She is a rarity on the American stage these days: a young actress who combines professional agility with a quirky individual style that feels as personal and specific as handwriting." That's only part of a bon-bon New York Times scribe Ben Brantley gave Jessica Hecht on her opening in Lobster Alice at Playwrights Horizons in early January. In his review, Brantley evoked such good-company comparisons as Sandy Dennis, Barbara Harris and Swoosie Kurtz -- but don't expect Hecht to know about any of this until the day Kira Obolensky's play closes. Like many performers, Hecht shies away from reading reviews, fearing she'll be unduly influenced by them. What the actress, whose recent New York stage credits include The Last Night of Ballyhoo, Plunge and Stop Kiss, and whose TV resume includes the recurring role of Susan on "Friends" and a spot on the upcoming series "The Beat," concentrates on instead is her work, her peace of mind, her marriage, and her five-month old baby girl, Stella Rose. Her career may be just off the launching pad, but whatever highs and lows lie ahead, she already appears able to put it all into perspective.
Playbill On-Line: Are you sure you don't have to wait ten years, gift wrap the infant and bring it to Ben Brantley as a sacrifice?
Jessica Hecht: He's been so kind to me; I appreciate that. One time, I wanted to write a thank-you note. But people said "No, no. It's not right." It's not a personal connection, it's objective. One has to keep that distance, especially because there will be a time when reviews aren't good. I don't read reviews until the show closes. If it's a show I'm still not settled with, I don't read it at all. This time [with Lobster Alice] I'll probably wait till its over... The words stay in your mind, good or bad, and you try to do the thing he said in a particular moment. You can really screw yourself up... Reviewers used to be these wonderful literary observers. It's changed so much. It's so sad theatre is so expensive, and it's so hard to get a wider spread audience. People now use critics in much too thorough a way. When Lobster Alice was in previews we were still really finding our way. A woman came up after the show and said, "I think the performances are very good. When the reviews come out, I'll tell you what it's about." It's so frustrating when people see the show and then wait for the critics to tell them what they saw!
PBOL: Were you prepared for the grind and chaos of having an acting career?
JH: My teachers were wonderfully hard on me. I was at NYU, Stella Adler. What I learned was that you can't just stand up there and do your thing. You have to be prepared and take the job very seriously. This caused me to have anxiety about things for awhile; I could never be prepared enough. But then I had other teachers who said you have to find your way to act. What is your style? What is your work about? It's like painting or any other art form. You don't copy anyone, you find your own intuition, for lack of a better word. That takes years of time. Before NYU, I was at Connecticut College for a year and a half. At first didn't know what I wanted to do. But in the middle, it became really clear I wanted to be in New York City and desperately wanted to be an actor. I was 18. Morris Carnovsky was my acting teacher at Connecticut College, and he said, "Go to New York and study there." I was so anxious about being good, and he also said, "That way of being so wound-up allows you to be very good, when you're good; but when you're bad, you're just awful." It made me realize I had to relax. It was a great warning about that level of fear and desperation. Also, I used to think there were these great acting secrets. Carnovsky made it clear that you do understand what it is to act. There's no secret, but it takes years to gain that understanding. He was quite profound.
PBOL: Sounds like you were geared towards performing from an early age.
JH: Actually, I wasn't the kind of kid who danced around the living room. I was a tomboy. And when I was about 17, I was going through a misfit time in high school. My grades were suffering. So my mother sent me to this testing program, where they gave me a scholarship "The Center For Creative Youth," an absurdly pretentious title, at Wesleyan University, and that's when I went on an acting track. When I was younger, I was really into other stuff. Religion, Israeli folk dancing. My parents split when I was 13, so my Bat Mitzvah came a little late. I really wanted to have that experience. I even choked up when I was doing it. The Rabbi said, "Are you all right?" But I shushed him away and really wanted to finish. I had such a desire to be up there. You get to stand up in front of people, be among people in a community. I also got into modern dance, things like Pilobolus and Alvin Ailey. It was so exciting, so theatrical. I remember my modern dance teacher; she was 72-76 the years she taught me. She was amazing, and a lot of these older people really influenced me. As for theatre, I grew up north of Hartford in the woods of Connecticut. I used to go to Hartford Stage. I remember seeing Cymbeline there when I was 15 and thinking it was profoundly beautiful. Also, I remember coming to New York to see Deathtrap and Shenandoah. I just "got bit."
PBOL: And sometimes the business bites back. Any early roles you swept under the rug once the credits started building up?
JH: There's nothing I'd get off the resume, except maybe for some TV things early on. Silly sitcoms. My first television experience was "You Wrote It, You Watch It." Jon Stewart hosted it, and he was amazing, but the show was horrific. Oh my God, was it a bad show! But it was wonderful and exciting to have a television job. I want to erase it, but also I want to remember it for all times. I guess it's the same with some early La MaMa stuff. I learned so much working downtown, I have to honor that. PBOL: You went into Lobster Alice just a couple of months after you had Stella Rose. Has that made your life incredibly complicated -- or, in a way, simpler?
JH: The baby thing is amazing and challenging. She's already a theatre baby, since she's backstage in the rehearsal space. Tech week was hard, especially since babies have a sense of what their mothers are going through. Still, she's such a good girl. And it's very stimulating for kids to be around the theatre. It's a wonderful environment, and theatre people love children. Whether they admit to it or not, a baby is a nice thing to have in your vicinity. Or maybe I just want to think that, considering what I put everyone through throughout this past holiday!
PBOL: So juggling family and career is reasonably manageable?
JH: My husband is a filmmaker, so we don't work together, but I actually have a feeling it's all going to work out fine. I'll tell you when I have the second kid -- but I'm not starting anytime soon! I just so enjoy being a mom. It brings so much balance and perspective to the work. Work can be so consuming in a narcissistic way; having a child puts it all in perspective. You sometimes think, "If I don't get such-and-such job, it's over." But when I was pregnant, I went six months without working seriously -- and nothing happened that was going to change my life. I still go through moments after an audition of "Boy, that was important, but I don't think I did well!" I used to take everything extremely seriously and had a hard time letting things go. It's really hard when it means so much to you. And it's so much about how you do and how well you control things. That was difficult to deal with for many years. At the same time, one of my closest friend is a Buddhist, and I saw how nice it was that she could reconcile her fate and balance things. Also, I've been much better since I came back to New York from L.A. The balance of life is much better, especially in the theatre, once you start working and getting a community together. You realize certain jobs are for you, and certain jobs aren't. Having good friends in the business also gives you perspective. There's a natural maturity you go through. You realize what life is about.