Set in Cape Cod, the Starz drama series Hightown follows Jackie Quiñones (Monica Raymund) on her very rocky journey to sobriety, as she discovers a body on the beach and decides to try to solve the case. The National Marine Fisheries Service agent quickly clashes with Sergeant Ray Abruzzo (James Badge Dale) with the Cape Cod Interagency Narcotics Unit, which complicates everything, as they both start to spin out of control.
During this interview with Collider, co-stars Monica Raymund and James Badge Dale talked about being drawn to such complicated characters, keeping a wit and humor in the intense material, the great vibe they had working together on set, why the mystery of it all adds to the show’s appeal, and how they felt about their characters by the end of the season.
MONICA RAYMUND: When you audition for it, you read as much as you’re able to. Reading for Jackie, I knew that it was something I wanted to do because of all of the layers and because she was messy. It was very real, though. I understood why this girl is trying to figure out who she is and find her own redemption, in a world of chaos.
JAMES BADGE DALE: Monica came on for us. She’s the anchor of this show. I sat down and read it afterwards, and I was just so intoxicated. Television shows are different because you’re making this long-term commitment to something and basically saying, “I’m willing to live and play in this world.” And there was something about (show creator) Rebecca [Perry Cutter]’s writing. I was like, “I can live and play in this because they are so layered and flawed.” There are moments of beauty and compassion and empathy with these characters, but also, everyone’s sick, everyone’s just trying to fill this void, everyone has an addiction, in their own way, and everyone’s just trying to do the best they can.
James, having recently done a string of darker characters, do you ever wish you could just do a comedy?
DALE: Yeah, I wish I was a funnier person.
RAYMUND: You mean, you’re not gonna be on a sitcom, anytime soon?
DALE: I’ve gotta go to clown college. This is intense material, but at the same time, there’s this wit and humor to it. We just had this great vibe on set. We come to work and maybe we are dealing with some serious subject matter that , I don’t want to laugh about, but we’ve gotta keep things like. That’s how you have good energy on set. When the cameras roll, Monica and I are all over. We’re pinging over here, and over there, and they let us do our thing, and then they edit it together.
RAYMUND: And what was cool about the show is that there are these fun moments. It might be busting each other’s balls in one scene with him, or Junior and I having this sibling moment where we’re playing with each other. So, there are moments of lightness through it. For the characters in this world, you have to find laughter in darkness. You have to find what that is, just so that you can get up in the morning and survive.
Monica, I had no idea that there was such a thing as a National Marine Fisheries Services agent. What was it like to learn about that?
RAYMUND: I was like, “Is that the Coast Guard?” I didn’t know. Even though I grew up in Florida, on the friggin’ water, I’d still never heard of the National Marine Fisheries Services. When I went to my parents and they were like, “What do you play?” I was like, “A National Marine Fisheries Services agent.” They were like, “What is that?” I as like, “I think they regulate lobster and fish.” In the script, I say, “I’m a fish cop.” I got to ride along a few times with people, and I got to drive a boat and learn how to come in at an angle, the way that they do. That was really fun.
With as much of a mess as she is, how do you think she’s even been able to maintain her job, at all?
RAYMUND: She’s charming as hell. She knows how to work it, and she’s manipulative. She knows that she’s got this swag, and she uses it to get what she wants. And also, then there’s the aspect of being a functional alcoholic until you’re not. She keeps pushing the envelope and going and going because, if there’s been no repercussions yet, why stop, until we start seeing it affect her job and her relationships.
James, with you’re a character, we don’t really get his background, initially. Is that something that we’ll see more of?
DALE: Part of the strength of the way it’s been written is that you don’t know a lot about Ray. remains a mystery, as to where he’s coming from and what his end game is. That will develop more, over time. Ray is a complicated guy doing complicated things.
RAYMUND: What’s sexy about this show is that there’s mystery with all of us, and I think that audiences are gonna want to see more because of that. There’s only so much we’re willing to give because we both have so much to hide. It’s how we run through the world and shape the world around us. We don’t trust anybody. We’ve obviously been hurt. Learning how to show ourselves is a very complicated process.
Does this show also feel like a bit of an ongoing puzzle, as far as who’s connected with who and who you’ll get to cross paths with?
DALE: I love stories like that, where you have a central event. It’s not a whodunit. You know who shot Sherry and me in the head, immediately. It’s not a solving a crime show. It’s the repercussions, and you see how that affects everyone’s lives. It’s just a really beautiful, eight-episode story that weaves together.
RAYMUND: And what’s cool about this is that it’s got so much more to go. This is a narrative that’s essentially a really long movie, and we’ve only just begun the first act, with this first season. What’s wonderful is that you become so invested in the characters relationships to this investigation and how they intersect that it makes me want to see what happens, if you do get a Season 2. What happens to these people? Where are they going? How are they going to deal with this now?
DALE: This show starts off where everyone’s functioning, and it’s a slow boil. As every episode keeps going on, it just gets more and more heated, and everything comes to a head. It’s a beautiful thing that all of these characters have to face the truth and deal with that.
Did you feel differently about who these characters were, by the time that you got to the end of the season, and do you think the audience will, as well?
RAYMUND: I certainly felt closer to my character because I’m riding with her, throughout each episode. I felt even more protective over her because I loved her. I started to love the character that I was playing and understand her. I wanted to take care of it. So, towards the end, that would be the difference. In the beginning, you have a concept of maybe what the character is and how you would approach it, but you’re still very much exploring. By the end of the season, even though you’re never done exploring, you’ve learned a lot about where the character has come from, and that informs where the character is gonna go. It’s a very rich experience.
DALE: I had the complete opposite experience. As it kept going, I started to feel closer and closer and more connected to it, and by the end, I was like, “Get Ray off of me. I want him off of me. I want his clothes off.”
RAYMUND: That’s cool that we had different experiences. It’s personal. That’s a super intimate question.
DALE: You start off with all of these ideas. You steal from here and you steal from there, and you do all of this research, but at the end of the day, it’s all personal. You take ownership, and then you run with it. We all show up to work and we do our jobs to the best of our abilities. It’s a very professional set. But we all have these different reactions, at the end. It’s not easy to live as someone else, for a prolonged period of time.
RAYMUND: Especially when you’re not ending it. We’re not tying any loose ends. They’re open. It’s very open.
Hightown airs on Sunday nights on Starz.