One Life to Live
Who's the Boss?
Back in Trenton, New Jersey, Judith Ellen Light was the girl in the school play deemed most likely to succeed.
Not only did the 10-year-old wow audiences with her acting chops, but she impressed everyone when she cried on cue. Still, her parents worried about their daughter’s yearnings.
“They believed very strongly that I have something to fall back on,” Light recalls, “should the acting thing not work out.”
As it turned out, they didn’t have to worry. Light has not only been a force in television and theater — she’s won two Daytime Emmys and two Tony Awards — but she has also used her celebrity to speak out on behalf of LGBT rights, sitting on the boards of several foundations. In 1998 the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center named its library after her.
“I always knew that at some deeper level I wanted to make a difference in the world,” she says.
But her road to success was rocky at times. Early in her career Light battled issues related to weight gain and depression, and she also stalled her career when she swore that she’d never resort to doing soap operas or sitcoms.
Ironically it was a soap — One Life to Live — that first brought the actress national acclaim, and a sitcom — Who’s the Boss? — that widened her repertoire with displays of Lucille Ball–like physical comedy.
Light, who most recently starred opposite Keira Knightley in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s adaptation of Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin on Broadway, is one of the stars of Amazon Studios’ Transparent.
The role of Shelly Pfefferman, the ex-wife of Jeffrey Tambor’s transgender character, Maura, brought Light a Critics Choice nomination this year.
The actress was interviewed this past April for the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television. The following is an edited excerpt of that interview, conducted by Archive producer Adrienne Faillace; the full interview can be viewed at TelevisionAcademy.com/archive.
Q: What were some of your interests as a child?
A: Acting. And acting. And… acting.
Q: From the very beginning?
A: Yes, three years old. My mother helped me memorize ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, and I performed it for my father. I still remember the moment when he started to cry. I ran to him, and afterwards I thought, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” It was that special moment that lives in me today.
Q: After college you did repertory theater for several years, and then made your Broadway debut in A Doll’s House….
A: It was with Liv Ullmann and Sam Waterston, and it was magic. I had the part of the maid. I thought that was the way it was always going to go, but it didn’t.
Q: What happened?
A: I always knew what I wanted, but I was demanding that it happen the way that I wanted it to happen. I was fraught, angry, upset — I was being a spoiled brat. I kept thinking, “Am I just going to go from play to play and job to job?” I always knew that at some deeper level, I wanted to make a difference in the world. But I was near a breaking point.
I was staying with my parents in the Hastings, Yonkers [New York] area. I said to them, “I am never going to do a soap opera, I am never going to do a sitcom and that’s the way it's going to be.”
But, at the time, I had no money and my unemployment was running out. I finally went to see a therapist, who was extraordinary. I was overweight, I was like 50 pounds heavier than I am now.
I said, “Look, I have a couple of issues. I know I have to handle my weight, and I’m really frightened of being in a relationship. But I think I have to do something other than acting.”
Q: What was his response?
A: He was so kind. He said, “Look, we’ll deal with everything. But don’t do anything about the acting. Don’t leave yet, because something’s going to happen. Don’t do anything until you see me next week.” And I thought, “What is he, psychic?”
I left his office — those were the days when we had pagers — and my pager went off. My agent was calling, saying, “They would like to see you for an understudy on a soap opera.” I was like, “Are you kidding me? Not even a part, but an understudy?”
I said, “No, no, no,” and she said, “What are you doing? You don’t have any money. It's $350 for the day.” I said, “I’ll take it.”
It was One Life to Live. I ended up not going on that day, but I talked to the executive producer, Joe Stuart. He said, “If you were to get this part, what would you do with it?” I started talking about the ideas I had for the character.
They asked me to audition with a lot of other women, but they gave me the part. It was Karen Wolek. And it changed my life.
Q: How so?
A: I looked at it and thought, “Wait a minute, I’ll have the potential to reach millions of people.” I met Herb Hamsher, my manager. We have this remarkable synergy and connection, and one of the first things I said to him was, “If I ever get any kind of celebrity, I want to do something with it.”
He said, “That I can help you do. That urge to do something higher, larger, bigger than yourself is something that I am happy to sign up for.” That began our conversations and our working relationship.
Q: Describe the character of Karen Wolek.
A: This was the story of the Catherine Deneuve movie Belle de Jour, which was about a woman married to a successful man who was a prostitute on the side.
What ended up happening was they wrote it so magnificently that Karen Wolek became iconic. They created this character and, together, we created this woman that people still remember me for, which is kind of extraordinary.
There was this iconic scene on the witness stand — this one moment where she had to save her friend — and to save her friend, she had to sacrifice herself. For lack of a better phrase, she had to come out.
I think that’s why that scene was so powerful. It was not just the writing, which was gorgeous, but viewers were watching a character end her life as she knew it and expose herself in such a vulnerable, fragile and difficult way. In some form it was heroic.
Q: Why do you think that story touched viewers?
A: Because there isn’t a person on this earth that doesn’t have something to come out about. It's the reason I’m so inspired by the gay community. It has to do with their courage and what it takes to be the authentic person you actually are — what it's like to let go of the lies and the stories and the maneuvering and manipulation and say, “This is who I am.”
I think that’s what made that moment for Karen Wolek so intensely powerful for people. I received letters from prostitutes that were stunning: “If you can do it, I can do it.” All of a sudden my world was opened up in a way that I had never expected.
Q: How did Who’s the Boss? come about?
A: I got the script for a show called You're the Boss, and I loved it. I was getting a couple scripts from ABC, so I went up for all of them and they were all interested in me.
But when I went in for You're the Boss, I did one scene for [creator–executive producers] Marty Cohan and Blake Hunter — and then another — and they said, “Thanks.”
And I said, “I love this. Can I read another scene?” I ended up reading all the scenes in the pilot for them.
Q: What was unique about the series?
A: Remember, this was the early ‘80s. This was a flip. This was a woman who was a powerhouse in her job — in advertising in New York City — and absolutely inept at home. But she was willing to hire somebody, a man, who was strong, sensitive and vulnerable and who could teach her something.
I thought, “That’s a powerful story.” To this day I have young women come up to me and say, “It was Angela Bower that changed my opinion about what I could do in the world as a woman.” She was one of the first powerful feminists.
Q: What else drew you to the series?
A: I loved the humor. I loved the relationship with the children. I loved the relationship with her mother. I loved the potential for the relationship with this man, Tony [Tony Danza)] — that it was about two people who cared about each other, not about what their jobs were.
This was a man who was sensitive enough, and enough of his own person, to know that he could do this. The levels were multiple.
I still get letters asking, “So, who was the boss?” The answer I always give is, “That was the beauty of the show — you never knew from week to week.”
Q:What was your audition with Tony Danza like?
A: The brilliant Bill Persky directed the audition. I went in and met Tony. We did the audition and it was magic. We had this moment that wasn’t written in, where he knocks on my door in the middle of the night and I come out in my nightgown and robe. Of course there’s a lot of chemistry.
I said to him something like, “I don’t want to stand here in my doorway talking to you.” So I crossed in front of him to go sit on a bench in the hall. Then, as I crossed in front of him, I turned around and said, “What are you looking at?”
And Persky says that’s when he knew that there was magic.
Q: What do you recall about Tony and Angela’s first kiss?
A: It was at the end of the first season. I remember when we rehearsed it, and then what it was like in front of the audience — all the clothes and the hair and throwing the flour at each other.
My character came home drunk from this girls’ night out, and Tony was carrying me and he was being so careful in rehearsal.
Then he said, “Jude, I’m going to bang you into the wall because it will be funny,” and I said, “That’s okay — just do it.” All that physical comedy I learned from him.
That was very much what the first kiss episode was about — it was about all of that incredible physical comedy.
Q: How did you feel about the potential for romance between these two characters? There’s always a lot of talk when main characters get together.
A: The writers and producers and ABC were very careful. They wanted to give people something, because everybody could feel it — it was the elephant in the room. But they also knew that it was very important not to get them together.
So there were teasers all along that were about the relationship — that was one of the first ones, and people went crazy. They loved it.
I always thought that if any couple could have made it work — kept it sexy and vital and vibrant — we could have done that. We could have gotten married, we could have had all kinds of fights.
But they never wanted to go there. They felt that, in terms of longevity and in perpetuity for when the show got sold, they didn’t want to have it end like that because then people would say, “Ach, they got married — oh, never mind.”
A lot of people still think that our characters got married.
Q: How did you come to be involved with Ugly Betty?
A: I didn’t do the pilot. [Executive producer] Silvio Horta said to me, “I want to put you in this, but I don’t know how yet.” God bless him, man of his word.
He created this character for me, Claire Meade, a woman out of her time. A woman who marries for money but is deeply unhappy in her marriage and turns to alcohol. She never came into her own until after she got out of jail and her husband died.
They wrote her with such a combination of vulnerability and fragility and strength that it was like walking into a closet, picking out an outfit and finding that it fits you perfectly.
Q: Let’s talk about Transparent. How did you get involved with the show?
A: I had a Skype call with [creator–executive producer] Jill Soloway for 45 minutes, talking about LGBT issues. I never auditioned for her.
Jill is very, very intuitive. She knew that I had worked with Jeffrey [Tambor] 40 years ago at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, and she knew how I felt about him. She knew that he and I had done other things through the years.
The thing about Jill is that it was important to her to put together a group of people whose energy would mesh.
When I got off the Skype call with her, I called Herb and said, “This could bring me back to Los Angeles. This is so extraordinary and she is so genius. I know what she’s going for.”
Again, it was one of those moments when I thought, “There is guidance here, and it's part of what I think is a purposeful part of my life, something that I’ve been working with in my life for a long time.”
I also knew that while the transgender community had been a portion of LGBT, that it had been sort of a last thought. I knew this would change that. And I knew the level of responsibility that Jeffrey would take for creating this character, not making it a caricature. Not doing it with a wink….”
Q: Why do you think viewers responded to the characters?
A: When you first watch Transparent you say, “Oh, that’s a family. I know those people.” That was what Jill wanted to create, and that is exactly what she created.
You knew that these people would drive each other insane, but at the same time there was this depth of love that they carried with them. It's universal.
Q: What do you think the show’s impact has been?
A: Fifty years from now, people will look back on this show and know that there was a time when transgender people were not treated well. They were discounted.
This is the beginning of the moment of taking their cause seriously — of understanding it differently. This is Jill’s story and this is Jill’s parent. This is the story of when [Jill’s father] came out to the family and of what it did to everybody.
Q: What advice would you offer someone who’s just starting out in acting?
A: I often say, “Know what your purpose is. You are there to give a performance, you are there to serve. If you are doing this for your ego, or because you think you can become a star or for any other reason than to bring some illumination to the project, then you are not going to do this profession a service.”
I talk to young actors a lot about actor etiquette, which I think is extremely important. And most important of all, I would tell an actor to get a team around them that doesn’t pat them on the behind and blow in their ear. You need people who tell you the truth.
There’s a voice in your head that is a compilation of lots of things, and that’s what I call the “programmed mind.” There’s another voice — your higher self — that actually knows what you are to do and how you are to do it.
If you are really listening, you will hear that voice. It may be the road less traveled. And it may be a more frightening path. But it is the path that will lead you to the most joy.