CREATING A DIALOGUE
Taking Baby Steps toward Higher Consciousness with Writer & Actress ELISABETH RÖHM
By Tyler Malone
If anyone knows how to create a dialogue, it’s Elisabeth Röhm, who sparked many a watercooler conversations the morning after her last appearance on Law & Order in 2005. Show creator Dick Wolf asked her if she wanted to exit the series with a whimper or a bang, and anyone who knows Ms. Röhm can guess what her choice would be. So in true big bang fashion, her character, ADA Serena Southerlyn, turned her farewell episode into a coming out episode. Many viewers didn’t see it coming. Not so for Ms. Röhm, who had always had an inkling that her character might have been a lesbian. The words “Is this because I’m a lesbian?” entered the public consciousness immediately, and watercoolers around the country were abuzz with conversation about that bombshell.
Nowadays Elisabeth Röhm is trying to create a dialogue of a different sort. After leaving Law & Order, she discovered that she had fertility issues, and that it would be nearly impossible for her to conceive a child naturally. She was only 34, so it came to her as quite a shock. This speedbump in the road of her life has led her down a whole new path: to becoming an advocate and blogger for fertility issues and family planning.
She now has a healthy, young daughter, thanks to IVF. Her new book Baby Steps chronicles this process, expanding her blog conversations and detailing what she and millions of other women of this generation face. You’d think taking on an issue of this magnitude while simultaneously taking care of a five-year-old might be too much on one plate, but Ms. Röhm is always looking for a worthwhile challenge. So it should come as no surprise that we’ll also be seeing her in Oscar-nominated director David O. Russell’s upcoming film, American Hustle. I spoke with Ms. Röhm about her many endeavors, past, present, and future.
Tyler Malone: How did you get into acting? Was that something you always wanted to do?
Elisabeth Röhm: I think it was a happy accident. I had gone to Sarah Lawrence, and I wanted to be a writer. When I got there, I started taking acting classes, but I was always more of a bookish, quiet soul. I found acting liberating. It helped me build my confidence and got me out of the back row of my history classes. It helped me discover I had a voice. When I graduated, I remember thinking that writing will always be there for me, so why not try this acting thing, and see if it works out. If it doesn’t, I can always go back to the career path I had always envisioned for myself, which was writing. And I guess it was just meant to be. I started acting right away, and writing actually came later, with this book happening for me now at 40.
TM: Tell me about landing the role of ADA Serena Southerlyn, which I think is probably how many of our readers might know you. It’s certainly one of your biggest and most visible roles.
ER: I don’t know if it was my biggest role, but it was the longest. It’s like the longest marriage. It was five years of my life. I look at things as lessons. Law & Order was important for me for a number reasons. One is that when I auditioned for it the first time I didn’t get it.
TM: Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.
ER: Yeah, so that required me to step up to bat a second time. It taught me to have the confidence to try again. I lost to Angie Harmon the first go-round, but I ended up getting the role. And that’s important in life: to not give up on your dreams, to be persistent. I mean, look, now I’ve had this amazing opportunity to work with David O. Russell in his new movie. If you stick with it, and your intentions are clear, and your heart is in the right place, and you can commit to being a student, to learning and growing, then things tend to work out. It’s like that lesson in the Disney movie The Princess & the Frog: You may not get what you want, but you get what you need. And I think you get it in the timing that’s right for you.
TM: I think that’s probably a good way to look at things. Rolling Stones mantra and all. And I’m glad you mentioned David O. Russell’s new film because that’s something I really wanted to ask you about. How was being on the set of American Hustle? What can you tell me about the movie and that experience as a whole?
ER: It was a really symbiotic relationship between everyone on set. I think David creates a space that allows everyone to be creative and free and it just brings out the best in everyone. I think that was apparent in Silver Linings Playbook, and I hope that will be apparent in our film. He excavates really beautiful things in each of the actors’ souls.
TM: One other question about acting, specifically about Law & Order, before we get on to discussing your new book. I remember being a little shocked when your character came out as a lesbian in her last episode. I was wondering if before that episode you had any idea that this was part of your character’s identity or if it was as much of a surprise to you as many of the viewers?
ER: Well, the irony is that when you’re playing any character you create a backstory for them, but Law & Order isn’t really based in backstory. However, seeing that all the other ADAs seemed to have flirtatious dynamics or acerbic dynamics with Jack McCoy, I wanted it to always feel like he was more of a mentor. I didn’t want it to feel emotionally reactive. I didn’t want it to feel like Serena either loved him or hated him. I think she just admired him, in a way, but I’d say to myself that maybe that takes the sexuality out of Serena, so she might as well be gay. So I used to think to myself: I bet you Serena’s gay.
Then, whenever any episodes came up that dealt with gay marriage or other gay rights, they were my favorite episodes. It’s a subject that’s very personal to me. I have family members who are gay. So I already cared so deeply about those episodes. So in the last episode when they decided to make my character gay, I thought: Well, finally someone got the hints I was throwing around for the last five years.
I also have to admit that I’m a little disappointed that in the seven years since, they didn’t bring Serena back to, ya know, kiss her girlfriend on the courthouse stairs or something like that.
TM: So after you left Law & Order, you were in your early-to-mid-thirties, and this was when you discovered you had fertility issues. What was your first reaction to the news?
ER: Well, when I left Law & Order, I had a career vision. I wanted to focus on my acting and my writing, and everything professional. I wasn’t really thinking about planning to be a mother. I thought at 34 I had time on my side. So to find out that I had fertility issues at 34, that obviously wasn’t really part of my plan. But, just like everything in life, you get what you need and not necessarily what you want.
So what that news did was let me focus on being a mom, and less on me and my career and my goals and me me me. Honestly, I feel like the birth of Easton was really the rebirth of me. The whole journey to have her took a lot of self-absorption away from me, and there was deep healing and transformation with that. I think that happens to a lot of parents. I feel like I have a higher consciousness.
At the time, though, leaving Law & Order was such a difficult choice. All that money was a nice comfort, but I really wanted to become a better actor. I wanted to grow, and take risks, and make bolder choices than you’re allowed to make on network procedural shows. So I took that leap of faith, and it was a rocky road for a while, but I think it has helped me grow as an actor, and as a person. Really my heart grew by becoming a parent.
TM: And now it’s kind of coming full circle with this book about motherhood and this role in a David O. Russell film. It looks like all the aspects of your life are in such a good place.
ER: Yeah, I think that all happened together in a way. I think being a parent really matured me, and got me to the place where I had the depth to play a character like Dolly in David’s new movie.
TM: At what point did you decide to take up this issue of infertility and start your blog?
ER: Well, the blog, again, was another happy accident. I had no intention of writing a blog for People for close to three years now. I intended to write like three blog posts.
TM: Was there any fear of sharing this very personal part of your life?
ER: The idea of sharing any of your personal life as an actor is a very scary concept. It’s not what you’re told to do. You want privacy. So the idea of blogging and sharing my dirty laundry didn’t really appeal to me. But as I started sharing with other mothers my journey, I started realizing that there was a need for honest dialogue between women. So I started sharing from a really honest place. It gained some traction, and suddenly 100,000 people were reading it a week. People seem to want me to continue to do it. I enjoy having this intimate relationship with these women who are having an intimate relationship back with me. And so I got very honest and described my “deep dark secret” which was that I had to have medical assistance to have a baby, and it wasn’t just this incredible happy fantasy of: On a hot night with a lot of wine I got knocked up, isn’t it great? Instead, it was a journey that was at times sad and scary, and I blogged about it, and suddenly there was all this response to it.
Many women in this generation are discovering they have fertility issues. Men too. And it’s because we’re doing everything later. We’re starting our careers and so we’re getting married later. And some aren’t even getting married–like me. So it makes the whole process happen later. So I decided to write about the journey of that, and I really just wanted to create a dialogue and an awareness and a higher consciousness about it.
It’s like breast cancer a number of years ago. I remember a time when no one would talk about mastectomy. Now they are. Angelina Jolie just really continued to lead the way into higher consciousness on that subject. I deeply admire her for many things, but especially that lately. And that was really my intention when writing, to open up my experience and the experiences of others to create a dialogue. I really admire women like Nicole Kidman who spoke openly about using a surrogate. I like talking about all the issues that go into modern families. Men and men having families. Difficulties in getting pregnant. All these things should be things that we can discuss openly and honestly.
TM: How did the blog then spawn this book Baby Steps?
ER: I guess I was writing for about a year and a half on the blog, and then it turned into a book idea. The book then took some time to write. And now the book’s out, and in January, it marked three years writing the blog.
TM: And now you’re doing what you always wanted: writing. Right? You were saying earlier how in college you were this “bookish, quiet soul” who wanted to be a writer. Who are some of you favorite writers?
ER: Well, as you can tell I’m kind of long-winded. So I love people like Virginia Woolf and Pat Conroy. I’m a big fan of long sentences and very in-depth prose. I guess ultimately I like to deconstruct language too. Like E. E. Cummings. When you write really long prose, you end up playing with language and the way sentences work. So Cummings is probably my favorite poet. I like the deconstruction of expression.
TM: So what would you say is your best advice for other women struggling with fertility issues? Or what is the most important thing you want readers to glean from your book and blog?
ER: I hope that the book creates a long and lengthy dialogue with women about life in general. I hope that I get to write another book. Ultimately, what I really want women to take away from the book is that time is not on their side if they want to have a family. I do believe that a modern woman can have it all, but I think it will take planning and being realistic about their body and their ability to conceive. If there’s one simple fact that I want them to walk away with, I guess it would be that at thirty they should start checking their hormone levels and their ovarian reserve, which are two simple tests they can do with their OBGYN when they’re getting their annual pap smear.
TM: Besides just awareness, is there anything you’d like to change on an epic scale that is related to this topic?
ER: I’d really like the freezing of one’s eggs and fertility treatments to stop costing so much money. And for health care to cover it. But that’s a longer battle I think.
TM: You mentioned Conroy and Woolf earlier, and also the want to write another book. Do you have any plans to write fiction or do you want to stay in this vein?
ER: I wrote a book, a novel called Nerissa, while I was on the set of Law & Order. I self-published it and about three people read it. In life, I think there are things you may will into being, but they’re always slightly different than your vision. I never really saw myself as a memoirist or a blogger or a journalist, but that’s more where people have found my writing interesting. I’ll have to see. I’d love to write fiction again, but I didn’t feel like I got much traction in that. But I don’t lay down easily, so if I feel the need to write a story that is fiction, then I will.
TM: So what else can we look forward to seeing or hearing from you in the near future in either acting or writing?
ER: Well, it’s been a really busy year for me so far with the book and David’s movie. Right now, I’m just enjoying the Summer with my daughter and being able to be a full-time parent. There are a few movies in the works, and I definitely have a few indies that have still yet to see light of day, but you never know with those.
Elisabeth Röhm is a writer and actress, perhaps best known for her role as ADA Serena Southerlyn on Law & Order. Her book Baby Steps is available at fine bookstores everywhere.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography by Andreas Branch for PatrickMcMullan.com
Design by Marie Havens
Elisabeth Röhm, 20 MAGIC MINUTES… A FAMILY CELEBRATION TO LAUNCH NEW MEGA-CAPACITY TURBOWASH WASHER, The Garden at Ascona Mansion, Beverly Hills, CA, June 23, 2012, Photography by Andreas Branch for PatrickMcMullan.com