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Glenne Headly Checks Into The Jacksonian

The popular star discusses her work in the Geffen Playhouse's world premiere of Beth Henley's new play.

Glenne Headly
Glenne Headly has thrilled audiences in New York, where she appeared in such works as Arms and the Man and Extremities; in Chicago, where she was a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and appeared in such plays as Curse of the Starving Class; and across the country in such films as Dick Tracy and Mr. Holland's Opus.

Currently, she's at Los Angeles' Geffen Playhouse in the world premiere production of Pulitzer Prize winner Beth Henley's new play The Jacksonian, set amidst the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi in 1964. Headly recently spoke to TheaterMania about the play, working with co-stars Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, and Bill Pullman, and whether she would come to Broadway with the show if asked.

THEATERMANIA: I hear you were extremely involved in getting this production mounted at the Geffen. How did that happen?
GLENNE HEADLY: Beth is an old friend, and she originally asked the actors -- me, Bill Pullman, Amy Madigan and Ed Harris -- to do a reading of the script at her house. She didn't even have her agent there -- just some friends. I thought the reading was powerful and lyrical. Sometime later, I saw Bill and Amy at an AMPAS meeting and we started to talk about the play again. So we did another reading, and after that I said to Beth, let's try to give the play to a theater that would do it. I knew it would make a very explosive night in theater, and I haven't found many new plays to be explosive. It's also oddly very funny. I just couldn't get it out of my head.

TM: Did you immediately think of the Geffen?
GH: No, I thought it was too scary and dark for the Geffen. So I sent it to my friend Bob Falls at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Even though he and Beth had known each other since college, they had never worked together, and she was hesitant to send it to him. Bob loved it -- he's directing it now -- but he said the Goodman was booked for two years. Then I ran into Allison Rawlings from the Geffen at a New Year's Eve concert in 2010 and we started talking about this play. The minute I mentioned Beth's name, she said they wanted to look at it, and eventually I got Beth to send it to the Geffen.

TM: Your character is this racist maid who works at the Jacksonian Hotel? Do you like her?
GH: No, I don't like my character at all. But she represents how people thought at the time. So even though it does hurt me personally to say some of her lines, I know if I tried to make it work differently, it would be wrong for the play.

TM: Did you do a lot of research for the role?
GH: I did a lot of research into the period. Bob now calls me the resident expert. I went to the library and found lots of material about this time, about the Freedom March, and what was going on down there in 1964. I was shocked when I would read a newspaper from that time and the Freedom March wasn't even mentioned. But Beth, who grew up there, pointed out that some people didn't write about those things or even talk about them. Some nights, I had trouble sleeping after reading this material. For example, when Jackson had to integrate, the mayor said that even though "it makes the city sick," he would do it because he knew it would bring business to the state. What really got to me is the bravery of those people who tried to make a difference.

TM: Do you think a lot has changed in this country since 1964?
GH: Yes. I've told my son, who is 14, what life was like during the time of this play, and he can't believe it. And that's also true of Bess Rous, this young actress in our play. So that makes me feel better and gives me hope. Of course, racism still exists, but when you see this play, you realize what's changed.

TM: What's it like working with Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, who are married to each other in real life?
GH: Ed and Amy have their own shorthand, and they know how to play off each other and find each other's rhythms. But they're just great, and I love sharing the stage with them. I really love seeing Amy in this part, because it's so different for her. We usually think of her as so strong, but this role shows she can be so demure, yet so honest.

TM: Would you consider coming to Broadway if this show transfers?
GH: If it was for a few weeks, which never happens, I'd say yes; but if it's for six months, I'd have to say no. My son is 14 and I only have this time with him. True, it's not like before when I couldn't explain to a little boy why I can't read him his bedtime story six nights a week. And he's even said to me, "Mom, if you want to do a show somewhere, you should go." But New York is very far away from Los Angeles, and he hasn't known what it's like to be separated.