By Danielle Cantor
Winter 2007/Updated Spring 2012
Of course you know Lisa Edelstein as an actress, starring as Dr. Lisa Cuddy on Fox’s hit medical drama House, which concluded in May 2012 after eight seasons. And if you’re a fan of the CBS series The Good Wife, you’ve no doubt been drawn into Edelstein’s story arc there, as attorney and temptress Celeste Serrano. But did you know she’s also a singer, activist, volunteer, author, composer and born survivor? Edelstein started performing in off-Broadway in the late 1980s until MTV scooped her up to host (as vee-jay Lisa E) its popular Awake on the Wild Side. It’s been uphill for Edelstein ever since – speaking both of her steadily-growing career in TV and film (The West Wing, The Practice, Keeping the Faith, As Good As It Gets and more) – and also of her struggle up from life-threatening spinal trauma that nearly grounded her in the early years. Professionally accomplished and glamorous, she possesses a wellspring of inner fortitude that keeps her strong and centered in a shifting business. As of this writing, Edelstein is enjoying some well-earned downtime while she considers her next move beyond The Good Wife. Below, her original interview from 2007:
You were a live wire in the 1980s New York club scene, where you were dubbed "Queen of the Night." What do you remember most about that time? Does the Queen live on today?
[laughs.] Does the Queen of the Night ever really die? Now I'm the queen of 4:30 in the morning, when I get up to practice yoga before I go to work. The people were really special to me during that time; there were a lot of phenomenal people of great talent whom no one will ever know. A lot of them died when AIDS first hit New York.
What inspired you to write "Positive Me," the AIDS-related musical you also composed and performed off Broadway in the 1990s?
It was inspired by my friends, everybody dying and there being no education about the matter. The president hadn't even spoken the word yet. There was a lot of confusion, a lot of fear, no treatment and a lot of dying. I had volunteered for Gay Men's Health Crisis to visit people in the hospital who were dying. They trained us and gave us all the information that was available at the time about the disease and how you catch it, so we wouldn't be afraid to go into the hospitals. The play also grew out of my internal struggle of growing up hearing about the sexual revolution – "be free, do what you want" – and then learning that there were things that could kill you if were too free. My play was really about the things that get in the way of taking care of ourselves.
There's a world of difference between your first job on MTV and starring in one of TV's hottest dramas. Do you feel more at home in one universe than the other?
I absolutely hated my job on MTV. It was five days a week, four hours a day, of national humiliation. I never wanted to be a host. I felt like an idiot doing it. But it paid, and I had just finished working on my play for two years and I was broke. So it was a great job in terms of getting me grounded again, and it got me a good agent. But I absolutely feel more at home in my career now. It's been a long career and one I've worked very hard at. Being on such a successful show is a great gift. Emmys or no Emmys, I'm already at 9 out of 10 in terms of being filled with gratitude.
You turned 40 this year; did it feel like a milestone?
It certainly is a moment in your life where you reflect. One thing you realize is that there are ideas that you're given by your parents about what life is supposed to look like, and then there's the life you make for yourself, which doesn't necessarily go in the same direction. I expected to have children by now but I don't, and yet, the life I have is exactly what I wanted. In terms of desiring children, it's hard to know if it's your own desire as a woman, or if it's cultural, or hormonal or physiological, some biological drive… I have a hard time finding "me" in all those things. I've decided if I end up not having a baby of my own and I still have this tremendous urge to be a mother, there are plenty of children who need mothers.
How is it being in the over-40 set at this time in Hollywood? How was it being in the under-30 set when you were there?
It was fantastic for me in my 30s, that's when I started to work a lot and move along. I think women look so much better in their 40s now than they did years ago; I don't mean plastic surgery, we just know how to take better care of ourselves. The problem exists in menopause – nobody seems to want to look at a menopausal woman. People like Glenn Close and Candice Bergen have broken through that, but there are just a handful of them. Television has a lot more opportunity for women than film does.
Pick a favorite on-screen boyfriend: Jason Alexander (on Seinfeld), James Spader (on The Practice), Ben Stiller (in Keeping the Faith) or Rob Lowe (on The West Wing).
The West Wing was a great moment in my life, because I was madly in love with Rob Lowe in high school. So it was one of those moments when you wish you could go back in time and show yourself what your life is going to look like. I was miserable in high school so it was such an achievement to find myself in bed, in my underwear, with Rob Lowe.
Medical dramas crop up every season, yet yours is one of the few that's grown legs and continued to run. What do you think separates House from the pack?
It's magic, isn't it, when something works? It's hard to say why we're successful. Fox is a great network for this show, because if it had been on NBC with the same ratings it never would have survived. And we had the opportunity to be on after American Idol and be seen by a lot of people who became loyal fans. The show really crosses generations. It's very smart, so educated working adults don't feel like they're being talked down to when they watch the show. And kids love House because he's such a brat. So I think there's something in it for a lot of people.
Your character Dr. Cuddy's relationship with Dr. House is complicated, to say the least. Do any of your past relationships inform the way you interact with him on screen?
I don't really think like that when I'm working on a character, because then I'm thinking about my past relationship and I'm not in the current one. There is great love and admiration between these two people and a huge amount of respect, and it's very conflicted, which makes it incredibly rich. When you narrow a relationship down to "good" or "bad," it's boring to watch. So I've enjoyed that as the years go by their relationship is being unveiled and its complications become more evident.
Has working on House changed the way you look at the medical system and your relationships with your own doctors?
I've always been interested in medicine, and my father's a doctor. I can't diagnose my friends like I used to because now they say I'm doing it because I think I am actually a doctor. The medical system is a complicated system; it's human, it's run by humans and we make mistakes trying to help each other. People have limited ideas about what's possible.
You had some serious health issues that required spinal surgery in the early part of your career. Did that experience inform your approach to this current role?
No, that experience informs my feeling about the medical world but not about this role.
You are noted as often for your looks as you are for your talent. After a couple decades in show business, what sort of perspective have you gained on Hollywood beauty pressures?
It's funny; I've never thought I was known for my looks. It's a little weird, very flattering, but I'm the one who has to wake up and look at myself in the mirror every morning. I try to just enjoy the compliment and let it go as fast as I can, because everything changes. I want to age. I want to be an old lady. If I want to be an 80-year-old woman like my grandma Gertie was—and she was a fantastic woman—I have to be okay with getting older. The hard thing about this business is you have to look at yourself a lot more than other people do. People get a bit obsessed because there's too much attention placed there, just by nature of the work. This is Hollywood. There are teams of hair and makeup people and photographs are touched up. It's image-making; it's always been that way.
You struggled with eating disorders when you were younger. Does the pressure to be thin still affect you?
It's not the same anymore. When I had surgery on my spine I really grew up and realized I was just done torturing myself. And then three years later my neck went out again; my doctor told me I'd have to have all the vertebrae in my neck fused. It suddenly occurred to me that my perception of this neck thing as a huge issue was going to take me down. So I stopped going to the doctor and started doing yoga, and I've never had a problem with my neck in the nine years since. The power of the mind is very important. I stay in good shape because I found something I love to do that's physical but affects me more than just physically. I make choices every day about how I want to look and feel. I'm conscious of what I eat but I'm not on a diet. I just try to stay healthy and live and not suffer. Coming close to dying helped me let things go.
You get to do a fair amount of actress-modeling, in magazines and on the red carpet. What's your relationship with fashion?
I love fashion, I think it's amazing. I like that art form. The hard part about being in my job is that you get picked on a lot for what you wear. I have to remember that I can't make everybody happy. I love getting dressed up, dressing expressively, and meeting designers. It's a beautiful thing. I've always been that way, only now I can afford to do it better!
How does your Jewish background inform your current life?
I would say being Jewish is a huge part of my identity as a person, even though I don't practice. My father's Conservative, we went to temple every week and had Shabbos dinner every weekend. As a grownup I feel Jewish-identified but not religious. I love being Jewish in the sense that I come from a people, I have a history and a bloodline. Some people don't have that. I love going to Israel as an adult like I did last summer, and realizing that 90% of the people you look at are Jews. It's weird to be in the majority. And it's so diverse, Jews of every color, from so many different countries. It was very exciting to me. Being Jewish informs everything I do. When I get a role that's ethnically undefined, it always ends up being Jewish. I mean, it doesn't work to pretend I'm anything else.
Favorite Jewish memory from childhood?
Building a sukkah, Friday night dinner with the family… my grandfather always used to break out into one Yiddish song or another. Grandma Gertie would organize busloads of people to go the Catskills for Passover and she'd get a free room. Being a New York Jew is so rich with culture.
Who's influenced you throughout your career? Whom do you admire now?
When I was a kid I loved Gilda Radner, Carol Burnett, great funny ladies. Now I always try and look to women who are ahead of me in terms of age, from a couple years to 20, 30 years. I try to look forward, to look to someone who is making a life I would enjoy at an age I have not yet reached.
If you could earn your living any other way, what would you do?
I haven't the faintest idea; I think if you have another idea about how to make your living you'd never become an actor.
Do you ever miss performing live on stage?
I do, I think about it. I've been accused of needing to do a one-woman show. I really admire Carrie Fisher for doing hers. I'd like to do something like that, an old-school Hollywood one-woman show.
Do you favor comedy or drama?
I like both. I like being funny in a drama.
You've played lesbians, transsexuals, prostitutes, over-the-top Jewish girls… do you seek out these characters or do they have a way of finding you?
They find me! The most unusual roles I've had have come my way because someone thought of me and knew I was the perfect person for that role; I haven't auditioned for most of them. I think I've been more flattered by that than anything else. I never was the ingénue, nor was I so quirky-looking that I could be "the quirky one." (Those are the two options when you're starting out – the ingénue or the wacky best friend.) And I've always loved people who struggle with being different one way or another, so when these characters started coming my way I was so excited.