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Broadway Q&A: Christine Lahti of ‘Gloria: A Life’

Category Broadway

|by Jeryl Brunner |

Christine Lahti reveals how Gloria Steinem saved her life

Christine Lahti stars as Gloria Steinem in Gloria: A Life. The play, which contains an all-female cast, reveals both the private and public side of Steinem. It offers context to her profoundly groundbreaking devotion for equality and change. Gloria: A Life is directed by Diane Paulus (Waitress, Pippin, Hair), produced by Daryl Roth, written by Emily Mann and is currently playing at the Daryl Roth Theater. Lahti is an Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actress, director and writer, whose many credits include Running On Empty, Chicago Hope, No Place Like Home, And Justice For All, The Heidi Chronicles and, most recently, the Off-Broadway play F**king A. Her feminist coming-of-age memoir, True Stories from an Unreliable Eyewitness, was just published last year. 

Christine Lahti as Gloria Steinem in ‘Gloria: A Life’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Christine Lahti as Gloria Steinem in ‘Gloria: A Life’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)

How did you come to play Gloria Steinem? 
Christine Lahti
: Last summer, I knew Daryl Roth was going to produce a play about Gloria. I emailed Daryl. I emailed the director Diane Paulus, I emailed Gloria. I said “I don’t know if I’m the right age. I’ve never read the play, but keep me in mind.” I was just throwing my hat in the ring. Then it came to me a few months later. I always believe in going for what you want. But in my experience, when you usually lobby for a part, you never get it. It’s rare to find something so rich and wonderful. I just decided to be proactive. And this time it happened.

How did you first discover her? 
: When I went to college at the University of Michigan, I started out a Republican. I didn’t know what I was, but that is what my parents were. I thought, “Well, women are just valued for their sexuality.” If you are pretty, that is really all that matters. I was going to be maybe an actress or an interpreter at the UN. I wanted a bigger life, but I didn’t know how to do that as a woman. 

Then, second wave feminism came into my being. I was protesting against the Vietnam War. But as the play talks about, women marched behind the men. The men gave all the speeches. We made the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for them. It was still so sexist, even in that hippie progressive movement against the war. Then women decided, we will have our own meetings where we are treated with respect. That is how these consciousness-raising meetings happened. So I started going to consciousness-raising meetings in Ann Arbor. And I read Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan and Betty Friedan’s books. It was really just a huge seismic shift in my sense of empowerment. 

What was it like for you when Gloria Steinem first saw you play her?
: The first time she came, I was really nervous. We were so early in the process. I didn’t know all my lines or blocking yet. My heart was pounding fast, and my mouth was so dry, which is what Gloria has suffered. She has dry mouth. She still has a phobia about public speaking. But after, she was so generous and loving and seemed to really like what I was doing. She said the first time she saw me do it, she had almost an out-of-body experience. She actually learned things about herself she didn’t know. I thought that was really funny, and typically generous of Gloria.

You have been friends with Gloria for many years. But how did your vision of her change since you playing her?
: As her friend, I didn’t know that she was so “un-woke” until the age of about 35. And so was I. Gloria was so “un-woke” as a journalist, she didn’t even want to cover women’s stories. She didn’t even want to cover a protest by women, or even join one. She thought they were not important. At the time, people thought they were frivolous.

How has Gloria Steinem impacted your life? 
: Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan and Betty Friedan threw me a life jacket that has kept me afloat my entire life, which is called feminism. That helped me navigate through a world that I detected as not very respectful of women. When I met Gloria, I thought “My God, I’m meeting the person who saved my life.” There is something so loving and generous about her. Like a friend of mine said, “Well, you know, you’re basically playing Jesus.” But that’s not the case. I’m playing a flawed human being.

From Gloria’s point of view, the whole point of the of the play is to portray an honest and complex human being, warts and all, in order to inspire others. She had a very challenging childhood and relationship with her mother. She felt invisible and unwanted and not worth protecting. She had to struggle with all that. And look at who she is today. The play has really inspired a lot of people, a lot of young people. They can say, “Maybe I can change the world, too.” 

What helped to inspire you to want to become an actress? 
: I remember my parents took me to see Hello, Dolly! with Carol Channing in Detroit. That was one of those big moments where I thought, “My god, this is magic. Just pure magic.” Then I saw the film Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Katharine Hepburn and Jason Robards, which Sidney Lumet directed. That was also one of those huge moments for me. I remember seeing it and (I) couldn’t stop sobbing. I rode my bike around Ann Arbor Michigan. At the time I was in college. I was sobbing and saying to myself, “I have to be part of this art form that has the power to move people like this.” I thought, “I want to be able to touch people and have that kind of effect on people that this movie just did to me.” That was one of those turning points. I thought, “Maybe I’ll give up this interpreter-at-the-UN thing.”

For more of the best of New York theater, check out our list of the Top Shows in New York in January 2019. 


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