Jacqueline Kennedy is juggling a trio of vices. As she stares intently at a ringing phone, her left thumb nervously flicks the cigarette resting between her fingers. Her right hand balances a Scotch glass and an orange prescription pill bottle.
We’re in rehearsals for “Jackie Unveiled,” a one-woman show by playwright Tom Dugan. It’s a few weeks before opening night, and actress Saffron Burrows is in a small, windowless room backstage at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, where she will give the world premiere performance.
Burrows is barefoot, dressed in navy blue pajamas. Behind her, all 41 pages of the script, embellished with the actress’ handwritten notes, are tacked to the walls with painter’s tape. The room is sparsely furnished with a vintage couch and coffee table. A plastic Bic lighter sits next to an ashtray, a placeholder for the 1960s-era silver one she will use onstage. It’s a fittingly unglamorous setting for the story that’s about to unfold.
“A perfect person who did perfect things is not so interesting to me,” Dugan explains a few days later over the phone, “but an extremely flawed person who did amazing things — that I want to know about.”
A TV and film actor turned playwright, Dugan has spent the last decade writing, directing and starring in critically acclaimed one-person plays about historical figures such as Jewish Holocaust survivor and Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, First Lady Mary Lincoln and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Dugan starred in “Wiesenthal” off-Broadway and on a national tour. In post-show talkbacks he regularly asked audiences if they would be interested in a one-person show about Jackie Kennedy. “Theaterful after theaterful, everyone said yes,” he recalls.
So Dugan dug deep, spending five years reading every well-researched book he could find about Kennedy. He watched dozens of documentaries and studied Arthur Schlesinger’s 1964 interviews with the former first lady.
He developed an encyclopedic knowledge about Kennedy and discovered that, despite the plethora of material produced about her life, there are still stories that he felt were not widely known.
In “Jackie Unveiled,” Dugan outlines the pivotal moments of Kennedy’s life across two acts, both centered on important phone calls — one that she’s desperately trying to avoid, and another that she’s desperately waiting for.
“She could be childish. She could be paranoid. She could be nasty. But she was also witty and biting. And she was an extremely sexual woman,” Dugan says. “I would say that’s the thing that is surprising in this play –– how intensely sexual she is. This is not your mother’s Jackie Kennedy.”
To direct the play, Dugan turned to longtime collaborator Jenny Sullivan. She knew that she needed to cast someone special in this role –– “Someone who, when they walk into a room, people look at her and go ‘Wow!’ That’s that ‘thing’ Jackie had,” Sullivan says.
At the suggestion of Geffen Playhouse casting director Phyllis Schuringa, Dugan and Sullivan met Burrows for lunch.
Neither was familiar with the actress, 45, whose career highlights include films such as “Deep Blue Sea,” “Frida” and “The Bank Job” as well as recurring roles on “Boston Legal” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”
Burrows currently stars in the Amazon series “Mozart in the Jungle” as Cynthia, a cellist in the fictional New York Symphony and a charming, savvy mentor in matters of love and music to the young oboist Hailey, played by Lola Kirke. (The fourth season of “Mozart” will be available for streaming on Friday.)
Burrows has what Dugan describes as the same kind of “sexual magnetism” Kennedy exuded. Before they met for lunch, he prepped by watching her in the 1999 film version of “Miss Julie.”
“I was so blown away by her performance in ‘Miss Julie’ that I was sold even before I met her,” the playwright says.
“I remember the intensity with which she looked at me and listened to us and expressed herself at that lunch,” Sullivan says. “You just get pulled into her.”
At 6 feet tall, Burrows is indeed a stunning figure who commands attention, a former model with high cheekbones, charming conversation and an infectious laugh.
Growing up in London, Burrows says, she fell in love with drama at a young age. Her mother, a schoolteacher, took her to the theater regularly and enrolled her in a theater’s after-school classes when she was 11.
Burrows got her big break at 15: She was stopped on the street and recruited as a model, eventually working for years in Paris.
At 17, Burrows met Ngozi Onwurah, a young Nigerian filmmaker who cast her in Onwurah’s first feature, partly inspired by Burrows and her Zimbabwean boyfriend at the time. “Welcome II the Terrordome” (1995) was a transformative experience for Burrows.
“It was a fantastic beginning in the film world for me because it was a joyous film to make,” Burrows says. “It told a harrowing story about racism and dystopia and a police state, but the actual process of making it was an incredible one for me at that age.”
Burrows made her home in London throughout most of her career, but five years ago, when she and her wife, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” writer and producer Alison Balian, gave birth to their first child, they relocated to L.A. They now have a 5-year-old son and 1-year-old girl.
Last summer, just after wrapping the fourth season of “Mozart” in New York, Burrows read Dugan’s script for “Jackie Unveiled.”
“I loved the writing. I love this theater. And I knew Jenny was a wonderful director,” Burrows says. “The writing feels quite classical to me. It reminds me a little bit of ‘Miss Julie.’ ” And Dugan captured Kennedy’s rhythm, she says. “It’s got this poetic cadence. I speak the same Latin languages that Jackie did. It’s a rhythm that makes sense to me.”
To capture the first lady’s voice, Burrows worked with dialogue coach Elizabeth Himelstein.
To memorize the script, which she is following meticulously, she recorded herself reading it aloud on her phone. As she drives around L.A., she listens to it on repeat in her car.
In rehearsals at the Wallis, she and Sullivan are busy working through the play’s first scene. Every movement is choreographed: where to put out her cigarette, when to refill her Scotch glass as she watches the news of her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy’s assassination flicker across a black-and-white television screen.
Burrows slips easily into Kennedy’s familiar, soft-spoken, almost melodic cadence as she performs the play’s opening scene.
“There’s a kind of focus in it that reminds me of playing music,” the actress says, referring to the cello practice required for her role in “Mozart.”
Perhaps more importantly, Burrows relates to Kennedy’s life experiences.
“She was so intelligent and yet she was endlessly patronized,” the actress says. “I remember being very young and patronized the way she was.”
Burrows points to one moment in the play in which Jackie is disrespected by a man. The words trigger a sense of disgust, Burrows says.
“Appalling things happened,” the actress says, referring to her own years as a young model in Paris in the 1980s and her early days working in Hollywood. “There’s the way you personally and privately think people should conduct themselves … and then there’s what you have to put up with in your working environment.”
She has turned down a few film roles “because they were sexist and silly and degrading,” she says. “But if you turned everything down for that reason when I started out, there weren’t that many roles left.
“Maybe now it’s really changing. I think it is.”
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Where: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills
When: Previews start Feb. 22, opens Feb. 28, ends March 11. Performances 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays
Tickets: $60-$75 (subject to change)
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