Sam Waterston couldn’t be more of the moment. He’s helming the triumphant return of the original Law & Order. He’s also starring as former Secretary of State George Shultz in Hulu’s buzzy new limited series, The Dropout, about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. And this summer he’ll take his final bow as ex-husband Sol to Lily Tomlin’s Frankie in the final season of Netflix’s Grace and Frankie. In other words, the 81-year-old actor has no plans to slow down. Waterston spoke with AARP about acting, what keeps him young and why we should all get arrested once in our lives.
1. He isn’t afraid of a challenge (in this case, portraying a real-life character) ...
I never had the pleasure of meeting George Shultz. I read a considerable amount about him when I knew I was going to play the part. He was a fascinating man; how he fell for Elizabeth Holmes’ pitch is a fascinating story, and I think the consequences were tragic. I did the best I could to fill in with my imagination what I didn’t know about him.
2. … and he takes that challenge very seriously.
You feel a kind of responsibility to history because you worry that people will believe that what they’re seeing you do is the same as seeing the actual person. But as long as that’s clear, the truth is so much more interesting than fiction. Real life is astounding.
3. He sees lessons everywhere.
The Dropout is a story for our times: the huge promise of technology and the rush not to be left out. Be very, very skeptical — the more you want something to be true, the harder you need to look at the promise itself. Every scam artist will tell you that the first thing is a susceptible audience. A Stanford professor said to Holmes before she left the university, “This [technology] defies the laws of nature. It can’t be.” And she went ahead in the face of that.
4. He keeps it real in the humility department.
I have had an incredibly fortunate career thanks to the people who have shown up and watched me play all kinds of parts. My thanks go out to them for their patience when I messed it up and for their appreciation when they thought I got it right.
5. He keeps it real in the youthful department.
I do my push-ups and I eat my vitamins and I hope for the best. I owe a lot of this to a really happy and fortunate marriage and a lovely family. Those things — and grandchildren! — keep you young. It’s an enormous combination of factors; you also have to be lucky in your parents.
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6. He’s got no interest in calling it quits.
When I was a kid I once spent a whole summer trying to tan my back and front. I was really good at doing absolutely nothing back then, but over the years I’ve become a workaholic. My sister broke that pattern, and she’s been happily retired for a long time. But I’ve got this habit, and I think it would be hard to break. So, I’ll probably go on working as long as they’ll have me.
7. He helped bring the original Law & Order back into our lives …
I thought, You’ve done that already. Are you really allowed to go back and do this? But it’s been a fabulous experience. The minute I walked on those sets with the paint still wet, I thought, What a fool you would have been to have missed this.
8. … and is making it better than ever.
The episodes that we’ve shot so far are as strong as they have ever been, and the writing team is as strong as it has ever been. It’s a wonderful team, but like a basketball team, you have to practice together. I expect that we will get better and better as we get to know each other. The new Law & Order will be good from the beginning, but it could get great.
9. He stands up — and even gets arrested — for his beliefs.
I really recommend it [Waterston was arrested in 2019 with Grace and Frankie costar Jane Fonda at a climate change protest outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.], especially if you can get yourself arrested by the Capitol Police, because they are firm, and when they say you are under arrest, you are under arrest. It’s pretty polite but ... when they put the handcuffs on you, you’re a different person, and [when they] put you in the paddy wagon, you’ve lost your freedom. It’s a big thing even if it only lasts for a few hours.
10. He uses words like “churlish” while being incredibly gracious at the same time.
Grace and Frankie had its time and it was a great run (the show will air its final season this summer on Netflix). It would be churlish to complain about it being over, but what a wonderful group of people.
Gayle Jo Carter, the former entertainment editor at USA WEEKEND magazine, has interviewed newsmakers for AARP, USA WEEKEND, USA Today, Parade, Aspire and Washington Jewish Week.