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Truth to Tell 

The actress Jill Clayburgh talks about her distinguished career, choosing family over films, and bringing The Exonerated to the stage.

As she so often seems to do, whether it's in her career or talking on the phone, Jill Clayburgh is taking her time. Long pauses separate answers from questions, and she's pondering a question about challenges faced in the stripped-down production of The Exonerated. Director Bob Balaban had decided to use a minimalist approach with barely a hint of a set, and took the Brechtian route of having the actors break through the "fourth wall" and speak directly to audience.

So how did this change her approach to portraying one-time death-row inmate Sunny Jacobs? she's asked. There's dead silence, before a measured response. "There's no environment," says Clayburgh by phone from her home in New York City, where she was born and raised. "Use your imagination. There's no fourth wall, and whether it's the first time you've told this story about her life, or the sixth time, you're still telling about what she went through to these people."

Clayburgh, the two-time Academy Award nominee, became one of the first actors selected to tell the wrenching stories of wrongfully convicted people directly from interviews and court transcripts conducted and culled, respectively, by co-writers Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. The play, which begins an eight-show run at the Saenger Theatre starting Tuesday, has been a critical sensation. Having also featured a cast including Brian Dennehy, Richard Dreyfuss, Marlo Thomas, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Mia Farrow and Gabriel Byrne, The Exonerated has won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play, the Drama Desk Award for Unique Theater Experience, and a Special Lucille Lortel Award for Unique Theatrical Achievement. Gerald McRaney (TV's Major Dad) will co-star in this week's performances.

For Clayburgh, it was yet another opportunity to diversify a career that has defied convention. Along with contemporaries such as Ellen Burstyn, Barbra Streisand and Lee Grant, Clayburgh embodied a generation of non-model-pretty actresses taking on tough but still vulnerable roles typical of what briefly ruled Hollywood in the 1970s -- dubbed by some the American New Wave. In 1999, Entertainment Weekly named Clayburgh one of Hollywood's 25 greatest actresses.

Classically trained at Sarah Lawrence College and the HB Studio (run by Herbert Berghof and Uta Hagen), Clayburgh spent nearly a decade onstage before making the leap to film in the early 1970s. By the end of the decade, she was one of Hollywood's most respected actresses, earning an Academy Award nomination (and Best Actress honors at Cannes) for her portrayal of a Manhattanite going through divorce in 1978's An Unmarried Woman. She earned another Oscar nomination as a girlfriend of divorcee Burt Reynolds in 1979's Starting Over.

Twenty-five years later, An Unmarried Woman intrigues in both its dated pop psychology and its thoroughly relevant performance by Clayburgh -- using writer-director Paul Mazusky's Oscar-nominated script. In one scene, Erica is talking to her therapist (played by real-life shrink Penelope Russianoff), and Clayburgh is allowed to say her lines with complete deliberation and space. Whether talking about orgasms or dreams, she is completely in the moment -- never rushed, never forced. Despite all the '70s trappings, the performance holds up brilliantly.

Despite this desire to "keep it real," life in Hollywood back then was still Hollywood, Clayburgh notes.

"I don't think I could handle that now," she says. "It would scare the shit out of me now -- that obsession with the looks, the incredible focus on the press. ... We were just sort of acting. Right after the '60s, it was just such a different time. Now it seems like it's all so strategic, so planned." She pauses. "Ugh. ... I look at Laura Linney -- she shows up, she wears her pretty dress, but you could look at her and say, she's a good actress. I would have been like her, then."

Almost as quickly as she rose, Clayburgh faded over the years because she made the rather traditional decision to take time off and raise a family with husband and playwright David Rabe (Hurlyburly). Clayburgh says she didn't so much as retire from the screen -- she stayed busy with lesser-noticed projects and TV work -- as she did shift her passion.

"I was just less focused on the whole (acting) thing," says Clayburgh, 59, who has a son and daughter. "I wasn't very good about juggling family and my career. It wasn't my strong suit. I was very interested in who was coming to the children's birthday party, what my son was writing. I was thinking about Legos."

About four years ago, as her children entered adulthood, Clayburgh started working more regularly. But as much as Hollywood had changed, the more it stayed the same; despite the groundwork she and her peers laid in the '70s, quality roles for actresses -- particularly middle-aged actresses -- were hard to come by. Even though she and co-star Jeffrey Tambor received critical praise for their work as middle-aged lovers in Eric Schaefer's 1997 film, Never Again, the film itself was panned.

Again, Clayburgh found satisfaction in her TV roles and onstage, and is refreshingly candid in her fondness for the small screen. Her appreciation for TV flies in the face of most established actors who see it as a place for "money" gigs. Why does she like it so much?

"One, they have great parts for people my age," Clayburgh replies. "And I like playing the same character in different situations and periods of time. And I kind like the speed. I don't like sitting around in my dressing room very much. It feels a lot like theater."

Jill Clayburgh and Bob Balaban -- despite both having careers intertwined in film, television and theater -- had never worked together before. But, she recalls, Balaban seemed to like Clayburgh in the little-seen Never Again, and wanted to cast her in The Exonerated. (Although Balaban is best known nationally for playing nebbish characters such as Phoebe's father on Friends, the Elaine-obsessed NBC executive on Seinfeld, and in Christopher Guest's mockumentary trilogy, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, he is better known in New York for his theater work.)

"He just called me," she says of Balaban. "It was very funny. He said, 'You don't have to come to rehearsal, you can just read [the script].'" Balaban was hoping to sell the role as an easy working experience, but Clayburgh misunderstood the pitch. "I said to my husband, 'I can't do it if I can't rehearse it!' So I told Bob, 'I love it but I really have to come to rehearsal.' And he said, 'Great!' I had to spend time with the material. I don't know how people do it; it's very complex."

Indeed, The Exonerated is not breezy theater, for cast, crew or audience. It is a harrowing if enlightening look at how anyone can get entangled in a judicial system that can wrongly convict -- and execute -- innocent people. Co-writers Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen approached Balaban to direct the play after they had interviewed several wrongfully convicted (later exonerated) people and wanted to tell their stories. Instead, Balaban recommended they re-fashion the work by also examining and incorporating court transcripts from the trials.

"There was no question it was great to hear them speak about themselves," Balaban says by phone. "We knew we would have to do something that looked like drama but it couldn't be fake. We wanted there to be more times where something was happening before your eyes. If you're going to absorb these stories, we had to do more than just tell you what happened; we had to show you what happened."

This approach led to Balaban's rather bold choice to remove as much artifice from the play and have it almost feel like a staged reading -- but not quite. Actors do come out on stage, where the biggest props are chairs and music stands holding scripts, but these scripts remain virtually unread as the actors focus their attention on the audience. The most elaborate production value comes from a few dramatic sound effects: cell doors slamming, the buzz of an electric chair.

"It kept telling us to strip everything away," Balaban says. "This way you will find ... that nobody is trying to pull the wool over your eyes."

In Jill Clayburgh, Balaban sees someone who can play Sunny Jacobs -- who along with her husband was wrongfully convicted in the shooting death of a police officer -- with a ring of familiarity.

"Sunny was not an uneducated kid from wrong side of the tracks," Balaban says. "She was from a good family, and went to school with people I know. Jill's background is not that dissimilar; Sunny is smart, vulnerable, wise, spiritual, and so is Jill.

"There's always an aura of truth about Jill; she's just interested in real things. Jill is about being as honest and real with you as Sunny is. When you put Jill Clayburgh onstage, you immediately watch everything she's doing. ... That's critical for the part of Sunny Jacobs. If for a minute you don't think she's innocent, you're not going to go with her."

For Clayburgh, the experience was another opportunity to discover something about herself; at 59, she shows no signs of settling into a groove as an actress. "I don't theorize too much," she says. "I sort of let the experience sink in, and I have to discover what the character is by doing it, and having those thoughts that she's thinking, and making it real."

In Balaban, she found a director who, like her, was in no hurry to get the right idea out of her character, whether in discovery or onstage.

"He's the only director who said, 'Go slower -- your character can really afford to take time,'" she says. "His notes kept saying, 'You really need to take more time, to reveal yourself more slowly.'"

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