In your first two minutes with Sela Ward, she’s as warm as buttered grits. She’s elegant but accessible, all raven hair, endless legs and direct brown eyes under chevron brows. She’s got the poise of a prom queen (which she was, in her hometown of Meridian, Mississippi) and the positivity of a cheerleader (which she also was, at the University of Alabama). You can understand why Sprint once hired her to pitch phone plans in her pajamas, and why Harrison Ford risked his neck for her in The Fugitive. But stick around for two minutes more, and you’ll also see that beneath Ward’s sweetness runs a delicious streak of salt.
She limps into lunch at a midtown Manhattan restaurant, one foot swollen to the size of a cricket bat from her cracking a bone as she exited an airport bus. “I have got to come up with a better story,” she says, sighing. “Can we say that I was climbing the Buddha statue at [New York restaurant] Tao, and that I hurt it jumping off?” She’s wearing slim black pants, a fitted black shirt that’s unbuttoned just far enough and a clutch of pendants on cords and chains. She rummages in her bag, pulls out an iPhone and a pair of smart red reading glasses and gets right to business with the menu, ordering salad, ravioli and iced tea. (Later, she’ll filch your lemon.)
She’s just come from a screening of her latest movie, The Stepfather, a remake of the 1987 thriller. She plays a divorced mother who has no idea that her new boyfriend (Nip/Tuck’s Dylan Walsh) is a serial marrier whose search for the perfect family takes murderous turns. “It was so much better than I thought it would be!” Ward tells me. “Thrillers are so gory now, and this is more psychological, so I was really surprised it held up.” It features some major action scenes—Ward falling through an attic floor, for one—and lots of screaming.
“I told Sela, ‘The audience will only be as scared as you are,’ ” says Nelson McCormick, The Stepfather’s director. “So she’s not pretending, she’s living those moments. Her stomach was in knots. That’s why I wanted her to play this role—I always believe her. She has real integrity. She’s vulnerable without being needy. And in this movie, she’s the face of all women who’ve spent their days making their kids happy, working, paying bills, who’ve reached the point in their lives when the clock may be running out on their chance to have a man who makes them happy.”
Ward doesn’t agree with McCormick’s last-chance take on her character: “I have to give him a hard time about that,” she says dryly. But she’s hearing a few clocks ticking in her own life too. What to do about that is her next challenge.
When Ward turned 50 in 2006, her entrepreneur husband, Howard Sherman, threw her a party. Some 40 friends and family members were invited to the 500-acre farm in Mississippi where Ward has created a second home; Sherman hired a rhythm and blues band from Atlanta, and he secretly brought in a crew to renovate the top floor of their barn. The party’s theme, which was printed on napkins and hand fans, was “It’s All Good.” “As in, Sela’s turning 50, it’s all good,” Ward says. But her tone suggests that she’s still convincing herself it’s true.
“It really hit me, the passage of time,” she says. “It’s not about aging, it’s just, wow, life is flying. I haven’t gone through menopause yet, but I know it’s coming. This Chinese doctor where I get acupuncture told me they call menopause the second spring. Which is the most fabulous way to put it. We’ve got a whole second life ahead of us to pursue our passions. We’ve been ambitious and driven, trying to find the right guy and have a family, and you get on the other side of that and you go, Now what? The truth is, I don’t know the answer to that yet. I have to ask myself those hard questions.”
She’s had a difficult year. She lost two beloved aunts, and in January her father, G. H. (short for Granberry Holland) Ward, a retired engineer, died of complications following surgery at age 85. (Her mother, Annie Kate, a homemaker, died seven years ago after a grueling battle with ovarian cancer.) “My father’s death was easier for me, because the last chapter of his life was a really good one,” Ward says. He had a girlfriend and lived in a house on Ward’s farm. After a lifetime of alcoholism, he’d given up drinking. “He got sober when he was 79, when my mom died. Which tells you what kind of relationship they had,” Ward says flatly. “Growing up in an alcoholic family . . . while it wasn’t physical abuse, there is a certain amount of neglect, because if you’re an alcoholic, you’re not there. Things I yearned for and wished I had gotten in my relationship with my
father, or that our whole family unit had been able to experience, were not there, because of the disease.”
Ward and her father didn’t have a big reconciliation when he got sober. “He wouldn’t go there,” she says. Her dad “was not a man of many words; he was sort of the strong, silent type.” Even when she got engaged, years earlier, she remembers, “all he said was, ‘Yup, that’s what I heard.’ Then beat, beat, and he goes, ‘I changed the oil in the Barracuda’ ”—a red convertible he’d given her when she was 15. “He couldn’t acknowledge that I was getting married, so he brought up that car. Maybe that’s why the Barracuda was so meaningful to me: It was a tangible connection, and I kept it forever, until about three years ago. But I got to see a different part of him [at the end of his life], and that was awesome to experience. And totally unexpected. A little late, but amazing.”
Not surprisingly, losing her last parent has made Ward more aware of her own mortality. “You definitely know that you’re next,” she says. “You don’t have that fluffy cushion between you and life. Whenever I returned home, I had a good bed and meals cooked for me, and my favorite cake would be there: yellow cake with chocolate icing and pecans on top. So it is very different. It’s been an ‘eat a lot of chocolate’ kind of year. I’ve put on 10 pounds.”
Another hard question: Ward knows she wants to work, but at what? She’s already hit the zeitgeist bull’s-eye twice, playing complicated women in the TV series Sisters (1991 to 1996) and Once and Again (1999 to 2002), winning an Emmy for each. With midlife women all the rage on the small screen now, it seems like an ideal time to go back to TV. But Ward isn’t ready to commit to those 14-hour days again; she wants to be home with her 15-year-old son, Austin, and 11-year-old daughter, Anabella, in the Bel Air house she has spent the past three years renovating.
“If I could, I’d do a film a year for the rest of my life,” she says. “But opportunities are few and far between in today’s market because of the audience being so young. That makes me sad. I feel I’m so ready. I’ve lived enough life now to give an amazing performance if I had the material. I was happy The Stepfather came up, because I thought it would be fun and different enough. But I really need to do some gritty thing. I keep playing these moms who are so nice. I’d like to misbehave a little. I have a wonderful underbelly that I’d love to share.”
She lets out a cackle, and continues, “You know the movie Vicky Cristina Barcelona? Somebody asked me which of the women I’d be. I said, ‘I don’t want to be them, I want to be him [the lothario played by Javier Bardem]!’ I want to be the person who walks into the restaurant and looks at someone and goes, ‘Do you want to go away with me for the weekend?’ I envy that.”
Ward has misbehaved, a little.
As a model for Wilhelmina in the late 1970s and early 1980s, she hung out at New York nightclubs like Area and Studio 54. “But I wasn’t in the back room with Warhol,” Ward says. “I was a neophyte from Mississippi.” The coed bathrooms, the couples making love in curtained alcoves, the living dioramas lining Area’s entrance hall, “all that stuff was so, wow!” Ward says. “It was beyond the beyond for me.”
Ward moved to Los Angeles in 1983, and when she was 34 she met her husband on a blind date. “I was used to men talking at me, in a pontificating, court-holding way,” she says. “I’d never really dated men who talked to me, as in, were interested in me. I was so taken that Howard found me so fascinating. But he was dating someone a lot younger, and I was dating this French restaurateur on Saint Bart’s.” She grins, remembering. “Ha! I’d finish filming and get on a plane. He didn’t really speak anything but restaurant English, and I’d just broken off an engagement [to the actor Peter Weller], so it was perfect.”
But Sherman courted her with cleverness. During her trip, he sent her insinuating faxes disguised as business letters (“Ms. Ward, We urgently need you in Napa Valley . . . ”). “He knew this other guy’s English wasn’t very good,” Ward says. “The poor guy would just hand the faxes to me. And I love therapy—I’m a therapy junkie—so Howard wrote a five-page scene, like a script, of me in my therapist’s office, imagining our dialogue about him and the Saint Bart’s guy. It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. I put it down and thought, I will never get bored with this man.”
Seventeen years later, the couple still stay on their toes. She orders art history DVDs from the Teaching Company for them to watch together, and insists that they each see a therapist. “I just think the healthier people are in therapy,” she says. “I can’t be the only one who’s conscious and working on something. You have to both keep growing in the same direction. So I’ll go to his if we have some roadblock, and he’ll come to mine sometimes. It’s all about continuing to expand your mind so that you’re more interesting and interested in things. So we don’t look at each other and go, ‘Who are you? What are we supposed to be doing now?’ ”
That seems highly unlikely, given Ward’s plethora of interests. Family life is “snowballing really fast,” she says. “My son will be driving; my daughter is still at that yummy age where I’m not the enemy yet. I’m just holding on tight.” Her house in Bel Air is “a soul-soothing place,” landscaped with tropical plants, old tree specimens, “and hammocks, because that’s so Mississippi,” Ward says. “I put a little stream in, so I hear water. I love Buddhas, because they make me think of the word relax, so I have a big Buddha by the pond. And I have my art studio in the back.” She and two friends meet there once a week to paint—mostly abstracts, although Ward’s working on figure drawing as well. She’s also actively involved in Hope Village for Children, a long-term and emergency-housing compound for abused and neglected children that she helped to open in Meridian.
“I can’t not do things,” Ward says. “I have lots of passions, whether it’s building and creating spaces, or painting, or exploring consciousness or reading. There’s just a lot I’m interested in.” Last summer, she even had white sand trucked in to her Mississippi farm to create a beach by the lake. “It was so funny, I overheard my nanny say to my old assistant, ‘Sela has run out of things to decorate, so she’s decorating dirt,’ ” Ward says, laughing. “But I can’t tell you how it’s changed the whole experience. Just sitting there in a lounge chair in the sand with tiki torches, you think you’re somewhere really special.”
That brings up another hard question Ward is asking herself: Should she keep living in L.A.? “I’m so not sure why I’m still there,” she says. “I’m not a part of that world. Everybody’s focused on things that are so ephemeral, particularly people’s looks. And I see myself aging. I can’t play the ingenue anymore—though in my mind I can—and I’m grappling with losing that part of my identity. I’m human, I’m not immune to that, but I really don’t want to live that as I move further into my fifties, sixties and seventies. I want to focus on being happy I’m alive, not on being sad that’s all behind.”
When her son finishes high school in three years, she plans to move to the East Coast. In the meantime, “the biggest thing for me has been to try to figure out who the ‘they’ were that I was knocking myself out for, this collective ‘they’ who have keys to the kingdom that I don’t have,” Ward says. “That’s a real big thing, if you think about it. They’re all in my imagination. I think that’s the biggest gift of age: not being afraid anymore. I used to be terrified to stand up for myself, worried that I didn’t have the right to a creative voice. I’m not afraid of much anymore. Except flying. But dealing with people, no.”
And when all else fails, she’s got that salty humor. A few years ago, the director McG told Ward that she was next in line to play the villain in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle if Demi Moore didn’t take the part. Moore took it, of course, and soon appeared on the cover of People wearing a bikini. “I’ll never forget it,” Ward says. “I was 48 or 49, on a boat trip in the Caribbean. I looked at that picture and went, ‘I am never going to look like that again.’ I just got tired when I looked at the cover of that magazine.” Other actresses might have cried or booked a date with their surgeon. But they’re not Sela Ward. “I just said, ‘Screw it,’ ” she remembers, “ ‘can I have another glass of wine?’ ”