At the center of the new Starz series Hightown is Riley Voelkel’s Renee Segna, a mother who makes ends meet by dancing at the local strip joint, and her boyfriend and father of her child, Frankie Cuevas, played by Amaury Nolasco. Frankie is the incarcerated leader of a local drug ring who is determined to keep his business running, even from behind bars, leading Renee getting pulled into a police investigation. The couple are dedicated to one another, even if they’re not always good for each other, and the series makes both characters and their relationship complicated and multi-dimensional.
In an interview, CBR spoke with Voelkel and Nolasco about what stood out for them about Hightown, the process of bringing their characters to life, and the appeal of playing new and different roles.
CBR: You’ve both been involved in high-profile series before, so what stood out for you about this project?
Amaury Nolasco: I want to start with this. Like you said, yes, we’ve both been involved with high profiles. You know, I was able to work on this beautiful show called Prison Break, and you might ask why would you want to be in prison again? When you get amazing writing, like the one we have on Hightown, you can’t pass. It was just a delight to read, and the characters that we get to play are just amazing. They’re flawed characters, they’re the characters that, as an actor, you cannot wait to get an opportunity.
And another thing that caught my attention was… it’s a show that’s in the forefront. It’s groundbreaking for having a woman creator, a woman director, a woman producer. And to me, I’ve always said this, women should rule the world. Things would be a lot easier… because there’s no egos involved. And I say this with all sincerity and being genuine: I think women are the most beautiful thing God created, and I honestly I couldn’t be more proud to be on a show that is basically run by women.
Riley Voelkel: For sure. I have to agree with the writing just being an immediate thing for me. I read the script and I remember it had been a while since I’ve had that feeling where I read something and I was like, I have to be a part of this. So that was definitely pulling me in. I also, I think, was craving a character like this as an actor. I was in the fantasy world for quite a long time [on series like The Originals], and while that was a lot of fun, I was really looking forward to playing a real person with real problems in the real world. And so that was what attracted me definitely as well.
You both play incredibly complex people and they aren’t easy roles to tackle. What was your process like for building your characters?
Nolasco: Again, I’ve already had the opportunity to play a prisoner so when it came to the whole inmate thing I had a little bit of knowledge just because of my five years in prison. [laughs] But, you know, one of the things that I wanted to bring to this character was… Frankie’s a charming guy. He’s charming, he’s funny, but he’s ruthless. This is a guy who can be very terrifying if you cross him. And one of the things I wanted to bring while I was building the character, creating it with [creator] Rebecca [Cutter], was there’s a sense of he’s human, he’s got feelings, he’s got a wife-to-be, a kid. And, you know, nobody says, “I’m going to be the villain, I’m going to be bad just for the sake of being bad.” There are circumstances that take you to that. And Frankie, clearly, his most important thing is his ring of drugs. And, again, loyalty is very important. He’s very charming and everything, but you don’t want to cross this guy.
Something that I like to say is that he’s the kind of character that you’re going to love to hate. But at the same time you’re going to hate to love because there’s moments that you’re going to go, “Wow, I can see that I can relate. That he’s a father.” Does he have feelings for Renee or is he playing her? …This is something that I always had…, not issues but a conflict playing, was how he would actually put her in harm’s way in a Bonnie and Clyde kind of way, however, to do these things with [police detective] Ray [played by James Badge Dale], in order to get info. But the way I also had to justify it is, well, she is my Bonnie to Clyde, and she is in it for me, for both of us, for our family.
Voelkel: For me, it was I really could only relate to Renee as a human and I think I always try to bring an element of myself to any character I play, that’s what makes it real for me. But I really had to open myself up to that world, which I was very unfamiliar with. And I think Renee’s life problems and struggles are very different than my own, like being an ex-addict, being a mother, I didn’t know that world. And so I spoke closely with Rebecca Cutter, who is a wonderful mother, and was able to give me insight on kind of the day to day being a mom. And I had to also put myself into that world of someone who’s working in the club, who has a lot of traumas that made her to believe that relationships are transactional, and kind of just live in that. And you know, I did my research, I went to different places and then it just kind of took on embodying that character, I guess.
Your characters’ relationship is an integral part of their storyline as well. How did you go about building that relationship together?
Nolasco: I have to say, it all started with the screen test. That’s the first time I met Riley. She already had the part, I was still reading, I was screen testing, and I had to compete with another few guys. And I had an amazing time reading with her. Right away, there was a spark and a camaraderie kind of thing going, “Okay, we’re in this together.”
And then again, you know, I wish we could all take the credit but it’s in the page. As an actor, you read these words and basically you just have to get out of the way. It’s right there. And again, I’m not trying to sell ourselves short, but when you get the opportunity to work with an actor like Riley, it’s just we feed on each other. I always use this analogy, I played tennis since I was a kid, and my best matches were with [players] that were better than me, that were ranked better than me. You bring your A-game. And I have to say I’ve been very blessed to have an amazing group of actors in this show where you have to bring your A-game.
Voelkel: And that was an incredible thing about Rebecca Cutter as well. Her writing was just phenomenal, and really, it was right there on the page. She also really allowed us as actors to play around with dialogue, play around with scenes, and we were able to really create these real moments. And so everything felt really authentic and real.
And they, as far as their characters, they have a history. Frankie picked Renee up when she was 19-years-old and a drug addict and took care of her, and he’s kind of all she knows. And now she’s kind of grown up now, she has a son who she cares about the most and is just going to do whatever she needs to do to give a better life to her son. And there’s that relationship, here’s the father of her son that’s always going to be forever bound to her.
Both of you, Riley, in particular, show a lot of skin on the show, and there’s a different kind of vulnerability in that. How do you get into character for shooting those scenes?
Voelkel: Definitely. I had never done anything like that before. So it was definitely a vulnerability for me. But we had the most incredible, supportive, respectful crew, who we had intimacy meetings [with] before every scene that was intimate in any way. We would discuss the scene with the director and the other actors, go over what we were comfortable with, how it was going to go, and then it becomes more of a stunt setup, I’d say, than anything else. You know what’s happening, you know what you’re going to do and you’re on a closed set. And just everyone was very, very respectful, and so it allowed it to be less uncomfortable, I’d say. And you know, you’re playing this character where that’s a big part of her life and so I felt like it was an important part, as well, to show.
I also thought the character of Renee was very layered. She’s a good mom and she managed to kick drugs but then she’s bound to this man who isn’t necessarily very good for her. Riley, how did you reconcile the character’s choices to be able to play those layers?
Voelkel: I think because of the traumas she’s been through, relationships for her, outside of Frankie, are really transactional and I think there’s moments where she could possibly start feeling real feelings or thinking she could have a different life or thinking she could be the normal mom that’s on the field trip with the other normal moms. She wants that, I think. I think she wants that normal domestic life, but the fact of the matter is, it’s not her life.
And she gets, I think, kind of pushed back down into the reality of that’s not her life, and who does she trust. Not many, probably only Frankie if she is going to trust anyone. That’s because he’s really all she knows. He’s the one who’s taken her in at a young age, and when she finds herself strained and wanting something more she’s pushed back down into, “Nope, this is your life.” And so I think that’s kind of why she’s in the position she is.
Amaury, your character is pretty scary at times. Even though he’s in prison, he’s really pulling the strings. How did you go about maintaining this aura of power, even though Frankie isn’t in a place of power?
Nolasco: You know, it’s a great question because I feel like the minute you’re in prison, it becomes a survival game. And clearly this is not a real prison, but I always saw him as the puppeteer. He’s, like you said, he’s the one playing all the strings, he is three or four steps ahead of Ray Abruzzo. But being in prison, gave me that sense of, “Okay, I’m in control here, everybody is under me. And that’s the only way I’m going to be able to get things done.” …You know, you can’t show weakness.
And it’s funny because [the] very few times where you saw just a glimpse of weakness with him it all had to deal with her, with Renee, or Frankie, Jr. And we can tell, that’s when we see we’re human…. These are all layered characters, they’re like onions, you peel them and there we find ups and downs…. But, like I said before, this guy, he [wasn’t] born saying let me be a villain. It was all about his empire and his family, and you don’t want to cross him. So I think the whole thing of being scary is just, it’s front in order to protect what he cares [about] the most, which is his family. And of course, the reign, the drug reign.
You both have played very different characters. Good characters, bad characters. What is it like going from such different characters to Hightown? Is that part of what you like about acting?
Nolasco: Absolutely. [laughs]
Voelkel: It’s the best part about acting is you get to play all these different characters, all these different lives, experiences, and things that you would never experience really in your own life, and you get to just play with them. And so something that’s different than something you’ve played before is so exciting, and I think we naturally crave it as actors, to play something different and change things up. And really that’s how we learn, that’s how we get better, is pushing our limits and putting ourselves into something we’re not comfortable in, and that’s how we get better.
Nolasco: If you go to my closet, I have a section of just clothing that I use, or I’ve bought in the past, for auditions.
Veolkel: Mm hmm. [laughs]
Nolasco: So when I get an audition, right away, the first thing I go is, how does he dress? What kind of shoes will he wear? What kind of T-shirt would he wear? And then I keep them, because I don’t know if I’m going to end up using them again. Who knows? And it’s basically, we’re playing dress up. And we get an opportunity to know. Am I ever going to be Frankie, God forbid? Never. Is she ever going to be Renee? Of course not. But we get this opportunity, and that’s why I wanted to give him, to be as human, as grounded as they can be without going into this realm [of] farfetched, they’re human…
People say, “What is it that you’ve always looked for in your characters when you build them?” And I always look for humor, even in the worst moments there’s always, even if it’s somebody’s dying, even if it’s a funeral, there’s always a little bit of [humor]. Think about it, just think back, if you’ve ever been to a funeral there’s a moment where you laugh because you remember how the person that died made you laugh. Remember everybody starts talking about anecdotes, and there’s a moment of laughter, even if it’s just for a little. So humor is always that something that it’s out to every character. And again, like she said earlier, I feel like everybody’s going to relate, one way or another, to all these characters.
Voelkel: That’s one of the best parts too, is getting to play characters that you know someone out there is going to relate to. And it teaches you a lot as just a human being too about other humans and other perspectives and other lifestyles that you wouldn’t necessarily think about, and then you’re there getting to kind of pretend to live it. So it opens that up as well.
Starring Monica Raymund, James Badge Dale, Shane Harper, Riley Voelkel, Amaury Nolasco, Atkins Estimond and Dohn Norwood, Hightown airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Starz.
Hightown's Riley Voelkel and Amaury Nolasco spoke to CBR about bringing humanity to their complex characters and their difficult relationship.