Sharon Lawrence Talks About Body Image Challenges In and Out of Hollywood

sharon lawrence starving in sub

“Starving in Suburbia” debuts on Lifetime tonight

The potentially deadly consequences of eating disorders have been well known for decades, but that knowledge hasn’t made a dent in the incidence of anorexia and bulimia. “Starving in Suburbia,” Lifetime’s new movie about a teenage dancer in a down spiral of affliction, sheds light on a sickening twist that has been added with the advent of online communities that “encourage each other in this destructive, self-inflicted illness” as Sharon Lawrence, who plays a therapist in the film, puts it.

The well-spoken actress, who gained four Emmy nominations between her roles as Sylvia Costas Sipowicz in “NYPD Blue” and as Izzie Stevens’ mother in “Grey’s Anatomy,” tells us she was eager to join the “Starving in Suburbia” cast for several reasons. One of those was writer-director Tara Miele.

“I love supporting female filmmakers. It goes along with my work with the Los Angeles chapter of Women in Film. When I can support a female filmmaker, I’ll work very hard to make that happen,” she says.

Another reason: “I read the script and was so impressed by what Tara had written. It was created in such a clear and artistic way. It’s not easy to get both qualities to work together, but she has done that,” notes Lawrence of the movie that has moments the grow darkly surreal.

Laura Slade Wiggins of “Shameless” stars as the troubled teenage dancer Hannah. “She is somebody I admire so much,” Lawrence says. “You realize she has a depth of capacity for the sensitive nature of a role like this — and she has the professional skill to play such a demanding role in such a short amount of time we had to shoot it. I think we had 18 days. I’m sure Tara would say she would not have felt comfortable proceeding without an actress of Laura’s caliber.”

Of course, Hollywood — show business — is notably full of people struggling with eating disorders, or at least extremely questionable dietary habits, in their relentless pursuit of acceptably thin bodies. But Lawrence believes that the problem is “rife everywhere, not just in our industry.” It’s not only performers who find themselves attacked by haters on the internet if they gain a few pounds, says Lawrence. “It’s cheerleaders in high school, it’s dancers in competitions. Body image is one of the biggest challenges that face young women today. This knows no socio-economic boundaries. I don’t know that it’s as prevalent in other cultures, but our American culture is such a blend of access and imbalance.”

It’s hard to imagine, but drawn from reality — girls compete online to see who can get the thinnest. Lawrence has a positive take on that, however. “I’m grateful that they’ve sort of declared themselves, because that’s part of what brought it to the light.”

In the wake of a well-reviewed run with Bruce Davison in Noel Coward’s A Song at Twilight at the Pasadena Playhouse, Lawrence has a string of projects coming out that are related to issues she cares deeply about: Besides “Starving in Suburbia,” there’s the feature “Grace,” that deals with alcoholism. It recently debuted at the Nashville Film Festival. “That’s a beautiful story about recovery and the recovery community,” she says. Now being unveiled at the Newport Film Festival in California is “Una Vida,” a movie that “is really letting the community that’s affected by Alzheimer’s not just tell their story, but seek support and hope.”

Lawrence says she can’t remember a time “when all my interests have coalesced this way.”

On top of that, there is her Amazon Studios series, “The After,” a post-apocalyptic thriller created by Chris Carter. She smiles at mention of the show.

“We shot the pilot, which is still available on Amazon. The Amazon users watched and chimed in as to whether they wanted to see more,” she recounts. It turned out that “The After” was one of four series picked up for this new-fangled enterprise, in which the online sales giant is offering up its own productions.

“It’s great — not just as a new model for how the gatekeepers are shifting with control over what will find its way to the public,” she comments, “but also, I believe that the public will have influence over the way these shows will spool out. The viewers may have input as we shoot the rest of the episodes. It will be interesting to see how filmmakers like Chris Carter incorporate that.

“I’m so happy to have more outlets for material like this. This is a compelling show,” she continues. “It’s about eight strangers who are trapped in a parking garage when a very odd and deadly phenomenon strikes Los Angeles, and we are left to our own devices to survive. I’m thrilled at this kind of storytelling. And it’s a challenge particularly for me, because I play an 80-year-old woman.

“It’s interesting, not only to find the emotionality, but the physicality — not only to go through the prosthetic makeup process, but to find how this character walks and talks and speaks and breathes and all these things,” she says.

For a woman who in real life is a lovely and beautifully-maintained 52-year-old, that is quite a change indeed. As they say, that’s why they call it acting.