Judith Light isn't afraid of aging: "These are the crone years"

On "Salon Talks," the veteran actor discusses her latest thriller "The Menu," her fears and what she's craving

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 23, 2022 12:00PM (EST)

Judith Light (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Judith Light (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Judith Light isn't afraid to be afraid. The Emmy-winning, Tony-winning, GLAAD Media Award-winning actor has forged a one-of-a-kind career in entertainment, swinging from theater to film to television, in groundbreaking series like "Who's the Boss?," "Ugly Betty," "Transparent,"  and more recently in "Julia," "Shining Vale" and "The Politician."

Costarring now with Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor Joy, and Nicholas Holt in the twisty new thriller, "The Menu," she tells Salon that when it comes to taking on risky roles, she just leaps. "Do you look back at your life and say, was I too scared to do something?" she asks, "Or do you do it, and then you find out that it's all okay?"

During her recent appearance on "Salon Talks," Light discussed the allure of her new "terrifying and funny" film, enjoying her "crone years" and what her own dream dinner would be. (Hint: It's probably yours too.) Watch our conversation here or read it below. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

It is difficult to talk about this film because there are so many surprises that we don't want to give away. Variety called it a "restaurant thriller."

I think that's a perfect description of it. It's a restaurant thriller. We were at this SAG event last night and Anya [Taylor-Joy] said something that I thought was really remarkable. She said, "In this movie, every single person is hungry." That really defines a lot of what goes on, that each person has their own hunger, their own longing, their own need. It's not spelled out, there's not a lot of exposition, but you really begin to understand who these people are. You have to be reminded, I think that all of us do, how much, as a society, we strive to be in the in-crowd. We strive to be in the A-list. We have to be at the best restaurant. We have to be the top person. It's all about superiority. It's a comedy, it's a horror, it's a drama. In places, it's terrifying. In places, it's exciting and incredibly humorous. At the core of it is the message of, who are you and how will you live before you die? That really defines a whole element of this film that I find incredibly compelling. 

"Does anything scare me? Everything scares me. Life is so fragile."

You have a script like this that's so extraordinary but you have to fill in all the blanks. It's very unusual in that way. Everybody who's watching this has to put what their feelings are, what their thoughts are, the way they're living. So while you're being entertained, at the same time you have this opportunity to be let in as an audience in a way that few films actually can do. I think this is its own genre. 

You have so many theater heavyweights in this movie. You, Janet McTeer, John Leguizamo, Ralph Fiennes. It's a movie that also takes place seemingly almost in real time. I'm wondering what you think that you as an ensemble coming from that theater background brought to the chemistry of playing with each other as actors?

I don't know that our theater background brought the chemistry. I know that Mark Mylod, our director, really filmed this like a play, so we were with each other for all 12 to 14 hours a day of shooting. Mark was using everybody to film, so you're watching a 360-degree view of everybody else's point of view on someone else. The brilliance of this is the editing, so that Mark was telling this story through the eyes of everyone.

You also have another Tony Award winner heavyweight who plays my husband, my good friend, Reed Birney. A lot of times you do a film and you don't see people from scene to scene. You do stuff and then you show up and you see the film and you say, "Oh gosh, I didn't know they were in the film. I didn't know that they were doing that." But the real essence of this is this ensemble. Perhaps it is the theater background that so many of us have, but I think it's also who these people were and how Mark picked each person because that really carried with it a kind of understanding and weight to the film, that he knew that we could fill in the blanks and that he would help us do that. It was a lot of different pieces, and when you have those kinds of people that have worked in the theater, you know that that you're a team, and that's not always the case when you're doing film or television work.

When I look at your career, I see so many groundbreaking roles. I look at these stories that were really the first of their kinds, whether it's "Who's the Boss?" or "Transparent" or "Ugly Betty" or any of the other stories that you've been a part of for a long time. Is that something that you choose because you're also an advocate and an ally and an activist?

I have a great team, great management, great agents, great publicists, great hair and makeup people. I use my team, I get guidance from them on everything. I make my own decisions, but I get guidance from everyone. I use my intuition as to, who will I be working with? What does the script tell me? Is this a story that will be something that I will learn from in my own life? And will this be something that will serve an audience? Will they be curious about it? Will they be compelled by it? So a lot of it goes into the choice making, and the team goes into the choice making as well.

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You can't just be a solo person moving through your work or your career, it has to come together in all aspects of that. A lot of these things were groundbreaking, and yes, I am an advocate. But it's really interesting you talk about "Transparent," and Joey Soloway, who was the creator, that genius, there was a whole time when I had a conversation with them, it was a dialogue, and I was doing a play in New York, and Joey and I never talked about the piece so much, we didn't talk about "Transparent." We talked about our advocacy. And it was out of that that they chose me to be a part of "Transparent." I didn't set out to do that. It wasn't a calculated thought. But the minute that I spoke with Joey, I knew that it was something that I really wanted to do. There's a lot of different stops on the way to making the choice for something like that, that ends up being groundbreaking. The universe just gives you these lovely things and you say yes to them.

You have said that you see part of your role as a performer as educating people, and that does seem to be part of the story of your career.

I don't set out to educate people. I think people want to be entertained. I don't think anybody wants to be educated. If you learn something in the process of it, that's great, but that's never been my context. It's always, will I illuminate something? Will I elevate something? Will I inspire something through this piece of work that I'm a part of? Because it's like, will you serve the piece and then will you serve your audience? So it comes all down to food and restaurants anyway. What are you serving?

It's all serving, absolutely. 

"It's terrifying and funny and completely entertaining. I think audiences are going to love it."

That's the point. I mean, as a human being, we're all in a service industry. That's what we're here to do. We're here to serve each other. We're here to support each other. We're here to be a part of each other and part of a team. Again, it goes back to the question of this film, it's like, who will you be and how will you live? How will you live your life? What are the choices that you will make that will elevate or bring something down?

It seems like in the past couple of years you have gravitated in a direction that's been exploring horror in things like "American Horror Story" and "Shining Vale," and this, which is a thriller. Is that something that is a newer interest of yours or something that you've always wanted to do and now you have a different space to pursue?

It just came to me. The character was fascinating. The team was fascinating. The script was . . . Fascinating is not the right word. Compelling, exciting, resonated for me. You talk about "Shining Vale" which is on Starz. That came to me. Jeff Astrof brought that to me. But what it's really dealing with is women and menopause, women and mental illness, so there was something else that was tied to it, that it's not just this genre and it's horror and it's drama and it's comedy, it has a substantive level that matters to me, and it matters to me in talking about it in the marketing of it, so that we really use the vehicle of the work that we do in order to talk about these other issues.

Women and mental illness, well, anybody and mental illness, it's an issue in our country and around the world and something that we have not dealt with in a way that's powerful enough to make sure that people are not sidelined, abused, shut off from a society, that there's an understanding and a compassion and a kindness around that. So it wasn't the horror of it, it just hasn't been that for me. And this script, I really wanted to work with Mark, and then I saw all the other people that were involved and it was just like, oh, so this is also a horror movie at the same time. It's terrifying and funny and completely entertaining. I think audiences are going to love it.

Horror and thrillers can be that conduit into these difficult conversations. As you point out, "Shining Veil" is also about aging and the ways in which we treat women in our culture, and that women get marginalized as they get older. You, however, have said that you are coming into, and I'm quoting, "the best years of my life." I want what you have, Judith. Tell me what does best mean to you now at this point in your life, professionally, creatively, personally?

You talk about women and aging and how women are sidelined and something that really means a tremendous amount to me is one's ownership of the years, the experiences, the aging. I don't hold it as aging. I hold it as gaining wisdom. If I'm the same as I was yesterday, then I'm not really learning anything. It's not just the best time of my life, it's this moment, so it better be the best. 

"The universe just gives you these lovely things and you say yes to them."

These are the crone years. These are the wise years. These are the gathering of the experiences through time. The way that people relate to me around the way I choose to live or the choices that I make, the response has been really generous and gracious. Yes, I know that we talk about women and aging in Hollywood, and it's a conversation that's still happening, but it's like, where will we put our focus? Again, goes back to the same thing, the same context. How will we live? Who will we be? Where are we putting our energy that either supports us, feeds us, is a gift to people around us, or a gift to the people who watch us? It's a moment. It's a moment. If you're in this moment, and I know it sounds like, "Oh my God, we've heard it a million times, just be in the now. Be in the now." It's like right now, there's nothing else except you and me and all of my fabulous friends here. This is it. This is all we have. And if you're not embracing that fully . . . And so that's the way I feel now in my life more than ever. And I would say that that's probably what makes it best, that I'm more in the moment, as much as I can be. 

That comes, I imagine, out of a lot of practice and learning how to do that as well as you are doing it.

You've got to practice. It's a muscle. I mean, the programmed mind will take you away, it'll drag you down to a place where you don't want to be. If you can just stay aware for a moment and say, oh, right, I'm not present. I'm not present. So what do I have to do? And that's so for the work, but it's especially true for life. Where am I right now?

I have to ask you, this is a movie about food, about foodies, about food culture. I know reading from other interviews from you, you lead a pretty healthy lifestyle. You lean mostly vegetarian, slightly vegan. What is your dream meal? If you were going to a place like Hawthorne and having the ultimate meal, what would it be? 

Pizza and ice cream. 

"The way that people relate to me around the way I choose to live or the choices that I make, the response has been really generous and gracious."

Me too.

Without question, pizza and ice cream. I mean, there's maybe a few other things thrown in. Pizza and ice cream.

I am a foodie, and I've always been a foodie. I cook, my husband cooks. My husband's an amazing cook. Amazing. I have Gourmet magazines from 1976. I would just read about food. I have copious cookbooks. We had a restaurant in Aspen, Colorado in 2008. There's this food culture, but there's something about it that's beyond food. Like you said, it's not just the food. It's about nurturing. How do we learn to nurture ourselves?

That's another thing that I think is present in this film. None of these people have nurtured their souls. They've only thought about how they can make it in the world and be on the A-list. And it's an empty pursuit. 

You are in this movie that's a little scary, to say the least. Yet you say you've never played the ingénue, you always play these very strong, courageous characters. Is there anything in the world that scares you?

Everything. What do you mean, does anything scare me? Everything scares me. Life is so fragile. We are so vulnerable and when you're in touch with that, things scare you. And then you say, What are you scared about? And if you stay in the moment and you just take one step after another, it doesn't have to overwhelm you.

Even if I'm scared about something, I do something anyway. I mean, years ago I hadn't been on stage in 22 years and I took a part in a play where I had to shave my head and be bald and be naked on stage. It's this beautiful play written by this gorgeous, amazing woman, Margaret Edson, and it won the Pulitzer Prize, and it was called "Wit." It was about a woman dying of fourth stage ovarian cancer, and I thought, "I can't do this." First of all, they're not going to cast me. And then they did. And I was like, no, no, no, no, no. Do you live life with regret? Do you look back at your life and say, was I too scared to do something? Or do you do it, and then you find out that it's all OK and you're OK, and you gained something remarkable from the experience? But everything scares me. Doesn't everything scare you?

Yeah. I have kids. 

Right. You ask anybody, in the dead of night, in their heart of hearts, are they scared? Of course we're scared. So what?

It's about being scared, but then getting up in the morning and doing something anyway in spite of it.

Just go. Just go. Just do it.

Just go. And maybe along the way, see some fun movies and be entertained.

Go see "The Menu."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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