From One Life to Live and Who’s the Boss to Ugly Betty and Law & Order: SVU, Judith Light has been a TV favorite for 35 years, but the effervescent actress is getting used to a new label: two-time Tony-nominated Broadway star. A year ago, her riveting performance as matriarch Marie in Lombardi earned her first Tony nod, as well a Broadway.com Audience Choice Award for Best Actress. Now Light is being honored for her razor-sharp star turn as Silda Grauman in Other Desert Cities. (Click here for an exclusive video detailing how she gets into character!) In a recent chat with Broadway.com, Light discussed her gift for combining comedy and drama and her joy at being embraced by the Broadway community.
Now that you’ve received your second Tony nomination in a row, are you feeling like a bona fide Broadway star?
[Long pause] That fills me with a lot of emotion. Thank you! I was away from the stage for a long time—I had only done television for 22 years until I came back 10 years ago to take over for Kathleen Chalfant in Wit—and the Broadway community has welcomed me in such a beautiful, touching way. This is where I started, but for a long time, I was afraid to come back. But I had been doing work for AIDS and civil rights and the LGBT community, and when I saw how brave they were I knew I had let go of my fear.
You’re one of those rare people who thrive in both drama and comedy. How do you account for that?
That’s grace; I think I’ve been blessed. It has taken a while for people to know I can do that and to not pigeonhole me. [Lombardi director] Tommy Kail saw that in me, and now [Other Desert Cities director] Joe Mantello. They were brave enough to take a chance and say, “Wait a minute: This woman can do this.” My friend Katie Finneran said to me, “Honey, you’re the newest ingenue on Broadway.” And I said, “Yeah, I’m the oldest newest ingenue on Broadway!” [Laughs.]
In fact, almost half of this year’s Tony-nominated actresses are over 50.
I love that! And I love that there are playwrights—geniuses like Jon Robin Baitz—who are writing for us. People sometimes forget that there is a group of women out there who have been around for a long time and take great pride in the work they do. And, of course, there is a generation of people who come to the theater because they want to see these stories being told.
Last year, your Tony nomination was seen as representing the Lombardi company. Do you feel like the favorite this year?
No, I don’t. I look at the group of women I am nominated with, and they are all extraordinary. I know this sounds Pollyannaish, but I mean it sincerely when I say that it is really an honor to be nominated. Two years in a row is very significant to me. Last year, when I was on my way to the Tonys, my manager, Herb Hammsher, said, “You’re not going to win. But don’t let the knowledge of that take the night away from you.” I had seen Ellen [Barkin’s] performance [in The Normal Heart], which was so beautiful and powerful, and that set the context for reminding myself that it’s about the community, not the competition. On opening night of Other Desert Cities, Ellen sent me the most beautiful bouquet of flowers with the most beautiful note, which tells me something about her and our community.
You’d better be prepared this year. You might very well win!
Truly, it’s about the night, and what it means for all of us to be in this together. We’ve got to stop competing and remember what we do this for: We are the storytellers for our incredible audiences. The fact that Stockard [Channing, a Best Actress nominee] and I are together onstage as sisters, and I have such respect for her work? I wish everybody in the group was nominated.
Has Linda Lavin [who bowed out of Other Desert Cities to star in The Lyons] been gracious about you playing Silda on Broadway?
Oh my gosh, she came to see it, and came backstage afterwards. And she baked us goodies for opening night. We saw each other at the Tony press event, and it was like this lovely thing between the two of us: She passed the role on to me, and then she got accolades for the choice [of role] she made. That’s what I’m talking about when I say that the competition has to end. She’s been absolutely lovely.
Here’s a shallow question: How do you stay in such fabulous shape?
The city is my gym. I walk everywhere, and I try to eat well. I’m moving toward a vegetarian/vegan diet, and I think that really makes a difference. Also, I have lots of time off backstage, so I do my “body part” exercises—arm work, stomach work and yoga stretching to keep my breath control up and my energy up. I used to be 50 pounds heavier than I am now, so I have to be vigilant and really pay attention to it.
You made our Best Dressed list at the 2012 Broadway.com Audience Choice Awards. What are you wearing to the Tonys?
Oh honey, I am in a process! [Laughs.] You know, you try on a thousand things until you find something. I have no idea yet.
It must feel good to have fans from every different aspect of your career.
Some people even go back to when I first started in repertory theater. I’ll tell you an interesting story: There’s a culinary event that the Food Network puts on in the fall, and I had gone on Paula Deen’s show one morning. I was sitting there, and three people of different generations pointed at me. The youngest said, “Mommy, Mommy, Ugly Betty!” The mother said, “Who’s the Boss?!” and the grandmother said, “One Live to Live!” I was thrilled.
You’ve been an outspoken advocate for gay rights. What’s your reaction to President Obama’s support for gay marriage?
I am thrilled! I saw Ricky Martin do Evita the other night, and afterward we were talking about how deeply important this is, because it speaks to the better angels of everyone’s nature. My friend David Mixner, who wrote the wonderful book Stranger Among Friends, talks about how much we should be honoring Obama for taking this step and saying out loud what the Constitution says: that everyone should have equal rights. I am beyond words about how extraordinary this moment in history is.
What’s on the horizon for you after Other Desert Cities?
I don’t know. I used to try to control everything, but in the last few years, I have started to say, “You know what? The universe is taking care of me, and I will be guided to the place where I can best be of service.” I wouldn’t have expected Lombardi to happen after Ugly Betty, and I never would have expected Other Desert Cities to happen. So what happens next is completely unknown, which terrifies me, but I tell myself, “Just stop. Take a breath. It’s going to be OK.”
See Judith Light in Other Desert Cities at the Booth Theatre.