Riley Voelkel Talks “Hightown,” Future Aspirations, Working with Jerry Bruckheimer and More

Riley Voelkel shares her experiences transitioning from the supernatural allure of “The Originals” to the gritty realism of “Hightown.” This shift not only showcases her versatility as an actress but also underscores her thoughtful approach to the craft. “Transitioning from ‘The Originals’ to ‘Hightown’ was like stepping from one vibrant world into another,” Voelkel explains. Her excitement for the challenges of adapting to new roles is evident as she delves into the complexities of her characters and the emotional depth required to portray them authentically.

The focus on in-depth character development is significant in the discussion. Voelkel emphasizes her rigorous process of getting into the skin of her “Hightown” character, Renee Segna, which included unusual preparations such as visiting clubs and learning pole dancing. “I dived deep into her backstory, exploring her motivations, desires, and experiences,” Voelkel states, highlighting her commitment to building a fully realized character. This dedication to authenticity is a recurring theme in her career, reflecting her methodical approach to each role.


Voelkel also notes the similarities between her characters, despite their differing worlds: “Both Renee and Freya were survivors, with challenging pasts, fighting for their families.” This perspective helps her navigate the emotional landscapes of her characters, making her performances resonate with realism and depth.


Her early career in modeling significantly influenced her acting. “Modeling was definitely my gateway into the world of acting,” she recalls. This experience helped her develop the confidence and presence needed for her roles on television and film. Her modeling experience provided foundational skills that translated well into acting, where “you’re essentially embodying a character and conveying emotions through your expressions and movements.”

Collaborations with renowned creators like Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher have also shaped Voelkel’s professional approach. Working on “The Newsroom” and “The Social Network” offered her invaluable lessons in filmmaking and storytelling. “Working alongside some of the best in the industry felt like the most incredible acting master class I could have asked for,” she shares.

Reflecting on her career and the future, Voelkel expresses enthusiasm for exploring new genres and roles, particularly those that challenge her, like action films or roles in music-related narratives. Her openness to new experiences and continuous growth in her acting abilities highlights why Riley Voelkel remains a compelling and admired figure in the entertainment industry. Her journey underscores the importance of adaptability and depth in character portrayal, qualities that have clearly defined her successful career thus far.


Transitioning from a supernatural show like “The Originals” to a crime drama like “Hightown” must be quite the change. What was this transition like? Transitioning from “The Originals” to “Hightown” was like stepping from one vibrant world into another. Playing a powerful supernatural character like Freya on “The Originals” was an absolute blast, and it’s a role that will always have a special place in my heart. I had four amazing seasons to build that character and it’s always so much fun playing in the world of magic! After the show wrapped, I found myself craving a gritty, real-life role. When I read the pilot of “Hightown,” I was immediately drawn to the character of Renee. I knew the transition would be difficult, but I was excited for the challenge! I had to dive deep into understanding the perspective of a character whose world was so different from my own and any previous character I had played. All that being said, both Renee and Freya were survivors, with challenging pasts, fighting for their families. So in some ways, there were similarities.


Can you share with us what it’s like to dive into the complex world of “Hightown” and what drew you to this story? The writing initially drew me in! Our incredible showrunner and writer, Rebecca Cutter, created such three-dimensional complex characters and such a beautifully dark world that was truly a dream project for an actor. She was dedicated to storytelling that gave honest portrayals of real-life struggles like addiction, recovery, and redemption. Playing a character in this real and dark world meant stepping into a more vulnerable and messy space than I had been in before with previous characters. It was emotionally challenging at times, but pushing myself out of my comfort zone was an incredibly empowering experience.


Could you share with us how your modeling background has helped you in your acting career? Modeling was definitely my gateway into the world of acting. I first moved to Los Angeles at eighteen years old under a modeling contract and was very nervous with no prior experience in front of a camera. Throughout the process, I learned about movement and poise, and slowly gained confidence in front of the lens. I began to book commercial roles and found myself drawn more and more to acting. I  booked my first theatrical role and the fulfillment I felt from performing and watching others perform led me to take on acting full-time.  What I learned in the modeling world helped in the transition to my career as an actor.  In both worlds, you’re essentially embodying a character and conveying emotions through your expressions and movements. 

Photography by Tyler Patrick Kenny

Playing a character that has lived such a different life from your previous roles, what was your process for becoming Renee Segna? Like you mentioned, stepping into the shoes of Renee Segna was quite a departure from my previous roles.  I remember being both excited and terrified when I booked the role! I knew I would need to dig deep to understand the perspective of a character like Renee, who was an exotic dancer, an ex-addict, and a struggling mother. I dived deep into her backstory, exploring her motivations, desires, and experiences.  I watched documentaries, went to clubs, and even trained in pole dancing! I collaborated closely with our showrunner Rebecca Cutter and my fellow cast members to try and give my most honest portrayal of Renee and the world she lived in.


What was it like working with industry heavyweights like Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher, and what did you learn from them? My very first time on a film set was for a small role in “The Social Network,” and I remember being in awe of the entire process. Even though my role was small, I was able to admire Fincher’s attention to detail in order to get the perfect shot. Every element of the scene mattered to him, no matter how small, and that lesson has stuck with me ever since. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with Aaron Sorkin again on “The Newsroom”. As a brand new actor, he took a chance on me by turning my one-day guest star role into a recurring one, for which I am forever grateful.  Working alongside some of the best in the industry felt like the most incredible acting master class I could have asked for. I tried to soak in all that I could and each day on set was a valuable learning experience for me. 


From having no idea how a TV show was made and feeling nervous in my scenes, I gradually gained confidence and a deeper understanding of the process. I discovered the intention behind various elements of a scene, such as body language and dialogue pauses. I witnessed powerful performances from the cast, particularly from Jeff Daniels, that left a lasting impression on me. And above all,  I learned the power of being professional, prepared, and positive on set. Both Fincher and Sorkin are people I continue to look up to and am inspired by.  I feel so grateful I got the chance to work with them and witness a small part of their creative process.


How do you navigate maintaining your own identity when you spend so much time in character?. Although some emotions can be hard to shake after a scene, I’ve generally been able to separate myself from the characters I play.  That being said, I also learn things about myself along the way and I try to grow throughout the process.  Sometimes I learn new perspectives or discover new sides of myself.  I try to apply what I’ve learned while still maintaining who I am.  It’s always been important to me to not lose that.  As much as I love my job, I also cherish my life outside of work.  I have an incredible support system who always brings me back to my truest self. They not only keep me grounded but also remind me of the importance of staying true to myself.  Prioritizing time with my friends and family has always helped me maintain a healthy balance between my professional and personal life.


How has working on “Hightown” with a producer like Jerry Bruckheimer challenged and developed your acting skills? Jerry Bruckheimer’s involvement in “Hightown” elevated the entire experience and working with him was a dream. Under his guidance, the show operated seamlessly, and the entire cast and crew of “Hightown” was a dream to work with. Everyone really cared about telling this story and it created a rare and supportive dynamic on set.  The support I received from my cast and crew was a huge reason I felt confident in pushing my boundaries and they all played a huge part in my growth as an actor.  I felt their commitment to every scene and we worked closely together to bring the best out in each other. The teamwork on that set was undeniable and the people that Jerry chose to be on that team seemed incredibly intentional.  

Photography by Tyler Patrick Kenny
Photography by Tyler Patrick Kenny

How do you approach the development of a new character—what’s your process for getting to the core of who they are? It all starts with the writing and the vision the writer has for the character.  Once I grasp that vision, I spend time to understand the character’s perspective and try to understand their motivations and reasons behind their decisions.  I dive into their backstory which allows me to empathize with their experiences and view the world through their eyes.  No matter how different a character is from me I always try to bring an element of myself to the character.  This allows me to pull from an authentic place when dealing with situations I have never experienced before.  All the little details matter when building a character, from the way they express emotion, to the way they walk, to the clothes they wear.  When I spend time giving meaning to these things, I find it easier to slip into character as soon as I put their shoes on.   I find new complexities the longer I spend with a character.  It’s similar to building a relationship; the more time you spend with them, the better you know them.

How much room do you have to improvise in your roles, and can you give an example of a time when improvisation improved a scene? The extent of improvisation varies from show to show. Some shows encourage spontaneity and allow us to explore our characters through improvising, while others prefer to stick closely to the script. In the case of “Hightown,” we were fortunate to have the freedom to play with the scenes, adding small touches or reactions to enhance the moment. While we generally stayed true to the script, the ability to improvise, particularly in emotional scenes, added a layer of authenticity. Sometimes making a mistake during a scene, like tripping on something or slipping on your line can create a “happy accident” that feels relatable to the viewer. These unscripted moments are often my favorite ones.  One of my favorite unscripted moments was filming one of our last scenes in “The Originals.” The scene was where the Mikaelson family was sitting around the dinner table for a final family gathering. Instead of scripting it, production allowed us to just reminisce with each other and they captured a real authentic moment between all of us.  It was the perfect ending, and after working together for so long, was a really special moment.


As your career continues to flourish, are there particular genres or roles you’re eager to explore? I’m genuinely excited for whatever’s next! Each new project is a new journey, and every past project has been an incredible experience. I’m open to exploring a diverse range of roles and genres, but I will say I’ve always wanted to be in an action film! I love stunt work and think it would be so fun to play a badass character in an action film. I’m also a massive music lover, so I would love a role that lives in the world of music.  Especially something in another era like the 70s.  There’s something so captivating about movements in music and stories that revolve around music. I secretly wish I was a rockstar, so I would love to play a character that is one!


Are there any skills or lessons from your time on “The Originals” that you’ve brought into your work on “Hightown?”Playing Freya on “The Originals” was a huge milestone in my career and my first time as a series regular for multiple seasons. Throughout the process, I learned skills and lessons that definitely influenced my work on “Hightown.” I learned about character development and the importance of having a voice in shaping how a character is portrayed . I got accustomed to the crazy schedule of shooting a tv show and saw the comradery that it creates between the cast and crew. I learned about camera work and the overall flow of a shooting schedule and how things typically work on set.  I learned how much work is put into each episode and how it takes a huge and incredibly talented team to pull it off.  I learned about the impact an honest performance can have on your audience.  And I got the incredible opportunity to grow as an actor and make adjustments over the course of four seasons.  My experience on The Originals allowed me to feel so much more prepared and confident to take on the role of Renee on Hightown.


After a long day of filming, what’s your go-to method for unwinding from the intensity of your character’s world? Friends and family, good music, bad reality tv, my cat Quentin and a glass of red wine.


The definition of Contrast is “to be strikingly different.” What makes you strikingly different? What sets me apart, much like everyone else, is my journey. We all go through things that others can relate to, but our journey is our own and I think that’s what makes us all “strikingly different”. I’m a mix of contrasts all representing who I am and who I strive to be. I’m an introverted extrovert who loves nights out dancing to live music as much as I love a cozy evening wrapped up in a blanket with a movie.  I’m strong and resilient yet empathetic and sensitive.  In essence, what makes me different is not any one thing, but a mixture of my experiences, my values, and my desire to be my true “strikingly different” self. 

Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Contrast Magazine.


Magazine made for you.


No posts were found for provided query parameters.