By Sherry Amatenstein
Our original plan of a doggie play date/interview was foiled when Manhattan was coated with a thin but persistent rain on the appointed Friday.
Plan Two sans canines was a koffee klatch in J. Smith-Cameron’s favorite neighborhood java joint.
The performer, justifiably winning raves for her bravura performance as the title role in the iconic Juno and the Paycock at Irish Rep, greets several patrons by name. The opposite of diva – J. happily accedes to a request from a friend to take a picture of him with a buddy.
Married to playwright Kenneth Lonergan and mother to 11-year-old Nellie, J’s eclectic resume includes her Obie-winning turn as scenery-chewing con artist Alexa Vere de Vere in As Bees in Honey Drown, sunny amnesiac Claire in Fuddy Meers and the original Jane in The Apple Plays by Richard Nelson.
A commitment on Sundance’s Rectify led to the actress regretfully bowing out of the current and last Apple Family installment at The Public, which ultimately made her available for Juno.
Over coffee and pastries, and in between J. warmly fielding lots of “hi, can’t wait to see the play” greetings from fellow patrons, we got down to business.
Q. WHAT DREW YOU TO THE ROLE OF THE DUBLIN MATRIARCH, JUNO?
A. What didn’t draw me? It’s the Superbowl of parts. Kenny talked for years about my doing this role, despite its traditionally being played by a Colleen Dewhurst stalwart earth mother type. Not typecasting, as I’m typically perceived as girlish.
Juno’s no great beauty. She’s not young, not totally virtuous. It’s a tragic play but Juno’s inner strength gives you a feeling of hope at the end.
Q. WHY DO YOU THINK YOU ARE MORE TYPICALLY CAST AS GIRLISH, NEUROTIC, AND QUIRKY?
A. (Laughs). I prefer saying my characters are sensitive, though Alexa Vere de Vere was possibly borderline. I used to be known only for light comedy, yet along the way I began doing serious plays.
Q. WHICH CHARACTER IN YOUR CANON DID YOU IDENTIFY WITH MOST STRONGLY?
A. Claire in Fuddy Meers reminded me of my mother – they’re both gracious and, yes, girlish. My mother is 91 yet she still has those qualities, including being loving and optimistic. If anything, Claire was the steady one in the group, surrounded by insane characters.
Q. LIVE THEATER IS LIKE TRAPEZE WITHOUT A NET – TERRIFYING. UNLIKE OTHER MEDIUMS, THERE IS NO SECOND TAKE. WHAT KEEPS YOU COMING BACK?
A. It’s so exciting, almost like a drug. Even though there’s a fourth wall, each performance is collaborative. I’m doing ‘active listening’ to see what the audience is responding to, which part of the story is going too fast or too slow…Suddenly there’s a laugh we never got before. No matter what is going on, there is no stopping, no ‘cut.’ We keep rolling on.
Q. WHAT’S YOUR DREAM ROLE?
A. One of them was Juno. There are not that many parts written these days for women my age that are substantial. We’re often portrayed as helpless. This character is an ordinary woman who is a heroine.
Q. THE GIRLISH CLAIRE WAS YOUR MOM. ARE YOU ALL GROWN UP NOW? ARE YOU THE INDOMITABLE JUNO?
A. Well a director once told me you can’t play something on stage if you don’t have it in your own psyche.