Sela Ward's Prime Time
Work and Life
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."