Before the Scene is where we all start. In a small town with our families. In front of a mirror with our friends. The days spent sleeping on a couch. The nights working at a bar. Living the unknown and surrounded by uncertainty. It’s about the times that define us. It’s about the just darkness before the limelight.
Sela Ward is a veteran actress who has twice received the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, first for her role as Teddy Reed on Sisters and then as Lily Brooks Manning on Once and Again. She now stars as Jo Danville on CSI: NY.
What made you become an actor?
I really hadn’t found my passion yet and I had moved to New York City. I was drawing up storyboards at an audio/visual production company. Somebody said, “You should model.” And the very first things I started doing were TV commercials. And to really try to hold my own when there were other actors in the spot, I started taking acting lessons to help me get confidence for that. One-on-one I was fine but the moment you had another actor come in, it would just disappear. So I took this class and it was just like I had dropped into this magical world. Like a little club. And we all did each other’s sets for showcases and worked on everything from costumes to props and did plays as showcases to get agents and we would go out after for a beer and a burger. It was just like nothing I’d ever quite imagined.
What was your biggest fear?
Then? I didn’t really have a fear then (laughs). I was fear-less! So much so that, after being offered a daytime spot on one of the daytime soaps, I said, ‘This is not what acting is about for me. I want to go to L.A.’ So I hopped on a plane, checked into a hotel and said, ‘Okay I’m here.’ And had the name of an agent. Had to go there. Had to jump through hoops and do monologues for the agent, and monologues for the other agents in the office and they finally decided to give me a shot.
What was your lowest point?
When it was pouring down rain – there were phone booths then, there were no cell phones – I went in for an audition for a show called Emerald Point N.A.S. and I had the sides I had studied the night before and when I got there the casting person said, “Here are the new sides.” And it was ten pages of something I hadn’t seen. And I was too green to say, you know, “Sorry, let me go work on this. I’ll come back tomorrow or another time or call my agent.” I thought, ‘Okay well I can do this. I did co-reading class in New York, I know how to do this.’ So I sat and looked at it for about ten minutes and I go in, I deliver the first line. The casting person is sitting in front of me and all the producers are behind her – they can’t see her face – I asked to start over because I’d just sort of gotten frazzled. She looks at me, rolls her eyes, glances over at her assistant like, ‘Who is this neophyte sitting in front of me.’ You might as well have just said, “You know what, honey? Go home.” It was so devastating because it was just so incredibly cruel and humiliating. It’s pouring down rain, I walk out, I go to a phone booth, I’m just sobbing hysterically, called this friend and said, “I’m going back to New York, it’s just horrible here.” But the greatest revenge was that they cast it and they didn’t like who they cast. So they had a totally different casting director and I go back in for the same role and I get the part. Isn’t that incredible?
What was it that kept you from walking away?
There’s always been this inner piece of me at my core that said, ‘I can do this. I’m gonna prove to myself and the world that I can do this.’ I can’t even tell you how many times people of power would say things to me that were extraordinarily discouraging. And I’d pick myself back up and I’d just keep charging back out there. So much so, that I was working on Nothing in Common with Tom Hanks. That was like my second big part. I was very green. I’ll never forget, Peggy Fury – she’s passed away since then – well known acting coach here in Los Angeles. Had a huge following. And so I’m paying her to coach me, I go to meet her one day right before we’re about to go to work and she looks at me and she goes, “I’m just not quite sure how you got this part. My daughter would have been so much better for this role.” And this is the kind of stuff that would happen to me over and over again. And in that Southern way, I would just look at her and kind of laugh, and disconnect it from the fact that this was the most atrocious thing she could possibly say to me and I’m paying her! Talk about undermining my self-confidence. I just fiercely had this belief in myself and kept going back out there.
What did you walk away from?
I walked away from just being in a space of trying to figure out and find who I was and what I wanted to be. I knew I wanted to be in New York. I’d figured out how to get there. But I hadn’t really found where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to be doing in that city in a way that was fulfilling.
Who was your closest ally?
Myself. Because I didn’t really have any connections. It really was just my inner strength and shear will and determination.
What were you doing before the morning of the audition that changed your life?
I had been here, checked into that hotel, for two weeks and somebody says, “I know a part that hasn’t been cast in this Blake Edwards film.” And she picked up the phone and called him. It was The Man Who Loved Women. I go over there and I meet with Blake. He reads with me and puts the script down and says, “Okay, you got the part.” He put the script down halfway through the scene and for that one beat, I was devastated, thinking, ‘Oh I must have just really sucked.’ And when he looked at me and said, “Okay you got the part,” I just…it was just one of those moments frozen in time where everything flies through your head at once like, ‘Oh my God, this is with Burt Reynolds, who was huge at the time, I just got here and this is Blake Edwards,’ and I think I took a breath for a minute, maybe.
What words kept you going?
Well the first thing that popped into my head is, when I was younger, I was talking to Dr. Apperson, the pastor of our church, and I remember I had asked him a question about achieving things in life and he said to me, “Yes, I think anyone can accomplish anything. It’s just a matter of what you’re willing to compromise.”
How have you changed?
Well, I’m not afraid anymore. I certainly have much stronger boundaries and a much stronger sense of self preservation. Not to put myself in positions that would compromise me.
What words to do you to inspire others?
Don’t wait for someone to give you permission in life. Don’t wait for someone to give you permission in life to do anything.
Can you tell us about Hope Village for Children?
It’s a home for abused and neglected children that I founded in the year 2000. We serve about 300+ kids a year that go through there. Wards of the state. It’s an emergency abuse shelter and a permanent shelter that kids that don’t make it in the foster care system can stay there and thrive and have continuity. Which is actually a wonderful thing! Anyone interested in learning more can visit the website at www.hopevillagems.org.