Last week, Sutton Foster turned 40. She was really happy about that.
She knows she was happy about that because—in ways that most women, and especially actresses, don’t have to—she was forced to contemplate her feelings about hitting the milestone in a very public forum.
Therapy by way of entertainment journalists.
The inadvertent psychoanalyzing is a byproduct of the two-time Tony-winning Broadway actress’s latest role, as the lead in TV Land’s new comedy Younger, from Sex and the City creator Darren Starr. Foster plays Liza, a recently divorced 40-year-old who is unable to find a job in the publishing world, where she is dismissed as irrelevant because of her age and 15 years as a stay-at-home mom.
When a young hunk asks Liza out at a bar one night, mistaking her for a fellow 20-something, she has a bit of an epiphany. Would all her problems be solved if she just pretended to be 26? After a flirty makeover courtesy of her friend, played by Debi Mazar, it seems that, at least temporarily, they would. Soon Liza lands a job, starts hobnobbing with other 26-year-olds (including one played by Hilary Duff), and dates the aforementioned hunk.
There are serious existential questions at play here. If you could relive your 20s, would you? Why are you written off as soon as you turn 40? And as Liza asks herself in the show: “How is that the older and more experienced you are, the less desirable you become?”
Your thoughts, Ms. Foster?
The star gives a knowing giggle, acknowledging that all of this—working through the anxiety of turning 40 in such a public forum—is at once a ridiculous, hilarious, fascinating, and perhaps soulful experience. But then she turns contemplative as she acknowledges, “I don’t know if I would be going through the same things if I wasn’t doing this show and still turning 40.”
As she bends down to pet Mabel, her puppy, it’s clear that it isn’t just TV wizardry that allows Foster to look both 40 and 26 in Younger.
Done up for her press tour, with her brown hair flowing most of the way down her back, she looks womanly and mature. But as Mabel licks her fingers and she slips into the familiar musical-theater girl gawkiness that’s made her such a Broadway commodity, her cherubic face radiates youthfulness.
“I never really thought about my age or the way I look,” she says. “Frankly, I don’t really care.” She admits, of course, to insecurities and human self-consciousness, but says the show has forced of all those things to come into focus, whether or not she was ready to deal with them.
“On the show, I get to be the 40-year-old mom and I get to relive an aspect of my 20s—but retain all the wisdoms I have in my 40s,” she says.
It’s Foster herself who raises the big question. “If you asked me if I would want to go back to my 20s, I’d be like, ‘No,’” she says. “Because I feel really good with where I’m at. I’m so grateful for all the ups and downs and mistakes and joys and everything that’s happened to me in my life: good relationships, bad relationship, everything that has made me where I’m at. I don’t want to go back. I want to keep going forward.”
It’s impossible not to talk about Liza’s journey without charting Foster’s own path to her Carrie Bradshaw moment on Younger.
Foster’s arrival on the Broadway theater scene was one of those cannon-shot blasts that aren’t supposed to happen anymore. As is now legend, she was plucked from the chorus to take over the lead of the Broadway-bound Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2002 and delivered a star-is-born performance that won her a Tony and instantly made her a member of Broadway royalty.
With her signature blend of glamorous and goofy, and a stage presence equal parts feminine and brassy, she stormed through a series of star turns—Little Women, The Drowsy Chaperone, Young Frankenstein, and Shrek the Musical—winning her second Tony in 2011 for her titanic song-and-dance performance in Anything Goes.
Younger is actually Foster’s second go at Hollywood stardom by way of a TV show. Following her second Tony win, she was cast in the ABC Family dramedy Bunheads, from Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino. As far as transitions from Broadway to Hollywood go, Foster couldn’t have designed a more perfect bridge for herself.
Playing a former Vegas showgirl who moves to a small town to teach dance classes to little girls, Foster showed off her musical-theater chops while proving that she could carry the narrative on a major TV show. Critics loved Bunheads. Seriously, they loved it. Ratings, however, were another story, and the series was canceled after its first season.
“Bunheads was heartbreaking,” Foster says. She waxes nostalgic about how well suited the role was for her. “The network strung us along for about six months before they canceled it. It was the worst. I’m such a Pollyanna. I was like, ‘We’re going to get another season!’ Because how could it not? So many people loved it, and people kept writing about it.”
When the show was canceled, she wasn’t sure if more television was in her future. She returned to the stage, earning another Tony nomination for her performance in Violet. That’s when Carrie Bradshaw entered her life.
Foster certainly knew who Darren Starr was when her agent gave her the script for Younger. But she had, funnily enough, never seen his show, Sex and the City, before she landed the lead role in his new series. “I was a very young 20-something, so I was like, ‘I don’t know these women!’” she laughs. “I don’t know how to go to the bar and get hit on and then have sex with him at night. I was like, ‘This isn’t real!’ I didn’t know how to relate.”
She binged through the series while shooting Younger and become wise to the notion of how time and age changes the lens through which you appreciate a show. How apropos, considering the role she’d be playing.
She liked the idea of portraying Liza at both ages. But more than that, she liked that, in Liza’s hapless attempts to pull off acting like a girl 14 years younger, she’d get to use her very specific talents. “I’m not your typical leading lady,” she says. “I am weird and quirky.” Like Bunheads, Younger let her “be the leading lady but also the clown.”
Still, there was that little—OK, huge—challenge: being believable as a 26-year-old when you’re on the cusp of 40.
When she got the part, “I was like, ‘My god! Shit! OK,’” she says. She worked with costume designer Patricia Field, also a Sex and the City alum, to figure out a passable 20-something that wouldn’t read too cartoonish. “Suddenly, I was like, ‘OK! I gotta start buying more facial creams.’”
There’s a lot to be said about the bravery required to play a role on TV that telegraphs her age from minute one and then spends the rest of the series examining her looks—every wrinkle, every age-blessed imperfection—and whether she can pass for a younger woman. But even before Foster became involved with Younger, she’s sensed the ramifications of turning 40 as an actress looming in the distance.
“It’s affecting my career in theater as well,” she says. “There are roles that I’m like, ‘Oh shit, I’m too old! How did this happen?’ Theater is a little more forgiving, I think. You can sort of fudge things a little bit with age. But I’m also happy. There’s a whole new opportunity of things I can do. I hope I can navigate it gracefully.”
That’s what makes her debut on Younger so fascinating. It’s easy to feign grace while aging. It’s a whole other thing to do it, as Foster is, with true, honest-to-goodness grace. And with the press watching, to boot.
It’s something Foster is somewhat experienced in, thanks to her lightning-fast Broadway rise. The Broadway celebrity press might seem smaller than the one that circles film and TV’s big stars like gossip-starved vultures, but the voraciousness with which it covers the personal lives of its New York prey is just as rabid.
It was there to chronicle her power-couple marriage to her Thoroughly Modern Millie co-star Christian Borle (Smash, Peter Pan Live!) and there to cover their divorce. Broadway news sites made an Us Weekly-level circus out of her subsequent relationship with actor Bobby Cannavale—whom she thanked in her Tony acceptance speech for Anything Goes in 2011—as well as their split the next year.
The circus may finally be leaving town, however. Foster married screenwriter Ted Griffin in October.
She filmed an episode of Say Yes to the Dress before their wedding. It was adorable. And during our interview, she casually mentions that she’s been reading books on parenting, before smirking and quickly catching herself. “Not that I’m a parent,” she says. “But I’ve just sort of been…”—and then, after she searches for the right, careful words—“…thinking about it. How about that?”
All signs paint a much different portrait of Foster than the character she plays on Younger. At 40, she’s experiencing a bit of bliss in both her professional and personal lives, with a new TV series making its debut and a new marriage in the honeymoon phase. Does that offer her a safety net, so that she doesn’t feel as self-conscious taking part in a series that is so focused on age?
“I will say that even when I was filming this show I would have moments where I was like, ‘Wow, I have never felt my age more in my life,’” she says. “I was like, ‘What are these new feelings I’m experiencing?’ These are all new things that I haven’t ever thought of or experienced—just going, ‘Oh my gosh, my face is changing!’ You know? Looking at myself in the mirror and going, ‘Are we going to pull this off? How many years do we have? Will they pay for my facelift?’”
But here she is, having pulled it off—both the feat of “looking younger” and of being happy to be 40, in an industry where so many are terrified or dismayed at the milestone.
“I’m daunted by my 40s, but excited,” she says. “We’ll see. Speak to me in five years I might be like, ‘Ah! I’m so undesirable and everything is shit!’” Then, with a grin: “But maybe it will be even better than ever.”