Jane Alexander by Stuart Spencer

BOMB 36 Summer 1991
036 Summer 1991
​Jane Alexander 01

Jane Alexander. Photo ©1991 Susan Shachter.

Jane Alexander is one of those exceptional actresses who combine formidable inner strength with an almost porcelain fragility. Among her many projects of the last ten years there has been a small feature film, Testament, that “broke out” into mainstream recognition, and Eleanor and Franklin, a television film that rose above its own mainstream aspirations. The transcendence of both was in no small way due to her performances in them. She has just recently closed a successful Broadway run of Shadowlands, and will appear this summer on American Playhouse in their production of An American Place, about the love affair between Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz.

Stuart Spencer Tell me about your family background.

Jane Alexander I grew up in Boston—Bahston. My father was a surgeon, my mother had been a nurse. It was a comfortable, middle-class home on the border of Brookline, called Pill Hill because there were so many doctors living there.

SS It doesn’t sound like a theatrical family.

JA No theatrical people at all in my family. On either side. Though my dad, when he had been at Harvard, got involved with a group called the University Players on Cape Cod—summer stock in Falmouth—people from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale: Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Josh Logan, Bretaigne Windust, Kent Smith, Nina Foch, It was quite a group.

SS What did he do?

JA (laughter) He acted. But in that company, he wasn’t exactly the star. I think Dad quite wisely opted for medicine. Although he was a raconteur, a very witty, vibrant man. He really loved the theater.

SS Did you know always that this was what you wanted?

JA I knew it was either going to be ballet or theater. At the age of ten, I decided I didn’t want to suffer the excruciating pain and discipline of being on point.

SS You wanted to suffer the excruciating pain of being an actress instead.

JA It’s not as hard as being a dancer, no way.

SS Did you go to college?

JA My headmaster said, “Oh, I know just the place for you: Sarah Lawrence.” I said, “No, that’s a rich girl’s school.” It had all those connotations to me. He said, “You’re gonna like it. You’re gonna go there.” This headmaster was crazy about me. He wrote them a letter, “If you do not accept Jane Quigley into Sarah Lawrence College, I herewith resign as headmaster of Beaver Country Day School.” And they did accept me. I don’t think that the extortion was the only reason. Anyway, I hope not. (laughter) So I went to Sarah Lawrence for two years, and indeed, the friends that I made at Sarah Lawrence are my best friends today. They’re extraordinary, extraordinary women.

SS It was a rich girls’ school, though.

JA It was. Absolutely it was. I brought an allowance of 40 dollars a month for everything. My roommate got 200 dollars a month. Some of the girls even got 100 a week. I was just flabbergasted.

SS They have a wonderful theater program, I know. But you were only there two years?

JA They were very, very tough years for me. My roommate died in the first year, killed unexpectedly. And my best male friend killed himself. You know how those first years can be tough anyway, but when you lose your closest friends like that, well—they were very, very difficult years for me.

SS Where did you go?

JA The University of Edinburgh in Scotland. I had applied to Trinity College in Dublin, which was the natural place for me to go, given my heritage and everything. But they sent me a catalog in Gaelic and when I wrote back, they sent me a letter in Gaelic. I was obviously not welcome there. (laughter) That was when Irish nationalism was really rising. So I went to Edinburgh, and I had a fabulous year. My other best friends come from that year. Also, that was when I decided to give up math and become an actor.

SS Wait a minute. You were a math major?!

JA Mmm. I was considering becoming an IBM programmer. I know it sounds silly now, but in the late ’50s and early ’60s, computers were new. To be an IBM programmer was really quite exciting, very prestigious and I loved math anyway. That is, until I got to Edinburgh. I hated it there. I didn’t study and I flunked. Meanwhile, I was acting and getting all this acclaim.

SS What roles were you doing?

JA First, I did Nora in The Plough And The Stars, by O’Casey, which is one of my favorite plays in the world. And I did Ophelia, and I did Lady Torrance in Orpheus Descending for the Edinburgh-French production in the festival that summer.

SS You had some good roles.

JA Yes. Very good roles. I got a lot of attention and I was the student actress. So then I said well, (sings) “If I can make it here I’ll make it anywhere…” (laughter)

SS So you came back to the States.

JA I came back to the States not because I wanted to, but because immigration came to my door and said, “Miss Quigley, your year is up.” And they gave me a ticket to Norway, which was the nearest port of call.

SS Did you ever get a degree?

JA No. I became a ski bum. I came home to Boston and went to Mount Snow right after Christmas and I didn’t come off the mountain until April. (laughter) A girlfriend of mine from Sarah Lawrence tracked me down on the ski slopes and she said, “Jane, I’m leaving a job here in New York as a Girl Friday to a theatrical agent. If you’re still interested in being an actress get your ass off the ski slopes and come down to New York City.” And literally within a week I was here.

SS Did you get any training?

JA This is a touchy subject for me. I don’t like to offend people, but I didn’t feel good about my training. The little that I had. At Sarah Lawrence, I got nice support from Charles Carson, and Will Leach, who was the sweetest, most wonderful man. But in New York, I started down at HB and I was appalled at what was going on. I found it kind of a mind fuck.

SS Did you study anywhere else?

JA I became an observer at the Actors’ Studio later, and I left that for other reasons. I couldn’t stand all the sycophantic behavior that surrounded Lee Strasberg. I didn’t think it had anything to do with acting. I thought it had more to do with psychiatry. Then I was with Mira Rostova for a couple of years. Now, Mira had a very, very complex system which I never really mastered. When I left New York to be a member of the Charles Playhouse in Boston and then of the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, it became clear to me, working night after night in front of an audience, that her method was not working for me at all. I had to jettison it. I never had good training. I’m sure it exists. (laughter)

SS What about your voice? You have the most wonderfully relaxed voice. Very open, as they say. Did you have voice training?

JA Singing lessons with operatic exercises just to develop the range. I always loved that I could hit the very, very high notes if I wanted to scream on stage, or hit very low things. I was always interested in what today they call performance art, although nobody’s ever asked me to do any. I got into the mainstream pretty early on and once you get into the mainstream, you don’t get out of it too easily. That’s where you make your living, you know?

SS What kind of plays did you do in regional theater?

JA Oh, I was cast repeatedly in Shaw plays. When I was younger, people would like to paint me as the perfect Shavian heroine. I did maybe a dozen and then I totally rebelled. I said, “This man is a male chauvinist pig. I’m not doing any more Shaw plays!” (laughter)

SS That’s an iconoclastic view of Shaw.

JA It came to me after my second Major Barbara. Barbara doesn’t have the good argument, Undershaft has the good argument. I looked back through all the plays and realized the women never have the great arguments. Joan has a wonderful epilogue in Saint Joan, but not during the course of the play. The great arguments are given to the men, over and over again. The women are revered and worshipped, that’s true. It’s a reflection of Shaw himself, I think.

SS He certainly seemed to suffer from the ivory tower syndrome, didn’t he? Worshipping women from afar. I believe it’s true that he never had a sexual relationship.

JA I don’t know if we will ever know that. But he sure wrote passionate letters.

SS Back to training for a moment—or rejection thereof. Would you call yourself an intuitive actress or an intellectual one?

JA Intuitive. The only intellectual part of me is that which came out of my years of work in regional and resident theater. The intellectual part of me wants to be sure that my body and my voice are in good shape. And it wants to ensure that I know exactly what I am doing at any given time on stage; it wants to know exactly what I am projecting. This doesn’t mean that I come to it right away. But at the end of my journey with a character, I’ll know that that’s what I’m doing.

The intuitive part is that no matter what my character is saying, I want to know what they’re feeling. I’ll never automatically take dialogue at face value.

SS Playwrights around the world thank you for that. (laughter) Do you feel that you’d have been better off never having attempted any of those training programs?

JA No. I think it’s really important to be a member of the community of players, and you start to do that when you go to acting classes. You see your fellow actors and you begin to work with them.

Oh! I’ll tell you what my best training was! Yes, I did have incredible training! I was lucky enough to be a member of the Second City Workshop during the early ’60s. It was, at that time, the big MacGilla. Mike Nichols and Elaine May were there, Paul Sand was the director; and Zohra Lampert and Barbara Harris, and Alan Arkin. Paul was working with four of us: Alan Alda, Olympia Dukakis, Dana Elcar, and me. I was very young at the time.

SS So were they.

JA Well, they were a little bit older than I was, but not much, you’re right. It was the best time I ever had in terms of early training experience.

What Paul always taught us through improvisation was: accept what the other person gives you. Don’t deny it, just accept it. Do with it what you want, but don’t deny it. In other words, I have to respond. It may end up being not what the playwright wants, but…

SS At least, it will have a life.

JA Exactly, it’ll have a life. So when Paul said “accept,” I felt like a huge weight dropped from me. And improvisation in general was the best training I ever had because it keeps your mind going. And these weren’t all light, fun things. Sometimes they’d get really heavy. Dark.

SS Did you eventually do the show?

JA Well, we lived down in the Village, and one day we were all walking home. Paul said, “We’re going out of town with the show in a couple months.” And I said, “Paul, I’m going to have a baby.” (laughter) And he looked down at me—I remember, because I carried so small—and he said, “Oh, my God, how far along are you now?” I said, “Six months.” (laughter) And that was that.

SS You have what I think is that wonderful and rare combination of vulnerability and toughness in your work. Any explanation for that?

JA Schizophrenia?

SS If so, it’s the thing many great actresses have had.

JA I don’t consciously work for it, but I think my husband might describe me as that, if you asked him.

SS In life and in art?

JA Yeah. I’m absolutely a survivor. I mean you could knock me down and I will be the most laid-low piece of jelly lying on the floor sobbing my eyes out, screaming, crying, biting, kicking, and ten minutes later, I’ll be up like that. That’s why I say schizophrenia, without tongue in cheek. People don’t understand those mood swings that a lot of actors have. Temperament, I guess it’s called.

But I’m not untough. For one thing, I knew from a very early age that you have to take rejection. You have to be tough, you have to stick up for yourself. And the vulnerable part of me comes because it hurts at the same time. It hurts. Nothing hurts more than rejection. Nothing.

SS And you don’t deny it.

JA I don’t deny it because I can’t be angry very long.

SS Well, it comes back to that idea of acceptance. That an artist has to deal with the world as it is, perhaps, not as they want it to be. That we have an obligation to reflect reality as we know it.

JA Hold that mirror up to nature.

SS Speaking of obligations, is there a political sensibility at work in your selection of roles? I hesitate to use the term “feminism,” but…

JA No, that’s okay. I’m a feminist because it’s the fair thing, it’s the right thing. I’ve always been politically aware, but I don’t think that politics are anything other than a personal philosophy or psychology.

SS When I ask about political choices in roles, I’m thinking of Testament. Even in the post-cold war era when almost no one is thinking about the bomb anymore, that film still has tremendous power. You mention that film to people and they’re speechless.

JA It’s a scary film. It’s hard for me to watch it. It’s the children dying that I just can’t take.

SS What’s amazing about that film is that its subject is so hopeless and yet there’s a tremendous sense of tension.

JA I think Lynne did a brilliant job directing it. I was amazed when I saw the rough cut. I sat alone in the screening room…my jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe that she had put it together with such unadorned simplicity, such power. Those home movies…

SS How do you approach a character in whom there is so little apparent hope?

JA You never give up hope. I mean, look at what happens even in the moment when my character tries to kill herself. She sees those little kids and she can’t do it. We all have friends who have died or are dying of cancer. Towards the end, until there was a decision to let go, there was still a kind of hope. The release of that hope is a palpable decision for people who are dying.

SS I talk to my students about the importance of hope in a dramatic setting. I believe that you can’t really follow the character who has already given up hope. When they give up, so do we.

JA Exactly. And it’s no longer part of something that we want to be involved in, is it?

SS I guess we don’t.

JA When people give up hope…

SS We just step away. In thinking of political choices in roles, I think even of Eleanor and Franklin.

JA Yes, but that was just a wonderful role. (laughter) It wasn’t my fault that later the Democratic Party asked me to run for office. They got confused.

SS Is there a political responsibility for artists?

JA No, I don’t think necessarily there is, frankly.

SS There was that article in the New York Times about a week or two ago.

JA Of course, about the Creative Coalition.

SS Do you feel that sort of obligation?

JA Well, personally, absolutely. But do I necessarily have to translate my own personal feelings into a public responsibility? No.

SS It doesn’t come with the job of being an actress?

JA No. Actors and actresses only have a responsibility to themselves and the playwright and the production. To do the work, to interpret it. If I come out publicly, it’s only because I need to personally, for myself. I started marching at a very early age—in my teenage years—I started marching to ban the bomb in the ’50s. And we were boycotting South Africa when I was at Edinburgh in 1959.

SS So you’ve been a firebrand for…

JA For a very long time. And in my school I was always president of the class because I felt it was important to—well, to take control. (laughter) I like to run things my way. But then I found that it’s harder and harder to be part of groups or to run them. It’s tedious and it takes up a lot of time.

SS You have some current political interests.

JA Yes.

SS Animal rights? Is that right?

JA Not animal rights. I’m interested in wildlife conservation. And by that, I don’t mean at the expense of the people. I mean finding solutions for everybody to live together. I’m on the board of Wildlife Conservation International, which is the conservation arm of the New York Zoological Society, and I’m still active in nuclear disarmament issues. They’re all interrelated problems—environmental concerns which have to do with living on the planet, which we all know in the next 50 years is going to be in a desperate situation. We’re looking for ways to create large contained parks for the animals, to give them space. Now that doesn’t mean that certain tribal peoples aren’t going to butt up against the park, but they have to be educated to know that they can’t kill these animals. And they can’t take away their habitat. We’ve got to find solutions or we will have no wildlife left. Did you know we’re losing all the great mammals of the world and they will be gone by the year 2010, except in parks? The elephants are going at such a rapid rate, and the rhinos are really dwindling.

SS I know that you’ve just finished a film for American Playhouse about Georgia O’Keefe.

JA An American Place. It’s about Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz. It’s their love story. Chris Plummer plays Stieglitz.

SS And directed by your husband?

JA Yes. Ed Sherin.

SS Do you work with him often?

JA Oh, yes. We were at Arena Stage together, where he was artistic director. He directed me in about 15 plays there, and later, when he was running the Hartman Theater in Stamford, and also on Broadway.

SS Tell me about working with him. It’s obviously a pleasure.

JA I’ve really learned more from Ed about acting than anybody else. He was a brilliant director when we met and he is still. But we don’t have the same kind of theater anymore. The working environment has taught us a lot about extending ourselves as far as we can go.

SS I don’t know much about An American Place except that it was written, somewhat unusually, as a teleplay. Specifically meant to be shot on a set.

JA Originally, Ed’s concept was to make it a memory play of the older Georgia. We would use Stieglitz’s photographs and Georgia’s paintings as the backdrops, and move through their relationship that way. That’s the concept that Lindsay Law bought for American Playhouse, and it was a good one. But we discovered early on that to blow up likenesses of the paintings and photographs, didn’t work as a backdrop, so that concept started to break down. Then we started to put still photographs in between the scenes. Ultimately, to make a long story short, in the editing room this weekend, Lindsay and a few of us decided: throw out the old woman, throw out the photographs in between, and just tell the linear story. And it works beautifully. But it’s very different from what we originally thought we were going to do.

SS Portraying an artist has always struck me as enormously difficult, it would seem extraordinarily hard to capture whatever it is that makes them an artist.

JA It is. Particularly an art form that is so personal as painting. Fortunately, this is not about Georgia as a painter. It’s about the relationship between two people who love each other very much and want to be together, and how their art is compromised by their need for each other. Or is it compromised? In the case of Georgia, I don’t think she would compromise. She had to go to New Mexico.

SS From her work it would appear she didn’t compromise a bit. Therefore, I suppose it was their relationship that took the punishment.

JA One or the other has to get compromised, doesn’t it?

SS And therein lies the story.

JA Yeah. I think it may be true of most relationships between artists.

SS I suppose between an actress and a director, it might be just the opposite. Because they’re so meant to be with each other.

JA Ed and I try as hard as we can to work together because then we don’t have that problem. I can’t be a very good wife and he can’t be a very good husband if I’m off in Budapest making a film, and he’s back home directing a play. You can’t have it all. You try all the time to get it all, and sometimes it’s just glorious. Right now, we’re working together and we live together and we share the same bed, and everything’s dandy.

SS I saw Shadowlands about a month ago. And I actually know a fair amount about C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman so it was particularly exciting to see it.

JA Oh, do you know their work? Joy’s stuff also?

SS Uh huh. I’ve read her Smoke on the MountainShadowlands was originally a BBC film?

JA Teleplay, yes. Bill Nicholson did a pretty extensive adaptation, though to be honest, I never saw the original teleplay because I often don’t want to see what other actresses have done with a role. When I started to get involved with it, Bill said, “This is not the real Joy Davidman. It’s based on her, but it’s not her.” Because, as you probably know, she was quite a drinker and she swore a great deal.

SS She and Lewis apparently were both tough cookies.

JA Yep.

SS Not the kind of sweet, pious creatures that, in my own mind, I continue to want to make them, even though I know it isn’t true. If it’s difficult to play an artist, what’s it like to play a theologian?

JA I don’t think Joy really is, is she?

SS She’s not Thomas Aquinas, but there’s a deep spirituality in her work.

JA Oh, absolutely. There’s a deep spirituality in her which I love, and which I really could respond to. I love that part of her the best. It’s been a joy—excuse me—to play her. Absolutely joyous. In the first act I talk about God coming to me. And I think that anyone who has any faith knows that life is easier when you have a sense that, as Joy says, “Someone else is in the room.” It makes you feel very taken care of.

SS Do you have that?

JA Me? Absolutely. I don’t try to control things anymore. And I also believe in destiny.

SS That we have somewhere we’re going?

JA I don’t think we can always control it. We have to be more aware of everything that’s going on around us for us to understand who we are.

SS Tell me about working with Nigel Hawthorne.

JA We work the same way, so it’s really been fun. We both have a very clear structure that we work within, but we’ll also improvise. Every single performance there are a couple of new things that we just throw in for fun.

SS If you could do any role you wanted, what role would it be?

JA Ghosts, I think, because it deals with hidden subjects. There are so many things that people hide today. There are reverberations in Ghosts that have to do with keeping secrets. And also, I’d like to work with my son, Jace. I think he’d be very good for that role.

SS What is next for you, do you know?

JA I have a very big feature film that I’ve been producing for the past five or six years. I don’t want to do a lot of producing in the future, but this is one that I want to finish. It’s a big $17 million feature. There’s no part for me, by the way. It’s called Jaguar, and it’s about a zoologist, a friend of mine who tracks jaguars in Belize.

I’m also developing a documentary series that PBS wants to do called Heroes for Our Time. I’m interested in the young college-age zoologists and biologists who are working in the field.

SS And are heroes.

JA Yes. Absolutely. It used to be that a hero was somebody who went out with a weapon and shot something. Ta Da! The great, white hunter was a hero. I want to show these zoologists and biologists who never toot their own horn, who are out in the bush all the time, who are often working by themselves, in a different culture, in places that are very difficult to live in; who have no medical care, who undergo the most extreme hardships of any people on our planet today. I’ve visited them, you know, and you have to travel sometimes two days just to get to them—in Zaire for example. I love these people. I’ve gotten to know quite a few of them. We have over one-hundred field biologists and zoologists under Wildlife Conservation International, all over the world. People on the Tibetan plateau, people in Patagonia, people working with the penguins, people in the jungles of Zaire, people working under water. It could be a wonderful documentary series.

SS Do you think the feature film will happen?

JA Yes. (laughter)

SS You hope.

JA I hope. I have hope, if God is with me.

Stuart Spencer is a playwright. His play, Go to Ground, will be produced at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego next season.

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Originally published in

BOMB 36, Summer 1991

Featuring interviews with Vito Acconci, James Merrill, Mira Nair, John Leguizamo, John Wesley Harding, Jill Eisenstadt, Chuck Connelly, Jane Alexander, Amos Poe, Alan Uglow, Mary Shultz, Joachim Ernst Berendt, and Ann Hui.

Read the issue
036 Summer 1991