BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – Natascha McElhone has two jobs: She’s both an actress and the widowed mother of three. She’s never conflicted about which one takes precedence over the other. “Any acting job doesn’t even come close,” she says in a noisy coffee bar here.
“You’re creating three people’s foundation for the rest of their lives. There’s nothing more important than that where you feel more responsible, I suppose. On a movie, on a TV show, there are so many component parts. I have a healthy ego, but it’s not big enough to think that anything rides on me. Ultimately I’m dispensable, but to my kids I’m not.”
Eight years ago McElhone was pregnant with her third son when her husband of 10 years died suddenly of heart problems. That thrust her into high-alert in the single parenting role, a part she hadn’t prepared for.
The actress who starred in “The Truman Show,” “Californication” and “Love’s Labor Lost,” finds herself in a role about another a woman ill-prepared for a momentous task.
She stars as America’s first lady in ABC’s “Designated Survivor.” The drama, premiering Wednesday, features Kiefer Sutherland as her husband, a minor cabinet member who becomes the president when the official presidential hierarchy is wiped out in a vicious attack. As the instantaneous diplomat and mother of two, McElhone seems made for the part (though she’s actually British).
“What’s been such a blessing about being in this profession, being a widowed mother, it’s remarkable that you can earn enough money to support yourself for a year by working three months,” she says.
“I don’t know any other job where you can do that, or none that I could do. So that has been an extraordinary set of circumstances. So when I have a day when I feel stretched and spread thin, I think about all the people in my position who have none of the resources I have, and who are broke and on welfare and truly don’t know where the next penny is coming from. I just can’t imagine anything worse. So I’m hugely grateful that I’m offered work and that people are willing to work with me in terms of my responsibility toward my kids,” she says.
“And I’m always very vocal about that when I start a job. I say, ‘Listen, this is the center of my universe. I want other things in my universe for sure. When I’m working I’m 100 percent yours. But I can’t work full time, it’s not possible. Because I tend to be doing stories that are thankfully ensemble pieces by virtue of that, there’s time off. ”
McElhone manages to maintain both her jobs by bringing the children, now 16, 13, and 7, with her and working during their summer vacation. “I’m not for a second saying that motherhood is more important than making a mark in the world and being a creator and having a voice and being a communicator,” she says.
“I think for some people it is, and for some people it isn’t … I’m not one of those people who go around saying you haven’t lived until you’ve had a child. To me it’s the center of my life right now, but I have massive respect for people who say no to that.”
It was her boys that helped her function through her loss. “They were my – whatever you want to call it – religion, prayer, sense of purpose. I mean, that because of the rigor of parenting and the repetition – and those are the things I’m not particularly good at – it forces me to step up to that,” she nods.
“If you haven’t slept for several nights, it just doesn’t matter. There has to be breakfast on the table. They have to be ready for school. They mustn’t know any different. They’re not interested in whether you slept or not, or if you’re feeling grief-stricken. You don’t give them that. You give them the tree that is so well-rooted that it just doesn’t move and they can crush against it, and it will receive that. That’s been, without question, the biggest test.”
Though she was unprepared, she says, “I didn’t have a choice in the gutsiest thing I ever did, but I think as much as I could, I met that challenge and things are OK, the boat’s afloat, and I’m working, and my kids are healthy. And I’m enormously grateful for that. I think acting is easy. I don’t think acting is the difficult part of my life at all. I think acting is my downtime, (it’s) pleasure, interesting, and exciting. And I love all that. I love the circus element of acting and the peripatetic nature of it not it being forever.” Pausing, she adds, “I have this rather naively optimistic outlook. I always think I’ll be all right.”
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