By Diane Anderson-Minshall
Originally published on Advocate.com September 10 2012 11:00 AM ET
In the world of New York theater there are few actresses as talented as Julie White. The winner of a Tony Award for her role as a lesbian agent who tries to keep her gay client in the closet in Little Dog Laughed, White has made a name for herself with steady stream of prestige theater projects. In between she's juggled roles on televion (from her breakout role as Nadine on Grace Under Fire to a recurring spot as Dr. Anne Morella on Law & Order: Special Victim's Unit) and in film (there are whole wikis dedicated to her turns as Shia LaBeouf's mom in the blockbuster Transformer series). Along the way she's played her fair share of lesbian roles, including the radical feminist in Heidi Chronicles. But her latest role, as lesbian widow Anne on NBC's Go On (which premiers Sept. 11) may just be her most important. As a lesbian mom who just lost her wife, Anne becomes a hyper logical counterpart to Matthew Perry's character Ryan, who has also just lost his wife. That the show doesn't treat their losses as any less important than the other is just one of the ways the show's producers, writers, and stars are trying to get the lesbian storyline right. White herself did extensive research, talking to lesbian moms about the precarious legal limbo many same-sex parents are in to help inform Anne's backstory. Now she's just hoping viewers will tune in long enough to watch the show hit its stride. We chatted with wife about her lesbian roles, being a single mom, and laughing through tragedy.
Your character, Anne wasn’t originally going to be a lesbian.
No, she wasn’t. You know, when I first read the script, she was in a hetero relationship and longstanding marriage. And her husband sort of dropped dead of a heart attack right when they had gotten to that point of raising children when you feel like…Yay, they’re teenagers, we’ve almost made it! And she was caught in fury, like, Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening. Why didn’t he take better care of himself? And at that point in the script, there was another woman in the group who was kind of an empty nester, and that was her grief deal, and that kind of [was the same storyline]. So we thought, how can we make this be fresher, or a different angle, or a different take on it? And that’s what [show creator] Scott Silveri came up with and I’m really thrilled to put that out there because… grief is grief. But it makes her kind of a slightly different person for me to play. Someone who is not about… what do you call it, the “male gaze”? [laughs] Yeah, so there we go. I still am someone who was married, what, 17 years. It’s set in Cali so, we were one of those limbo couples that gets married but nobody else can get married. Prop 8 couples.
In her struggle, Anne goes toe-to-toe with Matthew Perry, who's dealing with losing his wife a bit differently. How are you going to channel the grief of losing a wife? Have you ever experienced that kind of loss?
Well, you know, I’ve lost relationships just because they fell apart, and it’s definitely that kind of heartbreak of losing someone. I still have my parents, but I’ve lost all my grandparents. We’ve all lost someone close to us. We’re developing it as we go, so I’m figuring her out even now. I’m starting to figure out the relationship with Matthew. I feel that Anne is an intensely logical kind of person. Very sensible, and very, very smart. She’s starting to feel like the Spock to his Kirk. She very much calls him on his bullshit. In upcoming episodes, it’s going to be very interesting to see how that relationship develops because we’re kind of in the same place. We’re so sad most of the time, it’s like, how do you get through your everyday life? I think Anne is trying to keep it at bay with this intense logic. She thinks she can work through it in the group and she can get over it. But the truth is, you have to feel it at some point. I think her sensibility sort of helps Matthew’s character, Ryan King. You can’t hide it and you can’t “guy” your way through it with guy things…or running away from your feelings, even though I’m kind of doing the same thing in a different way.
It’s a rare comedy because Go On makes comedy out of grief and sadness.
I know! There’s been a lot of discussion about that. And I hope our wonderful show creators, Scott Silveri and Jon Pollack, will have the courage of their convictions to let the sad parts be sad. Because then I think we kind of earn the comedy in a different way. And if somebody just wants to watch something that’s hee haw goofy silly, there’s plenty of other options out there. But this is more like The Big C or Nurse Jackie in that there’s a little drama with your comedy.
I think that’s something audiences really gravitate towards.
Yeah, no kidding. People are out there in their lives. No one is skipping along happily. We’re all struggling one way or another. And to be able to laugh about it, I just think it’s really valuable. And in most of the theater I do, that’s kind of where new Americans live, in this world between comedy and drama that takes a serious situation and finds the funny in it. Laughter through tears — that’s fine and dandy with me.
This isn’t you first lesbian role either.
Way back when, you were Fran, the mouthy, radical lesbian feminist in The Heidi Chronicles.
I was! And actually, yeah, I did the play on Broadway too. I played the real traditional ladies, you know? The little Southern belle who married Heidi’s boyfriend Scoop, and the little housewife in the [Conciousness Raising] group who was really repressed and brought cookies. Then a couple of years later we went to do the movie, and I went in and read those parts. But I said, "Hey, can I also read Fran?" And that’s the one I got. [Laughs] So we got on set, and the adorable [Heidi playwright] Wendy Wasserstein said, "Julie, what happened to do you?" I said, "I don’t know!" It makes me feel very proud that somebody would think that I had the cojones to pull this off, to play a woman who really isn’t about the male gaze. I hope it’s because I seem very together. Why do you think I keep getting cast as the super gay lady?
Well I was going to ask if you were drawn to these roles, or if these roles were drawn to you.
[Laughs] I don’t know. I don’t get it, except that really early on… I became a single mom with a small child, which kind of made me a fiercer human being I wasn’t just a real girly girl. I was a tiger mom. Maybe that seriousness of purpose is something that people associate with lesbians? Does that make sense? Well maybe that’s it. It’s fun. And lately, I play real well-dressed lesbians, which I like.
Like Diane, in The Little Dog Laughed?
Yes. Oh man, she was so great looking. She just had such a fierce uniform. And Anne is evolving that way as well. We were looking for some leisurewear for Anne, what would she wear when she wasn’t being a lawyer. I said that she should look like Tom Cruise looked in the first Mission Impossible when he was walking through that airport in Istanbul — just totally fierce and fantastic. And that’s kind of her. And, apparently, she must be really, really good at what she does, because she can afford some fab clothes. [Laughs]
For all your many lesbian roles, have you had to do any method acting, any heavy research? Trolling lesbian bars? A hookup or two?
[Laughs] No. You know, my best friend for the last, oh my God, 17 years, is the most fabulous lesbian in the world. Her girlfriend now of many years is this fantastic woman who is this big executive at a company. So a lot of Anne — her glasses, her hair, a lot of how she looks — I stole from my friend’s girlfriend. She’s been my best friend for many years, so I guess that’s always my go-to. She’s also the best-looking person, and she kind of has this amazing personal style that’s like Millicent Rogers. She just has so much style; she always wears gloves. She’s just fantastically put together in a way that I never am. So it’s fun to play characters that are more put together and smarter than myself. But no, I’ve never had an affair with a lady. I don’t know, I’m just so resolutely, pitifully heterosexual. [Laughs]
Well, since Little Dog is a send-up of Hollywood’s closet, I'm wondering how you feel about Hollywood’s closeted actors today?
Well, it’s really silly, isn’t it? Oh, Chris Rock said the most wonderful thing about racism in America: that the really ugly stuff that comes out right now, these weird geysers of hate, he says it’s like a toddler right before it goes to sleep. That’s when they really act out their very worse before they give it up completely. And, maybe, that's the same [with homophobia]. The younger generation, they just think that people who would have a problem with anyone’s freedom to choose how they want to live is just kind of stupid. Like my daughter, who is 25, it wouldn’t occur to her that a gay couple shouldn’t have exactly the same status and rights as anyone else. Clearly all the polls show that, the older you are, the more likely you are to have a problem. But you know, they’re all gonna die eventually! [Laughs] And perhaps our country can grow out of hate. That would be a terrific thing.
And as much as people want to be really negative about our society, I think, in my lifetime, a lot has changed for the better. And I hope that it will continue to do so. I’ve talked a lot to the wonderful Jennifer Chrisler, she’s the head of the Family Equality Council. I wanted to talk to her about what’s it like to have kids as a lesbian couple. How you go about it, what are the laws, where they could be in trouble with a partner dying suddenly, so I could give Scott all that ammunition to tell that kind of story. It was really interesting and fucking tragic in some states. California probably has some of the most liberal laws about family and adoption about what constitutes family and family equality. I did find out some stuff that’s really weird and shocking about if you’re a gay couple in Texas. It’s unfair under the law. It’s unconstitutional, and eventually, it will be rectified I feel.
Will this research come into the show?
I would hope so. At this point, they’re still just trying to figure out how this show works. But if we get to stay on the air for some amount of time, then that story about Anne’s family is a big deal. And they plan to tell that story, if we get to — so tell people to watch it so it can stay on the air. [Networks are] so obsessed with their numbers, and they need a lot of eyes to watch it so we can keep going. So we can Go On. [Laughs]
When you were first working on Broadway, your daughter was just a toddler. How hard was that?
Theater is kind of a great job for a single mom because once you get it rehearsed and up-and-running, then you really only work two or three hours a day, except on matinee day. I dragged that little kid with me all over the country, and she was such a gamer, she’s just so fantastic. And right about the time where I was like, "Oh shit, how am I going to keep doing this? She has to go to school and stay in school" was about the time I did television. That’s when I did Grace Under Fire. So that was the Big Kahuna’s way of cutting me some slack, I guess. I suddenly got a very well-paying job that shot all year long, and I was able to do it for four years, so I was like oh, OK, problem solved. So we settled down in California then. She went to first grade through ninth grade in California, and then at that point, I moved back to New York and she finished up high school in Brooklyn at the Berkeley Carroll School.
Did all this exposure to entertainment make her want to follow your theatrical lead and go into entertainment?
[Laughs] Oh, Jesus, no. I would joke that she was just raised by wolves. She was actually was a painting major at USC where she was a Presidential Scholar, which means they gave her a full ride — she’s a super-smart girl. And now she is — oh God, I don’t know, it’s something so modern, I don’t know exactly what you’d call it. But she’s a software designer … at a fellowship called Code for America. They assemble these super people, these super kids, who then go to different American cities and try to improve or build a technology suite for them. And Alex is a visual person, she’s a designer. And her city is New Orleans, so she’s working with New Orleans right now. She’s way too smart to ever want to be a theater person, but she has great appreciation for us, she’s a wonderful audience member. But no, I think she recognized early on this is kind of goofy.
One of the funniest stories I heard about you is when you accepted your Tony Award for Little Dog, the camera panned to you and you were hugging and kissing a pretty, young blonde. And a lot of people thought that woman was your girlfriend, but it was in fact your daughter.
[Laughs] I know! And there was like a chat about it, and I was like, Ew, that’s like Woody Allen and Soon Yi. Yuck! But I love that they thought I was such a hot lesbian that they I could catch such a beautiful young girl.
A hot cougar.
A hot cougar, yes! But gosh, she looked so cute that night. She looked so pretty. We had a lot of fun. I know, I’m really proud of her.
That’s a good way to be, as a mom.
Yeah, but it’s exciting to have her grown up. It’s kind of nice. It’s like, Wow, I’ve done it. And the whole empty nest thing? I feel really good about it. It’s like, Good! Good for you. Go, fly, fly, little starling. Go out and do your life. Go out in the world and do it. And she really seems to be doing it in a very exciting way.You ever see in the park when there’s like a mother bird and the baby birds are full size, but they’re still hopping around her going, "Weh, feed me!" And the mother’s always like, "Hey! Back off!" That’s how I feel about people with grown children who are still way up in their lives a whole lot. I’m glad that she’s not hopping around me. She’s out there doing her life, and I’m so happy.
You’ve had a long role in Grace Under Fire, and several recurring roles in shows including Six Feet Under and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Are you ready to be back on a series fulltime?
Yes, it’s actually something I’ve been looking forward to for the last couple of years because I’ve had some wonderful runs in the theater, and then I started doing a lot of film stuff. But with movies, you kind of feel like a carny worker. You go someplace, and you’re in this group for a month or something, and then you’re done. I was like, Oh, I want to know the names of everybody. And I want a place where you go to work, and you’re all working on something. But, boy, it’s easier said than done. I’ve done quite a few pilots, and they just don’t get picked up. So this is the first one that I’ve done in awhile that really has a shot. I’ve so got my fingers crossed. I would just so love to get to do it for a few years. This group is amazing.They’re so darling and funny. One of the biggest problems is that I keep laughing so hard that my mascara runs. They have to keep funding more, better waterproof makeup because I’m one of those people that actually gets kind of teary when I laugh. I laugh so hard I cry, and that happens with regularity on that set. Those people in that group: Suzy Nakamura, Sarah Baker, Seth Morris, Bret Gelman, Bill Cobbs, and Tyler James Williams, the Everybody Hates Chris kid. They’re just adorably and funny. Funny, funny.
I know the pressure’s on, but we have high hopes for the show as well.
Well, gosh, from your mouth to God’s hear. I appreciate your support. I will try and represent to the lesbian community a really swell gal that you will be proud to call your own.