Rachel Bay Jones: Making It Up As She Goes
Photography by Jenny Anderson
Written by Asher Fogle Paul
When Rachel Bay Jones walks to and from the Music Box Theater every day, she has a new pastime: “My favorite game is Spot the Heidis,” Jones says. “Something will hit me—a hairstyle, a look, just a vibe. I’ll be walking around New York, see a woman, and say, ‘Heidi!’”
Heidi is, of course, her character in Dear Evan Hansen—the eponymous lead’s harried single mother, whose platform boots (and flare jeans) Jones fills eight times a week. The role has garnered her a Lucille Lortel Award, a Drama League distinguished performance nomination, and now her first Tony Award nomination for best featured actress in a musical.
“What’s great about Heidi is she’s grounded in such deep reality,” Jones says. “She’s somebody we all know—or are. She’s gritty, down-to-earth, strong, and trying too hard.”
Right now, Jones is the picture of not trying too hard: She’s sitting in her dressing room at the theater, getting her hair and makeup done for a photo shoot, legs tucked underneath her. Among the frames littering her dressing table are artworks by her 14-year-old daughter, Miranda, and pictures of her black and white-spotted English setters Vixen and Pigeon.
But the Florida native has certainly had a lot of time to know Heidi. She was involved in the first table reading of a then-untitled show by book writer Steven Levenson and composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (this writer’s husband) in 2014. “Usually you quickly skim through the script and see what in the hell you’re in for,” she says. “What was really fun was that [director] Michael Grief wouldn’t let us open the binder until go time—this was totally cold. It was really exciting.”
Even then, she said she knew the show would connect with audiences. After opening in Washington D.C. at Arena Stage and a sold-out run Off Broadway at Second Stage, the musical opened on Broadway in December and has earned nine Tony nominations, including best musical. Though throngs of teenagers clamor at the stage door for Ben Platt, who is nominated for his performance as the titular Evan, Jones is always moved by the parents’ reactions, like they’ve finally found someone who understands the struggle.
“Heidi doesn’t have time for artifice because she’s busy trying to keep everything afloat,” says the 47-year-old. “She wants to be a good mother. She knows she’s not doing the best job, but she’s hoping that everything is going to be okay anyway. Many of us feel that way. We’re all running around trying to figure it out.”
My own daughter was born while Dear Evan Hansen was in previews Off Broadway, and both Jones and her costar Jennifer Laura Thompson have always been an encouragement and working mother standard-bearers. So with my baby playing upstairs in the Music Box’s Blue Room, I ask about how she strikes that balance.
“There’s a whole lot of grief we all feel right away—I’m sure you already feel this—that there’s an immediate sense of loss,” she says. “Already I’ve missed that opportunity. Already I’ve messed that up. Those moments keep falling away. The only way to keep going is to look for the next one, to try to grab it before it passes.”
When Jones looks back on her own parenting journey, there’s much to draw from onstage. In her early 30s, she moved back to New York from Maui, where her mother and father live, single and with a two-year-old. This life experience particularly resonates with Jones when she sings her 11 o’clock number, “So Big, So Small,” in which Heidi reflects on Evan’s father leaving her when he was little and how moments that feel huge and crushing at the time get better as years pass.
“There’s a particular relationship between single parents and their kids, one that I know I have with my daughter even though I’ve been with my partner [actor Benim Foster] for a long time now,” she explains. “It’s a ‘you and me against the world’ thing that never really goes away. There’s a too intimate relationship, one that has many beautiful qualities. When your child becomes a teenager and shifts away from you, it’s personally painful in a way that’s not the healthiest. You know you’re supposed to let them go, but God, where’s my best friend?”
And in the three years Jones has been involved with the show, her daughter has grown from child to teenager. “It’s been interesting to explore all these things in the Heidi-Evan relationship as they’re starting to happen in my Mommy-Miranda relationship,” she says. “It’s keeping me a little more honest, I hope. I don’t know what she’s doing a lot and living in the world of this show has opened my eyes to what’s possible. One of my favorite lines is when Jared says, ‘Literally nothing I tell my parents is true and they have no idea.’ We all laugh because we were all that kid—and we are all those parents. That’s totally happening at home. I hope that her judgment is good enough, and I hope that the fates are kind.”
Then Jones looks in the mirror, gently advising the makeup artist with the deep awareness of someone who has spent years onstage. Her soft blonde curls and luminous eyes appear a far cry from the frazzled, trying-and-failing character she plays onstage. But Jones admits that when she walks out the door each night, her style isn’t that different than Heidi’s.
“The thing about me is that I dress too young,” she says with a sigh, although her classic faded jeans and white t-shirt belie this fact. “I’m guilty of the same fashion choices. The kind of person who never grew up, never married, or never felt like she could relax into the elegance of a mature woman.”
She’s wrestled with her style as she enters a new life stage—parenting a teen, entering middle age, and acting the more mature roles that come with it. For women, life is often about sexual attractiveness, not about attracting a partner but about the feeling of desirability, she explains. “You’ve spent your whole life hoping to feel sexy, trying to feel sexy, actually feeling sexy, and then you get to a point in your life where you don’t really care about that anymore,” she says. “You want that feeling back, though, because it gives you a vibrancy that you no longer have in your body. You put it on the outside hoping that the inside will rally and feel that way again. There’s a reluctance to let go of one phase of your life and move into the other.”
And Jones admits that she’s still figuring that transition out. “My mother used to say she still felt like a teenager, and I used to think it was so sad. But you kind of do! You don’t age inside. Your perspective shifts and changes, but you still love ruffles. But there is a certain point where you realize they don’t look as good on you as they did 10 years ago. What do I do with that? How do I feel like myself? I’m learning about it. I aspire to having a little bit more softness and elegance and still maintaining some of the earthiness that’s a part of Rachel. I just keep hanging onto those overalls.”
Jones grew up in Florida, the child of actors who left the business right before her birth to open health food stores. “They always talked about acting—it was their great love,” she says, adding they started doing regional productions again during her adolescence. “They were actors in the 1960s when theater had this deep importance. There’s an intensity about their relationship to the theater that was my heritage.”
She was a really shy kid, bookish and quiet, but when she was 12, she discovered the stage. Her mother had been asked to audition for a local play, and Jones thumbed through the script and saw a part for an overweight 11-year-old girl. Her mother helped her prepare; her seamstress grandmother made a quilted bodysuit to make the skinny Jones look heavier. “I got the part, and my mother didn’t, which was an interesting way to start my teenage years,” she says. “Theater became a way to go outside myself a little bit.”
But it’s been a long road to get to where she is today—she left high school in Boca Raton, Florida, and eventually moved to New York City. She was cast understudying the lead in Meet Me in St. Louis but then didn’t work on Broadway for another two decades. (Jones and I met when she was doing the regional tour of A Christmas Story: The Musical, for which my husband wrote the music. She left the show before it moved to Broadway to do Diane Paulus’s production of Pippin at American Repertory Theatre.) “I’ve been a working class actor, a lot of unemployment and a lot of struggle,” she muses.
One great byproduct of doing the show has been the strong friendship she’s formed with Thompson, who plays Cynthia Murphy, a mother of Evan’s classmate. (The pair have also launched the hashtag #momsofevanhansen.) But although they call each other soul mate, they’re very different, too. “People respond to Jen the way that Evan responds to Cynthia in the show: She’s the dream mom. She has time for you and grace and self-possession,” Jones reflects. “And it’s hard to be around that sometimes when you feel that you’re a mess who has messed up your life. You want to rise, but you’re constantly faced with this beautiful image of everything you’ve ever wanted to be and you’re not that. What’s so wonderful about Jennifer is that she really has that love and that grace, as well as all the other good stuff underneath.”
I point out that it’s hard to grasp that Jones is someone who feels like she’s messed up her whole life. She just got nominated for a Tony, has a beautiful, creative daughter and longterm loving partner and makes a living in a field she loves—and so on.
“It looks pretty great, doesn’t it?” she laughs. “Not to dog it—I’m super happy about where my life is now. But I do have moments where I feel like I’ve screwed up my life, like, this morning. That’s what so great about this play—it shows how life is not really ever what it looks like on the outside.”
When she looks at the journey that led her here, she pauses a moment and then laughs. “To be an actor, you have to have something between optimism and desperation, force of will and need,” she says. So does she feel like she’s finally made it? “It feels more like discovery than achievement. I’m surprised that this is what’s happening now. It’s like, ‘Oh, okay, this is what life just presented to me. Let’s experience this thing now. What’s this going to be like?’”
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