Judith Light arrives at a Midtown Manhattan studio, her hair and face rinsed clean. The actress eases her slender frame into a makeup chair and gazes intently at her natural reflection. With nearly 50 years in show business, this routine is nothing new. But Light, who this week reprises her role as Shelly Pfefferman on the fourth season of “Transparent,” is still working to define the woman she sees in the mirror.
“Talk about a career of longevity,” she remarks. “Seeing that it’s still working out and still unfolding. So many people in our business see me doing this variety of roles and they have not pigeon-holed me.”
Light, 68, recalls getting her start on “One Life to Live,” which scored the-then unseasoned actress two Emmys. When she found herself out of work in the early Eighties, her longtime manager, mentor and friend, Herb Hamsher, gave her a much-needed reality check that she remembers vividly.
“After leaving the soap, I wasn’t working very much and I was upset by it,” she explains. “[Herb] said you’re so angry and entitled. You want people to just give you a job. I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ but I knew it. I was defensive.”
Tilting her chin downwards, Light appears noticeably embarrassed by her past diva behavior. Now an acute self-awareness has helped the busy actress stay grounded as she, like the Pfefferman character, works to reinvent herself with each unpredictable moment of life.
Since losing Hamsher to brain cancer last year, the actress admits she is “not on steady ground,” but sees this new phase of her life — and career — as part of her own “coming out.”
“This season you see [Shelly] telling more of the truth to her family than ever before,” says Light. “It’s about human beings living their lives and being flawed, fragile, vulnerable and frightened — but immeasurably alive.”
Now fully made up, her blonde hair bouncing, Light slips into a structured Brandon Maxwell jacket. “We have a million different people inside of us and they’re all different characters. Depending on what article of clothing you put on, it changes the energy, pulls people in and communicates something.”
Despite the gravity of her words, Light exudes a cheerful energy as she steps before the camera’s lens. “Can you play some Frank Sinatra?” she requests, pivoting towards a blowing wind machine. She’s clearly been here before. The actress is slipping into one of her many characters.
Straddling a bistro chair, “Young At Heart” playing from a set of speakers, the Tony winner exposes her vulnerability once again. “Am I afraid? Sure. That’s what the ‘coming out’ is. Every day I have to say how will I be, where will I be, what will I be — not do, but be.”
She lets that thought simmer for a moment.
Landing this role on “Transparent” was an important step for Light, who has long been an advocate of the LGBT community. In the early days of the AIDS pandemic, the Carnegie Mellon graduate found courage and inspiration in those afflicted by the disease.
“All of these things are coming full circle,” she admits. “Herb was always the presence and the reminder to not be coming from my ego. Now that he’s gone, I’m doing that for myself.”
Light lifts the black velvet collar of her jacket. Once again, she transforms. “I love to get dressed up,” admits the New Jersey native. “My mother was a women’s wear buyer. When I was a little girl she used to change me in different outfits all the time. We went shopping every weekend — even though we didn’t have a lot of money. I just loved it because it was a connection with her.”
Be it for an event, an on-screen role, or simply to blend into the crowded sidewalks of New York, Light approaches dressing as a way of expressing these many angles of her personality. “This is an art form,” she says with a glint in her eye. “We must look to the arts — theater, film, television, sculpture, painting and fashion — to tell the story of this time now in our culture.”
Slipping back into a loose-fitting sweatshirt and casual pants, Light takes a deep breath. “We will be giving our young people a path of emotion, beauty and passion [through the arts],” she says with conviction.
“‘Transparent’ is very much a part of it and I feel so graced by that — to have this happen at this time in my life. It’s all very special.”
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