The Power of One

Interview by Cara McDonald

She’s played a transsexual love interest on Ally McBeal, Rob Lowe’s call-girl girlfriend on The West Wing, and now Dr. Lisa Cuddy, the tough and tender foil to Hugh Laurie’s character on House. It’s no surprise, then, that Lisa Edelstein, 43, is equally fearless in her offscreen choices. The actress works passionately with causes as varied as Planned Parenthood, AmfAR, Best Friends Animal Society, and Save the Children. She talked to Natural Solutions about fighting for change—and the surprising power of acceptance.

On why attitude is everything
I started doing AIDS volunteer work when I was young and acting in New York and half the community I worked with had started to drop dead. There was so much confusion, fear, and lack of information. The disease is so often spread by people having to live in secret or deny their own behavior. This issue is a health issue. It’s about changing our attitudes, getting over it, admitting that everybody is just human and people are diverse. I wrote and performed this musical [called Positive Me] about AIDS awareness and how hard it is to change one’s behavior and thinking. We separate into “us” and “them” and who “they” are, and we’ve got to get over it—fast.

On what she really thinks of the healthcare system
The science we employ on House is very dramatic; it’s exaggerated. But what you learn on a show like that is how much of a guessing game it is when you go into a hospital and you are very ill. That’s reality. We need to change the healthcare system—it’s a mess. It’s profit-based, and too many people are suffering.

On making change, but not trying to change the world
As a vegetarian, I can sit down at a table, not say a word, and people eating meat will either apologize or get angry. Eat whatever you want! I don’t think I’m going to save the world. I need to take responsibility for my own actions and participate in whatever way makes me feel better as a person. If everybody had one vegetarian meal a week, we’d cut pollution enormously. At the same time, you can’t lose your mind trying to control everybody else. When you make better choices for yourself and your environment, people think. Whether they change their behavior is none of your business.

On choosing a different path
Being an unmarried woman with no children is opening yourself up to judgment. As if I were making a statement! But no man I’ve been with is “the one who got away.” My character on House shares some of these issues typical of women in their 40s who are unmarried: “What do I do next? Why don’t I have children?” There is no grand plan. We’re individuals. What does being a woman mean? One boyfriend or five, or no boyfriend; have a career; adopt, have a baby, or don’t. There’s so much mourning that goes on when you don’t fit the picture you were handed, so much pain that comes from a false idea of what life looks like. I’m letting go of all the ideas I’ve been handed of what it means to be a woman. I’m on a different path.