By Marianne Todd
Despite two Emmys, a Golden Globe, a long list of silver screen credits and three major roles in popular television series, Sela Ward will likely always feel Mississippi tugging at her heart.
“Fame is a funny thing,” she says, from her home in California. “When I'm in Mississippi, someone will say, 'Hey, Sela!' and my brain starts going a mile a minute wondering if that person is a friend of my mama's – then I'll realize that they know me from TV. Southerners are so familiar with each other, and people are really very kind to me.”
The CSI:NY star is used to fans stopping her to acknowledge their appreciation of her work. When in Mississippi, though, celebrity has a slightly different feel.
I have that wonderful middle-level of celebrity. I wouldn't wish that Tom Cruise level on anyone.”
When she's not taping her character role, Detective Jo Danville, an expert on psychological profiling, she's home in Mississippi enjoying the quiet and beauty on the gentle rolling hills of her farm located just outside of Meridian.
“Going home is always like getting a big hug with a warm blanket. You crawl back into that cocoon with a sense of memories and a sense of community and history and family,” she says. “You can only get that from your roots, and that's something that really ads a lot to my life. Those experiences are very personal for me – a very important piece in my life that has continuity to it, and it ads to my well-being.”
Her children, Austin, 17, and Anabella, 13, have romped on the farm since they were born.
“They don't know life without going there,” she said. “It's part of their own painting, and it enhances who they are.”
Whether in state or out, Ward remains close to Hope Village for Children, a home for abused and neglected children, she organized in 2002. When home, she visits with the children there and works tirelessly for funding, “to enhance the quality of their lives, and it's thriving. It's going fantastic but getting funding is always a challenge because it's funded partly by state and federal money and half from private donations.”
That real-life role resonates with Ward in her CSI:NY character, who adopted a young teenager after putting her mother in jail for life. The role explores the emotional and psychological challenges of raising an adopted daughter and in one particular scene last season, Ward's character was criticized for adopting her daughter out of “guilt.”
Ward says the role has been an adjustment and a particular challenge since she is used to the family-drama of Sisters and Once and Again, where character roles are well developed and scripts are written around relationship issues. Being able to use her native Southern accent helps, she says.
“It's been an adjustment because I've never done a role like this. It's a procedural show, not a relationship drama where you get into all the emotions of the characters,” she says. “Instead of being about characters, it's about solving a mystery. There's a lot of new lingo. It's challenging to develop a character when you don't have the dialogue to support that – but I am having fun with it. It's much more challenging than I thought it would be.”
Ward has signed on for this season – to premiere Sept. 23 on CBS – and for next season as well if the show is picked up again.
Ward says the role is yet another in a long line of accomplishments she still has trouble believing she's achieved.
“I walk around on the sound stage and wonder how I even got here from Meridian, Miss., coming from a non-entertainment family,” she says with a giggle. Ward has worked alongside Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid and George Clooney, to name a few.
And for all her stunning credentials, Ward credits her Southern heritage as the most prevalent and positive aspect driving her career.
“The South is like a country within a country, and that experience makes what I have to bring to the screen so richer,” she says. “That slice of my Mississippi experience, what I'm able to bring to my performance, has made the difference in my career. It's something you cannot buy, that you can only read about. I love that part of who I am.”
Sela's Film and Television Credits:
Janet in The Man Who Loved Women,1983
The Colonel's Daughter in Rustlers' Rhapsody, 1985
Cheryl Ann Wayne in Nothing in Common, 1986
Kim Lacey in Hello Again, 1987
Tracey in Steele Justice, 1987
Teddy Reed in Sisters, 1991–96
Helen Kimble in The Fugitive, 1993
Jessica Savitch in Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story, 1995
Kaye Griffin in My Fellow Americans, 1996
Kelly Easterbrook in Frasier ,1997
Billie Auster in 54, 1998
Pretty Woman in Bar in Runaway Bride,1999
Lilly Manning in Once and Again, 1999–2002
Page Monroe in The New Batman Adventures,1999
Sidney Clark/Cheryl Belson in Catch a Falling Star, 2000
Jeannie Miller in Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, 2004
Dr. Lucy Hall in The Day After Tomorrow, 2004
Bobbi Bacha in Suburban Madness, 2004
Stacy Warner in House, 2005–06
Helen Randall in The Guardian, 2006 Helen Randall
Susan Harding in The Stepfather, 2009
Jo Danville in CSI: NY 2010–present
Emmy Award, Best Lead Actress in a Drama Series, Sisters, 1994.
CableACE Award, Best Lead Actress in a Movie or Miniseries, Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story, 1995.
Emmy Award, Best Lead Actress in a Drama Series, Once and Again, 2000.
Golden Globe Award, Best Actress in a TV Series Drama, Once and Again, 2001.