You’re in town to advocate for a boost in research funds for lymphedema, a disease most people don’t know much about. (Lymphedema is a disease of the lymphatic system causing swelling of the extremities.) What’s your strength as an actor-advocate?
My strength as an advocate really lies more with the patients. I still think we have a thread that binds us, and that’s empathy. We all drive to do what we want to do because we want to make things better for the people that we see are in pain. At the beginning of my acting career I really struggled, because what I saw about it was very self-aggrandizing. I’d say, ‘Nah, this isn’t for me.’ I finally came to the reality that perhaps, and one never knows, you’re going to send out your heart. Telling each other our stories is a more effective way of living on this planet together.
Tonight might give you some great background for the next season of “American Horror Story,” which creator Ryan Murphy says will focus on the 2016 presidential election. Any chance you’re currently perfecting your Donald Trump impersonation?
[Laughter] I think that’s a vicious rumor. I’m going to leave that to Alec Baldwin.
But off-screen you have an interest in politics.
I was here back in the ’70s to march against the Vietnam War, and I went to the Women’s March in L.A., and I heard there’s going to be a science march, if there’s a group out in L.A. I’m going to do that as well. The one thing that’s great about what’s happening in the country with the shift in administrations is that people are standing up for what they believe, and they are still fighting. I wish we could come to a consensus on what’s good for all of us, but I guess that’s too much to hope for at this point. I have to say on the record: I wish Barack Obama had run for a third term.
You grew up in Memphis and came of age at the height of the civil rights movement. Has the country taken more steps back than forward?
I was driving by myself to New Orleans from New York to do “American Horror Story,” and I was listening to the Trayvon Martin trial. I have developed a very close relationship with a young black man, he’s like my son — Aml Ameen, we did “Harry’s Law” together. I’ve never had a relationship like that. He calls me “mom.” So as I was listening to this trial, suddenly it hit me, ‘Oh, my God, what if that had been Aml?’ My friend Gabby Sidibe said, ‘You’ve been woke.’ It was my moment.
I was so naive, because I had come from the segregated South. But I don’t know what I’m going to do with these feelings. I don’t know what to do. Yes, things have changed, but it’s always been there for the same people.
There was a time when you’d describe yourself as apolitical, but something’s clearly shifted.
I think I just lacked the guts. I look at people who stand up like Meryl Streep, and then I look at the Academy Awards, and I think: What a great night. I’m an artist, and the fact that this administration is thinking about defunding the National Endowment for the Arts really frightens me. To me that’s the human spirit. That’s us telling our stories, and I think we are a world of storytellers, and if that’s suppressed and people don’t get the truth, then we’re lost. So yes, I guess I’m more passionate about it. I just don’t know how to talk about it very well yet.
So you’ve got the guts now.
Yes. And you know the other thing that pisses me off? When an actor speaks their mind about these things, we’re told to shut up and just act. I pay taxes. I’m an American citizen. I have freedom of speech, so I think I need to just step up and say what I feel before I get too much older.