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'Hightown' star Monica Raymund on playing a queer federal agent in a straight man’s world

NBC News logo NBC News 10/22/2021 Max Gao
© Provided by NBC News

After six seasons of playing Gabriela Dawson on the hit NBC procedural drama “Chicago Fire,” Monica Raymund was looking for a new creative challenge when she received an offer to lead the gritty Starz crime drama “Hightown” in 2018 — and it was an opportunity she did not want to pass up.

“It is the first time I’ve been able to lead my own show, and it did feel like the timing was right,” Raymund, 35, told NBC News in a phone interview. “I was sort of in transition, moving from one chapter to the next, and this felt like a really organic opportunity that came up.”

Created by Rebecca Cutter (“Gotham,” “The Mentalist”) and executive produced by Gary Lennon (“Orange Is the New Black”), the series follows Jackie Quiñones (Raymund), a hedonistic National Marine Fisheries Service agent whose life is thrown into disarray when she discovers the body of a murdered woman on the beach and finds herself at the center of the opioid epidemic in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. As she works to solve crimes related to a drug trafficking operation, Jackie must stay above a pool of secrets, betrayal and shame from her past.

Given that she has always been “attracted to characters who have very dense obstacles in front of them, who are facing adversity and doing their best to overcome it,” Raymund said she was initially drawn to Jackie’s complexity and struggle to survive.

“When I read Rebecca’s pilot, I just knew I wanted to be a part of it, especially because the role is really one about this woman trying to find her way through darkness, trying to find redemption and to fill this big hole in her,” she said during a panel for NewFest, New York City’s annual LGBTQ film festival, earlier this month.

Monica Raymund, left, in season two of © Dana Hawley Monica Raymund, left, in season two of

While she grew up in Florida and had personal experience with fishing, Raymund said she did not have any prior knowledge of the National Marine Fisheries Service and was able to “learn what comes with that job and the responsibility” that comes with the professional management of marine resources.

But from a personal standpoint, she worked closely with Cutter, who she said has been “honest and transparent about her own experience” with addiction, and pulled from her own experiences with family and friends to paint a painfully nuanced picture of the opioid epidemic, which continues to ravage communities across the United States.

“It’s a ubiquitous problem, and you can’t throw stones at someone who has endured some kind of difficulty or loss and addiction,” Raymund told NBC News. “Drugs don’t have bias. They don’t care who you are or where you come from, how much money you’ve got. They are harmful, and we’re all very vulnerable to the power of addiction. Some people are able to get out from underneath its grasp, and some people, unfortunately, succumb to it, so it was very important to us that we navigate that with as much truth as possible.”

For Raymund, the responsibility that comes with playing a queer Latina is one she has not taken lightly. But, she noted, it has been particularly refreshing to play a character whose cultural identity or sexual orientation is not the focus of the story; it is, rather, simply one more element or characteristic that makes her more three-dimensional.

“We’re now at the point where we might be normalizing and destigmatizing the characteristics of the roles and the humans that occupy that space,” Raymund, whose other acting credits include “Lie to Me” and “The Good Wife,” explained. “It is still quite nascent, but I think that we’re moving quickly in terms of the exposure that we’re seeing of queer, BIPOC characters. To be able to really be with this lead character but focusing more on the crime, on the drama, on the story, as opposed to how she looks or how she identifies, is a huge leap forward.”

During her time at The Juilliard School, Raymund said at NewFest, she became really “interested in playing these usually male roles and trying to embody them because there was a strength, and I wasn’t seeing a lot of it in the female characters as I was growing up until I started reading more and educating myself more about more classical roles or archetypes.”

It seems that desire to challenge the status quo has presented Raymund with an opportunity to assume a lead role that has historically been played by white straight men in the crime genre.

“Having a queer woman of color taking on the mantle of a role that’s usually played by a white, cis man is the opportunity of a lifetime,” she said. “I think because of it, there is a very rich and different and nuanced perspective through which we’re watching the show, and it might not even be something that your audience can quite put their finger on, but it’s something that’s visceral and emotional. I think it’s a very distinct lens through which we’re watching this story, because it’s inherently coming from a queer, brown woman.”

“I try to be as artistic and gentle about it when I talk about this, because I’m not interested in isolating any gender,” she added. “I’m just interested in fortifying our storytelling approaches with more diversity and more inclusion, because more stories are more interesting.”

In the evolving debate of which actors should be allowed to play which roles, Raymund, who came out publicly as bisexual in 2014, said, “Everybody’s point of view … is absolutely valid.” But at the end of the day, she said she supports “all different kinds of people exploring roles, no matter their sexuality or identity in a way that doesn’t misrepresent the role. As long as it’s inhabited and told truthfully and grounded in the play or in the film and the world, I think it doesn’t really matter who plays it.”

“I think it needs to be a conversation between the artist and the character on the page, and it’s about making that truthful in order to represent the entire story, because at the end of the day, we’re telling stories,” she added. “And it’s more important, I think, to represent what the story is in all of its glory, rather than just restricting ourselves to who can represent what.”

While “Hightown” might shine a light on the dark underbelly of Provincetown, it also captures the joy of the LGBTQ mecca, making it a popular destination for tourists.

“During certain seasons, it’s this incredibly vibrant, eclectic, fun town full of [an] accepting and inclusive community,” Raymund explained. “Artists go there to write plays, to paint, to write TV shows, so it’s this incredibly unique artist enclave from all backgrounds and a very diverse and tolerant community.”

“Then there’s this winter season. The tourists go away, the cold comes in and the fog creeps on the edges, and the locals are left there,” she continued. “And I guess the question really becomes: What happens when the glitz and the colors are removed? We’re sort of left with the bare bones and the truth of the town … and that’s where season two takes place.”

Monica Raymund, right, and Tonya Glanz in season two of © Dana Hawley Monica Raymund, right, and Tonya Glanz in season two of

In the show’s sophomore season, Jackie joins forces with Leslie (Tonya Glanz), the only other woman on the force, to bring down drug kingpin Frankie Cuevas (Amaury Nolasco), the man Jackie holds responsible for the tragic death of her best friend, Junior (Shane Harper). It’s another slippery slope that Jackie, who is committed to her newfound sobriety, will have to navigate when her personal and professional lives begin to collide in the middle of winter.

“Jackie has gained some clarity. She feels like she has found a kind of purpose and passion in life, and we quickly start to see what happens when that personal and that professional life intersect,” Raymund previewed. “All of a sudden, now she’s really working with this really hot partner, and she’s finding herself flirting with the danger of that. What happens when those lines are blurred and crossed? Just because she got sober from alcohol doesn’t mean that there isn’t some kind of cross-addiction happening in her professional life. Now, she has this obsession of the mind with this job, with catching Frankie, wanting to put the bad guys behind bars. She knows that she can do it, but she’s struggling to find the support.”

After directing episodes of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “FBI,” Raymund — who was part of the inaugural class of the NBC initiative Female Forward and would not rule out a return to the “Chicago” universe in the future — also stepped behind the camera for an episode of “Hightown,” which airs Oct. 31. The process of acting and directing at the same time requires the use of two different parts of the brain, Raymund explained, making it one of the most challenging but most fulfilling experiences of her career.

“When I’m acting while I’m directing, I really have to rely on my cinematographer, and in this case, my executive producer Ellen [H.] Schwartz. They’re very conflicting perspectives when you’re in the moment, so I really had to lean on an outsider’s eye while I’m acting so that I can trust that the story is being told,” Raymund said. “I really do trust that, after all these years in the business and after reading so many plays, screenplays and books and continuing to be a voracious reader and connoisseur of film, I’m at a place now in my life as an artist where I’m beginning to trust my taste — and that’s a really empowering place to be as a director.”

“Hightown” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Starz in the U.S. and Canada.

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