‘Younger’… and Wiser

‘Younger’ Star Sutton Foster on Ageism in Hollywood: ‘I’ve Experienced It’

She’s one of the most successful Broadway actresses…ever. On TV Land’s Younger, she plays a 41-year-old pretending to be 26. Sutton Foster tells us what both ages have taught her.

There’s advice that Sutton Foster gives the high school and college students she works with. “It sounds like the hardest thing to do, but: You are enough. Be yourself,” she tells them. “Your individuality and singularity is what’s going to make you.”

It’s hard advice to take from the two-time Tony-winning actress and star of TV Land’s Younger, after whom many of those students model their audition songs, let alone their career aspirations. “Don’t be me; be yourself,” she tells them. “That’s what’s helped me. And I think it’s helped my career.”

Scanning Foster’s professional resume, which jumpstarted when the then-unknown 27-year-old actress was plucked from the chorus to lead the $9.5 million production of Thoroughly Modern Millie on Broadway in 2002, and it’s hard to argue against the actress’s advice. It’s also what makes her success in the role of Liza on Younger all the more intriguing.

Debuting its third season Wednesday on TV Land, Younger centers on a 40-year-old recent divorcee who can’t find a job in the publishing world, dismissed because of her 15 years as a stay-at-a-home. Mistaken for a fellow twentysomething by a young hunk (Nico Tortorella) at a bar one night, she has an epiphany, then a makeover, and then an elaborate ruse: she pretends to be 26 in order to land a job. (And, it turns out, said hunk, too.)

We catch up with Liza in Wednesday's premiere with her delicately built house of cards a breath away from crumbling—and her guilt complex about lying already having sent a wrecking ball to her conscience. As her 26-year-old self continues to make friends, fall in love, and succeed at work, her 40-year-old self grapples with whether it’s time to tell the truth.

In the TV age of antiheroes and moral ambiguity, Liza and Foster’s performance signal a fascinating dichotomy: a protagonist you love and root for, but who is a liar and deceives those closest to her.

In contrast to the gritty, angsty Dexters and Walts and Dons, Liza lives in a lush, colorful world that is heightened to be a stiletto’s lift more fabulous than the real one—courtesy of Sex and the City designer Patricia Field’s high-fashion wares and Carrie Bradshaw mastermind Darren Star’s quippy dialogue.

And it’s all played by an actress whose real-life earnestness and warmth has underwritten her entire career.

“It’s a cliché, but I’ve never felt like I’ve had to look a certain way or be anyone other than who I am, and that is what makes me feel special or singular,” Foster says. “So there’s something fantastical and exciting and dangerous about [playing Liza] that I’m enjoying.” She lets out one of her infectious laughs: “It makes me feel like I’m an undercover agent or something.”

The trick to Younger, though, is that Liza isn’t an undercover agent or even painted as ridiculous or a joke for pretending to be someone 20 years her junior. Her desperation is relatable, and her resourcefulness is admirable. And the conditions that drove her to a double life? Upsettingly real.

“Ageism is a thing, and I’ve experienced it, where you judge a situation because of what you see,” Foster says. “Someone says, ‘They’re too young. They’re too old. They’re irrelevant.’ Without thinking about it, you’re making assumptions that are based on no sense of reality. Because of this show, I don’t do that anymore. Especially with the younger generation, I just have a whole new respect and admiration for them, and it’s because of this show.”

In person, Foster could be as believably confused for a member of that younger generation as her character is on the show, whether it’s because, between interviews on a press day, she’s laughing in a corner with 28-year-old Younger co-star Hilary Duff or because her appearance is astonishingly youthful. There’s much that could be said about her amazing skin and spritely demeanor, sure, but mostly it’s a radiance—an undeniable happiness—that reflects a woman who happens to be 41 but also simply content: busy, in love, and satisfied.

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In 2014, just before Younger premiered, Foster married screenwriter Ted Griffin. They co-parent her rescue pup, Mabel. On Tuesday, the day before Younger premieres, Foster will start her first official day of work on the off-Broadway production of Sweet Charity, stepping into the song-and-dance shoes first worn by Gwen Verdon and then Shirley Maclaine in the film, and most recently inhabited by Christina Applegate.

She isn’t sure how playing Liza and Charity Valentine so close to each other will inform either performance, but she knows they will somehow: “All the characters I have played are related, in some sense, only because I try to pull as much of myself into every character I play.”

We go back to that advice she gives students she speaks to at workshops, the insistence they be themselves. Charity is another iconic character Foster will take on that, at first blush, might not seem like obvious casting for the star, but which she will, we have no doubt, somehow reinvent by injecting her undeniable Sutton Fosterness into it.

There was the notion that an untested twentysomething couldn’t pull off the assured tour de force required for Thoroughly Modern Millie; Foster won a Tony for her performance. Or that Foster’s natural gawkiness wouldn’t translate as glamour dame Reno Sweeney when she led the recent revival of Anything Goes.

“Even I was like, ‘I’m miscast!’” Foster laughs. But it turns out that Foster’s erstwhile goofiness and, yes, inner diva, mixed to reveal new shades of the classic musical theatre role. Again, she won the Tony. “If I tried doing Patti LuPone, it wouldn’t have worked,” she says. “How do you infuse every character with your own authentic self. It’s like psychoanalysis. But it’s necessary.”

Not every role is ripe for Sutton Fosterness. One of the Broadway community’s favorite stories—and only because Foster tells it so adorably—is how, early in her career, she auditioned for Rent 15 times, using a photo booth strip as her head shot in an attempt to be edgy, singing along to a cassette tape of Janis Joplin, and lying on her resume to make it seem like she had more experience.

Sure, she got called back to the very end, but her big break would ultimately still be 525,600 minutes (and some change) away.

But as fans of Younger know, few things are as wonderful as when Foster jibes with a role. Her work on the short-lived ABC Family series Bunheads, in which she played a showgirl turned small-town dance teacher, earned her a rabid fanbase among TV fans and a deep friendship with creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, who will bring Foster along for a guest spot on the upcoming Netflix revival of Gilmore Girls.

It’s an embarrassment of riches for an actress who, because of the role she is playing on Younger, is constantly being confronted with the idea that the well could one day run dry. Because of Younger’s discussion of ageism and sexism, Foster’s been forced to go through therapy by way of press tour, in effect, with so many conversations about her role in the show turning to her personal thoughts about her age and aging in the entertainment business.

“When we started doing press I was aware of getting older, but I never really thought about it,” she says. “I don’t know if that makes me ignorant or naïve or in denial but, obviously, doing the show, I was like, ‘Oh, it’s this issue and I should be feeling feelings.’”

Three years in, she’s both more careful in articulating her feelings about it, but also more in tune with those feelings. “I’m grateful to be doing a show like this, and I definitely am getting older,” she says. “My body’s changing; things are changing. The violins are playing! I think I’m navigating it well. I don’t feel like, ‘Oh, no, the end is in sight!’ I’m like, ‘Well, what’s next?’ Where do we go now?’”

“I’m excited about the second half of my career,” she continues. “So far, it’s better than the first half. I feel like my life right now is better than it’s ever been, personally and professionally. So I have more wrinkles on my face. It’s been interesting.”

She laughs when she talks about the biggest changes in her life. There are people who are fans of Younger who are only now becoming aware that she can sing, which she finds particularly hilarious—especially considering she’s spent the better part of a decade with Broadway fans playing out videos of her performing “Gimme Gimme” from Thoroughly Modern Millie on YouTube.

In a way, she’s grateful that her face is on the sides of buses and that she’s more recognizable at this time in her life when she’s older, more settled, and grounded enough to know that this is a just a job and fame is not a lifestyle.

“I think that helps me to be able to look at my career as a whole,” she says. “I want to work until I’m 80, or beyond.” She laughs. “I want the Angela Lansbury life. I do.”