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8 Life Lessons From Marcia Gay Harden

Actress shares how she’s learned to skip the drama and never stop growing


spinner image Marcia Gay Harden sitting on chair with right arm leaning on top of chair and face resting on left hand; white background
Rachel Pick

Marcia Gay Harden, 64, stars in the CBS series So Help Me Todd and recently appeared with Al Pacino and Michael Keaton in the film Knox Goes Away. She talked to AARP about some of the lessons she’s learned over the years about parenthood, lifelong learning and appreciating every day.

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Seize the Moment

I auditioned as a lead in Miller’s Crossing in 1988 and got really lucky! The Coen brothers are just such stellar writers and directors and people, and have a history of casting female unknowns, like Holly Hunter, Frances McDormand — and me. They put us on the map.

Love Your Work

I love to work, and I f---ing love So Help Me Todd, where I can do screwball comedy, and drama with some heart, and film half indoors and half out on the streets and work with [costar] Skylar Astin, who is also a theater actor like me. We’ve been told we have really great chemistry. And that work, with a wonderfully rich and full schedule, occupies and definitely grounds me.

spinner image Marcia Gay Harden sitting next to Skylar Astin in a still from So Help Me Todd
Marcia Gay Harden stars alongside Skylar Astin in the CBS show “So Help Me Todd.”
Michael Courtney/CBS via Getty Images

Be Open to the New

Don’t stop growing! It’s not like you hit a certain age and go backwards. I just feel like more and more opens up if you want it to, if you allow it to.

Stay Grounded and Ask Questions

Along with work, reading and pottery ground me, and my kids are always at the forefront of my mind. I love historical fiction, like All the Light We Cannot See [by Anthony Doerr], and books about anthropology, like the study of early man and caves and Göbekli Tepe, an amazing site in Turkey. Early on I decided that I can’t be embarrassed by what I don’t know. If I simply don’t know, I ask questions.

Play Games

I’m shooting in Vancouver, and we’ve gotten a few people from the different shows and meet on Monday nights and play games like running charades, Sculptionary, Bananagrams, Telestrations, sometimes poker. I can easily keep myself busy here outside of work. But I’m terrible at poker — I’m a terrible liar.

Skip the Drama

I think I’ve grown wiser, leaving the domestic drama, the personal drama behind. Certainly, the energy of flying off the handle over such small stuff was just wasted energy. Life is so fleeting. So when you get to 64, you’ve suffered tragedies, friends or family members who have been sick or lost their lives, and you just realize the preciousness of every day.

Let Kids Be Themselves

You can’t control your children. If you could mold a child in your image, every parent would do it. But who wants to create a child in their own image? You want them to be who they are — and you have to let them fail. For me, that was a huge lesson of my 40s and 50s. Now I have three kids who are enormously independent. But you never stop being a mom, and I’m constantly in touch with them, even with us all in different time zones.

Love: Take It or Leave It

I don’t have that thing to return to, the comfort or responsibility of kids at home — I’m on my own. I’m in love with my friends. I’m in love with my life. I’m in love with my work. And I’m not feeling a hole. In fact, my life is so full that I can’t imagine making time for someone. That said, you know, if the right person came along, that would be great.

 

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