Interview with Tony winner Jefferson Mays
Tony winner Jefferson Mays is currently appearing as Bensinger in the star-studded cast of The Front Page alongside Nathan Lane, John Slattery, John Goodman, Holland Taylor, Sherie Rene Scott and Robert Morse at the Broadhurst Theatre until January 29th, 2017. He will then go on to reprise his starring role as Terje Rød-Larsen in the Broadway transfer of Oslo at the Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre from March 23rd, 2017.
Jefferson picked up a Tony Award in 2004 for his Broadway debut in solo play I Am My Own Wife and earned a further Tony nomination in 2014 for his performance as several ill-fated members of the D'Ysquith Family in A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder. Other Broadway credits include Gore Vidal's The Best Man, Pygmalion and Journey's End.
We spoke to Jefferson about being part of one of the hottest tickets in town, where every performance is hot off the press.
Thomas Hayden Millward: The part of Bensinger looks like a lot of fun to play with bundles of physical comedy. Do you have any similar character traits to him and do you know any germaphobes personally?
Jefferson Mays: Oh gosh! I acquire more and more of his traits by the day! I’m suffering from a miserable cold right now, which can only enhance my performance, I’m sure. I probably have more in common with Bensinger than I’m willing to admit! But it’s a delightful character. I first saw the character when I was a small child in a production of ‘The Front Page’ in New Haven. I was immediately drawn to him and hoped to play him some day and thirty years later, it has come to pass.
THM: That sounds like a case of extreme method acting, having a cold and playing a germaphobe, Jefferson…
JM: (Laughs) It always happens though! If you’re playing a character that always talks about germs and how sick he is all the time, I think it lowers your immune system. I’ve had no fewer than two colds since we started this! The rest of the cast keep backing away from me backstage.
THM: You’ll have your own quarantined section of the Broadhurst Theatre! Now, when I saw the play I felt its success lies in the tremendous pace that is maintained by the whole cast throughout the three acts. How quickly did that level of pace come about in rehearsal?
JM: We actually had a week-long workshop with [director] Jack O’Brien in July, whilst I was doing ‘Oslo,’ and we approached it like it was a musical score. We divided the play up into these passages and we would play through them like a bunch of jazz musicians, exploring different paces. That was really interesting. I had never approached a text that way – as if it were music. So that was something we built up in rehearsal and now this far into the run, we’re finding colours and variations and it remains a delightful piece of music to play together in an ensemble every night.
THM: Being in such a star-studded cast, I’ve always been interested to know how you as actors feel about the customary entrance applauses, momentarily halting the action?
JM: Well, I think it’s something that seems quite common these days in American theatre - and I think it was common in London the century before last as well – that the show would be stopped. I’m of two minds about it. When I was younger I used to resent it… I mean, it would never happen for me, of course… Maybe that’s why I’m sensitive about it (laughs)… I used to think we should all participate collectively in the story and honour the story by not interrupting it. But now, I feel like it’s the audience’s away of entering into the whole event of theatre and I don’t mind it so much. They’re applauding that person and the body of work that person has done. It’s a moment of recognition and celebration. So I’m not against it when it happens and I don’t miss it when it doesn’t happen either.
THM: What has been the most rewarding aspect of this production for you?
JM: I think being part of this ensemble. That first act particularly which, despite its great range of delivery, takes its time expositionally in getting the show rolling. This is an old-fashioned play with a three act structure and the jokes don’t come fast and furiously to begin with, the way they later did when Neil Simon started writing comedies. It’s a much slower build and I rather luxuriate in that. It’s lovely to just be on stage, as a couple of pages go by without having a single line. I can explore what it’s like to dwell there and explore character non-verbally. I have lots to do with my busy, little hands as Bensinger. So, I’ve enjoyed the experience of simply watching the play unfold as I’m on the very stage upon which it is happening.
THM: You mentioned that this is an old-fashioned play and indeed it first premiered in 1928. What do you think would be the main differences between ‘The Front Page’ and a new comedy based in a press room during this past US Election night?
JM: The main differences like the conspicuous absence of the candlestick telephone? (Laughs) Well, I’ve actually talked to a number of reporters who have come to see the show - people from “The Times” and elsewhere. A woman from “Cosmopolitan” magazine said that it was such a recognisable environment to her, despite the fact that there were no women working in that press room. But it rang true to her. And of course [playwright Charles] MacArthur himself was a newsman and was writing largely from experience.
THM: You’ll be treading the boards again in the spring with the Broadway transfer of ‘Oslo’ – a totally different kind of play. What can we expect from you this time?
JM: Oslo is another 3-hour play. It’s a history play about the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993 which unfolded and resulted in the signing of the accords in the space of nine short months. It was the first time that the Israelis and Palestinians met in the backchannel of Oslo to work towards the beginnings of peace in the Middle East. A declaration of principles. It was facilitated by a Norwegian Professor of Sociology Terje Rød-Larsen – I play him and Jennifer Ehle plays Mona Larson, his wife, who is in the Norwegian Foreign Service. Currently she’s ambassador to the Court of St James. It’s simply a play about these implacable enemies coming into a room and getting to know each other, drinking together, eating together, going for walks in the woods together, fighting, laughing, getting drunk and establishing these very complicated relationships which ultimately turn into long-lasting friendships in their efforts to bring peace. It’s extraordinary to be working on it because, not only is it a fascinating part of history, but we live in this fragmented age where it seems that a Democrat and a Republican cannot get in a room together and break through the gridlock that is government these days. I think this is a useful reminder and lesson not just about the Middle East but also about America itself.
THM: Back to the other end of the spectrum - What do you think audiences will take away from ‘The Front Page’?
JM: Well, it’s a joyful ride. It will leave them almost as breathless as it leaves us, when we’ve done our 2 hours and 45 minutes, hurtling through this material. It’s hysterically funny. Nathan Lane is nothing less than a force of nature. It’s delicious to be able to bask in his glory every night. It’s astonishing to me because ‘The Front Page’ is so topical. It’s today’s front page as well as the front page in 1928. In its brilliant satire it skewers Americans – who we are, who we were and how little we’ve come… This sounds like a terrible plug for the play (laughs) but I find it endlessly fascinating. I think Tom Stoppard said that this was his favourite American play. That makes a good deal of sense to me.