Ron Cephas Jones on the Bridge Project

746thliswebteaseThis week previews began for the Bridge Project's As You Like It, directed by Sam Mendes and featuring a heavenly cast of American and English stage actors. The Shakespeare comedy will run in repertory with The Tempest in February. We don't want to play favorites, but one of the ensemble—Ron Cephas Jones—is a performer we've consistently enjoyed in a number of different projects. Jones, with his vulpine aspect, ascetic frame and rich, musical baritone, earns that hackneyed critical plaudit, "riveting." His intense characters are varied but they always seem to be spiritually pained, yearning for acceptance or salvation. We phoned Jones as he took a break from rehearsals to talk about his career, Shakespeare, and tackling Caliban in The Tempest.

Time Out New York: Let's get the gushing out of the way first: I'm a big fan of your work and have been since Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train.
Ron Cephas Jones: Dave, I just wanted to let you know that you cats have been so supportive of me over the years. I appreciate the way you guys have looked at my work and commented on it. It's helped me out a great deal.

You've played urban badasses with LAByrinth Theatre Company, Clarence in Richard III, a Rwandan teacher in The Overwhelming, a whole range of types. Where'd you train?
Well, I'm a Jersey kid originally and I went to Ramapo State College. That was back in '78. I graduated and kind of bummed around for two years pounding the pavement with my copy of BackStage and then I went out to California, drove a bus for four years, fell in love, had a child, got separated, but I still raised my daughter with her mother. And then around '88 I was hanging out in the Nuyorican Poets Caf scene and the whole upsurge of the new poetry that was going on, and got involved with Rome Neal.

And afterward, you joined LAByrinth in the 1990s?
Yeah, LABryinth happened right around that same time. I got involved with Stephen Gurgis and Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz. I knew a lot of those cats—we used to see each other at auditions and they saw me in a play at Lincoln Center Directors Lab called Black Codes from the Underground so Stephen got his impetus to write the Lucius character for me in Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train.

That show was big here in 2000, but also over in London, right?
It took us to Edinburgh and then we did two runs in London. First at the Donmar and then we came back after Madonna saw the play. She invested another, maybe it was close to $500,000, and we ended up on the West End. And that's when I met Rupert Goold, who brought me back to London for Othello in 2003. I'd never done a lead Shakespearean role and that's where I got a lot of my experience and understanding of Shakespeare text. I left about three months before rehearsals started and went up to Oxford and just studied and then came down and did that play with him. And there's another interesting tidbit: When we did Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train at the Donmar, Sam Mendes was artistic director there, and he remembered my work. So when I came into the audition for him for the Bridge Project, he remembered my work and we had a great conversation and hit it off really well. And fortunately I knocked it out of the box and got the gig.

You're playing Charles the Wrestler in As You Like It right now, but I gotta say, I can't wait to see what you do with Caliban in The Tempest next month.
That character is such an enigma. Caliban is one of the most difficult characters to play because there's not a lot of history there. It's sort of a half-animal, half-man and there's not a lot of background. So I'm working right now with a lot of movement, I'm studying a lot of different animals, cats and tigers and lions. I'm also working very closely with Stephen Dillane—who's a master with the language—and trying to come up with my own to deal with the colonialism of the character, the 18th-century Romanticism of the character. But I've found another ingredient which I'm gonna try, which is the idea that Caliban is feeling love for the first time. I'm incorporating the bond that he made with Prospero and also the hate from having the island taken from him. We started talking about this idea of Caliban being Prospero's id, or Prospero conjuring him up in his mind as he's writing this story, so they're sort of one and the same; you have to deal with both in order to be whole. And Sam is so open to interpretation and such a wonderful director in terms of letting the actor express himself and bringing in different ideas. We're kind of a melting pot it right now.

Speaking of which, how's the mix of English and American acting styles?
For some reason it's really starting to click now. I think that's the genius of Sam Mendes, he has a wonderful ear, and for some reason he was able to tap into each actor's sound, almost like instruments and bring it together, sort of like a chorus. So when you first hear it, the instruments are kind of out of tune and you don't really hear the harmonies. As he starts to compose the piece and fit those particular instruments in place, it gets a vibrant and original sound. It's not only a visual experience, but an audio experience also.

So the Bridge Project is going to take you around the globe?
Yeah man, what a pleasure for an actor to have a gig for 11 months. I'm still in that area where I'm struggling, going to auditions and trying to get the good gigs. I was just very excited to have a gig for a while to just straighten out some personal things also and be able to travel to all of these wonderful cities that we're going to. And we'll finish up back in London at the Old Vic, where Sally Greene is one of the producers. She was a producer on Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train. It's funny how some of those circles come back around.

Anything lined up after the world tour?
I know that Stephen Adly Guirgis is working on a new piece and hopefully by the time I get back, we should be able to go into rehearsal with it.

It better be the lead!
There'll definitely be a solid lead character. He usually writes me some wonderful things. And we've been very close over the last year, since I've been back in the city and stuff—talking and collaborating. So I'm looking forward to that, to working with another LAB production, and hopefully some television and film stuff will come my way.

Get tickets to the Bridge Project here.