Christine Lahti is not going to tell you how to be a feminist. But she is going to tell you how Gloria Steinem became one. Lahti is currently starring as Steinem in the new off-Broadway play Gloria: A Life, which tracks how Steinem, now 84, became one of the most influential voices in second-wave feminism.
"She's the most generous, loving human being, certainly that I've ever played, and maybe that I've ever known," Lahti says of Steinem. "I watch all these women come up to her crying and saying, 'Thank you for saving my life. Thank you for saving my mother's life.' And men saying, 'Thank you for helping me to see that I get to be a full human being by being a feminist.' And I watch her deflect it right back onto the person and tell them, 'Thank you for inspiring me.' She's remarkable."
Lahti, an actor who has two Golden Globes and an Emmy under her belt for acting (and an Oscar for a short film she directed and starred in), knew she wanted to be a part of Gloria before she even read the script. "I heard it was being done, and I said to [director] Diane Paulus, the producer Daryl Roth, and Gloria, 'I don't know what age she's supposed to be; I don't know if I'm right for it. But keep me in mind.' And they did. And that was it."
While she's built a career that's led to major awards, Lahti's feminism wasn't — and isn't — an easy, straight line, and it is something she knows other women can relate to. "The imperfectness of my feminism and the climbing on and falling off the feminist wagon over and over again is something that is so normal for so many women," she says. "When I went to the University of Michigan in 1968, I was completely unwoke. I thought being a women meant that, biologically, I was a second-class citizen and that was just my lot in life."
Luckily, the second wave of feminism was spreading and made its way to the University of Michigan, where Lahti was introduced to Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem and "all the great champions of the second wave of feminism." She credits these women with saving her life. "Feminism has been the life jacket that I've used to navigate through a world that I've found did not respect or like women that much," she says. "It has been everything to me in my work and in my life."
However, stepping into Steinem's shoes eight shows a week has not been an easy task. "Gloria had a really tough childhood. She's a complicated, flawed woman. I have to go down to a deep, dark emotional place where I don't matter and have low self-esteem," Lahti reveals. And getting there has been a collaboration. "I call and email Gloria many times a day and ask her, 'What about this? Go darker or deeper? Can you tell me more about your mom?' And she's been so forthcoming with the most honest, not always pleasant things about herself. She said, 'If I'm not completely honest, then I'm not helpful. And I want this play to be inspiring to others.'"
While Steinem and Lahti, who have been friends for over 20 years, worked closely on crafting her portrayal, the collaboration didn't stop there. The all-female cast and creative team has been, for Lahti, "the most creatively open collaboration I've ever had in my life. There's zero ego. It's really about best idea in the room wins." The group also works hard to create a space where the audience is part of the show. Act 2 of Gloria is an extension of Steinem's organizing work and takes on the guise of a talking circle, where the audience has the opportunity to voice what's on their mind in relation to what they just saw, listen to others in the group, and connect in the safe, sacred space of a theater. Lahti and her fellow cast members help guide these circles along with special guests, and they've proved to be deeply moving for all involved. "I think everyone in the cast is going to start writing down the moments that really resonated for them," she says.
Gloria depicts not only the individuality of feminism, but how it goes in all different directions, a theme that Lahti recently opened up about in a different medium, her book, True Stories From an Unreliable Eyewitness: A Feminist Coming of Age. Originally performed in venues like Joe's Pub and Cornelia Street Café, the monologue-like chapters recount moments in the actor's life that helped her become the woman, performer, and feminist she is today. It's a process, she stresses; she's constantly learning. "As Gloria says in the play, 'It's not just that we live in a patriarchy, it's that the patriarchy lives in us. Just by osmosis, if you grow up in this culture, you can't help but internalize misogyny and low self-esteem and sexism.'"
For now, Lahti can channel all of that energy into playing Steinem. "We're not trying to depict a woman who is a perfect icon," she points out. "It's really the opposite. And she's been so remarkably honest." Steinem has changed many lives, including Lahti's. "I owe Gloria and others like her so much. And I tell her every time I see her as a friend that she really did have such a huge influence on me."