On October 24, 2015, Judith Light spoke about Thérèse Raquin with education dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series.
An edited transcript follows (please note there are plot spoilers):
Ted Sod: This is a thrill for me because I’ve not only been a fan of Judith’s acting, but her work as a social activist is amazing. I’m sure many of you know she sits on the board of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, she’s been a maverick and a trendsetter for AIDS education and research. Thank you, Judith, for the work you’ve done and continue to do.
Judith Light: Oh, that’s very kind of you. Thank you so much.
TS: I was shocked to find out that you were born in New Jersey.
JL: Why did that shock you? You know, there are a lot of people born in New Jersey!
TS:Well, I live in New Jersey and, for some reason, I never put the two together. I always thought of you as a West Coast person.
JL: Oh, no. That’s so funny because I was born and raised in Jersey and then I went into Repertory Theatre, and then years later I came to New York. I met my husband and he said to me, “We should go to California” and I said, “Why? Why would we go to California?” And then when "Ugly Betty" brought us back to New York, my husband said, “What are you going to do in New York?” and I said, “I think the question is, what are you going to do?” I wanted to
come back here because I missed it deeply. I’m a New Yorker.
TS: Well, we are thrilled to have you. I wanted to talk to you about your career trajectory because I read that there was a point at which you were feeling like you might give it all up and your agent, who you’ve been with for the longest time…
JL: My managers, yeah.
TS: Your managers suggested that you go in for a soap opera.
JL: No, that’s not exactly how it happened. It was a couple of things, and I’ve talked about it quite a bit, so if any of you have heard this before, please forgive. I was here in New York and I really wasn’t working consistently the way that I thought I should, or the way I wanted to. You have those dreams about what your career is supposed to be and it was not matching up with my dream. It was two things: it was an existential moment where I was questioning what I was actually going to do in my life and the other was that I was being a spoiled brat. I wanted things the way that I wanted them. I was broke and my unemployment was running out and I’d finally gotten in to see a therapist and he said to me, “Don’t do anything until you see me next week, something’s going to happen!” I thought, you’re a psychic AND a therapist? And it was, in fact, true. I got a call from my agent. I swore I’d never do a soap opera and the agent said, “They want you to go in for an understudy on a soap opera.” I thought, okay, this is the bottom.
I said to her, “I’m not going in!” And she said to me, “It pays $350.00 for the day.” I said, “I’ll do it.” I thought, I’ve looked down my nose at this type of work forever because it wasn’t theatre or it wasn’t feature films. I have to see if I can bring the kind of work that I do in the theatre to a soap opera.
It was a very humbling experience for me, because I was a snob about everything that wasn’t grand. They gave me the job and it changed my life. It changed the trajectory of my career, it changed everything. It was after that that I met my managers, Herb Hamsher and Jonathan Stoller, his partner, and we started working together.
TS: You have had an amazing career spanning 40 years.
JL: Oh, you HAD to say that. Yes, I’m very old now. It’s been a long time. And I’m very proud of it.
TS: Am I wrong in saying that you met your husband on a soap opera?
JL: I did. All kinds of wonderful things came from that soap. We’re still married and he loves the West Coast. He comes to visit me here when I do plays. When I’m done here, I’ll go back to LA because I am shooting a show for Amazon Prime called "Transparent."
TS: I want to talk a bit more about the stage work you’ve done. I remember you going into Wit, which must have been a remarkable experience for you.
JL: It was a terrifying experience. I was taking over for Kathleen Chalfant, who you all know as an extraordinary actress. And I had not been onstage in 22 years. I was known as the girl from "Who’s the Boss?" It was extraordinary because of Bernie Telsey and Daryl Roth, who brought me back to the theatre. Bernie was the casting director on the show and co-artistic director of Manhattan Class Company, who had produced the off-Broadway run in a small theatre and then moved it to a larger theatre down at Union Square with the help of Daryl. Bernie remembered me from the soap. Herb, my manager, thought that it would be a really good thing for me to go back on stage and I thought he was out of his mind. There was a play by Jonathan Tolins entitled If Memory Serves, about an aging sitcom star, that I should have done, but didn’t. Herb said, “You’re just scared because you don’t want to go back to the theatre,” and I said, “Well, I think you’re full of it!” and he said, “You’re terrified!” I thought about it for a long time and I said, “He’s right. I’m terrified.”
You were talking about my activism before and, in so many cases, I would be going out to the LGBTQ community and I’d be talking about how they inspired me during the height of the AIDS pandemic. I’d say, “You people are extraordinary. You are changing the world and you are being there for each other -- you inspire me.” I wanted to be a part of that community. I wanted to work with people like that. And yet, when it came to my own life and my own career, I was too scared. I didn’t have the courage. Herb was absolutely right. So I said to him, “The next thing that comes up for me to audition for, I don’t care where it is, I’m going to audition for it.” And then the opportunity to audition for Wit presented itself. Now, I don’t know how many of you have seen Wit, but it requires you to shave your head and to be naked onstage.
I ask you, is that a way to come back to the New York theatre?
TS: Not to mention, you have to die every night.
JL: That was the easy part. Seriously! There’s a moment of exultation in the death that’s quite extraordinary. It’s a brilliant play. I just read it and said, “Okay, I have to fly myself to New York to audition for it.” I thought in the back of my mind, “they are never going to give this to me”. They asked me to do it. The terror kicked in. You know those Robert Frost moments that happen in your life? The road not taken, the road less traveled. A moment of choice that forces you to answer, who will I be? I thought about all those amazing people in the gay community who were so courageous and I said to myself, “You have to say yes to this!” Again, it was one of those moments that really changed my life. It turned people’s idea of me around. They thought I was this blonde Waspy girl on "Who’s the Boss?" People said, “Oh, maybe she can act.”
TS: That play was a catharsis for so many people who have lived through a cancer death or who have lived through AIDS.
JL: It was a huge catharsis for people. And one of the things that I chose to do was not to wear my wig off-stage. I went through the world bald. And that was really helpful because people would come up and we would talk about what they were going through.
TS: From 2000 to now has been quite active for you because you went back on television. One show you performed on was "Ugly Betty," which started in LA and then moved to New York. Did you have fun doing that?
JL: Oh, I loved it. We’re all still in touch, we’re all good friends. I mean, we became a family on that show in a lot of ways. There was a writers’ strike in the middle of all that and we were off for several months. Our producers came to us and said, “What do you think the show needs?” And we said, “Los Angeles isn’t really the fashion capital of the world, kids. New York was where the pilot was shot. New York is the fashion capital of the world.” I think once the Bloomberg administration gave the tax break, they called us all and said, “We’re moving you guys to New York.” We were really thrilled, it was remarkable. Unfortunately, it didn’t last that long after we got here.
TS: I should mention, before we talk about your extraordinary work on this play today, your back-to-back Tony awards for Best Featured Actress in Other Desert Cities and The Assemble Parties. Will you tell us a bit about finding your way into Madame Raquin? I know some actors bridle at the word “process.” Alan Cumming said to me once, “I’m not a piece of cheese. I don’t have a process.”
JL: Gotta love him, right?
TS: Will you share with us how you found this character?
JL: I do have a process. I did a lot of work before I got here and so did everybody else. Of course, we all read the novel. And we were told specifically to read the Penguin edition of the novel, so that everybody was on the same page. And when we came to rehearsals, Evan Cabnet, who was a wonderful, amazing, generous, supportive director, had us all sit down at a table for a week with Helen Edmundson, the writer/adapter, so that we could ask questions and we could talk about what each character was going through and how they would transform. The play is very dense, very dark. We really spent a lot of time working with each other, becoming intimate with each
other, talking to each other. When we were at the table, somebody would say, “Well, I had this thought, but I’m not really sure about it” and somebody would respond with, “But I think that’s really interesting. I think you should follow that line of thinking.” Everybody was open to everybody else, which is a very rare experience. I’m still working on Madame Raquin. I’ll be working on this until January 3rd. We’re all talking to each other about what’s going on at every moment or where we’re finding something new. It’s an ongoing, living, powerful organism. This play requires something much deeper in a lot of ways than some other plays do. And thank goodness we all get along; if one person in this whole dynamic was problematic, it would be really difficult.
The other thing that’s really important to my process is the intimacy of working with the audience when we’re up here on stage. You are the other character in the play. And there’s something very sacred, holy to me, about those moments of that energy exchange. I don’t mean to sound “woo-woo” about it or too Southern California about it. I mean it in the sense that there is this active process going on between the actors and the audience. You were a very
powerful audience for all of us this afternoon.
TS: I’m wondering what the transition was like from being in the rehearsal room to being on the stage in technical rehearsals. Did it make you all crazy?
JL: Oh, please. We were still teching things today. We were in the rehearsal hall and we said, “We have a play. This is really good.” We got into the theatre and we thought, Oh my god, what are we going to do? It has been incredibly challenging and daunting; but not once did anybody lose it. Not once. Everybody felt that we’re in it together and we’re going to do it. A testament to the people that Evan has around him.
TS: Can you explain to the audience why, since I’m sure you understand this, Thérèse is related to Madame and Camille, but is still treated more or less like a servant in a way? Why was that?
JL: I don’t how many of you read the novel before you came, but if you listen to the dialogue when I dress her before the wedding, I say, “I’m going to tell you of your history, Thérèse. It’s only right that you should hear it today, your wedding day.” And I tell her that her mother had died and her father had met this woman in North Africa and she was Algerian which was, at that time, not of the right social status. And so he left this child with me. I already had my
own child and no husband and then my brother brings me another child and there was this disdain for this girl. What you see is that she becomes my child, she calls me mother in the second act, out of her own guilt and whatever those circumstances are. She was brought to me by my brother and dropped on the doorstep and then he went back to sea and we never saw him again.
There’s a lot of conflicting emotions and feelings about her. And, of course, because
she feels that, she doesn’t talk very much, she doesn’t give a lot, she’s always staring out the window or standing on a rock looking out at the river -- so there’s no way to relate to her. She isn’t a girl like Suzanne, who Madame thinks is just so sweet and so dear. There’s this impatience with Thérèse that’s part of the novel and I think Helen captured that beautifully.
TS: I also want to talk about your relationship to Camille, your son, Gabriel Ebert’s character. Do you think he is a substitute husband for your character, Madame Raquin?
JL: Of course! When this particular woman loses her husband, she makes her only son her everything. He’s going to be everything that she needs. He’s going to be a husband and her child and the father to her grandchildren. It’s that very small mentality of staying safe and protected and making sure that everything is okay and controlled. What ends up happening out of that is that Madame loses everything and Camille loses his life. None of the things she had planned for or has wanted and tried to orchestrate so desperately ever comes to pass.
TS: Zola is often considered one of the inventors of Naturalism. He was dealing with the psychology of his characters, although he called it “temperaments.” Do you find it fascinating that in 1867, Zola is trying to wrestle with psychology long before Freud?
JL: I find it incredibly fascinating. And I find it fascinating that Freud was talking about women and hysteria. You’re seeing that concept in this play basically 50 years before Freud. And, of course, the novel was so intriguing to all of us because Zola’s the one that wrote “J’accuse” about the Dreyfus Affair. Zola was saying, “This is anti-Semitism.” And he was vilified for it. I think understanding human behavior was very important to who Zola was as an artist. He was saying to people in his writing, “We have these baser natures. Will we give into them? Will we go for what we want? If we do, what are consequences to those actions?” I think it’s a play for our time and only Todd Haimes at the Roundabout would be brave enough to do it. It’s quite an extraordinary thing for him to take this on.
TS: We’re going to allow you to ask some questions now. This gentleman is very eager to get started.
Audience Member #1: Was there something you were afraid of in playing this role?
JL: I was very concerned about being able to bring her to life with all the minute detail that is necessary. I knew the amount of work that it would require to sustain the character’s truth and that I would need really good eyes on me. We all keep working on our characters because the human beings in this play are so multi-leveled and layered. When we’re done talking here, I’ll go upstairs and work with Gabe. I’ll give you an example of something I found recently. There’s one moment in the first scene with the dominos, when the Superintendent brings Suzanne and she’s
in this lovely outfit. It wasn’t until maybe last week that I suddenly realized that Thérèse is just sitting, looking out the window -- I mean I always knew she was sitting there, but my impatience with her started to grow because she isn’t involved in the conversation in any way. I realized Madame knows that unless she keeps these people here, she’s not going to have any life in Paris. Madame needs to have these people here.
So I started looking at my watch because Camille is late and that’s going to make Grivet angry. All of those little things started to come into play in the scene. Every scene requires a tremendous amount of detailed work.
TS: I’m curious, once you lose your voice at the end of the play, is that a relief? Or does that become more challenging because you have to act without your voice?
JL: It is the hardest part of the play for me. It is so difficult because you can’t move. If you’re in the wrong position and it’s uncomfortable, you can’t move. If you have to cough, you can’t. I’m tied into that chair with these things around my ankles.
Audience Member #2: Can you elaborate on how you’re affected differently by one audience to another? You mentioned that we were a powerful audience today.
JL: Audiences are always different. This is a matinee, everybody was awake. I hope they were at least. If it’s a Friday night, everybody comes after work, they’ve all had a little dinner, everybody’s had some wine. Today we could feel people wanting to have a story told to them. Sometimes you can silently feel it when the audience is tacitly saying, “Okay, show me what you’ve got.” The actors can feel the energy that the audience brings. It’s just like in life, when you have a conversation with somebody and you feel that they’re not really there. That they’re not really present with you. So when we have an audience like you, it brings the connection between us closer. We tell the story and you give us energy back. And it’s not just if people laugh or gasp, that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s a very energetic experience and you can actually feel it.
My bet is if I asked every one of you if you could feel that energy in the people around you today, you could tell if they were engaged or not.
TS: Do you like working in this house?
JL: I don’t really think about it. It’s the house I’m given, you know what I mean? I think it works very well for this particular play. It was an opera house first. It’s got that kind of feeling to it.
TS: It has great acoustics.
JL: Yes, none of us are straining to be heard. We have to make sure that we’re getting heard way up there in the balcony though, they’ve paid money too.
Audience Member #3: Can you talk about the roles you are offered and how that has changed over the years?
JL: That’s a really good question. I could not be more grateful for what has come my way. I was the girl who was on the soap opera and then on the sitcom and now I get offered roles in Lombardi, Other Desert Cities, The Assembled Parties and this. I know that people are seeing me in a way that is not stereotypical. They are giving me this variety of roles to do. I get
to do more now than I ever got to when I was younger. Who would think to give me that part on "Transparent?" If you saw the girl on "Who’s the Boss?", would you give her that part on Transparent? Part of that is because of the people that I have supporting me in my career. I think I was always a character actress. I used to say, “I want to be an ingénue!” And then
some director said to me, “No, you don’t! Why would you want to do that? You’re a character actor, you want to do great, interesting characters!” I just wanted to be the cute one! I wanted to be the cheerleader. And I’m so glad now I wasn’t.
Audience Member #4: I really see this as a tragedy. And your character is perhaps the most tragic of all, since she is stripped of everything over time. Each character has their own tragedy but also plays a part in the others’ tragedies as well. I’m curious what that process was like, being a key player in your own tragedy while supporting someone else’s.
JL: That’s very astute. I never thought about it like that, and I think you’re accurate in what you’re saying. I can be intellectually aware of what you’re talking about, but I can’t play that. There is no way to think about doing that throughout the play, because acting is experiential. If you only think your way through a part, you’ll fall down many more times than you need to. It has to be in your gut, in your being, in your soul. I worked with this extraordinary woman named Joan Scheckel on "Transparent." She talks about how emotion rides on the water and the blood in the body and that creates intimacy with another human being. If you are doing the work you are supposed to be doing as an actor, you are being -- you are inhabiting the behavior of your character -- and in being, you are hopefully making it about someone else -- which is what I think we should all be doing in our lives. The world would be a much better place if everyone was making it about someone else, instead of just themselves.
Audience Member #5: How do you take care of yourself when you are acting in a show like this?
JL: By having a sense of humor. We all make each other laugh, which really helps a lot. You don’t ever allow yourself to get dark. You stay grateful, you stay appreciative for the work and this incredible opportunity. You rest and you sleep and you eat well. We get done about a quarter to 11 and very few, if any, of us go out afterwards. We tend to be very careful about our energy. I go home and I get in the tub and then I’ll go to bed and I’ll make sure that I really sleep well.
If we see that someone else is tired or not taking care of themselves, we ask them if there is something we can do. Before we started the play today, Matt came all the way to my dressing room and said, “Here are your two B12 chews.” You have to be smart about it, you have to be sensible. Keira Knightley has a five-month-old baby and she has to do that as well! I keep saying the words daunting and challenging when I talk about working on this play. Primarily because you have come to share in this experience with us and it is our responsibility to give you the best performance we can. I believe the theater, like almost nothing else, can literally change the dynamic of the world. It lifts the culture, it is the art form that connects us all as human beings. So we must take care of ourselves to give you that experience.
Thérèse Raquin runs through January 3 at Studio 54. For tickets and more information, please visit our website.
2015-2016 Season, A Conversation with, Education @ Roundabout, Therese Raquin, Upstage