Tony Nominee Jessica Hecht
In Our Town for 7th Williamstown Season
By: Charles Giuliano - Jul 29, 2010
Williamstown Theatre Festival
July 29, 2010
WTF 7th Season
Our Town, The Torch Bearers, Three Sisters, Blithe Spirit, The Autumn Garden, Top Girls, Light up the Sky, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told.
Broadway: A View from the Bridge, 2009 (Tony Nominee), Brighton Beach Memoirs, Julius Caesar, After the Fall, The Last Night of Ballyhoo.
Charles Giuliano: Welcome back to the Berkshires. I understand you are interested in acquiring property. Greetings from John Douglas Thompson (Richard III at Shakespeare & Company).
Jessica Hecht How did you know we are looking for a Berkshire property?
CG Word gets around. It’s a buyer’s market with a lot of good properties in Williamstown. Right now nothing is selling so there are good opportunities if you have the cash.
JH I was in Julius Caesar with John on Broadway.
CG With Denzel Washington.
JH Exactly. We’ve been looking since we sold our loft in NY. Have you seen Our Town?
CG Yes but years ago. I remember it from the early TV show Omnibus which was hosted by Alistair Cook (1952) long before he hosted Masterpiece Theatre for PBS. That was before you were born.
JH Dylan Baker has directed Our Town and seen many productions. I have seen Our Town but haven’t seen this version. I am thrilled to be a part of that notion My husband has never seen it.
CG How is it different than other productions?
JH It is different because it is not set in a specific time period. Also, the dialect is alluded to. The dialogue is spoken with a tiny hint of a New England accent. It was written with certain spellings and colloquialisms so that is unavoidable. It is set in a small idyllic town like this one. But this is not an effort to be faithful. The production adopts a modernist approach to design. So there is more freedom. We are allowed to be more free and expansive to interpret characters but they are still familiar.
CG This was a good year for you with a Tony nomination for View from the Bridge as well as a stunning role in the hit TV series The Good Wife. Dylan Baker (also in Our Town) did a couple of episodes this season. Is your character coming back next season?
JH If only I had a nickel for every series in which I have had a guest spot. They always say we will bring you back in a few weeks. Julianna Margulies (star of The Good Wife) is trying hard to make New York actors feel like a part of that community.
CG You played the wife of the attorney general from whom you are trying to get divorced.
JH I went to college with Titus Welliver who played the attorney general. It was just delicious to be with him. We acted a lot together in college at NYU and we were happy to see one another again.
CG I don’t know quite how to say this but is seems that a lot of your roles are low key and understated. The characters are almost anonymous. Is that fair to say?
JH It is interesting that a lot of actresses who get a lot of attention have that drive in their performances. It is a particularly male characteristic. There are some women who have that power and energy in their performances. Particularly women who appear on Broadway as stars in musicals. They have the energy to grapple with an audience. I don’t see myself performing in the same way. I don’t often have the ablilty to present my work and sell myself in as large and dramatic a way as we often see from performers who are wildly successful on Broadway. Cherry Jones is an exception in her ability to give understated iconic performances. It takes a certain energy on Broadway to summon up a performance,. It is commendable but not the way that I create a performance. It would be false for me to work in that way. It is an interesting question. A lot of male roles that are lauded come from the power, ego, and passion of the actor. The roles I tend to get gravitate to and live in a very different place. I haven’t played many characters from a place of power. Which is why I come off as anonymous.. I take that comment as a complement.
CG Is your approach sought out by directors? Do they cast you looking for that approach to a character?
JH Directors seek me out for something uniquely idiosyncratic but I think that what they are interested in is subtlety of ideas. I made my mark with the sitcom Friends (13 episodes as Susan) That character was unique and it led me on that path of a personal world view and style. But I can’t just play every role as a quirky person. I am a whole person not just somebody defined by quirks. The last couple of parts in View from the Bridge and Brighton Beach Memoirs I was striving for something more universal in the quirkiness of love. On TV in The Good Wife I played a a character who in her life style it is such that she can’t show parts of herself which are not deemed sophisticated. The effort is to find the personal in something that is very refined.
CG The character was very simple yet complex. Dylan talked with me about his role in The Good Wife and spoke about the quality of the writing. Has being a Tony nominee this season had a measurable impact on your career?
JH I liked all of the events leading up to the Tonys. It was magical when the whole theatre community comes together and you are a part of it. I played opposite all three of the leading actors who were nominated. I played opposite Denzel Washington (Fences) on Broadway in Julius Caesar. I played with Alfred Molina (Red) in Howard Katz. And with Liev Schreiber in View from the Bridge.
CG We saw Red but were traveling when Fences was on Broadway. It seemed like a tough decision between Molina as Rothko and Washington. Not to take anything away from Denzel but it seemed the awards this year all went to Hollywood stars. Molina certainly deserved a Tony for that performance.
JH Fred was magnificent in the part. He plays larger than life, passionate characters. He is arguably the kindest and most generous performer you will ever meet. The way the Tonys work is that there is some comfort in experiencing the obvious. People are attracted to movie stars. People want to get close to movie stars. They feel that they have gotten closer to them in the theatre and when they are good actors it is a profound experience. On stage they are one step closer to you. That’s a dream come true. Those performers (Tony winners) are very good actors. I am somewhat amazed by that. Theater acting is a very specific craft. Just look at Molina’s performance in Red and the amount of craft that went into that. There should be a special Tony award and it should be a specific acting award. An award entirely for stage acting.
CG In an ongoing dialogue with John Douglas Thompson he has discussed the difficulties of getting successful Off Broadway shows to Broadway. When The Emperor Jones was a hit there was discussion but nothing came through. There was a terrific show that everyone was excited about Venus in Furs. You might have seen it. The young actress Nina Ariadna received rave reviews including the New Yorker. It seemed inevitable for Broadway but she is unknown to ticket buyers. Producers won’t take that chance without a known star.
JH Brighton Beach Memoirs closed because we didn’t have a star. Scarlett Johansson made a huge difference in View from the Bridge. Do you have any idea what kind of money a star can bring in? She is like Denzel, a serious movie star. She was the star and that’s where the money is. She is also a lovely person..
CG You were a Tony nominee. Did you ever think there was a chance of winning?
JH Chance? Not really. What I am starting to tell you about here, it is with some comfort from a 45 years old, who knows how it works. I acknowledged all of the support (of being nominated). But this is how the world works. The entertainment world works that way and it is ok. For somebody who is not a star this is what it is. I love the work I do. I have been so fortunate that I own the place where I live in the theatre This is it.
You come to a community like this (theatre) in which most people hope for a modicum of success. Doctors hope to have a number of patients in their practice. Writers hope that a certain number of their novels will be published. I feel pretty solid that I will be cast in a play a year that feeds me. To be in a play each year is a luxury for an actor. To have that time on the stage. There are no more than two percent of actors who live beyond that and have such good fortune. I am so lucky to fall into the category of people that I fall into.
I have two beautiful kids and a regular life outside of theatre. My greatest accomplishment is a beautiful family life. I have a daughter and son. My husband is a successful TV director. I make less than him but he does quite well doing TV pilots. So I feel fortunate about that in a traditional way. It would be great to make the money. He has toyed with the idea of changing careers and teaching. It is tough living on an actor’s salary.
CG It is shocking that Off Broaday actors earn as little as $300 to $600 as week. And about $1,500 for a one day TV shoot in a series although small checks may come in over several years for reruns.
JH There are artistic directors who are incredibly sophisticated and are bringing great theatre to Off Broadway. If they hire stars there is not much left to pay the rest of the cast. If I get offered $500 to $600 a week to do a play I have to turn it down. With kids and my expenses I would be paying them to do the show. But a lot of people would say its ok just to be on the stage. It’s an addiction.
CG If you are trying to live in NY how can an actor afford to perform for Off Broadway salaries?
JH There are ways in which it is worth it. I did a play Off Broadway. Somebody saw me and I was offered a small role in Sideways It was a good move career wise. More often than not there is a big payback from doing Off Broadway.
CG Are you seeing any bounce from the Tony nomination?
JH A Tony nomination helps you with all these luncheons and talks with people in the theatre community. You come to be more largely identifiable. You are a commodity and get dressed up. It is fun to go out and be glamorous. I play a lot of characters who are anonymous and understated. Mostly I dress like a hippy so in a way (being a Tony nominee) was like a big show.
CG What’s coming up this season?
JH I have turned down a few Off Broadway roles. My agent is pushing me to be more selective. To hold out for roles that are equal to or surpass those I played on Broadway this year. I’ve been turning down stuff so I can in some way capitalize on the people who saw me in those two shows. You get into a strategy with your career. It’s an enviable position to be in.
CG When I met with Dylan Baker he told me that last summer he talked with Nicholas Martin about Our Town. Nicky wanted to cast Campbell Scott as the Stage Manager. Everything hinged on that. What has resulted is an all star cast. It seems like Nicky shook the tree and his favorite actors fell in place like apples. What one hears over and over is how much Nicky is respected and loved. In these past three seasons I have come to know him and have seen first hand his enormous warmth and humanity. When did you come into this production and what does it mean to be working with Martin?
JH I was approached in February. Once he got Campbell for me it was an unequivocal yes. The answer was immediate. In the years I have been at WTF I have wanted to work with Nicky so badly. He is known as the most supportive and inspiring person to work with. He brings out a sense of security that what you are doing is fully human and perfect for the part.
CG How unique is that?
JH It is unique in that many directors have great intellect and an aesthetic sense you respond to. But very few create a supportive work environment. More than supportive, a nurturing work environment. That’s what Nicky does and he has a certain sensitivity to each person and their personality. He knows how to combine performers and creates a cast that is deeply reliant on each other to make it work. And that’s rare in this competitive field.