Boca Raton native Rachel Bay Jones has dedicated her life to theater. In addition to performing throughout South Florida, Jones has also left her mark on Broadway—though none of it came easy. She moved to New York City at the age of 19 and immediately landed a gig. However, it would be 20 years before she was offered another Broadway role. Her devotion resulted in a huge payoff when she won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for portraying Heidi Hansen in Dear Evan Hansen. On November 17, Jones will return to Palm Beach County for a one-night-only benefit concert at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre. Here, she chats with PBI about the theater scene of her youth and advice for young actors.
PBI: How did growing up in the South Florida theater community shape you as an actress?
Jones: The theater community in South Florida was—and I believe still is—so strong, so tightly knit, and held itself to incredibly high standards. There were incredibly gifted professionals for me to learn from and perform with, and theaters that were committed to excellence. My parents were both part of this, so I really did grow up with it.
What are some of your earliest memories of performing in South Florida?
My earliest memory isn’t actually of me performing but of watching my mother perform the role of Golde in Fiddler on the Roof at the Burt Reynolds Theater (what is now the Maltz Jupiter Theatre). It was incredible for me to see my mother as this other character. She had just gone back to acting with that role, and I had never seen the full power of her talent.
What actresses or actors have most inspired you in your craft?
My parents. They instilled in me their love for (and belief in) the power of theater to change peoples’ hearts and minds. They have incredibly high standards and strived always to live up to those standards as artists and real craftspeople. They showed me how to work, and that what we do is work. All the joy is born out of that work when the work is good and honest.
You originated the role of Heidi Hansen. What experiences or points of reference did you pull from when developing that character?
I am myself an imperfect mother and the child of an imperfect mother. It was very important to me, and the creative team of the show, to keep Heidi as real as possible. Part of the message of the show that I find so beautiful is that we can be seen for who we are, faults and all—and be forgiven and loved. As a mother who wants to do better always, I need that assurance, too. The love I have for my daughter, and the love I know my parents have for me despite the many things I know they would seek forgiveness for, was something I could always tap into.
What lessons about motherhood did you take away from your time portraying Heidi?
The most important gift we can give our children is to see and accept them for who they are.
What thoughts and emotions were rushing through you in the moment you won your Tony? How did you celebrate after the awards?
I just felt so happy! My husband, Benim, recently asked me why I shook my head and grinned when I walked up to the stage after my name was announced. It was because I couldn’t believe what a crazy roller coaster this life is. And I knew in that moment I had been lifted up throughout my life and career by so many other people—even in the tiniest ways—and how all of that help and love really is how any of us get anywhere. As for celebration? Frankly, Tony season is exciting, but also pretty grueling. I celebrated by sitting up in bed after the parties and at dawn, finally with my husband and the remainders of my false eyelashes removed and a Tony award on the nightstand, and ate most of a pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream and a can of Pringles. No amount of Champagne could touch that in that moment!
What can audiences expect from your new solo show and your upcoming performance at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre?
Well, not only a lot of really great music, a wonderful band, and the gifts of my collaborator, Randy Redd, but I hope also an uplifting evening. What I love the most is sharing with an audience, and I’m really looking forward to this particular night in my hometown.
You’ve done some television in the past and are working on the new series God Friended Me. What do you most enjoy about doing television as compared to live theater?
I am really loving the playfulness and freedom in doing a few different takes of a scene and then letting it go. Live theater is exquisite and untouchable, but also feels like you are holding the reins of a wild horse, or on a roller coaster that lasts for two-and-a-half hours. Once you are on, you don’t stop. Each night, each performance, no matter how long the run, feels like an impossible search for perfection and connection, and the actors onstage are holding up the show and keeping it going by sheer force of will. Television and film can allow an actor the luxury of fine-tuning tiny moments and then letting them go. I am enjoying the detail of this. I love tiny moments. And God Friended Me is hopeful and wonderful.
What advice would you give to aspiring actors looking to follow in your footsteps?
Be honest. Know why you want this, why you love this art form, why you are doing it. Seek out ways to be a true artist and to use your individual voice to make the world a better place. Recognize the honor and integrity in the responsibility you are given when an audience allows you to hold their heart in your hands. Seek ways to be more who you really are so you can bring your voice and understanding to the stories you choose to tell. Remember it’s always your choice. Don’t fake anything.