For nearly 40 years, Daphne Zuniga has been successfully working in film and TV, from her breakout role as Jo Reynolds in Melrose Place to Victoria Davis on One Tree Hill. Earlier this year the California native added "director" to her impressive résumé with the Lifetime movie Deadly Assistant. (Her follow-up film, the indie drama Waiting Room, is currently in preproduction.) But it was the role of wife that made headlines earlier this June when Zuniga tied the knot for the first time at the age of 56 to public relations exec David Mleczko.
Here, ahead of her newest Lifetime movie, Gates of Paradise, premiering this weekend (it's part of the Casteel family movies based on V.C. Andrews’s books), Zuniga opens up about why she was always hesitant to get married and how she dealt with outdated narratives and pressure along the way.
I was not one of those little girls who fantasized about being married. My parents divorced when I was six and I lived with my mother, so I didn’t have a traditional mom and dad together to model after. My mom was also very independent and we moved around a lot, which in turn brought different experiences, different schools, and different people. We even lived in a houseboat one year. She also became an ordained minister and, ironically, performed hundreds of weddings. I’ve always wondered whether my reluctance to get married had something to do with the routineness of weddings that I witnessed all the time.
Meanwhile, what I was sure of was that I loved to play dress-up, to be in school plays, and to run around in the backyard pretending to be Nancy Drew. My universe was really my mom, my sister, and acting. That was my focus.
I came to Los Angeles to pursue acting at 17 and worked regularly ever since. The people I interacted with the most were actors. And here’s the thing about actors: They are generally very emotional. Acting class is about getting to know every corner, nook, and cranny of yourself so you can bring that to the work. But with that vulnerability comes a cautiousness because people don’t always have your best interest at heart. I think that’s why I made acting my focus instead of letting relationships take up so much space in my head. I also associated marrying someone with giving up who I was. And the last thing I wanted was to feel pressure to give up a career that I had worked so hard for.
My parents were young when they got married, and they never had an agenda to push me into marriage. I was born in the ’60s in Berkeley, California, which at that time was almost anti marriage. I didn’t see that white picket fence in my future even though our culture pushes you toward this image of the happy family with the two-car garage. But I think we all feel the pressure at one point to think, Should I be considering that person? or, Should I mold myself differently to fit in? All I can say is that I’m glad I didn’t, because if I had, I’d be divorced now. And that’s okay, but it’s also something I didn’t want.
When I turned 40, I felt confident and physically and emotionally strong. Insecurities from my 20s and 30s disappeared. And I still wasn’t looking to get hitched at all, but the funny thing is, I observed that having that attitude made me more attractive to men. I kind of felt like a guy for the first time, having fun but not wanting to commit to anyone.
Guys asked me, "Do you want to have a family? Do you want to have kids?" And my answer was always, "Well, when? When is that going to fit into my schedule if I’m auditioning, or if I’m filming?" And if that’s what you want, that’s fantastic. But I didn’t. This one life is not cookie-cutter for anybody.
I never wanted kids. But I also love children. I love their energy, and I’m pretty sure they love me. But I knew that I didn’t want them. Growing up with a single mother who worked a lot, I knew that if I were to have children, I would have to shift things about myself. And I wasn’t ready to do that.
Of course, people like to challenge you when you go against the so-called norm. When they did, I’d say, "I’ll get back to you when I get back from this job I’m about to go do." Also, know that you don’t have to come up with some excuse or wall of protection like it’s part of the master plan. A lot of people unknowingly project their own insecurities onto you because they have nothing better to talk about. In fact, a man once said to me that having a child is the most important thing for a woman. I thought I was being punked. I was like, "Don’t project your non-ovary brain onto me!" At the end of the day, it’s between you and the universe, or you and God, or you and whoever. Trust where you are, and what you know is right for you.
I was 44 when I met my now husband, David. I was living in L.A. and he was based outside New York. And never in a million years did I think I’d meet someone who had a high-schooler at home. But even though I didn’t want kids of my own, I love his kids. They are like my bonus children, and we have the best time together.
David and I emailed and talked on the phone for three weeks until we finally met. And even after we did meet, we were still long-distance for three years. What really got me was when David one day said the opposite of what I was afraid of. As things got more serious, I said, "If you think I’m going to move to Connecticut and become a housewife in the suburbs, you got another think coming. You’re not going to clip my wings!" He looked at me, put his car keys on the kitchen counter and said, "I’m not clipping anyone’s wings. Just let me know what train station you’ll leave my car at." I never thought someone could be so supportive until I met David.
He makes me feel like everything’s an accomplishment. When we met, 12 years ago, I told him about an audition I had and he said, "Congratulations, Daphne!" I was like, "Uh, you know that means I didn’t necessarily get the job?" And he said, "Yeah, but not everyone gets auditions, so congratulations!" That made me feel a positive as opposed to a negative. He’s never tried to change me. He’ll often say, "I love that you’re investing in yourself because you’re so good at directing." It’s things like that that remind me of what a supportive relationship is.
I knew I was going to be with David forever, but I also wasn’t exactly sold on marriage. I thought we’d be like Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. It already felt like we were married anyway. But then I started thinking, Why not go for the adventure? Why not see? You love him, and he is the one you’re going to be with forever. And here’s the other thing: There’s nothing wrong with letting go of something that was true for me for all these years. It’s okay to say, "I want to do this now. I want to see if I can get closer to this man I love so much."
It’s been two and a half years since we got engaged, and at 56, I’m so happy to finally be married to him. It was perfect timing. I don’t think we needed to do it sooner, but I’m glad we didn’t wait any later. There was only something to gain by tying the knot, which was this new shape of us, and this new adventure of love and commitment.
Both of my parents walked me down the aisle to “At Last,” and they high-fived each other at the end! I mean, there’s no one way to do it. The shape of my life fit me, and I’m proud I’ve been able to stick up for what I knew was right for me. There have been times along the way when I would say, "Why didn’t I just want to get married and have kids? Why am I this way?" But it’s who I am.
So here’s my advice now: Take action on your own confidence and your own beauty and inner love, because men have a certain confidence just because they’re men. It’s so odd to me! Women tend to think we have to work on that confidence. I just work on trusting the timing of things. Embrace that.
And ask for what you want. Say it out loud and nurture it. I’ve done that with my career and with relationships. You may not get what you thought you were asking for, but just like that Rolling Stones song, you’ll get what you need. And what you need will get you to the next thing. What I have with David is not only because he’s a fabulous guy, it’s because of where I am too, and we make this work together. He values what I bring to the table too, and we’ve created something that is perfect for us and is what we both need and want.
I’ll leave you with this from an acting coach: "Step into your pleasure. Don’t make it so fucking hard. You’re acting. Enjoy it." I know I am.
Originally Appeared on Glamour