Jen Lilley: Star of ‘USS Christmas’ is making sure Christmas is not cancelled by COVID-19 (”1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast)
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Even though Christmas 2020 will be different because of the COVID-19 pandemic, fans of The Hallmark Channel can count on one tradition happening again this year. They’ll see actress Jen Lilley in one of the network’s new Christmas films. Jen follows up her role in 2018′s Mingle All The Way, and her two 2019 holiday films, Winter Love Story and Angel Falls: A Novel Holiday, by starring in USS Christmas, a military-themed movie that premieres on The Hallmark Channel at 10:00 p.m. eastern on Saturday, November 28.
“It is such a special film,” Jen said about the movie that also stars Trevor Donovan and Barbara Niven. “It has a love story in it, but a mystery love story. It was really well written, really poignant, and it really just celebrated our troops. The cast was amazing. It has really funny bits of comedy, but also really deep sentimental moments. I’m really looking forward to that.”
The USS Christmas production was one of the first to shoot in Wilmington during the COVID-19 pandemic. Crew members had to take extra precautions such as wearing facemasks on-set. Jen and others were also limited in where they could go while in town. But the native of Roanoke, Virginia did enjoy getting back to the east coast, even for a short period of time.
“I feel like I’ve lost a lot of hope in our nation this year,” she said. “But when I went to North Carolina, it was like ‘Oh, people do look you in the eyes, and they are kind, and they still say ‘please’ and they still say ‘thank you’ and they still say ‘ya’ll’ and they are still so sweet’. Really it was a nice reprieve for me to be back in the south and encounter so many kind people.”
One of the projects Jen did work on during her down time in Wilmington is her “Operation Christmas: is not Cancelled” effort. Fans can buy entries for the chance to win ‘The Ultimate Christmas’ which includes a tree and decorations from Balsam Hill, along with dinner, gifts and $1500.00 cash. Proceeds from the entries will help provide 10,000 toys to the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves’ Toys for Tots program. Ten percent of each entry will also go to the USO (United Service Organization), the leading charitable organization serving active-duty service members and their families.
“It was all just birthed out of the idea of ‘How do I spread cheer and holiday hope, but also make giving fun?’,” Jen said about how it all came together. “Because I have military in my family, and I love our troops and never want to forget them, and I can’t imagine being a military wife, and because our movie is called USS Christmas and it has a military theme, I was like, ‘You know what would be a good thing to do? Give people the opportunity to give a toy for a child in need, they’ll receive my music, they’re purchasing my music and a gift for a child, and a percentage of the package goes to the USO. So it supports both charities, they get Christmas music, my album, and they get a chance to win the ultimate dream Christmas.”
The grand prize giveaway for the “Operation Christmas: is not Cancelled” is December 10. You can click here to find out more information on how to get involved.
Much like her co-star Trevor Donovan, Jen sings the praises of being involved with The Hallmark Channel crew involved in the network’s positive, uplifting movies. She starred in her first Hallmark films in 2017 and has had roles in productions every year since.
“Hallmark is exactly who they present in front of the camera, behind the camera,” she explains. “It’s always a positive experience to work for them. I don’t know how they find all their actors and actresses, but honestly, I’ve never met a bad apple in Hallmark. You just meet these people, and they’re so lovely, and the proof is in the pudding. Even for this ‘Operation Christmas: is not Cancelled’, I reached out to all my Hallmark co-stars or friends and every single one of them was like ‘I love it Jen! I’m in!’ They’re all helping me promote. You know, they’re not getting much out of it. They’re just such wonderful people, none of them have egos. All of them are exactly who you should be following on social media and who your kids should be looking up to. I think that’s really the difference in Hallmark.”
Jen moved to Los Angeles after graduating from the University of Virginia in 2007. She says she never overly pursued acting while in high school but did land the lead role in Annie as a senior. The interest in drama grew at UVA, where she got involved in many independent films both on- and off-camera. After graduation, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career. She appeared in small roles on several popular shows including Two and a Half Men, Criminal Minds and Castle. Her big break came in 2011, when she landed the role of Maxie Jones on General Hospital. Producers had recast her to replace Kirsten Storms, a fan favorite who had to take time off to deal with an illness. Jen appeared in more than 100 episodes but admits the first several months in the role were difficult.
“I can never thank soap fans enough,” she says. “I mean, they made it really tough on me. It was trial by fire my first my first four months. It was like ‘we hate you!’. I was like ‘I know! I’m not Kirsten’ I’m sorry!’ That’s a lesson for everyone. You’re not responsible for how people treat you. But you are responsible for your reaction. I was like ‘The truth is, they’re not mad at me. They’re upset at the situation. We’re all in this boat. ‘I’m sorry. I know I’m not Kirsten. She’s lovely but she’s not here. So I just need you to keep watching’. It was like, ‘Kill them with kindness, take the high road’, and we withstood the heat in the kitchen for four months and the fans were like ‘Okay, she’s okay’. I can’t thank them enough because they’ve really stuck with me all these years and it’s been an incredible journey.”
Maxie Jones was not Jen’s only role in soap opera land. Not long after leaving General Hospital, she joined the cast of Days of Our Lives as series regular Theresa Donovan. It lasted for three years (with a reappearance in 2018), and starting at 28:00 of the podcast, you can hear Jen get emotional recalling the moment of prayer that led her to accepting the role.
Jen has become a strong advocate for foster children and is well-versed in the foster care system. She and her husband Jason Wayne have fostered and adopted two boys. Kayden, who is four years old, became part of the family in June 2019. The couple adopted his two-year-old half-brother Jeffrey in early November. Their daughter Julie was born last July. Jen joined foster care expert Dr. John DeGarmo on a trip to Washington, DC this summer, lobbying lawmakers for improved foster care regulations and a safer nationwide uniform protocol for reunifying foster children with birth families. She recently launched a podcast, Fostering Hope, which offers support for families navigating the foster care system while shedding light on its complex nature.
“I found out that the crossroads of many of the issues I care about is foster care,” she said. “72 percent of our incarcerated came from foster care. 50 percent of our homeless came from foster care. Upwards of 98 percent of our human trafficking victims came from foster care. When you really get down to the nitty gritty, I believe you can heal these children as children, and you’re going to make a profound impact on society as a whole.”
Jen also recently released an album of original songs called Hindsight. How she finds the time to handle everything on her plate is a mystery to me. But she does it all with a smile, a great attitude and a genuine desire to help others, especially children. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did.
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