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PHOTO BY PETER ASH LEE

U-M alum Lahti speaks out about ‘a feminist coming of age’

by Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Birmingham native Christine Lahti made it her goal to play strong women during her 40-year acting career.

And she has.

She’s best known for her roles on the TV series Chicago Hope, Jack & Bobby, The Black List, Hawaii Five-0, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, “Good Wife, and The Good Fight, as well as the films ...And Justice for All, Swing Shift, Running on Empty, and Housekeeping.

She’s won an Emmy, an Oscar, and a Golden Globe, and been nominated for these same prestigious awards several more times. 

Yet when Lahti turned 60 in 2010, her career hit a brick wall.

“There’s a huge amount of ageism in Hollywood. That’s not news to anybody. I guess I was a bit naïve,” explained Lahti, 68, who lives in Los Angeles and New York City.

A University of Michigan alumna, Lahti is married to Emmy-winning producer/director Thomas Schlamme, best known for his work on The West Wing, the White House drama. Together, they have three children.

 “When I hit 60, suddenly there were no great roles and I despaired,” recalled Lahti. “My daughter, who was 21 at the time and a feminist, said, ‘What are you doing waiting around for some man to hire you? Go create your own stuff.’ So I did. I started writing these monologues and stories and turned them into a collection of personal essays in book form.”

The result is True Stories from an Unreliable Witness: A Feminist Coming of Age (HarperCollins $26.99). Lahti focuses on three periods of her life: her childhood, her career as an actress and activist, and the realities of her life as a middle-aged woman;

“I’m at the top of my game. I was in my early 60s and I felt I had more experience and knowledge to offer,” said Lahti. “Suddenly, the great and challenging roles weren’t available, so I turned to creating my own material. It also inspired me to start developing shows for myself and to actively look for women’s stories that aren’t being told. Ageism made me more proactive in my life… by creating my own stuff because it’s not gonna be offered to me.”

Writing this book not only gave her a sense of empowerment, but was also very therapeutic, especially regarding her family. Lahti was one of six children.

“I found a lot of forgiveness, a lot of understanding,” said Lahti. “I set out to be as honest as I could – that was my goal. I didn’t want to sugarcoat things. I didn’t want to be a good girl and get approval. I was looking to embrace all my imperfections and my humanity, for better or for worse. These stories are the peak moments of my life, whether they’re the high moments or the low moments; they’re very formative stories of my life. If I wasn’t gonna go

honest, I should go home – that’s how I felt about it.”

She’s currently developing a half-hour dramedy To Be or Not To Be Joanne. In it, Joanne is a 60-something woman who’s told she needs to be put out to pasture.

“Joanne tries valiantly to stay visible. It’s about her odyssey and how she deals with being unemployed and aged out and how she tries to find relevance in a world telling her that she’s over,” explained Lahti. “I think it’s a good time to sell something like that. To me, the next chapter in the Time’s Up movement is ageism.”

Additionally, Lahti recently filmed a pilot for FOX, Gone Baby Gone, based on Dennis Lehane’s best-selling mystery novel (also adapted into a 2007 movie). Lahti portrays Antonia Gennaro.

“[I’m] a politician and ex-mafia wife. I’m running for re-election to city council and I have greater ambitions than that,” she said. “It’s a great character.”

Lahti spoke about her memorable roles, including Dr. Kate Austin from 1995-99 on the CBS medical drama Chicago Hope, created by David E. Kelley, a Boston University School of Law alumnus who created the legal dramas The Practice, Ally McBeal, and Boston Legal.

“I loved working with him. The first thing I said to David was, ‘I want to play someone who’s not always likable,’ and he said, ‘You’re in the right place,’” recalled Lahti. “That was great. I love playing a flawed, well-intentioned heart surgeon. She was in a man’s world and was really breaking a lot of glass ceilings. She was feisty, funny, and flawed, which is always the right kind of character for me.”

Lahti has high praise for Robert and Michelle King, the husband-and-wife team who created The Good Wife and spin-off The Good Fight, both legal dramas. She played attorney Andrea Stevens, and is tentatively slated to return to Fight next season.

“I love [the Kings’] writing. They’re such great writers for women, for people of color. I love the diversity they embrace... They wanted me for the part. It’s been a great fit,” said Lahti. “[Andrea’s] just fun. She’s deliciously wicked and uses humor in a great way. She’s not always on the right side of issues, she’s not always likable, but I do find her very fun to play. It’s funny how she uses her charm to influence judges and it always backfires.”

 Lahti also loved how her character, Executive Assistant District Attorney Sonya Paxton, butted heads with Christopher Meloni’s Det. Elliot Stabler on SVU from 2009-11. At one point, things got so heated between them that Paxton slapped Stabler’s face.

“I remember the night after that episode aired, people came up to me in Starbucks the next morning and said, ‘You [expletive]!’ I was like, ‘Wait, what did I do?’ I forgot it aired,” recalled Lahti. “There was such a loyalty to [Meloni’s] character..., then I come in and give him a run for his money – I guess nobody liked that.”

Still, Lahti liked how complicated Paxton was, especially the revelation of her alcoholism. Paxton is eventually murdered, but the police catch her killer.

“She was an addict and she was in denial and she had to deal with her disease. She finally did, but got her throat slit by a bad guy. She’s so smart. I love how she bit the guy and his DNA was
in her teeth, so they could catch him – that was really cool,” said Lahti. “People come up to me and talk to me more about that role than maybe Housekeeping or [Running on Empty] – especially in New York.”

Another favorite role is Grace McCallister on 2004-05’s Jack & Bobby, which aired on The WB and was co-created by Brad Meltzer, a U-M and Columbia Law School alumnus and New York Times best-selling author. Lahti’s husband directed an episode as did fellow U-M grad/Oscar nominee David Paymer.

“Christine was our leader – our north star. Our cast was spectacular, but even Bradley Cooper was just a kid back then,” praised Meltzer. “All of us – writers and actors – knew she was the true veteran. We were so lucky to have her and ]Schlamme]. Plus, c’mon, she’s a Michigan grad.”

Grace is a political science professor and a single mother of two boys named Jack and Bobby. Bobby eventually becomes the President of the U.S. 2041-49. 

“It was such an extraordinary part,” said Lahti. “I loved that character. [And it] was such an incredibly smart show. It was ahead of its time and probably on the wrong network. It was on the WB, who said they wanted to use it to shift the demographics, but you can’t do that with one show. Had it been on CBS, it would’ve lasted a lot longer in retrospect.”

According to Lahti, people love talking to her about Grace as well. Recently, however, more and more people love talking to Lahti about her book – which she’s trying to adapt into a one-woman show – particularly the chapter she wrote about her mother called “The Smile of Her.”

“I love when young women say to me, ‘I’m gonna go home and be nicer to my mom.’  That makes me so happy to hear...,” explained Lahti. “The generational difference between my and my mother was so vast – such a chasm between generations – because we were the second wave of feminism and my mom was the 1950s housewife/second-class citizen.

“But I stood on her shoulders and the view was very different. My daughter’s standing on my shoulders and the view should, hopefully, be very different for her – and it is. I think there can be a lot of judgment between mothers and daughters, but there’s also a lot of room for gratitude and inspiration for our mothers. That’s really something I learned more fully by writing about my mother.”