Activist, actress, author and icon, Marlo Thomas is many things to many people. From her classic television role in the '60s sitcom That Girl, to her activism on behalf of children and women, to her return to television as Rachel's mother on Friends, Thomas has remained a wonderful presence. She also made an appearance on the bestseller's list in 2002 with her collection of inspiring personal stories, The Right Words at The Right Time.
In her portrayal of death-row inmate Sunny Jacobs, in the play The Exonerated, she gets to combine acting and activism.
Gregg Shapiro: Is the subject matter of The Exonerated, prisoners on death row, a topic about which you feel strongly?
Marlo Thomas: I think that like most Americans I've been all over it. You go back and forth. Do we have the moral right to kill people? That's one basic question. Another basic question is, How are you sure that people who commit terrible crimes are never on the street again? How can you ensure that? Another question is, How can you ensure that no innocent person will ever be put to death? There are lots and lots of questions to weigh. It's not an easy yes or no answer. If you're a thinking person, you've probably gone back and forth on this issue.
GS: Did you have a chance to meet and speak with the playwrights, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, about their experiences in writing the play?
MT: Oh, yes. But more importantly, I've been able to meet and speak with the woman that I portray. She's quite a fabulous spirit, I must say. She and her husband were wrongly accused of a murder. They were sentenced to death after a four-day trial—O.J. (Simpson) had a year and a half trial—with an appointed attorney, (because) they couldn't afford more than that. Her husband, an innocent man, was executed. She was on death row for 16 years. Her three-month-old daughter was taken from her. She had been nursing her, and she didn't know this until later, but they thought there was something wrong with the baby because it didn't know how to suck on a bottle. Her nine-year-old son was also taken from her. Her two children grew up without her. Her parents died while she was in prison. Her life was ruined. When she got out of prison—there's no remuneration for these people. You lose 16 years or 22 years. They open the door and they let you go. They don't give you a check for $20. Everybody was gone in her life. Her husband and her parents were dead. She didn't know where her children were. It was terrible. She has such a sweet spirit and such a joy about life. I asked her, 'How is it that you're not angry or bitter?' She said, 'Well, I was a little angry at one point. But the truth is, that line in the play that you say that I said,' which is 'I decided that I would believe that there was a power out there greater than them to which I can make my appeal.' And she said, 'Once I believed that, that there was a power out there greater than them, I did believe that I would get out. And once I believed that I would get out, I meditated and I did yoga and I did everything to put my mind at rest and keep myself together. Because when I did get out, I wasn't going to give them one more minute of my life.'
GS: The production of The Exonerated is opening in Chicago shortly after former Gov. George Ryan's declaration of clemency for prisoners on death row in Illinois. Do you think that that gives this production more significance?
MT: Probably. I would imagine that there is a tremendous amount of interest peaked in Chicago at this point.
GS: What has the experience of working under Bob Balaban's direction been like?
MT: He's just a terrific director. He's very full of information and guidance and he's got a lot of joy about him. He's very nurturing and very kind and he's a good guiding hand. I love him.
GS: What about Brian Dennehy?
MT: He's terrific. We don't have any scenes together. Most of the pieces are monologues. Some of the characters are married and they have people onstage with them that are their wives and so forth. We don't interact, but he's a terrific actor and a lovely man.
GS: At the same time that this production of The Exonerated is opening in Chicago, a production of The Guys, another play in which you've appeared, is also running. What was your experience of doing that play like?
MT: The interesting thing about The Guys and The Exonerated is that they are the actual words of the characters. In The Guys, I played a woman who is a reporter helping the fire captain, who has lost eight men in 9/11, write the eulogies. They were the exact words of the eulogies that we worked with. There was more dramatic license in that piece, because my character also talked about what she was feeling and her inner thoughts which were added by the playwright. In The Exonerated all the words are taken from the transcripts. It's startling because the audience and the actors all know and feel that this is really the heart and soul of these people. Each person is so different. More so than I think any playwright could write.
GS: Finally, I'm sure that you must be aware that you have a very substantial following in the gay and lesbian community.
GS: Would you like to say anything to those fans?
MT: Free to be! (Laughs) You're free to be, go for it!