This story was first published on blagmagazine.com in May 2021
Interview by Sally A. Edwards
Photography: Syndication / Tony Duran
"Create create create. Find people that create. Create community with creative people. Grow together."
Lisa Edelstein has graced the screen in many major television shows from the States. We’re talking Seinfeld, The West Wing, The Good Doctor, House of which she starred in over 150 episodes and her latest The Kominsky Method with Michael Douglas, Alan Arkin and Kathleen Turner for Netflix. Legendary. Many may confuse Lisa with her characters especially asking for an off-the-record diagnosis, given her time spent as Dr. Cuddy - which must be over 10000 hours. Does that debunk or challenge the Malcolm Gladwell theory? Yes and no.
Lisa began clubbing as a teenager in NYC where she became famous on the scene, known as “Lisa E”. She bartended at 18 and studied acting at NYU. From the outset of acting, her credentials just keep going - very inspiringly, we’re sure — to anyone wanting to launch a career in Hollywood. She’s gives some excellent advise on that below.
During lockdown Lisa has turned her hand to extra writing which we can delightfully empathise with. She’s even juggled that with making shorts, developing a novel working her way towards directing it as a feature and volunteering with some extraordinary charities.
Prepare the be inspired...
Prior to your hugely successful acting career, the good word on the street tells us, you were the star of NYC nightlife in the 80s.
What three words sum up your experience of being involved in such an iconic scene back then?
Completely magical whirlwind.
What aspects of this nourished your acting career?
I got to spend time with people that the rest of the world will sadly never see. AIDS was devastating the community. But despite that - or maybe because of it, creativity was the entrance fee and the absolute acceptance of anything-goes was the event. What an incredible environment for a young person to be in! There were no rules and no boundaries, there were people living on the edge of a razor blade and people changing the culture. It was a world that not only gave me permission to create, it demanded it.
It was pre-tech, pre Information Age. It’s fundamentally so different, what are the best things of both worlds?
For sure, it was a microcosm. I think that’s what made people interested in it, the fact that you couldn’t find it unless you were invited. And I’m deeply grateful there is very little video from back then! [laughs] I don’t know that I would have come out so unscathed if more of my ridiculousness was captured and aired. I feel bad for kids now, they don’t get to be young and stupid. They need to be fully realized products by the time they are 13. I was an amoeba at that age. I was a single cell organism floating around, confused, in a pile of muck til I was at least 30. Maybe even 40. Maybe even 50. The best thing of that world was the fact that you could try and fail and try and try and succeed and try and fail and try and all of it was analog. And now? I suppose the best thing about now is that the capacity to create and share what you’ve made is enormous. Terrifyingly enormous! And if you don’t have “access” to the world at large, you can make it anyway, if you can figure out a way to shine.
You’ve starred in so many much-loved TV shows from Seinfeld to House, Ally McBeal to The Good Wife, The Good Doctor and The Kominsky Method. Then there are films which are classic go-to comedies including Keeping The Faith, Daddy Day Care and What Women Want plus voiceovers for animations including King Of The Hill to Airbender: Legend Of Korra. You’re unstoppable!
You’re been so consistent with your acting in a world that experiences a lot of rejection juxtaposed with persistence. What’s your secret?
The secret is that there is nothing else I’d rather be doing than this. That’s it! Being in this business is terrifically hard, but the pay-offs are so wonderful when it means the world to you. I pinch myself every time I’m on set or working at a studio. I’m jealous of every production trailer I pass on the street and think “why aren’t I in that?” I’m grateful to have a job that means so much to me and I absolutely suffer when it’s downtime. I frequently wonder if I’ll ever work again and then I work and I’m on top of the world. Not the healthiest of mind sets I suppose, but I can’t help it. I love what I do!
What advice would you give those wishing to pursue acting careers? Those who are so fresh, they have no industry connections.
I didn’t have any industry connections either, so it’s not impossible. But the world is so different now there is really no specific guidance I can give beyond: there are no rules. You make your own path. Create create create. Find people that create. Create community with creative people. Grow together.
You’re writing more now. How’s it going?
I love writing and I’m so happy to be able to lean into it. I want to be a part of creating content, particularly for women my age, for which there are fewer stories told. So far I’ve written and directed two shorts, one which won several awards on the festival circuit. I’ve also sold a pilot I co-wrote and am in development on a feature I adapted from a novel, for me to direct. Little by little!
How does acting help writing and vice versa?
Weirdly, I discovered that it’s a really similar exercise, that it requires not just an empathy towards the characters you are writing, but a true emotional experience. You have to get inside it to write it. There’s no audience watching you do it, but the more available to the story you are, the more honestly it will appear on the page. The first time I cried writing a scene it really took me by surprise.
You’ve also directed some episodes of Girlfriends Guide To Divorce. How was it being on the other side of the camera?
It was so much fun directing on GG2D. It was an easy first time out because I was working with actors I loved, with a crew that I loved, on a set that I was deeply fulfilled. And I knew I couldn’t fail. Everyone had my back. So, it was awesome. I loved realizing that I had the answer to a lot of questions, from props to costumes to the shots I wanted to tell the story. Acting was always an internal process for me, and I had to figure out how to communicate with my coworkers in a way that would nurture their inner processes and get me what I needed in their performance. That was a really interesting skill to develop on my toes, especially while acting with them, too. It was just great to use my brain in new ways and to expand my role on set for the first time ever.
Hollywood is changing so much - which is great, given film and television introduces us to people we might never meet or really want help in understanding. You’ve been at the forefront playing roles never seen on television before. Why has it taken so long? How are you and your peers making the necessary changes?
Well, for the most part Hollywood is a business, not a college campus. So our products rarely push new ideas, more often they reflect the ideas of the culture at large. That’s how you sell tickets and get viewers; by giving people the world they recognize themselves in or the worlds they want to escape to. So Hollywood is changing because the world at large is changing, and it’s a really wonderful thing.
You played Dr Lisa Cuddy in House in 153 episodes! In a real life medical emergency, there are two types of people, those who rush in and help and the bystander. From your experiences, what do you think are the core differences?
That’s a funny question. Don’t be so quick to judge the bystander! After all, it’s the bystanders that helped convict Derick Chauvin of murder. I’m all about the bystanders right now. Sometimes the only thing you can do is be a witness. The difference between a bystander and one that rushes in is what kind of strengths a person has to offer in a given circumstance. Some people are afraid of blood, I’m not, so okay, I can handle that one. But I can’t, for example, handle a poisonous snake. Does that make me a bad person? No. It makes me a person that will die if I try and jump in and wrestle a snake.
You must’ve gained so much medical knowledge over the years. Are there are situations you’ve found it useful in?
I’ve always loved medicine. I like reading about medicine and contemplating medicine and weighing the newest information. Because of “House,” whether or not people realize it, they think I know what the hell I’m talking about in regards to medicine. So whenever I have a medical opinion, it carries much more weight than I've actually earned. Lesson of the day: Beware of me talking about medicine. I am not, in fact, a real doctor. But I can sound like one!
And on top of all this you find time to volunteer with charities including: Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, The Anti-Defamation League, Planned Parenthood and The Center for Reproductive Rights. Can you tell us about your involvement and why you chose these particular charities?
Best Friends is a wonderful group and I have seen them do work that is challenging, traumatic and intense. Everything from helping local rescues do their jobs to going into disaster zones and flying out abandoned, lost and injured animals. They really do everything they say they do and more, and it’s work I couldn’t handle myself. I can’t watch Lassie, for crying out loud, or Dumbo, or any movie with a dog in it for fear the dog will get hurt. And these people are out on the street facing tragedies in real time and just helping who they can, one creature at a time. Truly remarkable efforts. The ADL means a lot to me, especially now, as anti-semitism is on the rise around the country and the world. They do important work, highlighting and exposing bigotry of all kinds. And women’s reproductive rights have been under attack for so long it’s exhausting. I support anyone and everyone in the fight for a woman’s right to proper healthcare and family planning, and especially a woman’s right to choose.