Actress Cherry Jones has played a host of authority figures during her storied career in film, TV, and on the stage: the President of the United States in TV’s 24, a Vice President in Jodie Foster’s The Beaver, a police officer in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, a media mogul in HBO’s Succession, and her Tony-winning run as prickly Catholic school principal Sister Aloysius in Broadway’s Doubt.
So it was with great relish that she finally tackled her first role as a legal eagle in the 2020 Apple TV+ limited series, Defending Jacob. Starring Chris Evans as a police detective whose teenage son, Jacob (IT’s Jaedan Matell), is accused of murdering a schoolmate, this adaptation of William Landay’s 2012 novel sees Jones as Joanna Klein, Jacob’s canny, humane, and down to earth, lesbian, defense attorney. “I don’t think I would have made a good lawyer in real life,” Jones muses, “but I sure enjoyed playing one! I never had before, and it’s a whole different tool set.”
Born in Paris, Tennessee, Jones studied acting at Carnegie Mellon and has split her career almost evenly between stage, TV, and film productions. Her credits include 1987 movie debut Light of Day, 2000’s Erin Brockovich and The Perfect Storm, M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002) and The Village (2004), Ocean’s Twelve (2004), 2009’s Amelia as Eleanor Roosevelt, 2018 gay conversion therapy drama Boy Erased, and 2019’s Motherless Brooklyn.
She was also featured as poet Leslie Mackinaw in Transparent, in a 2016 episode of Netflix’s sci-fi anthology Black Mirror (“Nosedive”), and on HBO’s hit series Succession as Nan Pierce, matriarch of a wealthy media family and rival of the show’s Murdoch-inspired Roy clan, for which she was nominated for an Emmy in 2020. Jones has won two Emmy Awards to date: in 2009 for 24, and in 2019 for playing the outspoken feminist mother of Elizabeth Moss’ June Osborne, Holly Maddox, in Hulu’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale.
A five-time Tony Award nominee and two-time winner, Jones won her first in 1995 for Broadway’s The Heiress, and thanked her partner at the time, architect Mary O’Conner, during her acceptance speech. She went on to have a relationship with fellow acclaimed actress Sarah Paulson, and later married Swiss documentary filmmaker Sophie Huber in the summer of 2015. Fresh off the upcoming biopic The Eyes of Tammy Faye, co-starring Jessica Chastain, Jones shared tales about her work, roles she lucked into and lost, travel, and memorable advice.
For most of Defending Jacob, the characters struggle with whether the boy is a murderous sociopath or just socially awkward and innocent. Have you ever known or suspected someone you know of being a genuine sociopath or murderer?
Not a murderer, but I’ve probably known a couple of sociopaths. A couple of kids growing up who didn’t turn out well. So yes.
Was your character also lesbian-identified in the book?
I did not read the book, but my understanding is the part was written for a man and when they decided it would be a woman I got the call. And I think once they decided it would be me, they made her a lesbian. It was great, when your own sexuality enhances a project.
Are you just itching to go to law school and become a lawyer after this?
I don’t think I would enjoy it very much. I have a lawyer friend in the South, and his daddy was one of those big, Southern lawyer-type men. My friend was complaining that he couldn’t bear with doing divorce law because it was so fraught and ugly and people were so awful to each other, and his father said to him, ‘well, son, what you gotta do is charge enough until it becomes pleasant!
Is there one profession or type of person you most would like to portray but haven’t yet?
I’ll tell you, I’ve always been fascinated by those women in the 19th Century whose husband or brothers died or ran off and left them alone with a small little farm in the middle of the woods to fend for themselves. So older women left alone in the middle of nowhere, and how they survived. It probably would be boring as hell but fascinates me.
You claimed in a previous interview that you often get offered parts at the last minute, when another actor suddenly pulls out. Is that true, and can you give examples?
I know when I did Doubt on Broadway three actresses had turned it down before me. And I got some TV or film thing literally a minute before. I can’t remember who they lost, and often they don’t want to tell you, but it’s true. I’ve gotten a lot of parts because suddenly there’s a scheduling conflict or somebody’s child was ill, and they’ve often been my favorite roles! I do want to send bouquets of flowers to the people who got me these jobs.
What about a role that got away after you signed on for it?
Jodie Foster was going to direct a movie about a circus, set during the depression or shortly after, and I was going to play the lady who does tricks with little dogs and that character narrates the film. I was so excited, but one of the two big money names playing leads pulled out for health reasons at the last minute and it got cancelled. Jodie called me a year and a half later and said, ‘Cherry, it’s been greenlit again but the bad news is the way it got greenlit was we cast someone really famous in your part.’ And she said, ‘if you have to be replaced, at least it was this person.’ So that was that! Ironically, at the end of all this, it still wasn’t made.
Jessica Chastain plays scandalized televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, who was an ally to the LGBTQ community, and you play her mother in the upcoming The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Did you ever get to meet the real Tammy Faye before she died in 2007?
I never did. I just knew the Bakkers as the national joke most of us found them to be. Doing my own research on Tammy Faye and Jim, she was a fascinating woman. Dear and kind, and I’d forgotten how at the height of the AIDS crisis when Ronald Reagan was nowhere to be found she brought a very ill AIDS patient on The PTL Club and got him talking about his life and when he knew he loved boys and whether his parents shunned him or supported him, and he said he was blessed because they did [support him]. And she said, ‘may I give you a hug?’ and gave him a huge hug, turned to the audience, and said, ‘aren’t his parents who we all want to be? Those who love our children unconditionally?’ That meant so much to the gay community, because nobody else would do that. And with a very conservative audience! I’m sure she must have gotten so much hate mail about that and she was very brave that way. She really did love people. She loved sparkling things enough that it got her into trouble, and she followed Jim Bakker blindly, but she worked hard and was a TV star and didn’t see anything wrong with giving to the Lord and giving to Tammy.
Who are your role models, and what was the best advice you received from a mentor?
Well, I’ve had wonderful mentors including the actress Julie Harris, but the person I admired most was my mother. A very spiritually deep person and teacher. She had a real wisdom about her and treated each child in her class with the utmost respect. She always told me, knowing I would go into this field, ‘never confuse your self worth with your professional success or failure.’ As artists we wrangle with that all the time, but I think that goes for a lot of us regardless of profession.
What’s the coolest location that you got to visit or have access to during a production?
I’ve traveled a bit, but most of my work has been in the USA. When I did Ocean’s Twelve I did get flown to Rome, and I did a Black Mirror episode shot in Cape Town, South Africa, so I got flown there for a couple of weeks. I had little to do, because my part was rather small, so the fellow who presented himself at the airport and was my driver 24/7, I told him, ‘you’re going to take me every place you haven’t been since you were a child and want to see again, and bring along your own children, too.’ We had the best time together. He took me all over the place. Robben Island, Table Mountain. We saw penguins walking in the parking lot. I loved it and we’re still in touch.
Have you played a role that was so challenging you wouldn’t want to do it again?
Yes. Eugene O’Neill’s play A Moon for the Misbegotten. I had done it before in Baltimore in a little production. They built it around me, I was their star. And there was a falling out with the director, who was a close friend but going through some hard times. I don’t even want to pick up that script and read it again. But that’s the only one. That one really took it out of me. Loved the cast and new director who took over, but it was agony going on stage every night. It was like a six-month long panic attack.
You were in Boy Erased, which is about a gay teenager forced to endure conversion therapy. Did that project have a personal meaning for you?
Sure. Especially coming from the South. I remember when I was in college my parents had a close, slightly younger friend who was very worldly and enlightened. One night we were talking, and when I told her I was gay, she nearly fell out of the car and she was devastated for me and my parents. I asked, ‘what do you think my parents will do when I tell them?’ and she said, I’m sure they’ll probably get you to a psychiatrist. So yes, I jumped at the chance when I got the call to do Boy Erased. It was a little bit of a dream for an old lesbian.
What’s the best thing about married life?
For us, we just enjoy each other so much and our senses of humor. Sophie has a wonderful way of laughing at herself. I find that so comforting and fun and you can go deeper when you trust each other that way. When you first get together with someone you wait for the gremlins to pop out. Sophie doesn’t have gremlins, she has lots of sprites that pop out and delight me. We’re temperamentally suited to one another and we have each others’ backs. I just love her with all my heart and feel her love for me as strongly. It’s a great comfort, and particularly now.