Joining a Soap Opera "Changed My Life"

Not getting the roles that she wanted right out of school sparked a personal crisis for Judith Light. It took a job as a soap opera understudy to launch her career.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: When did you first develop a love of performance? 

Judith Light: When I was three years old was when I first developed the love of performance. My mother had helped me memorize “Twas the Night Before Christmas” and I performed it for my father and it was in that moment that psychiatrists or psychologists say is the palimpsest moment where you have this moment of clarity and it was in that moment that I said, “Oh, my. This is what I want to do.” So, that was when it started. It changed over the years for very good reasons, but that was the actual moment. 

Question: What struggles did you face as a young actor and how did you overcome them? 

Judith Light: The development of myself as an actor really started when I went to Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, and I was studying acting there. And in the brochure for the school it says, “This course is as rigorous and exacting as theater itself,” and they were not kidding. So that’s really when the difficulty started for me, because here I was with everybody who had been the star of their high school play. And so, we were in this milieu of about 60 people at the time and we knew that at least half of us would be cut. My graduating class of actors that had come in with me was 15. 

So, it was a really rigorous program and I thank God for it because it was an amazing training program. And so, then I left there and I went into repertory theater and then it was at a certain point that I knew it was time for me to either go to New York or Los Angeles. And I called this extraordinary woman who I had become friendly with at the TCG auditions which are the Theater Communications Group auditions which is really, at the time, where you went to be seen by all the artistic directors of all the repertory theaters all over the country. Her name is Rosemary Tishler and I called Rosemary and I said, “Okay, is it time for me to come to New York?” and she said, “Yes, I think it is.” 

And that really was a huge decision because it was a decision that changed my life and I thought that it would be like it had been in repertory theater. I thought I would have all kinds of parts and that it would be easy and I would audition and I would get it. And then I didn’t. And so, I went through a real crisis in the late '70s, and I really had to look at myself as a human being first and as a performer second as to what I really wanted because when I wasn’t getting what I thought I wanted, I’ve often said this to people. It was really part temper tantrum and part existential crisis because I didn’t know what to do about not getting what I thought I wanted. 

And it was over time, but there was one specific moment where I said, “I have to give up. I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to do this anymore. What is it... how is it that I’m contributing? Because I don’t have an experience of contributing, I don’t have an experience of making a difference. And I don’t like my life and is it going to matter if I go somewhere and do 'Streetcar Named Desire' or is it going to matter if I go somewhere and do another play somewhere? What does it all mean?” 

And it was at that time completely broke and my agent called me and they said, “They want you to audition for an understudy for a soap opera.” And I said, “You don’t understand. I’m never doing a soap opera.” And I said, “And, by the way, just so you know, I’m never doing a sitcom either. So, just to be really clear.” She said, “Well, you have no money, so it’s $350 for the day if you get it.” I said, “I’m there.” 

So, I got it and I didn’t go on that day because the gal who was playing the part was not ill that day, but they did ask me to audition for the role because they had decided to replace her. And they asked me on the day that I came in to understudy her, they asked me what I would do with this part if this were where the part were to go. And I thought to myself, "This is interesting. This format reaches a lot of people. This could be some way to make a difference," And also to make money because I was living in New York City and New York City with no money, as everybody knows, it’s tough and you can only live so long on unemployment. 

And I got it. They gave it to me and it changed my life. So, those were some of the things that were difficult times for me. I mean, there's more, but that’s just sort of the beginning of the process, of my becoming a different kind of person and a different kind of actor, not the little girl who wanted her father’s approval when she was three years old. 

Recorded on May 10, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen