Kyra Sedgwick on Work, Family, and Empty Nests

The actress opens up about her long marriage, life as a working mom, and her new movie, 'The Possession.'

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on May 15, 2012
10 min read

Kyra Sedgwick has to jump on another phone. It's her husband calling. She and actor Kevin Bacon will celebrate their 24th wedding anniversary this September, and there's a melty tenderness in her voice when she says, "Hi, honey … is everything OK?" There's a pause, and you can hear the smile -- that screen-illuminating Sedgwick smile -- in her voice as she says, "OK, I love you, bye."

Right there is a clue as to just why Sedgwick and Bacon are one of Hollywood's admired veteran couples. Though they married young and, some might say, hastily -- she was just 22 when they met on the set of the PBS adaptation of the play Lemon Sky; they married within less than a year and conceived their son on their honeymoon -- they are still going strong nearly a quarter-century later.

"We don't take each other for granted," says Sedgwick, who will be 47 in August. As most two-career couples with kids can attest, that's an easy trap to fall into. "So many other things seem to be much more urgent. You're feeling comfortable and safe in your marriage, and you think you can put it on the back burner and go, well, that's OK, because this other thing is much more urgent: kids, work, Hollywood, whatever.

"And all of a sudden you realize that the thing you've taken for granted hasn't been nurtured and it's not healthy. I try to take care of my marriage like a precious garden."

Sedgwick pauses, clearly thinking she's just said something really sappy. "I'm a terrible gardener, by the way," she declares. "I managed to kill a ficus in my house! They're, like, indestructible."

Since 2005, Sedgwick's marriage -- and her relationship with kids Travis, now 23, and Sosie, who just turned 20 -- has weathered frequent separations required by her starring role as Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson in TNT's The Closer, a part that netted her both an Emmy and a Golden Globe Award. The Bacon-Sedgwick household is firmly rooted in New York City, but the show was produced in Los Angeles. A few months ago, she wrapped up filming the last season of the series, which starts July 9. Now, she's looking forward to the release of one of the first films she's starred in since The Closer began, an Exorcist-type thriller called The Possession, with Jeffrey Dean Morgan, due out at the end of August.

Much as she loved playing Brenda, Sedgwick says it was time for her to move on. "I miss the people and the camaraderie and making something like that, but I don't miss doing it," she explains. "I gave 150% every day, and I was definitely ready to be done. On this visit" -- she's calling during a jaunt back to Los Angeles -- "I was seeing some folks from the show who are filming [TNT's upcoming series] Major Crimes, and I was thinking that I really didn't miss it. I love Brenda so much, but maybe it will take me a few years to feel nostalgic and miss her."

Something she is feeling a bit nostalgic for these days: her kids' time at home. Both Travis and Sosie are out on their own now, although Sedgwick says she and Bacon don't feel like empty nesters quite yet. "The kids are still around, but it's different. I think I grieved an entire year over the process, and I still get boo-hooey sometimes, but I'm so grateful that they're still talking to me and they want me to be part of their lives," she says. "I do miss that level of need and intimacy we once had. As a parent, you have such a great job, and you feel like you're pretty good at it -- then you kinda get fired. But it's also the exact right nature of things, and I take solace in that."

In her wistful but comfortable acceptance of her new, less-urgent role in her children's lives, Sedgwick reflects the reality of most parents after their nest empties, says Christine Proulx, PhD, an assistant professor in the human development and family studies department at the University of Missouri, whose research seems to demonstrate that the loneliness of the "empty nest" is largely a myth.

For a study published in the Journal of Family Issues, she interviewed 142 couples who were at the same stage of life as Sedgwick and Bacon -- watching the youngest of two or three children leaving home. A majority, she says, found themselves truly enjoying their changed roles.

"They liked the shift from always having to monitor their children day to day, to becoming more of a peer or mentor," says Proulx. "It was very fulfilling for the parents. I think many were surprised at the level of pleasure they derived from this new relationship with their children, as well as being able to spend more time with their spouse."

That's one thing Sedgwick plans to make the most of. She's said her heart still skips a beat when she sees Bacon enter a room -- or when he writes one of his many love songs for her (in addition to his famously versatile acting career, Bacon has a band with brother Michael; they released Philadelphia Road: The Best of the Bacon Brothers last month). "My favorite song he's written for me is 'Kikko's Song' -- my nickname is Kikko. 'Angelina' is another good one -- my other nickname is Angel. It's about me, not Angelina Jolie," she says, laughing. "The songs are so sweet."

Although the sweet-but-steely detective Brenda Leigh Johnson is the role that made her a household name, Sedgwick has worked steadily ever since she won a part on the soap opera Another World when she was just 16. When her kids were younger, she and Bacon had a rule not to work at the same time. Sedgwick averaged about a role per year in films like Singles, Phenomenon, and The Woodsman, but she was still very much a working mom -- and she's clear-eyed about the sacrifices that required.

"When I first had my kids, I thought, 'I really wish I was the person who could be happy and fulfilled only being a mom,'" she says. "But that's not me. I heard Meryl [Streep] talking the other day" -- and here she laughs at herself. "You know, 'Meryl, my friend' -- but we actually are friends! -- anyway, she was talking about how no one in her family likes her to go to work. It's true!"

Sedgwick says she won't pretend there aren't drawbacks to working when you're the mom of young children. "There's a great line in this movie [This Is My Life, released in 1992] with Julie Kavner, where she plays a single mom who is a comedian and starts to make it when her kids are like 10 and 14," Sedgwick says. "She comes back from a tour and they're furious at her for having left. Someone says, 'Oh, they don't really mean it -- they just want their mom to be happy.' She says, 'That's the biggest load of s***.  They'd rather have me in the next room wanting to commit suicide than happy on the road.'"

That's a child's birthright, Sedgwick says. "They should have their parents there all the time, but that's not the way the world works. Like Freud said, we need love and work." She believes the family separations required for doing The Closer taught her how to handle that. "Before I left to start filming the show, someone told me to keep my heart where my feet were. I tried to do that. My heart was really at home, of course, but I wanted to show up and really be present for this."

Now she's focused on the upcoming release of The Possession, which represents a bit of a departure for her. "It's cool, man," she says. "Ole [director Ole Bornedal] is like the Martin Scorsese of Denmark. I'd never done a movie like this before, and I don't think it reinvents the genre, but it's really good. I play a mom who's splitting up with her husband and the divorce is affecting the children. The movie is a metaphor about what happens when something evil gets into a family that loves each other, and how they have to come together. And there's this little girl in it, Natasha Calis, who's like the next Jodie Foster."

With her rather dramatic family history, Sedgwick's cards might have predicted a much less sunny personal life. Her father is one of the New England Sedgwicks, an old-money and old-drama family in which mental illness, drug addiction, and suicide figured along with judgeships and names on the Declaration of Independence. One of her cousins was the model Edie Sedgwick, who became famous as artist Andy Warhol's muse in the 1960s and died of a drug overdose in the early 1970s.

Kyra was just 6 when her parents split, and says it wasn't until well after she and Bacon had married that she truly understood the impact of that trauma. "I was so young when I got married. I felt like Kev was this raft I clung to. I suddenly felt at home and safe for the first time in my whole life when I met him," she says.

"But it took years later until I let myself have the feelings and know how deeply I was affected by the divorce of my parents. When I did realize it, I thought, 'I will never do that! I'm so grateful this will never happen to my kids.'  I don't think I would have stayed in a desperately unhappy marriage, but divorce was something I would have avoided at almost all costs. But I didn't have to. It was easy. I'm lucky. I couldn't be happier, really."

"When I first had my kids, I thought, 'I really wish I was the person who could be happy and fulfilled only being a mom.' But that's not me," she says.

Perhaps no one in the United States knows more about adult children of divorce and how they approach their own relationships than Judith Wallerstein, PhD, a psychologist and former senior lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. Wallerstein's groundbreaking 25-year study tracked more than 100 children from the time their parents separated (the youngest child was 3 at the time) into young adulthood.

Most of these young people want to make sure they don't make the mistakes their parents made. "They tend to do it carefully, and they want their children to have everything they didn't have," says Wallerstein, who chronicled her findings in The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25-Year Landmark Study. "They say over and over again, 'I don't want my son or my daughter to have the childhood I had.'"

Wallerstein, also the author of What About the Kids? Raising Your Children Before, During, and After Divorce, often advises adult children of divorce how to build healthy relationships of their own.

Don't sweep it under the rug. Talk about the sometimes-forbidden topic of why the divorce happened. "Go back to your parents and ask why. 'Why did you divorce? Looking back, do you think it was a good reason?'" Wallerstein says. "Children of divorce rarely feel they have permission to ask those questions, but this is exactly what they have a right to know."

Take your time. "Often, what I see is that during [young adults'] 20s, they experiment with different relationships and then they're able to make a choice," Wallerstein says. The big problem they have to overcome, she says, is that they don't have a frame of reference for a happy marriage.

"Whatever you can rescue out of your experience would be useful to pass on," Wallerstein advises. "It's a great gift to be able to say to your child, 'There's no connection between my divorce and your relationships. What happened to me doesn't have to happen to you. Divorce isn't in the genes.'"

As hard as Sedgwick works to nurture her marriage and family, she also takes time to care for herself. That's one reason she constantly appears on lists of women celebrities who look much younger than they are. "I spent the whole year last year thinking I was 46, so on my birthday, when I realized I had only been 45 and I'd just turned 46, that was awesome!" she says. How does she do it?

She's fierce about exercise. "It's like a Sedgwick thing. Sedgwicks for centuries have either been exercise addicts, or they kill themselves," she laughs. She's a fan of the ultra-bendy dance-cum-yoga body sculpting workout known as the Bar Method, and she's also discovered a new super-intense interval routine called the Tabata Protocol. "You can do it running or on an exercise bike, and it's very intense. I used to like [indoor cycling], but I hurt my knee."

She cries. "I talk about my feelings in a lot of different venues, and I let them come out, and I cry," she says. "I spent so many years on The Closer living Brenda's life six months out of the year, and some of my emotions got squashed down pretty low. Since I finished the show, I've been letting all that flow. I don't wear mascara now, and it's great!"

She cuts herself some slack. "I wish I hadn't given myself such a hard time about working when the kids were younger," she says. "I'd be giving myself a hard time about the work while I was at work, but I couldn't be home, so I wasn't in either place. I regret that. I've learned to let myself off the hook."

She de-stresses by window shopping -- online. Sedgwick's favorite guilty pleasure is to log on to pricey shopping web sites and fill her virtual cart with everything she wants. "I load up bags, but I don't actually check out," she says. "Net-a-Porter is fun because the prices there are so outrageous, you're like, 'I'm definitely not clicking yes to check out!'"

Find more articles, browse back issues, and read the current issue of "WebMD the Magazine."