So what's a glamorous, Jewish, gay rights activist doing playing a dowdy, evangelical Christian homophobe? For Judith Light, who stars in "Save Me" as Gayle, the founder of an ex-gay Christian ministry that specializes in curing "sexual brokenness," you could say it was a leap of faith.
"You can't judge your character and play them," said Light by phone from New York, where she's shooting her second season as Claire Meade on TV's "Ugly Betty." "Gayle isn't evil, she's just misguided. I think you have to show that in order to give people a way in to see someone," Light says of her judicious approach to the hyper-vigilant Gayle.
"We felt it was extremely important not to vilify anybody. To, in fact, be even-handed in our portrayal of these people. You can't have a conversation if people are taking sides," said Light, who signed on to the independent film, written by her husband, Robert Desiderio, more than six years ago.
In the film, Gayle, who runs the small, financially strapped Genesis House with her second husband, Ted (Stephen Lang), employs a style that's strong on religious devotion but low on hellfire and brimstone. Not uncoincidentally, she started the ministry after the death of her own gay son, a poignant twist that, along with Light's well-calibrated turn, gives Gayle even fuller dimension.
Perhaps most widely known -- despite a formidable stage and telefilm resume -- for her eight-season stint opposite Tony Danza on TV's "Who's the Boss?," Light became involved with Craig Chester's original "Save Me" script when it was a gay-conversion satire in the vein of "But I'm a Cheerleader." After participating in a staged reading, Light, along with producing partner Herb Hamsher and actor-producers Chad Allen and Robert Gant (and their producing partner Christopher Racster), eventually agreed the material was worth filming -- that is, if retooled as a serious look at the issues of bigotry, prejudice and, as Light noted, "people trying to 'change' other people."
The elements all quickly came together, with Light starring and producing along with Allen and Gant (who play two emotionally wounded men who meet and fall in love at Genesis House), and Robert Cary directing from a new script by Desiderio, a screenwriter and veteran TV actor who met Light in the early 1980s when they were both appearing on "One Life to Live."
Desiderio confidently stepped in at the 11th hour. "I was on the sidelines for the whole six-year process and privy to what everyone was trying to shoot for," he said. "It felt very natural for me to come in at the point that I did and do the work."
As for navigating the film's sensitive gay themes, Desiderio said, "It's basically a love story -- and that's how I treated it." He also credited Chester, who spent time at an actual "pray-away-the-gay" Christian ministry researching the original script, with "laying much of the groundwork."
For Desiderio, "Save Me" represented not only his first produced screenplay but also another personal highlight. "One of my dreams has always been to write for Judith," he said. "I was so pleased to finally get the opportunity."
The couple hopes that "Save Me," which opens today, can reach beyond its core gay audience, perhaps even to those, as Light precisely put it, "less informed" viewers.
To that end, they recalled a surprising post that appeared on an evangelical Christian website after one of its bloggers saw the movie at Sundance. "When we read it, we started to cry because he 'got' it," said Light, the memory again making her a bit "verklempt."
"He was so bowled over by it," Desiderio said. "I'm paraphrasing, but he essentially said, 'Is it possible that the gay community is here to teach us about love and compassion?' "
Light added, "When I hear responses like that, I say, 'There is hope in the world.' "
Judith Light, Chad Allen, Robert Gant and producer Herb Hamsher will do a Q&A; following tonight's 7:10 showing of "Save Me" at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood.