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Some spoilers below for the series premiere of Starz's new drama Hightown, so be warned!
In the two years since The Originals ended its five-season run, star Riley Voelkel returned to the role of Freya Mikaelson for an episode of Legacies (which may not be a one-time thing), and also recurred on The CW's Roswell, New Mexico reboot. Now, Voelkel is starring alongside former Chicago Fire star Monica Raymund and 24 vet James Badge Dale in the dark Starz drama Hightown. The new role is quite a gear shift for Voelkel, who portrays Renee Segna, an exotic dancer whose traumatic past partially defines her present.
As witnessed in Hightown's series premiere, Riley Voelkel and Renee were both introduced when the character got called to the strip club's stage, where suggestively athletic dancing ensued. Before too long, Renee was shedding clothes for James Dale Badge's line-crossing narcotics cop Ray Abruzzo, which was no doubt a shocker for Voelkel's large fanbase. Speaking with the actress earlier this year at this year's Television Critics Association winter tour, I inquired about her taking on such a revealing role for Hightown. In her words:
Yes, so that was my first time doing that. [It was] very different. You know, in the past, I've said no to a lot of projects that I just didn't feel were quite right. When I read this script, I just knew it was right. I knew it was right for the character, it made sense. Not to mention, I had the most incredible support team. The cast, the producers, the team, the camera crew: everyone was so supportive and made me so comfortable, and it was very professional. So at no point did I feel, you know, too exposed. Everyone was so great. I kind of had to dive deep into myself and find this confidence in the character. I mean, that's not me, but it is Renee, and she's not worried about it, you know? I would be, but she's not. So I kind of had to dive deep into that, and play off of that.
Beyond the whole "being the same person" element, there don't seem to be very many things that Riley Voelkel has in common with Hightown's Renee. Like many in the area around Provincetown, Massachusetts, Renee's life is connected to the drug world, as she's the longtime girlfriend of criminal kingpin Frankie Cuevas (Prison Break's Amaury Nolasco), whose influence is widely felt even though he's in prison. Even though they share a five-year-old son, Frankie still puts Renee is potential danger by having her be his eyes and ears on the outside.
Which isn't to say that Renee is a pushover without her own agency. As viewers will see as Season 1 drives forward, Renee is cognizant of when she's being threatened and has a way of coming out ahead. Part of the character's confidence comes from her exotic dancing gig, which requires a certain amount of bravado, among other skills. When I asked Riley Voelkel about the physical challenges involved with that aspect of playing Renee, she admitted she had zero experience when it came to dancing.
Yes, it was terrifying, and such a challenge for me, because I have no dance background. I couldn't even touch my toes when I auditioned for this role. Okay, so it was a pretty intensive training process of four months or so of physical training every day, and then dance training. I had these incredible coaches that just really brought a side out in me that I think wasn't really there before, or I hadn't tapped into before. I mean, these girls are just so empowered and powerful and comfortable, and they just own the stage. That was something that did not come naturally to me. So my first scene, which you saw, was me getting up there and dancing in front of everyone, and it was terrifying. But I just had the best coaches, and it actually became empowering. I tapped into something I didn't know I had. But it was scary.
So for all the viewers out there who think stripping and dancing is an easy job to get into without experience, just remember that Riley Voelkel trained for months to get into proper physical shape to film scenes as a dancer, which presumably didn't happen every single day. It clearly takes a lot of strength and stamina to excel in such a position.
Riley Voelkel did say that the exotic dancers who serve as background extras are indeed professionals, and she defended their talents as an art form, saying:
Oh, it's totally an art. And I mean, these girls who actually do it for a living just blew me out of the water. You can see them in the background and everything. They're just so incredible, so strong, and just so talented. It is a talent and it's so much harder [than you'd think]. They make it look graceful and easy; it's not. It is not.
Whereas some performances put actors through situations that they'd never want to go through again, Riley. Voelkel says that she really got invested in the dancing side of portraying Renee. When I asked if she danced more in her free time after getting into shape for it all, the actress confirmed that was definitely the case.
I do! It definitely was like a outlet for me. I was like, this dancing to the music and kind of letting go was something I think I was missing a little bit, and so I do. I've kept up with it a little bit, and I crave it sometimes now. I'm like, 'I wanna go dance again.' I'm a little bit more confident with it now. And like I said, the girls are just so supportive in that environment that they made it so much easier.
Stay tuned to CinemaBlend for more from our interview with Riley Voelkel, as well as our talk with star Monica Raymund. With more deadly twists and turns to go, Hightown Season 1 airs Sunday nights on Starz at 8:00 p.m. ET. Check out all the other big shows heading to the small screen soon with our Summer 2020 premiere schedule.