ED2014 Interviews ED2014 Theatre ED2014 Week1 Edition

Jessica Sherr: Playing with Bette Davis

By | Published on Tuesday 5 August 2014

Bette Davis

Jessica Sherr was once told she had Bette Davis eyes. A simple remark that led to her researching the entire life story of the Hollywood great, and subsequently the creation of her one-woman play ‘Bette Davis Ain’t For Sissies’. Returning to the Fringe at The Assembly Rooms this year, the story tracks Davis’s defining moments as she fought her way through the Hollywood system. We spoke to Sherr about her play, and the woman that inspired it.

CC: Tell us about the premise of ‘Bette Davis Ain’t For Sissies’.
JS: It’s the night of the 1939 Oscars and the LA Times leaked the winners early. Knowing she is going to lose out to ‘Gone With The Wind’, Bette Davis leaves the ceremony. We then journey with young Bette through her memories, and her fight for good parts and respect in Hollywood.

CC: How did you first come to play Bette Davis?
JS: Someone said I had Bette Davis eyes. So I looked her up and it was true, there is indeed a similarity. I was taking a class in New York on character development, and I was going to do Lucille Ball, as a she is a funny red head, but instead I thought Bette Davis would be more of a challenge. After all, she was a redhead when she played Jezebel, so that was fitting. And here I am five years later with a one-person show all about her!

CC: Where did the idea for that stand alone show come from?
JS: I didn’t originally set out to write a one-person show. I was just going to develop the character of Bette Davis for a class. But we were given exercises to complete as the character and I ended up creating a 28-minute piece of Miss Davis, which was the beginnings of this show. Bette is one lady who just sticks with you.

CC: How much research did you do when writing the piece?
JS: A ton. I didn’t know a lot about her when I set out on the project. I researched for two years reading books and watching films before I began writing. As the project has unfolded I have gone deeper into my research. Just last year I flew out to California to the USC archives and spent a week with her personal file from Warner Brothers. That was surreal. I touched her handwriting and read her memos to Jack Warner. That was as close as I have gotten to her and it was powerful.

CC: You sense the young and older Davis were quite different people. Would you agree? Why do you think this is?
JS: Yes. The young Bette was bright-eyed and bushy tailed and ready to take on Hollywood in her best Yankee manner. Being a theatre actress, she thought the Hollywood system would be interested in her talent. Sadly it didn’t take Bette long to realise that the Hollywood movie mogul wasn’t anything like the people back at her hometown theatre. The movie mogul cared less about talent, he only cared about money. Money wasn’t a driving force for Miss Davis. She was interested in good parts and doing good work.

CC: Did researching the piece change the way your view Davis? Do you see her movies in a new light?
JS: Indeed. After researching I can see how her personal life paralleled and influenced her work. There are certain directors, William Wyler being one, that really shaped her acting career. You can tell in her earlier films that she had so much spunk. As she got older that spunk shifted into a darker Bette Davis.

CC: As you say, the Hollywood machine wasn’t especially kind to its earlier stars like Davis. Is it any better today do you think?
JS: Hollywood is a mess. They have one idea in mind: sell tickets, no matter what they have to do to their stars. It’s always been that way. Davis was definitely a victim of that. Many people don’t know that she went to London and Warner Brothers sued her for breach of contract, which ultimately was the first time a star spoke out against the virtual slavery of Hollywood.

CC: Do you try to impersonate Davis for the piece, in voice, the way you look, mannerisms and so on?
JS: I don’t impersonate, I play Bette Davis. I have worked a lot on her voice though, and the way she looks, and of course her mannerisms, but ultimately I am playing a character from the inside out.

CC: Is it ever strange being an actress pretending to be another real-life actress?
JS: It is strange? My personality and Davis’s are very different, and that’s good. That way I know when I am playing a character and when I am being myself! The hardest part is playing someone who is well known, as everyone has their own ‘idea’ as to what Bette Davis should be like. And at times I think people identify Bette by her characters, but she was very different in her real life.

CC: Have any people who knew Davis seen the piece? What did they think of it?
JS: Yes. They are impressed by the similarities and how much we are alike. I have had people say that there are moments that are ‘so her’.

CC: You’ve been performing ‘Bette Davis Ain’t For Sissies’ for a few years now, has the piece developed over time?
JS: Definitely. In two ways. First, artistically the show has evolved. I am working with a new director, Antony Raymond, and each time we get in the room we discover something new. Second, I have had some incredible meetings. Last year I met Kathryn Sermak, Bette’s last assistant, and she was very complimentary. She gave me a pair of Miss Davis’s gloves, which I now wear in the show, and which still have her make-up on the edge.

CC: Are you looking forward to performing for the Edinburgh Fringe audience again?
JS: I do love a great crowd and Edinburgh Fringe audiences are so appreciative. I can feel everyone really listening and really coming along for the ride. I love talking to people after the show as well, so I can get a sense of what people enjoyed. I learn a lot from my audience. I just don’t understand why everyone is so quiet and polite! Laugh out loud — we need it as actors!

CC: And finally, are there any other iconic women you fancy playing in a one-woman show?
JS: Hmm, I’d say Madonna.

‘Bette Davis Ain’t For Sissies’ was performed at The Assembly Rooms at Edinburgh Festival 2014.

Photo: Mark Dawson