"People are starved to be in a crowded room again": Cherry Jones on how theater will bounce back

The "Defending Jacob" star appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss the theater of the courtroom & her tailor-made role

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
May 28, 2020 9:08PM (UTC)
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Cherry Jones in “Defending Jacob” (Apple TV+.)

In the Apple TV+ limited series, "Defending Jacob," a New England town — and one family within it — is divided when a teenage boy is accused of murdering a classmate. And as the attorney defending Jacob (Jaeden Martell), Tony and Emmy winner Cherry Jones adds yet another force of nature character to a resume that ranges from a steely nun in "Doubt" to the president of the United States in "24."

Now, following a recent string of memorable supporting roles on "Transparent," "The Handmaid's Tale" and "Succession," Jones joined us to talk about about why she loves roles that leave room for ambiguity, and why she has a no spoilers policy for her own show. You can watch Cherry Jones' "Salon Talks" episode here or read a transcript of the interview below.

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I am still shaking from "Defending Jacob," Cherry.

Because I'm not in — except for a little bit — the final episode, I chose not to read it. And I did not read the book so I have no idea. I won't know until the finale plays, so don't tell me anything, okay?

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We're a spoiler-free zone here, but usually the stars know what's going to happen.

I thought, why know? The lawyer doesn't know what happens, so . . . 

This story itself is so unique — a crime thriller and a legal drama told from the perspective of the family, the parents (Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery) of the accused. How did you get involved in this?

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I didn't read the book and I got an offer out of the blue for it, which is always lovely. I remember thinking when they offered me the role and I read those first seven episodes, I was flying through the pages because I was so intrigued. And I had worked a lot in Boston and Cambridge as a girl, so I knew all the surrounding towns.

The thing that got me the most about the concept is when I was a child, my mother used to always tell my sister and me that our parents would love us unconditionally, no matter what. I would always come up with horrible things. I'd say, "Would you love me if I ran away from home?" "Yes." "Would you love me unconditionally if I stole something?" "Yes." "Would you love me unconditionally if I murdered someone?" And my mother said, "Unconditionally." That's what this story is, a family caught in that. It's so terrible. It's horrible to watch. Yet you get so pulled into it because you put yourself in the shoes of those parents. And poor Michelle Dockery, she has such a painful road because she doesn't quite know what to believe because she has known that child all his life. It just pulls on your heartstrings.

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It also very much brings to mind real stories about the parents of people who have been accused, whether it's of murder or sexual assault. Who are you then to stand by your child? How do you do that, regardless of whether your child is innocent or guilty? What does that look like? What does that unconditional love look like?

I mean, when they're looking through those baby pictures [in the series], it reminds me of where we are now. You look at pictures that you took New Year's Eve 2020 and it's a different world, a different time, a different life. And that's where this family is now. They look at something that happened the week before the murder happened and it's a whole other era.

The way that this story unfolds is you have the before, and then you have this moment, and then you saunter in. [The attorney Joanna Klein] it's a very Cherry Jones role because you are doing a lot, even though we don't necessarily know a lot about the rest of Joanna's life. I'm curious about what that is like for you as an actor. You said that you didn't read the book. So what do you do then? How is it a collaborative process with the filmmakers and the other storytellers and the other actors?

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I think the character was originally written as a man, as a couple of the other characters in the book were written as men and then they decided to make the lawyer a woman. Then when they cast me, I don't know if they decided then to make her a gay woman because they added lines about my wife and it was so lovely. It was almost like they were honoring my own life. I loved that. And it was important to the director and to [showrunner] Mark [Bomback] that I did have this strong marriage at home that supported me. They talked a bit about my backstory and then I got to go from there.

My Southern accent kept popping through. And I thought, there are people live in Cambridge, Massachusetts who are not from Cambridge, Massachusetts — a lot of people, actually. So the set designer put up a diploma from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee in my office. They were so into backstories for all of us. That doesn't always happen. When it doesn't matter to the story, people don't talk to you about your backstory so much if you're a secondary character. That was a fun little perk of it all, that they tailored the part to me.

But I'm sure it always matters to you as an actor, however small the role is, who that person is. In a role like in "Boy Erased," you're in it for such a small amount of time and yet that is a fully developed woman you were playing in a five minute scene.

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The writing was so good around it, it was easy. Anyway, yes, it was easy to build a backstory for that woman as it was for Joanna Klein. Also, as a theater performer, going into that courtroom was quite thrilling because it's like a theater. I never realized how much. It's why they always say lawyers are just frustrated actors. The jury is like the audience; you've got to persuade them. So that was really cool. I'd never played a lawyer before. It was a fantasy I'd get to play a defense attorney.

You are like my daughters' Barbies. You have been President Barbie, Dr. Barbie, Lawyer Barbie, Nun Barbie. You and Barbie have played every possible role I think someone could play.

With really nice outfits with each one.

You really nail it down about the theater of our legal system in general. Your character Joanna knows that, and she knows how to play it like theater.

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She sure does. I have not seen anything beyond the one that aired last week, so I have no idea how it all comes together in that courtroom, but I'm looking forward to it because it was a beautiful set. And I call that Michelle and Chris and Jaeden's vacation because it was the first time for an entire episode where they got to just sit, watch, and be quiet.

You are known, Cherry, for playing in these stories that are about ambiguity. One of your big breakthrough roles was "Doubt." That in some ways sums up your career as an actor, playing these characters and telling these stories where we, as an audience are forced to think, "What do I believe? What is true? Who is the good guy? What does that even mean?" Even through your character on "Succession."

Yeah. Who is she? What is she really after? I did "The Heiress." Did he really not love her? Is she now doomed to a life alone? The great ones do leave you questioning.

Certainly with the series itself, you find yourself going back and forth in terms of who you believe and where your sympathies lie.

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And Jaeden playing all of that, he does it so brilliantly, and Michelle just breaks my heart. It's such a difficult role because she's placed in that impossible position of having doubt. What must that be like for a mother? Then poor Chris, playing Andy Barber, who is so damaged from the minute he was born. The odds were against him to have a "normal, healthy, happy life," whatever that really is. I was really struck by the way they handled those roles because they're all so complicated. And eight hours of complicated, that's the thing. 

We are so in this moment now where it's very easy to just pick sides and it's very easy to be polarized. Yet you keep being part of these stories that are complicated. Having had such a long career, do you feel that kind of nuance and sophistication in our storytelling is being lost? Is there still an audience for these kinds of tales?

As long as it's not about politics, yes, there is. I think everything is black and white now, and there's no gray left. But in the arts, there will always be gray because we're blessed with wise playwrights and screenwriters who know that that's what we crave and that's who we are. And I think the more mature a person is, they can look at a situation and feel comfortable with uncertainty and not knowing. We can say, "I don't know," instead of, "It's this or it's this."

It goes back to doubt. If you're a judge and jury, you have to make a choice; you have to make some decisions. For "Defending Jacob," the jury that we had during that long, long trial were some of the most beautiful actors. They were sitting there for hours and hours and hours and they were always paying attention. They were taking notes. They knew it was on them and they were going to be true to that. Everything you say about where we are now as a country, I pray that we're going to start trying to open our ears and finding something that we agree with the other side on. We have got to. We have got to. We all know that.

Because our survival depends upon it, and when a virus strikes, it doesn't care how you vote. Speaking of that, you are a stage person. That's how many of us think of you despite your film work and your television work. And now you are, like every other theater person, an actor without a stage. Cherry, what does that feel like right now for you?

Had I been on stage in the middle of something, it would have been so disorienting. My heart is just breaking for all my friends who were in the middle of something or about to start rehearsals for something. But I know that we will get back to people being in a large room together, watching, having a communal experience. I believe that deeply, because I don't think that desire will leave us. We're not going to just become shut-ins, happier on our screens completely. We're just not. I think people are going to be starved to be in a crowded room again. I know we don't know how long that will be and I certainly hope for New York City, it can be as soon as possible. Broadway is such an engine, and all the off-Broadway theaters and the dance companies and the symphonies, we'll get back there. But it's just going to take a lot of pain and time before we are.

In the meantime, of course, we all know what's going on on the internet of performers. Ballet dancers doing entire ballets via Zoom in their kitchens. It's just extraordinary. So many great young playwrights are writing monologues and pieces and getting actors to do them and then they compile them, curate these different monologues. I'm so impressed. It's that age group that's a generation behind me that are becoming such activists for getting this country through what we're going through. I salute them all and I'm so proud of them all.

And doing fundraisers, raising money for different organizations, like No Kid Hungry in New York City. Jenna Worsham is a young director who's been putting together wonderful monologues of extraordinary actors, and I'm just blown away with how they're good at organizing online.

It really speaks to the necessity of culture, that culture is fundamental to who we are as a species. And I am dying to see you back on a stage.

I'm chomping at the bit. But in the meantime, there's going to be a little theater in the courtroom in "Defending Jacob." That's how I look at it.

"Defending Jacob" is currently streaming on Apple TV+.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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