I walked away from seeing Cherry Jones’s Olivier Award-nominated turn in The Glass Menagerie without ever realising that she was the same actress who plays Leslie in Transparent. Never mind that the accent was the same – a robust Southern drawl. Never mind that both are roles involving a commandeering, manipulative woman. Never mind that Cherry Jones looks like Cherry Jones in each part, that it was Cherry Jones’s face and body I was watching… Because when Cherry Jones acts, she stops being Cherry Jones – a recognisable actor – and becomes the character entirely. Not with wigs or tics or put-on accents, but through the sheer force of emotional truth.
Cherry Jones is the brittle and controlling Amanda Wingfield in John Tiffany’s stunningly moving production of The Glass Menagerie, a matriarch looking on as the world she has created dissolves in front of her. Cherry Jones is the bossy Leslie in Jill Soloway’s groundbreaking TV show Transparent, a professor exercising her power on her younger girlfriend.
Cherry Jones is an extraordinary actor – she has won five Tony awards during a hugely successful Broadway career; now, having turned 60 last year, the television industry is catching on, and she is appearing in shows that are worthy of her talent. As well as Transparent, she recently appeared in Black Mirror and has a part in the upcoming series three of American Crime.
I sat down with her recently to discuss television sex scenes, Moonlight’s Oscar triumph and women’s stories.
Is this the first time you've done The Glass Menagerie?
Yes. It is one of those roles that you just don't once you get to my age – which is 60. As an actress the really interesting, very physical roles sort of disappear little by little by little. But [Amanda Wingfield] is one of those. People don't understand how demanding this role is, unless you're in the business. I remember watching Jessica Lange do it – and this was back in the day when I didn't think I ever wanted to do it – and thinking, "Oh my gosh that role is such hard work!" And it is, but it's like the biggest playground in the world for an actor because you get to do everything. It’s exhausting!
Yes, I mean what she's carrying around is quite something. Were you trepidatious taking the role?
Well, I just didn't think I particularly cared for the play and I'd never been drawn to her and I think it was because I was too immature when I first read it and was trying to get cast as Laura, which I never did. But then John Tiffany approached me and we did a reading of it. I just thought, Oh I know this woman, I grew up with her. I'm from a little farm in Tennessee. My sister is coming to see the show and she is going to recognise so many of her beloved relatives – including Aunt Fanny Lou, who apparently did not need to breathe, she just talked, she never took a breath. And I remember hearing my mother on the phone with her, and it wouldn't be a 30-minute phone call, it would be an hour and a half. My mother hated the telephone but she loved Aunt Fanny Lou. Every 15 to 25 minutes, I'd hear mother go, "Lord me you don't say" and the rest would be silence from my mother. All of that I roll into Amanda.
I was interested in what you said about there not being as many roles as you get older. Is that something you feel conscious of?
I don't dwell on it and I've been very fortunate in my career and I don't have to be the star. I tell my director friends when you get into your Chekhov phase, I have to give you that big old babushka. I just need to keep on working with good people on good projects. I'm pretty well set for my older years if I can stay healthy, but when something like Amanda Winfield part comes along to a meat-eating actor, you don't want to give it up.
Are there any roles left that you still haven't played and would really like to play?
I always say that if I haven't played it I probably haven't read it. It's not that I can't read well, I just read very, very slowly and plays aren't what I enjoy reading so honestly I just sort of wait for people to say, “Have you ever thought about…?” It sounds terrible, I'm just lazy when it comes to reading plays and it's not enjoyable.
I've seen you in Transparent, I'm obsessed with Transparent –
Aren't we all?
It's the best show. And I wonder: is TV a better place for women's stories now?
It seems to be. I think sometimes it's difficult with television because it's America, it all has to be based around some violent act, that's sort of the genesis. I get so tired of having to be in police procedurals and you know, even if they're great roles and strong roles for women. That's why something like Transparent is so thrilling because it's this completely wildly creative right turn from where we've been headed with American television. When I started, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to get through this, because the grown children were so awful and selfish and childish and I just thought, I don't think I'm going to have the patience for this. And then by the second episode I was completely mesmerised by them all. It's almost like an anthropological study in its specificity. There's no stone unturned.
How did you get involved in Transparent?
I only watched it because I love Judith Light [who plays Shelly Pfefferman], who is a friend. So my wife [actor and director Sophie Huber] and I watched it and we just thought it was the most brilliant, amazing thing we'd ever seen in our lives and I turned to Sophie and I said I wish I could work on something like that. Then I got a call out of the blue from Jill. And then before I said yes, I had to clear up exactly what was going to be required in terms of sexual content because I just wasn't going to be comfortable with too much. I said, "Look, I understand why you need it, you want it, it should be there. I don't mind watching it, I just won't feel comfortable doing it." So eventually she came back and she said we'll figure something out, we'll make it artistic. She said, "Do you mind kissing on camera?" I could make out all day long I just can't be doing those other things on camera. And at 60 I'd never been asked to do anything like that before…
Before I said yes to Transparent, I had to clear up exactly what was going to be required in terms of sexual content because I just wasn't going to be comfortable with too much
That's interesting, isn't it?
I mean it wasn't even the age, honestly if I’d have been 40 years old, I wouldn't have felt comfortable doing it because it's just – I'm just a small town girl.
But I think it's interesting what you say about Transparent. We are seeing sexuality in people beyond 30, and with trans people and LGBTQ people.
So it's interesting that you're 60 and that's when these questions are happening.
Right! I've never done anything like Leslie before. Just those big baggy boots and the pants and the vests and I would do those things with Gaby [Hoffman, who plays Ali Pfefferman] and it was all I could do to keep from blushing through the entire thing.
It sounds like you're in such a nice place. You have had these amazing conversations with John Tiffany and then you create this brilliant work with Jill Soloway.
Well, television is a new world for me and really fresh. Television that hasn't been done and done and done before. I even got to do a little part in Black Mirror, I was so excited. If I could keep working in that kind of world of television I would.
Does the politics of a show or a piece of work, does that help to attract you?
Oh absolutely. I think most actors want it to be for something. So if it can be both artistic and about something that the world is going through, that makes you feel like you have some worth.
I guess as an actor you're telling somebody else's story, so it's nice if you can agree with that story.
A story that really needs to be heard. And that was the thing about Moonlight. That was a story that not only had never been told, but it was a world that so many of us had never been allowed into. Regardless of colour or socio-economic background, it was so deeply personal and such a hidden story that it was just mind-blowing and so brilliantly, brilliantly directed and acted. I mean I became a member of the American Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and stuff, whatever it's called, and I don't see enough movies. I don't go to a lot of movies, it's hard for me to commit two hours to anything other than what I want to do next in terms of my day. So I watched a handful of movies this year, but Moonlight I think is an American masterpiece. So I didn't know what I should do about voting, then I thought I know what I'll do, I'll go to every single category that Moonlight is in and I'll vote for it. That's all I voted for.
Well, it won!
I know! It did, didn't it?