“Swimmers” stars one of the most celebrated Broadway actresses of the last decade – Cherry Jones.
To date, this acclaimed thespian has appeared in 11 major Broadway productions and earned twoprestigious Tony Awards for Best Actress (for “Doubt” in 2005 and “The Heiress” in 1995), three Drama Desk Awards, two Obie Awards, three Outer Critics Circle Awards, and two additional Tony nominations (2000’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten” and 1991’s “Our Country’s Good”), among other honors.
Variety has called her “perhaps the most beguiling theater actress of her generation (or certainly in the top five)” and critic Ben Brantley of the New York Times has written that Jones is “a primary source of warmth in the New York theater today.”
Mel Gussow of the New York Times wrote of Jones in 1995: “In her career, she has been consistently acclaimed in the widest diversity of roles, from the fierce convict in ‘Our Country’s Good’ to the mousy academic who turns into a swashbuckler in ‘Good Night, Desdemona.’ Along the way, she has played major roles in plays by Shakespeare, Chekhov and Brecht….With a physical daring to match her emotional range, she is known as a risk-taker, someone who would literally go out on a limb. In one production at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., she had to walk the narrowest of planks over the heads of theatergoers, backward in the dark. With characteristic self-confidence, she says, ‘The more outrageous the request, the more I love it.’”
And the Washington Post noted of her debut in John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama in early 2005: “For her work in "Doubt," absolutely marvelous would be the verdict….In the press, she's been hailed as "brilliant," "magnificent," "divine" and "incomparable," among other things, and she's expected to have a good chance to pick up her second Tony this spring.” Which, of course, she did.
In early January 2006, Jones completed her run in “Doubt” with an astonishing 452 performances. “It was about as perfect an experience as one could have, so I feel exhilarated and ready for the next,” she says of the production she helped turn into Broadway’s highest-grossing original play of all-time.
Indeed, she will spend the first half of 2006 on Broadway starring with Ralph Fiennes and Ian McDiamid in Jonathan Kent’s revival of Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer.”
Then, in September, Jones will embark on her first national tour, in which she will reprise her Tony Award-winning performance in “Doubt” in major cities over a period of six months.
In “Swimmers,” Jones’ largest film role to date, she gives another mesmerizing performance – this time as the fiercely-determined wife of a Chesapeake Bay waterman who is struggling to hold onto his livelihood and mother of an 11-year-old daughter who suddenly needs expensive surgery, sending the family into a financial tailspin.
“She’s the matriarch of a family who’s bottoming out, and she has got to be the glue that binds everything together,” says Jones of her character. “She’s going to keep the faith in everyone, but if someone has to be cut loose for the sake of the family, namely her dear husband of many years, so be it.”
After seeing “Swimmers” at the Sundance Festival, James Greenberg of the Hollywood Reporter wrote: “It’s the wonderful performances that make these people come alive….[Jones] turns in her usual nuanced work. She can show more with a crease of the brow than most actors can with a page of dialogue.”
Jones says she chose “Swimmers” because of the screenplay’s “absolute bare bones reality. There’s something very poetic about it. I like to do work that gives people hope and that makes people realize they’re not alone in their struggle, and that’s what this film represents to me.”
Doug Sadler, who directed her in “Swimmers” (and also wrote the script), says, “Cherry is just completely solid and deep and subtle. But I think I came to appreciate her subtlety more once I was in the editing room. I knew she was delivering the goods when we were shooting, but the fact that there were other layers at work, I didn't quite know to that degree at that time. She brings an innate strength to that character.”
The rural location of the “Swimmers” story is something Jones knows intimately. She was raised in Paris, Tennessee, population: 10,000.
Growing up in a small town, she says, “made me completely who I am. There’s a sense of responsibility that comes from being in a small town – a sense of responsibility for the community, whatever that community is, as you grow up. I come from a kind of unusual little town in that it has maintained its soul and its spirit and its strong ties to one another by hard work. It’s blessed with a lot of great leaders, this little town.”
Jones’ mother taught high school literature. Her father was a florist. At the age of three, she knew she wanted to become a performer. It took just one tap dance in front of a group of grown-ups and the applause that followed. “It was that simple. Just a little bit of approval and applause, and I was hooked for life,” she says with a laugh.
An early influence was a local retired high school speech and drama teacher – Ruby Kider (dubbed “Miss Ruby” by Jones) – who held classes for kids with “stutters and sibilant S’s, and just sort of hyperactive kids whose parents wanted to put them somewhere in the afternoon. She was a great, wonderful Pied Piper in my home town. She had all these wonderful scarves, and we would do play pretend. And, of course, I had died and gone to heaven.”
Jones got to see her first staged play at the age of eight or nine, while visiting the Smoky Mountains in Virginia. “We went to the Barter Theater and saw ‘The Country Girl’ by Odets. I was too young to really understand what was going on, but in the final moment in the play, I remember the actress stepped down to the lip of the stage (we were in the front row), and then she looked out and said her final lines. The lights went to dark, but they ghosted the way stage lights used to do. There was always an afterglow. I thought the afterglow was the last burst of her soul. That sealed the deal. I thought, ‘I want to do that!’ I will never forget it, as long as I live.”
In high school, Jones turned out for competitive speech, specializing in dramatic readings. “I started doing tournaments and I would just win everything,” she chuckles. “It’s a wonderful training ground for an actor.”
At the same time, Miss Ruby arranged for Jones, then 16, to attend a high school summer drama program at Northwestern University. During her stay, she had the profound experience of seeing Colleen Dewhurst on stage in “A Moon for the Misbegotten.”
“It was like a blinding light. It really was. This woman who seemed like she was six foot-seven. I mean, she just seemed so massive on that stage, this huge Mother Earth figure with that gorgeous head of hair and that smokey laugh. I’d never seen a woman do that before. I thought women all had to have pink fingernails and be there just to please. You know what I mean? You saw those kind of strong women back in the ‘40s, but by the ‘60s and ‘70s, with feminism came the end of strong women in popular culture. It was a very odd thing, the switch that happened.”
Indisputably, the biggest influence on her career choice was her maternal grandmother, the irrepressible Thelma Cherry. “She was just great,” Jones enthuses. “She was an artist in her own right. She could play anything by ear. Her older brother, Bailey, brought her sheet music from Memphis on the train and we listened to every song produced from about 1915 on. When I was a little girl, she’d take the train down to Memphis and visit her cousin. They’d see every movie that came out. They’d just go from movie to movie to movie – and she wanted me to be an actress. She would always say, ‘You’re not going to get married young. You’re going to be my little career girl.’”
Unfortunately, Thelma died when Jones was a senior in high school. “But she’s always with me. I always place her in the back row of the theater or up in the fly. She’s always out there.”
When it came time for college, Jones expectedly picked drama as her major. “There was nothing else I was any good at,” she jokes. And her choice of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh was based simply on “they took me. I did not have good grades.” She had sent her college exam scores off to different schools, “wherever I heard there was a good drama program.” But Carnegie Mellon was the only one that wrote back, “congratulating me on these sub-mediocre scores. And I thought, Oh, this is the place for me!”
There was still one hurdle to get over. “Lo and behold, they auditioned hundreds and hundreds of kids. I think they accepted something like 38. And I got in, much to my surprise. It was a great place for me to be, because I was from such a small town, I needed a sort of halfway house to New York, and Pittsburgh was my halfway house,” she says.
Following graduation from Carnegie Mellon, with a BFA in drama, in 1978, Jones headed straight to New York. While waiting for any kind of professional break, she survived by waiting tables, but lasted only three weeks in her first job.
“I was fired for being too slow,” she remembers with a laugh. “And then I ended up scooping chicken salad and ice cream at a place on 72 nd and Columbus – which was fantastic, because I got to wait on everybody I ever dreamed of getting to see in person. Such as John Lennon and Yoko, Lauren McCall, who I actually know now.
She finally got accepted into the fledgling acting company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Fortunately, they didn’t renew her contract for a second year. Instead, the director, Andrei Belgrader, recommended Jones to Robert Brustein, the renowned founding director of the Yale Repertory Theater who was in the midst of setting up a new regional company – to be called the American Repertory Theater – at Harvard.
She was cast as Rosalind in Belgrader’s production of “As You Like It,” and Jones became a resident member of the company – performing in 25 A.R.T. productions over the next decade.
Meanwhile, she made her Broadway debut in “Stepping Out” in 1987, followed a year later as Lady Macduff in the revival of “Macbeth,” starring Glenda Jackson and Christopher Plummer.
Her other Broadway turns over the years include “Imaginary Friends” (2003), “Major Barbara” (2001), “A Moon for the Misbegotten” (2000), “The Night of the Iguana” (1996), “The Heiress” (1995), “Angels in America: Perestroika” (replacement, 1993-94), “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” (replacement, 1993-94), and “Our Country’s Good” (1991).
Since making her film debut in 1987, she has co-starred in the motion pictures “Ocean’s Twelve,” “The Village,” “Signs,” and “Cradle Will Rock,” among others.
Jones’ parents – who she says always supported her quest to act – ventured up to New York in 1995, to watch their daughter in “The Heiress” in what would become her first Tony Award-winning outing. “I think for my folks what was even more thrilling than the performance was walking down the street in New York City and looking up – and seeing a big, huge drawing of me as Catherine Sloper on the marquee of the theater. That, I have a feeling, probably took their breath a bit,” she relates.
“It certainly took mine when I was riding my bicycle down Broadway the first time I saw it. I think for anyone in the performing arts, when you finally get to a point where they put your picture up, you just have to pinch yourself. It cannot be so.”