At 70, Light is busy as ever. The actress talks to ET about her newest film premiering at SXSW and the upcoming ‘Transparent’ finale.
There’s no shortage of Judith Light (and that’s far from a complaint). Ever since the actress made her debut in the mid-’70s, she’s been a staple on the small screen -- notably for playing Karen Wolek on One Life to Live and Angela Bower on Who’s the Boss?.
While her career has not slowed in the 40 years since, Light has experienced a surge in popularity and appreciation over the past decade, earning Emmy nominations for her roles on Ugly Betty, Transparent and American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, and making welcome appearances on Dallas, Doubt, The Good Fight and Queen America. All of this as she approached (and recently turned) 70 years old.
“There has been a shift,” Light opines. “I think it’s a shift, culturally, in the way that the industry is relating to women and women who are more mature, and recognizing that people want to see us.”
Citing the likes of Meryl Streep, Glenn Close (who is “doing some of her grandest, most extraordinary work in The Wife”), Allison Janney and Laurie Metcalf, Light says that these women over the age of 50 would previously have been labeled as “washed up,” but are now just as busy and celebrated as ever. “There’s this kind of resurgence,” she says, pointing to a recent New York Times article “that said 70 and female is the new cool, and I really do believe that’s true.”
When it comes to Light’s career, she owes that resurgence to Transparent creator Jill Soloway and TV producer Ryan Murphy, who has created numerous roles for Light and her peers, including Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett. “When you look at what Ryan does and how he really creates this repertory of women of my age, you see that he’s having this tremendous success with this and so other people are following suit,” she says.
“We have been found," she adds. "We are being heard and people are listening. We carry our energy with great stature. We have lived lives of great depth and interest and substance and intellect.”
Now, Light is bring that energy and experience to the indie film world, playing a terminally ill patient in Ms. White Light, from emerging writer-director Paul Shoulberg. Premiering March 11 at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival, the movie tells the story of a young woman named Lex (Fun Home’s Roberta Colindrez) who has a gift for counseling terminally ill patients who have trouble letting go. But Lex’s interactions with Val (Light) prove to be her most challenging yet. (Watch ET’s exclusive clip of Lex and Val’s first encounter.)
While a role like this might prove challenging to some, Light is used to facing death, having played similar roles in Off-Broadway productions of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Wit and Colder Than Here. “There’s something about coming up against your own mortality that I feel is very important for us all to wake up to,” she says. “I think these are valuable stories to be told about how we die. Do we die gracefully? Are we angry? Are we afraid? Are we in loss? Or are we at peace?” While the story in Ms. White Light is heavy, she credits Shoulberg for writing great scenes and the chance to work with great actors for making the experience “less difficult.”
In addition to Ms. White Light, the actress also appears in director Hannah Pearl Utt’s comedy Before You Know It, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and earned Light rave reviews, and stars opposite Christina Ricci in Lifetime’s Escaping the Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story, which debuts March 14. Later this year, Light will officially say goodbye to her role as Shelly Pfefferman in the fifth and final season of Transparent, which will close out with a movie musical.
While Soloway described the finale to the New York Times as “Jesus Christ Superstar mixed with La La Land mixed with Flight of the Conchords with something more Jewish thrown in,” Light says the two-hour movie musical finale “is a brand-new template for a movie musical that has not been seen this way before.”
Perhaps more importantly, the final season gives fans and the cast alike an opportunity to say goodbye to the Pfefferman family and close out their journeys, despite Jeffrey Tambor’s exit from the Amazon show, which helped give rise to greater transgender visibility onscreen and expanded inclusivity behind the scenes. Tambor played Maura, whose transition and life as a transgender woman was central to the groundbreaking series.
Having just wrapped filming on the finale, Light has had time to reflect on Shelly’s trajectory, which has seen the family matriarch struggling to find her voice and coming to terms with her sexual abuse as a child, giving the actress plenty of buzzy material -- from a much talked-about orgasm to a show-stopping cover of Alanis Morissette’s “Hand In My Pocket” -- to work with during the show’s first four seasons.
“I love this character. I loved her from the moment I began to play her,” Light says. “There are places in me still that are sad to see her go and I think that’s so for a lot of people. But as we’re talking about death and dying, things have to come to an end. And this is that end.”