A staple on television since she first appeared on One Life to Live, Judith Light has built a career that has lasted nearly 40 years. While she’s played a number of memorable characters -- Karen Wolek (One Life to Live), Angela Bower (Who’s the Boss?), and Claire Meade (Ugly Betty) -- none of them have felt more relevant or important as Shelley Pfefferman on Amazon’s Transparent.
On the Emmy-winning series, Light plays an aging, neurotic matriarch -- the character seemingly a decade older than her own 66 years -- and ex-wife of Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), her husband who came out as a transgender woman. Over the course of two seasons, she’s been forced to face her own morality, sexuality, and the family’s growing list of secrets as the Pfefferman family comes to terms with Maura’s identity.
“Truth gets revealed, and that’s what the show is really about,” Light tells ETonline. “It’s revealing truth about people’s emotional, psychological, sexual states and where they are living in relation to that.”
Light says that openly confronting that truth, in addition to its powerful representation of the transgender community, is what makes the show so “iconic and universal.”
In season two, for which Light was recently nominated for a Critics’ Choice Award, Golden Globe Award, and Screen Actors Guild Award, Shelley’s relationship with Maura becomes more complicated as the two characters embrace in a newfound romance. It’s left them both satisfied and hurt as they are forced to confront their own realities. For Maura, she wants to explore her life as a woman while maintaining some connection with her past one. And for Shelley, it’s about being seen as something alive and sexual -- after being abandoned by her husband.
These journeys come to a head in episode two, titled “Flicky-Flicky Thump-Thump,” when Maura pleasures Shelley in the bathroom and Light will tell you that it’s more than just an “orgasm scene” (her preferred description). “We don’t see sex between people of our ages on television, and so many outlets in the TV world will tell you that the only thing that is really important is the demographic from 18 to 49,” Light explains. “But we’re seeing that our audience is telling us that is not so. If you do something intimate and powerful and truthful and groundbreaking, they want to see it.”
While she’s proud of this crucial storytelling moment, Light readily admits she had her own hesitation. “I thought, Oh my god, I can’t do it,” she says, revealing that her longtime manager, Herb Hampshire, reminded her of the scene’s importance. “There’s just no question,” he told her.
What followed was an intimate moment on the set with her, Tambor, creator Jill Soloway, and cinematographer Jim Frohna. Light laid in the bathtub, Soloway herself poured buckets of bubbles on the actress, and Tambor took his place on the side of the tub while Frohna handled the camera. Following the scene, Tambor sent the actress a text: “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
“Who would have thought that we would get to do this kind of work at this time in our lives and our careers,” Light adds.
In addition to Light, her co-stars -- Tambor (71), Anjelica Huston (64), and Cherry Jones (59) -- were also recognized for their work in season two, picking up Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice award nominations. “As we age, we have something very valuable and a kind of wisdom to pass on to people, that people in the past have rejected,” Light says in response to the recognition of her and her co-stars, in addition to the number of other actors over 60 nominated this awards season.
“It says something about our culture,” she adds, admitting that she was once embarrassed to promote flu shots for the National Council on Aging -- an issue on her growing list of advocacy and activism work that she’s maintained over the course of her career. “Unless you’re willing to talk about age, unless we’re willing to do the orgasm scene, unless you’re willing to put it out there, there’s no way that people can have a different relationship to it and that you cannot change the culture.”
“People who are in their 60s are not dead,” she adds.
No one would question Light’s longtime advocacy work. In addition to the National Council on Aging, she has lent her star power to issues related to the LGBT community. “Our jobs as human beings is to be there to serve each other, to take care of each other, and pass information on to each other in non-preachy ways,” Light says, speaking up about AIDS/HIV during a time that even the president wouldn’t.
Find out what she had to say about her former Boss co-star, Danny Pintauro, who recently came out as HIV-positive: