Judith Light is having a moment.
From acclaimed stage work to recent Emmy-nominated turns in Transparent and American Crime Story to, now, her biggest film role in more than a decade, the actress, 70, is enjoying a career renaissance that shows no signs of stopping.
Her newest project, Before You Know It, marks one of the most creatively exhilarating experiences of her life. Years ago, Light was invited to develop the indie film with writer-stars Jen Tullock and Hannah Pearl Utt at Sundance Labs; shortly thereafter, she got the call to star in the film. Before You Know It follows two sisters (Tullock and Utt) as they learn that their mother, Sherrell (Light), long-presumed dead, is actually alive.
The role hit many buttons for Light: Sherrell is a soap opera star, much as Light was for a good portion of her career, and is fighting ageism within the industry. In the wake of her daughters’ discovery, Sherrell grapples with her own personal shortcomings and finds a shot at redemption.
EW caught up with Light about the making of the film, its release at a high point in her career, and what this moment in general feels like for her. Read on below. Before You Know It is now playing in select cities.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start with what drew you to this movie. How did you get involved with Hannah and Jen?
JUDITH LIGHT: We were finishing up the fourth season of Transparent, and I was talking to Jay Duplass about doing film. He’s done a lot of film. He said, “You know what would be great for you, and great for them? If you ever got a chance to go to the Sundance Film Labs.” I said I’d love that. Literally, a week later… our casting director sent me a script. She said, “Here’s this script. It’s for the Sundance Film Labs. What do you think?” I said, “I’m in. I want to go.” I met Hannah and Jen, and we spent four or five days together in the mountains of Utah. Just working on the script. Talking to each other. Connecting. Talking about our lives. And where the script could go, where it needed to go. We started filming some things so they could really look at what it was going to look like on film. Then we did a full reading for a lot of people at Sundance. There’s this magic that happens there, with all of the people that were supportive of them in doing the film, in writing the film. We all kissed each other goodbye and said how great it was to be together.
They came back to me [later] and said, “We’d really love you to do this if you want to do this with us.” I was all over it! They’re total team players, they are open to taking notes on scripts and ideas — other people’s ideas, not just mine. And they are the future of film. To have been able to be with them and align with them on supporting them in this project, and to get to be a part of it and hang out with them, from the beginning to the completion of the film, was an absolute joy.
Sounds like such a unique process, too.
It’s a really unique process. Anybody who has any thoughts of doing film, the Sundance Film Lab is a remarkable place to be, and to have the space to work.
When it came to Sherrell and your character, what kinds of conversations did you have, specifically, in terms of shaping her?
It could’ve turned into a caricature in some way. That was something that was really important to all of us, that it not be that — or that, in some way, because this woman has left her children, that you didn’t hate her for that. That you understood. Whether you celebrated her for her choice of saying, “It would’ve been worse if I stayed with them because it would’ve been a disaster for everybody,” or whether you criticize her for the choice, we never wanted it to be that you hated her for that choice — or that you were turned off by her for that choice. That you could find some place where you could understand her. How forgiveness could happen. How things could be fixed. That was a really important step that we knew we had to find, not only in the writing of it, but also in the acting of it and in the directing of it.
You were also in a lot of soap operas yourself, earlier in your career.
That was something I’d been involved in for many years. So that’s how we tended to work through it.
It’s interesting the way the movie uses soap opera, too: The plot of it is soapy in a way, but it makes the premise feel very down to earth and lived in.
Yeah, that’s what I thought too. But it was really a focus of all of ours. That’s really how you shape something, how you work on something together. That’s important. They never took anything for granted. They were always on the side of making it realer, more expansive. It wasn’t that they were going deeper with the characters, they were going wider. They were allowing it to evolve out of who were the actors playing them. That evolution — it doesn’t feel off in some way, it’s integrated into the whole story.
Talk about your look in this movie, then, which at first glance is really over the top.
That had a lot to do with Hannah [who also directs]. Hannah’s able to do a scene, be in a scene with you as the actor, step out as the writer and rewrite something, then come back as the director and give you notes, then produce. She had a lot to do with that look. Again, making sure we were not making this character a caricature. She was very definitive about that: what the clothes would be, what the color palette would be, those soft, neutral pinks and creams. Then to see this character at the end — I guess we can’t talk about that yet. [laughs] I also knew that for time purposes that a wig was going to be essential. I have some really fantastic wig makers here in New York… We wanted it to be the kind of hairstyle that you see on a lot of the soap operas, that it was going to be something you’d recognize and understand and feel it, but that it wouldn’t be too much. We were always right on the edge of not having to be too much. That was true within the scenes as well. What does it mean to be a person who’s incredibly lonely — that you feel that loneliness from her in her life? We were always walking that very delicate, fine line.
I was struck by Sherrell’s story of getting pushed off her show, and the ageist component there, mainly because here you are in this great part, and it seems like every year you have this great new role that you get to take on.
So what was it like to dig into that story line? Did it hit close to home at all?
I’m not exactly sure how to answer that. I feel so incredibly fortunate and grateful for what seems to be happening for me. I guess what I would say is that I’m also expanding and widening — allowing myself to evolve, and leaving myself open. I find that in that, people are really moving in my direction. I’m working on something really fascinating right now, [Manhunt], for Charter Spectrum and Lionsgate. All of a sudden, since I’ve done Transparent for Jill Soloway and The Assassination of Gianni Versace for Ryan Murphy, people have begun to see me. There’s a sense that I’m coming into the best years of my life. There is something that is being generated around that feeling. I got to take on all of these new, different, and very interesting roles.
Now that you’re getting all of these new opportunities, what do you want to do that you haven’t done? What are you thinking about as possibilities?
It’s so interesting that you ask that. I’ve started to produce and put things together. My husband [Robert Desiderio] is a writer. He’s writing two projects that we’re working on right now. I have a couple of other films that I’m looking at producing. All of a sudden I’ve been open to this whole other world. It’s all new and different exciting. It’s not even like I’m taking risks. It’s that I’m opening up, expanding, a sense of life that I just didn’t have before. I don’t know how else to describe it; it’s one of those things that’s indescribable, but experiential. The minute I put words to it, it escapes me.
I would imagine that the experience of acting, this job you’ve had for so many years, has changed for you. What are you getting out of acting now?
It’s a thrill. I feel freer than I ever have. More open than I have. The respect I have for the people that I get to work with. The gratitude that I have for being able to do all of this. It’s not like I didn’t have that before, but now I experience it in a much more expanded form. Something about looking at the world from this perspective, being more mature now, and not chasing everything, but really allowing things to happen — and that means in my life and in every time I shoot a scene. There’s an allowance of something that I didn’t have an experience of, really, in the same way before. It started, really, when I was doing Ugly Betty and then when Transparent happened. Now working with Ryan and Jill. And now Hannah and Jen.
This interview has been edited and condensed.