Nearly fifteen years after House made her a household name, Lisa Edelstein opens up about favorite destinations, her ongoing support for the LGBTQ community and the surprising sexual politics behind her current starring role.
How you know Lisa Edelstein says more about you than it does about her. She’s been an activist, playwright and “celebutante” — or at least that’s what The New York Times Magazine called her as part of the 1980s cavalcade of party monster club kids. On screen, she’s played George Costanza’s squeeze on Seinfeld, a lesbian on Relativity, trans on Ally McBeal, Rob Lowe’s call girl on The West Wing and (most famously) Hugh Laurie’s foil and flame on House. Nowadays, Edelstein is center stage as the lead of Bravo’s dramedy Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, which recently returned for its third season. We caught up with her to talk about sex, politics and travel — including exploring the real India, the fertile earth of Hawaii and places to find the ancient alongside the au courant.
You’re a long-time supporter of gay rights. Did that have a starting point for you?
Well, the first person I knew was gay was my ice-skating coach, John. He was a tall, handsome, glamorous man who saw a spark in me and nurtured it. I was eight years old when we met. For whatever reason, my mom wanted me to know that John liked men. A kid that age rarely thinks of grown-ups as sexual beings. So when she told me that, I had to think of John liking men. That meant I had to think of John kissing men, and I found it awesome and hilarious. I loved knowing that he was gay; he loved me knowing he was gay. We were at ease with each other. It made me know him better then any other adult in my life at that time. Years later as part of the club scene, I’d see quite clearly how homophobia ruined lives, caused deep suffering and created an environment where an entire generation of gorgeous people could die of AIDS before a president would even be willing to say the word AIDS out loud.
Are you concerned that recent advances in equality might now be in jeopardy?
I was so grateful to be living in a time where we were finally making ground against bigotry and fear and the extreme far-right sexual and gender politics. Now, I’m scared: as a woman, as a supporter of LGBTQ rights and as a human being. Honestly, any argument against any form of sexuality is just completely absurd to me. I don’t get it. We are all just animals with awesome brains looking to survive and thrive and love.
What’s it like being outside the country as this new administration takes over?
It was very isolating to be out of the country on this election day. I felt powerless. What hit me hardest was my fear about the environment. We can and should continue to fight for and protect human rights and equal rights and LGBTQ rights and reproductive rights, but none of that will mean anything if we don’t protect our water, our air, our soil. Nothing matters without a livable, breathable environment. And so I stay informed, I donate, I make phone calls, I march. If we can take anything from the AIDS crisis, it is that even in seemingly insurmountable conditions, unity of purpose matters.
Speaking of spending time outside the U.S., do you have a favorite getaway?
I don’t really have a favorite, but I have an unending desire to see more and more. A recent trip I took with my husband was our belated honeymoon in Greece. I’m not one for crowds, so being there just before the real tourist season began was spectacular. We did a little island hopping, but then — and I apologize for how this sounds — we stayed at a friend’s villa in the Pelopenese. … After that, we spent our last few days in Athens. … We love cities like Athens or Jerusalem or Rome because of the incredible history that butts up against incredible modernity.
How about travel for work: What’s the most exotic place you’ve ever shot?
Hawaii. Hawaii is an amazing place: … these beautiful islands, with incredible air and light like I’ve never seen elsewhere. To be standing at the foot of a living volcano, to watch as fertile earth is created and destroyed, it’s a place that can bring clarity; perspective. And there is a deeply felt culture there, a culture whose heart beats at a different pace.
At a dinner party, when travel comes up, do you have a favorite story to tell?
One of my favorite adventures was a trip to India I took in my late 30s. I was traveling alone, starting in Jaipur. So I hired a guide that had worked many times with some acquaintances that did business there. After three days, two forts, three palaces and a ton of jewelry shops, sari shops and spice markets, I told him this was not the kind of traveling I was interested in. I wanted to see actual people living actual lives. I didn’t want any more tourist sites or places to only spend money. So we went on an adventure: we drove six hours into the desert to a tiny village that his uncle lived in. Most of the huts were made of cow dung. The house I stayed in was cement. I slept on the roof for several days. The children spoke a bit of English; so that helped, and the family was strict Hindu; so I knew the food was all vegetarian, even though I recognized very little of it. My time there was incredible. The mother of the house, Vidya, and I were the same age. We silently marveled at each other, our lives so wildly different, our world views unrecognizable to each other.
Are you ever concerned about challenges you might face while traveling?
I always look forward to traveling. We are careful to understand what kind of experience we want to have before heading out. For a challenging, mind-blowing adventure you need to push yourself beyond comfort and recognizable culture. You need to be willing to be illiterate. You need to be prepared to work hard for your experience. …. Last year we went to Patagonia. I’ve never physically worked that hard on a vacation, and I will say this: there is absolutely no reason to walk 29 kilometers in one day. My knees were furious, but the trip was so beautiful! To see glaciers, to walk on glaciers, to remember the magnificence of our world, it was — maybe — worth the knee-ache.
Last year you hosted the Anti-Defamation League’s annual concert against hate. What about their work appeals to you? What other causes are you supporting?
Language is powerful and the language we were subjected to during that horrible campaign season was disturbing, upsetting, frightening, offensive … The ADL has a big job ahead of them, making sure that bigotry of all kinds is called out, has a light shone on it, and is loudly proclaimed as unacceptable. … Right now I’m doing some work with the Center for Reproductive Rights and the ACLU. I was grateful to be able to participate in the Women’s March on Washington and am generally just trying to stay politically awake, alert, and active.
Your Girlfriend’s Guide character Abby has a gay brother, Max. Do you think their closeness is a signifier to the audience that she’s cool and forward-thinking?
Ha! No, I think it’s a signifier that sometimes people are gay!
Do you think your show makes an effort to portray gay parents as ideal parents?
I believe [the creator’s] intention was to show that conservative thinking can come from all sides. In this case, Max was not supportive of Abby’s divorce. He’d fought so hard for the right to marry his husband that the idea that she would “throw it all away” over anything — particularly over an emotional affair — was beyond him.
Max and his husband Ford have had to negotiate their monogamy. Do you think, when it comes to such arrangements, that gay people are ahead of the curve?
I do. Though let me just say, times have changed. The conversation has changed and this young generation may be different. So all bets are off regarding anyone born this millennium. But here’s my very very lay opinion: Straight people live in a tightly restricted story of “normal.” You are a virgin for as long as you can be, then you get married, then you have babies, then you never have sex with another person for the rest of your life, and then you die. So just by being a horny, promiscuous young person you have already ousted yourself from this extremely conservative norm.
The show also explores alternative sexual scenarios when Abby finds a connection with a male escort. Did you have any input into how that played out?
I had no input in the story, but was all for it. Abby pays a big price when she is outed for her relationship with Carl because society’s judgement of sex work in general is so harsh. Personally I have no problem with the sex industry, assuming no one is being trafficked, of course. Though I’m not sure if I could hire a hooker myself. I think I’d be too self-conscious, wondering how they feel or why they’re there or what their story is. My loss, I suppose!
We have to talk about the clothes: Do you think your show is an heir to Sex and the City in terms of chronicling the lives of fabulously dressed women?
I think we definitely go for it with the outfits: we have to be fabulous or ridiculously fabulous. It is Bravo after all, and they take Bravoliciousness very seriously.
If an actor is the sum of all their characters, what do yours say about you?
I suppose all the parts I’ve played share my own personal humanity — the core of who I am — but twisted and contorted into different shapes and sizes. As an actor, all you ever have to offer is yourself. That’s your palette. You just push different aspects forward for display or you tuck them away, depending on the needs of the story.
You have been credited with taking part in one of the earliest lesbian kisses on primetime television on Relativity. Is that a point of personal pride for you?
Excuse me, but it was the first lesbian kiss on network television. Ahem. And, yes, I take great pride in that. It was awesome that they wrote it, and it was awesome that ABC aired it. Sadly, a little kiss like that was radical for its day. But hey, step by step, moving forward. That’s what matters.
Catch up with Season Three of Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce OnDemand and at Bravo.com, and follow Lisa on Twitter @LisaEdelstein.
Last modified: September 27, 2018