Film and TV

Two Generations, One Actress: Sutton Foster on Her Empowering Role in Younger

Doing everything right in one generation just makes you old-fashioned, even obsolete, in the next. That’s the harsh reality that confronts 40-year-old Liza — played with spirited, sarcastic élan by Tony-winning actress Sutton Foster — when she attempts to re-enter the workforce after a decade and a half of stay-at-home motherhood. Finding herself shut out of the industry in which she’d once been hailed as a wunderkind, Liza passes herself off as a 26-year-old to start again at the bottom of the publishing ladder in the peppy and observant Younger, the new sitcom from Sex and the City creator Darren Star.

Getting to play both the middle-aged divorcée and the wide-eyed greenhorn is what drew Foster — fresh off her sixth Tony nomination, for the Broadway production of Violet — back to television. “I just thought it was smart and funny,” she says of the pilot script for Younger, a polished and self-assured mix of The Devil Wears Prada, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and that episode of Sex and the City where the late-thirtysomething cast declares a cold war on their twentysomething rivals. “The character [of Liza] was quirky,” Foster continues. “I liked how she took matters into her own hands, and I just thought it would be fun to play the duality of the character as a 40-year-old mom who could go back into her twenties and relive that time of her life.”

But Star’s latest series, which debuts on TV Land on March 31, also takes seriously the difficulties that women face in getting hired after taking time off to raise children — a frustrating situation rarely explored on television or in film — as well as the challenges the creative underclass encounters in trying to survive in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn (where the show is primarily shot). Liza’s lesbian-artist best friend and roommate Maggie, played by Debi Mazar, grumbles that she moved to the borough long before it was cool because it was the only place she could afford. Now that Brooklyn’s hip, she can’t keep up with the rent anymore.

Foster’s life has taken a more charmed turn than either Liza’s or Maggie’s — a fate she credits to her upbringing. “I was raised to be fiercely independent,” she recalls. “I’ve been financially independent since I was 17 years old. My mom raised me not to depend on a man; she wanted me to be able to take care of myself solely. And I’m so proud of myself for the fact that I’ve been able to do that. But I was that twentysomething who moved to the city with the big dreams, who wanted to make a thing for herself.”

While Liza remains herself around Maggie, her ex-husband (with whom she’s finalizing a divorce, following his affair), and her high-school-age daughter (conveniently spending a year in India as an exchange student), she abandons pretty much the rest of her former suburban–New Jersey existence. That leaves her to start fresh as a marketing assistant — and deceive everyone around her — at a chichi publishing house run by haughty editor Diana (Miriam Shor, doing a poor woman’s version of Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in Prada, though really, who can compete?). Liza’s chief ally against the just-slightly-older Diana, who disapproves of millennials even more than The New York Times does, is newly promoted whiz-kid editor Kelsey (Hilary Duff) — exactly who Liza was before she quit her job to parent full-time. “[Diana]’s hit her head on the glass ceiling so many times, she's got dementia,” jokes the mostly sympathetic Kelsey, with the smugness of someone who can’t ever imagine being old.

The key to switching between Liza’s twenty- and fortysomething selves, according to Foster, is nothing more than “attitude and vernacular.” She says, “I’ve met people who look a lot older than they are because they are not happy people, and people who look much younger than they are because they are happy and full of life and energy. I really do think that it comes from inside.” During her workplace scenes, Foster as “26-year-old” Liza embodies a “lightness…everything’s a little newer, and you don’t know much.” Back with Maggie or her family, Foster takes up “weightness…the cynicism, responsibilities, and heartbreaks” — though she’s quick to add that such things “make your life rich and wonderful and complicated” as well.

That Younger features an all-female cast doesn’t faze Foster. “What was cool was that on Bunheads” — her previous show, which aired for one critically beloved season on ABC Family — “all my castmates were women, so my two major television experiences have been all-women. And women power is awesome, you know? These characters that Darren has created are all strong, independent, driven women, but we’re all very different. And we have many, many scenes where we don’t have that whole ‘pining over a guy’ [thing]. There are many other things that we grapple with.

“Especially on TV now,” she continues, “there are so many great roles for women, which is very exciting. It’s a good time, you know? For women of all ages, too. I think about two shows that I’m watching: [CW’s] Jane the Virgin, which has Gina Rodriguez, and [ABC’s] How to Get Away With Murder, which has Viola Davis.” She’s finally catching up on Star’s Sex and the City, too. “There’s a lot of good stuff out there right now, everywhere,” she concludes. “That hasn’t always been the case.”

Though her plans going forward will depend on how Younger fares in the ratings, Foster’s career still encompasses her multi-hyphenate talents. She spoke with us just a few days before a March performance at Carnegie Hall with the New York Pops — “it’s my first solo show, and it’s like a 75-, 80-piece orchestra. I’m in panic/terror mode right now” — and she appeared on a celebrity episode of TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress ahead of her recent second wedding. “It was a girly, silly thing to do,” she says. “[The episode] was pretty true to how our day was. They really wanted to capture the experience as it was happening, so that was kinda cool.”

That optimism and effervescence about second acts carries through to her new show, too. “[Liza] takes matters into her own hands. I find her incredibly empowering. We don’t have to roll over and play dead. It’s more that, ‘OK, this is what I have to do, so I’m going to go out and do it. I’m going to be awesome and weird.’ It’s never too late to start over.”

Inkoo Kang is the TV Critic for the Village Voice>. She publishes widely on film and television and tweets at @thinkovision.

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Inkoo Kang is a regular film contributor at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Contact: Inkoo Kang