Actor Jefferson Mays’ stage credits in New York include Moe's Lucky Seven, Quills, Culture of Desire, Orestes, and Bella, Belle of Byelorussia.
He has appeared in many regional productions around the US including two productions of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and three productions of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest as well as Misalliance, The Beauty Part, Not Suitable for Children, The Cherry Orchard, Peter Pan, She Stoops to Conquer, The Woman in Black, The Lover, The Show-Off, Triumph of Love, Servant of Two Masters, Tartuffe, Fortinbras, Life During Wartime, Miss Julie, Private Lives and Outward Bound.
Mays’ film and television credits include Kinsey, Alfie, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, Cousin Bette, Low Life, Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade, Hudson River Blues, Grey Night, Liberty!, Benjamin Franklin and The Federalist Papers.
In December 2003, Mays made his Broadway debut in Doug Wright’s one-man play I Am My Own Wife. The actor had been involved in developing the piece from initial workshops through to its premiere in spring 2003 at Off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons. The play went on to become the first solo piece to win the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for drama, while Mays himself won a Best Actor Tony.
I Am My Own Wife received its UK premiere at the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre on 10 November 2005. Mays has just been nominated for Best Solo Performance in the Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers' Choice Awards for his turn as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the resilient German transvestite who survived the Nazis and communism, as well as dozens of other characters in Wright’s play.
Date & place of birth
I was born in New London, Connecticut, on the 8th of June 1965.
Lives now in
I live all over the world now, out of suitcases! We’re based in Manhattan, in the East Village, although we haven’t been back for ages. At the moment, we’re staying right next door to the Queen in Buckingham Gate, formerly known as St James Court. It used to be used, I guess, by visiting nobles paying court to the Queen. We can hear the guard martial music wafting in our windows in the morning and see the Royal Standard, it’s wonderful.
What made you decide to become an actor? Where did you train?
I came to it rather late, I intended to be an academic and I studied classics and art history at Yale. I think I did my first play in my freshman year at Yale and then that quickly eclipsed all academic interest. I was just in love with it and I did tons of plays in squash courts and dining halls and loading docks, all over the place, and then went on to drama school after that. I went to the University of California at San Diego for a three year training course. I guess I’ve been acting professionally as a card-carrying Equity member since 1991.
First big break
Probably this! Well, I’ve enjoyed my career so much. I’ve been pretty much a regional theatre actor (in the US) working throughout the country. That’s the only way an unknown - that is, an actor not having a television series or a film career – can go out and still play those monster roles, going to California or Baltimore or the Mid-West.
What does it mean, as a regional actor, to have such a hit on Broadway & now in the West End?
It’s just an unimaginable thrill. I’ve been coming here for years seeing plays and never dreaming that I would be on one of these stages. But the experience of I Am My Own Wife has had that at every turn, I’ve just always had to pinch myself. I never imagined, for instance, that it would transfer from Off-Broadway to Broadway and go on a national tour and then come here. This (the Duke of York’s) is the best theatre I’ve played because it’s an old theatre and was designed with the actor in mind, before microphones were invented, and there’s an intimate grandeur about it. It’s really accessible. You feel as though you can reach up from the stage and shake hands with the people in the balcony.
What do awards mean to you?
Well, I was very glad to get them. But I don’t like to have them hanging around. I gave them all to my agent – I think my Tony Award is probably spinning slowly at the bottom of his fish tank or something! We (Mays and his wife Susan Lyons), the production’s resident director] live in such a small apartment in the East Village. There’s barely enough room for a box of tissues on the toilet tank. So I don’t keep them. And I just don’t like to be reminded. I find most awards trophies rather ugly honestly; they offend me on an aesthetic level. I was very honoured to receive them, obviously, but they look far nicer in my agent’s office
Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
Oddly enough, Peter Pan, which started here at this very theatre. I went down the fist day here to see the wooden machinery that was used to operate the mermaids’ lagoon and the pirate ship and fly the cast of Peter Pan around and I just about burst into tears. It was so moving to see that still here and to think that this is where people flew around in the air for the first time. I played Peter, at the age of 37 I think, and it was a wonderful experience.
Oh yes, Moises Kaufman of course, and I suppose you know Des McAnuff here? He did Tommy and a number of things, I’ve worked with him regularly. Irene Lewis at Baltimore Center Stage, Anne Bogart who is an experimental American director, and Doug Hughes, I mean they’re really wonderful. I’ve had good luck with directors. I think a good director is someone who fosters a safe atmosphere of play in rehearsal. If a director can lead a good rehearsal, then chances are the play is going to be very good. If they give actors free rein, not to constrain them, that’s always good.
I am very fond of Doug Wright – and very thankful! It’s trite to say, but I love Anton Chekhov. I read all of Chekhov every year - in the spring, for some reason! I just love getting back in touch with it. The wonderful thing about reading plays is you can form these ideal productions in your head. Chekhov delights me no end. And I love Oscar Wilde. I’ve done The Importance of Being Earnest about three times, and I probably should put a stop to that, but it is such a joy. I’ve played the boys, Jack and Algy and then Jack again - maybe I’ll do Lady Bracknell now I’ve had experience with that (playing women)! I’m a huge fan of Chuck Mee, who’s an American playwright. And I love reading Shakespeare. I love reading it and I love researching Shakespearean roles, pouring through the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and reading about past productions. I want to do more Shakespeare, but I often find there’s something that happens to it between the page and the realisation of it on the stage that is often disappointing. I would love to find a way to crack that.
What roles – Shakespeare or otherwise - would you most like to play still?
I’m not an actor that goes around with a laundry list of roles that I’d like to play. I always find it more exciting when a director is excited about me playing something. It’s like Christmas morning whenever the phone rings and someone calls you up and says, “how would you like to play Peter Pan?” for instance. Or Charlotte Van Mahlsdorf. That was the weirdest phone call I ever got. “Would you like to be in a play that hasn’t been written yet?” And I said, “what’s it about?” And he said, “it’s about a gay 65-year-old East German transvestite.” That’s not the sort of thing you sit down and say, “hmm, that’s next for me!”
If you hadn’t become an actor, what might have done professionally?
I was very interested in classics and art history. Maybe I would have been a classical art historian or something. If I suddenly couldn’t act any more, I would still do something of that nature, but I would be fascinated probably more by theatrical history. You know, I could write books on theatrical history or a great actors’ encyclopaedia of fascinating period titbits. I think so often when doing period plays, which I love doing because there’s this element of time travel in them, an actor is always hard-pressed for a set of rules. I mean, wondering what the age was about, what to do with your hat when you enter a room, what to do with your stick or gloves. I think it would be fun to do an actors’ guide to behaviour or etiquette. I collect etiquette books, it’s fascinating to see how behaviour changes.
What was the last stage production you saw that had a big impact on you? And the first?
If you’re working in the theatre, you never get to go to the theatre. And it sometimes feels like a busman’s holiday. I like to just stay at home and watch crappy television or read a book. But I’ve been fortunate coming over here earlier to see stuff. I guess the last thing I saw was this wonderful thing in Dublin called Lords of the Railway which is an odd little piece by two German model railroad enthusiasts. Seeing a play was the first form of entertainment for me, aside from my parents reading to me which was, I think, theatre in its purest form. I think it was James and the Giant Peach. I must have been about four or five. I remember my favourite thing about it was seeing all the actors afterwards dressed up as the various insects and things. I thought that was dangerous and spooky. I went to see my first film shortly after that. It (the cinema) looked like a theatre because there was a proscenium arch and the curtain went up. It was Planet of the Apes, and I was fascinated by all these gorillas on horseback shooting guns. But then I burst into tears and panicked. My mother took me out into the lobby and asked what was wrong, and I said, “I don’t want to go and meet the monkeys after”. Because I thought we were going to have to go and confront these characters! She said, “no no no, this is not taking place in real time, these are just two-dimensional characters now”. And then I felt gypped. I thought, why come, then, if it’s not happening now and it’s not an event for us?!
What would you advise the government – British or American - to secure the future of American theatre?
That’s a tricky thing because I don’t think that our government has ever had any provision for the arts. I remember reading a quote from President John Adams writing in the 18th century saying, “I am studying war so that my sons can study government so their sons can study commerce so their sons can study ceramics and the visual arts.” In our country (the US), you always get the sense that arts are way down the line. They’re the first programmes to be cut in schools as unnecessary. So I would say putting arts programmes back into schools and exposing students to the arts, which is something I believe they do very well in this country, is very important. Here, a lot of students come to the theatre and you see just packs of them in museums. I think that’s what America needs because I think that (the arts) is ultimately what makes us human.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I’ve never had any sort of envy of that kind, but I suppose out of curiosity I’d like to be Queen Elizabeth I. She had fabulous frocks for one thing, and I would love to feel what it would be like to be an absolute monarch of such fierce intelligence and strength of will. Talking of beautiful frocks, Kristin Scott Thomas does have brilliant frocks in As You Desire Me and she wears them beautifully. I went to see it with my wife and she was sitting there saying, “That’s nice, that’s mine… and that’s mine too.” It was a stunning turn in every sense of the word. I’m not a big fan of Pirandello generally - I mean, it’s just, “shut up and stop chatting at me about what you want me to think” - but she’s just a star, she’s gorgeous.
My desert island book would probably by the Oxford English Dictionary because it contains all books. I love reading dictionaries. It’s a great read and, theoretically, you can put all the words together and make any book. That’s what I’d do if I had a lot of time on a desert island, try to reconstruct Crime and Punishment. I’m a fan of Sudoku as well, bordering on the pathological.
Favourite holiday destinations
I’m discovering them daily from travelling with I Am My Own Wife. Krakow in Poland is one. I just love Krakow. It’s this extraordinary city with a huge castle at one end and magnificent churches and cobbled streets, surrounded by a green belt of park, and when you wake up in the morning you hear horses’ hooves going by your windows. It’s like being in another time.
I’m not a big internet user. I love reference books, but they’re complicated to lug around when you’re on tour. Google is wonderful. That’s my favourite website when you’re trying to think of something you need to find out.
What made you decide to perform I Am My Own Wife?
I fell into it by accident. I was attracted to it because it seemed so completely other, so different from who I was. It was just going to be a workshop, three weeks in the mountains of Utah one summer at the Sundance Institute. It’s very hot in New York in the summer and I thought, “this is great, I’ll just go out to the mountains and there’s no pressure”. I just did it on a lark to help my friend Doug (Wright, the author) out. It wasn’t meant to be a one-man show then, I was just read from all the transcripts of interviews. Then, because we had to show something at the end of the week, little by little it became this one-person show and escalated from there. Doug and I were undergraduates together. After college, I was in the premiere of his production of Quills and did a couple of his one-act plays. So I’d like to consider myself his foremost interpreter!
How did the play evolve from the workshop into a Broadway hit?
It’s been a series of happy accidents I think. It went over rather well at Sundance when we just presented a rough semblance of a first act - it’s still subtitled “Fragments Towards a Play about the Life of Charlotte”. We sort of told ourselves that glorious lie of, “well, we’re not making a play, we’re just going to make some interesting fragments and string them together and we’re not going to be bound by structure or anything”. And then a year passed and Doug and I got back together again. Moises was filming something for HBO in Los Angeles, in the same way we worked on the first half, we crafted a second act. Then a year later, the three of us reconvened in Chicago and pretty much made the piece you see here today, that went Off-Broadway to Broadway and then a world tour, and now here.
What have been your highlights from the whole experience?
A couple of performances stick in my mind. One was in Krakow. It was incredible to do it for a non-English speaking audience - we had surtitles - and particularly amazing doing it for people who had first or second-hand knowledge of both regimes that Charlotte survived. Then I had two student matinees in Chicago, which I dreaded. I thought, “my God, I’m putting on a dress and walking out in front of a bunch of high school students”, which is the stuff of nightmares. And they were from pretty tough schools, largely African-American and Hispanic, and they were just screaming at the beginning and throwing things. I thought I was going to be crucified. But they had been so beautifully and well prepared by their teachers. They were magnificent. I felt this immediate acceptance, not an instant of judgement. It also made me feel like a little African-American church lady as Charlotte. It’s amazing to me how much the audience have to do with casting you, as much as you cast them as your sympathetic listeners. You become things within their frame of reference, transforming into something they can relate to.
What are the specific challenges of performing by yourself?
It’s something I had always lived in dread of. I had always avoided being on stage alone because my first joy is playing with other actors on stage. So it was terrifying to begin with, but I’ve learned to love it. My scene partner here arrives around 7.30 or 8pm and it’s the audience, these fresh ears that have never heard the story before. Each audience has its own collective identity, IQ, interests, sense of humour, so it keeps me interested by sussing them out every night. Some nights they’re enigmatic and not terribly forthcoming; other times I can get a pretty early sense of them. It’s a fascinating process. I can’t see much of anything with the stage lights so it’s based on listening, but you can sense attentive silences, the things they laugh at or gasp over. I listen to them very carefully for those sorts of responses. I started out by not being a fan of the one person show genre. I wanted to avoid the clichés - a costume rack that rolls out on stage, a trunk with funny hats in it. I wanted to do it all in one costume and I wanted all the characters to be as economically defined as possible. The most exciting thing for me in the theatre as an audience member is to have demands made upon me. Not audience participation, I mean that terrifies me, but when you’re given something that’s not completely filled in or clear, not handed to you on a platter so you have to lean in and fill in a character for yourself. So that’s what I’ve tried to do. The nice thing about doing a one-man show is, if you screw something up, it’s just on to the next thing and you have a chance to redeem yourself. And there’s no fellow cast member to trip me up, except for myself of course!
Do you have a favourite line from the play?
I don’t think so. It’s so hard for me to remember lines out of context. I can only remember the first line of the play, which is “Thomas Alva Edison was the inventor of the first telephone” and it leads to the other lines. If I start thinking of lines ahead of time, I’m screwed. In the wings if I make the mistake of doing that, I can’t remember anything and then I panic and go running for the script and then it’s time to be on stage and then I just spend the second act a quivering, sweating mess.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m still having a ball doing this show at the moment. My wife is Australian so we’re going to go there for a tour for 13 or 14 weeks and then we’re going to South Africa and I’m looking forward to that. It would be great to do this show on every continent! We’ve been invited to Caracas for a festival I think in April, which I’d love to go and do, and I think Africa is interested in 2007. Susan (Lyons, Mays’ wife) is the executive director and we travel everywhere together. I couldn’t imagine doing this alone. I think I’d be a raging alcoholic, you know. She comes to the theatre every night. She doesn’t see the show every night - that would be cruel, grounds for abuse, I think! – but she sits backstage and reads Anthony Trollope novels and knits. It’s just been the greatest gift to travel around with her.
- Jefferson Mays was speaking to Terri Paddock
I Am My Own Wife opened on 10 November 2005 (previews from 4 November) at the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre, where it will now finish this Saturday, 10 December 2005.