No More Plain Jane

Interview by Steve Goldman
Published in "The Mail on Sunday (U.K.), March 7 1999


Jane Leeves couldn't make it as an actress in Britain- except as a Benny Hill bimbo- so she decided to take her chances in America. There she hit the big time, playing dear old Daphne in TV's FRASIER. Now she's hobnobbing with the Clintons and taking her clothes off again.

The odd thing about Jane Leeves - or one of them- is that she is so unknown in Britain. The 36 year old English actress has been a star in America since landing the part of nurse Daphne Moon in Frasier, but mention her name in this country and you get a blank stare. If Leeves turned up in her home town of East Grinstead tomorrow, the only heads she'd turn would be of her schoolmates.
    There is no doubt that this low profile is proving a bit irritating to a woman who has fought to attain all the trappings of stardom in Los Angeles - gorgeous husband, closet of slinky dresses, stratospheric salary (a reported £22,000 an episode). And now, it seems, she has decided to do something about it. Last month saw the opening of her first movie -Don't go breaking my heart, which was made in Britain and co-stars Anthony Edwards, Jenny Seagrove and Charles Dance. To further her offensive, Leeves has posed in suspenders and a bra in a raunchy photo shoot in a British men's magazine and set up her own production company. Her aim, she says, only half-joking, is to "find great material for myself, and try to get the English people to respect me."

We are talking at her production company, Bristol Cities, which is next door to the Frasier set at Paramount Pictures in Los Angeles. It is a gloomy Tuesday afternoon; rain spatters the windows. On television, Leeves presents a frumpy image as Daphne Moon, the no-nonsense carer to Frasier's disabled dad, and an oasis of sanity in the crazy world of psychiatrist Frasier Crane. In real life, she is elegant in an understated way, and surprisingly tall. Today, her dark hair is puled off her face and she's dressed in a simple white T-shirt and Jeans. She has just had lunch with her husband Marshall Coben - a Paramount executive so good looking he could be a romantic lead - and she is now, she reports, "trying to knuckle down and get this little company we have here of the ground". As she speaks the phone rings, but she ignores it and lights a cigarette. "Do you mind?" she asks, rhetorically.
    This habit - so bad for the skin - is one of the few remaining clues to her English roots. So is the secret joke in the name of her production company (Bristol Cities is rhyming slang for a word beginning with T). But in most ways, Leeves is now more American than English. She is openly ambitious, and her soft English accent - she fakes Daphne Moon's Lancashire voice - has been replaced by a distinctly American one, which is why, when Frasier began, everyone in Britain assumed she really was American. When I mention this, however, she bridles. "Well, that's charming isn't it?" she says. "Basically, this show wasn't made for an English market. The accent I use has to be understood by an American audience."

I move onto the more neutral subject of Eddie, the acrobatic Jack Russell in Frasier who is, in the eyes of some fans, the best thing in the show. Unfortunately, this doesn't go down well, either. "It's remarkable," Leeves sighs wearily. "People seem to think he's a person. Like he comes up with everything he does on the show. Whereas they've had a trainer in there training him for hours...I've actually heard people ask the trainer "How much does he make?"'
    How much does he make?
    Leeves looks at me. "Enough to retire on, I guess," she drawls.
    Does she suffer from Eddie envy?
    "I think we all do, to a degree," Leeves says with a short laugh. "It sort of really irked us that he made it to the cover of  Entertainment Weekly before any of us. There was his little face with his tongue hanging out."

In terms of fame, the best way to think of Jane Leeves as the American equivalent of, say, a star from Coronation Street, but much, much more powerful - Americans take their network television shows very seriously, and none more seriously than Frasier.
    As the sitcom has gone from strength to strength (it has clocked up an unrivalled 16 Emmy awards), so Leeves has become more famous and her image more starry. The American papers now carry pictures of her in floor-length spaghetti strap gowns and she gets mobbed in supermarkets. Recently, she met the Clintons at The White House. Bill, she says, didn't make a pass. "But I've got a picture where he has his arm around me." She perks up. "Maybe I could say he made a pass at me and use it for publicity for the company."
    Was she upset that he didn't?
    "Well," she says carefully, "you can see he has an eye for the ladies. But you can see that with a lot of men. You don't have to be a fool to know that this man enjoys a woman and enjoys a pretty face. But there is still something quite wonderful about him, I think, and the two of them are very warm and welcoming."
    Even though Leeves is not a US citizen ("I get to pay taxes, though"), she considers herself an American in that it was in LA that "I became who I am". She arrived at the age of 21, after the sort of fame-obsessed childhood that characterizes so many successful actresses.

She was born in Essex, the daughter of a nurse and electrician, moved to East Grinstead at the age of two and, at the age of five, decided she wanted to be a ballerina. Her drive was apparent when she went for an audition at a local dance and drama school. Although she had been given the number nine, out of twenty, she pushed in at the front of the barre. "It was blind ambition and innocence. The other girls were older and the steps were very hard, but I went at it like a bull.." She won a a place, but her parents couldn't afford the fees, so she applied for a scholarship. "There was no room for failure," she says. "They gave me the scholarship."
    Her dreams came to an abrupt end when she fell down the stairs and injured the ligaments in her ankle. She could still dance, but she would never be a prima ballerina, so she turned to pan B. "I'd always thought that when I got too old for ballet, I'd start acting, so I just did it sooner rather than later."
    She won bits and pieces of acting work, but nothing special; old photos show her smiling in suspenders and a bra on The Benny Hill Show ("all that Benny Hill stuff is out there," she says grimly), and she did a sketch on Morecambe and Wise. It was after a stint dancing on the QE2 that she decided to go to California to seek fame and fortune. With $1,000 in her pocket and her mother's tearful voice echoing in her ears, she moved in with the mother of a friend and tried to get work.

She didn't succeed. Or rather she did - packing nail accessories in a factory ( she was fired for chatting), baby-sitting and selling souvenirs. After she had paid for her acting classes, she could barely afford to eat. She would volunteer to clean up after food fights in class so she could eat the leftovers. She became very depressed and has quoted in the past as saying that she had two nervous breakdowns. "But I stuck in there. I just knew something would happen, even though my parents were desperate for me to go home."
    It may have been this dark period that bred her surprising insecurity. Although she has succeeded in a way that thousands of actresses can only dream of, she is dogged by the conviction that she doesn't deserve it.
    "There's a lot of that "I'm not worthy" stuff," she admitted two years ago. "A lot of that "I don't belong here" business. That someone's going to come along and say: "Please pack up your things and go."" Most actresses suffer occasional crises of confidence, but in Leeves's case, the insecurity is so bad that, on one occasion, both her husband and sister urged her to visit a therapist when she burst into tears after seeing herself on television. "But I won't," she says. "I'm used to living with my insecurities."
    Indeed, she is quite open about them. Before she met her husband, Leeves told chat show host Arsenio Hall that she hadn't had a date for four years. Looking at her, it's hard to imagine. "I feel like a nun." she lamented.
    She met her husband at the office Christmas party. "We used to have a party with the cast of Wings [ A US sitcom set in a n airport departure lounge] every year, because Grub Street Productions produced Frasier and Wings. Each show has a paramount executive and my husband was the liaison on Wings.  I walked into the party and this guy came running up to me. He said: "Do you remember me? We had a a blind date eight years ago." And I was like: "Yes - gulp - what are you doing here?" And he said: "Well, I came with my friend." This guy came over from the bar, and all the Frasier people there said that they watched us fall in love right there and then. Love at first sight. He has this amazing smile - you can tell everything about him from it - and from his first words, I just knew. It was like we'd known each other for years."
    Leeves is so devoted to her husband that she's happy to spend her weekends watching him surf at their rented house on Zuma beach. "One day," she says, "he may take over this whole lot," and sweeps her arm to indicate the whole Paramount studio.

In many ways, she is now living the great American dream, but this doesn't stop her feeling hurt that she isn't well known in Britain, and she is not fond of the British press, which she claims - without much obvious evidence - has crucified her. She thinks British people are quick to criticise success whereas, in Hollywood, "there's a sense that nothing is impossible. I had a dream that I wanted to be an actress and here I am, sitting in my offices on the Paramount lot, running my own company, on a hugely successful TV show with offers to do all kinds of things. Who would have thought that was possible? I drive home everyday up Gower and I see the Hollywood sign ahead of me, and I'm thrilled. But I never forget where I came from. I never forget what it took to get here."
     What did it take? "Hard work, determination, and a lot of luck."
    Leeves  endured 18 months of poverty before she landed a part in the sitcom Murphy Brown, along with her roommate Faith Ford - at that point, they were so poor that they shared a bed - and four years into the role, things started to happen. Leeves appeared in  one episode of Seinfeld and was offered a part in a drama called Nurses. By then, Frasier, a spin off from Cheers, was on the horizon.
    "I had heard that the casting agent for Frasier had said to my agent: "Don't make a move without telling me." We called the  Frasier producers and they faxed me a scene. I read it and it was brilliantly written. I went in and read for them. Kelsey [Grammer, who plays Frasier Crane] came in and read with me. We had a great chemistry and they said: "Hired."
    The chemistry seems to have continued. Leeves glows when she talks about Frasier. "Everybody always says when they come to the set that this is one of the best experiences they've ever had on one of these shows. Where do I think it comes from? Kelsey. He's the show. You hear nightmares about other shows where the tone is set by the leading person. Kelsey sets the tone. He's a joy to be around."
    The cast are so close that Leeves has set up her production company with Peri Gilpin, who plays Roz, Frasier's studio manager. Even when the cameras are off, the cast get on like a house on fire and go on holiday together. "We crave each other's company, " says Leeves. But in the show, will she ever get together with Niles, Frasier's brother, played by David Hyde Pierce, who is madly in love with Daphne? No, she lets slip, she won't. Instead, an affair with Niles's divorce lawyer is on the cards. "Poor Niles, " she croons, as if he's a real person.

What Leeves doesn't mention, however, are Kelsey Grammer's well documented problems with drink and drugs, following the murders of his father and sister. What was her reaction to his very near breakdown?
    Leeves sighs. "It was very, very hard for us. To watch a great man like that in a way destroying himself. He never brought it to work with him, though. He was always very professional. You just knew that there was this other side of his life that was sort of a little bit out of control. When you reach the level of success that he has, it's hard to accept. Why me? How come I get all of this and the people in my life have been ripped away so terribly? We saw someone in a lot of pain and it was very upsetting for us. It was a very emotional time. You just wanted to be able to help him so badly, and there's so little you can do. But to witness how he's come out of it and is now able to enjoy his successes..."
    Leeves herself is finely attuned to the difficulties of coping with fame. "Now I'm doing okay, I'm more fearful of screwing up," she was reported as saying three years ago. She is astonishingly self-critical. Asked what has been her most embarrassing moment on screen, she squirms: "Oh gosh, there are so many." She shows me a caricature of her in Entertainment Weekly magazine. "My head is enormous," she moans. Perhaps her low self esteem is exacerbated by the meteoric success of Jim Carrey, Ellen DeGeneres and Winona Ryder, all of whom did acting classes with her when they were all unknowns. "There are so many things I want to do and a level of success I haven't achieved yet," she says.
    Not long ago, Leeves had a cancer scare - a lump on her thyroid that turned out to be benign - and she is obviously broody, tending her sick cats like children and even hiring a nurse for one of them when she had to go away. When her sister had a little boy, she got so involved with him she was reluctant to go to work. But if she is trying for a baby herself she doesn't say so.
    "My husband and I have been married for a year and five months now. We were gung-ho to have children. And then we said "We need some time together." Now I've just started this company, there are some things I want to get off the ground before I start doing that. And I know I'm the type of mother who would be like; "I don't want to do that job, I want to be with my baby.""
    In fact, despite her obvious ambition, there is a sense in which she doesn't enjoy her celebrity at all. "It's getting to the point where it's becoming slightly annoying. I used to be able to go shopping and just blend in with everyone else. Today, i stopped off at the supermarket to get sandwiches for everyone and I was approached four or five times and sort of accosted at the checkout by these young teenage boys. "Oh! It is you!" And I'm trying to sign these things and the checkout lady is giving me filthy looks. I find I don't like going out to places by myself any more."
    She gets up to say goodbye and I leave her to get her 'little company' off the ground. Like so many aspects of her character, it seems contradictory. But that's Jane Leeves for you. Perhaps it is the secret of her success.

Interview transcribed by Abby Fletcher.