here's the commissary, here's the this, and he's like, "Who are you? Why are you so nice to me?" And I said because no one ever did this for me and I wish somebody had. It's hard to be like the new kid. When I started [at General Hospital] Jill said, "Look, every actor going into soaps basically, excuse my language, wants to shit a brick." I'm going to do how many pages in how much time and we have basically one take and we don’t have marks on the floor to tell us where to land but if we land in the wrong spot the focus is off, and we screw everything up. The camera and everything is ruined if we do it wrong. She was like, "Everybody is nervous." But then she leans over at the end and she goes, "I don’t mean to put more pressure on you, but this is the most important time of the history of the show. We're facing cancellation because the other soaps are folding. This is the most crucial time in the character's life." She reaches over, put her hand on my knee and goes, "I really need you to pull this off." [Laughs]

And it was awful, you know what I mean, it was awful, like I didn't have an option to back down, so I kind of just had to rise to the challenge. There was no other option. Kimberly McCullough was so sweet because she said to me, "None of us knew that you hadn't done a soap after your first day. We were all shocked." But I was freaking out, and shaking. but I just went up and thought this is it, sink or swim, so I didn't have an opportunity to really freak out. There was literally no time for me to even be excited that I had got it. They kept asking me that too, "Are you excited?" And I was like, "Yeah, but no emotion is allowed right now." Business is business, you tell me what you need me to do and where you need me to stand, and we're going to do this. Later I'’ll probably do a happy dance in my car once I realize this isn't a crazy dream. I'm still wondering if it's a dream.

Honestly, are we really having this conversation? It's been a crazy three year dream. I’m loving Days. I will never change my experience on General Hospital because I feel like there's nothing more challenging in my career that I will ever face than that. And I respect the fans and I don’t blame them for being up in arms for awhile but they came around in a major way. I appreciate that because we all know that soap fans are so loyal and I respect the hell out of them for giving me hell in the beginning. If they had done anything otherwise you know it wouldn't be worth where I am now.

SERIAL SCOOP: You've created your own character and at this point I couldn't imagine anyone else as Theresa. This is your role. And you made Maxie your own character too.
JEN LILLEY: Jill told me you need to play it just like Kirsten for the first couple of weeks, and then it turned into months. It was about my three and a half month mark when she was like now you can make the role your own. They literally talked me through it. When the time comes that I move on and do sitcoms and stuff again, should that day come, I will give hell right back to my fans if they are mean to my recast as much as I want them to be loyal to me. [Laughs] It's so hard being a recast, that's why I have a heart for Guy Wilson [who replaced Chandler Massey as Will Horton on Days]. Who is going to fill Chandler's shoes? They're screwed. Chandler Massey is a machine and he's untouchable, you know. [Laughs]

Jen Lilley as Natalie Cardin in Youthful Daze.
SERIAL SCOOP: The big news is you are joining Youthful Daze. What can you tell me about Natalie Cardin?
JEN LILLEY: Natalie is really interesting and she is a very different color than Theresa. Before Natalie premieres on screen her backstory is that she comes from a lot of money. She comes from the Cardin family which is seen in seasons one and two, and is Oliver's (Easton Schirra) sister. She has completely turned her back on all of the hypocrisy that comes with having money as your idol. She just kind of has turned her back and forsaken the wealth and all of the shallow monetary materialism that runs in the Cardin family. She's living in this very small, almost abandoned, gross town and Jade Harlow plays my best friend, Monica, which is super fun. I love Jade. She's comedic, and a lot of my characters tend to have a little comedic undertone which I completely appreciate. She's just a good girl, she's got some fire and sass, and definitely has a backbone, but she's decided to use all of the cunning she knew growing up and turn it around for good. She’s definitely an interesting juxtaposition. When it comes to Oliver, she's completely different.

SERIAL SCOOP: What is their relationship like?
JEN LILLEY: You know if anyone has siblings, I certainly do. Sibling relationships are very complex. She loves him but I think she's probably disappointed in him. At the same time I think she empathizes with Oliver because they were brought up the same way and he's kind of a product of his environment. I think she deeply cares for him but there's a level of sorrow for him that he doesn't make something of himself, and he doesn’t go his own way, and then there's also a loathing that goes along with him not standing up for what's right and having a backbone. I think she sees him as somebody who is weak and is being manipulated. As cunning as Oliver thinks he is, she thinks their father is more of the puppeteer.

SERIAL SCOOP: Does she knows he's changed a little bit? He's a lot nicer than he was.
JEN LILLEY: He's a lot nicer than he was, for sure. She thinks he is kind of mentally ill and she doesn’t see that as something scary but as a handicap. So I think there's a part of her that feels sorry for him and a part of her that thinks this is ridiculous.

SERIAL SCOOP: Will you be working with Mike C. Manning (Colin Morris) on the show?
JEN LILLEY: Yes, in a big way. In a huge way.

SERIAL SCOOP: Oh, very interesting. I know it must be a chore to work with Mike Manning. [Laughs]
JEN LILLEY: I know. He's so unattractive. It's really difficult. He's such a horrible human being with all of his charity work. I just can't stand him and all of his charity. [Laughs]

SERIAL SCOOP: Who else are you going to find yourself crossing paths with?
JEN LILLEY: I work really closely with Jonathan Lipnicki, who is also new in season three. We're all familiar with his work. [Laughs] He plays a character named Tyler and he's really interesting. Natalie's a got a lot of complex layers and Bryan [James, Youthful Daze creator and star] did a really great job. He is kind of a mastermind because you don't know how it's all going to come together and then it does and your mind's blown. [Laughs] You're like, "What is going on?" I don't know how he does it but it's ridiculous. All our scripts are separate. I have a "Natalie" script and I don't know what's going on with all of the other characters.

SERIAL SCOOP: Bryan has a true love for daytime soaps, and it comes across in the series.
JEN LILLEY: I love talking to him about Days of our Lives because he and I have become really good friends. We do Thanksgiving and Christmas so I’ll tell him everything that is going on in Days because he knows how to keep his mouth shut. [Laughs] I'll ask him, "This is what's going on, how do I play this? What does this mean for my character? Am I going to get like written off?" And he’s like, "No, no, no, dude, this is what happens in three months." It will be something like you’re in a car wreck, and these aren't spoilers I’m just making this up, and he'll say then somebody comes out of the attic or Stefano's basement and they poison you and then two months later you have a dream about it, and then Brady comes in and you're okay. And it all happens! [Laughs] He knows soaps so well. We were actually talking about it and I was joking with him because he wants to kill off a character or two from the season. I said, "You know what you should do," because Bryan has taught me and I know from General Hospital and Days, "Remember that syndrome in soaps where someone walks into the attic and they never come back?" [Laughs] What is that called?

SERIAL SCOOP: I know SORAS–Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome. And then the other one where you just…
JEN LILLEY: We all know what you’re talking about, right? So neither of us could remember what the guy's name was. It's a classic thing in soaps that you should literally just have one of the characters walk into the attic and never come back down because soap fans would go crazy for it.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Bobby Martin famously never came down from the attic on All My Children!

SERIAL SCOOP: Yes, definitely. A classic character on Days of our Lives, Don Craig played by Jed Allen, Marlena's (Deidre Hall) first husband went to mail a letter and never came back. [Laughs] That would be funny if Youthful Daze did that.
JEN LILLEY: It would be hilarious. We'd all know whats up. It would be hysterical.

SERIAL SCOOP: What will your Days of our Lives fans who love you as Theresa find on Youthful Daze?
JEN LILLEY: If they just want to see a different color of what I can play, Natalie is very different from Theresa, which is fun for me. I think it's very different from Days but it still goes in with that genre and Bryan has a great way of giving homage to soaps in general. It has all the elements of a classic soap which sometimes soaps waver from now. They go back and fourth with periods where you're watching a soap and it's like the good old days and they're on fire, and then they'll go through this lull where you're like what’s going on right now, what's happening? Bryan just has a through line of keeping it classic and I think all soap fans can appreciate that.

SERIAL SCOOP: I believe they can. I see Youthful Daze as campy fun and you never know what a character is going to say next. It's addicting. It's those moments I enjoy.
JEN LILLEY: And I think it gives hope for a younger generation, a new group of soap fans which we can take into the fold and help the ratings for all soaps. Expect the unexpected because you'll never know where Bryan James is taking this ship until the next week comes.

EDITORS NOTE: Catch up on Youthful Daze at youthfuldaze.com.

* 10 Sensational Summer Performances on Daytime Soaps
* EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Jade Harlow on 'Youthful Daze,' Jen Lilley and 'Lush'
* EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Mike C. Manning on His 'Youthful Daze' Character and Producing 'Kidnapped for Christ'

Michael Goldberg is a freelance writer, producer and actor based out of New York. He regularly contributes television and web series features to Serial Scoop.

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