Cover Story - Jill Hames means business — funny business

Atlanta actress Jill Hames doesn't exactly run away from her stage image as a bubbly wisecracker. She wears a "Cutie Pie" T-shirt to an interview and, whether in person or on Facebook, makes jokes with the frequency of a wacky neighbor on a sitcom. You feel like a laugh track should follow her around.

For years, Hames has proven her musical chops in lighthearted shows ranging from Once Upon a Mattress to Seussical to I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, but she doesn't want to restrict herself to funny business. "The only way I can stretch is to try new things. But in theater, the stakes are high. They aren't going to take a chance and say, 'Hire Jill for Medea!'"

She gets a change of pace with Becky Shaw, which opened Actor's Express's 23rd season this month. Hames plays a woman who has sex with her adopted brother after her father's death — and she's the normal one in Gina Gionfriddo's comedy. "In Becky Shaw I'm almost the straight man, which is great. I get to be like a real person and don't have to hide behind idiosyncracies. I've got musical comedy down, so it's really cool to do something different. It's great to be Viv instead of Lucy."

Hames rose to an even greater challenge at the beginning of Actor's Express' previous season, playing both Big Edie and Little Edie in the musical Grey Gardens. Hames prepared for the role by studying the beloved documentaries about Jackie Kennedy's most eccentric relatives. "These are two incredibly beautiful women. I'm a lot of things — I'm as cute as a button — but I'm not beautiful like that. I had to find connections to them. In the first act, it's Big Edie's joy in performing, and in the second, it's Little Edie's vulnerability under her strength."

Hames performing in a preview of last year's Grey Gardens

She traces her comedic sensibility to her childhood in Canton, Ga., where she was typecast as the witches, not the princesses, in school plays. "When I was 7 years old, in 1978, my brother died in a car accident. My mother loved 'The Carol Burnett Show,' but after that happened, she wouldn't leave her bedroom to watch it. So I'd watch the show and then go into the bedroom and act it out for her. I'm sure that has something to do with it." Burnett remains Hames' role model as an actress, funny or otherwise.

Hames believes in the importance of rehearsal and honing her comic timing, but she acknowledges that some aspects of humor just can't be taught. "It's learned and it's instinctual. The audience is like another character in the show, and they decide, to a certain extent, how it's told. But you can't give them everything they want, because you still have a story to tell. You and the audience decide together."

Despite her confidence and comfort level in performing, Hames feels like she can always learn more: "Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy took acting classes for their entire lives. I'm nowhere as good now as I will be when I'm 80."

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