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Tony and Emmy Award winner Judith Light is critically acclaimed for her film, television, and stage work, as well as a Hollywood Walk of Fame Star recipient. Television: The Politician,[…]

A conversation with the actor and activist

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. 

Question: How do you prepare for a role? 

Judith Light: I have a very complex, complicated and intricate process when I create a role that I don’t even know that I can really articulate. I have the most extraordinary manager who I have had for 30 years, who used to be a psychologist before he was managing in our business and... his name is Herb Hamsher. And I always talk to Herb about it. I always talk to Herb about the decision of choosing this particular role and because of his psychological background, even though he’s never been my therapist, he is able to talk to me knowing and understanding my psychology and understanding the psychology of this particular character. So, I begin there and then I read it over and over and over and over, and I continue reading it over and over, even to right before I do a performance once I’m into a run because there are always new things to be found and there are always things that are playing on me in my own psyche that I use and I call upon. 

I am dedicated also to making sure I am giving a performance, which means that includes the audience, whoever the audience may be. It doesn’t matter if it’s film or television. There's always an audience and I’m in a service business and I know that. And the other thing is that my connection to my fellow playmates, my cast mates, is extremely important to me because the dynamics of who I bring to that role are colored completely by who else is cast in that story. 

So, I spend a lot of time, I do a lot of very quiet, personal homework where I spend hours. There was a quote in the book about Eleonora Duse and the way she worked called “The Mystic in the Theater,” and they talk about how she would sit in front of an open window and simply think and use her imagination in relation to creating the character to see that person and know that somewhere it is inside of her and to find that treasure trove of that psyche and bring it forward because that character always has a very specific voice and I listened for the voice. I think a lot of actors do this too... It’s like you hear the voice of that person and you incorporate it into yourself. 

So, I have lots of different training from different methods, the method being one of them, but I incorporate them all for what I’m doing and what I’m working on. And sometimes, it clicks for me when I put on the shoes or the costume or the wig or the something. Something happens for me. so, it’s a lot of different disciplines from a lot of different places and also if it’s a historic piece, I do a lot of research or if it’s a particular psychological bent, I do a lot of research. So, it’s a combination of a lot of things. So, there you have it. 

Question: What makes the difference between nailing a scene and turning in a mediocre performance? 

Judith Light: Being present in the moment, listening, not thinking about yourself, really being outside of yourself. I’ve done performances where I’ve finished and Herb has been there and I’ve turned to him and I’ve said, “I think it went really well tonight.” And he would go, “Mmmm,” because all that told me was that I was watching me giving the performance and so I wasn’t really giving the performance. 

Oftentimes I’ve said to him, “Oh, no. Not there.” And he said, “Oh, you're absolutely incorrect. It was thrilling to watch that tonight.” So, it really is about losing self-consciousness and really making it about somebody else and making it about the audience and making it about yourself. It’s the paradox of having to have enough of an ego so you want the performance to be good, but also at the same time, knowing that you must get the ego out of the way in order to really transcend it and give a performance that creates an experience for someone outside of you. 

Question: Do you need to identify closely with the role you’re playing? 

Judith Light: Whenever you respond to a role, whenever I respond to a role, it’s because there is something that is calling me. I have a different context that I’ve developed over the years for my work, because before my work was always about taking the thing that I thought was going to help me "make it" in the business and now I take things because I experience being guided to take them. 

So, often times they are things that I need to be working on in my own life, and I’ll respond to it for some reason, but I won't find out that reason until I’m in the middle of the rehearsal process or sitting in front of that open window doing the work that I know that I need to be doing for this character. Searching my soul to find what I think actors have the luxury of doing which is living many lifetimes in one lifetime and working on your own psyche because only then, when I have created that, can I really give that experience to somebody else? So, often times it may not seem like it’s close to me, but there's something in there that’s close to me for sure. 

Question: What was it like helping former cast mate Danny Pintauro come out? 

Judith Light: I think any time a person comes out it displays someone’s courage and bravery. The difficulty to stand up in front of God and everybody and your community and your religion and your friends and your family and your everybody and say, “I’m sorry, this is my truth. I’m not like you,” with the fear of rejection on all fronts is remarkable and terrifying. And so, do I think it helped? Yes, I think it helped tremendously. I think he was inordinately brave. But, he was about to be outed and he called and he said, “This is going to happen.” And so, he knew Herb very well and so Herb really talked him through it and I said, “I think this is what will help you,” and he listened and he did it. I don’t know whether it was the Enquirer or Star. I don’t remember, but they said they were going to out him, which was rather generous of them to say, “We’re going to do this story. Do you want to comment on it first?” And Herb and I both said to him, “You should do this. This will make it much easier on you.” 

It gave him a kind of freedom that he didn’t have before, so yes, I think it’s very, very important that a person live their truth and be who they are. Do I think it’s incumbent upon anyone to out anyone or for anybody to... "must" they come out? I think that’s a personal choice. I would never push anyone to do that. I would encourage someone to do that. I would support them in doing that. Sometimes... I can’t make it a rule. I think it’s a principle more than a rule to me. Sometimes there are situations where there are people who are doing terrible things to this community and they are closeted and it’s important to talk about that and I don’t quite know how you do that in a way that really makes a difference without getting your fingers into their business. But, I have to say that sometimes when that happens I have to say that I have been delighted. 

Question: How has television contributed to the LGBT equality movement? 

Judith Light: They have done the most extraordinary job in making the LGBT issues mainstream and what's so valuable about that, I think, is that in the very beginning of the movement, there were no role models for anyone. People didn’t know that they could connect to other gay people. There was nobody out there for them. So, what David Cohen and Max Mutchnick did when they created "Will and Grace" was they gave it a face, they gave it a name, they gave it a place in history, they gave it a way for that young, gay person in nowhere USA to say, “There’s somebody out there like me and I don’t have to feel bad about myself. I’m on television.” And that changed the world. 

Question: Who was the first person to come out to you? 

Judith Light: I do not know who the first person was that came out to me. I've been surrounded by gay people all of my life. I went to a performing arts camp in New Hope, Pennsylvania and anybody who’s in the gay community knows New Hope, Pennsylvania and Bucks County, it was a performing arts camp and everybody came there for summer from New York. So, I just knew that everybody was gay. I had one good friend who was in repertory theater with me and I remember him agonizing about coming out to me. I had somebody else in college come out to me. Also, a very agonizing, painful expression of who they were and fear and terror that I would reject them. And, in both cases, I already knew that they were gay. 

Question: How did that affect your understanding of LGBT issues? 

Judith Light: It wasn’t just my understanding of LGBT issues, it was my understanding of human issues. It was like I had been that little girl who was the star of the high school play and the junior high school play. I had been the outsider. I was the "other." I was the different one and I understood it. Because I was around gay people and they were my friends. I mean, they were these dancers at this performing arts camp in the summer that they looked out for me. I was really, really young and they protected me. They were my family. It was as though I grew up in that, not anywhere else. So, all I knew what that they were my family and they protected me and they changed my life and they were my friends and I wanted to be connected with them forever. 

And, when things were not going well for them, it was incumbent upon me to stand up and say, “You're doing something terrible to my family.” So, that’s kind of how it really worked for me. And, when you're in a drama department at Carnegie Mellon University, I mean, at least three quarters of the people are gay. So, it wasn’t unusual for me. 

Question: What inspired you to become so involved in the LGBT equality movement? 

Judith Light: I was reading about this "gay cancer" in the 80s and I had heard about some people that I had worked with. One gentleman who had died and I said, “God, Bobby was young. That’s weird.” And then I started hearing about these other friends who were sick and they had this weird disease that nobody seemed to be able to diagnose and then I started putting it all together as it was coming out in the news what was happening. And so, I was offered the role to play Jeanne White in the movie of the week, “The Ryan White Story,” which told the story about this young boy, for those who don’t know, who are too young to know the story, who was a hemophiliac who, in order to save his life, had to have a blood plasma infusion a couple times week and it was called Factor VIII. And it kept his blood clotting, otherwise, if he banged himself or hurt himself, the possibility was that he could bleed to death. 

And so, his mother, Jeanne, was his staunch supporter... and at that time, the blood supply was tainted with the AIDS virus and so was his Factor VIII. So, Ryan acquired AIDS. And it was the story of his being told that he was no longer allowed to go to school because he had AIDS and his mother Jeanne and he decided to fight it and he was, in fact—the courts overturned the first ruling and he was allowed to go to school. Very powerful story. 

I desperately wanted to do that movie. I got to do that movie and I got to know Ryan and Jeanne very well. Well, one day on the set there was a woman who was interviewing him from the local paper in North Carolina and she said to him, “So, why don’t you tell me what your experience was in Indiana, in Cicero, Indiana... in Kokomo, Indiana?” They moved to Cicero afterward so he could go to school. And he said, “Well, it was really tough,” and he said, “Sometimes I would be places and people would spit at me and call me a fag.” And do you know how you have those moments in your life where everything just sort of... all the pieces of the puzzle just fall into place? 

I was so unnerved and upset and I get upset to this day thinking about it...  appalled and shocked and disappointed and it was like somebody drove a stake through my heart and I thought, “These are my friends who are dying and this young boy is in the process of dying and this is historic and we are making this story about his life and what transpired and his bravery and his courage,” and I started thinking about my friends who had to come out at the same time as they were dying and their families disowning them and discounting them and not coming to see them and rejecting them and they’re lying in hospital beds dying and I thought, “These are the people who cared for me, who I love and I’m not doing anything. I’m making a movie.” Not enough. Not enough. 

So then, I began to see that people like Elizabeth Taylor were befriending Rock Hudson and I saw that organizations were springing up to help this community that was becoming so powerful and alive with its courage and its bravery and I watched the lesbian community say to the gay men, “Look, you guys need help. Just get out of the way. Let us help you.” And that community bonded with each other and the transgender community and the dancing queens and the magnificence of the events that everybody was doing and I said, “This is a community that is magnificent and they're being... viciously... and,” I don’t even know the word that I want... discounted as human beings in a way that I found appalling. That this country that says it is a country of compassion and love and Christian values could do this to my family and to my friends and I was disappointed in myself for not standing up and for not saying, “You can’t do this. You can’t treat this courageous, magnificent, amazing community the way that you are. You can’t be a president and two presidents and not mention the word AIDS. You can’t fly over the quilt display in Washington and leave town when the community comes to display their dead. Can you really mean that you will do that? What kind of human beings are you?” And so I saw it and I saw that it was... there was massive homophobia in the country and I just had to talk about it. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t talk about it. 

So, it was for me. It wasn’t like I was going to stand up and be this hero for the gay community, the LGBT community, here I come. It wasn’t like that. It was I can’t live with myself if I don’t stand up. And I was working with Herb and his partner Jonathan at the time, and my husband, Robert, and I said to all of them, I said, “I want to do this. I want to do this. I want to find a way, if I can, to make a difference or tell the truth or talk about it.” And they said... and Herb in particular said, “I can help you do that. That I can help you do.” And that’s how it happened. 

Question: How do you look back on your years on “Who’s the Boss?” 

Judith Light: It was tremendously valuable for me. I think every time one does something that one says, “I will never do this,” you have to be careful because the universe is listening and because when you do something that you say you’ll never do, you have to look at the reasons why you say you’ll never do them. 

I was prejudiced. I looked down at the material. I thought: "I only want to do feature films and theater. That’s all I’m going to do." But when you are getting guidance from the universe and you listen to it, it changes your life in ways that are magical and it did that for me. I never thought that I would get to learn, to the depth that I did, about comic timing, which is extremely difficult, over an eight-year period that has held me in incredibly good stead and gotten me more jobs because of it. I learned so much by working with Tony Danza. I learned so much about doing things that I said I would never do that made me call myself on it and learn to listen to what was being shown me. Stop looking down my nose at material and brought me best game, my A game to every single thing, every episode of "One Life to Live," every episode of “Who’s the Boss?” and it was my continuing training of myself as a human being as well as an actor. 

So, I can never say, ever, that that was a mistake or the wrong thing to do and did I have to work to turn myself around in the eyes of the industry? Absolutely. So, when I did a play like “Wit” where I shaved my head and was naked on stage, it was a huge, very terrifying thing for me to have to do, but I had to do it. But, I wouldn’t have had to do those things if my plan had worked out which was to only do theater and feature films. I would never learn about myself to the depth that I have. So, it was... and even to this day, the joy and the delight and the exhilaration of my having made those choices, I have great pride in myself for doing that.
Recorded on May 10, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen