'Code Black' Star Marcia Gay Harden On Alzheimer's Disease
Marcia Gay Harden is an Oscar-winning actress who has consistently graced stages and screens for over three decades in roles that are as memorable as they are diverse.
She's brought characters to life in movies like "Pollock," for which she won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar, "The First Wives Club," Disney's "Flubber," "Mystic River," "Mona Lisa Smile" and, recently, "Fifty Shades of Grey" and "Fifty Shades Darker," in which she plays Christian Grey's mom, Grace.
On the small screen, you may know Harden for her current role as Dr. Leanne Rorish from CBS's "Code Black" (still waiting word on a third season, but Harden's "hopeful") or her guest role as Agent Dana Lewis on "Law & Order: SVU," for which she was nominated for an Emmy.
But for an actress with such a firm footprint in Hollywood, the on-screen doctor is currently tackling perhaps one of her most important, and challenging, roles yet off-screen: an advocate for Alzheimer's awareness.
Partnering with Biogen for the Notes to Remember campaign, Harden hopes to shed light on the disease that her mom, Beverly, was diagnosed with almost a decade ago.
Harden, who is the first to say it's easy to jump into her "Code Black" role and get medical but has to leave the specifics to the real doctors, has essentially taken a crash course in Alzheimer's Disease since her mother's diagnosis.
It began with the small things, for Harden's mom, things like forgetting where she put her passport, but the severity lies in the "repetitive nature" of the signs.
My mother would say, 'Something's not right. Something's not right,' but she couldn't pinpoint it and we didn't know enough to suggest to her to do early testing or to even speak to her doctor until several years down the line. So that's kind of the voice that I want to be to reach out to all people, certainly the younger generation, and just say: 'Just be aware.'
Her biggest takeaway -- and what this campaign is all about -- is knowledge and early detection, something that specifically affects the millennial generation.
As a mom of three, Harden told me Alzheimer's is a frequent topic around her house. Speaking on how important it is for the younger generation to be aware of Alzheimer's, Harden said,
I don't think young people think about these things because there's an immortality of youth… and I suspect that Alzheimer's and the growing awareness of it is a wonderful awareness in a way for [the younger generation] because they have to think about these things. They have to do future planning. They have to think about their own health. They have to be advocates for their grandparents and their parents. They have to be advocates for the future. And so I think there's a lot of value there.
For a generation who is at peak comfort binge-watching medical dramas, to the point where we feel at ease offering opinions on our friends' latest ailments and throwing out terminology we've only ever seen played out on-screen, confronting harsh realities like incurable disease outside of our beloved television characters is something that comes a lot less naturally -- and often with a lot fewer resources.
I asked Harden what the hardest part for family members is when they learn of an Alzheimer's diagnosis.
"There is no easy part for a family member when you learn it," she said, "and I think the cohesion of the family surrounding the information is really important."
She continued, "So again, being aware in the early stages is a fantastic gift because you give yourself the gift of time, and the person is still in charge of their time... They can be active in talking about the process, whereas if it's later, they may not have that and the family has to make decisions for the person."
The Notes to Remember website, which is chock-full of information, has a section dedicated to debunking myths and clarifying facts.
I asked Harden about one "myth" surrounding the disease that she's since learned to be untrue, and she said,
Well, I think I wasn't aware of how pervasive it can be for the body. That it's not necessarily just the brain, the mental, but the brain is in control of the rest of the body. So I wasn't prepared for that… with my mom, it would ultimately be diminishing to more than just the brain.
Harden asked me what I was surprised to learn, and it's a question we both kept coming back to. For me, it's honestly the value of early detection and the options. It's easier for someone my age to think ignorance is bliss -- we'll deal with it if it happens, but let's not get worked up right now.
This lesson is really the core of Notes to Remember, though. Harden told me,
I mean I get it. If it's bad news why would you want it? But the point is, if it's bad news then you can begin to look at options and take charge of your future. And if it's not bad news maybe you're relieved... Knowledge is power in this case... You certainly don't want to live in a panic, but it's that thing of being in denial, you lose time. If there is an issue, you want to have time on your side, and control on your side… The point is it's a degenerative disease that you're not in control of… For me... the gift of time would be about me being in charge of my health, my future. Me being able to give my kids the gift of my own organization so I give them kind of a freedom...
I asked Harden how she wants to be remembered as an actress, but that's a tougher question for her than what she wants her mom's legacy to be.
Harden lit up talking about how she wants her mom to be remembered. She told me,
She was an artist… and she is an elegant Dallas lady, but she was an artist. She did Ikebana flower arranging -- and that is like a live sculpture with flowers… She was a master flower arranger and she gave all of us kids just the gift of her art and her elegance. And so I guess her legacy will exist in the children and how we talk about her… If my mother can help bring awareness to Alzheimer's and hopefully be a part of the solution, then it's OK if Alzheimer's is part of her legacy, too.
While all people with Alzheimer's progress differently, Harden relishes in the fact that although her mom has been robbed of memory, her "essence" is still there.
"My mother was a lady of etiquette," Harden said, "she just had such incredible manners and elegance and beauty, and that's the thing -- that's still there. Which, this was a myth that was surprising to me, that the essence of my mother could go away."
As an actress, Harden takes on characters and finds something to relate to, something she can bring out in her performances. For example, even as her role as Christian Grey's mother, Harden had no trouble relating to the maternal instincts of that character.
When it comes to being a mom herself, she certainly knows the value of family and prioritizes things like eating dinner together. She and her kids are also huge fans of "Harry Potter" and all the lessons it has to offer.
So what does she tell her children? "Be a Gryffindor!" Harden said. And that's a lesson we could all stand to remember.