Anyone who is a Hallmark movie fanatic, like yours truly, is familiar with Roanoke native and University of Virginia grad Jen Lilley. The spirited and friendly actress stars in many of Hallmark’s most beloved films, think Mingle All The Way; Winter Love Story; Love Unleashed; Paris, Wine & Romance; and one of last year’s holiday favorites, USS Christmas.
A singer and star of film and television, Lilley was a series regular on General Hospital and Days of Our Lives, in addition to appearing in episodes of some of the most popular shows on television such as Criminal Minds and Grey’s Anatomy. Her film work includes a role in The Artist, which won an Academy Award in 2012 for best picture.
This holiday season, Lilley stars in Royally Wrapped for Christmas on the Great American Country network.
“What I love most about these [type of] films is that they are uplifting,” Lilley says. “It’s why entertainment was created. It’s an escape from life. I particularly love Hallmark and romantic movies.”
Star Grows Up
Lilley was raised in the Cave Spring area of Roanoke by her parents, Ellen and Vince Lilley, and with siblings Michael, Katherine, and Ryan. “We had such a wonderful childhood,” she says. “I had amazing parents. We were all close.”
She remembers playing flashlight tag and catching lightning bugs with all the kids. “It was idyllic, and that’s not lost on me,” she says.
Growing up, Lilley was a “really good kid,” says her mom Ellen. “She was usually really happy. She was outgoing and always tried to include everyone.”
Lilley was always encouraged to find her own path in life. “When I was about three or four, my parents and babysitters repeatedly told me, ‘You can be anything you want to be!” she says. “I said I wanted to be a bird so I could sing all day.”
Her mom says they used to call her their little songbird. “When she was in high school, we would hear her singing in the car and when she walked up to the house.”
On a subconscious level, her interest in being an actor was always there, but it didn’t surface until her college years at UVA. During her second year of college, she auditioned for the lead female role in an independent film being shot in the Charlottesville area.
“When I got on set, it was exactly where I wanted to be,” she says. “I love acting for a career. I suffer from stage fright, so theatre isn’t a natural fit. On camera, it’s so different and so intimate. It feels like an audience of two or three. It feels real and grounded.”
Even though she enjoyed the experience, she didn’t jump into acting immediately. She doesn’t do anything unless she’s well prepared. Analytical and a type-A personality, she sets about “fifty alarms a day to get tasks done,” says Lilley, who loves science, data, and research.
She also describes herself as extremely passionate, energetic, and tenacious. “I’m sort of a whirlwind. I wear way too many hats,” she says.
Before pursuing her career in entertainment, Lilley learned about the business of acting, looking at it from a scientific standpoint.
“What’s the common denominator – understanding the business, networking, setting goals, or tenacity?” she says, recalling her approach to researching the entertainment field.
She studied up-and-coming actors and found on average, most actors work in the profession for eight years before making it in the biz. When she went to Los Angeles, after graduating from UVA magna cum laude with a double major in drama and environmental science and marrying her high school sweetheart in 2007, she had her eight-year plan in place.
“She was really smart with her plan,” her mom says.
“She is one of the most organized people I know. She is very determined.”
Lilley found that most people leave acting just before they become memorable, she says. “I told my husband, [James Madison University grad Jason Wayne], if I say let’s go back to Virginia in year three or four, I need you to promise me we will stick it out for eight years.”
As part of her process, she created a spreadsheet to list how each audition went, including who she met. She enrolled in networking classes to learn more about casting directors and people in the business.
Her plan worked, and year four proved to be the turning point. She landed roles in The Artist and General Hospital in 2011. “That’s when the course of my career changed,” she says. “The scientific side helped with the process.”
Working on The Artist, a silent, black and white film, was an interesting experience for her. “I had just started to study about silent films when the audition popped up,” she says. “I saw the casting notice and called my agent.”
Her agent didn’t know anyone on the film, but Lilley promised him that no one knew silent films like she did and she could sell herself to the director.
“My audition was so good that the director wrote me into the film,” she says. “He and his wife invited me to all the parties for the film. That all came from business know-how, and from networking and preparedness.”
Off to a Hallmark Start
She credits her tenacity and hard work today to her family’s approach to education.
“Getting straight A’s was always a struggle for me. I studied every day and met with my teachers before or after school. Few things came easy for me. I had to learn early on that I would always fail my first try, but to keep on trying,” she says. “That prepared me to go to Hollywood.”
She appreciates growing up during a time when there were winners and losers, she says. “It taught you sportsmanship. You had to learn how to be a good loser. I was grateful for that in my upbringing.”
One of the things her parents talked to her about when she first expressed interest in becoming an actor was rejection. “We told her she would be rejected time and time again,” her mom says. “You have to turn your mentality around. It may not be a good fit, but don’t take it personally.”
Lilley started starring in Hallmark movies in 2016 after starring in the independent film The Spirit of Christmas. The film was pitched to Lifetime, Hallmark, and Netflix.
“It got into a bidding war and Lifetime got it,” she says. “It was the number one Christmas movie in the world that year, and it got Hallmark’s attention.”
Hallmark’s casting director was also a huge fan of Days of Our Lives and had seen Lilley in the daytime drama. Lilley’s friend and fellow actress Danica McKellar (Winnie Cooper in the original series The Wonder Years), who is also a Hallmark regular, pitched Lilley to Hallmark as well.
“It was the perfect storm,” Lilley says of her start with Hallmark. “I love being part of a network or series that provides people with positive escape. You don’t have to think about your problems. I love that I am giving people two hours of joy. There’s so much bad news around the world. I’m happy to be part of an uplifting program.”
One of the things she loves most about acting is the way it can let someone minister to people in their own living room. “You [viewers] can hear you are not alone in that similar story. If you are bottling up your feelings, drama or comedy can be cathartic,” she says. “It’s profound storytelling.”
The first time she saw her daughter on TV, the experience was “kind of strange,” says Lilley’s mom. “But, it’s so normal now. That’s the way I get to see her.”
She is still surprised when someone recognizes her as Jen Lilley’s mother. “It’s more surprising than watching her,” Ellen says. “The fact that she is in such positive things; it’s great that Hallmark movies are her niche. This fits her really well.”
One of Lilley’s and her mom’s favorite Hallmark movies is the 2020 production, USS Christmas. Lilley played Maddie, a newspaper reporter working in Norfolk, who goes on a Tiger Cruise during the holidays and meets a naval officer, her co-star Trevor Donovan. The two stumble on a mystery during the cruise.
“I was freaking out when I read the script,” Lilley says. “My dad grew up in Virginia Beach and my aunt and cousins live there. We always did Thanksgiving in Virginia Beach. It’s very familiar to me.”
Lilley was thrilled to do the movie with a plot set in her home state (although it was shot in Wilmington, N.C. and Charleston, S.C.). Her great uncle, John, was a rear admiral in the Navy in charge of a lot of the Atlantic fleet, which made the movie even more special for her family.
Her Virginia connections also include her maternal grandfather who was from Richmond. “Richmond is like home to us,” says Lilley’s mom. “We still have a lot of family there.”
Passion for Children
Lilley’s latest holiday film, Royally Wrapped for Christmas, which will air on Great American Country during the holidays, has real-life parallels, too. “My character [in the film] is a director of a charity that is similar to Toys for Tots.” Lilley’s real-life charity, Christmas Is Not Cancelled, which she co-founded in 2020 when the world experienced its first pandemic Christmas, has a goal of spreading Christmas cheer all year long while creating a sense of community.
Each year, Lilley’s charity gives toys to children through its partnership with Toys for Tots. “We were able to give presents to 10,380 children across the U.S. last year. It’s important that children receive the joy of Christmas and especially a toy. It’s important to give back,” she says.
In October, Lilley launched a new fundraising campaign. She hopes to distribute gifts to 20,000 children this year.
She recognizes that parents often put on a brave face for their kids during the holidays, even as “they are struggling for things,” Lilley says. “There are a lot of parallels for me with this movie and this character. She has a passion for children who are going without. I’m really excited about this movie, and I can’t wait for people to see it.”
Through the efforts of Christmas Is Not Cancelled, Lilley is an advocate for foster care and many children’s causes. Lilley currently serves as a celebrity ambassador for Childhelp, an organization focused on meeting the physical, emotional, educational, and spiritual needs of abused, neglected, and at-risk children. Childhelp Foster Care & Adoption Services provides short and long-term therapeutic foster care for abused and neglected children.
After serving as a mentor for the organization, Lilley and her husband acquired their license for foster care. She encourages others to get involved in whatever “you are passionate about,” she says. “God gives us different passions. Advocate for where your heart is. Get involved where you are,” she says, before sharing a favorite quote from Mother Teresa: Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.
Growing and Spirited Family
She and her husband Jason fostered their two sons, half-brothers Caden, five, and Jeffrey, three, before adopting them. She advises people who are interested in foster care to look into it thoroughly before diving into the process. Despite how things worked out for her family, she says the goal of foster care is not adoption. “The goal is for family restoration, to heal the whole family,” she says, noting only about ten percent of the children in foster care need to be adopted. “We care very deeply for the birth mom [of our sons], but it was unsafe to reunify them.”
She and her husband are also parents of daughter Julie, who is two. In 2019, Lilley was about five months pregnant with Julie when she traveled to Paris to shoot the Hallmark movie Paris, Wine & Romance. She didn’t start showing her pregnancy until the day she shot a scene at the Eiffel Tower. “My belly popped out,” she says, noting that from then on, she had to hold something in front of her in almost every scene to disguise the pregnancy.
Lilley says her husband, who is a full-time caregiver at home and also helps with her charity, is the rock her family needs so she can work in the entertainment industry. “I couldn’t do 25 percent of the things I do in life if it weren’t for my husband,” she says, adding that the couple met at church when they were teens.
At thirty-seven, Lilley loves being a mom and seeing life through her children’s eyes. And becoming a parent may have relaxed her approach to life a little bit, in terms of always being organized. “There is so much joy in my children and family,” she says, adding, “There are so many moments I’m winging it. I think, Am I doing enough? Are my children going to be kind human beings?” She says parents should tell themselves, God gave them the children in their care for a reason. “Every parent worth their salt feels overwhelmed.”
Her priority is to parent her children to be kind, empathetic, and well-rounded human beings, she says. “My goal as a mom is to raise them to love Jesus and love people.”
Watching her children grow and change has encouraged her to be even more open to joy and celebrate all the little milestones in life. “It’s more for me about creating memories for them,” she says. “It helps me appreciate life more.”
Photos : Victoria Eskenasy, Jason Wayne, and Jen Lilley