The Art of Being Sela Ward
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The Art of Being Sela Ward

The costar of CSI:NY talks about second acts, aging beautifully (she's 56 -- seriously!), and why her mantra is "follow your bliss."

About 10 years ago, Sela Ward quit acting. She had already won two Emmys, one in 1994 for playing Teddy on the drama Sisters, the other in 2000 for her role as a divorced mom on Once and Again. And she had a few high-profile movies under her belt, including The Fugitive, in 1993, with Harrison Ford. So she set out on a self-imposed semiretirement -- and nearly lost her mind. "I wanted to spend more time with my kids," says Ward of her children Austin, now 18, and Anabella, 14. "I painted and I learned French and I tried to knit, but then I started bumping into the walls. I didn't know who I was anymore. I built my identity on being a career woman. It just wasn't in my nature to stay at home."

So a few years ago, when Ward was offered the role of no-nonsense detective Jo Danville on the hit series CSI: NY, she jumped at the chance. "Even though the show wasn't exactly in my comfort zone, I knew I had to make a life move. When I first walked onto the soundstage I thought, Okay, I am back home. It helped me realize I really do love what I do."

Over a long chat at her Los Angeles home, the 56-year-old actor shared her secret for living confidently and saying "yes" to all life has to offer.

Did you always know what you wanted to do?

No, I didn't know what I wanted at all. I never wanted to act. I just had this fearless thirst to see the world. After college at the University of Alabama, I went to New York City and was offered a job at Grey Advertising for $6.50 an hour. I ended up modeling because I could make $100 an hour instead.

Isn't it funny how we make plans for our lives, but so much occurs by chance?

Yes, but there's a drive that makes you keep moving forward -- and connects you to other people. If you sit at home all day long or play it safe or say "I'm not going to go to that," then you don't meet those interesting people who can change your life. You have to open yourself up to the world. I open myself up to possibilities all the time.

In what ways do you keep moving forward, in your personal and professional life?

When I was on Sisters, I'd be so bad some weeks. I'd take a risk with a scene and fall flat on my face. But I'd pick myself up, work with my acting coach, go back the next week, and then be kind of good. Of course the following week I'd fall on my face again. I did this for six years. By the time I was finished there wasn't one scene or script that I was afraid of. I have that same attitude about life. I know how to put in the hard work, I know what I don't know, and I know how to figure it out.

So you feel more confident in your work now?

I do. I had dinner with Tim Allen not too long ago, and he made a comment about our being veterans of this business. I thought, "Wow. Well, I have been doing this for 30 years." And something shifted for me. I felt like I could take some ownership of where I am and what I've accomplished.

Who inspired you to go after what you want?

My father was my biggest role model. He'd been in the navy and talked about his adventures, and that let me see in the smallest way that there was a big world out there. He represented courage to me, and I admired his tenacity. Behind his desk there was a little sign that said, "Be reasonable: Do it my way." I think I soaked up that kind of determination and conviction from him.

Meanwhile, as a working actor, you've been a great role model for your own kids.

Yes, though I'm trying really hard to see if I can divert the child-actor road for Anabella. She just started taking acting lessons, and I want her to know that there's a lot of work involved. I took her to a movie premiere a few years ago, and I swore I would never do it again. We walked down the red carpet and all of a sudden the photographers started yelling, "Anabella! Anabella! Turn around!" I got very protective. I thought, What will she think about this? Like, all you have to do is walk down a red carpet and you have a career? You have to hone your craft. I don't want her to just be attracted to the superficiality of it all. She has no idea that the little window where you are considered a hot commodity is so short-lived.

What has it been like for you, being in your 50s in Hollywood?

I'm in a much better place than I've ever been about age and appearance, but I still struggle. The lighting on CSI:NY is very dark. It's not beauty lighting. There'll be shots where my neck will look 10 years older than it is and I'll be like, "I'm not ready to be 66 yet! Do you think I can have a little more lighting over here because I would like to have a career that continues." How I look is my daily bread, so it's an issue. I struggle with it like everyone else. It's mourning the loss of being seen as vital and fresh. Once you turn 50 in this business you are perceived as not being relevant -- as if you have no brain or capacity to be interested in the latest music or fashion or whatever.

Would you want to be your daughter's age again?

It's hard to let go of the youthful picture of yourself but I don't want to go back. I like that I've lived and I know what I know. And I love how I look now. I tell myself, "Sela, you'd better love yourself right now because 10 years from now you're going to wonder why you didn't." I look back at pictures from the days when I wished my thighs were skinnier or whatever and I think, Was I out of my mind? I looked great!

You've moved often despite the fact that you grew up in Mississippi and still have a farm there. Is that a way of seeking new adventure?

My husband [businessman Howard Sherman] and I love buying houses and fixing them up. We've moved six times in the past 20 years. So many people live in constraint -- of imagination, of experience. When people talk about living in the same house their entire life I just sort of cock my head and go, "I can't image it." Even in my childhood we moved three times. I get so much from experiencing new places with different vibes.

Are you always thinking about what's next or is there part of you that is able to sit back and enjoy the here and now?

I try to live my life in the present. If you think in terms of "This is it," not "Things will be better in my next lifetime," the choices you make are different. For me right now it's about living my life in Technicolor. There are so many opportunities and possibilities all around us. Even though I'm not in that "35 and under" relevant category anymore, I've still got a lot to offer -- I've still got a lot I want to do.