From the Great White Way to the White House

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com November 21 2008 12:00 AM ET

While there
won’t be a woman in the White House anytime in the
near future, 24 took the reins and elected to
cast two-time Tony Award winner Cherry Jones as its
first female president, Allison Taylor, who
is likely to have everything including
terrorists, WMDs, and the kitchen sink thrown at her. And if
there’s an actress up to the task of filling a
pair of presidential pumps, it’s Jones, who
took home her first Tony in 1995 for The
Heiress,
and won a second in 2005 for
originating the role of the staunch, wildly suspicious nun
who accuses the parish priest of pedophilia in
Doubt.

Jones’s
extensive stage work has earned her a reputation as one of
the greatest actresses of our time, having turned in
heavy-hitting performances in Angels in America:
Millennium Approaches
and Perestroika
and in the 2000 revival of A Moon for the
Misbegotten
. But Jones, whose film forays include
The Perfect Storm, Signs, and
Ocean's Twelve, has also always been an out
lesbian. In her 1995 Tony acceptance speech, Jones thanked
her partner. A decade later, Jones made Tony Award
history when her name was announced and she kissed her
partner, actress Sarah Paulson, on live television.

The Advocate chatted with Jones just before the
election. And while Barack Obama’s presidency had yet
to be sealed and the fate of Prop. 8 had yet to be
decided, Jones had some pretty prescient things to say
about both. Plus, television’s prime-time
president weighed in on Meryl Streep taking on the role she
originated in the upcoming big-screen version
of Doubt, what it will take to get a woman in
the White House, and the possibility of her own
marriage.

The Advocate: Hi, Cherry. Thanks so much
for taking time to chat with us.
Cherry Jones: I’m about to go to a sort of
sneak, family screening of the movie Doubt. If
I sound harried, it’s because I got back to the
apartment a little bit later than I thought I would.

Since you mentioned going to the film, I’d love to
know what you think of Meryl Streep in the role
for which you won a Tony.
It’s pretty exciting casting. I was
smitten from the time I came to New York in 1978 and
saw her Kate in Taming of the Shrew with Raul
Julia, so from then on, I was hers. So…were there a
few days when I fantasized about doing the film when I knew
it was going to be made into a film? Of course. But,
honestly, after doing it on stage 708 times, they
probably did me a favor by not asking.

Seven hundred and eight times… That’s
a heavy role to do day in and day out.
The bottom line is, I’ve always been very
pragmatic in my career, which is very helpful and
helps you negotiate just about anything. And people
expect me to be bitter and angry, and fortunately, for
whatever reason, that’s not my temperament.

Well, it does certainly help navigate Hollywood. Are you
in L.A. or New York at the moment?
I have just arrived in New York.

Is that where you live? That’s where I live. But I’ve been
away from New York for the better part of two years
because I did the tour of Doubt, and from
working on the 24 that never ends.

Right. Well, that’s where I was headed. 24
is coming up and we have two big days coming up, namely
Election Day and the prequel for 24, which
premieres in late November. When your role as
Allison Taylor was conceptualized a while ago now,
do you think the idea was that Hillary Clinton would be
the likely Democratic nominee?
I absolutely think that was probably what the
boys in the smoking room thought. And also,
they’ve had two black male presidents and at least
three white male presidents, who were totally corrupt and
terrible, so they were sort of running out of options.
It was sort of a no-brainer that they would now --
even without a Hillary running for the Democratic
nomination -- probably would have gone in this
direction. 

It seems as though life is imitating 24 in some
ways, like a black president before a woman. What
do you think it will take for America to vote a woman
into the White House? And I’m not talking
about Sarah Palin.
I would think, basically, that all it would take
would be Hillary Clinton running against anyone but
Barack Obama. Seriously. I think, hopefully, eight
years from now, after his very successful presidency,
we’ll have another shot at Hillary, and
she’ll still be younger than John McCain.

Very true. Now, you’ve done extensive theater,
some film, and television here and there, but I think
this is your first recurring television role…
It certainly is.

How has that experience been? I have loved it. I love it and I’ve had
trouble with it honestly, because when we shoot, we
shoot consecutively, scene to scene to scene, so it’s
allowed to build, which is wonderful. Not all television
does that. That’s why they get the performances
they get out of people. What’s been hard this
season is because we had almost five months off because of
the writers' strike and they took almost a month off
to go shoot the footage in Africa. So, with the
extension of the normal shooting season when I go in,
for example, the other day I went in having not been there
in over a month and having to shoot four highly
charged emotional scenes. So, it takes a very focused,
well-prepared actor to pull that off having been away
for so long, and I don’t know if that’s me or
not. [Laughs] I don’t know if I pulled
it off or not.

Oh, I imagine you did. So that’s a challenge I’ve not had
to contend with.

Also, the concept of each episode representing an
hour in a single day, was that a challenge since the
characters aren’t changing over time but
reacting to a harried situation?
Well, the wonderful thing is that in every
single episode the stakes are so high. And I’m
not making decisions for myself and my family. I’m
making decisions for the entire country. And you really do
hit the ground running every time. That’s kind
of fantastic. You don’t have scenes about
whether the blinds should be pulled or not. And
you’re reminded of what these people, our
leaders, are up against, having to improvise. They have
to be brilliant people at improvisation, and hopefully
people who are able to listen to wise counsel. And
then finally, the buck stops there. So, it’s
very exciting for an actor to be given a scene that is dire
and a clock that is ticking.

And do you have any action scenes? Ah. I don’t know that I can say.

All right. I thought I’d try. I wish I could.

You know, I just wanted to know if you did your own stunts. [Laughs] That’s a good way to ask
the question.

I have to ask. Did you base your portrayal at all
around a living politician?
No. Not really. When you’re in that
mock-up White House, because the art direction is so
good, you’re surrounded by your predecessors. I mean,
there’s a gorgeous painting of Jack Kennedy in the
anteroom to the Oval Office, and you feel Roosevelt,
both Franklin and Eleanor, just down the hall. And
certainly Golda Meir has come to mind a couple of times,
mainly because half the time I wish I had one of her
smokes handy in the decision-making process. I have to
say…when I got to deliver the inaugural
address, which was such a kick…I can only imagine
what each of those people standing on that podium
feels in terms of a bond to everyone who’s
placed their hand on the Bible, to everyone who’s
come before them. I studied a lot of inaugural
addresses -- style, and their ability to really
connect to the people, to the camera, and also to the people
who were down below on the Mall. And certainly, Jack
Kennedy’s is one of the greats. And I
appreciate the more formal. It’s not that
they’ve become less formal, but there was that
great formality that everyone had prior to the '60s,
which is thrilling in terms of oration.

Because you’ve worked so much on Broadway and not
been placed under the Hollywood microscope,
you’ve flown under the radar and avoided
tabloid scrutiny. Are you concerned about your
relationship and your personal life becoming
tabloid fodder with this new exposure?
Well, it has occurred to me, but I try not to
think about it. It’ll happen if it happens, and
if it doesn’t it doesn’t.

Another election-related question: You starred with
Brooke Shields in What Makes a Family --
about a lesbian couple and the landmark Florida adoption
case and custody battle -- and now, here in
California, we’re fighting wildly to ensure
that Prop. 8 doesn’t pass. Are you at all shocked
or surprised that we’re still having to
fight for these rights?
Oh, not in the slightest. I mean, honestly, I
remember the first time I heard Bob Dole say on the
floor of the Senate “gay marriage,” I thought
I was going to fall over; even though he was
mentioning it in a pejorative way, I thought, Wow,
we’ve really come a way that Bob Dole is talking
about gay marriage, even in a negative way.

I’m old enough that any movement forward is
thrilling, not fast enough, but understandable in this
polarized nation of ours. If Barack Obama is not elected
president, perhaps the rest of the world will finally
understand that half of this country is being held
hostage by the other half.

I know that you thanked your partner when you won
the Tony back in 1995, and then you kissed Sarah and
thanked her when you won for Doubt, which
were both watershed moments for lesbian
visibility. Have you always been out and honest about
who you are?
Yes. I’m a very timid person in a lot of
ways, many, many ways, but for some reason, my
sexuality has always brought the lion out in me. I’ve
never been timid about that. I’ve always made a point
of telling everyone I meet -- when the time is right
-- that I’m gay.

Well, we all thank you for that. No need. Not when it’s that easy. I just
have a lot of people before me to thank. At my age,
coming into New York post-Stonewall, and in the
arts… It’s not like I was an
accountant’s secretary in Topeka, Kan.

Well, I have one other question to ask you, and I
suspect you might not answer, but maybe I’ll
get lucky. Since you are a New Yorker and
you’re right across the border from Massachusetts
and Connecticut, will we hear wedding bells in your
future anytime soon?
Oh. Oh, no. Sarah and I are in a fluid
relationship, which pretty much precludes marriage.
[Sarah Paulson interrupts in the background.]
Oh, Sarah just said, “Fluid makes it sound like
it’s an open relationship.”

Yeah. I was going to ask you to elucidate, because
I had that same reaction.
Well, it is not an open relationship, but
we’re not ready for marriage.

So, we’ll call it self-defined. [Laughs] Self-defined is a wonderful way
of putting it.

--The two-hour
television movie
24: Redemption airs
Sunday, November 23. The seventh season of
24
premieres on Fox in January.