Actress Jorja Fox is standing in the middle of an airplane hangar in Boulder, Colorado, watching the doors of a Bolivian cargo jet open up. While the sun sets over the Rocky Mountains, individual crates housing twenty-five African lions are unloaded. Although from different prides, the lions share the same fate: rescued from circus abuse, they’re about to embark on a new life. All of a sudden, one lion after the other starts roaring, the sound bouncing off the walls in the giant hangar. A lion’s roar can travel up to five miles, and the roars turn into a symphony never before heard on the Colorado plains. “It’s a sound that completely penetrates you,” says Jorja. “You can feel those roars in your muscles and bones. If something like that had happened in the wild, where I was surrounded by twenty-five lions, I would’ve been petrified! But I wasn’t scared. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever felt.”
Animal rescuer is a role that suits Jorja perfectly. A vegetarian since age 18, she became an ambassador for Animal Defenders International six years ago and has since saved both elephants and lions. The historic lion rescue, which is the subject of the documentary Lion Ark, is the largest of its kind and was the result of ADI’s work helping ban the use of circus animals in Bolivia. The lions now live on eighty acres of land at the Wild Animal Sanctuary. “If you knew the abuse the animals suffer behind-the-scenes, you would never set your foot in a circus,” says Jorja. “There are far cooler things these animals can be doing.”
At home in Los Angeles, the actress spends time with another four-legged creature, her rescue dog Bexar. And she gets a major kick out of her role as Sara Sidle on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which recently celebrated its 300th episode. “The scripts still give me nightmares!” says Jorja, who also starred on ER and The West Wing. “I only read them at night if I’m absolutely desperate. I rather get up first thing in the morning so my brain has all day to organize all those gory details and put them away somewhere before I go to bed.”
Jorja, who was photographed for Sweden With Love by Elizabeth Messina, has a quick, easy laugh that is utterly contagious. In an exclusive interview, she talks surprisingly honestly — and hilariously — about being in her mid 40s. She also dishes on working with the “very distracting” George Clooney for three years on ER, how she keeps in shape and the secret passion she’s “not very good at” but still loves. Jorja’s kindness and gutsy spirit is refreshing, and her joy for life is contagious. Enjoy!
Ulrica: It’s not often you find a woman — especially in Hollywood — as comfortable in her own skin as you are. You seem to have avoided all the trappings of turning 40.
Jorja: You know, I tried to lie about my age for years! I cheated myself down five years for the longest time. But then one day, the Internet just corrected it. Now, my age is everywhere and there’s no way to escape it. Everybody knows how old I am! I couldn’t hide it even if I wanted to.
Ulrica: How do you deal with the pressure of staying eternally young? I think we all experience it on some level, even if we’re not in the public eye like you are.
Jorja: It really helps to have other women around you that are about the same age and who look and feel great about themselves. You know what’s cool? Elisabeth Shue and I are on the show together and we’re close in age. She’s gorgeous and down-to-earth and that’s really inspiring to me. It’s so fun, especially now being in my mid 40s, to have another woman around who is dealing with the same issues I am. I look at her and go, ‘Wow, she looks amazing!’ I don’t think any of us ever thought we’d get old on CSI, and no, we’re not getting old yet, but we’re aging very publicly and sometimes that can be hard. It’s a good problem to have, of course, but it’s nice to be able to share thoughts about wrinkles with other women who are the same age as you.
Ulrica: You know that phenomenon that happens when you live in L.A. and no one ever gets older? Do you ever feel that way?
Jorja: Yes! I have a grandmother here, so I see a whole bunch of senior citizens regularly. But I don’t really see people aging. There doesn’t seem to be anyone in between here. There are senior citizens and then there are all these other ageless people. I guess you’ve got to go somewhere else, you’ve got to disappear for a decade, and then come back and reintroduce yourself as a senior citizen with white hair [laugh].
Ulrica: I find that, for each year that goes by, there’s also a greater sense of freedom because you stop caring about all the crap you used to care about.
Jorja: You’re so right. I really don’t care about what people think about me and it’s such a relief. When I was in my 20s and 30s, I always thought about how I was perceived. Was I pretty enough? Was I cool enough? I just don’t have those anxieties anymore. I don’t worry about if I’m pretty enough or cool enough or fashionable enough. Those are the shallow ways we torture ourselves when we’re younger! That said, it’s still really important to me how people perceive me in terms of being a decent human being. But that stage when you’re constantly worrying about if you’re pretty enough or loud enough or quiet enough or anything enough? I’m so glad I’m over that stage. There’s such freedom in not having to worry about those things.
Ulrica: Okay, give me the dirt. You worked with George Clooney for three years on ER. Is he really as cool as he seems?
Jorja: Yes, he’s really as cool as he seems. He really is. Even from thirty feet away, there’s that energy and charisma. You can’t quite escape it. It’s this amazingness and sexiness that radiate from wherever he is. It’s really really distracting! I don’t think I ever got over it, even during the three years that I worked with him. On top of that, he’s so funny and disarming. During rehearsals, he would spend the entire time telling jokes and doing pranks. You never rehearsed until you were shooting with him. It would always throw me off my game. So yes, he’s a really great, talented and very distracting man!
Ulrica: ER was a huge hit when you joined the cast, and that was a big turning point for you. So many actors on that show were catapulted into fame. Were you scared at all?
Jorja: I was completely terrified. I thought, “This is the moment when everyone in the world is going to realize I’m an impostor.” So many people were watching that show. There was this very real moment, the day before I was going to start on ER, when I was sitting in my apartment in LA mapping out my escape to Mexico. I had it all planned out. I was going to drive to Mexico that night and be there before the morning. I would then call my manager and say I’d quit acting before any damage had been done. It was that moment of, “This is it. You either get out now or you move forward.” Fortunately, I decided to move forward. But every day I was there, I thought, “If they don’t fire me today, they’ll fire me tomorrow.” I still think that sometimes when I drive in to work on CSI. It certainly keeps me on my toes. But I’ve been on a show now for 18 consecutive seasons now, so I’m going to have to go for 20!
Ulrica: As a child, I never felt comfortable visiting the zoo or going to the circus, and I refuse to take my own kids to a circus or a zoo now. So your work raising awareness about animals in circuses really speaks to me.
Jorja: So many of us, when we were kids and went to the circus or the zoo or the marine park for the first time, sensed there was something we didn’t like. Yes, it’s amazing to be able to see these animals, but the conditions they’re living in are not right. You take these huge land mammals like elephants, who easily walks 30 miles a day in the wild, and put them in tiny cages until they have to perform, sometimes several times a day, for years and years until they die. They’re abused, hit and scared into performing and they develop serious mental and physical illnesses. The bull hook, for example, is a standard instrument used for training elephants and it’s very violent. Watching Lion Ark, it’s so easy to connect the dots.
Ulrica: Why do you think there’s such a disconnect between our natural love for animals and the way they’re actually treated in our society?
Jorja: I think we’re taught from a very early age to have a certain mindset in relation to animals. They’re in our clothing, in our diets, in our makeup…they’re entertainment and they’re our pets. In some ways, you have to shut down to accept some of the roles animals play in modern society. You have to detach and disassociate yourself with the meat that’s in the grocery store, or the animals performing at the circus, or the leather shoes you’re wearing, in order to live life a certain way. You don’t have to think about your dinner choices at all, unless you really want to go out of your way to think about them. Society makes it easy for us to ignore these complex issues. But I think twenty years from now, with these environmental issues reaching such critical mass, there will be enormous progress in terms of the way we treat animals. I think people are very compassionate in general, and we all want to do the right thing.
Ulrica: So many people say, ‘Why do you care about animal rights when people are starving all over the world?’
Jorja: I’m extremely passionate about human rights, environmental rights and animal welfare and it would be very hard for me to separate the three. They’re all interconnected and interrelated. If you look beneath the surface of an animal welfare issue, you’ll usually find an environmental issue and a human rights issue.
Ulrica: You’ve been a vegetarian for 25 years. Why is that?
Jorja: I believe in non-violence, so it was a really easy thing for me to do. Living in New York and Los Angeles, there was no reason for me to eat meat for my survival. It’s worked out really great and I don’t miss meat at all. For me, it was never really for health reasons, but so many of the things we’re now learning about health and nutrition makes it a really exciting time to be a vegetarian or vegan. The cuisine is busting out! Some of the most exciting cuisine on the planet is happening in vegetarian or vegan cooking.
Ulrica: I became a vegan on a silly dare two years ago, just because I wanted to lose weight after I had my third child. I know my intentions were not the most honorable, but my body felt so different that I stuck with it. And I swear, in the process, my heart changed. In general, I just feel more compassion.
Jorja: That’s fascinating! I was 18 when I became a vegetarian, so I don’t remember some of the more subtle things, but it doesn’t shock me. You know, even if you don’t want to become a vegetarian or vegan, it’s a great thing to try out. Do meatless Mondays to start, and see how you feel. Even if you don’t care about animals or the environment, you’ll lose weight and you’ll feel better. And if you do care about animals and the environment…truthfully, the single greatest thing anyone could do for animals or the environment on a daily basis is to become a vegetarian or vegan.
Ulrica: We need to talk about your dog Bexar, because she’s too adorable!
Jorja: She was found roaming the streets of San Antonio, Texas, so that’s why I named her Bexar. She’s a curly, floppy mutt that probably has some poodle in her. When we found each other, I had just lost my dog of fourteen years. My dog died in January, and when Bexar showed up in my life in May I wasn’t quite ready for another dog. I actually spent the first months kind of pushing her away a bit, and she did the same to me. I don’t think she wanted me, either! Then all of a sudden, it flipped. Now I’m completely in love with her. I adore her and she’s amazing. She’s the coolest, little scruffiest dog I ever knew.
Ulrica: I know you love to surf. Is that how you keep fit?
Jorja: I never feel all that fit, but I love to work out because it calms my mind. I love to surf. I love to just be in the ocean and be a part of nature, and it keeps you really fit. Paddling out gives you a great arm and back workout. I also do yoga, and I take my dog [she has a rescue mutt, part poodle, that she found in Texas] on hikes. When I can’t go surfing, I work out with my trainer John Pierre at home. We have a routine I just started this summer that is tailored for me and keeps my body fit for surfing when I can’t get out in the water.
Ulrica: Lastly, do you have a secret talent no one knows about?
Jorja: [laugh] Probably not! But I really love to garden. I won’t say I’m any good at it, but I love it so much. And I love to meander around my house. I’ve never had a designer or a decorator. I don’t have any talent for home decor, but it’s something that I secretly enjoy when I have the time. I like to find things that are vintage or reclaimed. I’ve had my house for almost ten years, and it’s still not done! But part of me doesn’t want it to be done, because I don’t want the project to be over. There are still rooms that need to be painted and pieces I have to find, like a new table for my breakfast nook. I’ve been looking for that table for two years! So even though it’s not something I’m talent at, it’s a secret passion.”
• Ulrica Wihlborg
Jorja Fox was photographed exclusively by Elizabeth Messina ©2013. To experience more of Elizabeth’s beautiful images, please follow her on Instagram.