What lover of theater and Hollywood lore could look back on the year or so that Cherry Jones has had and not recall Julie Andrews in 1964?
Passed up in favor of Meryl Streep for the role of Sister Aloysius in the 2008 film version of Doubt—a powerhouse part Jones originated off-Broadway and won a Tony for on Broadway—Jones went on to win an Emmy for playing President Allison Taylor on Fox’s 24, a part she could not have taken if she’d been in Doubt.
To be sure, Jones is not complaining, but it’s uncannily reminiscent of Andrews’s triumphant year when she was passed up in favor of proven box office draw Audrey Hepburn for the part of Eliza Doolittle in the movie version of My Fair Lady—a role Andrews had played on Broadway—only to go on to win an Oscar for Mary Poppins.
“I’m a very pragmatic person, and I knew that so many more people would see the film if it was [with] Meryl,” says Jones. “I knew [it] was going to need a name and who that name might be because it’s one of the greatest roles for anybody over 50.”
She may not have Streep’s fame, but Jones is one of the greatest actresses of our time. After decades of working steadily in the theater, the two-time Tony winner has finally embraced other media. “I was a bit of a snob,” attests the 53-year-old, who has a small part as Eleanor Roosevelt in the movie Amelia. “I didn’t understand why people do anything but theater.”
Having moved beyond that relatively small world, this year Jones was honored not only for her acting but also for her fortitude. Six days after she received the Emmy, Lily Tomlin presented her with the Courage Award from the Point Foundation, which grants merit scholarships to LGBT students. “Lily was my heroine,” Jones says. “Growing up, there was this one gal who was brilliantly funny and socially relevant and crush material. She wasn’t out, but she dropped bread crumbs everywhere she went that she was gay.”
Jones herself has never really been in the closet. When she won the Tony for Doubt in 2005, the Tennessee native kissed her girlfriend, actress Sarah Paulson (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), on national TV. So when Jones ascended to the stage of Los Angeles’s Nokia Theatre on September 20 before 13 million viewers to accept her Emmy for outstanding supporting actress in a drama, her fans expected another declaration of same-sex love. But it didn’t happen, and that set off a round of “Did Cherry Jones snub Sarah Paulson?” stories.
“Sarah told me there was a hubbub online,” Jones says of the reaction. Turns out, the couple had ended their six-year relationship in June. “We joke that we’ve been trying to separate since the moment we met. We’re just so different. Obviously the age difference [Paulson is 34], but if we were more alike, I think the age difference wouldn’t have mattered.”
Jones says the two are still close and she would have thanked Paulson, but she was determined to dedicate the evening to her parents.
“My mother and my father both started a steeper decline right around the time 24 started for me,” says Jones, whose small-screen job allows her to make lengthy visits to her hometown of Paris, Tenn. “I’ve done eight shows a week pretty much every week of my life. I was always working. I couldn’t go to funerals, weddings; I never had time to go out to dinner with friends,” she says.
In addition to caring for her father, a former florist, and her mother, a retired English teacher, Jones has been using her celebrity to raise money for the town, which has been hit hard by the recession. “My sister, Susan, and I concocted this town hall meeting day with President Taylor. The whole time I was on the set of 24—I won’t say [I took] anything that wasn’t nailed down, but…” Jones admits she would gather memorabilia whenever she could. “During the firefight when Jack Bauer threw the president into the White House safe room, his bullet shells were all over the floor,” she recalls. “Between takes I would surreptitiously kneel down, pick them up, and stuff them in between the cushions of the couch where I was sitting.” In one day, Jones says, they raised $24,000 for five community organizations.
“I joke that coming to Hollywood as a middle-aged lesbian, the pressure is off,” says Jones, who feels free of the need to look a certain way or take certain parts. “You get to be who you are.” Jones is enjoying being exactly who she is. No doubt.