[EXCLUSIVE] 'City on a Hill' star Jere Shea says his character Hank Signa is a gentleman ready for violence if need be
In an exclusive with MEA WorldWide, the 54-year old talks about playing Hank Signa, the preparation to play the character, and what to expect from the upcoming season
'City on a Hill' season 1 wrapped up on August 18, but the accolades continue to pour in. The gripping crime drama is set in the '90s Boston where corruption and crime are an everyday affair. Kevin Bacon's Jackie Rohr, a veteran FBI agent who is ready to bend the rules to get results, teams up with Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge), the Assistant District Attorney, in a bid to mop up the streets of Boston.
Assisting Ward is a Massachusetts State Police Detective Hank Signa (played by Jere Shea). The man is an ace detective and plays a key role in helping nab the Charlestown armored car robbery gang. Ahead of the season 1 finale, MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) caught up with Shea and the Tony Award-nominated American actor and musician, spoke in-depth about his character and being part of the show.
Initial reaction on being part of 'CoH'
When Showtime asked me to be part of 'City On A Hill', I was surprised, to say the least. I had been out of the business for several years, back in Boston, raising my family. My childhood friend Jimmy Cummings, who plays Tommy Hayes on the show, had sent me a script for the pilot on behalf of Chuck MacLean. It was easily one of the best pilots I’d ever read, and Chuck’s no-holds-barred, honest approach jumped out at me as one of the truest renderings of what life in Boston was really like.
Initially, I thought playing Hank Signa would be a part-time gig, something I would do on the side as I kept my day job. Then I learned that Chuck and Showtime wanted me to be a series regular so Hank would have a more substantial presence in the story. By then, I had already started my research for the role and I was hooked. I knew that I had to be part of Chuck’s vision and play Hank — so I left my job and burned the boats. This series represents a return to acting that I would never have predicted two years ago.
Can you shed more light on Signa's character?
From the beginning, Chuck, Tom Fontana and I saw eye-to-eye on who Hank Signa is, and how he serves the story. They placed a lot of trust on me to create a nuanced character with depth, that's authentic to this unique time and place. I think much of that trust had to do with the fact that I grew up in the same environment Hank came up in. Hank is very much a product of his surroundings. He's from the streets he operates in, and he was shaped by the same pressures and influences that impact many of the characters in this story.
He has his own family to provide for and protect. He’s good at his job because he understands, or tries to understand, people on a human level. Hank is a gentleman. He has a strong sense of right and wrong, and his compassion is his greatest strength — and maybe his Achilles’ Heel. If he can get something done without bloodshed, without degrading or destroying people, that’s what he’ll try to do. If things need to go another way, he’s prepared to do that as well.
In many ways, it looked like Signa was the man who ensured Ward didn't ruffle too many feathers along the way in his quest to accomplish his mission. Was the character created for this specific purpose? Because Signa definitely helped in smoothing things
Hank is Decourcy’s consigliere, and to a large extent, he’s the moral compass of the show. Hank’s that angel whispering in Decourcy’s ear as Jackie works from the other side. He’s a father figure, who plays the game as well as Jackie, and he understands that much of it is won or lost in the seams between good and bad. He’s a foil for Jackie Rohr.
Where Jackie is a talker and a player, Hank is a watcher, a listener — a strategist. While we expect Jackie to serve his own ends, we can count on Hank to counter him to get the best possible result. Hank loves and respects Decourcy — he values him as a force for change in his city. He'll always factor in how each move will affect Decourcy, and he’ll do anything he can to help him succeed.
Can you talk about your preparation for the role?
As my wife would tell you, I prepared for this role for a year and a half, from the time I was cast in late 2017 before we shot the pilot until I wrapped on my final episode in late May this year. That’s the way I’ve always approached my work, and it's why I love my job. When I research a role, no stone can remain unturned, and I continue to dig until I wrap. There's always a new connection, something else I can learn, another perspective, or another person I can spend time with.
I never know when some seemingly unrelated piece of information, an anecdote, or an experience will make a moment resonate in a new way on camera. I suppose that’s one reason why I feel such an affinity for Hank, who spends so much time doing the same kind of spadework. I’m sure I've told every person on set that my cousin Bill Powers is a retired Massachusetts State Trooper who held Hank’s job in the Suffolk DA’s office in the timeframe 'City On A Hill' is set.
His father had the job before him. Bill was my consultant — a source for invaluable information and inspiration. I’m proud of him, and this made it even more important for me to get things right.
'CoH' may be a crime drama, but the show has always ensured that one plot point in each episode is about family. Was this a conscious call taken by the creators?
I hear from viewers over and over that what makes this show so addictive is how much we learn about each character in the show. If someone were to watch 'City On A Hill' expecting a straightforward procedural drama, I think they’d be surprised at how quickly they’re drawn down the rabbit hole into the lives of these characters. It’s no accident that so much of the action takes place in the home. We see what these people do at home, in their jobs, and on the street, to maintain their lives. We learn who is counting on them, and who they might disappoint, and what drives the choices they make.
The show's penultimate episode, 'The Deaf Sage of Pompeii' pretty much rounds up your character arc. What were your thoughts on the way it ended?
I couldn’t be happier with the way we resolved Hank’s story. I knew early on how things were likely to go, and I’m grateful to Chuck, Tom, and Matt Nemeth, who wrote such a beautiful and compelling episode, for the affection and respect they had for Hank. It was gratifying to see how much the writers and I inspired each other and collaborated to create this memorable character. We were so much on the same page that every time I read a new script, I felt like they had taken a peek at my notebook for my own secret thoughts about Hank’s life and who he is. We were able to layer in details about Hank and reveal his nature more and more throughout the season.
I think we resolved his story in a way that made what happens a real shock. I can tell you that I don’t think there’s an actor out there that hasn’t dreamed of playing someone like Hank Signa and wrapping a series the way I did. It was also moving to see how much a part of the season finale Hank is — even though he doesn’t appear, he’s still guiding Decourcy.
Signa has worked with Ward and Jackie Rohr (Kevin Bacon) on the case. What do you think about the two characters on the series?
Decourcy and Jackie couldn't be more different in terms of their goals and desires, but what becomes clear as the season progresses is how alike they really are. I get the sense that they’d make an unstoppable team if they could trust each other and figure out a way to satisfy both of their objectives, but of course, their own natures seem to carry the day and the fireworks begin.
That 'CoH' was renewed for season 2 doesn't come as a surprise. What can we expect from the upcoming installment?
Well, it’s anyone’s guess where this team will take the story, but we’ve already seen that both Jackie and Decourcy have vulnerabilities. I think we’ll see two masters going head-to-head to gain the advantage in what’s become a real blood sport, and the stakes are high and rising. One thing’s for sure, this train has only just begun to roll, and it isn’t slowing down. As season one has shown, these writers have a way of making every episode a jaw-dropper.
Can you recount the experience of working with your co-stars?
Working with this cast was inspiring in itself. As a Kevin Bacon fan, I knew he was a brilliant actor with incredible range, but what I didn’t know before meeting him was how humble, how inventive and collaborative he is. Aldis and Sarah are the same way. It felt like a true ensemble where we were all open to new ideas and respectful of the process. We all worked incredibly hard, and we laughed a lot. We had so much fun that I was always a little disappointed when someone would tell us the martini shot was coming — that the day was almost over.
Where will we see Jere Shea next?
I had a great time appearing in Max Winkler’s new film 'Jungleland' — a brief bit with Charlie Hunnam, Jack O’Connell, and Jessica Barden. That’ll be out later this year. I’ve also finally had some time to relax and travel with my wife, and write some music for a couple of weeks. That's ending as I’ll be jumping into the next gig, which I’m excited to share with you when things are finalized. I can say that I enjoy being back on set, and I don’t intend to slow down for quite a while.