Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Interview with Salome Jens

Actress Salome Jens is an actor's actor. She considers acting a pure art form and is ever respectful of every single role she plays. From films like Angel Baby to Mae Olinski in TV's Mary Hartman Mary Hartman to her one-woman play About Anne, her work is passionate, thoughtful and evocative. She will be performing About Anne @ Group rep in NoHo November 19 and 20 as a benefit for the theatre. In our chat recently conducted on the stage of Group rep, she talks about the roots of About Anne (poet Anne Sexton, who struggled her entire short life with mental illness and committed suicide) and other theatrical passions.

How did this project first evolve?

I was asked by Los Angeles Actors Theatre when they were on Oxford (80s)...Dana Elcar asked if I wanted to do this particular piece. He said he would produce it there with Hank Hoffman who was already working on it in the women's prison; he was already doing the part that I eventually did; it was dance choreography and a dramatic combination, all poetry, and they were taking it into the prison. The Transformations, as it was called, is about Grimms Fairy Tales. It opened up a lot of wonderful exciting things with movement. Dana asked if I would do the front part of it, about 20 minutes of poetry, so I went to the prison, and it was just so interesting, because these women...and he was doing it in a strange way...he was doing it like he thought Anne (Sexton) did it (she deepens her voice as if performing)...A story, a story, let it go, let it come...all in that poetic way...I felt I would never want to do it like that, because all those poems have events, things are happening in her life. She was the first confessional poet. I thought I would want to do it in such a way that would be more interesting for the theatre. What I noticed was the women, they responded to this poetry, and how rapt they were and how they were healing themselves and their lives. Some of them (the prisoners) were writing at that point, because they had writing seminars, which I thought was really exciting. So I decided to look into this, and I had not known Sexton prior to this. I started to delve into who she was and what she did and how extraordinary this was. I saw that this poetry would be exciting for me to do out of the event and really make the event happen. I did it and it got fantastic reviews. I was given the opportunity to put together a whole evening to open the McCadden Place Theatre. So I thought, "How can I turn 20 minutes into a whole event?" I had gotten the best reviews of my entire life, so something was happening with me and Anne. I started to go through the poetry and in about two nights put together what I wanted to say, after I had learned about her and lived with her for a while. All the elements of her life were there...her mother, her father, her husband, her marriage, her children, her divorce, her search for God and finally what she saw about life. Fascinating to discover, she did her poetry to rock bands, so I thought, "This is not a depressed suicide; this is a woman who loves life like I do and has an enormous appetite. Those leaping metaphors are absolutely incredible. It is someone who eats up life, who absorbs it and is feasting on life." I also discovered in the midst of doing her that I was an alcoholic - and I now have, by the way, 29 years of sobriety...

Bless you!

...but in some way Anne saved my life, because I thought I could go that way (suicide), but I see who she is, I have what she has, and I have my own love of life and my own passion...and so what I get to do is to take her into the world...

How therapeutic for so many people!

...It just took off, and people loved it. 

Am I correct... I believe I read that it was a therapist that recommended that she write poetry?

Yes, but not poetry. He said, "Write! You need to write." And the interesting thing is she had a mother who was very jealous of her or least she thought she was. She stopped writing when she was a young girl and was very resentful of the mother. Obviously, they were very competitive. She left home at 18 and eloped with a wool salesman. There was a lot of pain, and she was obviously a rebel, a wonderful rebel. After the birth of her first baby, she had a breakdown. Then the psychiatrist recommended that she write. At that point in her thirties until the time she died, everything she wrote was published. Everything. And she was a Pulitzer Prize winning poet! It is astonishing that in such a short time, and being a woman on top of it, that it could have happened. She was certainly a friend of Sylvia Plath, and she studied at Harvard with Robert Lowell. So she really grabbed on and went to wonderful people to learn.

How often have you done this play?

After that initial 6 week run at the McCadden Place Theatre in 1985 ... my brother-in-law, Anthony Zerbe and Roscoe Lee Browne had a company called Poetry in Motion. Anthony started to book me into universities, women's clubs, places like that. I still do that.

Do you think that this is the best part you have ever played?

No. What it is, as they say, is something that I...a gift I can give when people need something. Every time I've done it, my students see something about the acting and what can happen. No. I was at Lincoln Center...After the Fall and A Moon for the Misbegotten, I think was perhaps for me and Mitch Ryan

...we were the first actors who did it off-Broadway at Circle In the Square...a major O'Neill play. Then they did it on Broadway, after we had done it.

What a shame that you didn't get a chance to do it on Broadway!

Exactly, I really feel sad about that. It was a piece we certainly felt very powerfully about. And I've done many other roles... Cleopatra, Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I also did a benefit of that for the Actors Studio. It's a hard play, but, boy, is it fun to do!

Do you still teach?

Oh yes. I work with the MFAs at UCLA. I will do the winter quarter now. I also have my private classes... I've been teaching for about 30 years.

You obviously love doing it ...and the word around town is that everybody loves you.

Well...I call myself not an acting teacher but an actress who teaches. It's not my profession. I would never make my living off of teaching. I can't ask the actors to pay. I'm very reasonable. I don't teach for profit. Coming from the Actors Studio and working with Strasberg...he was my teacher for over 25 years...I got it for free...that's where I met Lonny (Chapman)...having had the privilege of working with these geniuses...Harold Clurman, Stella Adler...but Lee was my mainstay, to have the Studio there, to grow in, for free, with all these wonderful people...I mean, amazing to see all the peer group working, that they had the same problems that I had, and I was learning, learning, learning...and the wonderful thing about Lee was, he was evolving too. We grow; we never stop growing. I still do a lot of moderating at the Studio. It made a home for all of us.

Let's switch to Star Trek and Deep Space Nine! Did you have fun with that?

It was fine. It was rather a Godsend in a way. I had no idea when I was doing it what it would turn into. It's amazing, because that character (Female Shapeshifter)...everybody thinks she's so evil...I love the character, "Why do you think she's evil?" She was looking at everyone saying, "You're crazy fighting. Where I come from there's no fighting. You can be anything you want. What are you doing?" The cast was wonderful; the stories were interesting. Like a Greek tragedy, there's something quite wonderful that happened with all of them. And the mythology around it now is just so lovely. I went to one of the Star Trek Conventions last summer, and there were 5,000 people there. All of them so dedicated and sweet...from all over the world. I get fan mail from Japan, Germany, all over the place. It's amazing!

What other film work have you enjoyed?

I loved working with John Frankenheimer on Seconds. That was with Rock (Hudson), an absolutely wonderful film. I certainly loved doing Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.

I'm glad you said that. That's one of my favorites. I still have an image of you in my mind lying on a bed wearing Tom's baseball cap and smoking after your supposed tryst with him...hilarious!

It was a wonderful group of actors, and we'd get the script the night before and shoot it the next day. You had to be up, to act on your feet!

Do you have a favorite director?

Jose Quintero.

I studied with him. What a lovely man and great teacher!

Genet's The Balcony. That was the big thing in my life. It was one of the first plays that put me on the map. 

Jose had seen me do the Ionesco plays at the Sullivan Street Theatre (New York). I'm walking down the street one day, and he comes up to me...and I didn't know him yet, I just knew that he did Iceman (Cometh). He said, "I'd like you to be in my play! Come and get a script. I have an idea." He asked me to do the Whorse Girl (Pony Girl), the whore that was a horse, like Napoleon's stallion. I didn't understand the play at all. The most creative, incredible experience of my life! We choreographed that thing in about 15 minutes. He told me to just work on the stallion. "Have you ever seen them tame a horse?" I told him I was born on a farm, so knew something about it. I said, "You mean, I can prance and whinny and bite?" (She joyously makes all the sounds.) He said, "Yeah, all of that!" He gave me a wonderful entrance down a staircase. I had a kimono on.The guy was there that was my Napoleon. He has me walk around him and disrobe. Out comes this tail. I have to dress him and take him to war, to Chopin's march (she intones music). The audience was on their feet! He told me to work on the horse...and he gave me everything! Now when a director does that...! He knew how to best illuminate it! He had a genius about staging so that you got it!

When you teach your students, what do you tell them?

10 years to make an actor, 20 a master. Are you willing to go to work? If you're not, this is the wrong place.
There is a craft to learn. If you can't commit to at least 2 years with me, don't commit, 'cause that's how much time it would take for you even to begin to get what I'm talking about. And when I'm dealing with my MFAs at UCLA, I have to tell them to forget everything they've learned. They're acting all over the place and screaming and shouting...all signifying nothing! I have to start from the beginning. And with my work with Lee I realized there are wonderful exercises to bring people home, not because I want them to be themselves, but I want them to be able to connect to being human. And how else, unless you are, unless you can be, human and look first, "What do I know?" And characters are about who, what, when, where and why? Not what they do in life. I have to get all the facts and then I can make character choices. I've got to be able to marry the character.

Salome Jens is that committed as an actress! How lucky students are to have her as a teacher! She is so joyously passionate about everything she does. 
See her in About Anne @ Group rep in NoHo November 19 and 20! Call 818-700-4878! Tix are $25 in advance, $30 at the door. The Lonny Chapman Theatre is @ 10900 Burbank Boulevard in NoHo.


brent hosier said...

I love Salome Jens. Finally after first reading about it and wanting to see it over 35 years I saw Angel Baby. Like a prayer. She is angelic as an actress and likely the same as a person.

Lawrence EdwardLay said...

Wish she was asked about playing the Terror from the year 5,000