If anyone is considered the go-to woman for intense Broadway drama, it's Cherry Jones. She has that uncanny knack of losing herself in characters, whether it's a painfully shy, 19th century "old maid" ("The Heiress") or a strict nun ("Doubt") -- and she won Tony Awards for each.
She's also played solid, grounded characters in films ("Ocean's Twelve," "The Perfect Storm," "Erin Brockovich") and on TV (winning an Emmy as the president of the United States on "24").
Shifting gears, Jones is currently starring as Amanda Wingfield, the flamboyant, domineering Southern belle with a son and daughter (Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger) in an acclaimed production of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie." The set at the Booth Theatre appears surrounded by water, an island of quirky family dysfunction. Jones spoke with contributor Joseph V. Amodio before a recent performance.
The water surrounding your stage is fascinating.
I know. It's actually glycerin, so it's got viscosity to it. Water is lively -- this is more languid. It's like we're isolated, floating in a memory.
Can you hear it rippling?
There's only one time I hear it lapping underneath. It reminds me of my childhood, sitting on a dock on the Tennessee River. You hear -- well, lemme see if I can do it for you, because I have this gift. Every once in a while, I'll hear a big loud drip like that. I used to think, oh my gosh, is it leaking? But it must be drips from underneath the stage. Zach has heard it, too.
Zachary Quinto stomps onstage pretty hard. He must jostle drips loose.
Yes. I've never known anyone harder on furniture. He comes down like a wet 20-pound bag of flour on that couch. In rehearsals, I thought Amanda would never allow her son to treat furniture like that, but then [I figure she] gave up, because there's only so much a single mother can do.
Do you bring characters like Amanda home with you?
My accent has gotten more Southern in real life on occasion. You know I'm from below the Mason-Dixon Line. And I think about her a lot. She's such a noble creature, and inept. She's been on the verge of a breakdown most of her life. And like a hummingbird, she never stops moving.
She's a far cry from your role in "24," as president of the United States.
I'd always wanted to play a politician, so there was no way I could turn that down. Though I worried about the violence. I don't enjoy that. Part of the reason I did it was because my parents were ill and that blessed TV schedule allowed me to spend time in Tennessee with them the last three years of their lives. So getting that part was a miracle. I didn't know anything about the show -- just that Charlie Rose liked it. He'd had all the players on his show more than once. I'm a Charlie Rose nut, I just looooove Charlie Rose, so I thought, well, if he likes it . . . [she laughs].
At this point, are there any types of roles that intimidate you?
Early in rehearsals, I wasn't sure I could pull this off. I started very rigid. John encouraged me, if I stood in place too long, to move. Which made me uncomfortable at first.
You tend to be more . . . still?
If you asked a few weeks ago I'd have said yes. Yet I've realized I'm always puttering, doing things, riding my bike . . . I don't have the grace of Amanda. But my mother did. So . . . any grace I exhibit in any of my work is all Mama. You know . . . I'm not a great comedienne. I'm not facile with language, or comedic timing. I have barely a scintilla of irony in me, and I'm not an intellect. I'm a pretty linear person.
No irony? So you've no affinity with Jon Stewart, I guess.
I appreciate it in others, and I'd give anything to have it. If I had the sense of irony Eileen Atkins has in her little finger, I'd be a far better actress than I am. The thing about heroines -- they're not ironic. That's probably why I've always been comfortable with them. They're an arrow shot from the bow at the beginning of a play. They don't know where they're going and every other person onstage is an obstacle. It's often a lonely role -- the other characters get to have more fun. It's a different tool set. I'm gonna have to work on that, because the older you get, the more you're expected to play funny, little old ladies.
Like Helen Hayes in her later years?
Exactly! And there are a lot of actresses waaaaay ahead of me on that score.