It may be hard to visualize scruffy teen Rayanne Graff of "My So-Called Life" all grown up, but A.J. Langer has been playing Erica Warner, a mom suffering from a brain tumor, on "Private Practice" this season. The role will get a double-series punch as part of a special, two-hour "Practice" crossover with "Grey's Anatomy" on Thursday (starting at 9 p.m. on ABC). I spoke with Langer about her unexpected role, why she put acting on hold for four years and why she doesn't mind if she's always associated with a fictional rebellious teen.
It seemed as if Erica might pop up briefly on "Private Practice," but now her experimental surgery is actually driving the "Practice"/"Grey's" crossover. Was that a surprise to you?
No kidding. I thought I was only supposed to be in three episodes. But I was pleasantly surprised, not only because the arc of this character is so wonderful but I've really enjoyed working with all of these people, from the crew to the cast and beyond. I feel very lucky. The fun with episodic TV is that you don't know what's going to happen and even the show creators and writers don't know what's going to happen. Every medium is great in its own way, but there's something appealing about creating a character as you go along.
Erica hasn't been the most sympathetic character, though. Have you felt frustrated with how much pushback she's given Coop and how resistant she's been to treatment until now?
I know, it's like, for God's sake, woman! There are a lot of issues with her character, but I've so enjoyed the process of developing a character, which I like doing in any of the mediums. But one of the great things about episodic television is that part of the fun is that you can go by instinct, because you're going through the process along with the character. With Erica having a terminal illness, it's got to be frustrating also being a single parent. It's stressful just being a single parent, then to add her illness on top of it? It's hard to imagine, and you can understand why it can make it very difficult to act in a natural way all the time with your child, even when you're doing it for their benefit.
Erica's son Mason, played by Griffin Gluck, has some pretty tough scenes. How was it playing his mom?
He's a great kid and he's got great parents, which is rare to find for a child actor. He knows I was acting as a kid, too, so we have that in common. He's such a cool person. He came over to our house for my daughter's birthday party. She has a crush on him. But she's only five.
You took four years away from acting. Was that because of your fibromyalgia (a chronic pain condition) or other reasons?
Honestly, it was kind of a big turn for me. I've worked since I was 15, and I got in the pattern of working so hard and not having the space to learn how to take care of myself. But once I had the breathing space, within three months I found the right doctor, the right space and my husband [attorney and British lord Charles Courteney]. Not bad for three months.
What was the greatest challenge to being a civilian again, so to speak?
For me it was learning how to take care of myself. Taking complete time off, being a housewife, a mother and thinking I wasn't going to come back to work. It turned out that when I got healthy, I got into classes and found an acting studio that really supports doing this business in a healthy way, with a lot of positive reinforcements and also a more creative way of approaching this business. It's been wonderful. And the show has proven this theory, that you can find a balance.
Having been out of the business for so long, how did you get back in?
It's been very nice that people have been keeping tabs on me, and the office that cast me on "Private Practice" is the same one that hired me for "My So-Called Life." 'd been in acting class for a year with people of all levels and was very happy to start over, and this was the first audition back that really clicked. It was like starting over, but it was with all these wonderful people I'd worked with before. But I auditioned and I had the joy of an audition. There are a lot of "My So-Called Life" fans out there, and I'm the biggest one.
Do you feel like you're ever in Rayanne's shadow, though?
One thing that comes up a lot is when it's my birthday, and people say, "My God, she's how old? That makes me feel so old!" But Rayanne makes everything else easy. I've had this amazing character on a great show, so everything else is just a bonus.
But back to Erica and her battle with cancer. Have you had to do a lot of research? Your character has had some extreme physical symptoms, like seizures.
There are a lot of people who have gilosarcomas so I've been able to do some research. I've been following one man's blog about his life with a gliosarcoma, and it doesn't take long to get into the reality of the situation. This isn't just something people are writing about for television, it's real. I also found a charity in Phoenix that works with single parents who have terminal illnesses that offers financial support. You think about what single moms and parents do and add a terminal illness, and they don't have a CharCoop to offer a solution.