So, we are in our house here in Austin, Texas. We have been renovating for quite some time, and we are a month over. For anyone who’s done a renovation, I guess that’s normal that you go over time, but a month is a long time for no kitchen with two small children. I was supposed to start a movie this week, which also got pushed, so it’s the theme of my life right now. We’re going to fly to New York to be with my family, have a kitchen, not eat Chick- fil-A for many meals of the day, and have a little vacation.
I was in L.A. for 12 years. Like a lot of people in 2020, you took this time to reevaluate life and what makes you happy, what you really prioritize in life. And during one of the darker moments of quarantine, my husband and I really got into talking about this and [thinking about] what our most ideal situation would be. And for me, I always thought about getting to a certain level of my career where I didn’t necessarily have to live in New York or L.A. We can live somewhere different, not so much industry-focused or my industry-focused rather, we can raise our kids with a different life, with space. And then it got to this point where I thought “What am I waiting for? Who’s going to say when that time in my career is? Who’s going to give me that permission? Why not now?” Also, during that time, my husband’s company was switching over to being more remote and realizing not everybody had to be in L.A. to work at this company. We started the Zillow thing, like everybody else, and then one of my very best friends, Odette Annabel, and her husband Dave had already made the move down here in the spring. That got us really thinking. So, we came down here in October 2020, saw probably 20 houses, made an offer and it was accepted. And then 30 minutes later, I booked a television show in Los Angeles. So, that’s exactly how life goes. I hadn’t worked in L.A. in I don’t know how many years. Every time I worked, it was either in Canada or Atlanta or New York. So, we stayed there to shoot the pilot, and then we moved down here in March.
It sounds like it was an easy decision and you just went for it.
Yeah, there wasn’t a lot of thought. We were really surprising ourselves; we didn’t feel like we’re being impulsive, but we were really following a gut feeling and just going with it. We weren’t second-guessing what we were feeling at all. And because we moved here, we had best friends, and then two of our other best friends moved down here with us, we knew we were coming with some community. If this was a terrible mistake, at least we all did it together. It was just exciting, and it felt like it was a choice for our family. Also, to be quite honest, I think a lot of families felt this way in 2020. Quarantine was hard. We had two little boys, one in Zoom school, one toddler, my husband working a very demanding job from home. It chipped away at us as a family. The thought of starting over, the life that we were able to afford and give ourselves here in Austin felt like not only a great adventure, but the repair that we needed as a family. Going through something brand new together can’t help but make you bond and feel united, and it really did that for us.
Were there any fears around the idea you have to be in L.A. to be successful in the entertainment industry?
It started gearing more towards self-tape, where you would put yourself on tape at home doing the audition, and then send it to the casting director. This television pilot I booked all over Zoom. All my additions were over Zoom. My screen test was over Zoom. It felt like the business was shifting prior to COVID, and then it really went that way. When I talked to my representation about moving, they were in full support because I was in New York acting for a long time, still auditioning for L.A. and Boston, what’s the difference?
A few years ago, you took a break from acting to see if you still loved it. Was that easy for you?
It wasn’t easy by any means. I was struggling big time with a lot of different things: being a young mother, living with multiple sclerosis and what that meant for me. For 16 years I’d kept it secret. It was all about hiding it at work. And then even when I first came out about it, while I was getting the support and help I needed and never asked for before, I was still having to cover it up for all of my jobs. It was stressful and hard and work wasn’t enjoyable for me anymore. It was kind of getting muddied by all these things. I just needed to take a step back. I was very fortunate that I was in a position where I could do that.
I was at home with my kids, trying to figure out my life and I had this moment. I remember sitting on the floor with both of them — and it’s not like they were even fighting, it wasn’t a bad mothering moment, everything was fine — but I almost felt like I couldn’t breathe. And I realized there’s more to me, and I have to honor that. I think it’s acting, but there’s something else that I need to be doing. So, I called my best friend that’s a casting director and I asked, ” Who is a great acting teacher out there that you know about?” She put me in touch with my acting teacher, Tom Draper. I went to a class where everyone’s 18 to 21 years old. I’m the old lady in the class, but every Tuesday night, I would be so excited, I couldn’t wait to put up my scene. I couldn’t wait to fail. I couldn’t wait to win. It just made me fall in love with acting again, it made me realize, “Oh, that’s why I do this, not all the other stuff.” Because it can get confusing with all the other business stuff. Then, I called my reps who when I told them I was quitting, they’re like, “Yeah. Okay. Okay.” And I said, “Okay, I’m ready.”
I think that when I came back the last two and a half years, I’ve all of a sudden been working consistently because I also feel like I’ve come to this place where… I used to try and figure out how I was going to fit in to Hollywood because of living with MS, and now it’s not about that, it’s how it’s going to work for me. Because the truth is, I used to read a script and think about how I could cover things up, but I can play any role while having MS. MS is not my whole life. I can play any role and not have to talk about it. I’ve fallen in love. I’ve had the children. I live a very full life. I realized if I can fit into life, I can fit into this business. I think coming with that energy and coming with that confidence, made all the difference to the point where then all of the roles and projects that have been coming at me lately, they just are willing to work it in, and it allows me to do my best work, because then I don’t have to think about that as much. I think in general there’s just all this energy behind inclusivity and diversity in all ways, you know? And I’m really appreciative of that. It almost used to feel like too heavy of a responsibility for me to represent people with MS, but then I’m realizing, all I have to worry about is representing myself in the most authentic way. And with that comes representation for a lot of people.
What was that time like when you decided to come forward and talk about your MS? Why were you ready?
Well, 16 years is a long time. It can weigh on you. I think when you harbor a secret for that long, you can start to develop feelings of shame and guilt around it. I’m already dealing with life with an unpredictable and degenerative disease, there’s no reason why I should be putting these feelings of guilt or shame about it, on top of it. This was during the time too, where I was kind of taking a break from everything, and my son was getting to an age where he was very aware of my limitations, but I was having to explain to him why I had these limitations. I realized, I’m trying to raise him in a world and teach him that anything is possible and what’s different makes you special and everybody deserves opportunity. [I couldn’t] ask him to lie to people about why I walk the way I do or why I can’t run. That is not the example that I want to set for him at all.
It was also at a time when I was getting married. It was such a celebratory time in my life and I was proud of my life. I was proud of where I was at. I’d also gotten to a place of acceptance around the disease. Because the secret wasn’t necessarily always for avoiding everybody else in the world’s judgment, it was also my own. I was able to live in a small place of denial when people didn’t know that I had it. I was at a place of really being ready to accept that this is something that I have, and this is something that I’m living with, but it doesn’t define me. I think a combination of all those things gave me the strength to take the chance and do it, and I’m so glad that I did. Everyone around me was so relieved when I told them that I was ready to talk about it, because they just didn’t want to see me suffer anymore and it was sweet. I remember when my friend said to me, “I’m so excited for you to see other people that don’t even know you look at you the way we do, and for you to understand that it’s not what we see at all when we look at you.”
On a good day, how does MS affect your day? What does a bad day look like?
Well, luckily for me, I have been stable for eight years, so I know what my day looks like. What I have doesn’t go away, but it also doesn’t surprise me. I deal with weakness and spasticity. What that means is, when I go from one position to another, like sitting to standing, I’ll get a little stiff, almost feels like an electric shock through your body. Takes me a couple of seconds to loosen up my body. I can’t run. I walk with a little bit of limp. High heels are hard. Stairs can be slower up and down, but I can do them. That’s really it. Those are things that affect me daily in everything that I do, everywhere that I go. With all that said, I drive, I don’t use a walking aid, I’m independent, I’m with my kids, I live my life. Once in a while, I’ll have moments where I’ll get really frustrated or I’ll be on a beach with my kids and see a mom running with her kid, and just wish that I could do that, too. But I go to bed every night feeling like I did everything I wanted to do. It might not look or be exactly perfect, but I still did it.
What would you say to someone who’s maybe on the fence or just about ready to reveal something personal?
I would congratulate them. I think that it’s no small feat. One of the hardest things to do is to be vulnerable, but it’s also the most empowering thing to do. I think what living with MS has given me is the ability to connect with people on a much deeper level that I don’t think I would have been able to without it. Because in my vulnerability and in my honesty, whether somebody has MS, or whatever it is, I found that a lot of people just find it easy to connect with me and be honest and real. And I think that I’ve never judged anyone, but especially because of what I live with, nobody knows what’s going on with me and I never know what’s going on with anyone. I always look at people in the way of that quote, “You never know what somebody is dealing with or what kind of day they’re having.” That’s how I look at everybody all the time. I think that I come from this place of wanting to connect, and it’s only enriched my work as an actress. I think for somebody that’s wanting to come out, I would say, “Congratulations, and good for you, that’s not easy, but I’m also excited for you and all that is to come and all that you’re going to find that life will reflect back to you with just your own openness and honesty, because there’s nothing to be ashamed of, and there’s nothing wrong with you.” We all have something, and everyone can connect on that.
Is it true that you started watching the first season of “The Sopranos” during the pandemic?
Yes, and I’m still not done as embarrassing as that is, because then came “Tiger King”, “Love Is Blind” and “Bridgerton.” I had to take a break because I wanted to watch what everybody else was watching, because everybody’s already watched “Sopranos.” I’m in the middle of season five, but now I took a break, and my husband really wants me to watch “Succession” before the new season comes out. So, I’m still watching. I’m supporting HBO but not “Sopranos”, I haven’t finished it yet. I will finish it.
You’ve never watched it all the way through?
No, because I don’t really like watching myself work in general, I don’t enjoy it. I’m judging myself, or I’m thinking, “Oh, I could have done that better,” or, “They should have used that other take.” “Sopranos” is the one thing where there’s been enough time now where I am able to go watch it and really feel like I get it. I get why everybody loves it so much. I felt like a real audience member, just enjoying the show as opposed to watching myself and cringing.
You were 16 years old in high school and a part of this iconic television moment in time. How quickly did your life change?
Not as quick as you’d think. Life was different then. There wasn’t the internet or social media. We were in New York, there wasn’t paparazzi. I took the subway to work the first three seasons. It didn’t change aside from us flying to Los Angeles to go to award shows, and that’s when we’d be walking through and Brad Pitt would know who we were and be like, “I love you, guys.” Your mind is blown. But prior to that, I would say the first few years, especially for me, being so young… I’m grateful that until I was maybe 20 or 21 is when I started doing talk shows and stuff like that, and you get into the other side of the business. My life didn’t change that much, and I’m so grateful for that. I mean, I still was going to my public high school. I also attribute that to the adults on the show and the people that I had to look up to, like Jim [Gandolfini], Edie [Falco], Aida [Turturro], Lorraine [Bracco] and Michael [Imperioli]. I mean, these were New Yorkers, and this was their job, and it was awesome, and we loved it, and we’re artists, and it’s creative and it’s cool. But when you were on that set and it was in between takes or setups, I would be hard-pressed for you to figure out who was in the crew and who was an actor. There was such a respect and comradery and friendship amongst all of us, we were all intermingling. That was my first experience on a set, and it was the greatest time of my life. I will always aim for that level of community at work, because it was the best.
What is something from your time during “Sopranos” that really shaped you, not just as an actor, but as a person?
I have this one moment. It was in the middle of the second season. I had attempted to go to NYU while filming. I was a psychology major. I would live in the dorms. They couldn’t work around my class schedule and I was missing classes. One professor was already going to fail me. And I remember I had to take a midterm early to get to a photo shoot to film later, and I overslept my alarm. I woke up and was already late. I was hopping on the subway, getting to work… Anyway, long story short, I get to the photo shoot and the whole cast was there. I looked at Jim [Gandolfini], and he was like, “Are you okay?” And I just broke down. I had just been trying so hard for so many weeks to keep it together and make everything work, and I just couldn’t. I remember everybody dropped everything, and they all came around me, picked me up, got me food. They were like, “You have to understand you have a job. You have an important job now. You need to defer from school.” Everybody talked me through it, and it was a really beautiful and heartbreaking moment. They looked at me as a little girl and they were going to help me. I wasn’t holding things up. It was a human moment that everybody just dropped everything to help me, and I really appreciated it. Yeah, that’s just one example I can give you of that.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
Oprah. She’s talked to everybody else that I would want to talk to as well, so I can just ask her about everything.
[Audience Q/A – Cathy] You have such a great outlook on life. Where does that come from? Is it from the way you were raised or something within yourself?
I have to be honest, I do have those moments sometimes. I’m human. I have my moments where it feels unfair, where it feels overwhelming, it feels too much. Not often, but I do. I don’t want to lie to you and say that I always have it together. I think that with a lot of time and living with this disease for 20 years, I came to this place of deep acceptance. I started to shift from what it’s taken away from me to what it’s given me. Whether that’s me just wanting to make something else of it or something that naturally happens, I do believe that without MS, I don’t think I would have gone down the path of spirituality and faith that I have. I think that has really been the foundation for me in keeping a positive outlook on life and living with it. I also think, “What choice do I have?” I mean, I have two choices. I can’t make it go away, at least not right now, and so, I could think this way or that way. Either way, my body’s going to be the same, so I’d rather live with a more positive outlook.
[Audience Q/A – Lauren] You host the podcast “Pajama Pants” with Robert Iler, who played your brother on “The Sopranos.” Do you have a favorite memory of being on set with him? How has your relationship with him evolved from working as children to now working together again as adults?
He’s always been my best friend. No one can put me into a fit of giggles more than him, and that’s been the major issue of us working together. Any scene we had together, I could not stop laughing. Those were my favorite memories of working with him. I’ve seen him really grow up. He is the most honest person I’ve ever known in my entire life, and that’s been the one consistent trait he’s had since he was 12 years old and now, he’s 36. Robert’s been through a lot. He is sober. He’s been through a lot of life, but throughout all of it, he’s always been the most honest person. I’ve always respected that and admired that about him. He’s somebody that’s seen me through a lot of life. We had a unique experience together that no one else would really understand, except the other person.
Now, getting to host “Pajama Pants” with him every week is the best. If you watch our YouTube, I’m literally smiling the whole time because he just makes me happy, he brings out a side of me that’s raw and real and he’s disarming, and amazing. I really feel like he’s found his next calling. He’s a really good host.