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Judith Light on American Crime Story: Versace, Andrew Cunanan, and Playing Marilyn Miglin

In the hands of actors Judith Light and Mike Farrell, the tragic story of Chicago power couple Lee and Marilyn Miglin in this week’s episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story makes viewers forget the titular fashion icon altogether. “A Random Killing” tells the story of Andrew Cunanan’s third murder in 1997, three months before he shot Versace on the steps of his South Beach mansion. As depicted in the episode, Cunanan was a paid escort who had a relationship with the real-estate mogul (Farrell) and killed him while his wife Marilyn (Light), the founder of a beauty empire, was away on a business trip.

Ahead of the episode’s airing, Vulture spoke to Light about her riveting performance as Miglin’s widow, who is still alive today. Light also spoke about the inner work she does before taking on new characters, how she views the Miglin family’s denials that Cunanan and Lee knew each other, and why working on American Crime Story means so much to her.

You haven’t worked with Ryan Murphy before. What was the casting process like?
I have not and I always had wanted to. It came up through another friend of mine, who I had done a play for in New York and actually won the Tony for [Other Desert Cities]. It was Jon Robin Baitz. He said, “There is this part and I think you should do it because it’s amazing,” and because it’s so timely in terms of what I talked about in my advocacy for years — the LGBTQ community. He thought I had to change my whole schedule [for it]. So it comes from having amazing, wonderful friends.

Did you remember anything about Andrew Cunanan or how Versace died? Was that something you paid attention to?
Yes, I had followed it. I had been in a way upset about Versace, of course, who I believe was an extraordinary talent. But that this could happen so blatantly and so easily, and as we all know now, how the world is so easily taken down in so many places. I mean, there was just something yesterday in Kentucky, and so we find that people have this kind of accessibility to firearms and if their mental incapacity or whatever drives them unconsciously in their psychological damage, this is so, so easy. We live in a world where we can find ourselves unprotected and needing to be safe, so I followed this story and I thought this is just incredibly demoralizing on so many different levels. It’s disheartening, I think. As human beings, we can operate at a higher level and oftentimes you see a situation like this and we don’t.

I’m originally from Miami and I remember Versace’s murder well, but I had forgotten over the years that Cunanan was a spree killer. I don’t think I knew anything about the Miglins. Did you?
No, I actually didn’t. My parents lived in Pompano Beach and that was partly my connection to it and my connection to Miami, but I didn’t really know or read about what had happened prior to Cunanan and the process of his killing spree.

Did you learn about Marilyn Miglin when you started to talk with Ryan Murphy about the role?
Yeah, that was what informed me. I didn’t know anything about it, and then I read Maureen Orth’s book [Vulgar Favors: the Assassination of Gianni Versace] and so I knew more about it from that, so it was like a process of education.

How did you prepare?
I spent a lot of time just reading the book, reading over the script, which I thought was extraordinary, and also talking to Gwyneth Horder-Payton, the director. I talked to the producers about what they were wanting and what they were seeing and what they needed. Also, whenever I work on any part, I always do the kind of homework that takes me into the depth of a person’s dynamics and psychology.

What does that homework entail?
I sit with myself, looking at what drives someone. It’s a very intense process that I go through and I also allow myself to see places in myself that are similar to a character. But it’s a deep sort of investigative process, and I also work with a woman named Ivana Chubbuck and she’s a wonderful coach. We talk a lot about the character. So, that’s the kind of thing that I do. Once I go somewhere, I really tend to spend a lot of solitary time and immerse myself after having researched and spent time with other people who support me in the homework. When you have a great script, that also makes a difference because that gives you the map, the landscape of where you’re going.

Did the fact that Marilyn is a real, living person change your approach in trying to figure out the character?
No, I think you just have to go from what’s given in the script and in the story. You know, we’re careful and we’re deferential, but I didn’t think it was purposeful to speak to her.

Did you watch videos of her?
No, I really didn’t want to. Ryan was very specific about what the look was. He had translated all of that to the makeup and hair people and what they wanted to see. I am doing a representation in a piece, so it’s not, for me, it isn’t helpful. In another case, it might be, but no.

What was important for you to convey about Marilyn Miglin?
That she loved this man deeply and was completely devoted to him. He was a man who allowed her to be all that she could be, and she was, in many ways, a woman ahead of her time. And she had a man who supported her in her endeavors. She is a great businesswoman and he was a great businessman, and they had a very connected, deeply loving relationship.

The scene when they return from the banquet and he thanks her for introducing him was very sweet. It showed their genuine admiration and affection.
That’s exactly right. That was something that was really a top note that both Mike Farrell and I wanted to focus on and play.

Do you think Marilyn knew about Lee’s secret life?
I don’t know. I can conjecture, I can speculate, but I think it’s problematic to do that because we don’t know. One of the things that I find so fascinating about psychology and human nature is we go through the world thinking that we know something, and our unconscious is driving us to do different things. When there is a real person involved, I can’t speculate about what her unconscious is or what she knew. And so, it’s like I’ve said so many times before in so many different interviews — Freud said 100 years ago, consciousness is an extraordinary event. It is not an ordinary event. And so, we’re talking about whether someone knew or not. Maybe unconsciously that’s possible, but I don’t know. And I don’t think that actually matters.

What I think matters is the dynamic that was going on and the overall context of this series, The Assassination of Gianni Versace. There was this young man who was clearly very disturbed and his psychology was very problematic, who had been discounted on so many levels and had different aspects to him that drove him to do this. All of these pieces, and I think some of Ryan’s purpose, was to show what homophobia in a culture does to people. How a culture makes people stay in the closet, and how that’s what took place. How this young man was so desperate to be someone else, not own himself, that he came to do these terrible acts. And I think what’s valuable about this piece is that we’re talking about a level of homophobia that is still in our culture today.

We see that in Versace’s story too, during the conversation he has with Donatella about coming out to the Advocate. And she doesn’t want him to.
Remember, this is the height of the AIDS pandemic. Only two years before, in 1995, did they come out with the protease inhibitors that were beginning to save people’s lives. That’s only two years before that, and you’re talking about a culture that was discounting and dismissive and vilifying the LGBTQ community. That’s so much of the top note of what I think this story is about. It’s like, lest we forget, this is still going on. These kind of people and their vilification of this community, a community that is so extraordinary. So this piece is a pay attention moment, and that’s why I’m so proud to be a part of it.

What did you find most challenging about playing Marilyn?
That’s an interesting question to ponder. I have to say, the script is so great, it’s all there, and then I got to work with Mike Farrell, who’s so connected and such an extraordinary artist, and all of the people that were put together on the show — the only thing I found really challenging was having to figure out how to change my schedule. It wasn’t the work. I have great admiration for her. She’s an incredible businesswoman. She’s an incredible person. She was out there in the business world in a major way, early, early on. She found a partner who supported her efforts. I mean that’s pretty fantastic, talking about today and really making sure that women are paid equally and operating at a high level in the workplace. I have great respect for her.

The Miglin family has maintained that this was a random killing and have denied that this aspect of Lee Miglin’s life existed. But the show presents it as fact that he had a transactional sexual relationship with Andrew Cunanan and that eventually led to his murder. Did it give you any pause to tell that story, given the family’s denials?
I want to be very careful about this because I know people want to talk about that. That is their business. That is their life. That is the way they choose to hold this. It is not my business as an actor in this very important story to challenge what they feel, what they want, or what they feel they want to talk about, and I think it’s very important to keep sacred people’s choices.

I hear you. But I’m wondering how you worked it out for yourself. How do you tell the story as an actor, knowing what the family has said? Does that impact you in any way?
They’re two different things. I’m given a script. I’m an actor. This is the part I’m given to play and it is my job to tell the story in the best way that I can so that it is illuminated from the page to the screen. That’s my job. My job is not to get involved with the family and their stories and what they believe or what they don’t believe. I don’t get involved in that. I have a very different job. I have a very separate job, and my job is to do what I’m given to do.

I was really taken by the clicking of the nails when Marilyn waited for the police to search the house. She was perfectly still except for her nails. Did Gwyneth ask you to do that?
It was written into the script, and when you have a writer like Tom [Rob Smith] and you have those directions — again, it’s a road map. It’s the landscape that he was giving us in that moment about who this woman is, how strong she is, how stalwart she is, how she is not going to let her emotions take her over, and it tells you the story in action rather than in words. I just thought that was so powerful. It also shows you her detail to beauty and to grooming. Her whole business is a beauty business and you see that. Those nails tell you a whole story about this person. I think that’s brilliant writing. It’s just extraordinary to me.

In the last scene, Marilyn is back selling at Home Shopping Network and she tells that story about pretending the camera’s red light is the man she loves and closes her eyes. Did you choose to end that way? Or was it in the direction?
It’s so interesting that you ask about that because I don’t remember whether it was Gwyneth Horder-Payton, the director, or me. I think I may have done it at one point and she liked it, or I did it and then she cut the scene there, but I think that it was a combination of both of us. That’s a very emotional moment, so I don’t always remember what happens in those moments.

Do you remember how you were feeling? That was a very beautiful, poignant moment.
Yes. There’s the sorrow, there’s the loss, there’s the knowing that you have to get on with life. So much of what happens for me when I play a character is that a lot of different things are going on all at one time, and I don’t know how to separate them out. But I know that if I’m emotionally connected, there’s a lot of other things that are going out on a lot of other levels, and I think that’s what helps people feel something when they watch it. So some of the things that I was feeling were the loss, the moving on, the need to take back a life that had been ripped from me in that moment, and knowing that my husband would have wanted me to move on.

Just like in the scene where Marilyn says that she knows everyone is judging her because she hasn’t cried, then she eventually breaks down and says, “Am I a good wife now?” Tell me about working on that powerful scene. Was that a very long day?
I had flown in because the Emmys were the night before and I had been nominated for an Emmy, and then the next day was that scene that we had to shoot. You really have to know the words for a scene like that because the way it was written by Tom Rob Smith — who is an extraordinary craftsperson — one thing led to another emotionally. I had to work on it long and hard to get everything down because you can’t not know the words in a scene like that. You really have to be not thinking about that, but thinking about everything else. Gwyneth Horder-Payton, the director, was really available to talk about it, to make sure that it was what she wanted, how she saw it, how I saw it, how we could shape the scene. Also, when you do your own part of the scene and they shoot you, you have to be able to keep giving the level of emotion to other people who are in the scene, and so it was a very long day. The level of satisfaction we all felt by the end of it was so deep and so powerful that we were exhausted, but it didn’t feel like it was painful work. It was exciting and vibrant and thrilling and it changed as we went each time, and it was a lot, but incredibly satisfying.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Judith Light on ACS: Versace and Playing Marilyn Miglin