Madame president


While Americans were looking for a president who could inspire hope, so were the producers of “24.” Last season’s leaders ran amok, and the show’s writers wanted to shake things up with someone who could stand up to Jack Bauer.

Fortunately for them, stage veteran Cherry Jones, best known for her Tony Award-winning performance as a stalwart nun in John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” had just become available.

“Any time someone offers a middle-aged actress the part of the president on a beautifully produced show, you’re going to say yes. It’s irresistible,” said the 52-year-old, husky-voiced actress. Even if madame president will inevitably need to lean on Bauer? “Well, I like underdogs who are up against it. I love playing decent people put in impossible situations, wrestling with their souls.”


As President Allison Taylor, Jones will have more than her soul to wrestle with in the show’s Season 7 premiere tonight on Fox. From the outset, it seems the odds are stacked against her character.

A military intervention to prevent genocide abroad soon morphs into a calamitous national-security situation -- one whose resolution would typically fall to ace operative Bauer. But CTU (Counter Terrorism Unit) has been disbanded, and its onetime hero is standing trial for his unorthodox, often ultra-violent methods of protecting the country.

Meanwhile, in the midst of that international crisis, the new president must deal with a personal one as well. Her son is dead, an apparent suicide, but the tragic event has sent her husband on a mad chase to find a possible murderer.

If that wasn’t appealing enough to the actress, the show itself returns as something of an underdog. Coming off a year-and-a-half absence -- and a sixth season widely criticized as punchless -- the show’s creative forces are eager to demonstrate the former Emmy Award winner is back on track.

By landing Jones as their female commander in chief, it instantly energizes the program, said the producers, by allowing them to explore gender role reversal, establish a formidable foil to Bauer, and anchor the show with a sturdy actress.

“You believed her immediately as president,” executive producer Evan Katz said of their first meeting.

Howard Gordon, also one of the show’s executive producers, recalled that even in small movie parts like “Ocean’s Twelve” “she had a toughness that wasn’t forced.”

“It’s like playing kings in Shakespeare,” Gordon continued. “It requires a certain seriousness and gravity, and she’s got it.”

Just days from shooting the show’s final episode, the Tennessee native conceded that it was strange going from theater where the beginning, middle and end to every story is known to “putting yourself in the hands of the writers and the great unknown.”

“After seven seasons, I imagine that the writers’ jobs are getting harder and harder,” Jones said, smoking in front of the fireplace in her temporary apartment in the Hollywood Hills on a rainy December evening. “But you know, I’m a very slow reader, and every script I got I flew through. It was like reading this great espionage thriller that I was actually going to get to act out.”

Her initiation as a series regular to “24” was bumpy -- she had to endure the writers strike, which began in late 2007 and lasted three months. When Hollywood shut down, the layoff prompted the producers to rethink story lines -- Season 7’s initial premise was scrapped and turned into November’s two-hour movie “24: Redemption.”

Despite the turmoil, Cherry said she was reassured when producers told her the new president would be modeled after David Palmer (the second-season president, played by Dennis Haysbert): a noble leader faced with dire circumstances and a ticking clock.

She knows that kind of character. For two years, she played the strong-willed nun in Shanley’s “Doubt,” in which her character believes a priest has had an inappropriate relationship with an altar boy. Shanley said Jones attacked the part of Sister Aloysious like “a very forceful plow, going further and further. She finds that something, and she never lets go.” That’s also an apt description, Jones agreed, of the woman who narrowly lost the 2008 Democratic nomination for president, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- who at the time “24’s” seventh season was being written was still campaigning.

But Clinton doesn’t factor into Taylor’s portrayal. “I half-jokingly tell my friends Allison’s an amalgam of Eleanor Roosevelt, Golda Meir and John Wayne,” Jones said. “A lot of idealism and a steely resolve.”