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Cherry Jones: ‘I’ve lived so many lives – that’s the joy of being an actor’

Cherry Jones. Photo: Johan Persson

Many of the world’s greatest actors began their lives in the theatre, long before they became movie stars. Among the current, formidable British crop, these include the likes of Ian McKellen, Judi Dench and Tom Hiddleston.

In the UK, there is also a small group of stage stars who, nurtured in the theatre, attract a following in their own right without accompanying screen fame. Long before his Oscar-winning film success, Mark Rylance was one of the few who could; so, at the National, have Simon Russell Beale and Alex Jennings. On Broadway, their equivalents are performers such as Nathan Lane, Audra McDonald and Cherry Jones, who sell tickets and continue to make the theatre their first port of call, rather than a career diversion from film.

And 2017 is already lining up to be a red-letter day for London theatre, as all three of these US stars are coming to our stages this year. McDonald, whose planned official West End debut last year to reprise her Tony-winning performance in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill was postponed when she became pregnant, is to perform a handful of concerts at Leicester Square Theatre in April. Lane will star at the National in Angels in America. And Cherry Jones is to reprise her 2013 Broadway performance as Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, which she also brought to last year’s Edinburgh International Festival.

Jones and I meet at a midtown Manhattan restaurant next door to the Belasco Theatre where, coincidentally, a different production of The Glass Menagerie, starring Sally Field, opens next month.

Jones’ instinctive Southern charm and hospitality puts interviewers at ease straight away. As I turn on my recorder, she leans in and says conspiratorially: “You’re not going to do that spiel that every journalist does that you’re terrible at technology?”

When a waiter arrives to ask her what she’d like to drink, she says: “I’d like some hot water, lemon wedges and a shot of bourbon on the side. I’m going to make a toddy.” The waiter, also instantly charmed, replies: “I like your style.”

Style is what Jones has in spades. And honesty, directness and generosity, too. She has been openly gay for most of her career – a highly visible lesbian in the entertainment business long before Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O’Donnell or Cynthia Nixon. When she won her first Tony award in 1995 for The Heiress, she publicly thanked her then partner Mary O’Connor, with whom she was together for 18 years. In 2015, she married Sophie Huber, a Swiss-born documentary film-maker she first met in 2008 and with whom she has been in a relationship since 2011. Today, she says: “I’m such a happily married woman, it’s been one of those great surprises in my life.”

Cherry Jones and Kate O’Flynn in The Glass Menagerie. Photo: Johan Persson

Yet despite her own happy marital status, she adds: “I’m so fortunate to have been able to eke out a career without having to play many married women – they don’t interest me. Mostly in the theatre, they are trying to get out of marriages. I had a friend in a production of Hedda Gabler, and at the end of it, my partner at the time turned to me and said, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that women like that can just shoplift now?’ ”

Such boredom and frustration is a long way from the way Jones lives her own life, both on and off stage. She is filled with a positive joie de vivre, and fondly recalls her first visit to London, on a family holiday.

“I was 14, with my parents: my mother was an American literature teacher in high school in Paris, Tennessee, where I grew up, and daddy was a florist. They saved their money and we came to London. I remember that mother loved St Martin-in-the-Fields – and now I’ll be playing 10ft from there. The first music I ever knew by heart was My Fair Lady, and now I’ll be able to look out over the courtyard of St Paul’s Church from the apartment I’m staying in. It’s such a homecoming. My mother was the biggest Anglophile – she lived and breathed it. I have a Robert Browning quote in her handwriting, ‘O, to be in England / Now that April’s there.’ I may have to take that piece of paper and put it up in my dressing room.”

As an actor, Jones has appeared on a London stage once before – for one night only, and (another coincidence) it was also at the Duke of York’s, where The Glass Menagerie will run. Early in her career, she had been a company regular with American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I was with them for the better part of 10 seasons, from the ages of 24 to 34. In the summer of 1982, we went all over Europe and played all the festivals, including Edinburgh. At the end of the tour, Channel 4 wanted to tape our production of Sganarelle, so we all got flown back to London and did it in front of a live audience at the Duke of York’s. Of all the gin joints in town, it’s the only theatre I’ve worked at in London and now I’m going back there. Those were the golden years – the company had some of my dearest chums in it, and they still are.”

Her first professional job after graduating from Carnegie Mellon, where she trained as an actor, was at a new theatre company established by director David Jones at Brooklyn Academy of Music when she was 23.

“It was supposed to be our national theatre, but it didn’t last beyond its second season. I was brought into the company – it kills me that there are so few of them anymore. People don’t learn their craft unless they’re in a company.”

The decade Jones spent at American Repertory Theatre was where she laid down her acting roots: “That’s where I grew up and could hang up my shingle.” And she is certain that being there is what kept her in the business: “I swear to God if I hadn’t got into ART, I wouldn’t have gone on, because I would always fall apart in auditions. I couldn’t bear having only one shot. I would become unglued.”

Jones made her Broadway debut in a transfer of the London comedy Stepping Out in 1987, but it was short-lived. She then joined Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson the next year in a production of Macbeth that toured before another brief Broadway run. Jones played Lady Macduff – which she refers to as a “hi, bye, die” role – but she says how much she adored Jackson: “I was like a puppy dog around her. I was probably madly in love with her,” she admits. “After the show, I’d go to her dressing room and she’d offer me a Guinness. I remember her telling me, ‘Do be a lady and use a glass.’ ”

Jones also appeared in the Broadway premiere of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good in 1991. But it was with two shows for Lincoln Center Theater that she first became a star player.

The Heiress in 1995 won her the Tony award for best actress in a play, then Tina Howe’s Pride’s Crossing in 1997, in its Off-Broadway Mitzi Newhouse space, was, she maintains today, “the performance I’m proudest of”. But she’s never worked there since, and quips today that she wrote to its artistic director, Andre Bishop: “Dear Mr Bishop, My name is Cherry Jones and I’d like to work for you.”

Cherry Jones in Mrs Warren’s Profession in 2010 with Roundabout Theatre Company. Photo: Joan Marcus

Other major Broadway roles have followed, often for Roundabout Theatre Company (for whom she did The Night of the Iguana, Major Barbara and Mrs Warren’s Profession) and MTC (where she originated Doubt, the transfer of which earned her a second Tony). She has, in the process, become one of American theatre’s most beloved and acclaimed stage actors.

Though there was talk of bringing The Heiress to the National (which staged a new production of its own instead) and Doubt to the West End, neither came off. So her professional theatrical return to London is long overdue.

“I’d not been to London for decades, and I decided when I first went to Switzerland to meet Sophie’s family to stop in London on the way back. I was there for three days, walking and walking and walking. I remember seeing Simon Russell Beale play Stalin at the National [in Collaborators at the Cottesloe Theatre, 2011], but mainly I just walked. Then, when Sally Hawkins, who is a dear friend, was in Constellations, I was doing a TV show in LA. I flew to London for a weekend to see the last performance. They needed me back on the Tuesday, so I came for just 36 hours.”

It was a long way to come for a play that ran for just over an hour, but Jones is nothing if not loyal. She and Hawkins had bonded when Jones played the title role in Mrs Warren’s Profession, opposite Hawkins as her daughter.

“Most recently, I got to spend three months in London and the UK this past summer. I’d never had that sort of time there before, but I had a little part in the Harry Potter film that was shooting, and we re-rehearsed The Glass Menagerie in London before taking it to the Edinburgh International Festival.”


Q&A: Cherry Jones

What was your first job? I was in Good Doctor at the Barn Dinner Theatre in Nashville, Tennessee when I was 18, after my first year at Carnegie Mellon. We toured in the summer to other dinner theatres, too. My favourite was in Birmingham, Alabama, called Celebrity Lanes – a converted bowling alley. We would serve coffee and iced tea before the show, then go and get into costume. It was heaven. My first job after university was joining director David Jones who had started a theatre company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? We must be tender with ourselves, treat ourselves as a dear friend and not drive ourselves mad with our insecurities. Once you lose your confidence, you are paralysed. The best actors are brutal on themselves, but I think I always knew that.

Who or what was your biggest influence? My mother was remarkable – so much fun and such a lady at the same time. She was a great teacher, too. I’m a rock star when I go home – my sister and I are beloved by the community because she was so revered. I always say that when I do a role, I do it as I imagine my mother might have done it.

What’s your best advice for auditions? Just get beyond them as quickly as you can in your career. I swear to God, if I hadn’t joined the American Repertory Theatre, I wouldn’t have continued.

If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? I’d love to have been an astrophysicist or astronomer. I can’t image what it might be like to go to work at the beginning of the 21st century with the tools they have. They must be high as kites every single day.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? No superstitions. But as for rituals, each role demands different preparations before going on. My preparation for Amanda Wingfield was shooting a little pint jug of freshly squeezed orange juice about five minutes before places. It’s like rocket fuel.

Another coincidence: Jones appeared in Harry Potter with Timothy Spall, whose son Rafe starred in Constellations opposite Hawkins. “Father and son remind me so much of each other,” she notes.

Jones is generous to a fault about Field following in her recent Broadway footsteps in another new production of The Glass Menagerie, even as she arrives in London with the last Broadway production, directed by John Tiffany.

When I mention the front-of-house displays I’ve seen on my way into the restaurant next door, she says: “It has been up and ready to go for months, with every light bulb shined to a polish. I’m thrilled. I know people tread lightly around me about it, but this play can never be done enough. Sam Gold is a remarkable young director and I know how much this play means to him because we’ve discussed it a bit. Joe Mantello is also in it, and we worked together when he was still working only as an actor in a Paula Vogel play – The Baltimore Waltz. I know what the play means to Sally and to the producer, Scott Rudin. Tennessee would be popping buttons to think that within three years there are two productions that have taken all the dust away.”

Of course, that’s the nature of theatre: “You own a part for a little while, but then someone else takes over – and you have a bond with them. I remember gong to see Jessica Chastain in the last Broadway production of The Heiress, and I couldn’t get backstage fast enough. To be able to sit down and talk with someone about a role that we’ve shared that means so much to both of us was wonderful.”

Jones in Night of the Iguana in 1996. Photo: Joan Marcus

Jones is not in the least proprietorial about Amanda Wingfield; in fact, she long resisted playing the role. “I never wanted to do her: never, never, never!” she exclaims emphatically. “But I met a man named [John] Tiffany through mutual friends. I was at a point in my life when my sister and I were clearing out the family home of 51 years after our parents died, and they had both been only children so they had both sides of the family archives. I found so many marvellous letters, and, as I told John about them, my accent dropped and I became more and more southern as I spoke. John said, ‘We’re going to work together and you’re going to play my Amanda.’ ”

She had to be persuaded. “I was immediately charmed by John, and I told him that we would work together, but never on The Glass Menagerie. But he wouldn’t give it up. He sent me arm-twisting emails, telling me he would schedule a reading, and that if I hated it, I’d never have to think about it again.”

Two factors eventually persuaded her: “I was finally the right age and mature enough – 55 at the time – to do it. I also knew I was the last generation that had the repository of all of these women, whom I revere to this day. I grew up with women who were Amanda’s age: when I was 10 they were in their 70s and 80s, and they played very important parts in my life.”


Cherry Jones’ top tips for aspiring actors

• As my mother used to advise me: never confuse professional success or failure with your self-worth.

• I’ve never really had goals – other than to do good work with good people. So seek out the things that make your heart sing, and shoot for that.

• People come out of university owing tens of thousands of dollars; I would say forget grad school, get together with your friends and start your own company. You commit and you own it.

The crucial role of Tom, the narrator figure of the son, was played by Michael Esper, who is reprising the role in London now. Jones says, “Michael made me understand the play, as [Broadway veteran] Liz Marvel had made me understand Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. [Designer] Bob Crowley was sitting there sobbing: it’s his favourite play and John’s favourite too, so I agreed to do it. I still sort of dreaded it as it came closer – what if I couldn’t do it and didn’t have it intrinsically in me and I let the troops down?”

Ghosts of past actors to have played a role always linger. Presumably, I venture, Sally Field must be thinking about Jones a bit, too? “I don’t think she’s got a worry in the world. She’s done it before and I get the sense that this is a role she’s been waiting to play since she was young.”

During her own run of the play, Jones found herself visited by different ghosts.

“At the top of the show, I’d walk out and get into place before Tom lights a match to start the play; I’d be hidden from view, and I could see the cement fly floors to the right of the proscenium. When Tom lit the match, the light would go up and hit the rigging. And Tennessee would always be there, coming out of the shadows, usually with a drink in his hand, often in one of his fine off-white suits, and he’d smile and lean over the railings, and watch for a while. We’d commune.

Jones in Major Barbara in 2001. Photo: Joan Marcus

“Sometimes in the darkness, he would present as a gift to me my grandmother and mother, and I’d be trying to get their attention. One night it would be Julie Harris there. I never knew who’d be there. Obviously, it was my brain that was firing it and making it happen, but it was so real. I didn’t feel like I was having to manufacture it. There he was. And I lived for those moments. It took me into the play, which is all about love and memory.”

Jones talks evocatively about her love of the theatre and memories. In the past few years, she has started to work more in high-profile TV series, including 24, for which she won a Primetime Emmy for outstanding supporting actress in a drama series. “I made a linear move from playing Sister Aloysius in Doubt on Broadway to playing the president of he United States.”

When I admit that I’ve never seen the TV show, Jones replies: “I hardly did either. Besides, it’s too violent for me. I only took it because my parents were ill and in steeply declining health. I couldn’t have got home if I’d needed to do eight shows a week.”

After they died, she returned to the theatre with a passion. “It really is a wonderful life, I’ve lived so many lives. That’s the joy of it.”

Jones is thrilled to finally be able to start filling in the scrapbook she started after her very first visit to Britain when she was 14: “I got a folder and wrote on the cover: ‘My life on the British stage’. But it has remained empty until my 60th year.”

We can only hope that she fills it up in the decades to come, when we discover what Broadway has known for a long time: that she’s one of the stage greats.

CV: Cherry Jones

Born: 1956, Paris, Tennessee
Training: Carnegie Mellon School of Drama
Landmark productions on Broadway: Stepping Out (1987), Macbeth (with Glenda Jackson and Christopher Plummer, 1988), Our Country’s Good (1991), Angels in America (1993), The Heiress (1995), A Moon for the Misbegotten (2000), Major Barbara (2001), Doubt (2005), Faith Healer (2006), Mrs Warren’s Profession (2010), The Glass Menagerie (2013)
Awards: Tony awards for best actress in a play for The Heiress (1995) and Doubt (2005)
Agents: David Kalodner and Scott Henderson at William Morris

The Glass Menagerie runs at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London, from January 26 to April 29