Tony Award Winner Rachel Bay Jones on Her Struggles with Authenticity

August 28, 2017

Rachel Bay Jones is known for the complexity and authenticity she brings to her roles in theater. But being an authentic personality was not something that came easy for the actress and singer; indeed, she only learned to fully embrace herself after many exhausting years of trying to be someone who she wasn’t. “It’s something that you can’t learn until you learn it,” Jones insists. Fortunately, she came into her own and, in doing so, Rachel shines as a unique and compelling star. Jones even received the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical this year for her portrayal as Evan Hansen’s hardworking single mother, Heidi, in the smash-hit musical Dear Evan Hansen. In an interview with The Interval, Jones shared some of her struggles as she learned to both accept herself for her perceived flaws and ultimately connect with audiences in a remarkably rich and genuine way.

At the age of 19, Jones was trying to decide what to do with her life. She moved from Florida to New York City to pursue acting and, soon after arriving, was cast in her first Broadway role as an understudy for the lead in the 1989 musical Meet Me in St. Louis. As encouraging as this was, Jones was ambivalent about having a career as a performer. She recalls, “I had no idea who I was. I wasn’t even entirely sure I wanted to be an actor. That was something that I did. For most of my life, and even now, the thing that I can say is that I love the work and I love what it means to be on stage and guide an audience through a story and an experience. But the life of an actor was never something that I wanted to have, so I resisted that for a very long time.” 

Shyness, especially in the audition room, was enough to keep her from diving into the field. “There’s a lot of terror involved in this business for me,” she admits. “ I’ve always been very shy, and navigating the difference between not wanting people to look at me but wanting to be seen has been difficult. But there is a difference. I’ve always been the person who’s like, ‘Don’t pay too much attention, but really see what I’m trying to show you here.'”

As a result, Jones essentially took twenty years off from acting until she determined she was ready to return to the theater and really give it her best shot. In turn, she was cast in the 2009 Broadway musical revival of Hair. Her other credits include roles in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and the revival of Pippin playing Pippin’s lover, Catherine.

The lessons she learned along the way have to do with a shift in her self-perception. She says, “The most erroneous thinking is to think that there’s a way you have to be or that there’s a version of yourself that people want to see, as opposed to wanting to see who you are. It has taken me most of my adult life to come to the realization that it’s better to just be honest about who you are and let that hang out. There’s rich stuff to be mined from that, and what makes us unique and special, and therefore valuable in this industry, are our own quirks and our own flaws.” 

Rachel admits she wasted a lot of time and energy trying to hide her true self and battling feelings of inadequacy “because my legs weren’t long enough or my nose wasn’t small enough or my face wasn’t proportioned well or my personality wasn’t right.” These doubts limited both her personal and professional growth. In addition to feeling exhausted, Jones says, “It’s soul killing, it kills art, it’s self-conscious, it’s the death of any kind of creativity, and it’s a lie. Everything we’re trying to do on stage as actors is tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth. Well, first we have to start at home. We have to tell the truth about who we are and how we move in the world and what’s important to us. Then as artists to say what it is we want to say. We have to be clear to be able to say that.”

The celebrated actress now lives by an empowering creed: “‘Here I am. This is what I want to say and this is who I am. If you want that, awesome. Let’s do something together. If not, I’ll take my s*** somewhere else.’ There’s nothing else you can do. You can’t hide forever.”