Actress Lisa Edelstein, 49, stars in the Bravo series Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce. Born in Boston and raised in New Jersey, she moved to New York at the age of 18 to study theater at NYU but quickly became known as the queen of the club scene. She went on to write and star in the seminal AIDS play Positive Me. Her first job in television was on MTV’s Awake on the Wild Side, but she is perhaps best known for playing Dr. Lisa Cuddy on the long-running medical series House. She has also appeared on Seinfeld, Ally McBeal, Relativity, The West Wing and The Practice. In film, she’s had roles in Keeping the Faith, What Women Want and Daddy Day Care. She lives in Los Angeles.
Lisa Edelstein: It’s sort of a rule that I never watch myself more than once, twice at most, or else the judgment factory starts producing headlines and bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets about everything I dislike about myself.
How did you research your current role—did you talk to divorce lawyers, divorced friends or what? I’ve lived in both the 20th and 21st centuries, when more than half of all marriages end in divorce. But ultimately, this show is about relationships and friendships and parenting and dating. Divorce is the springboard. The rest is human behavior.
How did you prepare for your role as a transgender woman on Ally McBeal?
I happened to have known a number of trans people in my young adulthood, although the language around it was different then. A lot was different at the time, including the fact that a cisgender gal like myself played a transgender woman at all. So to me, the most important part of playing a trans woman was to do it with the same dignity and grace I’d use to play any woman who was fighting for her right to exist. And although Ally McBeal is a comedy, the role itself was in no way mocking or embarrassing trans people. It mocked people’s reactions to trans people.
You’ve played a lesbian and a transgender woman. Bold career move or calculated risk? Nowadays it seems almost silly to talk about those roles as being edgy, particularly that of Rhonda Roth, an awesome character on Relativity who happened to be gay. At the time, it was a huge deal. We had the first-ever lesbian make-out scene on network TV. I kissed Kristin Dattilo softly on the lips for a brief few seconds, then took a breath and went in for more. The network requested they edit out the going-in-for-more part, because the kissing was tolerable, but liking it was pushing their boundaries. Hilarious now. It’s hard to imagine that would be so shocking, but sadly, it was. I was psyched to do both roles. I never worried much about it being bold or risky. Who cares?
Do you like or seek out roles that push the envelope? When they come my way, I’m thrilled. I’ve lived an interesting life and known all kinds of people, so the more variety I get to play, the happier I am.
Thing you learned from being a club kid and “It” girl? It was a life-changing experience actually, on many levels. Firstly, the world I inhabited at the time was incredibly special, unique, of the moment and gone in a flash. In the days before the Internet, cities had hidden microcosms that you had to dig to discover, hotbeds of creativity, where mainstream people went for inspiration, if they could get in. What a thing to witness as a young adult. But meanwhile, the AIDS crisis was hitting full steam, and although President Reagan had yet to say the word AIDS, friends and acquaintances were dying at an unimaginable rate. And during all this, suddenly Maureen Dowd approaches me to do a day-in-the-life interview for The New York Times Magazine. I knew that it would change my life. I knew it would be complicated. But I couldn’t turn it down. When that interview hit the stands, I was catapulted into a kind of celebrity I had never experienced. My phone number and my address were listed, so I immediately inherited 20 stalkers and a lot of unwanted phone calls. I was famous for no particular reason; there was nothing to back it up, so rumors began circulating about me, stupid rumors that had no foundation in truth, and I was so uncomfortable. I realized that fame was not a goal. I quietly removed myself from all the parties and the scene. I took jobs where no one would find me. I had to reassess my life. It was at that point that I dropped out of college and wrote Positive Me, a musical dramedy about sex, drugs, love and AIDS. It was produced at a wonderful downtown theater called La Mama.
Did you find the term “celebutante” insulting? No. Whatever. It was goofy and funny. We had no money and we weren’t debutantes, so we were celebutantes. That’s about as serious as being famous for no reason should be.
Was Positive Me a turning point for you? Absolutely. It changed my life. I finally had a voice. I could turn this somewhat vacuous celebrity into an experience that really meant something. People were curious about what I had to offer, and they were incredibly supportive when I put myself out there. No one was talking about AIDS publicly yet. These were the days before Rent and Angels in America. So it definitely struck a chord. And for me, I was finally saying and doing something that mattered. I felt like I’d finally earned a spot in the community.
Favorite role of yours on TV? I don’t really have favorites, but there have certainly been roles that had a greater effect on my life than others. Seinfeld, of course, was a biggie. People still yell “Risotto!” at me on the street in New York. Relativity was important because it was a fantastic show with incredible people, and my role had a social value that made it even more special. With West Wing, I loved Aaron’s writing, and I felt entrusted to make “Laurie the sex worker” into a whole person and not a sketch of one. With Ally McBeal, it took several years for people on the street to stop asking me if I was “really a man.” And House, it goes without question, changed my life. To be on a show that successful is a really incredible experience. I worked with smart, funny, dark people for seven fabulous years. And it led to Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, which is the best job I’ve had to date.
Do you view yourself as fearless, a word that’s often used to describe you? Oh God, no. I’ve got tons of limitations and I want them gone.
HAIR:BRANT MAYFIELD FOR SOLO ARTISTS/ SHU UEMURA ART OF HAIR; MAKEUP: JUSTIN TYME FOR SOLO ARTISTS/SMASHBOX COSMETICS STYLING: JESSICA PASTER; WARDROBE: GEORGES CHAKRA DRESS, MELINDA MARIA JEWELRY