Actor Cherry Jones On Her Journey From Theater To 'Succession' Media Mogul
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Cherry Jones is nominated for an Emmy for her guest appearance on the HBO series "Succession." She's already won two Emmys for her performance on "24" as President Allison Taylor and her performance on "A Handmaid's Tale" as Offred's mother. In the Amazon series "Transparent," she played a celebrated lesbian poet and professor, and in Apple TV's recent series "Defending Jacob," she played a defense attorney.
For many years, she was best known as a theater actor. She got her first Tony Award for her performance in the 1995 Broadway revival of "The Heiress" and her second for her performance in the 2005 original production of "Doubt." Jones appeared in "The Glass Menagerie," "Moon for the Misbegotten," "Angels in America" and many other plays. Her current Emmy nomination is one of 18 nominations for "Succession."
The series is about a rich family who owns and runs a global media empire. The head of the family, Logan Roy, is a ruthless tyrant who manipulates and emotionally abuses his four grown children as they each compete to win his favor and be named his successor. The family's media empire is being threatened by a hostile takeover, and to fight it off, Logan is trying to acquire a media rival called PGM. Cherry Jones plays Nan Pierce, who runs PGM, which is owned by her family. Her family and her media company contrast with Logan Roy's. She's from old money, very stately, and her media company is known for its progressive politics. The Roy family is more crude. They're all about power and money, and their flagship news operation is comparable to Fox News.
In this scene, Nan Pierce has invited the Roy family to her estate to discuss the deal. She's accepted the price the Roy family is willing to pay for her company, but she has other terms she insists they agree to before she's willing to sell. Logan Roy is played by Brian Cox. Here's Cherry Jones as Nan Pierce.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUCCESSION")
CHERRY JONES: (As Nan Pierce) Very well. If we can clear up our ethical concerns, I think we can talk. We would like to retain some board seats and get ironclad editorial protections in place.
BRIAN COX: (As Logan Roy) Well, I think that could be hammered out.
JONES: (As Nan Pierce) Also...
COX: (As Logan Roy) Also...
JONES: (As Nan Pierce) I think we would also like to have a conversation about management. I won't have that man overseeing our news. I'm sorry. That's just not tenable.
COX: (As Logan Roy) That won't be a problem.
JONES: (As Nan Pierce) More important, we would like you to publicly announce a successor. And we would like the person you publicly announce to be Siobhan Roy.
COX: (As Logan Roy) Well, that's not quite how I do things.
JONES: (As Nan Pierce) Well, it will have to be, or there's no deal. We want to announce the sale and Shiv at the same time because, frankly, she may be one of you, but she's young, she's a woman, and her politics fit better with the core values of our family business. So that's the offer.
COX: (As Logan Roy) Well, to be fair, you don't have an offer. I have an offer. And if I announce my daughter, my daughter will be announced on my time.
JONES: (As Nan Pierce) OK. Let me explain something.
COX: (As Logan Roy) Oh, please.
JONES: (As Nan Pierce) You can't put a value on what we do.
COX: (As Logan Roy) Funny - I have put a value on what you do.
JONES: (As Nan Pierce) Well, if you won't budge, then I'm afraid we have no deal.
COX: (As Logan Roy) Then we're done.
GROSS: Cherry Jones, welcome to FRESH AIR. Welcome back to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on your Emmy nomination.
JONES: It's a pleasure to be back with you, Terry.
GROSS: So, you know, I - you are so great. I love that you can so convincingly play, like, an old money, very entitled woman. So did you have people to draw on for your character in "Succession"? Were there people who are, like, old money, entitled, with an estate that you could draw on for, you know, the style of speaking and the body language? - because her body language conveys, like, I've always had privilege. I've never known anything but that.
JONES: Well, you know, it was interesting because I know that I played her maybe as a woman who no longer completely exists. Those gals are leaving us. But I wanted her to be that sort of last stand of that old guard of old, old blue blood WASP money where they go to the camps in the summer and sleep under horse blankets and then come back to their mansions or their Ivy League schools in the fall. And I - because I'm in the theater and I'm in the not-for-profit theater, had been for many years, of course, at these board dinners, I have met many of these women. So it was delicious to get to tap into all those different women that I've met and either enjoyed or been slightly appalled by.
GROSS: You have to play the contradiction in her life in that she runs a progressive, you know, media group, but in her own life, you know, she lives in an estate that's kind of a bubble. And she has a cook who's, you know, preparing this dinner for a whole lot of people where the Roy family and her family get together to discuss this takeover or merger. And so she says to the cook who's, like, serving hors d'oeuvres, like, you never take time out for yourself. You should have a drink with us. And of course, like, the woman who's overseeing all this big dinner can't do that.
JONES: Yes. When I came to that line, I thought, well, there goes any sense of nobility about this woman (laughter), you know? It was - that was probably the most telling line for me as an actress about this character. For an actor, it's always so much more interesting to have a character who, on one hand, seems to be trying to do everything with a sense of responsibility for society, and then you see her patronize this woman who works for her who is doing 50 things at once to put together this magnificent meal for all these fabulously wealthy people. And it's just so cringe-worthy, in an instant, understanding who this woman is. And it really did make me cringe when I read it on the page.
GROSS: So one of the things I love about "Succession" is the dialogue is so good. It's so cutting. Everybody's always, like, cutting each other. And it's played as a drama, but there's something really funny about it because they're so over-the-top selfish and, like, money-hungry. It must be so much fun to read these lines.
JONES: It is - and, you know, to watch the show and think each one of these scripts is a masterpiece because they are so wretched, these people. And at the same time...
JONES: We so enjoy laughing at how ludicrous they are. And the writers just get that edge, that tightwire ropewalk just right. And at the same time, you see these grown children who have been created as monsters and who, at the end of the day, are just starved for love. And it has so thwarted them as human beings. And so as much as you find them appalling, you also have, at the end of the day, a little bit of sympathy for people who really have known no healthy relationship in their life.
GROSS: So let's take a break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Cherry Jones. She's nominated for an Emmy for her performance in the HBO series "Succession." We'll talk more after we take a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "4 ON 6")
GROSS: Let's get back to my interview with Cherry Jones, who's nominated for an Emmy for her performance in the HBO series "Succession." If she wins, it will be her third Emmy after winning for her performances in "24" as President Allison Taylor and in "A Handmaid's Tale" as Offred's mother.
My understanding is that Frank Rich recommended you for the role. Now, Frank Rich used to be The New York Times theater critic and was, during those years, probably the most powerful theater critic in America. And you were performing mostly on stage back then. And he's since gone on to work on TV shows, including "Veep" and, of course, "Succession." So when you first met him, were you still thinking of him as, like, the theater critic who could make or break a show?
JONES: The first time I actually got to meet Frank Rich was - I had gone to San Francisco to do an interview on City Arts & Lectures - Sydney Goldstein City Arts & Lectures. And the night I arrived, Frank was being interviewed. And afterwards, we were all introduced. And I was 50 years old at that point, but I was like a schoolgirl, you know, to be with Frank Rich. We lived in fear and terror of Frank Rich in the theater. And, of course, he was absolutely delightful. So I'd gotten to know him a little bit.
Holly Hunter and J. Smith-Cameron and I all have come up together. And J. plays Gerri on "Succession," the counsel to Logan Roy, and Holly Hunter plays a wretched character who is stabbing me in the back. And at one point, we walked past Frank's director chair, and there it was in black and white - Frank Rich. And we both sort of shuddered just to see it in black and white again (laughter) - his name.
GROSS: So what kind of reviews did he give you when you were in theater?
JONES: You know, as I was coming up, he was very close to leaving the Times. And the one review that I remember best was for a marvelous Paula Vogel play called "The Baltimore Waltz." And Frank Rich really got that play and wrote an exquisite review of it and a lovely - I got a lovely notice with that. But he wrote - it was a play about AIDS that wasn't - Paula did a remarkable thing where it's not directly about AIDS but it is. And Frank Rich, all those years when he was reviewing theater at the height of the AIDS epidemic, wrote so beautifully about each AIDS play. And then as he started doing op-eds, he was such a champion so early on for getting federal help towards curing AIDS.
GROSS: Were you working on Broadway or off-Broadway at the peak of the AIDS epidemic? - because I imagine that a lot of people working on Broadway then had HIV and that many of them died and that that would have had quite an effect on you.
JONES: I graduated from college in 1978, and then by '82, '83, I was working in Boston. And so I was not an established actor in New York, but the people I was losing were college friends who were starting to become ill and college friends who'd managed to get into productions of "A Chorus Line" or different shows as dancers who were dying of AIDS. And, of course, it continued. We were still losing friends well into the mid- and late '90s. And we all still try to imagine what the world would be like if all of those extraordinary men and women were with us now.
GROSS: What impact did it have on you to lose so many friends at a young age?
JONES: It was so infuriating because you felt that there could have been help so much earlier, and you knew that help was a long, long way away because it was gay men. And as a young gay woman, you know, it was not threatening to my health, but it was to every young gay man I knew. And there was also the anger at your friends if they were not careful. There were just so many different emotions of watching young men die wretched deaths and some supported by their families, others shunned by their families.
GROSS: Has the pandemic - has COVID made you think a lot about the early days of the AIDS epidemic?
JONES: No. It actually hasn't. This feels so different because there's not a soul on earth that has any protection against this. It affects everyone, so there isn't the stigma that there was with AIDS. But there's still, unfortunately, blind people leading the government who were - regardless of what was said at the Republican convention, were woefully slow and just wanted everything to be rosy. And that's not how this is playing out.
I come from a beautiful little town in Tennessee - Paris, Tenn. And my partner and I - I had badly injured my knee, and so in March, we drove down and stayed with my sister for four months in Tennessee. We had no idea when we left New York, mainly because I couldn't get up and down my apartment stairs, that we were going to be there for months. And, of course, coming from New York in mid-March, Broadway had just closed. We were very, very, very careful. And my sister took us in with open arms, but we basically all three quarantined together - my wife, my sister and I. And everyone in town, once we were out of quarantine - you know, no one was taking it seriously because there had been no cases reported. And we left Tennessee. There was 65 cases in my county. And as of yesterday, there were about 410.
GROSS: It must have been so frustrating for you to come from New York at the time when New York was the epicenter of the virus in the U.S. and then go down to a small town - Paris, Tenn., where you grew up - and no one's taking it seriously. It's like, you knew what could happen, but no one was taking it seriously.
JONES: Like everywhere, until it hits your town, people just don't take it seriously. And honestly, I do understand that. But it's, you know - it's why we're in the state we're in. And fortunately, it does seem like the numbers are coming down because people are understanding now how you stop the spread.
What was most remarkable about being in my hometown during those months was that after George Floyd was murdered, in my little town of Paris, Tenn., with a Confederate statue on the court square, there immediately started to be people holding signs around the court square, Black Lives Matter signs. And my sister and Sophie and I started participating. And one of the things about masks was that this wonderful man named Reverend Andre (ph) - when we first went to hold signs on the court square, he had masks, individual masks, in baggies that he gave everyone who arrived, and said, now, this is so that you protect other people. It's so you protect yourself. And it's for the optics.
GROSS: What did it mean to you to have a Confederate statue at the center of your town when you were growing up?
JONES: Well, when I was a child in the early '60s, you know, one was - I grew up proud of being a great-great-granddaughter of the Confederacy. I think I even - when I was a child, my daddy made a little float for the world's biggest fish fry parade, and I was a Confederate wife on the porch of my cabin, holding my baby with a gun at my side and a Confederate flag off the little log cabin that I was in.
And I remember - of course, as I grew older, it was important to me. And I remember I was about 12 years old when Martin Luther King was killed, and it was one of the seminal moments in my life. A Black woman worked for my family, and the day after Martin Luther King was shot, my grandmother was sitting - you know, who was born in 1905 in the South - and she said, it's just terrible. I hate to see a fine young man killed. But perhaps it's for the best because he is starting to stir up so much trouble. And she responded by saying, yes, ma'am.
GROSS: Oh, gosh.
JONES: And I remember at that moment wanting to rip my white skin off because, you know, it's by generation. My grandmother, who would never have considered herself racist, felt that it was better that this man had died than lived to continue the work he was doing. And this was, you know, as the Vietnam War - he was starting the - it wasn't so much about Black civil rights anymore. It was about economic civil rights, you know? And then here I was, just two generations later, and I wanted to take my white skin off in that moment. It was so horrible.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Cherry Jones. She's nominated for an Emmy for her performance as a guest star in the HBO series "Succession." We'll talk more after we take a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DARRELL GRANT'S "FILS DU SOLEIL (FOR TONY WILLIAMS)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Cherry Jones. She's nominated for an Emmy for her performance in the HBO series "Succession." She's already won two Emmys for her performance in 24 as President Allison Taylor and in "A Handmaid's Tale" (ph) as Offred's mother. In the series "Transparent," she played a lesbian who is a well-known poet and professor. Cherry Jones has had a long theater career and has won two Tony Awards.
So I want to talk with you about "Transparent." You play Leslie Mackinaw, a famous poet and professor who has become a lesbian icon. And Gaby Hoffmann plays Ali Pfefferma, who is the daughter of a transgender woman named Maura who only recently came out as trans. So Ali is starting graduate school and has been taken under your wing because you're her professor. And you've both also recently attended a women's festival called Idyllwild. And Ali brought along her parent, Maura, unaware that trans women were not welcome at this women's festival. This is also where your character and Ali first sleep together. So this scene takes place a little later at your office. And Gaby Hoffmann as Ali speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRANSPARENT")
GABY HOFFMANN: (As Ali) Yeah. So it's official. I am no longer a career undergrad - diploma's in the mail.
JONES: (As Leslie) Well, that is tremendous. That's great. I'm proud of you.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali) Thank you. It's kind of weird. Big change. Plus, I'm still recovering from Idyllwild. Is that normal?
JONES: (As Leslie) Well, you know, it kind of depends on the year. I mean, sometimes the Idyllwild Hangover can take a few days. And sometimes it can take a few weeks. And then my Red Bull budget manages - just goes right through the roof. Is Maura OK?
HOFFMANN: (As Ali) I don't know. I think she will be. But...
JONES: (As Leslie) Yeah?
HOFFMANN: (As Ali) Yeah. I just - I guess - I wish I'd known, you know, about the divisiveness in that whole community.
JONES: (As Leslie) Yeah. Well, I would've told you if you'd told me that you were bringing her.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali) Yeah. But it actually kind of relates to what I've been thinking about, you know, this whole pain and anxiety that's just been passed down through the generations, and not just the Holocaust or the pogroms or the Jews shoes. It's sort of more like a - like metaphorical holocausts. And...
JONES: (As Leslie) Ali, you don't have to perform for me.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali) I'm not - I didn't know that I was.
JONES: (As Leslie) Just be yourself.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali) OK.
JONES: (As Leslie) I want you to be one of my TAs next year.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali) Oh, my God. Really? Thank you. That's great. That's great.
JONES: (As Leslie) But let me just toss an idea at you.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali) OK.
JONES: (As Leslie) You and I, we really - we had some fun at the fest, did we not?
HOFFMANN: (As Ali) Yes, we did. I didn't know if we were going to bring that up.
JONES: (As Leslie) It's up.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali) OK.
JONES: (As Leslie) Honestly you are - you're someone that I would really like to take my time with, I would really like to take my time getting to know. But it's against the faculty code of conduct for professors to [expletive] students.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali) Even their grad students.
JONES: (As Leslie, laughter) Even grad students. So take your pick. You want to be my student? Or you want to be my old lady?
GROSS: So Cherry Jones, this character, I think, is supposed to be modeled on Eileen Myles, who is a poet and professor and who at this point in the life of Jill Soloway, the showrunner for "Transparent," they were having a relationship at this point. So did you think of your character as being modeled on Eileen Myles? - who also has some scenes in "Transparent," so I imagine you met her.
JONES: I certainly did think of myself as being modeled on Eileen because it's very clear to me - made clear to me by Jill that that's basically who I was playing. And, of course, I couldn't get close to playing Eileen because she is such an original. And I had to really butch up because I...
JONES: ...I always thought, you know, I was always such a tomboy and sort of big boned. And I never thought of myself as butch. But I thought, oh, it'll be easy to do that. But I learned very quickly that I - it was one of the more difficult roles I'd ever had because as I attempted it, I - in my seduction of Gaby Hoffmann's character, I would often just blush so much (laughter) that we'd...
JONES: ...I would have to - it was very funny to play because I haven't played a lot of - I've played a lot of single women and women who are not married. And so I haven't played a lot of love scenes in my life. So to find myself at 60 with these - this younger woman, playing these love scenes as this butch lesbian, it was daunting and kind of thrilling at the same time because it felt so unlikely.
GROSS: So I want to hear what else you had to do to butch up (laughter).
JONES: (Laughter) Well, let's just say my wife got a kick out of it. She...
JONES: I - it really was about getting the right kind of boots. I was thin. And I had sort of a boyish figure. I had sort of my fantasy sort of butch costume. But I just had to get in touch with (laughter) my masculinity, I guess. But I definitely had to develop an easy confidence swagger, that's for sure.
GROSS: Yeah. I noticed the swagger. Yeah.
JONES: Yeah. And that thing that - I've been told by heterosexual girlfriends that all men, until their dying day, find themselves incredibly appealing. And whereas...
JONES: ...Whereas women, you know, the older we get, the less appealing we feel. So I had to sort of, again, get in touch with that masculinity that allows one to be incredibly confident no matter what - sexually.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Cherry Jones. She's nominated for an Emmy for her performance as a guest star in the HBO series "Succession." We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Cherry Jones, who's nominated for an Emmy for her performance in the HBO series "Succession." If she wins, it will be her third Emmy after winning for her performances in "24" as President Allison Taylor and in a "Handmaid's Tale" as Offred's mother.
"24" - there's a lot of torture in "24." I mean, including a scene where your daughter is being threatened as you watch with having, you know, her eye cut out and then her other eye cut out and then her tongue come out, unless you step out of your safe room and present yourself to the captors. So how did you respond to being in a series where there's - where torture is so central to the series?
JONES: I compromised myself. And I did it because my parents were both in steep declining health. And being in the theater, you get one day off a week. And, suddenly, out of nowhere - I'd been playing Sister Aloysius in "Doubt," and I guess the people at "24" thought it was just a lateral move from that nun to the president of the United States, and I got the job. And I had never watched it. And I remember calling a friend who I trusted, and I said, do - you watch that show, don't you? And she said, I do. And I said, is it just full of gratuitous violence? And her response was, it's not gratuitous; he's saving the country. And that was just enough cover that I needed to say yes to it.
And the miracle of that show is that because of that I managed to be home with my parents in Tennessee two weeks every month for the last three years of their lives. And during the writers strike, my mother had had a massive stroke, and I was there for four months. And then Kiefer had to have some minor surgery that took him out for three weeks, and I was able to be with my mother the last three weeks of her life. And we made sure both our parents died at home, which were their wishes.
And so, to me, I do have a great deal of trouble with violence, but I sold my soul for that one for the time with my parents. Now, let's segue to "Handmaid's Tale" - insanely violent. And the second season, I had - which I appeared in, I had a tremendous amount of trouble with the violence. And I actually - I let it be known that I didn't really want to participate anymore because I felt that it was - you know, and they say on that show that they show no violence that isn't happening to women all around the world every day at any given point. And that's true. But it is, at the end of the day, entertainment. And it's not a documentary, and that makes it very different.
Now, coming up to this next season on "Handmaid's Tale," I feel differently because of where we are in this country. And Offred, June, is starting to finally be in control of her - certainly not in control of her life, but is now able to have more power. She's making power for herself. And I am so fed up with where we are that I would certainly reconsider if I were to be needed again. It's as though you need an outlet at this point to vent. You know, we march. We write. We petition. We send money. We - but I need another way of venting my anger.
GROSS: So I want to ask you about growing up gay in Tennessee, in Paris, Tenn., which is, you know, a small town. You were basically always out professionally, but you didn't tell your parents until you were 25. How did they handle that?
JONES: I had always known because our parents had told Susan and me all of our lives that there was - that they would always love us unconditionally, that their love for us was unconditional. So I knew I wasn't going to lose them. But it was - as is often the case, it was much more difficult for my mother. And she suffered with it for years 'cause, of course, she wanted me to know what she had known and to grow up and marry a wonderful man and have children and grandchildren, and she was so afraid that I was going to go through such sadness and loneliness. And she was born in the '20s, so to be a lesbian to her meant you were going to lead this sad, lonely, dreadful life of living in a closet and having no intimacy ever in your life.
And I - finally, one day we talked, and I said, mother, are you still having trouble with all of this? This was years later. I was in my early 30s at this point. And she said, darling, intellectually, I'm OK; It's just, emotionally, I'm still a basket case. And my family is religious and has a very strong, very open enlightened faith. And I said, Mother, for you to grieve over your healthy, happy, stable child for the rest of your life is a sin.
GROSS: And how did she take that?
JONES: And that actually helped a lot. She started to realize that it was ludicrous to spend all this time grieving over such a relatively well-adjusted, happy child. And then she became the counselor for the parents of other children in our hometown who were grappling with their child being gay. She was an educator. She was an English teacher and a brilliant, brilliant teacher. So she used that in later life to help a lot of folks in my hometown with their gay children.
GROSS: So this might be too personal. But I'm going to ask it, and you could tell me you don't want to answer it - OK? - 'cause I don't want to be intrusive.
GROSS: I think a lot of actresses, a lot of journalists who are on television - a lot of everybody who's in film or television or stage or politics even, that a lot of women and men, too, feel pressure to have cosmetic surgery so that they look younger and so that the lines don't show because, you know, wrinkles are considered, like, very unflattering. And people want to get rid of them.
Seeing you, I suspect you have not had cosmetic surgery. And if that's true, I want to say thank you. And it's not because I disapprove of cosmetic surgery. I just don't think it should be required. I don't think that people should feel like they have to do it or else they no longer have a career or they can no longer feel decent about themselves.
JONES: Indeed, you are right, Terry. I have not had (laughter) cosmetic surgery. You know, I'm wrinkly like my father's mother. I like my face. I'll see my friends who've had Botox or whatever. And I think, oh, man, they look so young; they look so great. And I'm happy for them that there's something that can do that. But it's just never been anything - I guess I just never cared about it. And also, as an actor, there are going to have to be some actors left who can play the old, craggy women.
JONES: You know? And you cannot apply cragginess to a good, lifted Botoxed face. You just - you cannot. Maybe one day they'll be able to do it in post as they CGI the wrinkles on.
But I think I get a lot of jobs, honestly, because I haven't had cosmetic surgery. I mean, it wouldn't be right for Offred's mother in "Handmaid's Tale" to look too done-to or the character in "Transparent" - or even Nan Pierce in "Succession." Those old WASP gals, you know, they let their hair go gray, and they don't touch their faces. So you know, it actually works to my benefit more often than not.
GROSS: Cherry Jones, thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR. It's been great to talk with you.
JONES: Terry, I'll come back anytime you'll have me.
GROSS: Cherry Jones is nominated for an Emmy for her performance in the HBO series "Succession." After we take a short break, our TV critic David Bianculli will tell us about a new documentary series on Turner Classic Movies about female filmmakers, featuring clips from throughout the history of cinema.
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY GRANELLI'S "THE GREAT PRETENDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.