“We met on a train platform in a cloud of steam,” Jefferson Mays wistfully recalls. “Like Anna Karenina,” adds his wife, Susan Lyons, with the same dreaminess in her voice. The actors’ poetic first encounter happened when Lyons took a trip with mutual friends to see Mays in Outward Bound at the Westport Country Playhouse.
Mays headed out of town soon after and offered his small, sixth-floor walkup apartment to the beautiful Australian actress while he was gone. Months later they began a magical courtship. They quickly became creatively entwined, with Lyons helping with the very first incarnations of Mays’ Tony-winning tour de force, I Am My Own Wife. She is credited as the artistic consultant of the Broadway production, a role she unofficially continues now.
The passion and respect (and playfulness) between the two is palpable and they feed off of each other creatively—even in their wardrobes. They carry themselves elegantly, yet without pretense. Here, the duo feverishly shares ideas about Mays’ roles—whether he’s playing a neat freak reporter in this fall’s highly-anticipated Broadway revival of The Front Page or eight members of the same noble family in 2013’s Tony-winning musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.
Jefferson offered to let you stay in his apartment while he was away on the first night you met him. What was it like to live in Jefferson’s apartment before you really knew him? Did you snoop around and try to figure out who he was?
Jefferson Mays: You said it was like a monk’s cell. That’s what you said.
Susan Lyons: But it was. It was a wonderful kind of retreat in the East Village. It was up all these flights of stairs, and it was very small. It was only 300 square feet. I ended up spending more time in New York than I thought I was going to and felt a bit rudderless, so it was a lovely, comforting place to be. I’m years older than Jefferson, and I was behaving myself. You know when you walk into a place and it’s just got a lovely vibe to it? You know that the person who lives there is obviously a good person.
JM: Then I came back, and I offered you the apartment again because I was going to Chicago.
SL: Right, but I had a friend’s place to look after, so I rang up to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
JM: Then we met up for a cup of tea and had the most wonderful time.
SL: Within five minutes we were drawing up a list of people we both wanted to ritually disembowel.
JM: It was a great relationship founded on mutual antipathies. There were many of the same people on our lists.
Can you name names, or are they all still alive?
JM: Sadly, they’re all still alive.
SL: So it wasn’t until we met up for that cup of tea that I started thinking, “There’s something else happening here.” After that, we went off and had adventures.
JM: We called each other up every day for the next two weeks and had fantastic New York adventures.
SL: We went to the Met and the Tenement Museum.
JM: Christmas shopping. It was a wonderful wintery time together.
SL: It was kind of magical.
JM: It was kind of a whirlwind courtship I suppose. We met late in life.
SL: He’s just such fun to be around. It’s exhilarating being in his presence, so during the courtship we’d say, “We mustn’t see each other every day. We must play on with our lives,” but every day one of us would buckle and call, and say, “Whatcha doin'?”
JM: She’d always walk east on 21st Street and I’d walk west on 12th Street and we’d angle toward each other and meet in the middle.
SL: I love my husband dearly, but he spends a lot of time thinking about his role and creating stuff in his head, so sometimes I’d see him sort of amble past me. I’d think we’d be coming together, and he’d keep going.
That’s hilarious! Jefferson, were you working on I Am My Own Wife when you first met?
JM: I was just starting to work on that. We met in August of 2002.
SL: And we got to together in December.
JM: Then that winter, Susan flew out to Chicago for the first performance of I Am My Own Wife, and quickly endeared yourself to the director [Moisés Kaufman] and the playwright [Doug Wright], who sought you out for notes and ideas.
SL: They were very generous [and allowed me to come] to rehearsals, which normally I hate doing. You just feel like a wart that shouldn’t be there.
JM: But you were such a huge part of its development. They turned to you. As did I, again and again.
SL: It was such a thrilling thing to see come together. It was unlike anything I’d seen before.
JM: And then she became the associate director when we were on tour.
SL: Thanks to Moisés.
JM: Susan and I traveled around the country and indeed the world together.
SL: It was a great adventure. I didn’t know America really at all, but I got to see [so many] parts of the country, and Jefferson is such a wonderful mind. He has such curiosity about things.
JM: Well, it’s always an adventure with you. We would take trains—with romantic names like the California Zephyr and Southwest Chief—whenever possible, so we could see as much of the United States out the window. It was romantic. That was another opportunity for us to get to know each other.
SL: It was a fantastic way to travel.
What was it like working together? Jefferson, did you want Susan’s input from the get go?
JM: Yes. Although you quickly realized…
SL: I did make a horrible mistake.
SL: Well, we both get sort of obsessed about the work, and our minds are always cooking. There was one time at about three o’ clock in the morning when I leaned over and tapped him on the shoulder.
JM: She woke me from a sound sleep to give a note.
SL: To give him a great idea I had for Act Two. That was a really bad idea. I learned that very quickly.
That notes are better in the waking hours?
SL: Notes are always hard to receive at the best of times.
JM: It’s better [to wait until] after breakfast.
SL: We have great conversations. We love going for walks and examining things. It’s very yeasty and exciting. I think it’s lucky in a way that I was kind of older, because in Australia I had been doing theatre for 25 years and had done a lot of the roles I wanted to play. I think it’s very hard for two actors [to be] together. Work can take you out of town for months, or you’re working days and he’s working nights. I don’t have the same burn to perform. … I feel like I get the best of both worlds now, because I get to participate in Jefferson’s creations. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything at all. It’s a thrilling new life.
Do you feel a lot less involved when Jefferson is doing a role in something like The Front Page or GGLAM, than you did with I Am My Own Wife?
SL: I Am My Own Wife is different because it was such a solitary experience for him, so as I was working on it I’d be at the theatre.
JM: Susan was at the theatre every night, writing in my dressing room. It was so lovely.
SL: But when he’s got other cast members to play with, I don’t want to hang around like a bad smell. They’re a special family, but I love being involved in the cooking part, where we go for long walks in the park and talk about the physical life of the character, or what the past story might be. It’s usually him bouncing ideas off of me and me going, “That’s brilliant.”
JM: We workshop things together.
Is it different to live with Jefferson when he does a one character role than when he does more non-traditional multi-character roles?
SL: I Am My Own Wife was very intense. Sometimes we would come home and he’d have to go for a stalk around the block because there was so much adrenaline buzzing through him. [GGLAM] was touching, but it was exhausting and kind of brutal. I started to worry about him physically, because he was getting injuries and not getting a proper chance to recover from them. I remember when he was doing Journey’s End and he was playing Mason, the cook. One time I got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and there he was in the kitchen with three pieces of newspaper folded over his arm and holding four mugs. He was trying figure out the best way to set the table.
JM: Since she was asleep I thought I would rearrange the furniture, which I do periodically to simulate what the stage is going to be.
SL: It’s always a bit like that. There’s always moments where we’ll be sitting together—
JM: And she’ll say, “You’re acting, aren’t you?
SL: Yeah because his eyes just go somewhere else. There’s a thought process or a little conversation going on in his head.
JM: Or I’ll make some sort of eccentric hand gesture that makes no sense in the context of everything. Oh my God, you are so tolerant.
SL: That’s ok, I love it! It’s like seeing something born, you know?
So Jefferson changes into a different character right before your eyes?
SL: Moments of them yeah, but I never feel like I’m sleeping with a D’Ysquith. It’s always Jefferson, but the other character comes in and becomes part of our lives as well in a thrilling sort of way.
One thing that I always look forward to, is seeing both of your looks on the red carpet! You have such a unique style. Is that something you each had coming into the relationship, or did you develop it together?
SL: I had to lift my game.
JM: No. I had to lift my game. I did not dress up to the degree that I do now before I met you.
SL: I used to have a pair of jeans. I haven’t had a pair of jeans since I met Jefferson. It’s lovely though. Early on in our relationship, I had to go to a conference in Paris. I rang him just before going to the airport and he said, “I have a great surprise for you,” and I thought he’d gone and bought me something really nice.
JM: Oh God I wish I had.
SL: I got off of the plane and waiting at the bottom of the corridor was a man standing in a taupe pith helmet.
JM: I got a new pith helmet. I wanted to show it off.
Susan, who has been your favorite character that Jefferson has played?
SL: My favorite character is Jefferson Mays.