The Inimitable Cherry Jones: On Hookers, Habits, Presidents And Priests : Monkey See Famous as President Allison Taylor on TV's 24, she's also known for an iconic Broadway performance in Doubt. She's moved on from that play's crusading nun to play a somewhat more colorful woman: Shaw's notorious Mrs. Warren.
NPR logo The Inimitable Cherry Jones: On Hookers, Habits, Presidents And Priests

The Inimitable Cherry Jones: On Hookers, Habits, Presidents And Priests

The Lady In Question: Cherry Jones, right, and Sally Hawkins learn a little more about each other than either can bear in Mrs. Warren's Profession. Joan Marcus hide caption

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Joan Marcus

The Lady In Question: Cherry Jones, right, and Sally Hawkins learn a little more about each other than either can bear in Mrs. Warren's Profession.

Joan Marcus

Versatility is the hallmark of many great actors. That said, how many do you know whose high-profile roles have ranged from a nun to the president of the United States to the owner of a brothel — all in the space of 10 years?

Cherry Jones has earned acclaim for all of these performances, and more: She won a Tony Award for her unforgettable characterization of Sister Aloysius in John Patrick Shanley's Doubt and an Emmy for her work as President Allison Taylor on the Fox TV series 24. Now she's being praised for her title-role performance in the Roundabout Theatre Company's Broadway revival of the most controversial play of the early 20th century: Mrs. Warren's Profession, by George Bernard Shaw.

"There are so many unanswered questions in this play, and that's part of the reason why it's as good as it is," she says of Mrs. Warren — a drama about a high-class Edwardian madam and her prim, well-educated daughter, at odds over the morals and money tangled up in the mother's business affairs. "Shaw didn't get caught up in the minutiae of things. But of course we have to answer those questions for ourselves. In rehearsal, we would have group therapy sessions. "What do you think this means?"

A native of Paris, Tenn., and a 1978 graduate of the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, Jones has lots of practice wrestling with thorny dramatic questions. Her sprawling resume also includes Broadway revivals of The Heiress (for which she won her first Tony), Major Barbara, The Night of the Iguana and A Moon for the Misbegotten, not to mention the original Broadway production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America. Before a recent performance, the lady made time to chat about topics from the light-hearted (Forbidden Broadway) to the deadly serious (the recent rash of gay teen suicides and anti-gay bigotry).

It's hard to imagine what a sensation Mrs. Warren created when it was new.

Yes. The actors and crew were arrested for lewd behavior. In those days, if a prostitute didn't die of consumption, she was not allowed on the stage.

May I ask, what kind of research goes into playing a madam?

In my case, not as much as I should have done. I'm one of those lazy actors; I like to take what the playwright wrote and work with that. I did learn something very interesting about prostitution in Brussels: During the first half of the 19th century, it was regulated by the government to the point where the prostitutes had to go get a physical twice a week. If they had any disease, they were put into special hospitals, and they couldn't resume their trade until they were cured. But it became so closely regulated that it eventually lost the excitement of being down and dirty, so it went back into the black market again, and all the regulations were lifted. The psychology of forbidden sex is fascinating.

Ready for a new phase: Jones told the Canadian Press newswire that "at almost 54, I'm ready for these gals now." Especially, she said, "after 708 performances as a nun. To go from an old nun to an old whore? Heaven!" hide caption

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If we can move to the other end of the spectrum, maybe you can tell me what research you did to play a nun.

Again, I just listened to John Patrick Shanley. He wrote such an iconic character. All I really needed to know was about the church's condescension to nuns. There was a very helpful thing that happened in rehearsal one day: Brian O'Byrne, Mr. Irish Catholic, made an entrance in character [as Father Flynn]. I was standing there making tea, and he just plopped down in my chair. So I raised my hand and said to our director, Doug Hughes, "I don't think so! She'd never let him do that." But Brian said, "Are you kidding? He's the priest. He gets to sit wherever he wants. You may be the principal of the school, but he's the guy." Of course, he was absolutely right. It wasn't in the script, but I think it is now: Father Flynn sits in Sister Aloysius's chair.

So that stayed in, and you reacted to it?

Oh, did I ever! It was terrific fuel for the rest of the play. Other than that, I did some reading, but how can you really prepare to play a 68-year-old nun in the Bronx in 1963? You just have to live in the world the playwright has given you. I did know I wanted her to be monolithic, and I didn't want her to fidget at all.

Gerard Alessandrini, the creator of Forbidden Broadway, credits you with the idea for one of their funniest sketches. The story is, you joked that Sister Aloysius should give an intervention to Kathleen Turner as Martha in the revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Yes, I did say that. We actors had a real sense of 48th Street pride; it felt like the golden age of Broadway to have this great new play, Doubt, running across the street from a masterful revival of an Albee play. I thought Kathleen and I would have had fun with an intervention. And now, Kathleen is playing a nun who's a rehab specialist [in the new play High], so it all comes full circle!

You played POTUS on 24. If you were president, what would your platform be?

Well, I think I would work for universal health care, and I would try to go much further with the stimulus. At the same time, I realize what Obama has been up against. It's very easy for me to sit here in my dressing room and say what I would do.

Other than Hillary Clinton, can you name any women you think might do a good job as President?

I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, but Olympia Snowe has impressed me. I appreciate that she's not in lockstep with the Republicans — and I like the way she looks.

You've played so many great characters. What are some of your dream roles that you haven't yet taken on?

You know, I don't think that way. In the first place, I'm not that well read. I just love being delighted when I get a call from my agent saying, "Someone is interested in you for _____." Fortunately, I'm at a point in my career where that does happen. I have to audition for film, but I really don't have to audition for theater anymore — which is a wonderful thing, because I'm the worst auditioner in the world. I get so nervous. In fact, I don't think I'd be acting anymore if had I hadn't gotten into the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., where I spent most of the '80s. We'd rehearse one show during the day and perform another one at night. It was sort of like being in the army; we'd just do what they told us to do. It kept me working, whereas if I had been auditioning in New York, I don't know how I would have fared.

Apparently you auditioned well enough to get into the original Broadway production of Angels in America. Now that play is back in an Off-Broadway revival by the Signature Theatre Company. Do you think you'll get a chance to see it?

Oh, I wouldn't miss it for anything in the world. I'm a huge fan of [director] Michael Greif and everyone in the cast. I can't wait to see it.

Angels in America is a benchmark play about what it means to be gay in this country, and you've been an openly gay actor for quite some time. Is there anything you'd like to say to gay youth in the wake of the recent rash of suicides, and so much publicity about bullying?

Those of us who are gay and come from the hinterlands know the first cross to bear was that you thought you were the only one in the history of time. I think most kids today realize that's not true, but they still feel completely alone within their communities. What they have to know is that all around them, in every age group, are numerous gay people who are just as alone and, often, just as terrified about it as they are. I hope knowing that is a comfort when there's no other comfort present. It's great to say "It's going to get better," but when you're in the middle of it, the only comfort I can think of is to know that you're surrounded by people of your own ilk. And if you can find the courage, if you have in your heart even the slightest bit of rebellion against injustice, maybe you can channel that and become a leader.