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The Trek Nation - Penny Johnson Jerald

Penny Johnson Jerald

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at June 3, 2002 - 5:02 PM GMT

Penny Johnson Jerald, who played Kasidy Yates Sisko on Deep Space Nine, has been enjoying recent notoriety playing Sherry Palmer, the scheming wife of a presidential candidate on 24. During the course of this season, facing an assassination threat against her husband, Sherry lied to David, pointed out his campaign's weaknesses, destroyed a tape containing a top-secret conversation, and set up another woman to sleep with her husband as a diversion from their own marital problems. Then she informed him that he didn't dare leave her because he couldn't survive without her.

Jerald comes across as Sherry's opposite. A star of The Larry Sanders Show who played a recurring role on ER simultaneously with the one on Deep Space Nine, Jerald has appeared in dozens of films and TV shows and currently runs a Christian theater company. She talked to Trek Nation on May 29th about the similarities between Palmer and Sisko, her acting choices, how she feels about her Trek fans and what she admires about Sherry. Spoilers abound for the 24 season finale.


Trek Nation: Hello, Ms. Johnson-Jerald... is it a hyphenate?

Penny Johnson Jerald: When I'm a 'Mrs.,' I'm a Mrs. Jerald. When I'm a 'full name,' I'm a Penny Johnson Jerald. I've been married for years - it's just that my husband and I were at one party too many last year and someone insisted on calling him Mr. Johnson. I said, I'll fix that one! I'll just use my whole name and they'll have to say it now.

Trek Nation: You've been married on television to two pretty powerful men. Who is it more difficult to be married to - Benjamin Sisko or David Palmer?

Jerald: Hah! I would say David Palmer - definitely David Palmer!

Trek Nation: What do you think of David at this point? Would you vote for him?

Jerald: Of course! I want to be First Lady! Without a doubt, I'd vote for him. I'm still in love with him. Very much, deeply in love with him. She's only doing this out of love. She's operating out of fear, but it stems from love. Operating out of fear, you will take drastic measures - stop at nothing really.

Trek Nation: Do you know anything about what will happen to Sherry and 24 next season yet?

Jerald: It's all a big secret!

Trek Nation: Can you say whether you think Sherry's coming back?

Jerald: She's made some threats, so unless she's making empty threats, you know... but I can't discuss it. It's really, truly secret.

Trek Nation: David said something fairly unlikely, 'I never want to see you again,' which when you're saying to the mother of your children doesn't tend to work...

Jerald: Absolutely! We have two kids. Our kids are old enough to get married, they're old enough to have children.

Trek Nation: And it sounds like they've been closer to their mother than their father for the past few years. Did you find David sanctimonious in the end, when he made that speech about Sherry's not being worthy to be First Lady?

Jerald: I found it to be shocking, coming from a place of not really knowing what to do. I don't know if sanctimonious is the proper word for me to describe it. It came out of left field. Just like Sherry is operating out of fear, that was a desperate act, to stand ground and to take control of the ship again: 'I'm making the decisions.'

Trek Nation: How did you feel about Sherry setting Patti up to sleep with David? Did you see that coming?

Jerald: No, I didn't! I said, wait a minute! Am I going to come in on the two of them, because this woman, you know... I'm thinking that the audience would like to see a huge confrontation. When I got wind of what we were going to do, I wanted to play it that way. Why not give them a great surprise, which is, that's Sherry's last resort - in a way, pimping her, so that she can stay under his wing.

Trek Nation: The two men came off looking like complete saints...

Jerald: Oh, I know, and the women! But you know what? They're men writing this! I just loved the strong role models. We'd just come out of that election, you know - the secret one - and I always imagined what was happening in those hotel rooms. I'm feeling quite political right now; I've never felt so political in my life other than this past election, so that was a great attraction. It was fuel to want to do something like that. I liked the strength of this character and I seem to be drawn towards roles that are very real and honest. She's married, they have children, so let's not sap it up - let's make it real. They argue. They kiss. They play.

Trek Nation: Did the writers give you any backstory?

Jerald: Not really. When we were shooting, the director and I had a brief conversation, because Sherry is not just a politician's wife. We decided that she was a lawyer. We talked about that so that we could have a basis from which to work - why else would this attraction with David last so long, for 25 years? She has to have some smarts. And about the fifth episode, when she tells him that she's just as ambitious as he is - that was the attraction, but maybe they were competitive on some level.

Trek Nation: Do you think that if she'd thought she had a realistic shot, she would have been the one running for president?

Jerald: She is running! She believes in her husband. You know, behind every great man, there is an incredible woman!

Trek Nation: Were you channeling Hillary Clinton or Lady Macbeth?

Jerald: In hindsight, she is a combination of both of them, truly. It did not click with me that this is Macbeth until one of the producers said, 'I just saw that scene - "I'm just as ambitious as you are, David, that's why you married me."' That's a Lady Macbeth scene, and I would hear fans say it. She is turning on his weaknesses, as Lady Macbeth says to Macbeth, 'You suck the milk of human kindness.' There's a lovely passage in Macbeth when Lady Macbeth tells him that she would pluck the babe from her breast. I will stop at nothing, I will do anything to protect my family, and he has to do that too - he is the great general, he is Macbeth. She has to push him and push him, because she'll stop at nothing to win that presidency.

Trek Nation: How did you feel about her when she announced that she would let Kim Bauer die to protect David's candidacy?

Jerald: I was actually surprised when I saw it aired because they cut the one line that was very crucial. He says his daughter will die, and I say, 'Oh, I am sorry, I had no idea...but this is difficult, we can't let these people believe that.' But they cut 'I'm sorry.' I went 'Mmm, vicious!' So that was actually one real surprise to me when viewing it. Because I am a mother, I made decisions about how to play that. I touch my children to show them affection. I wanted to be very real and honest, because Penny's a mother.

Trek Nation: Sherry was the one who was there for her kids for those seven years, but after the son's big reconciliation scene with David, she basically didn't have another scene with the children. Do you think she would use her children, the way David seemed to accuse her of doing?

Jerald: Absolutely not. That's where she draws the line. That's where she's different from Lady Macbeth, who does all this stuff without feeling. Sherry does it with the utmost feeling. She knows there are consequences to bear. She's like an iron butterfly, very strong and feeling invincible but still, she has feelings. She would have taken the bullet for her kids, absolutely, but she would not let her children go down. I would like to have seen her with her kids just a little more, but of course we started ripping up the last bit of the 24 hours. We cut to the chase. It would have been interesting to see that dynamic with the children.

Trek Nation: Did you like the ending, or did you expect it to end with Sherry and David hand in hand waving to their constituents?

Jerald: Absolutely not. I think that would have been a copout. You have to give the audience some kind of cliffhanger, and give yourself many directions in which to go. I think they did a great job in keeping themselves open to go anywhere. Yes, it was a surprise, to some extent, but not such a huge surprise, because she's been at him and at him and he is a strong man. During the course of the 24 hours, she picks out his weaknesses over and over, and at some point, that has to rear its ugly head.

You know, I actually see a similarity between Sherry and Kasidy. When Kasidy was thought of as a traitor, she truly believed that she was doing what was right. And I believe Sherry is getting at what she believes is right: her husband in the presidency. She knows that she has to make some choices that may not line up with the righteousness, but she's willing to make that sacrifice.

Trek Nation: I heard that Avery Brooks objected to the ending of Deep Space Nine, with the idea that Sisko was not coming back to his wife and children. Did you have any moments like that with 24?

Jerald: No one ever wants to die at the end of the series because there's always hope that there will be a revival. But also, on Deep Space Nine, having this top authority figure who no matter how you look at him is African-American, he is such a huge role model - a man who's a single father, who never left his son. When you look at what's happening in the world today, you find they'd like for us to believe that there are a bunch of deadbeat dads and they'd like for us to believe that most of them happen to be African-American. And you have this man who stands for so much good - people are watching that. It's the same playing Sherry, being with David and our two children - no matter how you look at us, our skin says we're African-American. It says, these are people too.

Trek Nation: The series did an interesting job trying to minimize that as an issue once it became clear the assassination attempt had nothing to do with his race.

Jerald: Oh, I was very happy with the way they handled that. But the realities inside the family are affected. As Sherry says, 'Your father is running for president. A black man! Don't you know how difficult that is already, why do you want to add to that?' That's part of the frustration too - we've got to make this happen. This is history that we're making right now, folks. It's not the race card, but it is a factor in the equation. So I understand how and why Avery would not like being dead and leaving his family. No man really wants to leave his family, not when you have a loving wife and an incredible son. So he's not really dead!

Trek Nation: Did you have thoughts about where Kasidy was going after the series ended?

Jerald: Every series that I have finished, I would like to know what happens afterwards. And with Star Trek especially, because more than any other show, there is always life after the series. The fans are so amazing, you want them to see you again. I'd love to resurrect Kasidy Yates. I'm a Deep Space Nine fan. I thought that they dealt with issues and real people in a futuristic way, things that would happen.

Trek Nation: What do you do as an actor if you're doing a show where you're working on an arc, working from a set of expectations about your character, and one day they hand you a script like the one with Kasidy and the Maquis, with something that you never saw coming? Did you have anything like that on 24, that you never thought was part of your character?

Jerald: Well, fortunately 24 is truly a moment by moment performance. 'Two hours later' is truly two hours later. You look at that and you try to justify your behavior. You go back and think, okay, how do I get from this point A to point D now if B and C are missing? You look at what behavior will help you and make it honest.

I tend to look for the physical behavior to make it real, to tie up those loose ends. Because you're playing moment-by-moment, you're playing what's true on the page, so if you continue, and you marry what's true, and there's no real falseness, there's nothing that's phony, you're not fooling the audience; the audience is with you and they'll respect the choices that you're making. And also, when you're operating out of fear - which is the wonderful thing about playing 'bad' or 'evil' characters - any behavior is acceptable. Everywhere I go now, I have people say, 'We just love to hate you, you're so bad!' It's funny. You're playing passion and really trying to get what you want, to get your point across - you're playing the truth - and it just translates that way.

Trek Nation: In an arc like 24's, where they may know secrets about your character that they haven't yet told you, how much leeway do the actors get to decide how to play the character's reactions?

Jerald: You have these writers who are writing something where they know where it's going, and you have a director with a great vision, and a producer who has really lived with this and knows what he wants. And you have this thing called trust - trusting that the artist is going to deliver. I've had a good time at having people trust me in the decisions that I make playing Sherry. You look at it and, having the background and the know-how, you just go for it. If it looks like you're going off the wall, I'm sure someone would bring you back, but in my case fortunately Sherry is someone that is in my back pocket. We're only playing extensions of ourselves - some of those extensions are places that we keep sealed, but they are there, or else you couldn't pull them out.

Trek Nation: Your credit was 'special guest star,' and I wondered if that meant you weren't going to survive for all the episodes.

Jerald: It meant I was doing something else when I signed on to the pilot - I was doing Citizen Baines at the time, but Citizen Baines didn't go. So I was able to do both. This turned out to be something quite wonderful. When I was reading the script, I thought, this looks like fun, but I had no idea of the longevity of it; I had no thought of life with it past just the pilot, because I was doing something else.

Trek Nation: How much interaction did you get with the people not in the Palmer campaign? You guys were on different sets most of the time.

Jerald: We would see each other at events and parties, and we'd see each other in passing in looping. 'Hey! Did you die?' or 'Oh my gosh, you are so bad!' I tend to watch and become a fan of what it is I'm doing or else I have no business doing it, because I want you to watch it too.

Trek Nation: When you landed in the Deep Space Nine universe, were you a fan? You basically have not done conventions, right?

Jerald: No, but I would do a convention because I love my Star Trek fans. They're wonderful. When my agent asked me about this interview, she said, 'I guess I'm not going to ask you if you want to do it. When do you want to do it?'

I am in love with my Star Trek experience. I was not a Trekkie before doing it. I did it because my husband is a die-hard Trekkie, let me tell you. I did a couple of appearances but I have never done a convention and I've been told that the conventions are wonderful. I had six years of Larry Sanders and I was doing Star Trek at the same time, and the fan mail from Star Trek was out of this world.

However, I can't walk in the streets now, because of Sherry Palmer. She is the J.R. [Ewing] of 24, I'm telling you! They love to hate her! Being able to play Sherry has made people understand, okay, actors, they actually act! It's been a door-opening experience.

Trek Nation: Listening to you talk about Sherry, I'm reminded of Marc Alaimo, who seems to think that Dukat was the misunderstood hero of Deep Space Nine - he never thought he was playing a villain.

Jerald: I have to believe that Sherry is that loving, passionate woman and wife and mother who will not let anyone disrupt her pen there. I have to believe that. I would ask, 'Why didn't you just go to your husband and tell him?' But then there would be no juicy story! She must have thought about it. Seven years. Every day. It was a haunting thing in the background. Something that you thought, maybe it's dead because we're so far away from it, but then in the past 24-hour period it has come and reared its ugly head to the fullest, and I'm going to do everything I can to keep it down.

Trek Nation: Will it be a problem for you if they come to you with a script where you throw your kids to the wolves to protect yourself?

Jerald: I would never be able to play her. That's too one-dimensional. She's multi-faceted and that's the beauty of her; you don't know what she is going to do. She is unpredictable and that's how I like her! Let's just hope she doesn't end up walking the halls wiping out these damn spots.

Trek Nation: I just hope we see her again. Did they make all of you sign contracts promising that you wouldn't get haircuts or gain or lose more than five pounds?

Jerald: No, but it's a decision that you make when you take on a job and you're committed to delivering the role. This role, without a doubt, says that for 24 episodes, you're not going to change, so as an artist that' s your courtesy and common sense. I was able to sneak a trim, because my hair was much too long in the pilot. We had gotten it so flat and it was so long because I was going back and forth doing that other thing. I said, somehow we have to get a more presidential-looking hairdo out of this!

Trek Nation: So you had it up in a towel for pretty much a whole episode. You had lots of nice excuses for costume changes, too... the business suit, the bathrobe, the party dress.

Jerald: And it worked! We have a great costume designer, and working with him, I said, 'Can we get out of that brown skirt that we wore in the pilot?'

Trek Nation: After Star Trek costumes, were any of them that bad?

Jerald: Believe it or not, I had a lot of nice costumes on Star Trek. They were just different colors. I had a pink one, a green one, a blue one, I had plenty. At the wedding I actually wore a dress that was made for me. Bob built a lovely dress, it was actually an incredible dress, I felt elegant and beautiful in it. And I still have my bouquet from that scene! It's like dried weeds, but I won't get rid of them! I have one of the last masks that - I'm having a senior moment on his name. I have Rene's character's mask in a great box.

Trek Nation: Odo. Did you know that Kasidy would be a recurring role when Jake fixed her up with his dad?

Jerald: I didn't know how strong or how long Kasidy would last, but I did know upon arrival on the set and meeting Avery that this instant chemistry would just be a waste if they didn't do anything with it! I've been very fortunate having great chemistry with my leading men. That is a blessing, because I'm telling you, not to like someone, or not being attracted in any way to someone, would make it very difficult.

But I've had the best leading men - Avery Brooks and Dennis Haysbert. I've had these wonderful hunks. And then I get to go home to my real-life one! It really works when you have wonderful co-stars who respect your husband and your marriage. It makes for a beautiful thing.

Trek Nation: Is Hollywood as bad in that regard as everyone makes it sound?

Jerald: Not for Penny Johnson Jerald. I've been married forever, happily, sickeningly sweetly, affectionately married to the same man, and I'm probably one of the last ones. People know that about me, they respect that, so I get along quite well. I think you have to put your foot down and not get carried away. It is work, and we really don't have to take these people home with us.

Trek Nation: You do a lot of theater as well as the camera stuff?

Jerald: My husband and I have a theater company in Los Angeles. I direct a lot, and produce. I have a Christian theater company, because there is a built-in audience and I'm telling you, there's nothing like watching people who want something out of an evening. We produce two huge productions a year, and we combine amateurs and professionals together, so that we can pull up the amateurs and do networking for them, and give back to the community.

Trek Nation: It's interesting how many television actors really want to be doing theater.

Jerald: Well, television affords the theater company to operate. We produce people's original work, so we have writers whose work hasn't been seen, so they have an opportunity to show it. We use up-and-coming designers so that their work can be seen. We do it at the church where we are members, and I can't even describe that experience. I put at least 12 weeks into each production.

What's beautiful is that when I'm doing a television show, every television show has been a major contributor to the production. 24 played a large role in supplying me with a set for this last big production. Star Trek housed me with makeup. The Westmores were wonderful, sending their students over to do hair and makeup. It's a way to really network and use all of your resources, and give mention to those people. The community really gives. And the Christian community especially, because we do things with great messages. We don't do 'religious' plays, we do plays that will make you think and go, 'Oh! Maybe I will choose this right thing over this wrong thing the next time.' That's been a backbone for everything that I do.

Trek Nation: Do you work a lot with young people?

Jerald: I am really clear with that. I am a disciplinarian. I'm from the old school. I'm a graduate of the Juilliard School, I'm a teacher, I'm a drill sergeant, so if you're not serious about this art, I don't have the tolerance to work with you. So I usually am working with adults. As a matter of fact, I even suggest that you not bring your children to some of our pieces, because there's violence and there's things that could be over their heads. It is for people to get a message, so I don't want children disturbing those people who are coming to really receive something. I don't say you can't bring them, I just won't put them in the first two rows in any house. And I love children!

Trek Nation: Are there other projects you're working on?

Jerald: Right now I am working on my husband's CD. We have a recording studio and I am anxious to get this CD out - that's really important to me. This particular CD is going to be innovative in that it is a remix and remake of some Negro spirituals with updated music, which means you have melodies and words that actually relate to people. It's quite nice. So we're excited about that.

Trek Nation: Did you meet him singing?

Jerald: No, I met my husband in the back of a church! He tells me not to open up my mouth as far as singing is concerned.

Trek Nation: Would you like to see Sherry and David reconcile on 24next season? Or would that be telling?

Jerald: I can't say anything! But whatever happens will happen. I'm a firm believer that what's meant to happen will happen.

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Michelle Erica Green reviews Enterprise episodes and Star Trek books for the Trek Nation, as well as Andromeda episodes for SlipstreamWeb. She has written for magazines and sites such as SFX, Cinescape and Another Universe. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.