Jesse Metcalfe’s career started the American way: as a college student in need of some extra cash. Metcalfe had picked up modelling while studying Directing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, using the money earned to subsidise his education. Seeing the opportunity to earn a little bit more, he started taking auditions, first for a UPS commercial and then, on a whim, for an upcoming major network soap opera. The latter proved to be a game-changer.
“The casting director had a little bit of a twinkle in their eye, and I remember thinking, ‘oh, maybe that didn’t go as badly as I thought,’” Metcalfe quips. A short time later, he had left university and moved to L.A., beginning what would become a six-year run on NBC’s hit soap opera Passions. Joining Passions meant more than just a move. With the help of numerous coaches, Metcalfe learned the craft of acting from the ground up, implementing these newfound skills in real-time in front of Passions’ nearly two-million strong audience.
“It was a lot of hard work,” Metcalfe remembers. “They say that soaps are a great training ground, and I think they really are. They provide a safe space to make a lot of mistakes while teaching you how to memorise a lot of material very quickly… At that time in my life, I wasn’t really aware of a lot of pressure. I was just kind of enjoying the moment.”
Pressure or not, his efforts were worth their while. Metcalfe had a much-beloved run on Desperate Housewives and starred as the titular John Tucker in John Tucker Must Die before landing roles in several major network series. Today, much of Metcalfe’s acting work can be found on the Hallmark Channel, where he has also occasionally taken the role of a producer. His next project with the channel, A Beautiful Place to Die: A Martha’s Vineyard Mystery, finds him in both roles again: the actor will star in and executive produce the first of several films in the series based on books by Philip R. Craig.
The Martha’s Vineyard Mystery series, Metcalfe is quick to note, may come as a shock to the average Hallmark viewer. “They’re a lot edgier than your standard Hallmark fare,” he explains. “They’re pretty suspenseful, there’s a lot of action and they’re a lot of fun… [Hallmark] really allowed us to push the envelope a little bit while staying true to the brand. I think people are really going to get a kick out of these movies.”
Films like these show what Metcalfe brings to the network. Utilising elements like music and realism, much of Metcalfe’s work with Hallmark avoids the sappiness and occasional hokeyness some may still connect with the Hallmark name. Chesapeake Shores, where Metcalfe has played a lead role for four seasons, exists outside the “utopian world that Hallmark is somewhat known for,” he says. “There’s a lot of soul in Chesapeake Shores. We try to keep the characters and storylines as grounded and real and relatable as possible, and I think that’s why the show has found its niche at the network… We’re trying to emulate real life. It’s cool, and I think it’s a departure from the status quo.”
On the show, Metcalfe plays a country musician who has returned to his hometown after a stint in Nashville. The role partially a creation by Metcalfe: “I was very much involved in the creative process of the show from the very beginning,” the actor recalls. “My character in the books was an architect, and I personally didn’t think that would be as interesting as him being a musician. I think everyone involved agreed, and that idea started to take shape.” This also allowed him to flex another muscle: his musicianship. “It’s really the most fun aspect of the show for me, getting to play music on the show. Some of it is my own original music, too.”
Although Metcalfe was “always pretty musical,” he admits that country music is a recent discovery. “I always had a pretty good singing voice. I was always in the chorus as a kid and played the piano, guitar, clarinet — obviously, clarinet didn’t last long once I got into junior high and realised how uncool it was [laughs]… Country is something that I discovered later and realised I liked. For me, it’s all about the blues, so I like a little bit of blues in everything I listen to. I like blues in my rock, and I like my country on the bluesy side as well. For some reason, the blues really speak to me on a musical and emotional level, and you can find that in country.”
Apart from his work with Hallmark, which includes this year’s Christmas Under the Stars, Metcalfe has kept his schedule full and his projects varied. Next year he is starring in and producing The Latin from Manhattan, a film detailing the rise of adult film star Vanessa Del Rio as she works in and around New York’s organised crime groups in the 70s and 80s. Another film currently in production is Steps, which follows several interweaving stories of addiction. This will be Metcalfe’s debut as a director and will co-star him and his fiancée, Cara Santana, who also wrote the film. Working with Santana has been “awesome,” he states.
“She’s a really creative person and an incredibly hard worker,” Metcalfe says of his fiancée. “I think addiction is something that is still not fully recognised as a disease. With Steps, we kind of wanted to shed some light on that with an interesting narrative that turns a lot of the ideas about addiction on their heads.”
After a career of being everything from a soap opera star to a teen heartthrob to an emotionally-complex country music star, Metcalfe has some advice. “You have to focus on whatever passion it was that brought you to this place. There are a lot of distractions that come along with success in the entertainment industry, and I think at a young age it’s nearly impossible to manage those distractions perfectly, but you just have to keep it about the work.”
“A Beautiful Place to Die: A Martha’s Vineyard Mystery” premieres on the Hallmark Channel on January 12.