By Chris Azzopardi
Photos: Robert Ascroft and Courtesy of 1091
Judith Light got her start on One Life to Live in 1977 as housewife-turned-prostitute Karen Wolek, but the luminous screen and stage actress couldn’t be confined to a daytime soap. Her boundless range and abundant empathy for others are suffused into nearly a half-century’s worth of characters she’s played with the same gentle spirit that greeted me on the phone recently. Her role on the classic 1980s sitcom Who’s the Boss? further established her as one of our great leading ladies. That success, in particular, gave the LGBTQ activist a platform to become one of only a few celebrities willing to speak out on HIV/AIDS during the height of the pandemic. Somehow, though, it always seems like Judith Light is just getting started.
At 70 years old, an age when many actresses can’t find screen work, Light has been doing some of her very best. As Marilyn Miglin, the wife of one of serial killer Andrew Cunanan’s victims, she was devastatingly perfect in Ryan Murphy’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. With just a brief role in two episodes, she still managed to catch the attention of Emmy voters, who nominated her for her portrayal of the distraught cosmetics entrepreneur. In addition to the two consecutive Daytime Emmy Awards she won for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for playing Karen Wolek, Light also received two nominations for her portrayal of Shelly Pfefferman, the wife of Maura, a trans woman, on Transparent.
Her latest role in the indie dramedy Before You Know It has her coming full circle: Light plays Sherrell, an aging soap star trying to rise above Hollywood’s ageist and sexist attitudes. Sherrell becomes an important figure in the lives of Rachel Gurner (Hannah Pearl Utt, who directed and co-wrote the feature), a lesbian stage manager, and her sister, Jackie (co-writer Jen Tullock), as they reconnect with the actress, their presumed-deceased mother.
Recently, Light spoke warmly about how her role as Sherrell reflects this latest feminist wave and the evolution of LGBTQ characters in her work. Then, because Judith Light can’t be contained, and because sometimes she’s a life coach, she waxed poetic about believing in the power of possibility.
Sherrell is like an onion being peeled back as the movie progresses.
That’s a great way to describe it, Chris. Thank you. That’s so great that you saw it, because that was in the writing, that was in the way we developed the character from the very beginning.
But Judith, I do want a full order of soaps starring Sherrell. I want more wigs and more sassing young girls on the street who are getting her autograph for their grandma.
(Laughs) How divine, right?
And she’s so glam. Over the years you’ve rocked some glam looks – did you have a style vision for Sherrell?
No, actually, we didn’t. We looked at different pictures of soap stars and their hair and we thought, “Oh, this could be really good.” But we had to be very careful that we weren’t going to go make her a caricature and go over the top. Hannah really had a lot to do with the look and the wardrobe. She didn’t want her to be something that was goofy or weird, none of us did. If you’re playing a soap opera character, someone who’s on a soap opera, you have to be really careful and appropriate so that it’s a real person, not just somebody who’s somebody you can write off easily. (Sherrell) was created with a kind of expansiveness and understanding of who she actually is and what her life was like and what her choices were. It’s a very real person.
I did totally eat up all the very good-bad dialogue you got to deliver as Sherrell during the soap scenes, and with such fun melodrama in the first scene. And in that fur! Then she slaps her co-star because she thinks the scene needs it. It seemed like you were having fun.
Oh, it’s a joy. That’s also great writing, that’s also when Jen and Hannah were putting it all together and we were all talking about it together. We were really talking to each other about the characters, what they would do, where they would go and how they would be perceived.
Not that you’ve slapped someone, but have you ever gotten so carried away as a particular character in a scene that you just lost yourself in that character and abandoned the script because something else felt right?
No, no. That’s not professional. I would never do that. Now, when we would do scenes on Transparent, would we know the dialogue? Absolutely. Would we abandon it at certain points? And would Jill (Soloway, the Transparent creator) feed us different things or would we throw in different ideas? Absolutely. Anything like that has to be done under the framework of safety – that everybody feels safe – and in the context of never going beyond or making anyone feel scared or treating someone improperly. To me, it’s unacceptable. You just don’t do that. There’s nothing more important on a set than making sure everybody feels safe.
Have you ever witnessed that happen on a set before, though?
It just happens in Sherrell’s world.
But look at what’s happening to her: She knows that things are falling apart. She knows that she’s not being paid attention to. It doesn’t come out of nothing and nowhere; it comes out of this desire to be seen, to be heard, to be relevant, to be young, to be cool, to be chic, to be trendy. To be everything.
She’s fighting for her dignity.
Absolutely. Perfectly said.
Well, it’s very palpable. What’s your take on her attitudes about how women have to be portrayed to be considered desirable?
That’s out of the way the world and the culture are. That’s what she’s been taught, that’s what she knows. That’s all she knows.
How do you feel that’s relevant to the real world?
She doesn’t fit anymore as she’s getting older, and that’s frightening for her. She feels uncertain and scared. These are a lot of things that a lot of women are experiencing right now, and that’s probably what made this such a valuable project to me, to show that.
All women are going through this at a certain age, feeling less behind and not relevant. Feeling the connection with my women friends and women in general – we are holding ourselves in a different framework now. We are standing in a very different – no pun intended – light, to really demonstrate to ourselves and to the world who we actually are. Those things that the culture has, in some cases, smothered us with and had us be quiet about, we are no longer doing that. We’re not victims; we’re powerful. And I think that’s what you see Sherrell learn as the movie goes on.
I liked that the lesbian daughter’s queerness was a footnote – we’re seeing a lot more of that, where LGBTQ characters are written into a story without their sexuality being a focus of the story. Is that something you appreciated about Before You Know It?
I know, being a gay icon, I figured as much.
Honey, I’m not an icon.
I can call you an icon.
Well, thank you. But of course it’s like, “Oh, OK, so she’s looking for a girlfriend; so what about any of that? So what.” That is something that I love about this, and that’s very much Hannah and Jen. It’s not a focus.
Listen, in the early days, we had to do that. We had to make it pointed. It had to be about that. Now, there’s an incorporation of the LGBTQ community into the world where it doesn’t have to be outlined and highlighted in some way. Now, look, in some places it still does. I don’t know if you saw Frank Bruni’s column (“Hate Is So Much Bigger Than Trump”) in The New York Times, but it’s really powerful. We forget that people still relate to the LGBTQ community in the way that these people had written letters to him about him being gay and it’s so lovely that we could do that in this film. But it’s still not where the world needs to be, and you know that, and I know that.
I’m curious about how you make the choices you do, because your motivations are striking and admirable. What boxes do you have to check before you sign on to a project these days?
Thank you for noticing, and yes, I’ve had some really wonderful things come my way. There’s been some real shifts for me since Ugly Betty happened. It’s always the character for me. It’s always, “Who is this person? How is this person there to serve the piece? How is this person someone that could wake up the audience to what they might be seeing or feeling in their own lives? How does it translate for them?” So I’ve always got the audience in my mind as I’m looking at something: “How does this make a difference? How does this matter? Who are the people I am working with?” When you get to work with people like Jill Soloway and Ryan Murphy, you’re in a rarefied atmosphere. Right now I’m doing a project (Manhunt: Lone Wolf) with a wonderful producer, Michael Dinner, and it’s about the Olympic bombing in Atlanta in 1996.
What clicked for you about Ryan Murphy’s upcoming Netflix show The Politician?
I actually can’t tell you a lot, but Bette (Midler) and I, last November and December, we shot the last episode of the first season and now we will start shooting the second season sometime this fall, where it’s Ben (Platt) and Bette and me and just a bunch of others. So I don’t know! I just don’t know where they’re going to go with this. When it drops, you’ll be able to see what kind of character I’m actually playing.
With Transparent ending, what about Shelly are you going to miss the most?
Everything. I love her. And it’s so funny, because in the beginning people used to say to me, “Oh my god, I can’t stand her. She drives me crazy.” Then they would say, “… and I love her so much.” It’s true, there’s this gentle, fragile soul underneath all of that craziness, pushing people away and telling people what to do. And yet, I’ve had people say to me, “My relationship with my mother changed after falling in love with Shelly.” I love that about her. That’s a great creation. That’s a woman in her mature years who finally gets to have her voice back, and in so many ways. I just trust that it will be that for so many people who see this musical finale, that there’s a real sense somewhere that they’ll miss her too, but they will be reminded of who she actually is and the joy of her.
When we last spoke, it was just after I watched the very first episode of Transparent. I told you the kindness, love, empathy and compassion of the show really resonated with me. Now, we’re at the end. What do you hope the legacy of Transparent will be?
All of what you just said. All of that. From the very first to the very – to this completion. Mind you, with every ending is a beginning, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more that came about within the structure of this. Wouldn’t surprise me at all if there was more.
Are you hinting that the cast may reunite down the line for more episodes?
No, no! I’m not hinting. I’m just saying – look, things like that cannot be contained, and there is always the possibility. I am a big proponent of possibility. I’m not making definitive statements about anything – about the ending or the beginning or the anything. Seriously, I don’t know. And I’m not being coy. I just don’t know anything.
However, I hold the world in a way that allows for all kinds of possibilities, all kinds of openness to things, and I’m always surprised by how things turn out. I was just talking to somebody about it, and I’ve said it in several interviews recently because it seems so apt to me in relating around Transparent, which is that: Soren Kierkegaard, the philosopher, said that, “Life can only be understood backward; but it must be lived forward.” We all think, “We know this.” We don’t know anything.
As I get older, I keep thinking, “Well, maybe I’ll know more next year.”
No, honey. No! And hopefully you won’t. It’s not about imposing what you think in your mind is gonna happen. Whoever thought we were gonna get marriage equality? I mean, look at that. Look at what it took to get that. So you cannot make blanket statements about how things are gonna be. We’re all looking for that because in the structure of the human condition, we don’t like uncertainty. It’s scary. We think we have to know. Well, what would happen if we all didn’t have to know? Didn’t have to make statements about things that it had to be a particular way? What if we could just stay in the place of being completely open?
It’s getting to that place that is the real journey and the real struggle.
It’s not actually a journey – it can literally happen right now. If you could choose to let go of the mind that got programmed to tell you that you have to know everything or think about everything and be on top of everything and be perfect about everything, what would life be like? Who would you be? You would be somebody that you already are and forgot you were.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Vanity Fair and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.