Arts

Broadway interview

Christine Lahti: how feminism saved — and made — me

Website:
The Daily Beast

Date:
February 7, 2024

Christine Lahti talks playing a former KGB agent with hidden depths in “Russian Troll Farm,” feminism, Trump, family trauma, love, awards, and how telling all helped her to heal.

The first standout stage monologue of 2024 is here—and Oscar-, Emmy-, and Golden Globe-winning actor Christine Lahti is responsible for it.

As former KGB agent Ljuba in Sarah Gancher’s play Russian Troll Farm (Vineyard Theatre, to Feb. 25), Lahti—star of Chicago Hope, Running on Empty, Jack & Bobby, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, The Blacklist, and most recently Evil—plays the adult in the room to a group of young Russians employed to create and distribute disinformation across social media platforms with the singular aim of sowing as much as confusion and discord as possible to help get Donald Trump elected in the 2016 presidential election.

Ljuba appears unyielding, until the raucous, sharp play suddenly stills to reveal her life through a dream. It is an unexpected, beautiful passage, and Lahti’s moment to stun the audience with the story of a woman’s life that encompasses love, loss, sexuality, dreams, and desire—the hidden reality of a ruthless propagandist.

“It’s extraordinary to be able to look at one life and try to figure out what it all adds up to, if anything,” Lahti told The Daily Beast. “I think the dream Ljuba has helps crack some of the armor she has in real life, and allows her to finally connect with a human being, Masha (a new troll farm recruit played by Renata Friedman), and have a second crack at being a mother. This person has shut down all her feelings her whole life for a myriad of reasons—not having parents, not feeling love, not ever feeling worthy enough, or like she matters. Then all her KGB training has forced her to block everything. For those people who don’t express their feelings in real life, it often comes out in their dreams. So, having this dream, and conducting this journey of detective work about her own life, allows Ljuba to open up. The tragedy is that it is also what brings her down.”

Lahti has been working to nail the character since rehearsals began just before Christmas, enjoying playing the “pressure cooker” of Ljuba—her need to control, and tamp down on any stray emotions.

Lahti also contemplates how Ljuba really feels about her role (in her work at the troll farm) in bringing down a candidate like Hillary Clinton, and why that is a betrayal of women and of herself. The dream comes about because all Ljuba has cared about in her life is getting her job done right, and even that’s going terribly now with these misbehaving young employees. Suddenly, Ljuba is asking: “How did I get here?”

Lahti’s performance is sourced in the actor being “150,000 percent against Trump. The night that Trump won that election and Hillary didn’t was one of the darkest nights of my life—and I know many others felt the same way. The fact he will be the nominee for the Republican party is so baffling and scary to me. The fact he can run again and be our president and our dictator is terrifying to me.”

“I love being part of a play that is timely,” Lahti said. “It is important for people to be hyper-aware of the misinformation, disinformation, and lies they are reading every day and think are true. In a time when it’s hard to determine what is truth and what is a lie, it is up to all of us to do the work and make sure the sources we read are reputable and real. It is astonishing to me that a man found liable for sexual abuse and defamation by a jury is still allowed to even run for president. I feel optimistic. I believe in the power of women. I think women are way too smart to vote for him, even though I know white women supported him in 2016—and a lot of white women vote the way their husbands vote or for the status quo. But way more young women know without reproductive freedom we have no freedom at all. I really think that issue will turn it, I really do.”

 

‘Patriarchy on steroids’

Lahti’s mother once told her daughter that she would vote for whoever her father voted for. Lahti writes about her father’s controlling nature, her mother’s submission to it (until a later-in-life burst of independence), her feminism, being told she had to sleep with commercial directors as a young actor (she did not), her marriage to director Thomas Schlamme, motherhood, and the mental illness and deaths of two of her siblings in her excellent 2018 memoir, True Stories From an Unreliable Eyewitness: A Feminist Coming of Age.

Lahti staged an adaptation of the memoir as a play entitled The Smile of Her at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Theatre last summer (the title is drawn from what one of Lahti’s children tries to capture in a portrait of her mom). The play—even if it’s being performed years after the book—actually germinated as an idea first; Lahti had performed sections of it at venues like the Cornelia Street Café. The play, like the memoir, Lahti said is intended as a portrait of “how I survived this family, and how others didn’t or did. It is about how patriarchy didn’t just hurt the women in my family but also the men. They were as equally limited or damaged because of patriarchy on steroids.”

Ted, her oldest sibling who beat her up relentlessly when they were kids—and who was diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder and later died of cancer—she recognizes as having “really suffered. He didn’t know how to ask for help, love, or express any feelings apart from rage. I think a lot of men suffer that—less so now thankfully. Our vulnerability, our heart, makes us human. If men don’t have access to that it’s so sad—and all the more reason they should be allies of women to bring down this hierarchy of human worth.”

Lahti’s youngest sister Linda died by suicide after struggling with bipolar disorder for over 20 years. In the 2016 movie Touched by Fire, Lahti played the mom of a bipolar daughter; she didn’t “have to do any homework” for the movie, Lahti told the Today show’s Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager. “The entire movie felt completely real to me, I felt like I was re-enacting my life.” She talked about the anger and guilt she had felt after Linda’s suicide.

“Certainly there are people with much harder childhoods than I had,” Lahti told The Daily Beast. “I had a privileged, suburban, upper-middle-class upbringing. It’s not like I suffered. But in those days, I did have lot of denial, as well as emotional abuse and some physical abuse from my brother. There are things in the play, not the book, that are really scary and bad. But my sisters Kathy and Carol survived. I have survived. My younger brother Jim survived. Ken has gone, and Linda has gone.”

Feminism saved her, Lahti said. “I feel very fortunate that I was able to find feminism, which was my lifejacket in navigating my way through a world that clearly doesn’t like or respect women very much. I realized that lifejacket would keep me afloat if I was just vigilant and worked hard on myself and didn’t allow what was being normalized in terms of misogyny to be normalized in my life. Second-wave feminism was key to my survival.”

Lahti’s drive for perfection early in her life was down to the pressure and standard set by her father. “If I wasn’t perfect, I wasn’t worthy of love,” she recalls of that thinking. “My mother gave us all unconditional love, thank God.” Later, she discovered her father would re-enact at home a particular scene between father and daughter from Running on Empty, but all that is said in that emotional scene went unsaid by him in real life.

“I never knew him,” Lahti told The Daily Beast. “I saw him tear him up one time when I made him a hand-made Father’s Day card. I never saw him cry, I never saw him vulnerable. He did the best he could. He had a role which was a straitjacket—the protector, the provider, the man. I don’t blame him. I think he did what he thought he had to do. Unfortunately, it was a really limited role.”

After initially being scornful of her daughter’s feminism, Lahti’s mother asked her to “carry the banner” for her—even though she would get a pilot’s license and become an artist in her later years. “In those days, men didn’t like feminists, and coming out as a feminist was like coming out as gay. My mom was fearful of my journey, but when she realized I was doing something important she said it was too late for her, but I should use my power and voice. That killed me. ‘It’s not too late for you,’ I said. And then she went off and did these other things, which was great.”

Her father wasn’t physically abusive, Lahti said. “He was a gentle, kind man, but there was emotional abuse.” In the memoir, she recalls a time when, in anger at her smoking, he forced his wife out of the family car, with a young Lahti terrified they would never see her again. (He drove back to pick her up.)

“My mother was certainly complicit in her own oppression, but she didn’t have high expectations of being a first-class citizen,” Lahti said. “Her expectation was, ‘I am second-class. I am a woman. I accept that I will be a hostess, housewife, and mother to six kids, and raise them all without a nanny.’ She was an incredible mother. I don’t think she had any expectations that her opinions really mattered—that’s how she was raised, and she accepted that until later in her life.”

 

“I should have said, ‘Get your fucking hand off my leg’”

The young Lahti was “good at languages,” and initially thought becoming a translator at the U.N. “would get me out of this small life in Birmingham, Michigan, and into the big world.” But she had begun acting at school; it was her true passion, “and that passion has kept me going through some of the hard times and fallow years when I wasn’t working much.” After gaining her bachelor’s degree in drama from Michigan University, Lahti moved to New York in 1973.

It was “hard” for her to separate her feminism from the sometimes un-feminist roles she was offered and occasionally played.

“I was determined to put images of women out into the world that were strong, independent, and complex. When I came across a script that read like misogyny to me, I couldn’t do it. Much to the dismay of my agents, I wouldn’t even go up for them. I felt like I could not live with myself if I did that. On the other hand, it’s not like I didn’t sell out. I had to pay the rent. I did movies I was not particularly proud of but, to me, I was able to justify and rationalize them.

“I did a dishwashing commercial and thought of the character, ‘Well, at least she is the manager of her son’s baseball team and not just a perfect little housewife.’ I definitely sold out to make money, I definitely compromised. But I was able to survive that way.”

When one male casting director told Lahti she would be expected to sleep with directors, however, it was a firm no. “There wasn’t a second thought. I burst out crying. I was so disappointed and devastated. I thought, ‘Maybe he’s right. Maybe I won’t make it unless I prostitute myself. Maybe it’s the only way.’ That was heartbreaking to me. It had never occurred to me that was my only value.” Lahti walked the 72 blocks downtown, and “by the end of it, I was vowing, ‘I will prove this motherfucker wrong.’ All those guys who told me I wasn’t enough, that my only value was my sexuality, all made me stronger and more determined—so in some way I am grateful to all of them.”

Pre #MeToo, sexual harassment and abuse in the acting sphere was “so normalized, part of our job as women was to navigate through it, to try and stop whatever it was, and somehow not lose work. We all had stories ready to say at those moments—that we had a boyfriend, or were married. One director rubbed my thigh in an audition. It was totally inappropriate. At the time I thought I was a strong feminist, but I giggled. I let him because I wanted the job. For me, that’s as bad as it got. I should have said, ‘Get your fucking hand off my leg,’ but I just giggled—and I still didn’t get the job. I was very angry with myself. I learned a lot—that I can speak up and say something. It’s not something I, or anyone, should have to put up with.”

Lahti’s ultimate goal as an actor “has always been respect,” before fame and wealth, so when a role—such as heart surgeon Dr. Kate Austin in Chicago Hope—combined both wide exposure and her political beliefs—it was sweet indeed, even if, at the time, Lahti had a snobbery “about selling out to do television.” Then she read the scripts and thought series David E. Kelley’s scripts were “genius.”

Her Golden Globe victory for the role in 1998 (she also won an Emmy for it the same year) helped loosen the expectations of perfection that had confined her. Lahti was in the restroom when her name was announced—having not registered the asterisk signaling that the evening’s award category order was subject to change. Fortunately Robin Williams was on stage to cover for her—but, as a result of that moment, Lahti learned to take herself, and life, seriously.

“At the time my heart was on the floor. I thought, ‘Oh my God, how did I fuck that up?’ Thank God for Robin Williams, who jumped up and did improv, and kept things going till I got there. But it was a critical moment for me to realize a moment like that could be really funny, imperfect, and I was able to celebrate that mistake in a way that helped me. It was even better that it happened this way. It was more memorable than a conventional awards moment. I was not only able not to take myself seriously, but after that I was never able to take awards seriously again. Awards feel like nice pats on the back—encouragement—but in terms of changing my career trajectory, no, they never did. I got my share of nice trophies, but they never really changed anything.”

Lahti says this with a respectably groaning mantelpiece; she won her first Golden Globe for the 1989 TV movie No Place Like Home. In 1995, she won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film for her directorial debut of the short film Lieberman in Love. She is an eight-time Golden Globe nominee and six-time Emmy Award nominee, and received her first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for Swing Shift (1984). On Broadway she has appeared in Loose Ends (1980, her Broadway debut), Present Laughter (1982), The Heidi Chronicles (1989), and God of Carnage (2009).

Lahti and Al Pacino began dating on and off for about three years after they wrapped filming …And Justice for All (1979). “He’s an extraordinary man,” Lahti said. “It was fun, he’s a great guy, it just wasn’t right for either of us.” Her favorite role to date was as Sylvie in Bill Forsyth’s big-screen adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping (1987), with a “skeleton” of a character Lahti enjoyed fleshing out and coloring in.

 

“There has been no plastic surgery yet”

In her memoir, Lahti writes in moving, loving, and very real, raw detail about her marriage to Schlamme—even the moment she contemplated having sex with a co-star on a film, momentarily dazzled by being adored by him. Nothing happened; Lahti realized what she had with Schlamme was more precious to protect—although he did dial up his adoration of her in the days afterward.

She also writes and speaks about her experience of parenthood. “I didn’t feel maternal at all until after three months after our first child (Wilson) was born. I was in awe of the huge responsibility, but I didn’t feel that maternal love until he smiled at me, and I went, ‘Oh my God, I love this person so much.’ It was overwhelming.

“Being a parent opened me up, extended me, and changed me. It sounds cliched, but I’m a better actress because I’m a mother and I’m a better mother because I’m an actress. Because I had a job I loved, it made me more able to be present with my kids when I was with them, and more grateful for them. I wasn’t able to be indulgent, I couldn’t bring work home because I had to be there. And I think being a mother made me a better actress because it just opened me up in ways I never knew possible. I found I was able to love in a way I never knew—in an unconditional way. I certainly loved my husband—but was it unconditional? No, there were certain things I wouldn’t tolerate. With my kids it was truly unconditional. The fact I got the same from my mom and was able to give it to my children is truly a gift.” She took her daughter Emma to a march for reproductive rights when Emma was 11 (“Maybe she was a little young for that”), and is proud today to observe the “very talented” radical feminist she has grown up to be.

One cliffhanger in her 2018 memoir is around plastic surgery; Lahti says she has considered it, but not yet done it. In the last six years did that change?

“There has been no plastic surgery yet,” Lahti said. “I’m not above a little Botox here and there, but I don’t do filler—I would, but I’m allergic to it. The jury is still out. I’m not saying no—but jeez, I’m 73 and still haven’t done anything. I probably won’t, but I still think about it. I still think, ‘Oh it would be nice not have this’ (said gesturing towards her face), but here’s the thing. I love playing this KGB agent, and if I had had a lot of plastic surgery I couldn’t play this part. I don’t know how many KGB agents, Soviet to their core, look like they have had a lot of work done.

“I want to be able to play every kind of part. I don’t want to be limited because I’ve done stuff to my face that makes me look like I am trying to be younger. I hate ageism. I hate how women are affected by ageism. I don’t judge any actor who’s had it. I get it, the pressures are enormous. But personally, I just feel better not doing it—so far.”

Despite an increase in roles for older female actors, Lahti still thinks there’s “pretty big inequality” in the roles available to older female actors. While she loved recently playing Sheryl in Evil, she thinks male actors “get to age differently to women. They don’t have the obstacles in their way as much as women do. I think it’s changing. I think diversity, and different kinds of stories, including around older women, are being seen and heard. It started out as such an uneven playing field, to make it even will take a while.”

Of her own aging, Lahti smiled, “I don’t believe I’m 73. It doesn’t compute. I feel healthier than ever. I have never felt stronger. Nothing has really changed except my wrinkles. If this is what ‘70’ is, so far it’s good. It didn’t occur to me that 70 is bad.”

When asked about dream roles, Lahti said, “I’ve never done a Chekhov play, and I’m dying to do Chekhov.” She is also hoping to bring her own play to an off-Broadway or Los Angeles theater. “It’s been so rewarding to do. I did have one of those dark nights before the first preview, where I wondered, ‘Who is going to give a shit about my personal story because it’s so personal?’ A friend who’s a successful writer, playwright, and screenwriter, said, ‘Well, welcome to being a writer. That’s what we all feel when we stare at a blank page. But stay the course, because your story is universal.’

“That really helped me get through those dark nights. And I have found it surprisingly universal. There have been so many women, weeping, saying, ‘This is my story,’ or ‘This is my sister’s story.’ Men who have seen it, have said that being ‘the boss’ in their family has cost them something in their relationships with other family members. The play has allowed them to express their vulnerability. It’s been very rewarding. I’d love to do it again.”

Inevitably, it was tough performing it night in, night out, given the subject material is so close. “One Sunday I called my husband and said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore, I am reliving so much trauma,” Lahti recalled. “I know others have endured far greater trauma than me, but this was very traumatizing for me. He talked me off the cliff, and why I was doing it—to help others. When I finished the run I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do it again. It cost a lot bringing up that stuff. But I have to say it was also therapeutic for me and ultimately very rewarding. Repressing, not sharing, can be harmful. Healing began for me by sharing this story.”

Lahti may see a therapist during any future run of the show. While not in therapy now, she has had it before. She recalled the revelatory moment her then-therapist—at the time of her meeting her husband for the first time—asked her why she felt like didn’t deserve to be with a nice man. “That sentence resonated so profoundly for me. I had been brought up to think being with a man who is withholding and domineering, and who doesn’t express kindness, is sexy and somehow more attractive than someone who is a kind human being. Not that my dad wasn’t kind; he just didn’t lead with that—he led with authority, power, and dominance.

“Tommy led with kindness—that was so new and mysterious to me, and therapy was very helpful to recognize, ‘Ah, this is what I want.’ I never thought I would meet a man who didn’t want to squelch me or keep me down. I thought that was inevitable. The fact Tommy was, from the start, such an equal partner to me, respected me, and wanted me to thrive—I had never met a man like that. I thought my male partners would be jealous, or resentful of my success, and try to keep me down in some way. Tommy was the opposite.”

All roads lead back to feminism and its galvanizing importance in Lahti’s life and work. “It has fueled my activism, my choices in my career, and how I raised my boys and my daughter,” she said. (Wilson, having studied film, is a sheriff, Emma a singer-songwriter, and Joe works in the music department of game company Riot Games.)

While initially being suspicious of Kim Kardashian’s marketing of her body, and some forms of modern feminism, Lahti said she had come to realize, “Who am I to grade other women’s feminism? I’ve certainly fallen off the feminist wagon. From someone else’s perspective, it might seem like I have sold out—even from my own perspective it seems I sometimes have. So I cannot question other forms of feminism, my daughter helped me see that in terms of Kim Kardashian. I have great respect for her.”

In many ways, Russian Troll Farm’s Ljuba is Lahti’s polar opposite; the character is unexpressive, where Lahti is so open. Ljuba has never felt loved, but Lahti has. They share a passion for work, a need for success, and ambition. The thrill of playing Ljuba for Lahti is cracking open the shell, and exploring Ljuba’s concealed humanity.

The simmering potency of the play is performing it as Trump prepares to run again—and the election-era disinformation explosion we see on stage from 2016 also gears up for a second flood of noxiousness.

Central to playing Ljuba is what Lahti calls “substitution,” the actor and portrayer as the contrasting image of the other.

“Ljuba is a diehard Soviet terrified by freedom, and I am a diehard Democrat progressive feminist terrified of Trump. It’s terrifying to me what he could do to this country—which is turn it into a dictatorship. I feel very worried about my kids, all our kids, and what he’ll do to women, immigrants, elections. There are so many things that scare me about him. I’m going to do what I can to get Biden elected, and I think other actors will do the same, including those with large social media platforms. I don’t have that—a couple of people follow me!

“I mean, Taylor Swift: God bless her getting young people registered to vote. It’s a huge thing she’s doing. We all have to do our part to get rid of this guy. I hope all of what he has done is ultimately disqualifying. These people, his MAGA people, are very vocal—but they are a minority, and we have to remind ourselves of that. The majority of people think he’s not qualified given everything that has happened—and, again, I think women will hopefully save the day.

“Black women saved America last time, it’s up to all of us this time. And I think what happened with Roe v. Wade might do it. If you don’t have reproductive freedom, what freedom do you have? You can’t control your own life, you can’t make career choices if you’re forced to be a mother. If you don’t have choices, that’s a different kind of life. I think women recognize that that’s a deal breaker.”

Of the notion of a feminist claiming she was exercising her choice to vote for Trump, Lahti said, “I would really have to talk to this person. I would ask, ‘Why vote against your own interests?’ I wanted to ask the same of white women in 2016. Now, with Roe v. Wade, I can’t understand how any woman could vote for him. I can just try and talk to as many women as possible, to say, ‘Here is what is at stake—yes democracy, but also freedom, your freedom and your daughters’ freedom, so think twice before voting for this man.’ You don’t have to have an abortion—just don’t take away other women’s right to. Men making decisions about what women can do with their bodies is appalling. Leave our bodies alone.”