The woman who plays the neurotic but brilliant surgeon, Kate Austin, on TV's Chicago Hope actually lives a perfectly normal life in Los Angeles. The comfortable, laid-back house she shares with her director-husband, Thomas Schlamme (HBO's Tracey Takes On), their son Wilson, age 9, and twins Joe and Emma, age 4, is hidden behind a plain fence on a quiet corner where the thick, green lawn is dotted with toys and a trampoline.
On the big screen, in movies like Swing Shift, Running Empty, and Housekeeping, Christine Lahti always seems to have the serious intensity of a New York theater person. Raised in Michigan, she did live in New York City for 1X years. But she now appears to have "gone California" in a big way. When she walks into her living room, she looks as tousled and golden as any surfer girl. Her long, lean body and strong, tan arms are accentuated by a tawny gold outfit and bare sandals. Lahti may be considered over-the-hill by Hollywood casting standards, but this woman is unquestionably in her prime--and as sexy as any 47-year-old has a right to be.
Liz Smith: Well, aren't you the lucky one. You had twins!
Christine Lahti: Oh, man! That's exactly how I felt. We wanted three, and I wasn't really wild about having a third pregnancy. So, to get two for the price of one has been sensational. We probably would have adopted a third because I had the twins when I was 42. But I had a great, healthy pregnancy.
LS: You're a healthy beast, that's all.
CL: I'm an amazon!
LS: Tell me about your twins. Are they a handful?
CL: A friend of mine described it this way: When they were born it was like a meteor landed in our house and blew everything apart. We had to just put all the pieces back. They are remarkable--a boy and a girl, which I think are the best kind of twins to have. Same-sex twins sometimes give each other a hard time. One of them sometimes gets pushed aside. It's more competitive.
LS: How does Wilson like them?
CL: I think in the back of his mind he would like us to send them back to wherever they came from. He was 5 when they were born. We tried to have kids closer together, but it just didn't work out that way. Wilson had been used to having both of us, alone for five years. He ruled the roost. And then it wasn't just one child, of course, it was two. He's learned a lot about sharing. He loves his brother tremendously. He's got some issues with his sister. She's a challenge. She has the strongest will of anyone I've ever met. She's having tantrums right now, and hates the word no. She just can't deal with that word. But the twins are really close. They're playmates. That's the best thing. They play together constantly.
LS: You have said you became less ambitious with the birth of your children. It satisfied something in you?
CL: I wasn't really sure about having kids. I was sure about being an actress; in fact I was obsessed with it. And then I got married, and I got a little less ambitious, or obsessed. And then after about five years I had my first child, and it was the best thing I could have done. I'm still so challenged by this mothering thing. It is so incredibly wild and interesting, and fulfilling. . . everything.
LS: Do you think you share any characteristics with your Chicago Hope character, Kate Austin?
CL: I do. I like her because she makes mistakes. And I don't judge her. I think she's got some problems, and I really understand a lot of her problems. I shared some of them about ten to 15 years ago, before I found a balance in my life with family and work. She's a workaholic like I used to he. She's just beginning to prioritize. The thing I've learned is that it's really hard to have it all. You have to make compromises.
LS: Are you a little bit astonished by the power and the immediacy of television?
CL: I'm amazed at the recognition factor. I'd been in a lot of movies and theater, and never got recognized much. I'd walk down the street, and someone would say, "Oh, hi, Susan. You're Susan Sarandon, right?" Or, "You're Sigourney Weaver." Now people follow me and stare in restaurants. It's very unsettling. And the comments are hysterical. In New York, I was at a matinee, and some older women came up and said, "Sweetheart, we love your character on Chicago Hope. She's very intelligent, she's strong But could you smile a little more?"
LS: In preparation for your role, I know you actually observed open-heart surgery. But your father was a doctor. You must have had a little familiarity.
CL: No. Daddy didn't talk about his career because Daddy was "God." He was this doctor, and he never came home and talked about his patients. But when I first started on the show, he was really proud that one of his kids turned out to be "in medicine," even though it was pretend. He has six kids, and he wanted one of us to be a doctor. He'll say: "Your character is really very realistic, and I think I buy everything. But you must try to save a few more patients' lives."
LS: And your mother?
CL: My mother unfortunately passed away a year and a half ago.
LS: I've heard that when you were starting out as an actress, they called you "Legs Lahti." How did you avoid becoming a full-fledged sex symbol?
CL: I wanted to be an actress. In college, I was a serious feminist, and very political. I was determined to get one thing out of my career, and that was respect. I didn't want money. I didn't care about fame.
LS: That's amazing for a young person to decide. Where did you go to college?
CL: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. And this was in the late sixties and early seventies, when it was a real hotbed of radical ideology.
LS: Did you go to New York City right after college to become an actress?
CL: Yes. It never occurred to me to go to Hollywood. I was going to he a stage actress. So, I went to New York and studied and waitressed and waitressed, and pounded the pavement. I was always a little off. It wasn't like people were begging me to he a sex symbol.
LS: Would you say you had an easy time of it, or has it been a real struggle?
CL: It's been a mixture of both. I've had some lucky breaks, and I've also struggled. I think, in some ways, it might have been easier if I had gone the route of "sex symbol." I think it can open doors for women.
LS: Well, now you're an Oscar winner. Congratulations! You won for directing a short film, Lieberman in Love. What does this Oscar mean to you?
CL: I walk by it sometimes and pretend it's for my body of work as an actress. I do!
LS: You recently appeared in Goldie Hawn's directorial debut, Hope, which aired on the cable channel TNT. Are you old friends?
CL: Yeah, from Swing Shift.
LS: What was she like as a director?
CL: She was so open and yet decisive. She knew whom to listen to. She is one of the sweetest and most loving people. And I think it's really genuine. But she also has a kind of center and a confidence that allowed her to direct and he the authority.
LS: What is your part like?
CL: It was the most different character from Kate Austin I could find. I got all these offers for my hiatus where it said in the first paragraph: "And she's wearing an Armani suit." And I said, "No!" I didn't want to put on another designer suit because I really feel I'm a character actress and always have been.
LS: You happen to be a character actress in a very good envelope. Tell me about your husband, Tom.
CL: For many years I was a workaholic actress. When I didn't work I was depressed. My whole identity was in my work. And then I met Tommy in New York through mutual friends. And besides being incredibly handsome and sexy, he was this really, really nice human being.
LS: Was he a director then?
CL: He was a commercial director at that time and struggling to be a filmmaker. And he was also the funniest human being I had ever met. His ability to laugh at just about everything was really attractive to me. I also knew that he would be an extraordinary partner and father. He's a very nurturing person. And I knew that I would never be a full-time mom. I needed a partner who would be just as interested as I am in finding a balance between parenting and career. He really contributes a lot.
LS: Is he supportive of your career?
CL: Completely. It was awkward for about five minutes when I won the Oscar for directing.
LS: You said, "Honey, I've accepted this for you."
CL: I did. I thanked him because he taught me just about everything I know about directing, and helped me so much. He's been amazingly supportive. And he'll win his own Oscars. He's so talented.
LS: You've got to keep making each other feel equal.
CL: Yes, that's good advice.
LS: What are the most important things you're tying to teach your children?
CL: We want them to help people who don't have what we have. I also want to teach them about honesty, about communication, which to me is the key in loving and being close to people--not being afraid to he honest. I want them to have courage to go after whatever they are passionate about. And I want to teach them tolerance, to celebrate people's differences rather than being threatened or frightened by them.