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Shaft

Shaft

 
June 2000 Interview by Steve Millies    About the author of this article

Jeffrey Jones You surely know him as Ed Rooney, the dogged nemesis of Ferris Bueller in the movie that describes his day off. Maybe you remember him as the officious Emperor Joseph in Amadeus. If youíre very lucky you saw his scene-stealing turns in Ed Wood and Ravenous, two under-appreciated gems. And if youíre like most people you have no idea what his name is.

When Jeffrey Jones gave PCC a generous share of his time a few weeks ago, I began by telling him that our hope was to talk to actors who had avoided the machinery of Hollywood celebrity and approached acting as a job like the rest of us working slobs go to work every day. He briskly responded, "Then Iím your man!" And from one Joe Lunchpail to another, Jeffrey Jones told the story of a career built in service to the characters he plays and the stories he tells. You may be tempted to dismiss his characters as quirky or strange, but Jones will remind you that they each inhabit their own little realities -- for Jeffrey Jones the actor that makes all the difference in the world, and that attention to detail explains a lot about why his work is so enjoyable.

Most of us go to work every day, and a few of us even enjoy it. Jeffrey Jones is lucky enough to have a job where he can meet interesting people, go to strange places, and give something to the rest of us in the world. He describes a connection between being a doctor and being an actor, and I'm inclined to agree. Someone once said that "good cheer is the best physician," and that's as good an explanation that you'll find of why we love the movies, why we enjoy Jeffrey Jones's work so much.

At one point in your life you were thinking about becoming a doctor. So the question I want to start with is, why are you an actor?

Well, I think that there is a connection between being a lawyer and a doctor and an actor. They kind of, in some ways, have the same appeal, I suppose. But really, the reason it happened is while I was going to college I always did theatre--I just did it, I started in my high school in Vermont. I was offered a job while I was in college at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. And I thought, "Oh, that will be fun."

Was that a stage job or behind the scenes?

It was actually a job on stage. I got a phone call from Douglas Campbell and from Jerome Guthrie, who offered me a job out of the blue. And I thought that was great, and I was so surprised by what the experience was like. At the time, during the year I was there, Dame Sibyl Thorndike and Sir Lewis Kasden were there. Alec Guinness passed through, and a lot of people that I really admired. And I found that they were intelligent and fun to be with, and that it was an interesting life. So I thought, you know, hey, this is more practical than I thought it was.

You draw a connection between being a doctor and a lawyer and an actor. Do you look at acting as a calling? Does it in some way satisfy you in ways that doing something else wouldn't?

I've gotten to go wonderful places, meet interesting and intelligent people, and I started of course in the theatre and continue to work in the theatre where there is some intelligence involved in it. And also, being a doctor is kind of verbal. You have to sort of enjoy your communication skills. Lawyers communicate. They tell a story. Doctors are using their knowledge of physical medicine and psychology and interpersonal relations--or at least, that's my image of a doctor. I thought, this is great, you can really go out there and do good things in the world. That was what I thought it would be like. I think the same way about theatre, you go out there and you are creating a world for a moment that can actually have a real impact on people, present some kind of story that gives you something to think about when you walk away, feeling enriched--if it works out well. Not all plays are like that, of course. Some of them are.

Do you enjoy playing particular types of characters?

I would like to feel that I have a range and that it's not just a matter of being a comic actor or a serious actor, because those are really artificial classifications, I think. It depends on the story. My job is to help the functioning of the story, not to draw attention to myself, but to make my characters function within the story, to work for the benefit of the story, to make the whole thing work.

The reason I ask is because, looking just at your film roles, it's always struck me that a lot of the characters you've played are men who are clinging to something, or at least are struggling with finding some sort of certainty in an uncertain world...

[Laughs] Yeah.

...and it's almost as though most of them are very sure of very few things...

And they're probably wrong about those too. Part of the film business is, if you want an apple, you buy an apple. So when you make an impression in a certain kind of role, that tends to be the type of role that you get offered. Trying to change that may be difficult. There may be the kinds of things that you may find interesting, but then there's also the practical reality of needing to make a living and this is what you have to choose from. That's not to diminish it at all, but...

You're probably referring to the splash you made with Amadeus?

Yeah. In Amadeus the character was a comic convention and it got so modified in the movie but still presented as a fairly one-dimensional guy. The character did actually grow a little from what the original stage play demanded of the character, but he was really there to be amusing, to introduce information. I finally did look at some of the reviews from the time and I was struck to see that he was often referred to as a fool or a dimwit. Well, he was a Hapsburg, and he wasn't the brightest light in the firmament. He was a man who had some very specific ideas about how things should be done, and he had a lot of different things going on in his life. The only way he ever could relax, shut it all down, get away from it, was to listen to music so nobody could yack at him. He was probably an educated man, though it doesn't necessarily show in the movie.

You seem to have, maybe within the context of being offered similar characters, done a good job of varying within that theme. I'm thinking of something as obvious as Ferris Bueller, to something like Hanoi Hilton, where you've got a character who does find an anchor and a certain kind of certainty and clings to that. Are you interested in this particular human problem, or is it just accidents of casting?

You know, I haven't actually examined it that way. Every actor wants to have a character that changes, that has some kind of movement, that gets from point A to point B, that doesn't just supply one note. But most characters arent really written that way. You have to find a note in it that serves a purpose. In Ferris Buellers Day Off, for example, my job was to be Ferris's dogged nemesis.

No matter when I look at you on the screen, something's always going on. A look on your face, or something you're doing. I'm thinking particularly of a moment near the end of Ravenous where your character shoots Guy Pearce a look that is our first clue that he may have misgivings about his cannibalism.

I'm so glad that you saw it.

Well, you said on the DVD commentary that it was something that was not in the script.

No, it wasn't, and at that point we'd been through so much and there had been so many changes to the script that I was adamant that I had to have that look there.

Is looking for moments like that something you've taken from the stage?

No, it's storytelling. It's standing up for your character and saying, "Look, this is the character who's in this situation, and if you were in this situation and you had the same intelligence as this character, which choice would you make?" And from my character's point-of-view in Ravenous, he had been collected by Robert Carlyle's character, he had become infected by this ravenous, cannibalistic power, and he was making the best of it. In actual fact, his life was a mess up to that point anyway. He didn't really seem to have a future, and all of a sudden he was presented with this. And there was no way out. What are you going to do? The only way out is to get yourself dead, and who can do that? Its very tough to kill yourself. So the best situation for him was to enlist somebody along the way, but that wasn't a good choice either because that meant betraying somebody he actually liked.

Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Ravenous that he "liked the way Jeffrey Jones's CO seemed reasonable in the most appalling ways."

That's very good of him. One of the influences I've had along the way was a book I read when I was quite young, the diary of Rudolf Nijinsky, a very short book. And he was absolutely out of his mind, but what's interesting about it was, you knew he was nuts but when he'd explain himself and the universe he lived in, it was absolutely logical and he couldn't understand why people couldn't see it. And he was trying in this book to explain as carefully and clearly as possible why he saw things the way he did. And if you take it on the basis on which he presents himself, then he was right. But in the world he wasn't.

Do you think a lot of people are like that?

Well, my brother was a schizophrenic, so I understood it in a different way from seeing my brother.

Do you have a favorite role that you've played?

A lot of the reasons why something is a favorite thing are all things you don't necessarily see, the place, the people, the time, where you are, what it meant to you at the time. And it's not so much the impact it has on the screen because a lot of that is out of your hands. Not so much on stage because the stage doesn't have somebody there with a pair of scissors making choices. So I guess you could say the things that you've mentioned are probably among my favorites, in terms of movies. Certainly Amadeus because it was a very powerful time for me, we filmed it in the Czech Republic at a time of lots of social and political change going on in that part of the world. That has a lot to do with it, plus the fact that it was a wonderful experience. Six months making a movie is a great luxury, and so is working with Milos Forman, who's a great guy, I like him a lot. And working on Ferris Bueller's Day Off also felt very good, even though it was because of having seen John Hughes films and I really had a lot of admiration for his accuracy, the accuracy with which he could capture the conflicts of the feelings of kids. It was funny and still truthful. My part was actually quite small in the script, but what seemed to be the important part to me was that I was the only one who wasn't swept along by Ferris. So I was the only one in opposition, which presented a lot of opportunities, some of which weren't even in the script or were expanded on. John was receptive to anything I had to offer, and indeed got ideas along the way himself. So that was fun, working with him...and them, all of them. And I really enjoyed Ravenous. It was another really heavy experience, back in the Czech Republic again many years after I did Amadeus, and quite a bit had changed but it was still a powerful experience just being there. The difficulty in making the movie sort of brought us all to a point where we just wanted to get going, just wanted to get this movie made, and I wasn't willing to roll over--specifically with the instance you mentioned earlier about how Col. Hart would feel. In the original script the writer and everybody else wanted me to be a full-out, tits-up, happy cannibal and I insisted that it made better sense for me to basically acquiesce to having him kill me because it was the only way out. They just didn't understand, until ultimately it was cut together and Antonia Bird said, "Well, you were right, that was a much better idea."

Let's shift gears. You've worked twice with Milos Forman and three times with Tim Burton. Do you have a close personal or professional relationship with these guys, that they keep sending projects your way?

I just really like Milos, and I wish I could see him more often. He's an interesting guy who is brave, and he's smart, and he's fun to be with, and I admire what he does. And I'd work with him any time. He's great, and I really enjoyed the experience both times working with him. He's a very earthy guy. It was kind of amazing, actually. There was very little in the way of rehearsal. When I started we worked on one scene for six days, and he didn't really say anything. So I came up to him and I said, "Milos, please tell me something, am I doing something wrong?" And he said, "No, why do you say that?" I said, "Well, because you haven't said anything. And he said, "No, no, no!! I say something if you're not doing it right!!"

How about Tim Burton?

Yeah, Tim's the same. The first time I met him I thought he was...well, I didn't know what to think of him. But I learned to have a great appreciation for him personally and professionally.

What are your feelings about the industry generally, how an actor like you fits into the profit motive and the celebrity culture?

I only know from my own personal experience, and I personally feel that there's a cyclical nature to things, so you don't want to start making generalizations about how bad things have become in comparison to the old days. That's a boring song. But it's true, it's nothing new that decisions about what movies are to be made, and how they're to be made, and who's to be hired to do what, and whether you hire somebody to do their job, or whether you hire somebody to fill a position and you tell them what to do. If you're an employer, you want to hire an employee who'll do their job, not do your bidding. That's not necessarily what you want, you want somebody that's going to look out for their responsibility. So yes, that's important that an actor if they've got input tha'ts worth it, that's a good point, they should be allowed to make that point. Certainly that assumes that actor has an overall view of what that piece is about and how they fit into it. It's unfortunate that there aren't that many good movies to choose from now because the product that comes from the studio is either purchased from low-budget, independent producers who don't have any money and suffer as a consequence, don't manage to get the product they might get if they had more backing, or idiocy which the bean-counters believe will sell because they know it sold in the past, so let's give you more of the same. It's kind of disturbing too that filmmaking as a craft doesn't really seem to have many people suporting it anymore. There's more money going into the pot, but it's not getting to the right places. This gets to be a political issue. I know a lot of people who are very good at their craft who have learned--people behind the camera--who really have a lot to offer because they know what they're doing, they know what to do, they've made their mistakes. And they're not being hired because the only important thing is, can you get somebody to do it for nothing. There's an awful lot of opportunity out there for people to learn their craft by making mistakes, which is fine, except subsequently when they have made their mistakes and when they have learned and decide they want to make a living at it they've been replaced by somebody that doesn't know what they're doing, who'll work for nothing.

There could be the point of view that says that creates opportunities for younger filmmakers or people who come into it a little less traditionally.

My son tried to work in films and he ultimately gave it up, he finally couldn't make a living, he couldn't support himself. He worked all the time and he didn't make enough money to have a house, have an apartment. He had to live with his girlfriend. He gave it up, and more and more people are like that. I don't think thats creating opportunity, I think that's just creating bad filmmaking.

That suggests that you've been very lucky.

Well, I luckily came along at a time when things were better. But I'm saying that there are trends in this.

What's the last really good movie you saw?

I've been awfully busy, and I haven't gone to many movies. I watched The Green Mile finally last night, and it was a much better movie than I thought. I thought it was going to be very treacly and kind of gushy and excessive because of it's length, but I didn't find that to be so much the truth. I was surprised.

What kind of upcoming projects can you tell me about? You told me earlier that you were doing a radio play.

Yeah, I did that already. This outfit called Los Angeles Theatre Works does readings of plays. We rehearse it and then do it in front of an audience five times. Then they cut it together and play it on National Public Radio. Ive done Hay Fever and this one was called Another Time by Ronald Harwood. Ronald Harwood is a South African writer, writing in England now. Its about a Jewish family in South Africa whose young son turns into a prodigy on the piano. It's set against the old South Africa and the new South Africa. It's an interesting play.

What about upcoming film projects?

I'm in a film called The Breakers with Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt as a mother-daughter con artist team, with Gene Hackman and Ray Liotta. I play the manager of the Breakers Hotel. It was a part in an earlier incarnation of the script that was much better. In fact, then it existed and now it doesn't. So there you go. I'm just happy to be with people I like, because Iv'e known Sigourney for a long time and I haven't worked with her in a while.

When you think of your career as a whole, how would you like those of us in the audience to think of it and to think of you?

I hope that by the time I've folded my tent, people will still say, "Oh yeah, I really liked that movie." I just hope that some of the movies I'm in are still welcome years from now.

 
 
 
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