Before greetings are exchanged, Cherry Jones begs for forgiveness.
"I must apologize. I'm hopeless with dialects," said Jones, even before being asked about her accent in "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," which opens today and in which she plays the mother who raised future evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in International Falls, Minn. "I'm absolutely not the person to ask [about that dialect], clearly. I'm from Tennessee and I did the best I could."
The veteran stage actor's accent sounds fine, incidentally, subtler than, say, the "Fargo" brand of the Minnesota sound. But it's very on-brand for the two-time Tony Award winner ("Doubt" and "The Heiress") to underplay her skill.
Although she's been acting for more than four decades, movies are still relatively unfamiliar for the woman who often plays people from Yankee stock with strong moral backbones. You could argue she's in a similar vein as Katharine Hepburn but it's telling that Hepburn only played movie leads and Jones has never played one.
As a result, she may be the greatest actor that movie fans barely know. In New York, she's spoken of with hushed reverence. Both of her Tony Award-winning roles are among the finest stage performances I've seen but, in the movies, she's liable to pop in for a scene or two as a president's wife (Eleanor Roosevelt in "Amelia") or a singer's mom (in the Hank Williams biopic "I Saw the Light").
They may not be great parts but Jones' detailed and attentive acting makes them seem great. Her characters are always intelligent, including a lot of authority figures, not just as first lady but also as president on "24," vice president in "The Beaver" and a tycoon on HBO's "Succession." There's gravity and forthrightness in Jones. Some say acting is lying but when she speaks, every word is believable.
Her skills are on display again in "Tammy Faye." Moviegoers will see how efficiently she works when she attends a taping of her daughter's "PTL" television show and, when asked to stand in the audience, her weary glare of refusal seems to condemn the whole religious/industrial complex. Or when Bakker reveals she's engaged and her mom's immediate response is baffled, silent disbelief.
When told her character feels like the heart of "Tammy Faye," Jones is modest.
"She is such a toughie. I'm amazed anyone could come away feeling that way but I'm happy because I do think she's loving," said Jones, while assembling a tomato/bean salad for a gathering of the cast of upcoming miniseries "Five Days at Memorial."
If you go to "Tammy Faye," you'll want to see more of the actor, which happens a lot. She's not the star of any of the following movies. But think of her, instead, as the cherry on top.