He may have explored deep space via "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," but for the past several years, actor Simon Jones has limited his terrain to a mile radius in Manhattan. Of course, that turf encompasses Broadway and Off-Broadway, where Jones has found a home playing upper crusty fussbudgets (Private Lives, The Real Thing) to avuncular friends (Waiting in the Wings) to slightly ominous and judgmental figures (The Herbal Bed). Nearly as ubiquitous these days on New York City stages as co-countryman Brian Murray, Jones is currently on view in Passion Play, playing a fuddy-duddy hubby who, embarking on an affair, finds himself coming alive in his heart while coming apart in his marriage. The revival of Peter Nichols' 1983 comedy-drama received positive reviews and may prove popular with audiences — if the subject matter doesn't hit too close to home and scare them off.
PBOL: It's not exactly an ideal "date play." Any horror stories?
Simon Jones: We did have one smash up. It was at a Friday preview, and my son's math teacher was sitting behind this couple. The man mentioned that he, too, had been a little unfaithful. This was not a good idea. They had a terrible row in the foyer and never returned in the second half. So life can imitate art can imitate life, etc. I expect there are lots of folks sitting in the audience thinking either, "Been there, done that" or "There but for the grace of God." It isn't like, say, Moon for the Misbegotten, where you have an experience but it's pretty vicarious. You don't feel you've been there. On Passion Play, all the actors decided whether to let their spouses read the play. My wife, Nancy, and I know the play quite well, so it wasn't a real issue with us.
PBOL: A lot of New York performers pine for the British actor's life, since the layout of London allows them to move easily from TV to film to theatre and back again, whereas here you have pick one (i.e., NYC vs. L.A.) to make a living. Why did you opt for a New York theatre career?
SJ: Had I stayed in the UK, especially after "Hitchhiker" and "Brideshead Revisited," I could have done all three media: theatre in the evening and do a movie in the day. You don't have to commit to one medium. But I married an American lady who managed the Monty Python troupe. We met on their last movie, "The Meaning of Life." She was doing publicity; I played a few odd characters in it. So I came over here. And I assumed, "Well, it's going to be all butlers or lords from now on. To my amazement and delight, I realized we do a lot of stuff I can do here. I proceeded to stay here because I kept working. I'm better known here than I am back in England now.
PBOL: So why New York theatre instead of Hollywood film?
SJ: Here was a choice between New York and L.A. Is there a choice? I mean, I've done movies and TV. It's not that I'm so totally dedicated to the theatre; I'd love to do three movies a year and nothing else, but it doesn't happen that way. I need to keep working, and this is the way I do it. Otherwise it's sitting around waiting for the phone to ring by the pool. I couldn't make a living that way. Besides, New York's halfway between L.A. and London anyway.
PBOL: Was acting always in the cards for you?
SJ: Certainly not from my first experience onstage. I did the Nativity Play at school. I was the Third King — and Christine Prosser locked me in the bathroom. Fortunately, a teacher was passing by. Only my cries managed to get me released in time to get on stage. I'd nearly missed my entrance. I guess I've been scrambling to get out of the loo and onstage ever since. After that, though, I was always taken to Pantomimes. And I remember going from school to Shakespeare, including a really terrible production of Julius Caesar in which Marc Antony lost a piece of his tooth. He had to speak the whole thing like "thith." We were hysterical with laughter. Later on, though, we saw Behan's The Hostage and Uncle Vanya. Already, I'd had the idea to perform when I went to Cambridge, but it wasn't an immediate career path. My great uncle friend, the eminence gris, wrote a short letter saying he understood the law would be an excellent career to follow. So I went to Cambridge ostensibly to do law, though I also did amateur dramatics at school. After I was there about two minutes they told me, you've no aptitude or competence or even interest in this field; why are we wasting each other's time? Go read English, your best subject. Then I did 22 plays at Cambridge! (I like to work intensively.) We were all members of the Footlights Revue Club, going back to David Frost and Jonathan Miller — a long line of people going into comedy. It left hardly any time for academics, but I managed to get by. This was what I wanted to do. PBOL: College is one thing; what about following up as a career?
SJ: Being "noticed". by the critics made it inevitable. I'd told my mother, "If I'm not making a living by the time I'm 30, I'll go back." But I'd done "Brideshead" and "Hitchhiker" by then. And just when those things were peaking, I came over here to live. It was lucky, because those were the two shows I'd done that had wide coverage in this country. They became useful credentials and appealed to two different constituencies.
PBOL: Were you hindered — or helped — by being typecast as a certain kind of Britisher?
SJ: Somebody once described the style as "hinting at the confusion underneath." But they're not all the same. Herbal Bed was ruthless, and Waiting in the Wings was different, amiable and bumbling. I think, until Passion Play came along, I was beginning to feel as though they thought of me as a bit of a lightweight. I knew I was right for Nichols' play, I just didn't know anyone else would think so. So when [director] Ellie Renfield was keen on me, I was gratified.
PBOL: That kind of belief can certainly instill confidence in a performer.
SJ: Yes. In this business, most people are haunted that they'll be "found out." Glenda Jackson once said that. And one time, when she congratulated me on Bridie [Jones' character in "Brideshead Revisited], I thought, "My God, I got away with it."
PBOL: Did any of your theatre experiences push you close to being unmasked — or coming unglued?
SJ: I was doing Aren't We All? on tour with Rex Harrison and Claudette Colbert. Unbeknownst to us, someone had put a lighted cigarette into a trashcan at the Curran Theatre. People started leaving right in the middle of the scene. Claudette turned to them and said, "Where are you going?" "We can smell smoke," was the answer. So we all looked at each other, dressed for this Edwardian comedy. We looked really silly with an audience disappearing. They all filed back in again, but the magic had gone. It's amazing how much can go on, how tenuous the spell can be. By the same token, when I was doing Candida with Deborah Kerr, someone leaned against the sprinkler, and the fountainhead started to drip onstage. Splat, splat, splat onto the Morrell sitting room. We changed our blocking to avoid the puddle, and we wondered how the audience could concentrate on the play. Well, the audience never noticed. Nobody at all... We did have a worse situation on that show when [the woman playing] Prossy had a catalepsy. She went completely blank, had no idea where she was at all. She didn't reply to any dialogue and had this blank look on her face. I knew the play well, so I tried to fill the gaps with, "I suppose you're going to say...," to which she said "yes" — and no more. Then it became a game: how many ways can I say her lines? I delivered the whole first scene as a monologue, with some prompting along the lines of "To compound that, you would add..." Finally we got her off and the next man came on. When we sat her down in the dressing room, she suddenly snapped out of it and said, "Where am I?"
PBOL: One hopes you have a better coping mechanism for stage fright.
SJ: I still have friends who throw up in the wings — which surprises me at this stage of the game. I used to have some stage fright, but not now. The thing is to keep talking. If the audience is that unaware, you can probably get away with whatever you're doing.
PBOL: Any other handy advice for aspiring performers?
SJ: Oh, I'm terrible at giving advice. Early on I once told a now-wealthy, famous comedian — Mel Smith [TV's "Alas Smith & Jones"] — what he ought to do to get on in show business. What's worse is, I did it without his asking. And he succeeded — by completely ignoring my advice. No one's ever advised me, but at least no one's asked me to give up.