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Sela Ward is bending over a dead body, looking for an exit wound. As the new star of CSI: NY, Ward is doing a lot of that these days. I watch her on the set while she does several takes of the scene: As former FBI agent Jo Danville, she is sleek, savvy, and authoritative. Which is interesting, considering that at this very moment the actress Sela Ward is probably doing everything she can not to throw up.
"I love it...but this is the hardest job I've ever had," Ward told me a day earlier. "The show is all about our fascination with the different ways people can die. The other day I was in the autopsy lab doing a scene over this fake dead body and we were trying to determine what tool was used to bash his head in. One of the characters peeled the scalp back and all this goosh came out. It was done so well I couldn't even look at it. I thought I was going to be sick."
Ironically, it was the morbid CSI: NY that lured the squeamish Ward out of her self-imposed retirement. A few years back she had quit acting altogether to work on her art (she's an accomplished painter) and stay home with her kids, Austin, now 16, and Anabella, 12. "The kind of roles that were available to me were the 'uninteresting mother' parts," says Ward over lunch on the terrace of her Los Angeles home. "It was so ungratifying. So I decided, Fine, I'm not into this. I want to sail away and feel great about what I've accomplished and really focus on my family."
And that was fine -- for a while. Then she noticed that her kids didn't need her around the way they once did. A few years ago they were writing sweet things about her, Ward says, as she shows me one of her son's poems, dedicated to "The World's Greatest Mom," which includes lines like "I'm so glad I popped out of your body!" "And now they're at that age where it's like, 'Who are you and why are you giving me your opinions?'
"I was going out of my mind not working," she continues. "It was like wandering in a desert. I kept thinking, Who am I? What happened to my career? I hadn't realized how much of my identity was wrapped up in what I do." When she got the call from CBS about joining the cast of CSI: NY, to take over for actress Melina Kanakaredes, who was leaving the show, she was more than ready for a change.
So was the cast of CSI: NY, sad as they were to see Kanakaredes go. "When Melina left there wasn't a list of 15 people being considered for the job," says Gary Sinise, Ward's costar. "Sela was the choice right from the start. She has such a cool approach to acting. The writers started crafting the character to what Sela was bringing to it."
Even as a girl growing up in small-town Meridian, Mississippi, Sela Ann Ward seemed destined for showbiz. She was the prom queen at her local high school and a cheerleader for the University of Alabama before she moved to New York City to model in the late '70s. Stardom came with her Emmy-winning part as the alcoholic Teddy in the '90s TV series Sisters, followed by another hit drama, Once and Again, in which she played a divorcee looking for love.
While her career took off, Ward's romantic life fizzled. There was a broken engagement (reportedly to actor Peter Weller) and a string of dead-end relationships. It wasn't until she was set up on a blind date in 1991 with a handsome shaggy-haired finance guy named Howard Sherman that Ward met her match. There was just one problem: Sherman is Jewish, and although Ward says she "didn't have a fire-and-brimstone upbringing," her parents did have some concern about her marrying outside her Christian faith. When she became serious about Sherman she went back to Meridian to visit her pastor.
"I went to my pastor to talk about this issue and he said, 'Sela, I think you can find God just as easily in a temple on Friday night as you can in church on Sunday morning.' And I said, 'Thank you, I love you, that's what I needed to hear.'" Today she describes her faith as "very spiritually connected to God, whatever God may be...a higher power."
I ask Ward the secret to her and Sherman's 18-year union. "Therapy," she says without hesitation. "I tell my husband, 'If we are going to stay married, you and I will both be in therapy.' We mostly go separately, but if we're bumping up against an issue, we'll go together. We dump all our stuff there so we don't dump it on each other.
"I think everybody has to be in therapy to be truly conscious," Ward says. "It's only when you're conscious about your behavior and your expectations and your reaction to another person that you can really have a healthy relationship."
Clearly, awareness and honesty are deeply important to Ward -- even when the issue is something as dicey as aging. "There isn't one person out there that's over 50 -- or 47, for that matter -- who looks fabulous that hasn't had some help, whatever it is," says Ward, who's 54.
"Love Botox, love all that stuff -- it's the best!" she says. "I love all those little things you don't have to cut yourself open for." Not that she's saying no to cosmetic surgery sometime in the future -- we have an animated talk about which doctors are the best -- but she just happens to be lucky enough not to have needed a facelift yet.
Ward is naturally thin but she eats carefully and works out for at least 30 minutes a day. She's discovered gyratronics, a cousin of Pilates, which she is convinced will help her shed the extra 10 pounds she has gained since breaking her foot last summer (she cracked a bone when she fell while wearing platform shoes). "On camera it looks like 50 pounds...I'm like waddling down the hallway," she says. "No wide-angle lenses for me!"
With a lunch of chicken salad, pesto bread, and oatmeal cookies dispatched, Ward gives me a tour of her property. It's a soul-soothing place: Tommy Dorsey (a favorite musician of her mother, who died eight years ago) is playing over the sound system. There is the murmur of water from a man-made stream and Buddhas are everywhere. Across the lawn is her artist's studio, where the work is sometimes figurative, sometimes abstract, but always pulsing with color and life. Perched on a steep canyon hill is an amphitheater she had built for family and friends' performances. (Ward's son, Austin, a talented musician, recently jammed with her CSI: NY costar, Sinise.)
When I note that everything is so beautiful, so right, that even the violet bougainvillea seem color-coordinated with the dragonflies, she beams. "My home feeds my soul," she says simply. "If I were going to have another job other than acting it would probably be fixing up homes, making them beautiful and selling them." (In fact, she did just that with her last house, in 2003, selling it for $12 million to Madonna.)
Yet Ward admits she has never quite found her true home in California. Her heart is in Meridian, where she and her family return every summer, living on her 500-acre farm, visiting her extended family (Ward's father died in 2009) and friends. Living in Los Angeles, where the show shoots, she admits, can be isolating. "I've never had the experience of actresses wanting to be friends," she says. "It's such a competitive business, built on illusion. There's little to ground people. I think that's why there's so much loneliness among people here."
Ward has talked about eventually moving away from Los Angeles. I ask her what else remains on her bucket list. "I'll tell you what it is. It's not a thing I have to do...it's a state I'd like to reach. I just want to be in an emotional space without fear."
For all the self-assuredness and calm she projects on-screen (and in life), Ward is actually quite the worrier -- and working on CSI: NY has fed some of her anxiety. "I've started having dreams where people are hunting me down -- or my family. And my son just started driving so I'll think, Is he going to have a wreck? Is he going to drink and drive? Is he going to be okay? Am I going to crash in an airplane? The list goes on forever. And it'll only get worse with my daughter. So that's what I want. Just some time. To live without fear."
Years ago Ward had a holiday tradition of dropping off presents for kids at a local Mississippi shelter. One time she met two young brothers who'd been removed from their home because of an abusive father. "Those boys had been through hell," she has said, "but they still had such promise in their faces." The encounter inspired her to open Hope Village for Children in Mississippi in 2000, where neglected kids aren't just housed and given the medical treatment they need but are also taught life skills. The center is funded half by the state and half by private funds. "We've had some great success stories -- some of our kids have become honor roll students," says Ward. "We help them get back on their feet." To learn more about Hope Village for Children, go to hopevillagems.org.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December 2010/January 2011.