Actress Jen Lilley has an ingénue quality, flawless skin, and green pools for eyes—you literally want to dive right into them. If you do choose to dive into the pool, you won’t be wading, as this Southern lady is a person of depth, both intellectually or spiritually. Her original career goal was law, and she is well-read and varied in her interests, including baking quality desserts and restoring furniture. But for Jen acting is the calling, and seven years in Hollywood has afforded her some remarkable opportunities. She earned a turn in the Academy Award-winning feature film THE ARTIST, where she was able to express her remarkable beauty and grace.
Jen is also a comedienne with innate comic timing. She has done improv with the Upright Citizens Brigade, and has garnered appearances on TWO AND A HALF MEN, and iCARLY. Despite all these inherent and hard-earned assets, she doesn’t take herself too seriously. She understands she is a marketable commodity on which the entertainment industry places high value.
“I always knew that whatever I did in life, whether it was to be a lawyer or whatever—I just knew I wanted to make money to give it away. And I wanted to have a platform to be able to speak to people. So acting is kind of a natural fit for that, right? Because you have this ridiculous platform where for whatever reason, I play dress up and people listen to me.”
At present, Jen gets dressed up to play Theresa Donovan, the devious drug and booze addicted vixen on NBC’s DAYS OF OUR LIVES. DAYS is one of the last surviving soap operas on daytime television, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Jen has been a part of the cast since 2013, and has impacted critics, as well as her fans with her no-holds barred portrayal of the villainous Theresa. Because the character came off so diabolical, Jen originally had misgivings about taking on the role.
“I did the role of “Maxie Jones” on General Hospital for 11 months. Because of that I had DAYS attention. I auditioned for the role of “Jordan” and the role of “Theresa”, and they were like, which role do you like better. I thought I liked the role of Jordan better, because she’s a sweet girl. And they were like, ‘Well, we kind of wrote Theresa with you in mind.’ I said, ‘Can you spell “Theresa” for me?’ Maybe I’m reading the wrong character; this is so not my character.”
Jen has been a committed Christian since the age of 9, and is an admitted “goody two-shoes”, so taking on Theresa would definitely be a stretch.
“I just didn’t know if I wanted to play a character like that. She’s really evil; she’s slutty, and promiscuous. I just wasn’t seeing the appeal of it. So of course, I’m praying about it, and I really felt like God just kept saying, this is your role, this is your role.
“I wasn’t going to say, ‘No, Lord’, but I did say, ‘Why? Why do you want me to play this role? How does this role glorify you in any way? I don’t get it.’ He very clearly responded to me, ‘Because I love Theresa. I want the Theresa’s of the world to know that they are not beyond redemption, and that I died for them when everyone was yet sinners. No person is too broken or too fallen; no one falls out of my hand. And I died for Theresas too.’”
This glimpse into God’s heart gave Jen new insight on how to embody the character.
“I chose to play Theresa with vulnerability. The sex and the drugs, it doesn’t fulfill her. She wakes up the next morning, and I play it with this sadness, like, Well, here I am again. Which is what I think people do feel; I think we’re all trying to fill that God-shaped hole. Until you find Christ, I think people are just grasping for the truth.”
Jen was fortunate enough to find that truth at an early age. “I remember being 7, and riding my bike around saying out loud, ‘God, I don’t really know if I believe in you, but if you’re real, then like, reveal yourself to me.’ Which is totally one of the very few things in the Bible that he says you can question him on, you know? God will always reveal himself if you ask him.”
Analytical and studious from the get, Jen decided she needed to read the entire Bible. “I grew up Catholic, and went to Catholic school. So I learned a lot about Jesus. But I think that when I read the story of Elijah in 1st and 2nd Kings, I was like, oh, wait: people can have the power of the Lord? I didn’t know that, I didn’t know Old Testament stories. I was taught at that time in my life to go through a priest—you were always going through somebody else. But I can have access to the Father? If Elijah can do all this stuff in the Old Testament, and that’s before the Holy Spirit, I want to know this God! From there on out, I was really full on for God.”
It was God that led her down the path of acting, something Jen at first resisted because she suffered terrible stage fright. While studying at the University of Virginia, she auditioned on a whim for an independent film, THE LOSS OF LIFE. “I booked the lead. Apparently they shut down the audition process after I left, and I booked the female lead, and got on set, and basically realized that I was not afraid of the camera. And that film crews, as you know, are like really down to earth, cool people. They just don’t have attitude, I find. I love film crews so much. I don’t know, I just love the crew and I just thought they were interesting people, and I had so much fun with it.”
Jen followed the muse, along with God’s leading into the unknown. “I really felt God was saying this is what I want you do. I know the Bible says, ‘My sheep shall know my voice,’ and I really knew it was the Lord, even though it wasn’t some profound burning bush moment.”
Jen decided to hone her craft, move to L.A., and give it seven years to see if the acting was truly the direction God wanted. “Okay, I’m going to move to L.A. and I’m going to go with guns blazing. I read a bunch of books on the business of acting, and I took as many classes as I could, and I paid my way through extra classes because UVA really didn’t offer what I needed to take. And I equipped myself as best as I could. If I tried as hard as I could, and after seven years I’m still going in circles, and I can’t book any roles, then it was clearly me. But if I try hard, and the doors start opening, then it’s God. Because God will direct your steps, and I think people over complicate it.”
Jen moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2007, and hit the ground running, appearing in top shows like CRIMINAL MINDS, CASTLE, RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, and a number of feature films.
Jen has also done faith-based roles in Pureflix features REVELATION ROAD, REVELATION ROAD 2: SEA OF GLASS AND FIRE, and THE BOOK OF ESTHER.
TURNAROUND JAKE is Jen’s most recent faith-focused outing. Now on DVD, it tells the story of Jacob “Jake” Zaker (Jarret Lemaster) a rising business prodigy working for a corrupt boss. When the government starts investigating illegal practices at his firm, Jake is pinned with the crime and escapes to his childhood home in rural Texas. Now Jake must face an estranged father and the girl he left behind, Jessica Henry, who holds a secret of her own.
In bringing Jessica Henry to life, Jen got to play the sweet girl grounded in authenticity. “That role was cool for me. She’s really as sweet as pie, but she’s also real. Jake is who the story centers around, it’s kind of like the prodigal son. He comes back to his hometown that he thinks he is too good for. He runs into me, Jessica Henry, who he does not know that he has a six year old daughter with. So she’s jaded and sassy toward him, but I think it’s understandable—I think it’s like relatable.
“It’s just interesting for me to play that role, because it’s very different from Theresa. I’m always seeking roles that are very diametrically different! I don’t want to get typecast as the evil vixen.”
Despite her roles in Christian films, and the growing popularity of the market, Jen does not seek out these parts. “I think that the choir only needs to be preached to so much. Not everybody is called to minister to the same thing, and I don’t think I’m called to speak to the choir. I’m called to reach out to people that maybe went to the church at one time and experienced brokenness, and for whatever reason got hurt by the church, and didn’t have enough grace.”
As the face of Theresa Donovan, Jen is reaching women who have never stepped foot in, or have given up on church. This gives the actress the opportunity to witness and see lives changed.
“In playing Theresa, fans feel like I’m totally relatable; then they find out that I’m a Christian, and it opens this door that would not have opened to you otherwise. So I feel like that’s my ministry.”
Jen has a huge heart for young women and children, and is active in various charities that focus on children’s rights, protecting children against physical and sexual abuse, and human trafficking. That a beautiful actress allows herself to be the face and advocate for the ugliness of human trafficking does not sit well with the illusions Hollywood likes to peddle.
“I’ve had two publicists in the past, who will remain nameless, who both very candidly told me I could not be the face of anti-child abuse or child abuse prevention. Nobody wants to talk about child abuse; it’s too hard for us to talk about. We don’t want to face it. And I was like, well, you’re fired then. You are either going to deal with the fact that I want to talk about this, or you’re fired.”
Jen remains a celebrity ambassador for Childhelp, a child abuse and treatment organization, and she is on the advisory board for the Innocent Justice Foundation. She was granted the National Educators Award for doing events in Guatemala for underprivileged youth.
“Yeah, it’s uncomfortable; I don’t like that that goes on, especially child pornography. The United States is the number one consumer, producer, and exporter of child pornography in the world. Fifty-three percent. 12 percent I believe is Russia, and I think 23 percent Thailand and the rest of it is all scattered little numbers that add up to 100. Four and a half times the amount.”
With celebrity platforms about everything from saving Darfur to saving the planet, Jen is a pivotal voice on a matter that is an ugly stain on our culture and nation.
“I think being a celebrity is cool, because I don’t care if it’s not popular to talk about. Somebody has to talk about it, and that’s been a huge thing that I’ve been able to have that platform to talk about it. They need sunlight on the issue. And I’m like, well, I’ll shine it, because you think God’s not horrified that this is going on? These 2-year olds need somebody to stand up and say this is not okay, and then again, just with broken young girls, and stuff, being able to say, you have worth.”
Jen appreciates her fans and connects as much as she can through her Facebook page, Twitter feeds, and fan pages. Fans open up to her, and this gives Jen opportunity to minister the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“I don’t even know if I can count how many fans are like, ‘Oh, I started going to church again because of you.’ And I’m like, what?! I don’t even tweet about Jesus that much. I mean, I’m loud about my Christianity, but I try not to be obnoxious about it, because people can take that as a judgment. Others have said, I went to AA because of Theresa. I went back to church, I gave my life to Jesus because of Theresa, it’s just the way you play her.
“I find that Soap Opera fans often watch Soap Operas and get really hooked to them because they need escapism from their own life. I think that’s true for any of us, but especially with Soap fans. Some of their lives, it’s just like, you just have to cry. It’s been cool how many times I’ve been able to really look at someone and say, you know what? I don’t care what you believe, but I fully believe you are not an accident. That you were created on purpose, and with a purpose. Then I go through Jeremiah 29:11. It’s like God loves you. He gave you a hope and a future. He not up there wanting bad things for you. Just because you don’t believe in yourself doesn’t mean you weren’t created for greatness.”
The little girl from Roanoke, VA is no longer asking if God is real and for him to reveal himself; she is the adult woman who brings the reality of a loving God to millions who might otherwise not hear the message, through the most unlikely of characters.
“I just think it’s crazy that people let me talk to them, because, let’s be honest: at the end of the day, I play dress up. But for some reason, you’ll let me speak into your life. So if that’s what it takes to open that door, sure, I’ll be that.”