A Conversation With the Beloved, Compassionate, Indefatigable, Very Wise Judith Light

On the eve of receiving the Elizabeth Taylor Award from ACRIA for her activism, the 67-year-old “Transparent” actress shares the many, many lessons she’s learned over her life and career.

Written by Vanessa Lawrence
Photographs by Victoria Stevens

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Victoria Stevens. Produced by Biel Parklee.

There are many ways to be a fan of the actress Judith Light. Anyone who owned a TV in the 80’s and early 90’s probably adores her for her role as the divorced single mother Angela Bower, in the long-running show “Who’s the Boss.” The streaming generation likely feels equal affection for Shelly Pfefferman, the ex-wife of the transgender Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), on Amazon’s “Transparent,” now in its third season. Even theater purists must harbor immense goodwill for Light’s Tony Award-winning performances in the plays Other Desert Cities (2012) and The Assembled Parties (2013), among others.

But we should also be grateful Light’s enormous body of activism on behalf of AIDS/HIV awareness and LGBTQ rights. Since the beginning of the AIDS and HIV pandemic in America, Light has worked tirelessly towards illuminating the facts of the disease and the attendant stigma and bigotry aimed at those who have suffered and died from it. She has spoken at galas for practically every major organization devoted to AIDS and HIV; has marched, bicycled, lobbied and fought at too many events to count, and is on the boards of more non-profits than can possibly be listed, among them The Point Foundation, which seeks to empower LGBTQ youth through educational scholarships and mentorship (Light is currently a member of its honorary board). On December 7, Light will be honored by ACRIA, a nonprofit devoted to HIV research, with the Elizabeth Taylor Award at its 21st Annual Holiday Dinner in New York City.

Here, Light, 67, talks about the catalyst for her activism, her work on “Transparent” and her love of mega-jewelry.

Congratulations on your upcoming award from ACRIA. Thank you, thank you. It’s an honor, it really is. I did an event for them two years ago when they were honoring Larry Kramer. So appropriate to honor Larry for so many things over the years. Because his level of activism was really what set the tone for what needed to be happening at the time, because of The Normal Heart and just because of the way he has spoken to the community. And just because AIDS is not on the front page of the newspaper every day anymore, lest we forget it is still an issue worldwide. Attention must be paid.

That was something I was going to ask you: I think younger generations have become a bit numb to the importance of HIV and AIDS simply because it isn’t taking lives in America at the rate it used to. As someone who has been devoted to AIDS activism for so long, how does that change your approach? I think with more passion and with more consciousness and with more assertiveness because of the fact that it is held now as a chronic illness and so our young people. Jonathan Stoller [and his] husband Herb Hamsher have been my managers for 36 years; Herb just passed away and one of the things he always used to talk about is, “How can we find ways to educate our young that will impact them, that will imprint on them that this is not something that is to be taken lightly?” Nobody wants to cut off anyone’s sexuality or deter them from experiencing themselves and their bodies and their aliveness in that way. It is incumbent on us who have seen and lived through the height of the pandemic, and also know that it isn’t just a matter of taking lots of medication — that medication does impact on your body. We’re trying to show them ways to relate to their sexuality in different ways, to keep themselves safe, to make sure they are taking care of themselves and staying conscious. It’s been a daunting task. I remember we did this really interesting event with Broadway Cares a few years ago and it was a great panel. And the young people there were saying, “You know, we’re having sex. We want to have sex the way we want to have sex.”

Meaning unprotected? Or…

Or not as safe as they could be. Yeah. Because it’s like, “It’s okay! I’ll take a pill. I’ll be okay.” And this elderly gentlemen — not so elderly, but he was older than them for sure, maybe early 50s — he said, “I want you to know that I take all these pills every day and I’ve had something like six strokes and I want you to know that this is not just as simple as what you see it as. I want to give you good counsel.” And so there are people out there like that who are really trying to have those conversations. We have smart young people. And we want them to live a long time.

What was the specific seed or catalyst for your activism with regards to HIV and AIDS? It’s a very straightforward story. I went to Carnegie Mellon University, I was in repertory theater for five years and I met a lot of different people, many of them gay, many of them together as partners. And I had gone to a performing arts camp in New Hope, Pennsylvania. I didn’t realize it until after I became an advocate for the community and for HIV and AIDS, that when I was there — I was very young, 11 or 12 — but in the summer all of these young men who had been on Broadway or were dancers had come to this performing arts camp to help teach us young’uns, and it was those gay men that I realized took care of me and watched out for me and really kept an eye out for me. And I felt their protection. I didn’t know what it was about, but I felt their protection and I recognized it years on. And I remember reading about a dear friend when I had come to New York after repertory theater; I had been at the O’Neill Foundation for a summer and there was a young man who was there. And I don’t know if I was reading Backstage or Variety, but I read that he had died of some unknown disease. And I was like, “What’s that all about?” We weren’t terribly close, but I knew him enough. And then I started hearing about my friends in repertory theater who were sick and dying. And it was progressive and there was no information and there were no answers and that was when they were calling it the “gay cancer.” I mean, this was all at the very, very beginning. Because it meant so much to me, because the community means so much to me, I needed to start speaking about it. Because what we were seeing wasn’t just AIDS that was happening. It wasn’t just that there was no cure. It was the divisiveness and the cruelty and the bigotry and the prejudice, the discount of a community because of who they were. And the recognition that it was homophobia in this country that was driving all of it. That you had a hurricane, you had a flood and the president would fly to be there for the people of whatever community it was. And this community was being discounted, ignored consciously, purposefully. And I couldn’t bear it, I couldn’t stand it. As I said, these were the people who had protected me. These were the people who watched out for me. And so when I saw that this was happening, I was dumfounded and I said, “I can’t live with myself if I’m not saying something.” And I saw Elizabeth Taylor whose namesake award I am receiving at ACRIA; I watched the way she was passionate. Her friend Rock Hudson was dying and she saw what we all saw in this country and she started speaking about it. And she inspired me. And I watched the way the community operated and I saw they were using their anger appropriately. Because underneath anger is grief or fear. And they were using it as a way to put the focus on themselves and talk about what was actually happening and telling the truth. And when you have a group of people who tell the truth, who are authentic in their lives and relationships, it’s inspiring. At least it was to me. And I said, “That’s a community that I want to be a part of and speak up for. I want to give back to them the way they have given to me.”

And then I had a wonderful agent at the time who has since passed on, David Edinburgh, who was trying desperately to get me the part of Jeanne White, Ryan’s mother in The Ryan White Story (1989). And ABC said yes and I did the part. And Jeanne was another incredibly inspiring person to me. Ryan was alive at the time and they were on the set. And we were down in Statesville, North Carolina and we were shooting on set one day and somebody came to interview Ryan. And he had been on Phil Donahue and people had asked him these questions about how he felt about the way his community was treating him. And he said, “Well, I understand it.” He had such compassion for people. He said, “I understand it. I would have been afraid, but I wouldn’t have been cruel.” And so I heard this reporter asking him a question and he said, “Well, you know, people would treat me not so well and they would spit at me and call me a fag.” Have you ever had that moment in your life when all of these things sort of click into place all in one moment, and you’re conscious of something in a way you have not been conscious of something before? I heard it, and it devastated me. And I said, “I have to do more. I have to be like Elizabeth Taylor. I have to be saying that I see that this homophobia is swallowing my friends, my family, the people I know, my community, my theater community, my film community. We have lost of a generation of people and I have to say something about what I see.” And that’s the long story of my activism.

Photo by Victoria Stevens. Produced by Biel Parklee.

The LGBTQ community was so impacted by AIDS. And you’ve also done so much work on their behalf over the years. Those two entities were intertwined at that point. Are they still that way now for you? It’s all tied together. When I watched our brothers dying, I watched the lesbian community rise up to support our brothers. Because so many people, if they told their families they were sick with AIDS, that meant they were gay; so many people were disowned and died alone. They were intrinsically tied for me with my activism in the very beginning. And they are still tied to that today. We’re starting to talk about the intersectionality of our young people. It’s very interesting. We were at a small event this weekend, and there’s a lobbying organization called FCNL, which is Friends Committee on National Legislation. And we were lobbying on the Hill right after the election for criminal justice reform. And there are these wonderful young interns who are working at FCNL, and they were speaking on the final night of this weekend. And this young woman was talking about the LGBTQI community, and the “I” is for “intersectionality” [Ed note: it is commonly understood to stand for “intersex”] you cannot separate people from all the different levels of what is seen and contained toward them, and the prejudices that are seen at them because of varying degrees of “otherness.” And that could mean they’re dealing with sexism, racism, ageism, whatever levels, there are these intersections. It isn’t just one thing that the divisiveness is aimed at you because of. The problem is the otherness, and how it is used to make other people feel superior. So I can’t say that HIV and AIDS advocacy and my work for the LGBTQI community is separate. They are all part of what I see as a place to put the attention to talk about how it is that we relate in this country that simply does not work. That has allowed different levels of bigotry and hatred to foment in a country that we say is a country of great compassion. And it was because of my advocacy for the LGBTQI community — and how many initials are we going to have? I really don’t like to do that but I think it’s important to add this at this particular point because our young people are talking about it so much, but it’s hard to separate them because it’s all about prejudice and discount.

You mentioned the word “election.” In light of the election and the incoming legislature and presidency, what do you see as the next steps for the issues we’ve discussed that are so important to you? You know there’s this really extraordinary thing that Herb and Jonathan used to talk to me about in the very beginning when we started working together. I don’t know if you’ve heard of a man called Lao Tzu? Lao Tzu was about the zen of things, essentially. And there is an image that Lao Tzu talks about that is the tree in the stream. The tree that is steadfast in the center in these turbulent, rushing waters. And that is what I think we are all called to do. That is what I am called to do in this moment, is to be a tree in the stream. I am not “doing anything” with all of this. I am waiting. I am watching. I am being like they talk about FCNL, which is a Quaker lobbying organization: the listening, the patience, the waiting — without running in to do anything. I think that’s a real mistake for me, personally. Because I think what ends up happening is we do things out of that place of rushing in because we are so desperate to do something that we don’t stop and be the tree in the stream where we wait and watch. That’s what I’m doing.

With regards to your career, how much of an impact does your work with all of these issues take on the roles you choose? “Transparent” and The Ryan White Story are more obviously aligned with your activism, but what about other projects? But that was divine choreography. I didn’t know that I was going to get that job [in “Transparent”]. I wanted that job desperately! My audition for that job was a 40 minute Skype call with “Transparent creator” Jill Soloway where we talked about our LGBTQ activism and how we wanted to put a voice into the world that had the potential to change the culture and change the conversation. That’s where Jill totally comes from. And I knew that Jeffrey Tambor, who’s a longtime colleague and friend of mine, was going to be doing it, so I wanted to do that. But that was grace.

Herb and Jonathan have always talked to me about my life being the context of my work, not the other way around. So that who I am as a human being and how I live my life is the most important part. Whatever the different kinds content comes into that, the context stays the same. So I choose the roles, the things that I do from the place of that context. Will it be something that will serve people? Because I believe I’m in a service business. I believe that it is our greatest work in life to serve other human beings. I think I have the good grace and blessing to be able to get to do that and to choose different roles for myself that help me see parts of myself that I have not been aware of, or work on parts of myself that I have not gotten a chance to work on. I choose from that place. And so, yes, my activism has come to fruition in parts like Jeanne White. But it’s also a way to expose to the audience who someone is psychologically, who they “be” in the world, how they operate in the world. Can you learn something from them? Can you be exposed to something you would never be exposed to before? Can you understand them in a way that you wouldn’t have understood them before? The choices come from a place of, How will I grow? How will I support the audience to grow? What can I give them that will illuminate them about the human condition?

In the course of tackling the role of Shelly Pfefferman in “Transparent,” what have you learned about yourself? That I could actually do what I call “principle subordination.” Which means I keep my own counsel about the work that I do, I do the work that I do, but I subordinate myself — not submit myself — to the vision that is the whole that Jill Soloway and our writers and the rest of this cast have created. I am a small part of something that I give myself over to in a way that I never thought I would be able to ever before. I have never worked this way before. There is a kind of freedom in the way that we work, but there are also boundaries. It’s paradoxical. Everybody says, “Is it fun?” I would not use that word to describe it. It is inspiring, it is illuminating, it is challenging, it is complicated, it is deeply, emotionally complex. And I didn’t know that I could pull out those levels of understanding and emotion in relation to a character without thinking through this whole process. You don’t watch “Transparent.” You feel “Transparent.” So I have to come at it from this feeling level. tThat means we all have to be subordinated to this process. We don’t want to talk about it in this sort of new age way. It isn’t new age, it is very complicated and requires a great deal of giving over to other people. And I didn’t know that I could operate like that.

Jill once said to me, “Where does [Shelly] come from?” And I said, “I don’t totally know.” I have some idea, but I don’t completely know. And to wait — for two seasons we go back in time to see young Shelly and young Mort, now Mort/Maura. I had some idea what it was that drove her, but not to the understanding that they gave me when they wrote it. I didn’t know I would have patience like that. I was always so desperate to find the thing that I had to do, and that’s not any of the way we work on “Transparent.” We work with this remarkable woman Jill has connected us with named Joan Scheckel, and the way that Joan works with us is to get us out of our head. To be thinking in our body. She explains the work she does as the emotions ride on the blood and the water and the physicality and that’s how we’re relating to each other. We never rehearse a scene. We are physically relating to each other in our emotional bodies. And that’s what you feel when you’re watching “Transparent.” It’s thrilling. And it’s working without a net.

Photo by Victoria Stevens. Produced by Biel Parklee.

You didn’t have much of net in All the Ways to Say I Love You, the Neil LaBute one-person play Off-Broadway earlier this fall, either, given you’re the only person on stage! That’s a tricky character [Light plays a schoolteacher with a dark, controversial secret linked to a former student] and a tricky playwright. Besides the obvious challenges, what made you want to do that and be the character of Mrs. Johnson? I didn’t want to do it. I had a conversation with Herb and Jonathan. I work from a team mentality with the people I trust the most, with my agents, with my publicists. We had all said, “Meh, not sure if this is the best thing for me to take on.” First of all, I was in the middle of finishing shooting “Transparent,” doing a workshop of a play in Los Angeles and trying to learn 25 pages of single-spaced monologue from Neil LaBute, who is one of our more brilliant and complicated writers. And I said, “I don’t think I want to do it. I don’t think I can do it. I don’t think I’m up to the task of it.” Neil had sent it to me maybe in April and said, “What do you think of this?” because I had done this [DirecTV miniseries] “Ten x Ten” for him. And I said, “Oh it’s really good writing, love your writing, kiss kiss, love love.” Then [casting director] Bernie Telsey from MCC writes us all, because we’re all good friends, and says, “What do think about this? What do you think about one-person shows, solo shows?” And I said, “Unless there’s a great director and a really good concept, I said, I think they can be really problematic. I think they can be boring and vanity productions and who needs to see little Judy Light get up on stage for an hour and do a monologue. It’s just not where I go.” So then Bernie writes back, and says, “Well, we got [director] Leigh Silverman.” And I wrote back to him and I said, “I hate you Bernie.” I’d always wanted to work with Leigh; I think she’s remarkable. And so we all talked. “I’ll call Leigh, I’ll have a conversation with her.” And I thought, It’s not going to happen. She’s going to say things about this production that we’re not going to be on the same page, it’s going to be fine, I’m going to get out of this.

So I’m hoping Leigh is going to be a real problem for me. And we had the best conversation. She was everything I thought our relationship could be working on this, because I couldn’t see my way to it. And I hung up and said, “You know what?She’s amazing and I think I have to do this.” Herb had said to me early on, “I think this talks about sexuality that we don’t talk about. I think it talks about teachers and students in a way that we don’t talk about. It talks about women and their sexuality. It talks about women and how they turn themselves inside out to please a man, how we live in a space of trying to keep our relationships even though they don’t work, and it talks about this country and racism. It’s all about these levels of conversations that you can have.” That’s how I ended up doing it. And it was probably if not the most difficult, one of the most difficult things I have ever taken on. And I don’t regret it for a minute.

Neil has a complicated body of work. Not with this piece, but with other pieces, you can go either way: you can say they are misogynistic or you can say they are pulling out the threads of misogyny in our society. Having worked with him twice now, what are your thoughts on his body of work? I know a lot of people think that about him. That has never been my experience of him nor of the characters he has given me to play. And that is not my experience with him in working with what I would consider two extremely powerful women in Leigh and myself. And also, Neil is about learning about himself. And so he is a new Neil. He is also pointing out things in our society that we go back to, intersectionality. And just because he writes about them doesn’t mean he is that. He is talking about something and it is uncomfortable for people and I understand that. And All the Ways to Say I Love You was very uncomfortable for people. That is alright. You know why it’s alright? Because we get to talk about it. And if we don’t talk about these things, if we are not authentic human beings, we are going to have what we have had in the past, which are the same conversations over and over and over again. As one body of humanity we have got to find our ways to operate in new ways and a new paradigm outside the box so we’re not doing the same things over and over again.

On a lighter note, the namesake of your award is Elizabeth Taylor. I can’t help noticing all of your jewelry. It seems you share something beyond just AIDS activism with her! I would never have thought about it. This is for the photo. I have this wonderful stylist Jack Yeaton, and Jack always picks different things for me to wear. But do I love jewelry like Elizabeth Taylor? I am absolutely on the same page as she is in terms of that. Verdura is an amazing jeweler and I get to wear some amazing things. But yes, they don’t belong to me much as they did belong to Elizabeth.

At least you have similar interests! We do. And she was lovely to me. We were doing the last display of the [NAME Project AIDS Memorial] quilt that was at the National Mall, where I called her and said, “We want you to lead the march on the mall.” And she said, “I can’t walk very well.” And I said, “We will find a way to support you.” And we did. And she said, “I will be there.” And she was there wearing some very beautiful jewelry. And looking fabulous and being fabulous.