Jeffrey Jones is one of America’s greatest character actors. Best known for his role as the bumbling dean Ed Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Jones has stolen scenes for almost 20 years in over 45 movies (and innumerable plays), including Amadeus, Easy Money, Howard the Duck, Beetlejuice, Stay Tuned, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, and Ravenous. This critically-acclaimed actor and all-around awesome person sat down with READ’s Brandon Campbell to discuss film, life, and Mom and Dad Save the World.
We looked for other interviews of yours, but couldn’t find any. Did you ever do talk show interviews?
No, I didn’t. I got scared and arrogant. When I did Amadeus and when Ferris Bueller’s Day Off came out, I had a lot of offers to do publicity and I just turned them down. And publicists don’t like that, when you say no. “What do you mean, no?”
Were you at all intimidated at time? Just having started out in film…
Yes, partly that. I think, “What have I got to say, what am I going to do? What is David Letterman going to ask me?” I drew a line between being an actor and being a celebrity, a commodity. I thought it was my job to disappear in the role and then pop up every now and again in something that’s good, and the people would say, “Oh, there he is again!”
A lot of time those talk shows don’t even ask interesting questions and it’s just, “Perform for us.”
Yeah. Be the dancing bear.
When I was a kid, every movie that I owned somehow had you in it! (laughter) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was my favorite movie for the longest time. I also collected novelizations of movies and I even have the novelization of Howard the Duck.
I have a whole collection of Howard The Duck comics that I put together when we were doing the movie. We thought it was going to be a big hit!
I remember walking out of the theater saying it was my favorite movie of all time, although it scared the shit out of me.
The director’s little daughter… every time she’d see me she would scream and cower in the corner. Oh boy, made me feel good. They were supposed to have Howard The Duck be computer-generated, but it didn’t work. And all of the sudden, there we were: A movie called Howard The Duck without a duck. No duck, no voice, no nothing. We had nothing. They suddenly had to make a duck suit to put a little person in, which was not the intention at all.
Which makes it that much more scary, I think…
So how did you go from pre-med to acting?
Does anybody really know what they want? Did you go to college?
I went to film school at School of Visual Arts. But I realized that it’s difficult because you put all your money into film school and then you don’t have any money left to make the films.
That’s right. I think just doing it is the best. And that’s really how it happened for me. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I’d always been in plays, but I never thought I’d ever do it professionally. I just did it because it was fun, that’s all. I was in numerous college productions. I got a call from the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis offering me a job in my sophomore year, on a Sunday. And he said if you can be here on Wednesday, you got a job. So I called my parents.
They probably hated the idea since you had been studying pre-med…
No! They said, “Great! Go ahead.” So I went. I spent a year there. It was just amazing. It was a wonderful experience for me. Tyrone Guthrie was still there, a very famous – and deservedly so – guy. He started the National Theater of Great Britain, The National Theater of Ireland, The National Theater of Australia, The Guthrie Theater, and the Stratford festival in Ontario, which was then the National Theater of Canada. He sort of saw me through all of it for years. I went to South America when I was 23. I decided I’d just go. I had been reading a lot of Joseph Conrad so I thought I’d go to South Africa and sit on a porch in a white suit and I’d have adventures. And then I got there and it wasn’t quite as adventurous as I’d thought. And the phone rang and it was Guthrie calling from an island in Ireland to Bonaire, the Netherlands Antilles. He tracked me down and he said, (British accent) “Dear Boy, have you had enough now?” And I said…”Yes!” And he said, “I’ve arranged for you to go to drama school and you should do that. So you have your choice.” So I got on an airplane (he got me a ticket), and off I went. There was the additional choice of going to Woodstock in a mail truck, which I had decided I didn’t want to do because it was supposed to rain that weekend and it didn’t sound like a good idea to me. So I went to London instead, and I’m glad I did.
How did all this turn into a film career?
They made films but I wasn’t in them. I didn’t know why. And then it dawned on me, I wasn’t available. I was always working someplace else. I was in Louisville or Seattle or someplace doing plays. So I thought I really ought to stay in New York. I made a conscious effort to stay in New York. I did a play called Cloud 9. Off-Broadway, it was a big success, a very good play. Milos Foreman saw it, and I got hired to do Amadeus. The same play actually got me another job. A film called Easy Money. And that was sort of the beginning of it.
Yes! With Rodney Dangerfield.
Yes. Jack Roy is his real name. Jack Roy, Paint Salesman. Before he was Rodney Dangerfield, he sold paint in a hardware store. (Begins flawless Dangerfield impression) “Okay, okay! I’m ready, I’m ready. Who do I talk to, what do I say? I wrote this! Hey! How ’bout I throw a line, how ’bout… “Hey!” Whadya think, whadya think?” (laughter)
He’s a strange character.
Yes, he is.
So are you most recognized from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?
And you don’t even have the mustache anymore.
I know, it’s amazing. It’s a movie that’s been on T.V. a lot, everybody’s seen it, it’s a very recognizable part. It was one of my better parts. But that’s somewhat of a problem.
So you’re recognized more by the names of your characters rather than your own name.
Yeah! Which is how I think it should be, for me. But there was a time when I was recognized a lot for Amadeus. Go figure that, because I’m totally unrecognizable in that.
I would say that you’re more recognizable in that than Ed Rooney. But, as I said, it’s the mustache.
After Amadeus came out, I had the most difficult time. My agent was not having any luck convincing people that I was right for their movies…I mean people saw the movie and they said, “Oh… he’s great! But, you know, we’re doing a cop movie that takes place in New York. Next time we do an English movie that takes place in the 18th century, we’ll call!” (laughs) And she said, “What do you think, this man is English and he lives in the 18th century? Cop movie, sure, why not??”
So what other character names do people shout out at you?
That’s pretty much it, Ed Rooney… And John Hughes told me at the time – and I thought he was just blowing his own horn – he said, “You are going to be known for this for the rest of your life.” And I thought, “Sure…”
You didn’t expect it.
No. But he was right. Very smart guy. Wonderful eye for what’s right.
And then you worked with him again.
Oh, barely. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. I wound up getting cut out, anyway. John hired people who he liked. People from his old movies just to make appearances. But really because it was a two character event, there was nobody else to talk to. They were bored out of their minds. There was nobody else on the set, it was them all the time.
But your secretary from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off made it in there.
Yeah, Edie McClurg. She used to live down the street from me.
We had good fun with that. We actually improvised all that stuff in the principal’s office. John said, “Just go.” So we did. It was fun.
Do you want to talk about Mom and Dad Save the World?
(Laughter) You know, that script was so funny. It was written by the same guys that did Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. We were making it as the Gulf War was about to happen. And the parallels between Todd and Saddam Hussein…This stupid little dictator, a greedy stupid little twerp. But it didn’t really translate. It was too silly, it needed to be more tongue-in-cheek because the story itself was so silly. If the costumes and sets hadn’t been so Wizard of Oz-y and been a bit more straight forward, it might possibly have been funnier. Anyway, it died the death. It disappeared without a trace.
I would just like to have seen you and Terry Garr in the suburbs for an entire movie.
That was a riot, we had so much fun. I had so much fun hitting the dog with the pie and rummaging through the refrigerator and going out and getting the paper. I just thought it was so funny, and so typical of that guy to bestir himself to get the newspaper! I drove as fast as I could and it worked. I thought it was funny.
Are there any directors in particular whom you would love to work with?
Oh, sure, there are lots of those. Peter Chelsom… I’d love to work with him just because I like what he’s done. He does these sort of mundane subjects, but with a twist. And Milos Foreman, who I really love. I’d love to work with him anytime. And Tim Burton, who I’ve worked with more than once, who I regard as my friend, even though I hardly ever see him.
I met him once, but it was at a signing, so it doesn’t really count. It was the signing for his Oyster Boy book.
Yeah. I’ve got a couple of original Oyster Boys. When he was developing the character, just dashing these things up, I said, “Oh Tim can I have that?” “Oh, sure.”
It’s very Edward Gorey.
Yeah. Tim is happiest when he’s all by himself, doodling. …Well, not doodling. I mean he’s a serious, serious artist. This is a happy thing for him. When we did Beetlejuice I thought he was on heroin. He just pushed his food around on a plate, pale as a ghost, black hair standing straight up, disappearing into space. But no, that’s just Tim!
Was he happy with Beetlejuice?
I think so, yeah. At the time, he still hadn’t worked with living people that much. He spent an awful lot of time alone as a kid, quiet. He didn’t interact too much, he felt uncomfortable. So he’s very comfortable working with people he knows because he doesn’t have to start all over again. He and Michelle Pfeiffer sort of grew up in the same neighborhood, and they were both valley kids, the ones who stayed indoors all the time and didn’t have any friends and were outsiders.
What else do you do, besides acting?
I think about fixing my house, I run around doing errands, looking after my family…I used to ski, I haven’t done that in a long time. I hike, which I like.
You’re in a lot of movies that are very original…
Well, that’s what I like to do. One of my peeves is branding. The tendency in America to have everything branded. Actors get branded. “Oh that person’s funny aha ha ha ha,” whether they’re funny or not, you know? It should be funny because it’s funny, not funny because you’re told it’s funny. Not funny because it’s loud and sort of shocking, but funny. Hopefully.
Do you prefer comedy to drama, or drama to comedy?
It depends on the story. Having started in the theater, I feel that what you’re supposed to do is tell the story. Each person’s job is to tell that story. And your job is to tell your part as interestingly as you can to make the story work. A story is constructed to keep the audience interested. It’s got peaks and valleys, so you have to understand what your function is in that regard.
What kind of advise do you have for aspiring actors and artists?
Go do it, that’s it. Don’t go to school. I mean, sure you can go to school because there’s a point at which that’s really useful, but don’t start out with that. Your interests lead you. You can’t wait for permission, you have to do it. You have to do it because you like it and you want it, and you learn by doing. And then, at some point, in order to unlearn your bad habits, you may need to go put yourself in the hands of somebody, just to train yourself out of your bad habits. It’s like taking a year off college, which I think is a very good idea. My son did that. It did him a world of good. Because you know when you’re in school, it’s just all kind of the same, this loooong process. And you need to get away from it to get some perspective on life and figure out what it is that you want to do and discover what’s real and get chastened a little bit. And go back and you get some renewed vigor and a little more direction. Everybody automatically goes to college. Why?
Now this is a little Jeffrey Jones movie reference game: Which character would you rather be for the rest of your life: Satan, or Satan’s Lawyer?
(Laughter) Satan would be fun. Eh, Satan’s Lawyer is boring.
Besides, you died as Satan’s Lawyer. Evil Alien bent on conquering the world, or Dad who saves the world from evil alien?
It’s always more fun to play a villain, but I think I’d be the ineffectual, paunchy, totally inappropriately named Hero. (laughter) In Mom and Dad, this complete loser who bestirs himself enough in this planet of idiots to actually make a difference.
Citizen of Transylvania or Citizen of Sleepy Hollow?
Oh, Transylvania is much more fun than Sleepy Hollow.
Emperor to spoiled music prodigy Mozart, or Principal to spoiled hooky prodigy Ferris Bueller?
It’s always better to be the king. I think I’d rather be the king. You get to do so much more, although poor Joseph II… Music was his refuge because everybody had to shut up while the music was playing. In reality, he was really a cool guy.