What would happen if the dream duo of Judith Light and Al Pacino, two of the most lauded actors of extraordinary talent and range, took to the stage in a dramatic play? Audiences in Southern California can find out now through March 19th in the Pasadena Playhouse’s PlayWorks Development Production of God Looked Away based on the final years in the career of iconic playwright Tennessee Williams.
For Judith Light, the role of Estelle in God Looked Away is yet another feather in her cap in a stellar career, where daytime fans first saw her in her two-time Daytime Emmy-winning role of Karen Wolek on One Life to Live – and her performance on the courtroom witness stand remains a moment that stands among the best in television history. Light is also a two-time Tony Award winner, and this in-demand actress, while appearing nightly in God Looked Away is by day shooting season four of Amazon Prime’s critically-acclaimed web series Transparent, embodying yet another heralded role that of Shelley Pfefferman.
Without question, Judith is the best friend and advocate to the LGBTQ community one could ever have. Through her continued efforts she brings to light and fights the fight of the struggles of our time.
On-Air On-Soaps had the pleasure of chatting with Judith to get some insight into taking the stage playing Tennessee Williams’ best friend and working with Al Pacino, the success of Transparent, and why it’s such an important series for her to be a part of. Last fall, Judith lost her longtime friend, mentor and manager, Herb Hamsher. During our conversation she reveals how she tries to come to terms with his passing. Always thought-provoking, delightful, and as real as they come, here’s what Judith shared.
What was it that made you want be in the cast of God Looked Away? Was it the piece itself, or getting the opportunity to work with Al Pacino?
JUDITH: Both things. Also because I have good friends who are friends with Dotson Rader (playwright, God Looked Away), and also I had worked with Robert Allan Ackerman (director, God Looked Away) back in 1977 at the O’Neill Foundation. So, getting to work with him again was very compelling to me. And of course, getting the chance to work with Al Pacino. How many times does that opportunity come along? It’s a very interesting part, and very different for me. I was excited about it on a whole lot of levels.
In God Looked Away you play the character of Estelle. What can you say about the character that fascinated you without giving anything away?
JUDITH: This is a woman who you think had everything, and what you find out is that she hasn’t, and is extremely needy. She has come upon a time in her life when she is needing more of a lot of things from what she considers to be her best friend, which is Tennessee Williams. There is a level of need that is so great, and they come together when the level for each of them is so great about so many other things in their lives, which has everything to do with how their friendship manifests itself.
The play currently running at the Pasadena Playhouse is being billed as “A PlayWorks Development Production”. What can you say about what goes into the process of working on a stage play this way?
JUDITH: It’s a work in progress, and it’s a play in development. It’s really what I learned when Robert Allan Ackerman and I were at the O’Neill Foundation. When you go there you work on a play, or for a while with the playwright. So what you realize is that you are there to serve the piece, and the playwright. You are working there with the playwright, and the director, and the actors, and you develop this piece. For God Looked Away this is the first time the Pasadena Playhouse has done this. What they are doing is really creating a program of plays, and a place for people to come in California and to do this kind of work. It’s free from press, and critics, which can be so stressful. So really what we are getting to do every single day, and through every single performance is work on this play. It’s a fascinating play, because people don’t really know the story of Tennessee Williams, and his life, and his psychology, nor did they know about his relationships with this man, who in the play we call “Baby”, who is actually Dotson Rader. This is taken from Dotson’s book Cry of the Heart. Dotson and Tennessee had been lovers, and he was Tennessee’s companion for the last 14 years of his life. He was really there to support him, and in a real way was his caretaker.
So every night when the audience come to see the play, might they see something different than the audience that perhaps saw the show the night before?
JUDITH: You wouldn’t notice a lot of changes to the script, necessarily. There might be some things that would be cut, or some things that might be added. But each night it isn’t drastically different. The dynamics of the characters could shift and change as we are finding things. Al has a very specific powerful way of working that brings everybody into the moment. You can’t ask for anything better than being in the moment with somebody not only in life, but on the stage. Al is so generous, and available that you might notice different things, but not a lot. It’s a difficult to explain, so you would have to really come see the play several times to notice it.
Has Al Pacino said anything to you personally acknowledging how great an actress you are?
JUDITH: His generosity is his being, and the way he “be’s” with you, in that you know that he likes it, and is comfortable, and excited. He and I tend to continue to talk about the work all of the time, and we just love that. I know he appreciates that. I don’t need to hear from Al that he thinks I’m good. I know that he appreciates my work, as I appreciate him, and always have. It’s a great experience to get to work with him and be connected with him on this level.
Miles Gaston Villanueva (Ex-Luca Santori), who fans know from his work on Y&R, is also in God Looked Away. Do you share any scenes with him?
JUDITH: Miles plays Dotson Rader, and there is friction between my character and his. You can feel the connection on stage and you know that they know each other, but there is not a lot of exchange between them. Estelle’s focus is solely on Tennessee.
Where does this role rank comparatively to the other roles you performed on the stage? You have quite the resume! Would you say the role of Estelle is one of the most challenging?
JUDITH: It’s right up there! I think it’s one of the best characters I have gotten the opportunity to play. And you’re right; I have gotten to play a lot of different people. Estelle is a real person, and so the dynamic of understanding her, and reading about her in Dotson’s book, Cry of the Heart, and also in Lady Maria St. Just book, who my character is based on, there is a lot you can glean from all of that. You know, I like to do different things, because it challenges me, and I mean that in the best sense of it. I get to find places in myself that I like to understand and explore, and bring to the character and in turn to the audience. I think the audience finds the relationship between Tennessee and Estelle as fascinating as I do.
You are in the middle of a very hectic schedule for you professionally. While you are appearing and working on God Looked Away, you are also shooting season 4 of Transparent. And I have to say, in the season three finale, “To Shell and Back” you delivered such an amazing performance. It all happens after we learn your character, Shelly, was molested by her elementary music teacher. She then mounts her one-woman show on a cruise ship, and performs it in front of her family and sings Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in Pocket”. What did you think of that fantastic season closer?
JUDITH: It is very interesting. There is a kind of genius that runs through the workings of Transparent. It comes from Jill Soloway (creator, Transparent) and her distinct vision and her desire to find a way to work in our business that comes from a place of purity and love, and not in some new age sort of phony way, but in a real way where we care for each other. I don’t know if many people would remember, but in the first season of Transparent, when the kids said something to Shelly about music or records, she said, “I don’t care for music.” The kids look at her like she is crazy, and of course, we all think she is crazy, but you see the thread that comes through. We have the most extraordinary team of writers. Jill’s sister, Faith (who co-wrote this episode) is also a musician, and she worked with me on the song. I looked at both of them and I said, “Why this song?” I had to get myself into the place of it, and they really helped me. That turned out to be one of the most exciting experiences I have ever had in my entire career, because it was all about this team: the sound people, the make-up and hair people, both of which departments have been nominated for awards for that episode. I felt I was being held by the most loving hands in order to create that. I was the person out there in front of the camera, but it was everybody behind the scenes. It became very magical in terms of doing it on the ship. It was the coming together of all different people and their connection, and it was because of all of those people that is was so powerful for the audience.
Did you have a sense from the moment that you signed on to be in the cast of Transparent, that it would continue on as it has now into its fourth season?
JUDITH: I knew it was special from the beginning, and I wanted to be a part of it. My audition was a 45-minute Skype call with Jill Soloway, where we talked about our commitment to the LGBTQ community, and how we could be of service to them. That is what it was about. Jill has a way of people putting them together. Of course, I knew Jeffrey Tambor: we were old friends. We had worked together 45 years ago. I didn’t know how Transparent would be received, or if it would go, but I just knew I wanted to do it. I wanted to work with Jill. I wanted to work with Jeffrey again. I knew about Gaby Hoffman (Ali) and Amy Landecker (Sarah), and Jay Duplass (Joshua) and I just wanted to be in that family. It’s a blessing that I got to do it. Jill talks about wanting to change the conversation, wanting to change the culture, and wanting to change the dynamic of the world, and shine a light on this community, and the hate crimes, and how this is forcing people to go back into the closet. We are dealing with a Supreme Court case right now, which is Gavin Grimm. We have to remember we still live in a place where there is bigotry, and less we forget the beginning of the AIDS pandemic, and how much homophobia controlled the dynamic. So, we are not free of that, and that is what Jill wanted to change, and that’s why I wanted to be part of the series, and find a way to be of service to these people.
Your longtime manager. mentor, and friend Herb Hamsher past away this past October. The two of you had a relationship that is one for the ages. When you reflect back on what he has meant to you, and that special collaborative partnership you had with him, what does it bring to mind?
JUDITH: Our connection was one of a kind, and his partner Jonathan Stoller was also my manager so they were a team, and Jonathan is still working with me. He and Herb got married 12 days before Herb passed away. I haven’t found my way to articulate all of my feelings on his passing yet, because it’s still so new for me, and fresh. I was there with Herb when he took his last breath. Herb had given me so much, and guided me for so long. He used to say to me, “Try to think what my thoughts would be, and what would I say to you.” That is what I am still doing. We worked together so much over 36 years. He always used to talk about being, and that we are human beings, and not “human doings”, and we must learn to be, and that’s very difficult for all of us, and challenging. He taught me how to be aware, grateful, to be kind, and to think about other people before I thought about myself, because our business is so fraught with that. You have to think about other people, it’s not all about you. Those are all things I have taken to heart, and do my best all the time to incorporate. I miss him. I really miss him.
Last year also brought the passing of One Life to Live and All My Children creator, Agnes Nixon. During your time at One Life playing Karen Wolek, did you have the opportunity to spend time with her? Did she ever comment to you about how incredible your performances were?
JUDITH: I had very little interaction with Agnes. She was very focused on All My Children. She was not as involved with One Life to Live. But, Agnes was always very gracious. I saw her a while ago, and she was very warm and generous with me. I thought: “Wow! What a great woman, person, and dynamo in this business.” I have the utmost respect for her.
I don’t know if you were aware of this, but the site the Culturalist teamed with Broadway.com and put out a feature on you where fans created their top ten list from a choice of almost 50 of the roles you have played spanning your career. If you were to have to pick, let’s say your top 5 or so favorite roles, what would be on that list?
JUDITH: Oh, my gosh, Michael. I had no idea they did that! I have to say I always tend to say the thing I am working on now is one of my most favorites, so I have to say Estelle in God Looked Away. Then there is Shelly in Transparent, there is no question about that. Of course, Karen Wolek in One Life to Live. I would also say my role in Wit, which was something very special to me, and Neil LaBute and Leigh Silverman’s All the Ways to Say I Love You, which I just did at MCC last fall. And you know in Lombardi, I got to be directed by Tommy Kail, and then there’s Angela in Who’s The Boss. I mean, we could spend hours talking about this, but they are all powerful to me for reasons that are not just about my career, but my life, and my own life process. That is the one of the things that Herb always talked about. So all of these characters are part of that process to me. I will end our interview and still think of million more, and know that I am grateful for each and every one of them. It’s so special to know that I have people that have followed me for a long time, and who have been kind to me. The fans have been just extraordinary. Each role carries with them a whole different group of people to me, for example, Claire in Ugly Betty. So, each character carries with it a life process for me, where I was at the time, how I was relating to myself and other people, and also the fans. It’s been a long, and rich, and full career. I owe a lot of that to Herb and Jonathan, and I have great agents, and I have a lot of support. I would just say that I am very grateful, and excited by each and every role I have gotten to play.
So, what do you think of the dynamite on-stage combo of Judith and Al Pacino? Do you hope God Looked Away will have a Broadway run? Which are your favorite all-time roles of Judith’s? What did you think of of her performance in season three finale of Transparent … and her thoughts on the passing of Agnes Nixon and Herb Hamsher? Comment below!