When it comes to juggling the worlds of TV and theater, Judith Light is the boss. Busier than ever with roles on Amazon’s Transparent (season 2 arrives Dec. 11, but the premiere episode is available to watch now) and in a revival of Thérèse Raquin with Keira Knightley (now on Broadway), Light slowed down just long enough to share the memories behind some of her favorite career moments.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In Transparent, you play family matriarch Shelly Pfefferman. How is she different from other characters you’ve played throughout in your career?
JUDITH LIGHT: When I talked to [creator] Jill Soloway about Shelly, I knew that this was someone that I wanted to portray. The characteristics of her are someone who is deeply longing for connection, and has literally no idea how to do it. So what she ends up doing is pushing people away in her attempt to bring them closer. And I know there are a lot of people out there that are like that, and I have done so in my life at different times. It was a real exploration of that kind of psychology to me. When you get to play different kinds of characters, as I have had the opportunity to do, it leads a window into the audience; it gives them a chance to see this particular kind of person, and to see if they relate. And I’m finding that many people also relate to her because she’s so funny. You also feel this sort of loneliness and sadness about her. I just think that she’s so different in that particular aspect than other characters I’ve played.
What can we expect to see from the show this season?
What you’re going to see is that every character expands emotionally and sexually. They are expanding in different ways, and their stories take on different aspects. You will see the Pfeffermans of the past, not just the near past like we did last year, but even farther back. It’s the real history of the Pfefferman family. And this is about something much bigger than all of us. I know Jeffrey [Tambor] talks about it all the time, the level of responsibility we all feel we have. There are so many hate crimes that are generated toward the community. It’s a real problem, and we feel that we have the responsibility to shed the light on that as well.
What does your role in Thérèse Raquin allow you to do that you’ve never done before?
Well, in my past in repertory theater I did a lot of classics, and I did a lot of Shakespeare and period pieces, but no one in the Broadway community has seen me do something like this. What I really appreciate about this story is what it is showing and demonstrating to people is that if one only thinks of one’s self, and one’s desires, and is led only by what you want, and you don’t think about anyone else, you will be often led down a path that will be disastrous or have dire consequences. That is the story of this play. I really felt it was important to talk about that.
Had you ever met Keira before?
No, but I adore her. I just love our relationship. She is such a special person. She’s funny, she’s a team player, she’s a brilliant actress, and she works so hard. There’s just a sense about her of being there to work with everyone. Her generosity in life and on stage is just really and truly extraordinary.
You made your Broadway debut in A Doll’s House, 40 years ago this year. Do you consider that role your big break?
It really didn’t make me, I can tell you that. I had the smallest part in the play, but I did get to be there with this really remarkable cast. It was an opportunity for someone so young. To give you a bit of a backstory, when I was in my senior year at Carnegie Mellon University, I had to do this thing that was then called theater communication troupe auditions. You had preliminaries, and I did the preliminaries in New York and met a woman who was the casting director for Joe Pabst’s Public Theater. Her name was Rosemarie Tichler, and Rosemarie was a real supporting champion of mine. I called Rosemarie after I had done a couple years of repertory theater and I said, “Ro, is it time for me to come to New York?” and she said, “Yes it is,” and she cast me in Doll’s House in this little part as the maid, and I have been forever grateful to her for that. I went on to do other other plays, but she was really the one that was supporting me in that way. That’s how I got it, but it definitely was not my big break.
While we’re on the subject of your early roles, I have to ask you: what do you remember about your very first TV role in the ‘70s CBS series Kojak?
I was so nervous. I remember going in for the audition and seeing people’s names on the audition list and just closing my eyes and saying, “You can’t look. You can’t look, because they’re known better than you are.” I was terrified, and then I was really nervous when I actually went to do it, but [lead star] Telly Savalas was so kind and sweet to me. I remember thinking, “If I ever get into a position like he is, I want to be like that too. I want to make people feel comfortable.” It was quite a remarkable moment that I really took to heart.
You’ve had so many great roles throughout the years, but what do people recognize you the most from?
It’s Who’s the Boss, it’s One Life to Live, it’s Law & Order: SVU, it’s Ugly Betty. It’s interesting because demographically they’re all different. I remember I was sitting in an audience one time and this little girl said “Mommy, mommy, Ugly Betty,,” and the mom said “No, no, honey, Who’s the Boss,” and the grandmother said, “No, One Life to Live.” Different people remember me for different things.
Is it safe to say that your hair will never be teased as big as it was for Who’s the Boss?
Hopefully not. And the shoulder pads! [Laughs] The thing about it was that it was a role reversal, and very cutting edge for that time. I have young women come up to me and say “Angela Bower was my role model,” and “Angela Bower taught me that I can be out in the workplace and that I could have a family, and that I could do something that would actually be different from the norm.” And it also talked about blended families. It had a lot of lessons in the humor of this 22-minute situation comedy. It changed my life too. Tony [Danza] taught me so much about comedy, more than I had learned even in all my years in repertory theater doing comedies. He taught me about comedy, and he taught me about comic timing.
Your resume is full of stellar credits, but looking back, is there a role that makes you cringe just thinking of it?
There are two things that I was absolutely terrible in that I can tell you about. One is called Intimate Agony, which was a movie of the week that I did right after I moved from New York to Los Angeles. I’m just awful in it. It’s a story about herpes, and I’m awful in it. I’m sure a lot of people will try to find it and they can — let me just say now that I’m embarrassed by my work. I just didn’t do very good work in it. And then I did another thing that was very difficult to do that I don’t think I was very good in either. It’s a thing called You are the Jury. There are always parts of things I look at and say “Wow, I could’ve done better, I could’ve gone deeper.”
You’ve also done quite a few films. Which stands out to you as a passion project?
I’d have to say Save Me. It’s a story about a woman and her husband who put together this 12-step program for young gay men to make them straight. In the story, she had a child who committed suicide because he was gay because she was unaccepting and unsupportive. Later, she says, “I will make sure that no other young man has to go through this.” It’s a very powerful story, and I’d have to say that stands out for me in many ways, both because of my advocacy and because of my career.