If you're 10 years old or younger, you know Jessica Sherr as the Fruit by the Foot Girl, the effervescent spokeswoman for the popular candy. If you're a struggling actor, you know Sherr as Coach, the founder of Always Actor, which helps New York's up-and-coming performers navigate the rough waters of Broadway.
To everyone else, she's just Bette. Bette Davis, that is.
While not quite Hal Holbrook—the white-suited, silver-haired performer whose name, after 57 years of impersonation, is synonymous with Twain—Sherr has been playing the red-haired 1940s cinema icon for two years. The impersonation began as an exercise for a drama workshop, then blossomed into a career. In 2010 she played Davis in The Redheads, an off-Broadway production that explored the lives of Davis, Lucille Ball and Shirley MacLaine.
This season she returned, emerging as one of the New York Fringe Festival's breakout stars with Bette Davis Ain't For Sissies, a one-woman show written, produced and starring Sherr. The show draws from a real-life drama: in 1940, just before the Oscar ceremony, the Los Angeles Times published a leaked list of Oscar winners, revealing that Davis, nominated for the medical drama Dark Victory, would lose the Best Actress trophy to Vivien Leigh, star of Gone With the Wind. In Sissies, Davis retreats to her dressing room, sulks and banters with the audience about her Hollywood journey.
Sherr sat down with me to discuss her own acting journey and how an off-hand comment about her bright green eyes sparked a burgeoning career.
Sherr: I've always loved the 1940s—pin-up girls are my thing—so I was messing around with a few friends, looking over my shoulder and doing my best Betty Grable impression. And my friend said, "Oh, you have Bette Davis eyes." I said no, I'm doing Bette Grable. She said, "No, that's Bette Davis. Go look it up." So I did. She was right. I don't have her face exactly. But those eyes, that expression ... the face I was making captured the essence of her. It was synchronicity, too, because I was taking a character development class at this acting studio. We were supposed to select a famous figure, dead or alive. So I picked up Bette's autobiography, and it was amazing. There were so many moments in our lives that connected. She was very honest about coming to Hollywood, feeling awkward, like a complete outsider. That's how I felt coming to New York from a small town in California.
Kors: Did you know much about her?
Sherr: A little bit. Not much. So I started going to the Paley Center, off Fifth Avenue. They have film and TV archives going back to the 1920s, virtually anything that was ever filmed. Even outtakes. I found tons of clips of her. And I would just listen to her voice. I'd get there at about 10 a.m., and I'd listen for three or four hours to the young Bette Davis speaking during outtakes. I did that for about eight and a half months.
Kors: The young Bette Davis is different?
Sherr: Oh, absolutely. Watch anything before 1940, and there's an energy to her voice. Once you get to about 1950 and All About Eve, after her struggle with Warner Brothers and the studio system, her voice drops, and there's a real sadness in her tone.
Kors: She was originally from New England.
Sherr: Yes. Lowell, Massachusetts.
Kors: I wondered about that during the show because the accent you use, there's a little British in there.
Sherr: Yes, that's her proper, Protestant upbringing. All those years in boarding school, mixed with a slight Bostonian twang. (Sherr laughs.)
Kors: Have you found the voice yet?
Sherr: I'm still working on it. That's my big worry, or at least one of them. When you play someone so iconic, you have to get the voice just right. It's a process. I think her voice will grow.
Kors: I'm not sure most people would know if you got it wrong. I mean, in 2011, do most people even know who Bette Davis was, beyond, like, "Wasn't she an actress or something?"
Sherr: Oh, you'd be surprised. Before the festival, I stood out on Broadway and passed out postcards promoting the show. I got old people who were excited, and I got young people who were excited. They'd say, "My grandmother and I used to watch her." And for Baby Boomers, Bette was a star, an icon from their youth. ... My challenge as a performer is actually quite different. It's not reaching audiences that don't know her. It's connecting with audiences that have a fixed image of her from her later films, like Baby Jane: Bette as a brassy, brazen woman. I'm trying to explore the young Bette, bright-eyed and excited, before working in Hollywood gave her that edge.
Kors: The Bette Davis edge.
Sherr: That's right. She's known for playing these large, theatrical characters, women who were snarky and in charge. It's sad because she wanted to play natural characters. But she was told no, even if your character is an alcoholic dying of consumption, you have to wear make-up. Watching some of her films, there are moments where I just have to look away. It's so ... dramatic and theatrical. But I remind myself, it was just the way she was directed. She was a much better actress than she was directed. That was part of her fight. She was pushed to work with Busby Berkeley and do these elaborately costumed musicals. She wanted to movies that meant something.
Kors: Watching you on stage, I kept thinking of Hal Holbrook, who has been performing as Mark Twain for almost 60 years. You say Bette's voice will grow. Are you at the beginning of something here?
Sherr: I am. (Sherr laughs.) I think Bette and I have a long life still to come. I can see myself sticking with this for 10, maybe 20 years. I'm definitely not going to give it up until I get it right.
Kors: Doing a one-woman show, that's a daunting challenge, isn't it? If you mess up, you got no one to toss it to, no one to step in if you forget a line.
Sherr: Very true.
Kors: And yet at the same time, you're not afraid to let the show breathe, to use those silences. There's a lot of silence in the show.
Sherr: That's right. How many pages do you think the show is?
Kors: Well, the show's about an hour. It's supposed to be a minute a page, so ... I'll say 60 pages.
Sherr: Twelve pages. The whole script, double-spaced, it's 12 pages.
Sherr: Yeah. I shock myself each time because I think, "Oh no, I'm going to speed through it." But then I get invested in the moment. Looking in the mirror, smoking the cigarette. I play the life of it. I've just left the Academy Awards. I know I'm going to lose. And now there's an internal dialogue going on. I'm inviting the audience into that.
Kors: Is that scary?
Sherr: It's terrifying. (Sherr laughs.) Terrifying and gratifying. You don't know if the audience is tuned in to what you're thinking because you're not saying it out loud. I always think, if you as a performer are clear with what's going on, the audience will get it. But if you don't know, then nobody will get it.
Kors: You have these conversations in the show where you're speaking to characters who aren't there. And we're supposed to infer their dialogue. I started to wonder what my favorite plays would be like if half the characters were missing. Would Juliet's balcony scene still make sense if only Romeo were on stage, imagining her words alongside the audience? Or would your play be stronger with a full cast, with Jack Warner and Howard Hughes on stage, spitting their dialogue back at Bette?
Sherr: I've pondered that myself. It is very satisfying to do a one-woman show. That was my intention in this incarnation. But we may have this conversation again in five years when I have another play with all the characters out there.
Kors: Would that be better?
Sherr: It'd be different. Being on stage alone, it's very personal. There's a spirituality that goes with it—an excitement, an awakening of the soul. You have to challenge yourself to see the other person there. You know I had a woman come to me after the show and say, "Thank you. I enjoyed using my imagination."
Kors: That's interesting because you do demand a lot of your audience. You know in journalism there are some established rules to make life easier for the reader, like "Fully introduce every character" and "Don't give a jumble of statistics and require the reader to do the math." In this play, you require the audience to know a lot: about history, about film, about the politics of the 1940s. Someone could very well watch this play and think, "Howard Hughes ... isn't he that duck or something?"
Sherr: That's right: Howard the Duck. (Sherr laughs.) It's true. I am asking a lot of my audience. I want smart audience members, people who, if they don't know about some of the characters, will go home and Google it.
Kors: That's a risk.
Sherr: It is. And believe me, I know that. But it is great when you inspire people to look it up. They type in "Hughes" and say, "Wow, he was an amazing inventor, a movie mogul and finally, kind of crazy."
Sherr: They had an affair. She was married. Hughes had affairs with all these amazing women because he was beautiful and smart and fascinating. He was also impotent. It's amazing how many women were attracted to this man who couldn't perform. But he was an intellect beyond belief.
Kors: The show's plot is based on a real-life event. In 1940, the list of Academy Award winners was leaked to the LA Times, so Bette knew going in to the ceremony that she had lost the Best Actress Oscar to Vivien Leigh for Gone With the Wind. In your show, you create a fictional turn of events where a distressed Bette flees the Oscars to go home and reflect on her life. How did you come up with that?
Sherr: Bette led me to it. In her autobiography, she says she told her mother, "I'm leaving." Her mother said, "Bette you can't leave. What would everyone think of you?" She convinced her to stay. But I thought, what if she did go home? With the Oscar going to someone else, what would she be thinking?
Kors: You're choosing, even stretching into fiction, the most vulnerable moment for her, her greatest loss. You could have written a play about her greatest triumphs.
Sherr: That's true. I was attracted to that moment because I could tell from the book that she was really hurt by it. I thought that by exploring that loss, I could reveal something about Bette Davis that audiences didn't know. Everyone thinks of her as so steely and strong. And I do too. I admire her. She was an assertive and strong woman. But her autobiography is called The Lonely Life. She named it that because she says that when she wasn't being seen by the world, she was very lonely. That's an important part of her character. She wasn't all iron and steel. She had a vulnerable side that, in its own way, also made her great.
Kors: You feel a real personal connection to her.
Sherr: Oh, yeah. In all her films, her passion for the work is so alive. And now, just in my everyday life, I can see things through Bette Davis eyes. (Sherr laughs.) She would look in horror at a reality TV show and say, "Why on Earth are these people so passionate about defaming themselves?" ... I think I've learned from her too. She knew how to say no, to stand up and say, "I disagree." In the past, people would say stuff I disagreed with, and I'd just go along with it. Now I actually find myself asserting my real opinion. That takes longer, but it starts some important conversations.
Kors: The title of the show comes from a Bette Davis saying.
Sherr: Yes, she was famous for saying, "Old age ain't for sissies." I had a man come up to me today and tell me that his friend had a pillow with that saying embroidered on it. He wanted to show me the pillow.
Kors: That's funny. Davis did work until she was old.
Sherr: She didn't stop till the very end. She was born in 1908 and released her last film in 1989, the year she died. She was a fighter.
Kors: The New York Post spotlighted you in its piece about the Fringe Festival. Other publications criticized you, saying you don't look like Bette Davis and didn't act like her either.
Sherr: Yeah, some critics didn't want to see her sulking, experiencing loss. They wanted to see that fighter Bette, or the glamorous Bette from her films. But that's not what my play is. It's a younger Bette, more raw, more sensitive and off camera, not in character. The fact that I don't look exactly like her—
Kors: I actually think you're much prettier.
Sherr: Oh. Thanks, Joshua. Well, this interview is going swimmingly. ... In all seriousness, it's true: we don't look exactly alike. I'm not Bette Davis reincarnated. And I'm not trying to do an impersonation of her either.
Kors: What's the difference?
Sherr: If I were doing an impersonation, I'd be swinging a cigarette around, walking with big, proud shoulders because that's the idea people have of Bette Davis. It's like people who do an impersonation of Karl Marx. They always have a cigar in their mouth. They will—
Kors: You mean Groucho Marx?
Sherr: Groucho Marx! Karl Marx would be the psychologist.
Kors: No, that's Carl Jung. Karl Marx was the economist, the founder of Marxism.
Sherr: Yes. Marxism! (Sherr laughs.) Oh, boy. Anyway.
Kors: Anyway. You were saying impersonation is more like comic exaggeration.
Sherr: Exactly. I'm not trying to copy Bette's mannerisms. I'm trying to get her essence. Impersonation is an attempt at comedy.
Kors: That's interesting because there isn't much comedy in your show. No jokes.
Sherr: That's true. My last Bette show, The Redheads, that was a comedy. On stage, I sat and joked with my Oscars, had people laughing. In this show, we went a different way. We wanted to stay true to the essence of that difficult night in 1940. As the show evolves, though, I think it will lighten up. I like comedy. So did Bette.
Kors: Off stage, you're the founder of Always Actor, which provides business advice to up-and-coming actors. What are the key lessons young actors need to know?
Sherr: It's amazing how many artists don't have any business savvy. They don't know how to brand themselves, how to market themselves, whom to market themselves to. Yesterday I started with a new client, a young actress who kept being cast as the femme fatale. She said she wanted to do comedy. I said, "Okay, if you want to do comedy, we got to get some colors and some fun into your headshots and into your postcards." Some actors new to New York don't even know what magazines to read or how to contact casting directors.
Kors: Some actors don't even have their own website.
Sherr: I know. I wouldn't hire someone with no online presence. ... For beginning actors, the key question is: who are you? What are you castable as? So many young actors are basically asking the casting directors, "What can I do?" What can you do? They don't know you. You know you.
Kors: They're not going to sit around and figure you out.
Sherr: Exactly. If you know who you are and what you can be on stage, or on screen, it's much easier to get a job. I also tell my clients: develop skills. If you want to be in action films, start taking karate classes. If you want to do musicals, well, can you swing? Can you tap? So many people come to auditions and say, "Here's me!" And they forget to have a me.
Sherr: That's right. Whether it's an audition or a date, the most interesting people know who they are. And what they can do.
Kors: You've gotten feedback now from critics and from fans. What do you think Bette Davis would say?
Sherr: (Sherr laughs.) She'd most likely say, "Jessica, my dear, you are doing what you're passionate about, and if you are passionate about something, then you keep on going and do not let anyone tell you otherwise."
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