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Judith Light hopes 'The Nellie Bly Story' will prompt mental health discussions

Chicago Tribune - 1/17/2019

Jan. 17--LOS ANGELES -- Judith Light has played a wide variety of characters -- some good, some bad -- since landing a role on the daytime drama "One Life to Live" in 1977. It is difficult for any actor who has done as much work in daytime as Light not to have had to look at a character's dark side.

With her role as the stern and unflinching Matron Grady in the Lifetime TV movie "Escaping the Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story," Light was presented with one of the darkest characters she's faced.

Christina Ricci plays investigative reporter Nellie Bly, who goes undercover at the notorious Women's Lunatic Asylum at the end of the 19th century to expose the abuse of patients. Light's character runs the operation with a brutal hand and takes an interest in Bly's unwillingness to submit to authority.

Her approach to playing Matron Grady was neither to play her as good nor bad.

"She is a woman who is broken herself," Light says. "One of the things that I think is important in talking about this movie is that there are so many places in our lives and in our culture where if you do not handle your problems and we don't dialogue about it, nothing ever changes. That's what her brokenness produced."

Light's character is an amalgamation of several people. That gave her some leeway in deciding how to play Matron Grady. She decided first and foremost that the character is intelligent, based on her research of women at that time who, despite managing to gain a position of authority, were never treated seriously. Her response would be to come up with a way to prove her worth.

Light also decided because Matron Grady never dealt with her own emotional and personal problems, she took out her anger and frustration on the woman sent to her facility. Many of the women were committed because they were immigrants who could not speak English or had just given birth and no one understood postpartum depression.

All the work and preparation would have gone for naught had Light not had an actor to go against who could be the emotional yin to her character's tyrannical yang. She found that with Ricci as Bly and through the direction of Karen Moncrieff ("13 Reasons Why").

"All of a sudden you have this ability to go to a dark place and nobody feels frightened," Light says. "Everybody feels safe. Everybody feels taken care of. We put Christina in some untenable positions and she was a brave and hardy sport."

The Lifetime movie is the latest in a long list of acting jobs for Light on stage, screen and television. Although she's best known for her work on daytime and in the prime-time comedy "Who's the Boss?," Light has also worked on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," "Ugly Betty," "Dallas," "The Simple Life" and "Doubt." She received Golden Globe, Primetime Emmy and Critics' Choice Television Award nominations for her work on "Transparent."

Light felt when she was attending Carnegie Mellon University that once she started acting there would be a wide variety of roles she could play. She proved that with credits that include everything from comedies to her latest dramatic work in "The Nelly Bly Story."

"I knew I could do a lot of stuff," Light says. "The things that came my way that created this remarkable fan base that I have (from) the soap and 'Who's the Boss?' They really put me front-and-center for people who would know me.

"When those two things stopped, I knew I had to change the way people thought about me. My manager said I had to be willing to take a chance to let people know I could do something else. That's when I did the play 'Wit' in New York for six months. I shaved my head and was naked at the end of the play. It was a daunting experience, but it was something I knew I had to do."

Since then the diversity of roles has continued. Although "The Nelly Bly Story" is a period film, Light sees it as a production that has a lot of elements that continue to resonate today. One of the biggest is that Bly was an investigative reporter. Her reports on the asylum led to major reforms.

Light points out it is a mistake that the bravery of women like Bly over the years is not celebrated more.

"It's a story of how powerful woman are. It's also a story of how powerful investigative journalists are," Light says. "It's also important to prompt more talk about mental illness in this country."

"Escaping the Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story"

7 p.m. Saturday, Lifetime

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