A few weeks after becoming a new mom, doesn't everyone jump into a brand-new sitcom where they spout legalese in a Southern accent and work opposite one of TV's most admired stars?
No? Well, that's how Jayma Mays does it.
After her high-profile stints on the small screen on "Glee" and on the big screen in "The Smurfs," Mays had enjoyed some time off to have her first child with husband actor Adam Campbell, and was thinking about her next project when the role of Carol Anne Keane, the driven prosecutor attempting to convict suspected wife-killer Larry Henderson, played by the oft-Emmy-anointed John Lithgow, on NBC's "The Jinx"-like docu-series send up "Trial & Error" came her way – with a start time of just a couple of weeks after the arrival of her son Jude.
In a candid conversation with Moviefone, Mays reveals the irresistible nature of the role despite sleep-deprived on-set hallucinations, navigating between her character's and her own distinctive accents and the uber-considerate habits of her upcoming film co-star Tom Cruise.
Moviefone: When you come off a show like "Glee," I'd imagine that you have a lot of choices -- or am I wrong?
Jayma Mays: I feel like people say that, and they you go, "I don't think I've had near enough choices," now that you bring that up. I think you're in a nice position to feel like you can maybe not take work for a while if you want.
Not that you're being plied with jobs left and right, but financially, you're now positioned to make some choices. I guess that's the best better way to answer that. I don't feel that work's being thrown at me. But definitely feel like I'm fortunate enough to be picky -- pickier.
What did you see in this role that you were going to be doing something different from anything else you've done?
Completely different! First of all, when I read the script, I laughed out loud a few times. You read so many scripts and they're all good, but you look for something that has a spark, and this one was making me laugh, and I was a huge fan of "The Staircase," and have been for a while, watched it several times with friends. We were kind of cult fans of that, and I knew exactly where they were going with this.
It was almost like, "Ooh, that hasn't been done yet. We haven't mocked that genre, and why not?" This seems like this should have aired forever ago. And knowing that they had great writers on staff in Jeff [Astrof]and Matt [Miller]: "OK, they know what they're doing with this."
But the role in particular of Carol Anne Keane, I was like, "I've not done that. I think I can do it." You always want to think you can do something. So I went in and auditioned, and we worked on some stuff, and talked about where he wanted her to go. I said, "I think I know what you want on this."
I was on the same page, as far as I feel like it's got to be played straight. I feel like the straighter, the funnier. You've got to believe that you're in this for the funny to actually work. Thankfully, they thought I was a nice fit for it. Yeah, it's nice to do something so different and to feel like you're exploring another side creatively as an actor.
The format is very fresh and different.The acting choreography of shooting documentary-style, how was that adjustment?
It was really interesting, actually. I found this more comfortable than say like, I did multi-cam a few years ago. I was out of my element with that. That was more overwhelming for me than this. I think often because this, strangely, feels like you're doing more of a play because the cameras are kind of hidden. Not that there's an audience, but there are cameras kind of hidden around because of the style, the way they need to shoot, and I found that really freeing.
I didn't feel like I was posing for camera. I felt like, "Oh, I can just kind of do the scene and they'll catch what they need when they need to catch it. They're doing their job and I just do my stuff. So I found that really freeing.
The interesting part was not having down time because everything's always being shot. So you don't have that down time. It's just go, go, go, go, go. But I found that very invigorating as well. But any time I had a break, I just had a kid, so any time I had a break I was running back and pumping, and then running back on set, and then running back and pumping, and running back to set. So it was an intense four months.
You're like, "What did I get myself into?"
A little bit, yeah! It was my first, and I thought, "Yeah, you have a baby and then you just go to work." I had no idea! Thankfully they were all incredibly supportive in allowing me to pump and do all those things I wanted to do as a mom
There was a moment -- this is the moment I always tell everybody -- I was sitting in the courtroom, and it was a long day. Some of the scenes were quite long. I remember looking up and I was like, "Did I have a baby?" I was hallucinating. I was so sleep-deprived, and just so mentally exhausted. I was like, "I think I had a baby." It was nuts. The first month for me was absolutely nuts.
Obviously, John Lithgow's kind of a legend. You've been around your share of legends at this point, but watching a guy like him do comedy and drama so brilliantly and on the turn of a dime, tell me about that.
I do feel like he's one of those actors that I will gladly say I'm envious of. I'm so envious of his talent, his ability to do that. When he's funny, he's funny. You're crying with laughter. He's just so brilliant. But then when he's dark, he just goes there. His ability to do that I do think is something that I wish I had. Maybe that's something you can grow into. Maybe that's something you can learn from. Being around someone like that, and hearing that he was cast in the show, you're like, "Oh okay, absolutely, sign me up." Because he is a legend.
Literally we would be doing scenes and I couldn't stop laughing, and then go home at night and watch "The Crown" as him as Winston Churchill. The vast quality of his work in drama and comedy is just incredible. I'm absolutely envious of him.
Tell me about her Southern accent.
Yes. I hope I did it justice. I'm from the Appalachians, so I have a very unique accent -- but where I'm from, it's a very unique accent. I didn't use that for this one, but – and I probably butchered it -- I was trying to do a coastal South Carolinian accent. So it's lots of round O's. All those vowels are so round. So I was trying to do that, purely because I felt like she seems slightly well-bred, or she was trying to appear well bred, and I thought, "I find that accent to be very genteel."
It switches a little from the pilot to the second episode, because you get your bearings straight, and you're like, "I think she should sound more like this..." So that's why I particularly picked that accent. I know I butchered it from time to time. I hope I did it some justice. My dad's family is all Carolinian, so I hope that I kind of can make some of them proud.
How did you navigate your own accent when you got into acting? Did you have to figure out other ways of doing line readings?
My accent's a little screwed up. I think probably because when I moved to LA, I did have such a thick Southern accent, and I knew that I needed to get rid of that -- or traces of that -- because you need more opportunity, right? You're not always going to get cast as a Southern person. So while I was doing that, I met my husband who's English. So now I find that I kind of go in and out of a bit of English, which is very similar to the Southern accent. We have very similar lilts and cadences, so I naturally kind of fell into that pattern. So my accent's completely screwed up!
Having an accent like that is wonderful to feel like you've got something like that for the character, something to hold on to. It's an identity straight away that I find really kind of relaxing to settle into. It's harder work because you're thinking about, 'Oh, that should sound that way." It adds an extra layer of work sometimes. But once you get settled into it, I feel like it's really nice way to sometimes even approach the character, because it gives you a little something to hold on to. That's the best way I know to describe that.
Do you have anything coming out around the corner film-wise?
Yes, I did a Tom Cruise film last year, which was really fun, and I was playing an assistant D.A. in that, actually. She's Southern, but she's from Arkansas, so it's a different Southern. That I think is supposed to come out at the end of this year -- they're calling it "American Made" now. They changed the title a few times. That was just like a highlight of my life working with Tom Cruise as well.
Everybody thinks they know Tom Cruise, one way or the other. What was the fun discovery of Tom, the real Tom, for you?
I was surprised, yet everyone says this, at how warm and welcoming he is. I flew out to Atlanta to meet him for the audition. He called the night before the audition. I'm assuming it's his way of making you feel slightly more comfortable around him. It's wonderful awareness I think he has on his part of knowing people might be a little intimidated by meeting me. I'm assuming, this is me like projecting.
He and I have talked about that exact thing -- knowing people see him as "Tom Cruise" at first.
Yeah, so it was so kind of him to do that, and it did make me feel more relaxed. I felt like I knew him really quickly. I think for a big star to have that ability to make you feel at least like somewhat of an equal, or to feel comfortable around you, must be a difficult thing to do, but it's one of the kindest things you can do I think as an actor, to let other people feel relaxed around you so that we can do our job to help you, and you help me, and all that.
So he was above and beyond one of the nicest people I've ever met. And his reputation -- people say that all the time about him, and I 100% get it. I get why he's a big star. Why would you not want to work with him? He's amazing!