Michelle Hurd first got a sense of how growing older would impact her acting career when she was cast as a police captain rather than a cop. The casting director’s wrongheaded idea was she wouldn’t be believable being as active as a cop needs to be.
“I joked that when I turned 40, a message went out to all the casting directors,” 52-year-old Hurd told NextTribe. “When you reach a certain age, you’re not considered as sexy, young and pretty.” Or, it seems, able to run after a perp.
For Hurd, the saving grace is that she never considered herself an ingénue who was valued for her looks. She has always preferred roles where the character’s attractiveness and sexuality are not the deciding factors of her success.
Never an Ingénue
“The Farrah Fawcetts were the pretty ones, and I didn’t want those roles,” says Hurd, who spoke about growing older in Hollywood at NextTribe’s recent Out Loud event in Los Angeles. “Some of my friends who have been ingénues now don’t feel as attractive or valued [as they’ve gotten older], and they feel so lost. What’s sad about that is that when you get to a certain age, you’re loaded with so much information, wisdom, and power and you want to do more. How can we not become grander than we were?”
Although she had a brief stint as a receptionist to support herself through college—“I sucked so bad they called and said, ‘Don’t send her out here ever again’”—she has spent three decades as an actress on stage and screen. Her credits include big roles on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, How to Get Away with Murder, Blindspot, and Hawaii Five-0.
She continues to get meaty roles. She stars on Blindspot and will appear this fall with Patrick Stewart in Star Trek: Picard. She also stars in the upcoming horror movie Bad Hair.
“I don’t make excuses for anything—my age, my look, my hair or my color,” says the biracial actress. “Casting directors call because they know I’ll give life to the character.”
Better Roles the Older She Gets
Hurd says she actually enjoys the roles she’s getting now more than she did those she got in her 20s.
“This part in Star Trek is so phenomenal,” she declares. “My character is so much more human and complex than any role I’ve ever played. She’s filled with everything we live. It’s so creative, and I get to spend days acting with Patrick Stewart.”
Stubbornness and tenacity—as well as a great team—have contributed to her longevity in the industry.
“You can’t allow your age to hold you back. Instead, you have to embrace your age because it has given you the time to become strong, confident, and skilled. The fact I’m enjoying each new part is a wonderful thing.
One of the signs of Hurd’s confidence is on her head: her full head of caramel, corkscrew curls. As a younger actress, she often was forced to straighten her hair.
She recalls landing a seven-episode arc on 90210, playing the mother of one of the main characters. She was driving home from the set after the first day of shooting—wearing her hair big and curly—when she got a call from the show’s producer.
“He said, ‘We love you, but our research says that for a woman of color to be credible as a business owner, you have to straighten your hair,’” she recalls. “I was shocked. How do you respond to that?”
Being under contract, Hurd had no choice but to straighten her curls. But she told her manager that for future roles, she wanted a say in how she wore her hair and has embraced her curls for most of her last roles.
“I’ve gotten really stubborn,” says Hurd, the daughter of a white German-Irish mother and a black Jamaican-Scottish father.
Hurd says she has come to terms with the fact that there are people in her industry who just don’t get curls, and that’s okay.
“If I’m consistent and true to myself, and if I’m doing my best work as an actress, then I’m fine,” she says.
Growing Number of Role Models
Hurd plans to be working in the entertainment business for at least a few more decades. She has plenty of role models for actresses who are doing their best work in their 60s, 70s, and 80s: Meryl Streep, Jessica Lange, Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith. At 94, Cicely Tyson still has a recurring role on How to Get Away with Murder.
Hurd believes there will be a growing number of roles for women over 40 as more women become writers, directors, and producers.
“If we’re in the room, I don’t think we’ll be ignored,” Hurd says. “To have a real voice, we have to have the ability to create.”
That’s not to say that growing older hasn’t come with its drawbacks, especially some of the changes to her body. A long-time athlete—she spent a decade doing martial arts—Hurd says she’s had to make modifications, especially after a foot injury requiring seven surgeries.
“I think it’s hard to acknowledge you’re changing,” Hurd admits. “That means you have to pace yourself. Your body is talking to you. You don’t have to go to five kickboxing classes every week. I’d rather focus on what my body can do.”
And time has become more precious for her.
“There is much more consciousness,” Hurd reflects. “We’re making informed decisions about what we do. I really like that. This is our time.”