The Big Difference Between 35 and 40

by Leslie Kendall Dye
Originally Published: 

I was 35 when I got pregnant. I’m an actress; 35, in my line of work, is basically 40. Forty is basically perceived as having a seat at the Last Chance Cafe.

Or so I thought.

When I was 35 and 20 weeks pregnant, I sat outside an audition room scribbling some notes in a spiral notebook—my first clue that I was getting to be of a “certain age.”

Here’s what I wrote:

1. Motherhood is a terrifically exciting prospect, and it is going to be a delirious ride, but it is not the only ride I’m on. I’m an actor, and I’m simply sitting out a few upcoming seasons.

2. I want my daughter to know her mother as a working actress. I want her to understand what auditions are and what breaking down characters and scenes is all about. I want her to know that studying a script is a job, and it’s her mother’s job.

3. I am more motivated now that I’m a soon-to-be-mother. It doesn’t matter if my successes after her birth are modest. It matters only that she sees me striving and sweating and pursuing.

After I wrote this list I vomited in the bathroom. I contracted for about 20 weeks, and when I gave birth, well, we all know how that goes.



Mad love.

Unreasonable devotion.

Black circles permanently residing below your eyes.

Work/life balance? Maybe someday. Maybe some year.

Some year just arrived. I’m 40 now, and I’m back on the casting couch.

A funny thing happened on the way to falling into a ditch and vanishing from the professional world for five years. A funny thing happened on the way to being completely out of touch with most of the casting directors I once knew well, the offices I once routinely visited, the classes and rehearsals that once kept me in form as an actor.

I got better at my job.

I sat in a casting office the other day and watched the twentysomethings and thirtysomethings make chitchat—some trying to impress the room with their recent TV guest spots, some asking new acquaintances how to find roommates in New York City, some checking their compacts to make sure their lipstick hadn’t melted in the heat of a midsummer subway ride.

I signed in for my 12 p.m. slot—on an iPad, that’s new—as the beautiful blondes and raven-haired bohemian-skirted goddesses checked their cell phones and shifted in their seats.

I took out my spiral notebook again. (I might as well come totally clean and confess I keep my headshots and resumes in a Trapper Keeper folder. There, I am purged of secrets.)

I wrote another list:

1. I am completely calm right before an audition. I don’t know if that ever happened before I had a child. My other responsibilities have grounded me and made me feel that there isn’t so very much riding on any one audition.

2. I am not worried about what anyone in this tiny room thinks of me, nor do I have any interest in them. Everyone’s subtly glancing at and assessing their competition, but I don’t perceive anyone as competition. I’ll get the job if I’m right for the part.

3. I’m happier with my appearance at 40 than I was at 35. I think my hair might be shinier. I may merely think it, but that’s all that matters.

4. I’m going to sail in and nail this audition, and if I don’t get the part, it isn’t because I read badly.

5. Cheerios, Badger sunblock, applesauce. (My lists cover more than one topic.)

Five years ago, my agents stopped representing me because I started growing life in my womb. My aspirations faded into a fog of mommy-tracked oblivion. I was anxious about the health of the fetus and my impending new life. I was a nervous wreck. When she was born, I was bloated and stooped over from nursing, for a really long time. I thought I might never stand up straight again. I watched a structure I had painstakingly built brick by brick—my career—crumble on a far-off island as I drifted and occasionally sank in the waters of new motherhood.

Five years later I feel something akin to pity for the 20-year-olds fretting before they go in to read for directors. They’re worried about knowing their lines, about not betraying anxiety while being recorded, about whether they have a right to be there at all.

When I was 10, a 40-year-old actress friend of my mother’s who had won an Emmy and had starred in many films gave me some advice. When you go to an audition, walk in and communicate this thought:

The solution to your problem just walked in. I’m what you’re looking for. You can relax. The hunt is over.

I called that friend last night to tell her that 30 years later, I had at last taken her advice. At 40 years old, I can walk into a casting office and know I’m what they need.

Who knew five years of full-time servitude to that most unglamorous of jobs—caring for my young—was the secret to feeling younger, more beautiful and infinitely more self-possessed than I ever felt as a fresh-faced, fretful youth?

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