Lisa Edelstein, is a legend in her own right. As one of the original IT girls of New York, She puts the likes of Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, and Kim Kardashion on another level. Being one of the original Warholian darlings, Lisa’s celebutante status has been cemented in the scene as “Lisa E” by Maureen Dowd in a piece for The New York Times Magazine as “The Reigning Queen of the Night, Girl of the Moment, new Edie Sedgwick and top ”celebutante” of 1986.”
The glamour and grit of New York City defined Lisa’s theatric career during her Club Kid days, she utilized this by writing, composing and starring in an original musical called Positive Me, in response to the ongoing Aids Crisis of the 1980s.
From then on, she transitioned over to the world of Tinseltown, getting her breakout role as Dr Lisa Cuddy on the internationally acclaimed show House starring alongside the enigmatic Hugh Laurie then starring as the lead on Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce, and finally as Phoebe on David Shore’s critically acclaimed Netflix show, The Kominsky Method.
While Lisa became known for her acting roles, her other interests delve into the world of philanthropy by using her platform to raise awareness for PETA, human rights, and the art industry she makes sure that each person is heard.
On her career, Lisa slowly transitioned to life behind the lens as she directed, wrote, and starred in her short film ‘ Unzipping’, which is about a woman who sought to find happiness in others, then eventually coming to the conclusion that change must come from within.
We chat with the charming Lisa Edelstein as she talks about her Queen OF New York Persona, Lisa E, her role as a humanitarian, and her celebutante status.
You are best known for your role as Dr Lisa Cuddy on House, The Good Doctor, and your leading role in Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, and The Kominsky Method. Apart from that, and this is quite interesting, you were also a noted celebutante during the 1980s club scene in New York City, known as Lisa E., The Queen Of the Night.” Could you tell us how this all began?
I had been going to clubs since I was 14, but it wasn’t until I met my new best friend, James St. James, in the elevator of our dorm at NYU, that I started clubbing in earnest. We hit it off immediately. He had literally been studying issues of Details Magazine to learn The Who’s Who of that incredible Warholian Microcosm.
He’d not only mapped out the people he wanted to meet, but he actually had a plan of action; how to get into the scene, how to be noticed and remembered, how to translate that into a career- it was remarkable. Nowadays kids do this all the time on social media, but then it was all analogue. We were trying so hard to break out of suburban obscurity and into the world of culture-makers.
We were surrounded by some of the most interesting, weird, and exciting people. I felt like I was Alice in Wonderland, everything was new, it was hallucinogenic. It was like I had finally landed at the beginning of my life. I can’t say for sure why I became such an It Girl, other than pure, unadulterated enthusiasm for the world I had landed in.
How did your celebutante status help you transition into a steady stream of acting roles in Hollywood? What was the biggest turning point of your career?
At first, it was a nightmare. The kind of celebrity that comes with being famous for no reason is really not a pleasant experience. It’s riddled not only with the resentment from those who actually did things that deserved attention they weren’t getting but it’s also riddled with stalkers. Tons and tons of stalkers. I was so inexperienced in the world at large that both my address and phone number were listed in the phone book when The New York Times magazine did the piece on me.
I was followed, I was called, I was threatened with everything from rape to death and I had no idea how to even communicate about what was happening. It made me retreat from everything I had been doing up till then.
I got jobs in clubs I knew no one went to, or stores no one went to. I wanted to disappear, to fold up. We were in the midst of the worst of the AIDS crisis so I began volunteering from GMHC and learning about the disease and what I could do to help. We were all angry about the government ignoring the sick, and horrified that the world at large wasn’t acknowledging the pandemic or its victims. It was at that time that I started to write my AIDS awareness musical Positive Me. It was something I could do, something I could focus on, something that had meaning to me and to the community. And because I had a little bit of celebrity, I wasn’t a nobody. So I was given a shot at a workshop weekend at La Mama. And I proved myself enough to be given a full production there a year later. So it did help. It gave me that little boost that I needed to begin my creative life in earnest. And now it’s just a fabulous origin story!
Now let’s go to your role as Phoebe in the Kominsky Method, what were the challenges of portraying a character going through mental turmoil and addiction?
Well, it’s always fun to behave badly on film so I really had a blast doing it. I think the most difficult thing was to keep sober Phoebe still the Phoebe we knew. People don’t become someone else when they are using drugs, they’re just the messed up version. So I had to do the math backwards to figure out who was the Phoebe she was running from and how would it feel to be out of the clutches of drugs and alcohol. Ultimately, she’s really just a horrible person, ha!
What are some of the traits that Phoebe has that you could relate to the most?
I can’t say I related to her choices as much as I understood where she was coming from. I saw Phoebe as a permanent 14-year-old; narcissistic, selfish, but wanting to be taken care of by her mommy and daddy.
What was it like acting alongside acting legends such as Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner? And what were the most important lessons you learned from them?
Working with Michael Douglas, Alan Arkin, Kathleen Turner – I mean, what a dream! These were the grown-ups I was watching as a young person. It’s the coolest thing about this business; one day you’re a fan, the next you’re a co-worker. I love it. Our last season was shot during COVID, so the only time we were together as a whole cast was in the very beginning for the read-throughs. We read all six episodes in two days, everyone sitting at their own table, 6 feet apart, surrounded by plastic shields and wearing masks. Even with that, watching Kathleen and Michael do their scenes was intimate and incredible. Those two literally eat every word on the page. There’s not a wasted moment, it’s all boldly put out there. And their personal history together made their chemistry so rich, I felt like I was at a Broadway play.
Now, you have always used your platform to advocate causes that you care about. From your play Positive Me, which was a response to the stigma of the 1980s AIDS crisis to picketing at the Writer’s Guild Strike of America. What other causes are you passionate about?
I care deeply about animal rights, from supporting rescue organizations like Best Friends to speaking out against animal agriculture. Beyond the cruelty, beyond the methane gasses, animal agriculture uses 50% of the water supply in California alone! Here we are, in the middle of the worst drought on record, and we ignore one of the biggest culprits. We, as a human culture, are too comfortable with our eating habits to admit we need to change. It’s devastating to me emotionally, and to the world, literally. I’ve also done a lot of work supporting women’s rights, particularly the right to choose. The majority of the people in our country support a woman’s right to choose, yet somehow a very loud minority continues to threaten our freedoms. I’m relieved to no longer be young enough to get pregnant by accident or be pregnant with a non-viable embryo. Because I don’t know what this world will look like for those young women coming of age now. We might very well be going backwards. It’s frightening to think about.
Nowadays, social media is at the forefront of global communication. How did you utilise this for your advocacies? Would you ever start a podcast or get on Tiktok?
TikTok just sounds like a lot of work. I really struggle with social media in general, maybe it’s a generational thing? When I see younger people taking videos of themselves at the mall or a restaurant, or wherever, I am embarrassed for them. But they aren’t embarrassed! That’s my problem, not theirs. It just feels so narcissistic and yet – it has been normalized. So, I do my best at posting to promote whatever project I’m doing or events I’m a part of, but I’m really not very good at it! I do appreciate the contact with fans and supporters, however. I get nice birthday notes and lots of love for the acting jobs I’ve had. So, it isn’t without its good side, it is just hard to let myself do.
As a humanitarian and patron of the arts, what are your thoughts on the ongoing socio-economic issues that are currently plaguing creatives and everyone else worldwide?
That’s a really enormous question! There are so many socio-economic issues plaguing the world right now! I suppose it’s harder to support your local ballet company when the hospitals are overrun with Covid patients. It can be hard to finance a film when the streets are overrun with the unhoused. So are you asking how one values the arts while the world is falling apart? I don’t know. I do know that more people watched television shows and movies during the lockdown than perhaps ever. That entertaining people is a healthy and sometimes necessary distraction to disaster. That telling story is a means of healing, of educating, of protest and even of escapism; all of which can be good things. For myself, I used every ounce of creative juice I had to tolerate the lockdown. I dove deep into writing and drawing when I couldn’t be acting and I’m grateful I had access to that kind of exercise. Humans are creative beings. Our imaginations will save us, if anything will, from our own self-destruction. It’s always important to encourage creativity, even at the worst of times.
Article and Interview by Cyan Leigh Dacasin, Lifestyle Editor, British Thoughts UK