Jeffrey Jones:
Keeping His Head After Amadeus

by Michelle Erica Green

You might think the Headless Horseman couldn't have sounded too frightening to Jeffrey Jones, who has dealt with cannibalism in Ravenous, animated corpses in Beetlejuice, and the unspeakable horror of Howard the Duck. Still, when asked about his upcoming film Sleepy Hollow, Jones said, "It's scary. I don't think there's any doubt about that. When it turns nasty, it's nasty with a vengeance."

Not that that would have made Jones hesitate to work with director Tim Burton again. Although the veteran actor earned a Golden Globe nomination as Emperor Joseph II in Amadeus and is probably just as well known as mean Principal Rooney from Ferris Bueller's Day Off, he previously appeared in Burton's Beetlejuice and Ed Wood. He was delighted to be offered the role of religious leader Reverend Steenwyck, one of the unhappy inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow.

"I'd work with Tim any time," noted Jones, who has also appeared in several films with Sleepy Hollow star Johnny Depp. "It's a very happy situation for me, because I like them both a lot. I've known Tim now for quite some time and really enjoy working with him. I like his sensibility, and he's great fun."

Updating the Legend

Burton's film - scripted by Andrew Kevin Walker from a story by Walker and Kevin Yagher - is set in 1799, but pays tribute to the Hammer horror films of the 1950's and '60's. "This script had a lot of classic beautiful horror images," Burton noted in a press release. "What I liked about the script is that it's respectful of the original story but takes it into new territory." Many viewers know Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow primarily from the animated film, but Burton and crew wanted to return to the clash of supernaturalism, romance, and puritanism which drove the printed tale.

"Sleepy Hollow is a small community with very dense and twisted interpersonal relationships. It's in a land that never was, but it's certainly in a time that was pretty faithful," Jones observed. "Even though the short story that it's based on, 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,' was written at the beginning of the 19th century, it's set in the past. So there's a sense of it being a little bit out of time anyway."

In Burton's film, Ichabod Crane has become an investigator rather than a schoolmaster. He depends on rational skepticism to overcome the superstitious, fearful behavior of his peers, particularly when faced with crimes or evil. Jones' character, Reverend Steenwyck, is the religious leader of the community "and a man of substance, a member of a group of gentlemen who are sort of the town leaders."

"We're all embroiled in this messy, secretive business," explained Jones. "There's a lot of under-the-surface guilt and maneuvering and secrets associated with this very real event that's happening - people are losing their heads."

Played by Christopher Walken with fight stunts by Ray Park, Sleepy Hollow's Headless Horseman is reportedly terrifying. "It's nasty, but not ugly-nasty - that's not Tim's sensibility, to have something gratuitously awful," stated Jones. "People are dying, and we don't exactly know why, as an audience; it slowly unfolds as the story develops."

Jones joked that the key to finding his character's motivations lay in his hairpiece. "I get to wear the poodle," he laughed. "My personal opinion is that my part is mostly my wig." Jones added that he receives many offers for period pieces with such hairstyles. "I do a lot of period work, it's one of those inheritances from Amadeus and from being in the theater a lot."

Too Many Notes

Though he wore a "poodle" wig in Amadeus as elaborate as the one he donned in Sleepy Hollow, Jeffrey Jones is instantly recognizable to millions of people as the Emperor who complained to the musical genius that his operas were too long and contained "too many notes." Of Milos Forman's Oscar-winning film fictionalizing the life and death of Mozart, Jones said, "It's amazing, after all these years, how much people remember that."

The longevity may have to do with the fact that the film won eight Academy Awards, including best picture, best director, and best actor. Jones received a best supporting actor Golden Globe nomination, though he was not nominated for an Oscar. Yet it was widely reported that he had been - "even in The New York Times," recalled the puzzled actor. "I don't know what happened. It must have meant something - Wendell Willkie wins!"

Milos Forman - who won his first Academy Award for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and has since become one of the world's top directors - is high on the list of people Jones would like to work with again. The actor did appear as Gercourt in Valmont, the only one of four prominent filmed versions of Les Liaisons Dangereuses to feature the Marquise's nemesis as a major character. Though Valmont starred Annette Bening and remained closer to the novel's comic tone than Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons, Forman's film was generally overlooked by viewing audiences which had seen Frears' Oscar-nominated film the year before.

While Forman emphasized the youthful, playful aspect of the characters' decadence, Frears based his film on Christopher Hampton's stage drama Les Liaisons Dangereuses. "At the time we were making it, it was a question often asked by the press," said Jones of the timing of the two films. "I didn't see why it should have any effect, because they were so different. Obviously the story outline was the same, but the tone was totally different. In actual fact, Milos' production crew had started their work long before Dangerous Liaisons was even conceived as a film, but it came out way before, because Stephen Frears got the script together and shot it quickly."

His favorite role? "Ferris Bueller's Day Off was great fun," said the man who played spoilsport Dean Rooney in director John Hughes' joyous tale of playing hooky. "It appealed to a very wide audience. My mother and her contemporaries enjoyed it, so it covered quite a wide range. It was a good movie for John."

One of the most famous sequences of Ferris Bueller is the bit with the closing credits in which Rooney, battered by Ferris' sister and dog, drags himself down the sidewalk and hitches a ride back to school on one of the buses. "The closing credit sequence was in fact in the body of the movie, but it didn't really make much sense, and John Hughes had to cut it," recalled Jones. "But he didn't want to cut it, and he suddenly had the inspiration. He called me and said, 'Wait till you see it, I put it back in, we got Matthew back in to do something additional,' and then I saw the movie and there it was, before he came out of the shower saying, 'What, are you still here? Go home!' I had fun doing it; it's nice that it survived."

"To a large degree, because movies are not shot in sequence, it's not a complete arc, and you don't get to play it over and over again like you do in the theater, the experience of doing it is what you're left with," Jones added. "Some year later, when you've completely forgotten everything to do with the actual making of it, you're left with the result. So the things that I'm reminded of are the ones that get mentioned the most."

Picking Projects

The actor has played a number of straight men, "kind of setting up people," as well as a number of characters caught in lunatic situations like Transylvania 6-5000, of which he says, "That wasn't horror, that was stupidity - great fun though!" Then there was George Lucas' infamous Howard the Duck, of which Jones' overriding memories are the hours spent in prosthetic makeup.

"Boy, that's a trial, I'll tell you," he noted. "Getting up there early in the morning, and wearing it all day, and having it break down, and having to touch it's a real pain. For Amadeus it was time-consuming makeup, but certainly not anything like the prosthetic work for Howard the Duck. That put boils all over my face. I spent 23 hours in the makeup at one time! It's not good for you."

Jones has not appeared on many TV shows, a situation he once desired but now would be happy to change. "It used to be that TV was sort of the kiss of death and you wouldn't do movies after that, but the opposite is true now," he observed. "There's quite a lot of good stuff on cable; Showtime and HBO are producing things that wouldn't get theatrical release. There's a lot of good writing and I actually would like to do television, I just get scared, because I don't know enough about the personalities involved in the business - I get a little worried about getting trapped in something for six or seven years, that puts an end to your career basically. You get rich, but that's it then."

The Buffalo, New York native believes a certain amount of typecasting is inevitable. "It's almost impossible to avoid, so if I'm offered something that's considerably different, which doesn't happen very often, that would be the thing." He claims to have "pretty eclectic tastes," and said he is as likely to choose a project by the talent involved as by the part on paper.

"I've always had kind of a feeling that you have to have - I don't know how pretentious this must sound - but some kind of standards about being semi-responsible about what you do. You never really know how things are going to turn out, so it's tough. There's the script, and then there's what it turns out to be. It's probably a leftover from my theater experience. You think, hopefully you'll have the opportunity to work with good people on a project that's got some merit. I'm not sure if that's a good idea or not, but within what choices I have, I try to be selective."

The Horror! The Horror!

A veteran of many acclaimed theatrical productions, including The Elephant Man and Neil Simon's London Suite, Jones has also appeared in films ranging from The Hunt For Red October to The Devil's Advocate to The Crucible. He will appear later this year in Stuart Little.

The actor is neither a passionate fan of genre films nor averse to doing them if the right project comes along. Of movies like Sleepy Hollow and others in both his own and Tim Burton's oeuvre, he said, "Horror - there's good ones and there's not so good ones. I'm actually reading something now called The Attic Expeditions, just about finished with it," which impressed him.

In terms of working with Burton, "I just like Tim. He's a very creative guy, I understand his language, and I kind of feel as though - to the degree that there's ever a partnership - there's a little bit of one there. He enjoys his work so much, and he has such a good eye. He's very caring and careful. So I just like him, personally."

Though he labeled Forman "somebody else I'd be happy to work with under any circumstances," Jones said he really does not have a wish list for future projects. "There's a lot of people who, if I was looking through a list, I would say would be great, but I don't have anybody in the front of my mind. It always depends on what it is." He has ambitions to write and produce, but laughed that he needs "to concentrate more. I think it's basically laziness, because I entertain the thought, I get started on writing a project, and then I get distracted and nothing happens."

Looking at the nearly 40 films on his resume (one of the IMDb listings, A Wedding, is not correct, "That must be one of the other Jeffrey Joneses"), the range is startling. There are kiddie comedies and powerful dramas, Oscar winners and big flops from prominent directors, with Jones playing everything from a beleaguered parent to the ruler of a country - not to mention the extraterrestrial dealings. Wearing the poodle for Sleepy Hollow looks easy by comparison.

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