Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? When did you decide to become an actress? Did you have any great teachers who influenced you?
Jessica Hecht: I was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and educated at NYU. I grew up in a town called Bloomfield, Connecticut. I was very affected by all the productions I saw at The Hartford Stage Company when I was a kid. I didn’t really decide to be an actress until I met the great actor Morris Carnovsky in 1984. I went to Connecticut College for about a year-and-a-half before I went to NYU and took a Shakespeare course with Mr. Carnovsky. His understanding of Shakespeare’s language just opened up a door for me. I was depressed at Connecticut College for a multitude of teenage reasons, so I asked him what he thought about conservatories, and he said, “Go to New York and study with Stella Adler.” I said, “My parents will never let me go to New York!” And then he told me about NYU. I auditioned and got in, and I also got to study at Stella Adler, and that was my real entry into this world.
TS: Why did you choose to play the role of Esther Franz in Arthur Miller’s The Price? Does the play have personal resonance for you? How do you understand the relationship between Esther and her husband, Victor?
JH: I read the play last year. I hadn’t read it before. I chose to do the play because, for me, the kind of struggle that Esther’s experiencing as a middle-aged woman — thinking that her life would be different than it is — is so beautifully articulated that I couldn’t say no. At the moment, I can’t think of another great American play that has a character whose feelings line up with the issues I grapple with personally. The ideas of the play are things that I think about a lot: the idea of family and your obligation to it. For me, that’s one of the primary things that makes me feel good about myself, but what is the real value? What is the real thing that you are doing when you order your life so that you’re devoted to your family? I think Arthur’s interest in that idea, in terms of his female characters, is fascinating. My experiences acting in A View from the Bridge and After the Fall were thrilling. It's funny because his women are often in marriages in which the husband isn’t as demonstrative as the wife is with love and affection. But it’s not true in this play. I love Arthur’s stage note in the very beginning of the play where he says, “Their relationship is quite balanced.” You see that throughout the script. Victor and Esther are really into each other and want to make life good for one another. Their marriage is built on a deep connection with a shared commitment that their lives would turn out a certain way. That hasn’t happened, but Esther’s holding on to hope. Partially, I feel that their present dynamic is built on guilt. She says, “I wasn’t a very good wife— I should have pushed you more.” She believes enormously in him. I think he in turn feels guilt that he hasn’t given her the life she wanted. She expresses early on that she can’t have a regular job. She says: “I could never go to the same place every day.” She also intimates that she wanted more kids, but they didn’t have the money. They talk about these things — they’re certainly not repressed. I think it’s a very honest depiction of a marriage where a couple is flawed and stuck but they are able to talk to one another. That’s one of the reasons they stay together.
TS: You were nominated for a Tony Award for your work in A View from the Bridge, and I was curious if working on Beatrice in that play would inform your work on Esther. It seems like they’re quite different women.
JH: I do think they’re different. Without giving too much away, Esther has her own demons. The text articulates the fact that she might struggle with alcoholism and sadness. Beatrice has to be the strongest person in the room. And she does that at the expense of her own needs. There’s no romance in that character. That’s been beaten out of her by experience. There’s a deep love, but there’s no romance. I think there is a decided bit of romance between Esther and Victor in this play. That’s what interests me. Not that it’s at all delicate, but there’s a kind of vitality in what is going on with those two characters in The Price. They don’t want to succumb to whatever “middle-aged” means to them, and that is interesting to me because I haven’t seen that in Miller’s other women as much.
TS: How have you been preparing to do this role? Have you done any research about the period? Did you read Miller’s biography, Timebends?
JH: I read Timebends when we did After the Fall at Roundabout, and I read it again before rehearsing A View from the Bridge — so that’s been very helpful. Arthur denies autobiographical elements in his plays for the most part, but it’s always interesting to see what was going on around him at the time he wrote the plays. I love listening to him talk in interviews. I love listening to the way he describes things. He has this meat-and-potatoes way of looking at really complex situations. I don’t in any way want to profess to know him deeply. I only worked with him once. He was still alive when we worked on After the Fall, and that was such a gift. When I listen to him talk about things, it makes me realize that there’s a centeredness about how you have to approach his plays. You can’t approach them in an intellectual way. Basically, the way I prepare is by reading the play over and over again, and I try to get the psychology and history of the character — it is so beneficial — and to hear the way Arthur organized the voices of his characters. He is very practical.
TS: Do you have a sense of what this play is about?
JH: It’s about the deep distance within families and how we have a really hard time coming to terms with that distance. It’s a very human thing to be lonely within your family, and even more profound is being singularly disconnected in a way that’s painful and difficult to overcome. That is the pain that Miller’s trying to grapple with in The Price, I think. I lost my father almost two years ago. The need to be with your parent as they’re dying is something I recognize. Why does one person feel that profoundly while another person doesn’t? It’s a kind of isolation. Miller wrestles with that in The Price.
TS: There’s a stranger named Solomon in the play who forces Victor and Esther to think differently about their situation. Do you agree?
JH: Yes. He’s a magnificent creation because Arthur gives him his own personal pain. He is someone who could have escaped Auschwitz. He has a thick Yiddish accent and he comes from that part of the world. He also carries the pain of his daughter who died as a teenager. Even though he has this tremendous humor and is very irreverent, he has this gravitas by virtue of what he experienced in life. And in the end, he owns it with such dignity. It’s fascinating. It’s a very funny part. Danny DeVito will be amazing in it.
TS: How do you think Esther views her brother-in-law, Walter?
JH: I think she’s now fascinated by him and was previously very infatuated. It’s that kind of infatuation you have with someone who is very smart or very talented, but they do something to reveal their narcissism and you are now embarrassed. When Walter walks into the attic, she has this resentment about him not picking up the phone and treating Victor like crap. It pains her. But she’s also a little thrilled and senses that he’s changed.
TS: What do you look for from your collaboration with a director?
JH: I look for a way to access the emotions of the play. I think that’s what’s most vital, and I sense that’s exactly the way Terry Kinney, our director, works. He’s also an excellent actor, and I see that he wants to open these doors for us.
TS: I read in The New York Times that you keep watch from your apartment windows, and I was wondering if that is how you keep yourself inspired as an artist?
JH: I do feel inspired by the fact that everybody seems to experience the same routines and the same pathos. I saw this man across the way from us, and he seemed to be really yelling at his wife. He was screaming at her, and I felt mortified that I was watching them. I looked away, and then I looked back and he was hugging her. He was really embracing her. I thought how beautiful that they had this fight and then they made up. I saw all of it. In a way, that’s better than watching any movie. The dynamics that people go through are so universal. I find it very touching that we’re all in this together. To tell the truth, I think that’s why our neighbors don’t have any window treatments either.
TS: Public school students will read this and will want to know what it takes to be a successful actor. Do you have any advice?
JH: In terms of crafting a career, my only advice is to never say no. You’re too young to have judgment, so the idea is to keep working and keep opening yourself up to people who are as interested in creating art as you are. That is the most important thing. You’re not going to act on your own, and you never actually know who is going to help you fulfill your goals. It’s really important that you open your mind to as many people as possible and become part of a community. The whole point is to create a community. That’s what worked for me. I work with the same people all the time, and I think that’s the only reason I’ve ever grown as an actress.
Arthur Miller's The Price is now playing at the American Airlines Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.
2016-2017 Season, Arthur Miller's The Price, Education @ Roundabout, Upstage