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Susan Berger of 'Jury Duty' Talks Finding Fame at Age 80

Why the star of the Emmy-nominated hit show is so inspiring.

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photo collage of Susan berger
Elena Lacey
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There are many words to describe Susan James Berger. Actor, singer, comedian, mother, grandmother, author, friend. But to me, the word that describes her the most is inspirational. She has wanted to be an actor since age 12 and last year as she approached 80, Berger landed the most recognizable role of her life: Barbara Goldstein in the Amazon Freevee hit show Jury Duty.

Though she didn’t win an Emmy in the Best Actress category, for which she was considered but not nominated, there is no doubt that this 80-year-old woman is a multi-faceted star. Along with her comedic talent, Berger brings warmth, kindness and the wisdom of age to her roles — and to her life. I have known her for years, having met through a romance-writing group in Los Angeles.

Berger was born in Buffalo, New York to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. Her parents divorced when she was five and her mother remarried several more times. Berger started school in Paris, attended high school in Rome, and college in both Georgia and Hawaii. She began acting in high school and considers her role as Goat’s Mother in the 1975 Broadway musical Robber Bridegroom as her first breakout role.

She has appeared on numerous TV shows, including 2 Broke Girls, Bob Hearts Abishola, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and American Horror Story as well as in the films The Tragedy of MacBeth and Looks That Kill.

Last year, her face with those large, expressive eyes appeared on a gigantic billboard on Sunset Boulevard trumpeting Jury Duty, a show nominated for four Emmys: "It was unreal," she recalls.

I had the pleasure of meeting with her over coffee in Van Nuys, California and she told me, "I’m definitely recognizable. The time when it really freaked me out is when I went to the Kodak theater to see Hairspray. And the usher stopped me and the patrons wanted pictures. This is so crazy."

Berger sat back and added that this sudden recognition feels "weird but good."

It does seem as if it’s all of a sudden, but in reality, it has been decades of hard work, hundreds of auditions, rejections, classes and bit parts. And a lot of perseverance. It all led to that giant billboard advertising Jury Duty, a show unlike any other. Created by Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, (former writers for The Office), the show is a sitcom series about a fake jury trial.

Berger says that getting her part as a juror — who often falls asleep — involved many steps.

"We were asked to do two monologues, one about why we wanted to do Jury Duty, and one about why we didn’t want to do the show,” Berger said. She told her son she wasn’t interested in auditioning, but he convinced her to try out and gave her two characters to portray.

"He threw a leather vest on me and said, 'You came to LA with your girl band in the 1980s, but you broke up over drugs and now you’re working at a motorcycle bar’,” was his first idea, and she went with it. His idea for why acting like she didn’t want a role? "You are the manager of a restaurant in a strip mall and if you’re not there, everything will fall apart."

The rest is history. Berger acted out those two monologues and became a finalist for the show. Next, the producers brought in a focus group. Five would be actors and five would be real people.

Berger portrayed a "freegan," a person who doesn’t believe in paying for things. In this role, she seeks to help the environment by reducing waste, especially by retrieving discarded food and other goods. She wowed this jury and got the part of Barbara.

Of course, I had to ask Berger if, like the sleepy Barbara Goldstein, she actually fell asleep during her audition.

"No, I did not." Her smile lit up. "But Barbara, at the time, was somebody who had not let go of the 1960s.” Berger is referring to the marijuana-laced hippie era, a haze that could cause drowsiness.

Alan Barinholtz, the actor who plays the judge, told me while they were filming they couldn’t tell which jurors were going to stand out. "People loved Susan when she was eating edibles and getting high as her character. She was one of the standout jurors."

With the success of Jury Duty, I imagined scripts were dropping at her feet. But that hasn’t been the case.

As an older actor, Berger feels like she has "aged out" for a lot of parts, though claims there are benefits to being older and more experienced.

"People love seeing chronologically gifted people succeed because it gives them hope for the future," says Berger. "That it’s not over. I want them to know we can still have fun. So, your shell has changed, but who you are inside has not changed."

While this is a plus, she does admit it’s always been harder for women to grow older on the screen.

"The thing about Hollywood is first of all, for every part written for a woman, there are nine parts for a man," she says. "Our odds (for success) are very different."

In her improvisational classes, whenever the other students call her Grandma, her teacher reminds them that Berger is just like them. She can play anything. She can play a five-year-old. And perhaps even better because of her life experiences. A hope for the future is to revive the two-person improv group she created with her son, Son of a Mother.

In her free time, Berger loves to take long walks on the beach, assemble jigsaw puzzles, play mah-jongg and labor over the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, which she confesses to "cheating on."

Her fantasy guests for a dinner party? Cookie Monster, Mr. Rogers and the entire cast of Ted Lasso. These are people who are warm and loving, which pretty much sums up how Susan’s performance touches the viewers of Jury Duty.

She told me she really loved acting and didn’t necessarily want to be famous. She just wanted great parts.

Fortunately for her audience, she got that great part of Barbara Goldstein. And we have the privilege of seeing a masterful actor at her best. She is an inspiration to all, young and old, and proof that there is no age limit to fulfilling one’s dreams and achieving success.

 
Did any of you watch Jury Duty? Did you love it? Let us know in the comments below.

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