Carol Mayo Jenkins Nashville Entertainment Examiner Interview 2009

Given that an updated retelling of life at New York's Performing Arts School, aka the Fame school is currently enjoying success at the box office and on the Billboard Soundtrack Chart--the film ranked #3 in overall ticket sales in its opening weekend and the soundtrack is currently #4 on Billboard's Soundtrack Chart--I can't help but continue to be nostalgic for the TV series spawned by the original 1980 film.  With an obvious, but no doubt healthy obsession with everything Fame, as evidenced by an August review of Nashville's Circle Players' mounting of Fame: The Musical, a Rapid Fire 20 Q with series star Nia Peeples, and my recent review of the new Fame movie itself, you can imagine my surprise when my dear friend Eleanor Whitworth casually mentioned that her cousin played everyone's favorite English teacher, Mrs. Sherwood for five seasons on the original Fame TV series!  That's all I needed to hear.  With that bit of information, and a quick call from Eleanor to her cousin, Carol Mayo Jenkins, I was well on my way to interviewing one of the faculty of TV's Fame.  After a basic introduction, I discovered that Carol Mayo Jenkins, a native Tennessean, continues to act while also teaching the craft right here in her home state as Artist-In-Residence with the theatre department of The University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Carol is currently away from Tennessee and in the throws of rehearsals in Asheville, North Carolina as she prepares for her starring role in North Carolina Stage Company's The Beauty Queen of Lennane by Martin MacDonough, opening October 21. Even with her busy rehearsal schedule over the past few weeks, Carol has been generous enough to take time to answer my interview questions via email.  

What follows is my exclusive interview with the immensely talented Carol Mayo Jenkins, who gained national recognition as the stern but loving English teacher on Fame. Beyond that, it's the story of a classically trained actress who studying abroad at London's Central School for Speech and Dramatic Art, shared the stage with the likes of Henry Fonda, starred in the 70s sudser Another World and toured the globe in a production of theatre genius Edward Albee's Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe. Rather than incorporate Carol's answers into a standard article, I am presenting her responses in the Q&A format I received them, as her words are so eloquent and her stories so fascinating, I want to do them absolute justice. 

Carol in a 60s production of Annie Get Your Gun

Jonathan Pinkerton: Can you tell me a bit about your youth, schooling and first interest in acting?

Carol Mayo Jenkins: I was born and raised in Knoxville. I took some acting lessons when I was a child, first from a woman named Irene Hayes Hodges, who ran the Bugs Bunny Club where children sang from the stage of the Bijou Theatre on Saturday mornings. But all Ms. Hayes Hodges had me do was memorize chapters of Miss Minerva and William Green Hill by Booth Tarkington, and my father said he knew I could memorize and he wasn't paying good money for that. So then I had lessons from my parents dear friend, Emily Faust, who also taught Mary Costa and Patricia Neal, and Mrs. Faust used to call me on the phone, soft-voiced and intimidated little thing that I was, and she would say, "I can't hear you, Dear! You must learn to speak up!" We did Alice In Wonderland, and I thought surely I would get to be Alice, because I had the long blonde hair and all, but Mrs. Faust made me be the Red Queen and shout, "Off with her head!", so I think she was a very good teacher for me. I went to Boarding School at Salem Academy in Winston-Salem and got a first-rate education, but the summer after graduation I was in my first play, The Petrified Forest, with John Cullum. It was Johnny's last play in Knoxville before going off to start his career in New York. Well, I was hooked. I went to Vanderbilt for a year, did very well but came home to be in plays at the University of Tennessee.

JP: You are a Tennessee girl, yet you studied drama at the Central School of Speech and Dramatic Art in London.  How did that come about?

CMJ: At that time, there weren't all the acting programs in universities that there are now. I knew my parents wouldn't let me go to New York - I was only 18 - but London somehow seemed a safer choice. My extraordinary father recognized that he had a daughter with a dream, so he not only allowed me to go, but paid for my schooling and living in London. I went over there to audition, got into the Central School of Speech and Dramatic Art.

JP: Looking back, as that experience similar to that of the school portrayed on Fame?

CMJ: Not really. Fame was set in the High School of Performing Arts in NYC.  The Central School was a school for training actors. We had movement and voice and mask and poetry and scene study-there were no music students or dance students-no school subjects like English or Math. We had finished our high school educations and were in professional training.

JP: What about your involvement in the founding of the Drama Centre London?

CMJ: After two years at The Center School, the people there decided our acting teachers were too progressive, perhaps, so they fired them all and told us we would have new teachers next year. But we were very committed to our teachers and to our path of study, so we all left The Central School, raised money, found a church hall, and started the Drama Centre with our teachers--John Blatchley, Yat Malmgren, Harold Land, Doreen Cannon and Cicely Berry. I am proud to say that the school still exists and is still considered a leading drama school in London.


Carol's Fame publicity photo

JP: Upon returning from London, you joined the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco.  What are your fondest memories of your time with the Conservatory?

CMJ:  Oh, Jonathan--that is a book in itself! My four years there were incredible in every way. It was a time in theatre in America that had never existed before and may never again. Suffice to say that we did 16 plays in 22 weeks--rotating rep in two theatres--and the next season we did 22 plays in 40 weeks. And all the time, the actors had constant voice lessons, movement classes, Alexander technique. There is no way I can capsulize that experience for this interview, except to say that I am so fortunate to have been there, to have been part of that extraordinary theatre with those artists, to have learned all I did, and to have survived it all!!!

JP:  From San Francisco to Broadway--you landed a role in WIlliam Ball's Broadway production of Checkhov's Three Sisters.  What do you recall most about that?

CMJ:  With ACT I made my Broadway debut in Bill Ball's Three Sisters. It was a very proud time for me--my Mother and Father got to see me on Broadway in a fine production of a very great play, and I am so grateful for that!

 JP:  Your Broadway debut lead to other roles, including a Washington, DC production of the political drama, First Monday in October alongside Henry Fonda and Jane Alexander.  What was that ike?

CMJ:  After ACT, I returned to NY and did a number of Broadway plays, also Off-Broadway and a lot of great roles in Regional Theatre. In First Monday In October, I understudied my dear friend, Jane Alexander, and then they wrote for my a tiny part as Fonda's secretary, Miss Birnbaum. Pour soul had a permanent cold or allergies or something. I thought it was funnier if the audience never saw her, so I think eventually the role was taken out. But it was a fabulous experience to work with Fonda and Jane, Ed Sherin, the director--in Washington, I got to have tea with Chief Justice Berger in his chambers and all sorts of other fabulous experiences.

JP:  Were Alexander and Fonda Divas? Or just fellow actors?

CMJ:  Henry Fonda and Jane Alexander are two of the most intelligent, down-to-earth, wonderful people I have ever known. Divas? Not for a second!!!!!

JP:  Have you ever been star struck?

CMJ:  Oh, for heaven's sake - OF COURSE !!!! I met Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in England when they were filming Cleopatra in Rome! I met the Queen Mother! I am so often star-struck about people I consider fabulous artists, whom you may have never heard of. But one in particular--I went to a tribute to Kirk Douglas in Hollywood and we all got on a bus to go from the movie theatre to dinner. I heard a voice in the seat behind me that I recognized immediately. I jumped into the aisle and knelt down beside this beautiful lady and told how much I adored her and her work - Irene Worth! She was gracious and lovely, and I was near tears to meet one of my idols!

JP:  While in New York, you had a recurring role on the daytime drama, Another World, which was my Mom's favorite soap opera.  You played a character named Vera.  Do you remember her storyline or relationship to central characters like Mac or Iris?

CMJ:  I played Vera Finley, who was, roughly speaking, one of the richest women in the world. So I got to wear fabulous clothes. Lewis Brown, the costume designer, was an old friend from ACT, so we had a grand time shopping for clothes I had only ever dreamed of! We decided she was much too rich to wear tacky diamonds, so she wore fabulous Italian jewelry, some of which I still have.

JP:  Any memories of your fellow soap stars?

CMJ:  Doug Watson, who played Mac, was a wonderful theatre actor. He sent me a dozen red roses my first day on the set. Beverlee McKinzie, who played Iris, had a photographic memory, was like a rock in scenes, I always felt totally safe in scenes with her. I loved them both. 

JP:  Did your theatre friends give you grief for doing a soap?

CMJ:  Absolutely not!  Soaps were a way for really good New York actors to make some decent money - to be able to take a friend out to dinner or hail a cab on a rainy night. It wasn't what any of us wanted to do with our lives, but no one looked down on the work at all.

JP:  From New York to LA, then came Fame.  Were you familiar with the 1980 film, in which Anne Meara played Mrs. Sherwood?

CMJ:  Yes, I had seen the movie. I was doing an Off-Broadway play called The Old Ones, by Arnold Wesker, where I played a school teacher. 

JP:  How did you hear about the role for the series?

CMJ:  The casting director saw that play and when she had to find an English teacher, she called me in to audition.
JP: One aspect of the film that was carried over into the series was Mrs. Sherwood's relationship with Leroy, played by the late Gene Anthony Ray in both the film and TV version.  With the first two seasons of Fame having just been released on DVD, I recently had my own mini-marathon. While watching, I was reminded of the friendship between teacher and student as portrayed by the two of you.  Did you feel the same connection with any of the young actors?

CMJ: Fame was another simply incredible experience, about which I could write a whole book! First of all, it's a great story, which inspired young people all over the world to dare to dream and follow their dreams. Schools of the Arts sprang up all over the country and I visited many of them--in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Houston, San Francisco, Atlanta--many more. The cast became a family in a way that many casts don't bond, because we had no stars, it was a true ensemble piece. Our young actors were so talented, so spontaneous - our dancers were so incredible. And we were all in it together

JP: WIth your experience, did they come to you for advice when doing a particularly emotional scene?

CMJ: No, they didn't come to me for acting advice - I was learning from them!

JP: I recently saw the Nashville Circle Player's production of Fame: The Musical. One of the strongest numbers in that show was a duet between the English teacher and the dance instructor. That made me wonder...Did Mrs. Sherwood ever sing on Fame?

CMJ: No, I did not sing--I SERIOUSLY do not sing. But I did dance a little in one episode. I have studied dance, just for fun, all my life, so I got to do a little something.

Carol and Anna Bullard in a recent regional production of Collected Stories 

JP: After five seasons, your character left her teaching position at the school to pursue a career as a writer. Was it difficult to leave Fame after all that time, or were you ready to return to the theatre?

CMJ: Was it difficult to leave? Yes, enormously. It was a huge part of my life and I loved the work and the cast.


JP: Following Fame, you toured in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Can you tell me how you got the role?

CMJ: I actually auditioned for Edward Albee, and he chose me to play Martha. Until very recently, all the work I have done has been the result of an audition.


JP: That play took you on an international tour. What was that like?

CMJ: The International Tour was another of those incredible life experiences I am so grateful to have had. We were the first Americans who had been allowed into Lithuania for a very long time. We didn't know until the Wednesday before we left on Friday that we would be allowed in. We arrived on Easter Sunday - the second Easter they had been allowed to celebrate in fifty years. The Soviet presence was still very strong. We were followed by grumpy men in suits wherever we went. The Lithuanian actors were wonderful to us, and we were overwhelmed by their passion for the recovery of their country, their language, their culture. We were not happy to be going to Russia, but they assured us that the Russian actors were their friends and would be equally good to us, which was absolutely true. In the Maly Theatre in St. Petersburg there was a sign - "Welcome Actors of Virginia Woolf - There Is Nothing To Fear In This House". It was an amazing time.

JP: In addition to appearing on Broadway and internationally, you have extensive experience in region theatre, having appeared in several local productions nationwide. Can you tell me more about that?

CMJ: My regional theatre experience was my real training ground. I worked with so many wonderful actors and directors--got to play great roles in all parts of the country. It is still, in many ways, my favorite thing to do--go to a strange city, know only the people I am working with, have nothing to concentrate on but the play. It's a totally focused way of working that I adore.

JP: In addition to Fame, over the years, you have appeared in a number of TV projects, including the pilot episode of Aaron Spelling's Melrose Place spin-off, Models, Inc., the futuristic Max Headroom, a guest shot on Matlock and a starring role in the 1995 family drama, Empire.   What do you remember most about that shoot?

CMJ: Crystal Empire was a co-production of 20th Century Fox  (Rupert Murdoch)--and Televisa (Emilio Escarraga). It was a fabulous eight months in Mexico City, some of the best film work I ever did, certainly, and it was never finished. I have never seen any of it, except selected scenes. I don't know what ever became of it.  

Side Note: Years before US audiences had ever heard of Ugly Betty, Empire, aka Crystal Empire and alternately Imperio Cristal, was the first telenovela to be produced simultaneously with both an English speaking cast, as well as a separate Spanish-speaking production.

JP: A few years ago, you returned to your hometown of Knoxville and took a position at The University of Tennessee in their theatre department. How did that come about?

CMJ: I have been in Knoxville for 8 years now. I came home to be with my Mother, who is 94 now, and doing very well. I am fortunate to be able to work at the University of Tennessee, where I am an Artist- In-Residence. I enjoy teaching, and there is a professional theatre connected to the University, the Clarence Brown, and they occasionally have roles for me there -The Glass Menagerie, The Road To Mecca, All My Sons, The Trojan Women.

JP: So the actress widely known to television audiences as portraying a teacher, actually is one. Do any of your students every recognize you from your work on Fame?

CMJ:  No, they have no idea who Mrs. Sherwood is--they were not born when Fame went off the air. Some of them have seen parts of the British reunion show that is on YouTube.

JP: If the new Fame movie is successful enough to merit a new TV series, and you were asked to take part, perhaps as school board member, or visiting lecturer, would you?

CMJ: There is little chance I would ever be asked to participate in any Fame re-makes. It is a new time now--new faces.

Anne Thibault & Carol in The Beauty Queen of Leenane

 Looking at Carol's career, I find she has been the consummate actor, having appeared in both daytime dramas and primetime television as well as stage and screen. Her regional and UT experiences have even allowed her to take on the role of director, in addition to actor.  With that in mind:

JP:  What's more difficult, daytime drama, primetime TV, film or theatre?

CMJ: Soap Opera, actually, because the writing is so tedious. You have to keep saying the same things over and over, in case somebody misses a day, and the stories, just let me say that the greater the writing, the easier the actor's job. Beautiful words, great structure carry one along and it is possible to reach dizzying heights of SOMETHING HAPPENING in the room, or even on the screen--something that will startle an audience to laughter or tears--something that may touch the audience's life. Doesn't always happen, of course, but if the writing is good, or great, there is a chance.

JP: Do you ever hear from any of your Fame co-stars?

CMJ: I saw Debbie, Valerie, Erica, Lee and Carlo last year at a Fame reunion. They are all well and we so loved seeing each other again. I realize they will always be part of my life. Debbie Allen is one of those people whom I admire and love and feel that she is my sister in so many ways.

JP: Can you tell me about some of your recent regional theatre experiences?

CMJ: I have for several summers gone to Northern California to work with one of my favorite directors, Beth Craven, and very dear actor friends out there. I did The Sea Gull in Marin County, Enchanted April in two theatres, directed Private Lives in Petaluma, and this past summer did Collected Stories in Petaluma. I am very proud of all these productions, and feel I am still growing and learning as an actress--getting better all the time!

JP: When we first began this interview via email, you mentioned that you are currently in rehearsal for an upcoming production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane. How is that going?

CMJ: Yes, I am currently in Asheville, N.C. in rehearsal for The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh. It is a wickedly funny and fierce Irish play and as I write, I have no idea if I can play this role, but we have another two weeks, and that's about where I should be, I think--some ideas, but not settled on anything.

Note to my readers:  I don't know about you, but thanks to her extensively personal answers and reminiscences of a remarkable career, I feel as though I've had the distinct privilege of attending a once in a lifetime Master Class.

I'll end this interview with Carol's final statement on her exquisitely chosen profession:

"Acting is a high-wire act, with no net--artistically and personally." --Carol Mayo Jenkins.

Interview by Jonathan Pinkerton.

To discuss the interview click below to go to the forum: