Judith Light on Her Special Tony, and the Origins of Her Devotion to LGBTQ Activism

The legendary actor, fashion plate, and queer rights-HIV/AIDS supporter traces her devotion to the community to a summer camp for young performers.

On a bright, sunny day in the middle of June, at the very tip of Cape Cod, we sat down with actor Judith Light. The previous day, she had accepted the Excellence in Acting Award at the 2019 Provincetown International Film Festival. Light was also at the fest with director-actor Hanna Pearl's film Before You Know It, in which Light stars as a soap actress thought long-dead by her daughters.

The winner of two Tony Awards for her performances in The Assembled Parties and Other Desert Cities was recently presented with the honorary Isabelle Stevenson Award, a humanitarian award given in recognition of her advocacy for LGBTQ rights and in the fight against HIV/AIDS, from her early involvement with the AIDS Memorial Quilt in the 1980s to her work with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, GLAAD, and other LGBTQ orgs.

Mae Gammino / Provincetown Film Festival

Judith Light at the Provincetown International Film Festival in 2019.

You won a special Tony Award this year. What was the conversation like when you found out?

I was in Los Angeles filming the last two-hour movie musical finale of Transparent and I was not at work yet that day, and Charlotte St. Martin, who I know from the Broadway League, called me and she said, “I want you to know that we’re giving you the Isabelle Stevenson Award this year. And I kept going, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.” I must’ve said it 10 times, and I thought to myself, Judith, say something articulate. I was so shocked. It’s a really special and extraordinary. Isabelle Stevenson was a real powerhouse. She was the president of the American Theatre Wing, and she really made tremendous strides in terms of the kinds of work and service she did in education for young people in the theater, and all of the work she did for the Tonys. So 10 years ago they created this award to honor and acknowledge people and give them recognition for work they have done either outside of the theater or within the theater community.

There’s something about theater for which community service seems to be integral, in a way that maybe doesn’t feel the same for TV or film. There’s something distinct about it.

Very distinct. The distinction is that when you work in the theater, in Broadway, or off-Broadway, or off-off-Broadway, you’re doing eight shows a week. When you’re doing eight shows a week you have no life, basically, other than that show. So you don’t get to see other friends, you don’t get to have that kind of time. Everybody knows in this community what it takes to devote yourself to do that. That’s partly why people don’t go back to the theater—it’s why I stayed away for such a long time, I was away for 22 years. So when you know what it takes, there’s kind of a tacit understanding among all of us, that we have a kind of respect and honor and love for each other.

You have talked about how The Ryan White Story got you a lot of very negative feedback [for addressing AIDS]. Prior to signing on, did you feel any trepidation or fear about taking the role [of Ryan’s mother Jeanne]?

No. My friends were dying. I consider them my family. It was unconscionable the way they were being treated. It is untenable to say we that have empathy for each other, we have compassion for each other—to speak those words, and then to see the actions that are diametrically the opposite—I couldn’t bear it. When I was very young I was in performing arts camp in New Hope, Pennsylvania, another gay mecca, and I must’ve been 11 or 12—and I remembered this in the deep recesses of my mind during this period of time when so many people were dying—a lot of teachers and dancers and people would come from New York, largely from the gay community. They would come over the summer to teach and be present, and it was the gay men who took care of me. They watched out for me, so I thought, now it’s my turn.

Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic

HOLLYWOOD, CA - APRIL 22: (L-R) Jill Soloway, Judith Light and Alanis Morissette arrive for Amazon Prime Video's Emmy FYC event and screening for "Transparent" at Hollywood Athletic Club on April 22, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic)

Jill Soloway, Judith Light, and Alanis Morissette in Hollywood, California in 2017.

We spoke last time about how you were a little gobsmacked that Jill Soloway gave you an Alanis Morissette song to sing. I know you can’t spoil too much about the Transparent finale, but was there a moment of gobsmackedness again this time?

Jill’s sibling Faith Soloway wrote all the music and the lyrics, and Anne Preven worked with both of them to put the music together. I am gobsmacked by the entire thing, every song I heard I was in complete awe about the level of talent. I don’t know how it’s going to come across. People who’ve seen it say it’s kind of terrific but that’s all I know. I just kept being stunned by the whole thing.

You’ve done every medium and all kinds of roles, but is there something you’ve always wanted to do—a genre or type of character that you haven’t had the chance to play?

You know, I don’t do that anymore. I used to do that in the early days. You know, there’s that Kierkegaard quote, the philosopher, who said “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” When I look at what I have been given and how I have been graced, if I had held to my position that I was only going to do feature films, and only going to theater, and never allowed for how the world the universe, the cosmos, brought these things to me, I would have lost out in so many ways. So now I say, “Okay, what’s next? Where are we going?” And the joy, and the thrill of that—it’s like, all of us sudden out of nowhere comes The Assassination of Gianni Versace with Ryan Murphy, and then Ryan calls me and says, “I want you to do The Politician,” and I get to do Transparent—and all of a sudden it turns into a musical! You can't orchestrate that. Do I have visions, do I have thoughts and desires? But I don’t let those be the controlling factor the way they were in the beginning. In the beginning of my career I was miserable because of that—like, I got to have this. No you don’t!

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 17: Ryan Murphy (C) and cast and crew accepts the Outstanding Limited Series award for 'The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story' onstage during the 70th Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on September 17, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Ryan Murphy, Judith Light, and the cast of American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace during the 70th Emmy Awards in 2018.

Was it about checking a box?

No, because it was all about proving that I was worthy. It was all about now I have to do that because that’s the thing that’s going to get me the acknowledgement. Did I think that a girl who started in repertory theater living in Milwaukee and Seattle, and then going into soap opera, would end up with two Tony awards? I mean, you can’t make this shit up.

Which of all your characters would make for the best drag queen?

Any of them! I mean I’ve seen a lot of Angela Bowers drag. For anyone to perform any of my characters would be a real gift.

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