Interview with Cherry Jones

Out lesbian actor Cherry Jones has long been one of Broadway's most-lauded performers, but she has also long been a celebrity lesbian to be proud of. When she accepted her first Tony Award in 1995 for Best Actress (she played the role of Catherine Sloper in The Heiress), she publicly thanked her female partner in her acceptance speech.

In June 2005, Jones took home a second Tony for her leading role in Doubt, which is now touring nationally.

The night she received her Tony for Doubt, Jones was accompanied by her current girlfriend, Sarah Paulson (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), and the two have often been seen together at industry events.

Jones does more than acknowledge her life as a lesbian; she isn't afraid to play one on stage or on TV, either. In 1993 she played a lesbian mom in lesbian playwright Paula Vogel's And Baby Makes Seven, and in 2001 she played another lesbian mom while co-starring with Brooke Shields in the Lifetime movie What Makes a Family.

AfterEllen.com recently talked with Jones about her role in Doubt, which tells the story of Catholic school principal Sister Aloysius (Jones), who suspects that the school's charismatic priest may be paying inappropriate attention to one of the male students. Riveting, unflinching and occasionally humorous, Doubt — and Jones' presence in it — is simply unforgettable.

AfterEllen.com: You are touring in the play Doubt, for which you received much acclaim and a Tony Award. You must feel very strongly about the play and the role to continue performing it.
Cherry Jones:
I'm right at about 555 performances already of this play. [Laughs.] We started at the Manhattan Theater Club, and then Broadway, and the tour began in September in Los Angeles. We're not even halfway through with it yet. And the extraordinary thing about this play and this role is that I never get tired of it. Maybe there's something wrong with me [and] I'm just incredibly obsessive/compulsive. I think most stage actors are, or have to be a little bit. I was just talking to my fellow cast members about this the other night. Because of what we get back from the audience, it is the most rewarding experience any actor will almost ever have in the theater.

We've all been in plays and productions that have been successful, and we've had personal success with things, but I have never, in 30 years in the theater, worked on a play that the audience … it literally feels, 10 minutes into the play, that the audience appropriates it as their own, and we are just there to serve it and the audience. It's just remarkable how involved people become.

Because it [the play] goes to one of the oldest gut needs that we have as human beings, and that is the need to know — the need to know that we are right. That what we feel and believe and what we feel and think is true and correct. There are so many times in life that we cannot know, and we're not satisfied with that, nor can we rest comfortably.

John [Patrick Shanley], our playwright, said that when he was a young man, people with doubt were considered wise people, and now they're considered weak people. We've lost our appreciation for the fact that doubt is the genesis of most mature decisions. You need to start with an open mind and survey the lay of the land before you rush to judgment.

AE: I'm so glad that you mentioned the way the audience was responding to the play, because there is the scene where Sister Aloysius meets with student Donald's mother, Mrs. Muller, in her office, and there is a turning point in the play. There was an audible collective intake of breath from the audience. So you would say that you are attuned to those kinds of audience reactions?
CJ:
Oh, yes! We hear everything. There is literally a point in that play, every night. It's around the time that Mrs. Muller says, "Please leave my son out of this; my husband would kill him over a thing like this." Almost every night … I hear someone pop their knuckles right at that moment. [Laughs.] The tension becomes so great in the audience, and the audience is suffering with her so [much] at that point, that you just hear this knuckle pop. Every single night someone pops their knuckles!

The different reactions that the play elicits — you never know from night to night. One night, at Manhattan Theater Club, very early on, when the lights faded on me after I say “I have doubts,” a woman on the front row said audibly, “May she burn in hell.”

We were once collecting for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and this man came up practically spitting in my face, and the next person after him was this very liberal, very enlightened-looking San Franciscan woman, who said, “She's my new role model.” You just can never tell.

AE: Speaking of doubts, did you ever have any doubts that you would be playing Sister Aloysius?
CJ:
Well, I did. My agent got it to me to read, and I fell in love with it and recognized that it's a great American play, but I think they'd asked about three different actresses before they got down the pecking order to me. I immediately said yes, and then the closer we got to rehearsal, I thought, “I am never going to be able to pull this off. I'm Methodist; I'm from Tennessee.”

My greatest fear every night is that I'm going to get the Hail Mary wrong and be corrected collectively by 400 people en masse.

But it's so beautifully written, and Doug Hughes is such an amazing director, that I was able to, apparently, really do a dead ringer for a lot of people's nuns. I wish I had a list of names that people have come by after the show and said, “You reminded me exactly of Sister …” and they always have these terrifying names. These wild names that you never knew existed. I'm so glad that I got to do it. I would not have missed this ride for anything.

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