Judith Light on Lifetime's 'The Nellie Bly Story' and 'Who's the Boss?' & 'One Life to Live' Memories

Michael Maloney
Q&A Lifetime

Off her Emmy-nominated portrayal of Marilyn Miglin in The Assassination of Gianni Versace, Judith Light has taken on the role of Matron Grady, a woman who had a tortured childhood and therefore makes Nellie Bly’s life a living hell in Escaping the Madhouse: the Nellie Bly Story.

The Lifetime movie, set to air on Saturday, January 19, tells the story of Bly, played by Christina Ricci (Z: The Beginning of Everything), the brave journalist, who committed herself to the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island in her successful quest to expose mistreatment of mentally ill patients.

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In her encounters with Nellie and other asylum residents, Matron Grady makes Judith Ryland, Light’s cutthroat character on Dallas, look like a Girl Scout. Read on as the TV veteran discusses her new role, the importance of talking about mental health, Who’s the Boss?, and, of course, Karen Wolek, daytime television's most famous housewife-turned-prostitute.

Before we talk about the Nellie Bly Story, I have to say I saw you on The Talk. You continue to have this varied and accomplished career, and most of your Talk segment was spent talking about your Emmy-winning run as Karen Wolek on OLTL.

Judith Light: [Smiling] I know.

What is it about Karen and her story that resonates to this day?

I’ll tell you why I think that story resonates. People want to know who someone is. And when someone is willing to expose themselves so completely in order to save a friend [as Karen did to help her pal Viki (Erika Slezak) who was on trial for murder], she was being her true self. It’s what I say to my gay, lesbian, and transgender friends – what does it mean to come out and be your true, authentic self?

Judith Light on The Talk (Cliff Lipson/CBS)

That’s what Karen was doing [when she testified]. People responded to that. They love it. They wish they could do it. They want to be the person who is like that. They’re afraid if they do that then people won’t love them. So, Karen laid everything on the line by saying, ‘This is who I am. This is what I’ve been doing. I’m going to lose everything. I know that and I’m doing this anyway.’ When people see that, it’s courageous and it’s inspiring. And it’s very much like this movie in terms of being courageous and inspiring.

Let’s talk about that. You play Matron Grady at the asylum. She is not to be trifled with! What attracted you to this project?

It’s a great script. Helen Childress (Reality Bites) wrote a beautiful script. Karen Moncrief (13 Reasons Why) is a wonderful director. I wanted to work with Christina Ricci (The Opposite of Sex). I know Josh Bowman (Revenge), who plays Dr. Josiah. His work is gorgeous. I knew this [story] had a kind of weight to it and it would give us the opportunity to talk about what we may have forgotten about these women journalists. There have been a lot of stories and movies about Nellie Bly, but not in a while. We’re talking about women and their courage, power, and who they are in the world. I want young women to see this and say, ‘I come from that lineage and I have that in me. What the job is doesn’t matter, but I know I can be like that.’

(Lifetime)

Also, we have mental health crisis in this country that we are not talking about to the degree we need to talk about it. We have a little bit. God Bless, Tipper Gore. She was talking about it years ago, but those things sort of get pushed aside. They’re brought up in sporadic ways. But we’re not talking about what that epidemic is really about. People are given medication that changes the way they feel inside, but then we don’t talk about how we feel. We don’t dialogue about those things. And when we can dialogue about them, we can actually make potent change within our culture.

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How?  

We do this. I talk to you. You talk about it. You get it out there. You’re my way in. This business is something you can’t do alone. We are reliant on the press. I am devotionally connected to the way you get to talk about what we need to talk about. Then, somebody gets an idea as to what was being talked about in this movie. Before you know it, people are talking about it. We are fragile beings. We’re afraid to show this other side of ourselves. We’re afraid if we do, they won’t love us. All of us are human beings and in need of great love. When you get to play a character like I do in this movie, someone who was treated so badly as a child, things become so problematic that you never heal.

How do you keep your Matron Grady human when she does these horrible things?

I trust people and their vision. I trust that they will see that there is a problem in this woman’s life that never got that handled properly so she treats people in a way where she wields power over them. I trust [viewers] will see the underpinnings of what’s going on. That’s my job. When you have a great script, a great director, and great people to work with that makes it all possible.

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It’s just extraordinary. That was a story about something that happened in our culture that actually didn’t have to happen. If…Andrew Cunanan had been seen and heard in a different way that did not diminish and deflect the LGBTQ community he may never have killed Gianni Versace. We look at those things and we must learn from this history. There were many people who shoved those stories under the rug as he was going on this killing spree. We need to wake up and make sure we are seeing each other.

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You mentioned you’ve been rehearsing some singing and dancing. What’s that for?

It’s for the two-hour musical movie finale of Transparent. I can’t tell you anything yet, but will be able to soon.

You’ve done photo reunions and TV interviews with the gang from Who’s the Boss? Any chance of a reunion a la Fuller House?

I love that show. We all love that show. We love how much the fans love that show. It’s hard to put something together [but] we have great appreciation for the fans who want it to happen. We haven’t even had a chance to talk about it yet.

(Bob D'Amico/ABC via Getty Images)

Escaping the Madhouse: the Nellie Bly Story, Saturday, January 18, 8/7c, Lifetime