If you watched last week’s powerful episodes of The Young and the Restless, you witnessed once again why Jess Walton (Jill) is one of the all time MVP’s of the genre. In a heart-wrenching and nuanced performance, Walton was given material that she could seek her teeth into as Jill faced the most horrible situation a mother could ever imagine … having to say goodbye to her son who is being taken off life support. But before it even got to that point, Jill was fighting with the Abbott clan, lashing out at those around her who were grieving too, and ultimately attempting to come to terms with her son Billy’s (Jason Thompson) fate. But in true soap opera fashion, just when it looked like Billy’s days were behind him, he came back to the land of the living.
For Walton, she now has a new on-screen son played by five-time Daytime Emmy nominee, Jason Thompson, who replaces Burgess Jenkins in the key role of Billy. Meanwhile, Jess continues to play Jill’s love story with Colin played by another fan favorite, Tristan Rogers. If there is an Emmy God in 2017, Walton’s performance during Billy hovering between life and death, while illustrating how a family comes together and is torn apart during their time of need, should garner a much-deserved nomination. She already is two-time winner.
On-Air On-Soaps talked to the sublime Jess Walton to get her thoughts on: playing those emotional draining scenes, her first (sort of) scenes with Jason Thompson, and if she misses the Katherine/Jill dynamic now that it has been over two and a half years since the passing of her beloved friend and scene partner, Jeanne Cooper (Katherine). Jess also weighs-in on where Tristan Rogers rates on her all time leading men list, and what it has been like for nearly three decades to work with such a stellar bunch of actors who comprise the core Abbott family. One thing is certain: when the character of Jill is given screen time, it always leaves the audience wanting more, and that is due to Walton’s commitment and expertise at playing such a multi-faceted woman. Here’s what she had to share about her recent scenes, the changing faces of Billy Abbott, and more!
Those heavy emotional group scenes where Jill and Jack (Peter Bergman) and the Abbott family were grappling with whether to take Billy off of life-support were gut-wrenching. Jill was in so much emotional pain. How did you get through that scene?
JESS: I am glad you liked it. It was really amazing shooting that scene with everybody involved, because we have so much history. I tell this story that I went around the room and we rehearsed it a couple of times. It was really becoming good, and they yelled, “Lunch!” Everybody went, “No!” However, we had to do it. We had to take a lunch break. So I said to myself, which I have learned to do over the years, “Don’t you get upset. When we come back it will be even better.” Your mind first goes to a place of, “Oh, my God. I was ready to go.” I have learned to tell myself, “Don’t be negative … it will be even better.” In fact, it felt even better after we returned from lunch. The interesting thing was when I went around to everybody and did my lines with them, I felt quite Jill-ish. But the minute I stood there, and Gina Tognoni (Phyllis) came over to me, I went, “She’s so good … and look how beautiful she looks with those green eyes swimming with tears.” It just took me out of Jill for that split second, because I had never had a scene with Gina before. She was magnificent. That’s happened to me occasionally before in previous years. If an actor in a scene with me is doing a really wonderful job, I will go, “Oh, my God … aren’t they wonderful!” I will come right out of the scene as Jess and not as Jill. It’s always a danger. Luckily for these scenes, it was kind of a natural break in Jill’s trajectory. I could get right back into it. It was interesting to me that I built up 30 years worth of relationships with Peter Bergman, Eileen Davidson (Ashley), and Beth Maitland (Traci) so the scenes kind of went smoothly, and I was able to stay in it.
There were those moments between Jack and Jill, where he is going to honor Billy’s wishes to not keep him alive, and she is not having it. It was so sad.
JESS: They were so sad. I think it’s every mother’s pain. They can relate to that and the horror of the situation. We were all crying for days. I thought this is all very maudlin for the audience with this unrelenting grief. But, what are you supposed to do? Pull back when you son, or brother is dying? You just have to go for it.
As viewers watched those scenes play out, you couldn’t help but take a moment and say, “Wow, these people are acting up a storm. What an incredible A-list cast!”
JESS: I often look around me at these magnificent actors who do these things in maybe one take. It is such a skill. I think a lot of times soap opera actors are not respected and they are looked upon as “B-actors”, but we know what we are doing. As a whole, the soap actors are pretty amazing.
The moment that touched me was when Jill sat by Billy’s bedside and was saying her goodbyes to her son. She mentions Katherine (Jeanne Cooper) and that he will be seeing her soon in heaven. What was that like saying those words? It also makes the audience think of Jeanne.
JESS: It felt amazing doing that line and bringing Katherine (Jeanne Cooper) into the story. That’s the thing about grief and death that those left behind believe that when their loved one passes they will be greeted by someone that they know and love. So, I think Jill was trying to comfort her son in that way. It was really hard, because Jill would have fought till the bitter end to keep her son alive, but she had to acquiesce, I guess.
Jason Thompson debuted as the new Billy. In virtually his first episode, he had to portray an out-of-body experience relating to his new castmates. What did you think of Jason’s performance, and your new on-screen son?
JESS: He was really, really amazing. Jason had to come in and have such heavy stuff with all of his new cast mates. And for those hospital scenes, the very first scenes it was still with Burgess Jenkins, then it was a body double for a couple of days, and then it was Jason. Actually, Jason and his wife are expecting a baby in real life. So he is very conscious of that child/parent bond. After we had that bedside time together, where I would be touching him and rubbing his arm, it almost built a bond between us much quicker than it would have under normal circumstances. He could feel that love, and as two human beings I was pretty naked emotionally there. Jason was very, very kind to me and soft with me. I haven’t had a scene with him yet, where he wasn’t unconscious (laughs), but I’m looking forward to it! He is such a fabulous actor, and I hear he has done just amazing work over at General Hospital.
What was performing in that scene like for you, during Billy’s out-of-body experience? The rest of the cast was acting with each other, but not with him.
JESS: Driving home after a long scene like that, you couldn’t do the words if they had a gun to your heard. I think soap opera actors develop a certain part of their brain that holds things in for like six hours, maybe. The minute the scene is over, you have to drop it, because otherwise it’s just too much information, (laughs) to have to retain in your head all of the time.
I had to laugh, because you have had a bunch of different Billy’s! Jill’s son keeps changing! (Laughs)
JESS: I’ve had so many different Billy’s! However, each and everyone I have loved, and that’s the truth. Each and every one of them, I really feel like I connected with as mother and son. I had magnificent relationships with Burgess Jenkins, and with David Tom. I know they also really enjoyed our scenes, too. We all got along well together. I often wondered if it’s because in real life I had a son around the same age, so that portraying that type of relationship is very easy for me.
Would you consider submitting yourself for the Daytime Emmys next year, given the emotional material you had that aired over the last few weeks?
JESS: I would next year, and I was wishing they would have been eligible this year. Next year feels like such a long way away. But I will submit them, because I think they were powerful scenes. I thought I had other powerful scenes, but then you go back and look at them and you see little flaws. I only want to submit when I think the scenes and the performance are flawless, and I don’t see a false note, and I don’t cringe watching myself at all! Sometimes actors feel something didn’t work, and I don’t like to submit that way, because I feel people pick up on that. It stops the voters dead in their tracks, right away. I think the scenes have to be really good and flawless.
It’s such a testament to you that when I mention your name on social media or someone brings up Jill that the audience responds very quickly. That is to say that the audience loves you so much, and the love continues even if you are on the show, or not on the show that much. I think there is something to be said that when viewers know Jill is on-screen there is a comfortability factor. It feels like Y&R to them.
JESS: I really think it’s a connection to Katherine Chancellor and Jeanne Cooper, and I really think its part of the history of the show. It has been 30 years for me. When I really look at Jill, she is a wonderful character, because she can be very vulnerable, but she can also be very tough and fiery. She can also be very logical. Jill is very well-rounded. I really appreciate what you’re saying about the audience, and I love them too!
What is the status of Jill and Colin’s (Tristan Rogers) relationship at this point? They are getting along now, yes?
JESS: They are really tight. They are married, and they are in love with each other. We have some scenes coming up that illustrate that. My only regret is that we don’t have that many scenes alone where we can show their relationship more. They have retained their humor and their romance, which is a good thing for Jill to have in her life.
As far as your all-time Y&R leading men go, would you say that Tristan Rogers is at the top of the list?
JESS: Tristan is probably my favorite leading man. Jerry Douglas (Ex-John) and I had some really wonderful years together, too. We had a lot of really great storylines together. However, I really do like this late in life love story with Colin and Jill, because it was such a romantic story. We were so funny together, and we got to play comedy such as: Jill trying to tie Colin up in the attic, and just the conflict of it all, and then the lead-up to getting back together. It was a nice story arc. Tristan is so hilariously funny. I never know what’s going to come out of his mouth. He has me in stitches most of the time. Colin is like a reformed bad boy, and Jill is kind of like a bad girl. The two of them together I think is a perfect fit.
What would you like to see Jill get involved with story-wise at this point in her life?
JESS: I think she should have a well-rounded life. I would like them to show Jill with her husband. I would like them to show her cutthroat aspect in business, or maybe she can soften a little bit, and be more of mentor to younger people like Katherine used to be. To me, that would be really interesting. If there would be a storyline where some younger person was having problems in their life, and Jill can start to realize there are things within her that are kinder and wiser. You like to think that wisdom comes with age.
I can completely see her becoming like Katherine in her later years, being the voice of wisdom to Genoa City. It would be such a nice throughline to honor their relationship.
JESS: I think that would be a very interesting storyline almost like when Katherine was mentoring Jill. The show could almost use pieces of clips of Katherine over the years with Jill talking to her in her mind at the desk and in that room. I think the audience would love that kind of history.
Now that it has been a few years since Jeanne’s passing, how is it for you not having Katherine/Jill scenes to play?
JESS: I miss it, of course, but we had such a good run at it in it’s hey day. I am so grateful that a lot of the scenes are up on You Tube, so you can go back and look at it. It’s like everything else; I really wish I would have appreciated it more at the time, although I did appreciate it very much. I look back on that time and go, “Oh, my God. Wow! That was some chemistry we had.” Jeanne and I were super, super comfortable with our relationship with each other, even in those rocky years where they made us mother and daughter. There was still a comfort there and knowing who the characters were. Then there was that confusion between the hate and love, and the mother and daughter … that was a little muddy.
When you look at your life’s big picture, what has Y&R meant to you?
JESS: It’s such a huge part of my life. I would never have dreamed it would have lasted this long. I remember when I first got the job. My husband and I had to go to Park City. We were sitting outside at some table and we said to each other, “Our lives are going to change so much,” and they certainly have. I’ve written this book and that’s really given me the opportunity to look back and see that it has been incredible 30 years, and it’s almost been half my life. It’s always strange for me when the new regimes come in, because I am part of the original history of the show with Bill Bell (co-creator, Y&R), and then people come in with their different ideas and their different actors, storylines, and characters. I realize I have to take a step back and be a little hands-off, because it’s their baby now. You can’t have the attitude of, “Well, that’s not what it was like back in the day.” I had to let go of a lot of that. Now, I am just there when they need me and when they want to use me, but it’s not as personal to me as it once was when I was in the thick of things. However, I very much admire all of the talent that work on the show.
So, what did you think of Jess Walton’s recent performances as Jill tries to deal with the impending death of her son, Billy? Are you looking forward to seeing upcoming scenes between Jess and Jason Thompson? What did you think of Jess’ comments on her leading men, what Y&R means to her, Jeanne Cooper, and all of the Billy’s in her on-screen life? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!