I caught up with Jere Shea, an incredible Tony Award nominated actor who traded Broadway fame for family. The Hyde Park, MA native portrays the memorable role of Hank Signa, a Massachusetts State Police Detective on Season 1 of the Showtime series ‘City On a Hill’. Shea talked with me about growing up in Boston and his twenty year departure from acting before becoming a series regular for the first season of the popular crime drama. Now that Shea’s kids are grown, hopefully audiences can make up for lost time with the talented performer.
Ryan Glover: Where did you grow up?
Jere Shea: I grew up in Hyde Park in Boston. It’s a neighborhood in sort of the southern edge of Boston. It’s not Southie, but it’s actually geographically South Boston.
Ryan Glover: South Boston has definitely become quite notorious were you familiar with the stories of Whitey Bulger? Because I know you are in the film “Southie”.
Jere Shea: I certainly was, growing up there was just a handful of family members and relatives I knew who they were. They were people I kind of knew from school and other things, through other people to. I didn’t obviously have any direct involvement in that world, but we were all aware of who Whitey Bulger was and what he was up to too some degree. You know you find out a lot of things after the fact by all the books and movies that were made about him. He certainly had a reputation in my neighborhood when we’re growing up. I tried to steer clear of that stuff as much as possible. I find it is always as many good stories about the neighborhood as there are bad stories. I tended to focus on those, you know?
Ryan Glover: Did you always have an interest in the arts when you were growing up in Boston?
Jere Shea: I did but it wove in and out of my life. I’ve been a musician since I was about twelve. I sang and played the guitar and I always knew from my earliest memories that I wanted to be a storyteller in some form, and kind of figured instinctively that would be as an actor, because I just loved to watch movies as a kid. Little black and white stuff and a little black and white set in the living room. So I knew very early on that I wanted to do that, but it wasn’t always the path I was on as a kid. It was sort of a liability in a way growing up as a teen in Boston to have an artistic impulse, it didn’t help you in the neighborhood with your street cred.
Ryan Glover: I definitely could see that being an issue of contention. Did you go to a performing arts school?
Jere Shea: I didn’t. I went to a handful of grade schools. I was in the public-school system up to like third grade, then I went to a Catholic school in Hyde Park and a couple different high schools. So I kind of jumped around a lot and most of those places didn’t really have strong arts programs. So there wasn’t really a lot of opportunity frankly to do this, in my church I belonged to a parish in Hyde Park, Most Precious Blood, every once in while I would do a variety show or something like that when I got hemmed in by my mom to do it. For the most part I just played guitar, sang, and did my own thing for a while. It wasn’t really until college that I decided to take steps toward the profession to get some experience.
I went to Boston College for my undergraduate degree in theatre arts and it took me awhile to sort of get on that path there to. I was a bio major, then a poli sci major, and then I left school altogether to kind of figure out what I was doing. During that time off I was a decontamination technician at Faulkner Hospital in Boston in Jamaica Plains, and I said “gee I gotta get something else going on” doing that in housekeeping and stuff. I decided to go back to BC after a leave of absence and focus on theatre arts and really kind of go for this profession. I did four semesters at BC as a theatre major, got my degree and then went onto NYU at the graduate acting program. It’s a three-year program, during which time I could have become a dentist or a lawyer, same period of time. But I’m really glad I decided to go for the MFA in acting. It set me on a really good course, but that was the first real training I had formally.
Ryan Glover: On your bio it says after NYU you studied at the Stanislavsky Moscow Art Theatre School?
Jere Shea: Stanislavsky founded a theatre school in Moscow. It’s really the National Theatre of Russia. The place where Stanislavsky’s system of acting came up. He created a way into the craft of acting that helped people to be natural and relaxed and use their imaginations and substitute memories from your own past into the scene that your playing. So that was really the foundation for a lot of people like Lee Strasberg, Uta Hagen, and others to devise their own methodologies for acting and teaching. It was just under a month, right before the fall of the Soviet Union.
It was actually a coup attempt in Russia when we were there. It was an exchange program between NYU students and Moscow Arts Theatre students and my class got to go over there and spend time training at Stanislavsky’s school and tour the country in quite a tense time but we were unaware because it was so much going on in international news. It was a jet fuel shortage. I was just married a month or two months before we went and my wife said “you didn’t almost make it home” there was no fuel and so many political upheavals, we were just oblivious, because they didn’t let us know while we were in the country what was happening. It was quite an experience and really informed the way I approach, not only my own performance but also the way I teach.
Ryan Glover: So after that experience did you go back to Boston or what was next for you?
Jere Shea: For me I was really blessed by having some wonderful teachers at NYU!! And I’ve had a number of great mentors from Boston College to, but the folks at NYU were industry people who were just incredibly supportive and helpful. I was able to get my first job coming out of school at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, Shakespeare in the park. So that was my first professional gig after I got out of school and finished my training. So for me, my wife and I were living outside the city in Harrison, NY and that was we’re the industry was, that was we’re work was for me and I knew I would remain there.
Ryan Glover: You had a pretty good experience on Broadway where you were actually nominated for a Tony as Girorgio opposite Donna Murphy. Could you tell me a little about that?
Jere Shea: Yeah, absolutely. It was a really amazing time in my life. I had just sort of finished a year on a musical called Guys and Dolls. It was a great revival that had just opened before I finished school and I went in; I was the first replacement in the cast. I was an understudy in that show and that just kind of enabled me to work and make some money, but I wound up doing another show briefly outside of town, a Broadway tryout of another musical. The timing of that sort of worked that they asked me to come in to audition for Stephen Sondheim. I had met him once before a year before, for a sort of related project that didn’t go, but it was just incredible to be asked to originate a role in a Stephen Sondheim musical.
I never even dreamed it. It was just something that was so far out of my experience and out of my league at the time. Who gets to do that? Who hasn’t been banging away at it for years. It happened so early in my career I learned a great deal about it, it was challenging. I got to work with Donna, I got to work with Steve and James Lapine. I got to work with the amazing Marin Mazzie who passed away a couple years ago. Just amazing people, Gregg Edelman, Tom Aldridge. Amazing Broadway actors, all Broadway stars in their own right by the way. Everyone who was in the chorus roles were name actors in the theatre. It was a real pleasure to do, it was like going back to school for me, fantastic!!
Ryan Glover: Not to long after that you took a break from acting?
Jere Shea: Yeah, it was probably about a couple years after Passion. I wound up leaving the business. My kids were young, about three or four years old and I was just out of town, the more you work, the more you travel. And you have to travel to stay really busy and as busy as I needed to be as a dad. I wanted to be home but I wanted to support my family. If I had to leave town in order to act, in order to support my family, it was just not going to be acceptable to me. I really figured out fairly quickly that was not what I wanted to do, not the kind of husband or father I wanted to be. I left the business and it was about twenty years before I really started entertaining doing much at all.