If Boys Don't Cry, what is it that wannabe girls aren't supposed to do? In Lifetime's A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story (premiering tonight at 9 pm/ET), Academy Award winner Mercedes Ruehl plays Sylvia, a single mother whose son, Eddie (J.D. Pardo), knows he is supposed to be a girl, and takes steps toward fulfilling that potential. TVGuide.com talked to Ruehl about tackling this true story, as well as her gigs as two other moms to Angelina Jolie and Entourage's "Aquaman."
TVGuide.com: What sort of research did you do into the real Sylvia?
Mercedes Ruehl: I didn't meet the real Sylvia until midway through shooting, but the woman who wrote the screenplay, Shelley Evans, and I had many long conferences about the research that she had done with Sylvia. Through that, I understood a lot of the backstory the family had gone through.
TVGuide.com: As an actress, was not meeting Sylvia right away a pro or a con?
Ruehl: It was a good judgment call on the part of the producers to ask me to wait until halfway through, because the actual screenplay, as is almost always the case, creates a character who has a dimension of the real person, but there is then a whole other area of a fictive character, and the first thing you have to be true to as an actor is what's on the page. It might have been a confusion of the issue to meet the real Sylvia, who is an extraordinary woman but somewhat different from the person I play.
TVGuide.com: Was being a mother yourself an essential quality to bring to the role?
Ruehl: You know, I've seen great actresses who have never had children portray mothers with such passion and skill that you would never know. But in my own particular case, there was something that happened when I became a mother. Whenever in the news I saw an example of a child being abused or mistreated, my response went from being appalled to being physically revolted. It's unendurable in a new way, because you are now personally aware of the tender relationship between a parent and a child, and the infinite vulnerability of children. That was an enormous basis in creating Sylvia's dilemma. Also, I had read a book called She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders, written by a professor who had gone through transgender surgery, but it took this person well into his thirties to come to terms with the absolute necessity of having to do it. From his earliest years, it had grown more and more unendurable until finally he faced this horrible choice between decimating the life he knew and his family, and living forever in the hell of this "prison cell." This is not something you choose, and it's not a sexual-orientation problem. It's a problem of identity. Identity, pure and simple. I got that, and J.D. really got it. He was extraordinary to work with.
TVGuide.com: How does it make a veteran like yourself feel to see such raw talent in a young actor?
Ruehl: I saw that J.D. was a skillful actor, but I thought, "Is he going to have the stuff?" And with the first take on the first really emotional scene that we had, I saw that he was ready to explode with what was required. I went, "Bingo. He's going to go there" and he did. That made my work much more exciting.
TVGuide.com: Was it a similar vibe to when you played mom to Angelina Jolie in 1998's Gia?
Ruehl: Oh, boy, that is an interesting and a good comparison, because she had decided to make the 100 percent commitment there. When you're working with that, you're working with the real thing.
TVGuide.com: What's the one thing you hope people watching A Girl Like Me come away with?
Ruehl: If I had to put in one word: "tolerance." We live in a culture that is historically uneasy with the subject of sexuality, possibly coming out of our puritanical roots. Anybody whose sexuality is "outside the circle," people regard with suspicion. For instance, we still have a president trying to make a to-do out of same-sex marriages when we have so many much more pressing problems. Lifetime is getting braver. [That network's] programming reflects a perception that women are more sophisticated and more complex, and that's really good news.
TVGuide.com: Switching topics, might we see more of you on Entourage, as Vince's mother?
Ruehl: I've been getting a lot of calls from friends saying, "They must put you on again!" You never know with television, but I'd love to go back. It was a lot of fun [appearing in the season opener], and it was interesting getting to know those fellows.
TVGuide.com: Were you a fan of the show before?
Ruehl: Well, at that time [Sundays at 10 pm] I'm usually putting the 9-year-old to bed or collapsing from having done the same. But from the episodes I have seen, the writing and the acting are excellent.
TVGuide.com: Being also a Paul Reiser fan, I'm disappointed your sitcom pilot didn't get picked up for the fall.
Ruehl: Yeah, we were all a bit bummed by that, but Paul is a man of infinite enterprise and imagination. He's going to come banging back into the ring by next season with something fabulous.
TVGuide.com: Think you got the role only because it was set in a car dealership, and your first name is....
Ruehl: [Laughs] You know, I once leased a Mercedes because I got a good deal on it because of my first name.
TVGuide.com: I wonder if Portia de Rossi has the same luck. Are you up for a series-regular gig?
Ruehl: Yes and no. On the one hand, it's not devoutly to be wished because I like to remain open to doing theater and other things. But on the other hand, it is devoutly to be wished if it could happen in New York City and I could stay close to my home and family. In this business, you never say no to anything.