Jessica McNamee is the kind of gorgeous that inspires clichés, so here are a few: She’s tall and thin, with long, honey-hued hair, great skin, piercing blue eyes and supermodel-worthy bone structure. As she approaches me at the bar at the Radisson Blu, the overall effect is intimidating, at first.
But that dissipates almost immediately. The Australian-born actress plops down in an overstuffed chair and — despite the fact that she’s fresh off filming scenes for season two of her Chicago-based, Denis Leary-produced comedy “Sirens” (premiering Jan. 27 on USA) — flashes me a brilliant and genuinely enthusiastic grin. “I’m so confused by this week!” she laughs. “I just got back from New York, and I was working this morning, and we had press this afternoon, and it’s been one of those days where I’m like, ‘Where are we? Who am I?’ ”
It’s hard to blame her for feeling a little off-kilter. McNamee, 28, is essentially living a quadruple life: In Australia, she’s a small-screen sensation who can hardly walk through an airport undetected — she rose to fame in the mid-aughts by starring in popular TV dramas and continues to work Down Under whenever she can. In LA, where she’s had a home since she made her Hollywood debut in 2012’s “The Vow,” she’s part of a crowd of close-knit Aussies who migrated across the ocean to bolster their film and TV careers. In Chicago, where she camps out in the Aqua building for roughly three months a year to film “Sirens,” she’s Theresa Kelly, a wry police officer dating a local EMT (Michael Mosley). And in her hometown of Dural, New South Wales — which she still visits about six times a year — she’s just Jessica, one of five children, a warm, self-deprecating wit who performs pitch-perfect imitations of her family members.
To her credit, McNamee is mostly unfazed by her madcap lifestyle. “I’ve always been a bit of a free spirit,” she says. “I’ve never really found it daunting or overwhelming. … I always laugh that when I get married, I don’t even know how that wedding would work out in terms of where I’d be, who’d come or if I’d have to have three separate weddings or just elope. I have these completely different worlds — they’re all over the place.” (Just whom that wedding might include is unclear, though McNamee does admit that she’s “been dating someone more in the last little while, [though] it’s always long-distance for me.”)
What keeps McNamee going is her burning desire to succeed, both at home and in America. “I’ve always been really gung-ho about [my career],” she says. “I’ve always backed myself. [Failure] has never really been an option for me.” What keeps her sane is her delicate balance of self-confidence, humor and levelheadedness, which she attributes to her Australian clan. “My family instilled a great work ethic in me. … They were very tentative at the beginning [of my career], because in Australia, there’s so much less opportunity,” says McNamee, who grew up performing in school plays and left Sydney University in 2007 to pursue acting (she plans to eventually finish her degree). “But they’ve seen that it makes me happy — and that it doesn’t really change me. I’m exactly the same as I was when I left.”
It didn’t hurt that McNamee found work in the U.S. almost immediately. In 2012, after she made a name for herself in Australia on the soap “Home and Away” and the hit family drama “Packed to the Rafters,” the latter show’s writers offered her a choice to stay on for the remainder of the series or leave. “I’d always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to come to America and try my luck,” says McNamee. A natural ham, she was also eager to hone her comedic chops on screen. (“In Australia, people would be surprised to learn that I don’t take myself that seriously, that I have a sense of humor about myself,” she says). Sensing an opportunity, she chose to exit the show, and, as she puts it, “basically straight off that, I got ‘The Vow.’ ”
Filming the Chicago-set romance in Toronto with Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams, “we had a ball,” McNamee recalls. She rattles off names of the cast and crew, saying things like, “I just spoke to him yesterday” and “she’s still one of my best friends.” It’s something of a pattern for McNamee — making and keeping hordes of close friends as she hops around the globe.
In fact, that gregarious (and decidedly un-Hollywood) nature is a big part of what’s helped her reach the razor’s edge of stardom in America so rapidly. At the 2012 audition for “Sirens,” McNamee was disheartened when she realized she was one of 50 hopefuls vying for the role of Theresa. “But I was so determined,” says McNamee. “I was like, ‘I want this role; I’m not gonna let this psyche me out.’ ”
Inside the room, she immediately bonded with show runner and executive producer Bob Fisher. “We kind of vibed,” she says. “We had a really good chat. And I left, and I called my agent, and I remember saying, ‘I think they really liked me! Can you follow up?’ ”
McNamee’s instincts were right, and the raunchy comedy, which follows a rag-tag group of Chicago EMTs and cops, premiered to favorable reviews in March 2014 before being renewed in June. These days, unsurprisingly, she counts the cast among her best friends. “We’re no-bull**** human beings,” she laughs. “We have natural chemistry.” It helps that they spend almost all of their time together, traipsing to and from Aqua, where they run lines, drink wine and cook for each other (and where they all moved because, as McNamee puts it, “the idea of living apart is absurd”). They’ve also become tight with the stars of other locally set shows — including Jesse Spencer of “Chicago Fire” and Sophia Bush of “Chicago PD” — some of whom live in the same apartment complex.
The unlikeliness of her relatively soft landing in America hasn’t been lost on the actress. “I have lots of [Australian] friends back in LA who are some of the best actors I know who should be working and they aren’t,” she says. “I just feel so lucky, and I try to make a habit of recognizing that each day.”
That gratitude in mind, she’s ready to take on any TV or film role that comes her way, “as long as it’s good work and I feel fulfilled doing it, and I’m challenging myself.” First, though, she’s taking a much-deserved breather. “It’s been a hectic year,” she says. “I’m not thinking about [my next move] until we wrap up here and I do some traveling and see my family.”
As our interview draws to an end, McNamee stands up from her seat and gives me a tight hug, her movie-star aura again attracting the attention of the room. Of course, she’s completely unaware of her gravitational pull, chatting casually about her weekend as if we were already old friends. “Ugh, I ate so much cheese last night,” she groans, laughing as she throws on a slick leather jacket. “I was doing this health kick until I went to New York and I ruined everything. You know when you’re like, ‘I already ruined it, I might as well continue.’ And I broke my toe so I can’t even work out. I kicked it on the doorframe when I was doing my laundry — it’s really dumb. I was still running on it, and it was swelling, and I was like, ‘OK, that’s not right.’ It’s a great excuse to not do anything.”
Still laughing at herself, she takes a breath and heads toward the door, yelling out plans for one last, much-deserved indulgence: “I’m gonna go home and go straight to bed.”
Top: Isabel Marant, $770 Booties: Chloé, $1,095
Both available: Chalk Boutique, 2611 Prairie, Evanston; Chalkboutique.com
Earrings: A.Marek, 18-karat rose gold and brown diamonds, $7,100 Ring: Christophe Danhier, white gold, gray moonstone and diamonds, $18,000
Both available: A.Marek Fine Jewelry, 3021 Butterfield, Oak Brook; Amerekfinejewelry.com
Top: Martin Grant, $1,140 Skirt: Mathieu Mirano, $2,345 Pumps: Balenciaga, $605
All available: Chalk Boutique, 2611 Prairie, Evanston; Chalkboutique.com
Earrings: A.Marek, 18-karat rose gold and diamond hoops, $36,500 Rings: A.Marek, pink sapphire and diamond bow, $18,000; Palmiero, pink sapphire and diamond flower, $35,000
All available: A.Marek Fine Jewelry, 3021 Butterfield; Amarekfinejewelry.com
Earrings: A.Marek, 18-karat white gold mix cut drop, $55,000 Necklace: Mariani, 18-karat white gold, diamonds and black diamonds, $21,600 Ring: Palmiero, 18-karat white gold, diamonds and black diamonds, $70,700 Bracelet: Picchiotti, 18-karat white gold and diamonds, $148,500 Cuff: Garrard, 18-karat gold pave diamonds, $78,000
All available: A.Marek Fine Jewelry, 3021 Butterfield; Amarekfinejewelry.com
Top: Majestic, $98, Chalk Boutique, 2611 Prairie, Evanston; Chalkboutique.com
Photographer: Simon Perry
Stylist: favia, Ford Artists
Hair styling: Juan Jose Herrera for Mario Tricoci
Hair coloring: Nelida Prado D’Alessandro using Wella Illumina for Mario Tricoci
Makeup: Shannon O’Brien (more on O’Brien here)
Shoot Producer: Katerina Bizios
Shot on location at W Chicago Lakeshore, 644 N. Lake Shore; WChicago-lakeshore.com