Just a Southern Belle
Sela Ward is ordering a Coke, the full-of-sugar kind, not the diet version, right here in the Bel-Air Hotel garden restaurant where at every other table sits a sewing-needle-thin young woman wearing pointy shoes and too much lip gloss.
"It’s a Southern thing," Ward drawls. "As a little girl, I’d have a Coke with my breakfast." She throws back her head and gives a honeyed laugh that goes along with her soft-as-taffy Mississippi accent. "That’s right. Every morning until I was a teenager, I had to have my Coke and eggs," she says. Later, Ward will reveal no fear of carbohydrate-laden tortillas; she will ask for cheese to be sprinkled on her soup; and when the waiter tries to clear away the bread, she will call him back with, "Hey, where are you going with that?" At 49, Sela Ward is a woman who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to ask for it, although she says this wasn’t always the case.
The native of Meridian, Mississippi, and former University of Alabama cheerleader, sums up her life this way: "I was a late bloomer." She always wanted to have her own career. "But my mother kept saying, ‘Why don’t you find someone to take care of you? Why do you want to work so hard?’" Ward shrugs and gives a tolerant smile. "The role model for having a career was my father, who owned his own business and didn’t believe in working for someone else. He had a sign in his office that said: ‘Be reasonable. Do it my way.’"
So she did. She didn’t start acting until she was 27 and had done a stint in advertising and a longer, better-paid one in modeling. By entering the Hollywood arena late, Ward wasn’t as dewy-eyed as a younger actress might have been. "Thank God, I had some modicum of self-preservation," she says. "When a producer said, ‘I want you to come read for this part at my house,’ I said, ‘No! I’m not going to your house.’ That cost me a career-changing role, but I had a sense of dignity."
Ward’s maturity helped her on-screen too. She was able to project an empathetic nature, which, in addition to her stellar good looks, made her appealing to watch, particularly up close and personal — on television. She won Best Actress Emmy awards for her portrayals of the alcoholic Teddy Reed on the NBC drama Sisters and of Lily Manning, the sexy, vulnerable, newly divorced 40-something mother on ABC’s Once and Again.
Ward was living a late bloomer’s private life too. She married Howard Sherman, a venture capitalist, at age 35, had her first child, Austin, at 38, and her second, Anabella, when she was 42. By the time her son was in school, she was shooting the last years of Once and Again, starring in two films, writing a memoir (Homesick), going on a nationwide tour for the book, and traveling between L.A. and her hometown in Mississippi as a founder of Hope Village, a residential facility for abused children waiting for foster homes. (Hope Village also took in displaced foster children after Hurricane Katrina last September.)
Sela’s New House
Last spring, Ward took a break to think about what kinds of things she wanted to do next. With one child in fifth grade and the other in first, she was not eager to commit herself to the unforgiving schedule of another weekly hour-long series. But what? More movies? More work with foster children? Then she got an intriguing call. Did she want to appear in the season’s final two episodes of Fox’s hit medical show House? She would play attorney Stacy Warner, now married but the former girlfriend (and love-of-his-life) of the Vicodin-popping, patient-hating, arrogant, self-loathing genius Dr. House, played by Hugh Laurie. "I looked at three episodes and thought, ‘This is a smart, fresh, and irreverent show.’ It was so out of the box, I thought it would be fun." Ward took the job, and her role was extended into this fall season for seven more episodes.