Theater News

Cherry Jones and BD Wong Stay Awake

The Tony Award-winning actors discuss their new roles as psychiatrists on NBC’s acclaimed drama series.

Cherry Jones in Awake
(© Vivian Zink)
Cherry Jones in Awake
(© Vivian Zink)

In NBC’s new drama series Awake, airing on Thursday nights, Detective Michael Britten (played by Jason Isaacs) finds his life completely transformed following a tragic car accident. He can’t separate real from unreal; in one reality, his teenage son died and his wife survived, while on the other, it’s vice versa.

Trying to regain normalcy, Britten not only returns to duty, but deals with two therapists: Dr. Evans, played by two-time Tony Award winner and Emmy winner Cherry Jones, and Dr. Lee, played by Tony Award winner BD Wong — only one of whom may be real.

While Jones is best known for her stage work, notably her award-winning roles in The Heiress and Doubt, she enjoyed her stint on FOX’s 24 enough that she answered the siren call of TV when it called again.

“I loved being the president of the United States on 24,” laughs Jones. “You get respect in airports, especially from the screeners. Things have gotten much quieter now on Awake. I’ve gone from playing the President to playing a therapist with seemingly only one client. My responsibilities have become smaller.”

That doesn’t mean, however, Jones finds the role less interesting. “Our roles are rather physically static,” Jones points out. “It’s about my brain trying to figure out his brain. But it’s cool to just sit in a chair and do your character. “I don’t even think of it as acting. When it’s that intimate, it becomes something else.”

Wong — who has been a series regular on HBO’s Oz and NBC’s Law & Order: SVU — concurs with his co-star. “I know exactly what Cherry’s talking about. The focus is taken off of your body entirely when you’re sitting on that chair and is put on your face and inside your brain more,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a name for it. It’s just not body acting, since it’s rarely related to anything you’re doing physically.”

BD Wong in Awake (© Vivian Zink)
BD Wong in Awake
(© Vivian Zink)

So which therapist is real? “Mine,” states Wong. “There’s no questioning it. There’s no other way to play the scenes. You’re the one that’s real and that other person is the one imagined.”

Not surprisingly, Jones is having none of this. “I’m the real one! I’m even sort of amazed that Detective Britten’s psyche would come up with a therapist like Dr. Lee,” she says. “It’s like a hall of mirrors. We’re as real as we know we are.”

Despite their numerous successes, both actors claim to be terrible at auditioning. Luckily, neither had to audition for Awake. Producer Howard Gordon contacted Jones with a rough sketch of the series. “It sounded intriguing,” she says. “Then, when [series creator Kyle Killen] wrote the part, it was for a 29-year-old blonde! You had Detective Britten’s beautiful young wife, his son’s beautiful young tennis instructor, and this young, beautiful psychiatrist. So I think the producers told Kyle, ‘We’ll give you one, we’ll give you two, but we ain’t gonna give you three.’ And Kyle upped the age and called me.”

In deciding to choose Awake, Wong had to leave SVU, where he played psychiatrist George Huang for 11 years. “It was hard for me, because it was so comfortable and something that was so good to me. It was the foundation for so many things in my career. I had strong emotional and personal ties and that family of people, but I wanted to do something new. I read the script and kind of just jumped at the chance. I did it rather blind to the fact that the character was in the same job as George. I had no idea how it could work or sustain itself, but I wanted to come along for the ride. There’s a depth to this show that’s new for me. I’d kind of compare it to the writing and the execution of a good play.”

Still, both Wong and Jones admit there are big differences between working in theater and television, notably dealing with different directors on a weekly basis. “On a series, every week you’re working with a different personality at the helm,” says Wong. “It’s fascinating because it’s sort of the unknown.”

Adds Jones: “In theater, if you’re lucky to be in a successful production, as I did with Doug Hughes in Doubt, you get to work with that same director for a couple of years.”