Emmy-nominated actress, Brenda Strong, is no stranger to Hollywood. Since making her first television appearance on the popular 80’s hospital drama “St. Elsewhere,” the Oregon native has continued to grace our screens for the last three decades appearing in over 100 film and television roles. Best known for her role as Mary Alice Young in ABC’s massively successful series “Desperate Housewives,” Strong has made a point of portraying complex, multi-dimensional women and participating in many female-driven projects.
One female-driven project that is very close to Strong’s heart is her Strong Yoga4Women brand, a mind and body wellness program directed towards women and couples experiencing infertility. Motivated by her own personal struggle with infertility, Strong began instructing Yoga in 1994 with the intention of helping others and has since become a passionate vocal advocate for women’s health and wellness.
We were fortunate enough to speak with Strong about her women’s health brand, her current role as the unapologetic Lillian Luthor in CW’s “Supergirl,” and her aspirations for the future.
How did you get involved with acting? Was it always something you wanted to do?
As a young girl, I couldn’t stop moving. I started Ballet at the age of 8, and continued dancing and choreographing through high school which led me to theatre. I got cast as the Good Witch in a Junior High School production and haven’t looked back since. I got a Degree in Performance (Singing, Acting and Dance) from ASU and came to Los Angeles to start a career in Television and Film after graduation. I didn’t know I wanted to be an actress when I was growing up. I just loved to perform. Luckily my father was a college counselor and gave me a Strong Vocational Interest Blank when I was in high school which had me over the 100% in performing arts, which encouraged me to pursue it further. It was a case of “following my bliss” as Joseph Campbell’s book of the same title talks about.
You’re currently appearing in the CW series “Supergirl” as Lillian Luthor. Tell us what it’s like to play the villain everyone loves to hate?
I love Lillian. She is so strong and single minded in her purpose, but has a complex emotional history that I am getting to explore in the last few episodes, especially in relationship to her daughter Lena, played by the lovely Katie McGrath. I am having such fun with this role. The whole cast has been really welcoming and it has been a joy to play such a delicious villain.
Lillian is definitely a departure from many of your previous roles. What drew you to the character?
Being able to find out what makes someone like Lillian tick was an interesting challenge for me. I love playing someone who is unapologetic. As a woman with a clear directive and a keen sense of justice, she appears to be the villain, but could equally be the hero. It depends on whether you align with her value system. Isn’t that true about us all really? I find that sort of moral ambiguity interesting.
The explosive mid-season finale found Lillian being turned over to authorities by her daughter Lena for attempting to unleash Project Medusa, a virus created to kill aliens. What can viewers expect from Lillian now that she’s incarcerated? Do you think her daughter’s betrayal will lead her to seek some sort of redemption, or will she only come back swinging even harder now?
Lillian is not a person without resources. She is a scientist, a doctor, an innovator and will always have back up plans in case one avenue fails. Jail is a mere inconvenience to her goals. She is ruthless in her pursuit to extinguish what she feels is a real threat to humanity and will stop at nothing until the wrongs have been righted. You kind of have to love her for her commitment. I think Lillian and Lena have a true love/hate relationship and that is fertile ground for wonderful conflict, hurt feelings, misunderstandings and perceived betrayals. Anything is possible with these two.
You starred, mostly off-screen, as the deceased Mary Alice Young in “Desperate Housewives,” doing narration for all but 2 episodes in the show’s 8 season run. I’m curious what it was like to be a crucial part of this wildly successful drama but to rarely be seen? Also, how do the challenges of voice-over performing compare to those of on-screen performing?
Mary Alice Young was such a unique role for me. She in many ways was the emotional glue of the ladies of Wisteria Lane, and it was a challenge as an actor to often be limited in my storytelling to just my voice. But with limitation also comes freedom, so it’s a double opportunity. I am deeply grateful to have been part of TV history, and in the 8th Season did a lot of my narration from “Dallas,” where I was filming Season One of the “Dallas” Reboot on TNT, so I was busy. I learned a lot about narrative story telling from that experience. In many ways my music training was of help to me because of the unique melody and rhythm of Marc Cherry’s writing with the MAVO (Mary Alice Voice Over). The challenge is that with on screen you have so many tools with which to tell story and reveal character, and with voice over it is only one part of the actors instrument.
In 2013 you founded Strong Yoga4Women. Can you talk to us a little about its purpose and what inspired this personal endeavor?
I have been teaching Yoga since 1994 and my brand of Yoga4Fertility since 1998, and produced my DVDs for women and couples in 2000. I just formalized my brand with Strong Yoga4Women. “Yoga for every age and stage of a woman’s Life.” Yoga and the comprehensive mind body wellness program that I developed to educate couples experiencing infertility, came out of my own story with secondary infertility after my son was born. I needed to heal myself and balance my hormones and I used Yoga, meditation, nutrition, and breathing exercises to try to get my self to manage the stress and pressure of trying to conceive when given a diagnosis of “unexplained infertility.” There are so many factors that can affect fertility; environmental toxins, stress, diet, exercise, endocrine imbalance, so for me, Yoga and the methodology that I taught helped to empower myself and others to face all the uncertainty of conceiving with tangible tools that helped to calm and balance our bodies and minds. I wanted to share what I had learned, so Strong Yoga4Women was born.
Women’s health is obviously a huge passion of yours. In light of the current political climate, what do you hope for in the coming months regarding this issue? How would you encourage people to contribute or get involved?
Women’s health to me is an important issue. And a lot is at stake from the last election regarding protection of women’s rights to govern their own bodies. We need to stay in touch with our representatives to let them know how important it is that they not roll back decisions that have already been made, so they can continue to fight for our right to make our own difficult decisions with our doctors and partners regarding our bodies without governmental interference. Supporting women who are in need of care in lower income communities through regular check up offerings and education via Planned Parenthood is important. NARAL Pro-Choice America is a great organization that helps protect women’s rights, as well. It’s important to understand that how we take care of ourselves impacts not just ourselves, but our relationships, our families and ultimately the world around us. I love helping women find true balance and nourishment of themselves not just physically — but mentally, emotionally and spiritually as well. It’s like watching a light of awareness turn on. Once a woman has a deep connection to her own “wellness,” it’s something powerful to witness, and impacts every part of her life. It is a well that continues to be fed by an internal spring from an unlimited source.
Is it true you’re working on a book about yoga and fertility? If so, when can we expect it to be released?
My book on Yoga and Fertility is morphing into a book on a more comprehensive approach to inspiring women at every age now. I feel like I’ve lived enough life to be able to share some of what’s worked for me in handling some of the common challenges we all face as women, partners, mothers, and mentors. I feel inspired to share that now as it’s more specific and universal simultaneously. I’m excited to finish it — it is all coming together bit by bit.
I really admire your constant effort to uplift those around you and to be a positive force in the world. In difficult times, how do you gather that positive energy and what advice would you give to those struggling to let go of the negative?
I try. I want my time here to be one of upliftment for others. My mother said to me early in my career when I was frustrated with the lack of substantial and substantive roles, “don’t underestimate the impact that you make on everyone who you work with.” That encouragement allowed me to take responsibility for my impact on others every day in the small ways through my work. It’s not about the goal, but the journey. Whenever I feel the negativity of the world start to creep in, I try to go back to being responsible for my personal impact. I try to be mindful of thoughts that are dis-empowering and seem to be part of a pattern. I practice positive thoughts to replace patterns of negativity that leave me feeling helpless or anxious or worried. Thoughts are powerful creators and affect our emotional balance more than we are aware. I try to practice gratitude daily. For me “Inspiration” is the act of receiving Life in all it has to offer; the good, bad and ugly. I believe every experience is for us, to alchemically use to grow and learn more about the nature of being human. When I remember to engage with life not as a victim to my circumstances but an active creator of my experience, I become more powerful in deciding how my life goes. “To inspire” comes from the Latin Word “Inspiritus” which means “breathe” and contains the word for “spirit” : together, to breathe in and be filled with spirit, which is what it means to be alive. Breath is also the foundation of Yoga practice. Without breath, Yoga is just physical postures. With the breath, it is truly transformational.
Are there any other passions of yours that you would like to pursue in the future?
Once my book is done, I’d love to do a speaking tour focusing on college aged women. I am so impressed with this next generation and I truly think they are up to some great things. I would like to have a dialogue with them. I also am starting to produce more and am about to direct my first short film. That is an exciting new territory that I want to explore; shaping the narrative from the start.
Who inspires you?
Oprah. Seriously, that woman is amazing. What a gift she has been to singlehandedly help raise consciousness through her work. My Mother. The embodiment of loving kindness, such an extraordinary woman. I miss her every day. My Dog Skye. I know it sounds crazy, but pet owners will understand. My dog’s capacity to be present, loving and playful is an inspiration to me daily.