When deciding to have a baby, some women think—or hope—they can continue their acting careers virtually uninterrupted. And some can, depending upon their biological makeup and the vagaries of the marketplace. Julia Roberts filmed Ocean's Twelve and Reese Witherspoon Vanity Fair, both while expecting. Jennifer Garner's pregnancy was worked into Alias' story line. Debra Messing's was not during a season of Will & Grace.
The timing of the crucial decision, often prompted by the tick of the biological clock, can be fraught with ambivalence, as performers know that not all producers want to cast pregnant women, whether for stage or screen. For example, Kari Wuhrer sued ABC for killing off her General Hospital character when the actor became pregnant.
"I had a horrible decision to make," concedes Arizona-based actor Helen Hayes. She was working in a movement theatre company, hadn't planned on getting pregnant, and suddenly was. "This movement theatre company was my life," she says. "I was hitting my stride. I was just entering my 30s, and this is not a field with a lot of longevity—it's like dancing. I thought, 'I'm looking at the end of my career in this field.' "
During Hayes' first pregnancy, she was very sick in her first trimester, exacerbated by the flu. Already cast as Luciana in The Comedy of Errors at Southwest Shakespeare Company in Mesa, Ariz., she spent every rehearsal huddled on a pillow until it was time for her entrance. She also played a lead in a dinner theatre production until she was seven months along; the costumers kept expanding her costume. At five months, she played a pregnant woman in an industrial—padded, because the producers thought she didn't protrude enough.
When Hayes was pregnant for the second time, she was in a play at five months, "a role where it made no sense to be pregnant—a young, energetic character," she says. "I bounced around feeling like I weighed 300 pounds." She wasn't sick this time, though.
Another Arizona actor, Angelica Howland, was also surprised by her pregnancy: She was booked for the whole season at Phoenix Theatre. But, in her case, she'd been trying to get pregnant for many years. "It was inconvenient, but we were very, very happy," she says.
Still, it was difficult. Howland suffered morning sickness throughout her pregnancy, felt extremely tired, and was embarrassed at the number of times her costume had to be let out. She wasn't nauseated onstage, but during rehearsals she had to run offstage a few times to throw up. Once she fell asleep during a break in a performance, and her understudy had to go on. "Everyone was so nice about it," she says.
But her acting did not suffer. Her emotions were a little more accessible during pregnancy, and, she says, "I found I was able to put aside my physical condition and do my job." She gave birth to Harrison a year ago and hasn't gone back to work since, although she has a gig lined up for July.
Two San Francisco–area actors played challenging roles while pregnant, and, like Howland, found their emotions quite available to them. But how would those fluctuating emotions affect the unborn baby? Dana Lewenthal was at first concerned about this. "But I think the baby gets used to it," she says. "Babies recognize voices. I think at this point it can hear voices outside the womb and is familiar with everyone's voice." Lewenthal repeatedly told her fetus—its gender unknown at the time—"Mommy's okay. Mommy's working. We're fine."
Lewenthal was playing a mother while feeling her own baby grow and move inside her, so she connected profoundly to her character. "And with all the hormones, I'm much more in touch with my emotions," she says. Her character needed to cry and get hysterical, and Lewenthal's sharp awareness of her own body helped her enormously. She notes that some people are scared of pregnancy hormones, so it can be difficult if you're working with producers or others you haven't worked with before. "Our group has proved there's nothing to be afraid of," she says. "When you're a pro, you do the work and your body does what it's doing."
Cathleen Riddley, too, says her work in Robert O'Hara's intense drama Brave Brood was more layered than it would have been otherwise. The play opened in 2001 when she was 42 and six months pregnant, so her character, though not written that way, also had to be pregnant. She avoided working during her first trimester because she'd had an earlier miscarriage and didn't want to risk losing the baby during that vulnerable period.
"At the end of the play, I shoot my daughter," Riddley says. "It made me feel so much more love in those moments for the baby I was carrying. The baby was rocking and rolling in a relaxed way, and I felt she was kind of in the groove with me."
In Los Angeles, Melissa Greenspan did a lot of voiceover work while pregnant and was unprepared for the lack of breath control she experienced. Normally hired to speak very quickly, she found that her diminished control was costing her jobs. She also had morning sickness but kept it from interfering with her work by eating hourly, mainly the cheese that she craved—problematic because products with lactose can clog the throat. By her second trimester, her voice was back to normal and she felt better.
Greenspan also booked a national commercial before informing the producers she was pregnant. They were okay with it, she reports, and other than all her clothing sizes being off, everything went fine with the shoot. In general, she says, actors want to hide their pregnancy as long as possible, because pregnant characters are few and far between.
Another L.A. actor, Kathy Ann Wittes, shot a short film during her first trimester. "It's up and down emotionally to be pregnant, with hormone surges," she says. "You may be happy or sad." But that doesn't affect her acting: "I don't use my personal emotions for acting, ever." What affects her craft is lack of energy, which can certainly happen to a woman while she's pregnant. Eleven weeks into her pregnancy at the time I interviewed her, Wittes says, "I plan to work as much as possible. It's a source of joy." Not only does she intend to work right up to the end and immediately after giving birth, but her agent has already agreed to represent the baby commercially and theatrically, and her acting coach says she can bring the baby to class.
While Nashville, Tenn., actor Shelean Newman was performing a physically demanding role in Man of La Mancha many years ago, she learned she was pregnant. At that point she wasn't showing, but, she says, "Your hormones are going through so many shifts and changes," and she was occasionally sick in the afternoons. Though being pregnant didn't affect her performance—"As a performer, you get those adrenaline boosts anyway," she says—it is a challenge to go onstage when you're feeling blah. "Still, like when you're sick, you have to do it," she says. "Except when you're sick, you know there's an end to it." When that job ended, Newman performed a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. But she chose to take a break when she got pregnant again three years later.
"Pregnancy is so uniquely individual," concludes Hayes, whose son, Michael, is now 10. "My first pregnancy was so different from my second. Both times I tried to anticipate what lay two months ahead—which you have to do in theatre. But so much happens in two months in a pregnancy!" Looking back, she thinks she should have been more realistic and turned down roles, because she couldn't be sure how she'd look or feel several months down the line.
And Hayes never did go back to movement theatre—but it took her 10 years to pack away her unitards. It turns out, by the way, that Michael is now interested in acting, and Hayes is setting him up with an agent.