To many – millions perhaps – Heidi Swedberg will always be Susan Ross. That’s what happens when you play an iconic and pivotal character on arguably the most colossal television show in the history of humans, a show that remains a juggernaut in syndication, a show that, when one of its stars dishes some juicy, behind-the-scenes gossip about something that occurred 20 years earlier, people perk their ears, and social media goes haywire.
So it might seem surprising to hear that the former “Seinfeld” actress is not only all but out of acting but that she’s become firmly embedded into the world of … ukulele?
It all makes perfect sense to Swedberg, who appeared on 28 episodes of “Seinfeld,” in addition to dozens of other film and TV roles spanning two decades. She hasn’t been on camera for years, and she says, “I kind of don’t miss it.”
Swedberg, who is in Durango on Friday and Saturday teaching and performing at the inaugural Rocky Mountain UkeFest, describes acting as her “past life” and talks about it with guarded grace. In the ukulele, however, she’s found something more fulfilling and less fleeting, something that brings more honesty and creativity to her work.
“In television and film, you start off as an actor, and you’re studying Shakespeare, and you’re doing this incredible work when you’re in college, and then you get out into the profession and it’s all about getting episodes of ‘Who’s the Boss?’” said Swedberg, who still does occasional voiceover work. “In film and television, it’s the editor who’s going to come around and take everything you’ve done and turn it into the product that it’s going to become. You’re working for corporations. Television is all about filler to bring people into commercials. You’re becoming products and concepts.”
And as Swedberg found out just more than a month ago, the massive shadow of show business is difficult to escape. Even then, it can still reach out and pull you back in, like when Jason Alexander, who played Swedberg’s on-screen fiancé, George Costanza, revealed a bit of juicy gossip on “The Howard Stern Show” about what he claimed was the real reason Swedberg’s character was killed off on the show.
According to Alexander, Swedberg, despite being “a terrific girl,” was “impossible” to work with and wasn’t a good fit for Alexander, who claimed their comic timing and on-screen chemistry didn’t match. To fix the casting conundrum, Alexander said it was decided that the show would kill off Susan by having her lick poisonous wedding invitations, purchased by the cheapskate, George, of course.
Swedberg, however, isn’t buying it, saying that the only reason she remained on the show was that they kept calling her back, always on weekly contracts.
“It’s like they were the victims of my awful acting. The reason the character was killed off was because it was funny. That’s why she was killed. It was funny,” she said. “It’s a show about four people, and there’s this other character on it, and what’s a great way to wrap up that character? Why don’t they die? Whatever.”
Swedberg said the Alexander flap is just part of the crazy world of entertainment and why she’s not unhappy to be out of it.
“Jason was doing a publicity tour, and the best way to get publicity is to say something that makes people stand up and listen,” she said. “Public humiliation is an incredible gift, because you really get to look yourself in the eye and think, ‘How do I feel about myself? I’ve been publicly shamed. Do I care? Eh! Not so much.’”
Despite all the positivity and fulfillment that have accompanied Swedberg’s full-time devotion to the ukulele, she doesn’t deny the influence of her past acting career on her endeavors, saying her celebrity has made it easier to enter the music world because it’s handy to have the introduction.
“I have to give a lot of credit to my past-life PR campaign,” she said, “because people are interested in the freak-show aspect of me because I worked on a television show.”
Still, it might take people a moment to get used to the fact that Heidi Swedberg is not Susan Ross.
“There is kind of an awkwardness where people have to realize that the person they think they know really has little to do with the person that is in front of them,” she said.
However, once she is teaching or performing or playing along, the ghost of Susan Ross quickly recedes, overpowered by the present moment.
“It just happens, and we all get carried away together,” she said. “That’s when the magic happens, basically when you lose yourself in the fun.”
The ukulele has been that gift for Swedberg, who received her first instrument as a 5-year-old living in Hawaii, where she was born. She played ukulele as a girl growing up in Albuquerque but didn’t pick it back up until she was 26 and playing the role of a singer-songwriter on a network pilot.
The ukulele and the life of a musician have been more meaningful to her, a vehicle to connect with others. It’s an instrument that fosters community. It’s easy to learn (“the easiest instrument to play besides the kazoo”). Another thing – the ukulele is accessible.
“You can afford to buy one; you can schlep it around. You can put it in your purse or your pocket. You can bring it places, and it’s friendly,” said Swedberg, who made her first ukulele album, “Play,” in 2009 as a vehicle for teaching the instrument. That friendliness and the community it fosters makes the instrument special. “To me, that’s a magical place and a really healing place. It’s connection, and connection is what makes our lives really worth living.”
Even after being dragged back into the celebrity spotlight, however briefly, Swedberg has eschewed bitterness, bringing such experiences into her teaching, encouraging students to put aside their shame, embarrassment or self-consciousness, to sing and play with pride and confidence, even when they don’t feel like they’re good enough.
“We go through our lives, we speak, we walk, but we never think about, ‘Well I shouldn’t be speaking because I’m not Shakespeare,’ or ‘I shouldn’t be walking because I’m not Bob Fossy.’ Singing is the same thing,” she said. “It’s just an extension of ourselves and what we feel, and if we leave our shame behind so that we can open up and communicate, it’s an incredibly liberating, freeing, wonderful experience. Our connection can really deepen and move the shame out of the way.”
Five years after leaving acting and 18 years after being killed off on “Seinfeld,” Swedberg is in a place she wants to be, doing something she loves and takes pride in.
“You really know you’re doing something right if you’re old enough to have past lives. Moving through that, and the more perspective I get, the happier I am,” she said. “That’s the thing about middle age. They talk about being over the hill, but being at the crest of the hill is a great vantage point. You see both directions, and I’m kind of digging the view from here.”
firstname.lastname@example.org. David Holub is the Arts & Entertainment editor for The Durango Herald.