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Marcia Gay Harden Talks the Joys and Challenges of Caretaking, Her Favorite Reads and Finding Peace (EXCLUSIVE)

Learn how pottery and nature keep her grounded

Marcia Gay Harden has always projected a quiet power and intensity onscreen, and her talents have earned her a Tony for the Broadway play God of Carnage and an Oscar for her role in the biopic Pollock.

Over the years, the talented actress has given unforgettable performances in films like like Mystic River, The Mist and Into the Wild. She’s also been a small-screen staple, with roles in the medical drama Code Black and the star-studded series The Morning Show. Currently, she stars as the hoity-toity attorney Margaret Wright in the dramedy So Help Me Todd.

Harden isn’t just an actress, she’s also an author. In 2018, she wrote The Seasons of My Mother, a poignant memoir about her mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Harden wrote movingly about the emotional toll of acting as a caretaker and losing a loved one — something that’s all too relatable to so many of us.

Here, Marcia Gay Harden, who appears on the cover of FIRST for Women‘s current issue (buy your copy here!), opens up about staying grounded, the importance of savoring every moment and where she finds peace and happiness.

Marcia Gay Harden
FIRST for Women

FIRST for Women: You’ve said that work, reading and pottery ground you. Do they all work in different ways?

Marcia Gay Harden: Each is a very different kind of grounding. Work is my life blood and it allows me to collaborate closely with so many other creative people. Reading is an internal journey into another place and time, very solitary and quiet. And pottery is a meditation on shape and color, and usually I’m pushing myself to do something I haven’t physically mastered yet. The results can be glorious or disastrous!

FFW: What’s the last item you made at a pottery studio?

Marcia Gay Harden: I just finished a wedding present for my costar, Skylar Astin and his bride, Chloe. A dinner set. Four plates, four bowls of various sizes, four coffee cups and two tea cups.

FFW: What are you currently reading?

Marcia Gay Harden: I just finished an anthropology book. I can’t get enough of them. The last one was Cave of Bones by paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, about the discovery of an ancient hominid, Homo Naledi.

I also have Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale on my nightstand. This is my second read and it’s a tome! Every page, every description is a feast. I’ve just added Geraldine BrooksHorse: A Novel to my queue.

Marcia Gay Harden, 2023
Marcia Gay Harden in 2023Getty

FFW: You were the caretaker for your mom before she passed, what advice do you have others who have parents or loved ones with Alzheimer’s or dementia?

Marcia Gay Harden: One thing I did was spend time with my mom baking, cooking, doing flower arrangements and writing stories. We did things together! Each moment is so valuable and by doing things together, you can imbue time with a kind of purposeful and familiar loving activity.

Another important thing I did was hire caregivers. When you parent has dementia or Alzheimer’s, most adults are still working or taking care of children themselves. One of the first rules of survival is you have to take care of yourself first so that you can take care of others.

The loving caregivers allowed me and my siblings to continue working and caring for ourselves and our families while spending quality time with my mom. Early on, my siblings and I asked my mom the hard questions, thereby eliminating limbo and guesswork. Where do you want to be buried, mom? What kind of ceremony do you imagine? Do you want to donate your organs? Things like that.

Marcia Gay Harden with her mom, Beverly, in 2009
Marcia Gay Harden with her mom, Beverly, in 2009Getty

FFW: Your cast and crew on So Help Me Todd say you are a caregiver to them on set. Do you think nurturing others is a natural instinct or something you learned while caring for your mom?

Marcia Gay Harden: Oh, it’s definitely natural. I am a middle child and I tend to try to bring people closer together, close to the center. As one of five children, we learned early on that the community — even of a family — is better together, so I guess that’s a natural perspective.

Also, I’m an underdog fighter. On set, the happiness of the cast and crew and production as a whole is super important to me. The work is hard, the hours are long. Excellence is the goal, but we better enjoy doing it, because life is short.

Marcia Gay Harden, 2023
Marcia Gay Harden in 2023Getty

FFW: What causes you anxiety and what do you do to help alleviate it?

Marcia Gay Harden: My life choice is a job with no stability, so you never know where or when your next gig will arrive, and that is definitely stressful. So, I focus on other things — my pottery, travel, gardening — and make sure I get enough sleep.

Spending time in nature helps. I observe the birds, the sky, the trees, and immediately I feel my shoulders go down and my breathing deepen. In my country home, I will often jump in my kayak and paddle down to the marsh. The call of the heron and eagle, the splash of a fish or the thwack of a beaver tail are all the music I need to feel at peace.

Music is another powerful de-stressor, whether it be spa music or an energetic rock tune. It can definitely change your mood immediately.

The actress in 2024
Marcia Gay Harden in 2024Getty

FFW: Do you have a nighttime ritual to help you sleep well?

Marcia Gay Harden: I love a sleep ritual. Soft music fills the room, and my sheets and comforter are white crisp linen. I always read a bit before bed, and I won’t say no to a glass of wine either. A dark room is best for sleep hygiene, as is a cooler room.

FFW: Margaret Wright, your character on So Help Me Todd, is a straitlaced lawyer. What parts of yourself do you put into her?

Marcia Gay Harden: Ha! I asked my assistant for help with this. He said my expectations of people around me, my heart and generosity, plus my sternness. I can add, my deep and abiding love of my children. Though Margaret is far more controlling than I am, and much prissier.

The actress in 'So Help Me Todd' 2023
Marcia Gay Harden in So Help Me Todd (2023)@mgh_8/Instagram

FFW: Do you think you would have made a good lawyer?

Marcia Gay Harden: Every mother would make a good lawyer. We have been litigating with our kids since the day they were born.

FFW: Where do you find peace and happiness?

Marcia Gay Harden: Oy! Within, of course. I am a definite nester and I make every home or rental a place where I can experience peace and happiness. A wood-burning fireplace, flowers, nature… these are all necessary wherever I am on this beautiful earth. As for happiness, I cannot imagine a life without humor and laughter.

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