Cherry Jones on Doubt, Why Watching Herself in The Heiress Was ‘Ghastly,’ and Sticking With Theatre

From the Archives   Cherry Jones on Doubt, Why Watching Herself in The Heiress Was ‘Ghastly,’ and Sticking With Theatre
In this wide-ranging 2004 interview, the star looks back at her career and forward to what would become her second Tony-winning role in Doubt.
Cherry Jones in <i>Doubt</i>
Cherry Jones in Doubt Joan Marcus

Cherry Jones is back! Not onscreen, but onstage, where so many of her fans have missed her for well over a year.

The play is the much-anticipated Doubt by John Patrick Shanley at Manhattan Theatre Company, in which Jones portrays Sister Aloysius, a widowed, no-nonsense school principal who has, well, suspicions of a certain nature about a popular priest. Playing Father Flynn is Tony Award-winner Brían F. O'Byrne (Best Featured Actor, Frozen).

(Shanley is having quite a theatrical season. Besides Doubt, Second Stage is presenting an acclaimed revival of his Danny and the Deep Blue Sea and LAByrinth Theatre Company is premiering his Sailor's Song.)

As she begins to talk about being back in New York after too many months out West, Jones appeared to be in a most agitated state. At first, she was reticent to discuss why; but, when pushed a bit, she admitted she was "a little shaken up" from seeing herself in the video of Lincoln Center Theatre's 1995 revival of The Heiress. It was a trip back in time, seeing for the first time "outside of myself" the Broadway performance that brought her thunderous applause, standing ovations and Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Actress. And, she exclaimed, "It was a ghastly experience!"

Asked how such a mesmerizing performance could be seen as anything other than brilliant, she moans, "Oh, my! I was so mannered! Why did [late director] Gerry [Gutierrez] let me talk like that? Such melodrama! As I watched, I kept hanging my head. I relived every moment and how it felt. It was nerve-racking."

The only thing that made it bearable, adds Jones, "were the wonderful performances of Philip Bosco [now on Broadway in 12 Angry Men] and Frances Sternhagen [currently Off Broadway co-starring with Matthew Broderick in Roundabout's The Foreigner]." Jones says she's not the least bit nervous about being onstage in Doubt. "I'm so looking forward to working in my first John Patrick Shanley play and with Brían F. O'Byrne. I caught him in Frozen and was just mesmerized."

Acting to Jones is, plain and simple, magic. It's something she's always wanted to do. In Doubt, she gives a tour de force performance as the stern Sister Aloysius, wearing a black habit and from behind thick eyeglasses.

Jones first appearance in front of an audience was at age three in a Paris, Tennessee tap recital. "When we took our bows," she recalls, "the applause did me in. I said, 'Gee, this is great.' I didn't realize that the loudest clapping was coming from my own family."

They nurtured her desire to act. "All I could think was theater, theater, theater! My real inspiration came my junior year when I saw Colleen Dewhurst in A Moon for the Misbegotten. That fully defined my future. She opened a whole new world of what theatre could be. I'd never heard language like that. I'd never seen a woman onstage that strong."

Jones attended Carnegie Mellon "living and breathing acting. I was five-foot nine, a big kid! But I got character parts that helped me grow." In New York, "after slinging chicken a couple of years [as a waitress] and thinking I'd never work as an actress until I was thirty-five, I shaped up. I wasn't your classic ingénue, but that didn't stop me from giving it a try."

Since 1980, she's been at her craft "anytime, anywhere I can" -- regionals, Off Broadway, Broadway. However, she's been absent from the New York stage since summer 2003 and her acclaimed performance Off-Broadway in New York Theatre Workshop's production of Flesh and Blood, Peter Gaitens' adaptation of Michael Cunningham's novel about several generations of an American family.

Stage success led Jones into film, where her roles have included the veterinarian in Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer; Hallie Flanagan, the Federal Theater project chief in The Cradle Will Rock; a small part opposite Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich; a police officer in M. Night Shyamalan's Signs and, this summer, as Mrs. Clack in his The Village. She's guest starred on TV's "The West Wing" and the sitcom "Club House", where in the first two episodes she also played a nun who was a school principal. Jones is featured in the upcoming Oceans' 12 and Swimmers.

This recent concentration on movies had fans worried she'd gone Hollywood. "No, no, no!" she says emphatically. "I never expected Hollywood to come calling, even after The Heiress. I didn't know anything about film and never spent time in L.A."

Jones says she owes her visibility in film to Redford seeing her in that play. He cast her in The Horse Whisperer, in which he starred and also directed. It was then she got good representation and that scripts started being sent.

"Movies and TV are fun," she states, "as long as you know you've got something to come home to. Theater will always be my primary focus. I'm not ambitious. [Evidence of that is that she passed on a role in Cold Mountain.] My agents are understanding. I never feel pressure to accept roles I don't want."

Amazingly, in view of her success onstage and the accompanying critical acclaim, Jones hasn't sought starring roles.

"Not many women my age [last week she celebrated her 48th birthday] are in the Hollywood mindset," she laughs. "Where I'm at, I have to specialize in nuns and FBI agents [Oceans 12]! But I love the low-pressure character parts, because I have the opportunity to watch and learn. I've had the luckiest career in the world. I've done so much more than I have any right to."

Jones guiltily admits to loving the ambiance of Hollywood. "Who can resist? And I'm at that career point where I find these character parts in film delicious to play around with. But then to have this magnificent part come along in Doubt, well, is the icing on the cake. It arrived at just the right time because I was itching to get back to the stage. It'd been while since I went 'Ohhh!' after reading a script. So I jumped at it."

Set in 1964 in the male-dominated Catholic world at a junior high in the Bronx (the borough where Shanley grew up), Doubt could be torn from recent headlines in that it’s about a school principal that becomes suspicious when a priest takes too much interest in a young male student.

Sister Aloysius, a previously married woman in her 40s, "is a strong and formidable character," Jones observes. "She runs the place with an iron hand. She believes her methods and views are correct and she vigorously imposes them; and, when it comes to her suspicions, she has no doubt whatever." Or does she? She’s a crafty character, determined to prove that she’s right and damn the consequences.

Jones says that the confrontation between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn "is an onstage gunfight at the O.K. Corral." The theatrical fireworks keep audiences intensely engaged.

Yet, amid the seriousness of the story, Jones has found humor. "Not surprising, since it's from the author of Moonstruck. A friend said she was doing a funny play this season. Another boasted that she was doing a serious one. And I replied, 'I'm doing a funny and a serious play!'"

She adds, "I'm having fun pleading Aloysius' case — that she should never have allowed ball point pens to enter the school because they make students press down and they end up writing like monkeys. You can spot someone who went to Catholic school a mile away. No one has penmanship like they do!"

A younger nun who’s quite intimidated by Sister Aloysius’ methods and the student's mother, played by Heather Goldenhersh (Freedom-land, Last Dance) and Adriane Lenox (Shug Avery in the Atlanta premiere of the musical adaptation of The Color Purple, The Moon in Caroline or Change Off-Broadway at the Public), respectively, are the other characters.

Jones is delighted to be working again with Hughes, who directed her in Flesh and Blood and received a Tony nomination for Frozen. "He's the sweetest, smartest and gentlest director. You shouldn't be surprised at those qualities, since he grew up in that proverbial trunk [the son of Barnard and Helen Hughes]. What I like about Doug is that early in rehearsals he'll take you through the play and then allows you to go back and work on details."

Growing up Protestant in Tennessee, the Catholic Church, laughs Jones, was the most exotic thing in town. Her two best friends were Catholic. "I'd go to mass with them and they'd show me these little slivers of bone that were relics of saints. I used to wonder, with so many Catholic churches, if there'd be enough to go around."

Frequently, she heard stories about the nuns. "Their fiefdom was the school system," reports Jones. "They were trained to be field marshals: discipline, order, rigidity. When I heard how they used clickers in church, I couldn't help but laugh. Click, you kneel! Click, you stand!"

Jones remembers the time when young men going into the priesthood were deified in their communities. "But, once they were priests, they were never allowed a normal adult relationship with anyone outside the cloth who understood what they're going through. That had to do something to the soul and mind. We're sexual beings. I can't believe that eventually in the Catholic Church priests won't be allowed to marry. Otherwise, they're going to beating the bushes looking for vocations."

She explains she's a bit worried that Doubt will attract protests. She recalled that MTC "had to spend a king's ransom to fortify the theatre during the run of Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi. I don't think we'll have that type of experience. I wonder if victims will come forward and I'm looking forward to the audience talk-backs."

No sooner than she was out of high school, Jones headed to Pittsburgh to study drama at Carnegie Mellon University, "living and breathing acting. I was five-foot nine, a big kid! But I got character parts that helped me grow."

Then came the real adventure, she says: "New York, where after slinging chicken a couple of years [as a waitress] and thinking I'd never work as an actress until I was thirty-five, I shaped up. I wasn't your classic ingénue, but was going to give it a try."

She acted with rep companies across the country and was invited to be a founding member of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA, where she performed in over 20 productions from 1980 to 1991.

Returning to New York, she plied her craft Off Broadway – rapidly gaining a dedicated fan base and becoming a much sought after actress. "Every play I've done," Jones explains, "has been exactly what I wanted to be doing at that point. I saw each as a step toward more options. Having worked in every different style -- method, mime, you name it -- prepared me for working with the various style of directors."

Jones' New York debut was in 1983 in Claptrap at the original Upper East Side home of MTC. She made her Broadway debut in 1987 in Tommy Tune's Stepping Out. The following year, she toured and eventually played Broadway in Macbeth, starring Glenda Jackson and Christopher Plummer. In 1991, under circumstances she considered less than ideal, she won a Tony-nomination for Best Actress in Our Country's Good. (The Tony nominating committee passed over Jane Alexander’s starring role in Shadowlands and nominated Jones for what she considered was an ensemble role.) The following year, she was Off-Broadway in The Baltimore Waltz.

In 1997, Jones won Chicago's Jefferson Award for Best Actress in the Goodman revival of Tennessee Williams' Night of the Iguana, which she repeated at the Roundabout. She had another triumph in 1997 at San Diego's Old Globe and LCT as champion swimmer Mabel Tidings Bigelow, chronicling her from early teens to her 90s, in Pride's Crossing.

On Broadway, she gave a riveting portrayal of Josie Hogan in A Moon for the Misbegotten (2000), a role she dreamed of playing and which she approached with trepidation; Roundabout's Major Barbara revival (2001) and her musical debut - yes, Cherry Jones singing and dancing! - in Imaginary Friends (2002).

Of her chosen profession, Jones says, "I wish there were more opportunities for those breaking into acting. Unless you give yourself completely, it's difficult. Even during the hardest times, it seemed effortless, but it wasn't. Luckily, I've been able to devote my efforts to what I wanted to do. Because of that, I'm not the most well rounded person. But there've certainly been other compensations."

Of film vs. theater, she states, "In film, you play a character. There's no projection. The camera's in front of you and the boom mike looms overhead. It's a world of fifteen-second bites. You have make-up and wardrobe fussing over you and 300 others concentrating on that tiny sequence. It's incredible to have all that manpower and imagination to bring to life one moment."

She has empathy for anyone who works in film and TV. "It's a hard life. I marvel at actors like Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts — anyone that has a constant career of going from film to film to film. We hear how stars are pampered. There's a reason! You're on location, away from friends and family for months, living in hotels and eating in restaurants. And television is much worse. It's eighteen hour days!"

There's something childlike about theater, she observes. "You enter the fantasy. For two hours straight, you wrap yourself around the audience and are your character. And you can never forget the persons in those seats in the last row of the balcony. You must project to reach them. Even in your offstage moments, in the wings or doing a quick change, you're 'out there' because you're listening, watching, totally immersed and involved."

Jones says that lately she's "trying awfully hard to be in and of the world by reading more newspapers and watching more TV." She has no idea what she will do next. "I'm lazy and rather enjoy the breaks between shows. I just love to hang out and drink coffee!"

Click Here to Shop for Theatre
Merchandise in the Playbill Store
Today’s Most Popular News: