In February, Judith Light was in Los Angeles supporting her husband, Robert Desiderio, at a launch event for his novel “The Occurrence: A Political Thriller” when she was stopped by a woman who wanted to share how much one of Light’s roles meant to her.
“She came up to me and she said, ‘I am in a corporate job now because I watched you on “Who’s the Boss?” and I knew that women could work outside the home, and I’m teaching my daughter the same thing,’” Light recalls.
It has been almost three decades since “Who’s the Boss?” signed off. Light is starring in Netflix’s “The Politician,” and will soon be seen on the big screen in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s feature adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s “Tick, Tick … Boom.” After lending her trans-formative acting talents to numerous boundary-breaking roles, she is receiving Variety’s third-ever Icon Award at Canneseries. But the power of the performance she delivered as Angela Bower, a single mother and intelligent executive running a business while a man tended to the domestic chores in her home, in the 1980s and 1990s sitcom shattered stereotypes and clearly resonated long after the series wrapped. (A sequel series is in development at Sony Pictures Television.)
“I treasure the show, my time there and everyone involved, so of course they have my love and my support,” Light says of the reboot, though she is not currently involved.
The show “was about the feminist movement and nobody really knew it at the time. It was on the cutting edge, it was expansive, it was revolutionary. What’s happening is that generations are now catching up with it and they have been impacted by it and so they are speaking to it,” Light says.
Light has seen first-hand how the characters “still live in the present for a lot of people.” But for her, “every character that you do, for whatever time you do it, always needs time to reflect on it.” That’s why she also revels in “looking at all of those women that I’ve played and saying, ‘Where am I about them now?’ Because every one of them is fascinating to me.”
From the scene-stealing Judith Ryland on the “Dallas” reboot, to matriarch Shelly Pfefferman who has to find a new voice in “Transparent,” to the real-life Richard Jewell’s mother in “Manhunt: Deadly Games,” many of Light’s most pivotal performances have centered on motherhood. But when you add to the mix entrepreneur and inventor Marilyn Miglin from “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story,” Sen. Dede Standish from “The Politician” and literary agent Rosa Stevens from “Tick, Tick … Boom,” what truly binds her characters is ambition.
For Light, there is not an assertive effort to draw such a line between all the roles she takes. Instead, she looks for roles in which she can “relish what the other creative parts of the team have put together.”
“I think if you’re trying to prove that you’re a versatile actor, you always end up looking like you’re trying to prove something — instead of creating the character and giving that character away to the audience,” she explains. “I am always looking for the thing that I’m going to be curious about; I’m curious about these characters and I long for the people that watch them to be curious about them as well. Creativity comes out of curiosity — being curious about life and the world and who human beings are and what makes them operate the way that they do.”
Light is also a big believer in the idea that there are no small roles.
When she first met with director Thomas Kail about returning to Broadway after three decades to portray Marie Lombardi in “Lombardi,” she admits people told her not to do it because of the size of the part and the project.
“Everybody thought it was going to be a one-off,” she recalls. “It ended up going for nine months. Those are the choices you make that change your trajectory — because they’re not from your head.”
Light’s connection with Kail was part of the driving force of taking on “Lombardi,” for which she earned her first Tony Award nomination in 2011. She went on to two more consecutive noms, that resulted in wins, in 2012 and 2013 for “Other Desert Cities” and “The Assembled Parties,” respectively. She also received the 2019 Isa-belle Stevenson Tony Award for her extensive philanthropy work, two consecutive daytime Emmys for her work on “One Life to Live,” four Primetime Emmy nominations and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, among other accolades.
Working with other prolific producers and directors such as Ryan Murphy for both “Assassination” and “The Politician,” as well as Miranda on “Tick, Tick … Boom” have also guided some of Light’s more recent career decisions.
“At the end of the day I say, ‘Do I get it? Does it work? Do I get to work with amazing people?’ And that’s the advice that I give to young actors all of the time: ‘Do you get it in your gut?’” Light says. “It’s not that you go, ‘Let me talk at this in terms of my career’ — that doesn’t work. I choose from an experience I get.”
And of course, the experience includes Light’s audience as well.
“How do you look at Angela Bower today? That woman said, ‘I became an executive because I knew I could. Some-body modeled something for me, some-body inspired me.’ And if that’s what I get to do with my work, I am utterly and completely satisfied,” Light says.