To mark 30 years since the launch of its first caviar-based product, skin care label La Prairie collaborated with a group of artists to create “The Art of Caviar,” a traveling exhibition inspired by La Prairie’s Caviar Collection line. The exhibition’s one stop in the U.S. is in New York City on September 7, 2017, and actress and producer Judith Light was on hand to celebrate at the launch event the night before. Ahead of the event, she hopped on the phone with Allure to discuss acting, aging, reiki, and more.
There are a few things that set Judith Light’s nearly five-decade-long career apart. There’s its breadth — her work spans from theater to television to film — and the acclaim she has received: After making her professional debut in in 1970, Light went on to win two Daytime Emmys for her work on the soap opera One Life to Live, star as Angela Bower in the sitcom Who’s the Boss?, win two Tonys for her performances in the plays Other Desert Cities and The Assembled Parties, and nab roles in the television series Ugly Betty, Dallas, and Jill Soloway’s Transparent. (She’s been nominated for an Emmy for her performance as Shelly Pfefferman in Transparent for the second year in a row.)
And then there’s the depth of the roles Light, 68, continues to play. Instead of her opportunities contracting as she’s gotten older, she has continued to portray characters with “complications,” as she puts it. Take Shelly, for instance: As the ex-wife of Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura, a trans woman who came out in Transparent‘s first season, Shelly is “funny and frightened and lonely,” Light says — a character she can dig into. Allure spoke with Light about the entertainment industry’s evolving attitude toward women (and older women), her take on aging, and the quote she returns to every morning to stay present.
You’ve tackled such a diverse array of characters. What challenges are you looking for when you sign on to a project?
A person, a human being, who is looking at themselves from all different aspects — psychologically, emotionally, themselves in the larger world, how they are relating to their circumstances, whether they relate well or poorly, so that I can do a lot of work on myself as I’m investigating a role and also so that that investigation will be valuable for the people who are witnessing the character that I’m portraying. The role of Shelly Pfefferman in Transparent has all those kinds of levels and complications. I’m always digging for something — and of course, whenever there’s brilliant writing, it’s something that I jump at.
It seems all too rare for women in the entertainment industry to continue to get complex roles as they get older.
[The entertainment industry has] been willing to see me lots of different ways. That’s something that I’ve always felt strongly about from the very beginning of my career… Where I had come from was repertory theater, where I played a variety of roles. So that always was in my thought process, and also my late manager, who passed away last year, who I’d been with for 36 years, his [focus] was always really looking for things for me that were challenges, taking chances, showing people what I could do, and showing people in the industry that I was committed to making those kinds of choices, and they’ve responded in kind.
So it’s really been a mutual kind of relating between myself and the people that support and the industry accepting that in me and allowing me — not allowingme, but welcoming me into that. There are very few people, if anybody, who would think to cast me as Shelly Pfefferman. You look at Jill Soloway and you say, “Where does she come to know that?” People take chances on me, and I am infinitely grateful.
Are you hopeful that opportunities for women are growing?
It has been progressively shifting over time, but now we’re speaking about it in much broader terms, more expanded terms, more powerful terms. We are speaking to it, and the industry is responding. Now, would it be great if they were responding more rapidly? Sure. But look at people like Jill Soloway, who are creating like this; look at people like Ryan Murphy, who are creating extraordinary roles for women… I think the more we focus on [what is happening] and the more we speak about the places where it’s not happening, the more we will be moving this whole process forward.
A great organization is Women in Film, and they are speaking about this constantly — talking about women not just in acting roles, but also things that we’re producing… We have to be supporting women, we have to be saying, “I want this to be a director that’s a women,” “We want to give more opportunities, more challenges [to women].”
You’ve been outspoken about aging, too, and the importance of women speaking up about how they’re maturing instead of trying to hide it. Why is that?
We need to speak about [aging] so that we honor our experiences in life, we honor who we are in any given moment in time. Wishing you could go back in the past is, I think, a waste of time. Time to figure out what’s going to happen in the future is also a waste of time. Remember, there are two choices: You get older or you don’t, and I’ll take the second, thank you very much.
And it’s not that we get older. It’s that we actually mature. We actually honor where we have come from, and how we have moved through life. Look at Gloria Steinem, look at these remarkable women who I use as role models — look at Eleanor Roosevelt, look at Helen Keller. These were not women who were talking about, “Oh my god, I’m getting older,” they were talking about expanding into the world in major ways, shifting the world, making a difference, taking on challenges, and being more and more prepared for them because of where they had come from before.
I also have to say I look to the transgender community as to how to live life being your true self, how to [be] authentic and courageous. I take a page from their book about how we honor the truth of who we are. If we’re not progressing, then aging will be a problem. It will be a complication. We’ll be sad. We’ll be unhappy. We’ll be miserable, instead of owning the truth of where we are and allowing that to be the shining light that is given out to the world and to the community.
Allure recently declared its stance against the term “anti-aging,” with the idea that it makes getting older seem like something we need to fight—
I love that!
What would you tell your younger self about getting older?
I would tell my younger self — and I would tell this to any younger self: “It’s going to be fine.” Like my husband says to me all the time, you could relax a little bit more. You could enjoy life a little bit more. I would say really to love not just what you do or what you accomplish, but the beauty of the essence of who you are in the Stillness of yourself, and that’s with a capital “S.” There is a quiet place in us that knows a lot more than we ever give ourselves credit for. I love what you’re doing about removing the phrase “anti-aging.” You want to welcome the process.
I would say also not to be so hard on yourself. And that doesn’t mean that you don’t challenge yourself — it means you recognize the mistakes that you make and you learn from them instead of blaming yourself for them or beating yourself up about them, that you take everything in and you breathe in a kind of life that then gets to be exhaled that makes the world a better place for your having been here.
There are two things that I think about a lot, and one of them is grace, and one of them is gratitude. Grace and gratitude are very, very important to me… Also, I study reiki, and that’s been very important for me. There is a reiki saying that I begin the day with, which is, “Just for today, do not anger. Do not worry and be filled with gratitude. Devote yourself to your work. Be kind to people.”
That sounds grounding — I might have to steal that.
My darling, you can have it! It’s available, please make use of it. But it isn’t just something that you just say. These are things that have to be meant from the heart, and you’ve got to work them. We all, myself very much included, want life to be easier than it is. I’m always looking for that kind of peace of mind, and I don’t always have it. However, it’s something that I strive for. I think surrendering is a very important aspect of life, just finding our way to surrender to the things that can be construed inside of us as difficult.
Have you always approached the role of surrender this way?
No! No. No, no, no, no. It’s been a process through the years and it had to come about because I was so miserable. I was so unhappy in so many ways, I was just going through life wishing it to be different, wanting my career to be what I thought it should be.
And when I stopped trying to control the universe, I began to learn. When you resist things, it makes things so much harder. I didn’t want to keep being miserable. I didn’t want to keep being unhappy. I wanted to find my way to a better place and to a more grateful place, a place where I would be of more value to the people around me and to the world. And I knew I couldn’t do it if I kept trying to control the universe, if I kept trying to have it the way I thought it should be.
The ego is very important for certain things, like not jumping off a bridge. The ego will help you not jump off a bridge. But there are also ways in which the ego can take over and make you miserable. And so I watched people who weren’t miserable… I wanted to learn, and I’m still learning. And that’s the part that I’m talking about with aging. I’m still learning, I’m still growing, and I’m still doing the best that I can in each moment.