Jill Eikenberry has had, to put it mildly, a remarkable acting career in film, television, and theater. Best known to the public as Ann Kelsy on L.A. Law, she’s a five time Emmy Award and four time Golden Globe nominee (winning in 1989 for Best Actress in a Drama Series). But that only scratches the surface.
She also won an Obie award in 1986 and was nominated for a Drama Desk Award in 2011. She was also brilliant in the role of Rachel in my play Jericho Off-Broadway in 2013. To this day, I can’t believe my good fortune in having her agree to do that play.
She and her husband Michael Tucker are also brilliantly funny in the web series I co-wrote and co-produced called “The Small Time” (here’s a link: www.thesmalltimeseries.com). She also brings it in a major way every week to my quarantine Zoom play reading group. As is her nature, she was gracious enough to answer a few questions for me.
What drew you to acting? Was there a “moment” you knew you had to act, or was it a more gradual series of decisions?
I was always drawn to acting as a kid. I did plays in high school and musicals in summer stock. And I played Iolanthe at Barnard, where I was studying to be a cultural anthropologist. But the “moment” happened when I played Ophelia at Columbia. I was in my dorm room memorizing her monologue “Oh what a noble mind is here o’erthrown” and I noticed that large tears were running down my face. Now the thing is – I was not a cryer. My parents had divorced when I was 15 and I didn’t even cry about that! So, needless to say, when a friend suggested I audition for Yale Drama School in the spring, I found myself on a new career track. And the world lost a fine cultural anthropologist.
You’ve worked with a lot great actors. Are there any specific lessons you’ve learned from some of your colleagues over the years?
The best acting lesson I ever got came from a playwright.I was playing Miss Alma in Eccentricities of a Nightingale at Playwright’s Horizons in Queens. It was directed by a young woman who believed that more is better. She wanted an obvious display of nervous behavior from me (the nightingale), and because I was a good girl, I became more and more eccentric with every passing day. The night of the invited dress rehearsal, much to our surprise, Tennessee Williams showed up. I was a wreck, naturally, but I thought I gave a pretty good performance. Actually we all did. Tennessee loathed it. Without a moment of hesitation he announced that he would take over the direction of the play and rewrite two of the scenes. The cast was of course thrilled – and more than a little intimidated. The night of the first preview – right before places – he came into my dressing room and told me to drop all the mannerisms I had been developing for the last 5 weeks. I was speechless. I mean the whole play was based on Miss Alma’s nervous condition! But what could I say? He was Tennessee Williams for Christ sake! I walked onto the stage feeling completely naked – and paralyzed with fear. The first scene was agonizing. But half way through Scene 2 I started to realize that there was nothing for me to do but talk and listen. And by the end of the performance I understood what the play was about. When I came off stage, Tennessee said, “Good. Now you can start to put the poetry back.” At the opening night curtain call he came up on stage, took my hand, and said to the audience, “I want to thank these wonderful actors for helping me finally finish my favorite play.”
Is there a specific quality you look for in the roles you take? What kind of roles excite you most?
I always love to play a woman with a secret. The most fun is when I’m playing a character I can’t relate to at all. I mean it doesn’t seem fun at first because of all the resistance and agony I go through. But then – at some point – there’s a moment when this character shines a light on an unexplored part of myself – a part I might have preferred to leave in the shadows – my own secret. And there’s a huge freedom that comes from letting it show. In other words I like to play characters that teach me more about who I am.
You’ve obviously had a great many successes in your career. What roles/projects stand out most for you, if any, and why?
I was a young actor at the O’Neill for a number of years. And that really stands out as one of the great learning experiences of my life. When I arrived there I was consumed with the question, “How am I doing?” I was over-thinking and over-working every part I played. The O’Neill changed me in two ways. First of all the focus there was not on the actors. It was on the play. How could each of us help the playwright find the play? And secondly, you only have 3 days of rehearsal at the O’Neill. Then the audience files in and you have to take an enormous leap. There’s no time for self-consciousness. All the actors have to rely on is the words and each other – and our instincts. I learned at the O’Neill that I could trust my instincts. It was a revelation. And it has served me in every part of my life – not just acting.
What qualities, if any, do the actors you’ve most enjoyed working with share?
Generosity is important. Competitive actors are not much fun to work with. I feel safer and freer on stage with actors who are totally present – who see me and hear me and surprise me every night. And I love to work with actors who are not afraid to go deep. Their courage makes me braver. Our dear friend, the late Mark Blum comes to mind.
Is there anything you’d tell a just starting out in the business Jill Eikenberry to worry less about or more about?
Worry less about what people think.(Good luck with that) Don’t compare yourself to other actors. (Totally impossible) Never stop trying to get to know yourself. (I’m still working on that at age 73) The more you know about all your triggers and all your issues, the more you can keep them from getting in your way. (Sometimes) Do all your work and then let it all go and just play. (The best feeling in the world!)
From your point of view, what has changed the most in the tv and theater industries over the last decade or so?
Well of course the advent of talking pictures was a big transition for me! Sound has also changed in the theater. I did 5 shows on Broadway in the 70s and 80s – 4 plays and 1 musical – and nobody used microphones. Now they’re everywhere. I think stage acting has become more naturalistic in the theater. Maybe that’s because of the microphones – or because of the intimacy of TV acting. A friend of ours came to see Mike’s play ‘Fern Hill” at 59 E 59th last fall. He told us before the show that never goes to the theater because he hates the “acting” style. So he was shocked when he saw us up there behaving so realistically. He loved it. It occurred to me that I hadn’t really noticed the change, but it works for me. I’ve always been a 4th wall kind of actor – even in musicals. I did “Onward Victoria,” – my first and only Broadway musical – in 1980. And I knew I was in trouble when I saw that some of my older co-stars faced front the whole time. They never looked at me. The director wanted me to do the same, but it felt so unnatural. I finally found the solution. My character, Victoria Woodhall, listened to voices in her head all the time. They were her guides. So I just placed my voices in the back row of the theater and everyone was happy. Well not everyone. The show closed on opening night.
Has your approach to acting changed in any ways over your career? If so, why?
I’ve gotten more heart driven – less cerebral. I have more access to my feelings and that’s where I want to live – on and off stage. I’ve learned to trust my instincts more and more with each passing decade. What really turns me on is the element of chance. Who knows what will happen tonight on stage? That’s the magic of live theater. I really hope it comes back soon.
OK, you get your pick of any role ever written to play when Broadway re-opens. What’s your pick?
I’ve always wanted to play Blanche. She’s the one. I’m too long in the tooth at this point, but I can dream, can’t I?