The Sunday Conversation: Sela Ward

Sela Ward, 54, returns to prime-time television this fall, filling Melina Kanakaredes' spot on "CSI: NY." CBS' popular police procedural returns Friday night for its sixth season.

Tell me about your character Jo Danville in "CSI: NY."

I love her. She's smart and she's a little artsy and edgy. To me, she's a character very different from the FBI crime investigator world. Our background is that she has come from Virginia — the FBI in D.C. — and her field of expertise is DNA evidence and her philosophical point of view is everyone is innocent until the science proves otherwise. She also has background in criminal psychology, so that's very interesting to me and fun to play.

How much input did you have into shaping her?

As much as I could. Basically, this was such a fast-track opportunity. I was on the porch swing at the farm in Mississippi and I got this call when Melina [Kanakaredes] decided not to renew her contract and they were scrambling, asking will you do this part? So I hopped on a plane and they hadn't even written her yet. So we had conversations about who is she. It was a mad scramble, and we probably don't even have her totally fleshed out yet. I got a script three days before we started shooting.

How much time was there between that phone call and the day you got the script?

A week and a half. We started filming right away and are still in conversations about where we want her to go, what would be interesting to play. She has a daughter that she adopted from a woman that she helped put away, so that's going to be very interesting. And she has a biological son who's 19. She's divorced, and there's a lot of fun material there, maybe a chance in a procedural show to have a little more depth in the character's personal life moving forward.

One recent character you played was House's girlfriend, who would have had to be pretty formidable herself. Did you enjoy doing that arc on "House"?

I enjoyed working with Hugh [Laurie] because I think he's incredibly talented, obviously. I don't enjoy that world. I spent too many years in hospitals with my mother, for nine years. And I'm totally hypochondriacal as a result and totally neurotic medically. It was even hard for me to be on that pretend set and hear people screaming and moaning in the scene that would precede me. Brilliant show, but not a world I'd want to live in day in, day out, for my job.

Why do you think you've had a stronger profile in television than film?

I think that having started in the business late and having started out in film with "Nothing in Common" [1986] and "Rustlers' Rhapsody" [1985] and "Hello Again" [1987], I couldn't get a job in TV. None of those movies did well, so it wasn't as though I was catapulted by a huge hit. And I just don't think I was strong enough as an actress at that point to really fly. I got that opportunity in television, and that kind of duration and daily practice allowed me to fall on my face one week and the next week be fabulous. And those were long periods of time — "Sisters" was six years and "Once and Again" was three and a half years. I just learned so much that that was when I started to really hone my talent and fly.

How is it working in Hollywood at this age?

I thought I was going to retire after I did the movie "The Stepfather" [2009], which wasn't incredibly gratifying in terms of, how bright could this woman be? To hook up with a serial killer, yeah. And miss all those signs. I thought this is really not fun for me, to get to a point where, they're either making the $300-million "Avatar" movies or the $30-million films. There's nothing in between, and there's just a handful of women working consistently. And I thought I'm really not interested in playing the nondescript mom anymore. So I went back to my painting studio and totally immersed myself again in that and my kids for the longest time. Then when I got this call, I thought maybe this is really a good time. My kids are now older. And now I'm going, OK, I miss being in front of the camera, and I feel like I now am much more interesting as an actor than I ever was.

And I'm not sure how much of it isn't a mindset as opposed to a real limitation. I think there are some, but I still think there's work out there now, and as I look at the dailies, I go, I'm so not done. I have a lot more to give and to enjoy for myself.

I understand you predated Jessica Simpson in making a documentary on beauty in response to your treatment in the industry. Was that for TV?

It was something I produced for Lifetime. I had wanted to explore American culture and why we do not honor age and wisdom and life experience in the same way other cultures do. I think I was 38 or 39, and I had gone up for a James Bond film, and the comment from the director was, "You know I really wanted Sela 10 years ago." That was devastating, and it was one of those midlife crisis moments where I was so struck that this is so pervasive, this fear of aging. That was the impetus for the documentary. Lifetime wanted to make it more about plastic surgery. So it wasn't what I wanted it to be ultimately, but it was a stab at it.

Have you ever driven down Sela Ward Parkway in your native Meridian, Miss., and how did that feel?

You have to drive down it to get anywhere basically. It's a town of 50,000, and it cuts through the middle of town. It was a great honor. Mississippi and Meridian where I come from are real important to me because it's a state that has so much lack in it, so much poverty and also so much possibility at the same time. I started a children's home there called Hope Village for Children, which is for abused and neglected kids, an emergency shelter and also permanent shelter. I'm very entrenched there. I can't really explain it except to say it lives deep within me.

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