Heather Graham has skated through Boogie Nights, moved through David Lynch's red room on Twin Peaks, and shagged Austin Powers, among other accomplishments. Now she's playing a woman who struggles with coming out, in the romantic comedy Gray Matters. Graham spoke to me from her home of New York City, where the film was shot.
Groucho: You have a couple of big old-fashioned dance numbers in the film—do you come by your grace naturally or only by virtue of hard work?
Heather Graham: Definitely hard work. I was an extremely bad, uncoordinated dancer in high school. So after I got out of high school, I thought, "Y'know, I'm going to take dance classes because I really love dance, and I want to be better." And I took it for years at this place in Hollywood with these professional dancers. And I feel like I learned something from them. And definitely the numbers in the film, we rehearsed, and they were choreographed, so we rehearsed them for fifteen hours.
G: And how many left feet did your dance partners have?
HG: Well, I have to say that Tom [Cavanaugh] is pretty amazing. Like, he really—he's done things on Broadway, and sang and danced on Broadway. And he was amazing. He was definitely incredible to dance with. Also that number was really easy—a lot easier. The one that Bridget [Moynahan] and I do is where we move for move copy this old movie that's playing in the background [Ed. the 1946 musical Till the Clouds Roll By]. So that was really hard to—at the exact time that people on the movie are doing the moves, we have to do them, and just imitating these people. (Laughs.) So that was a lot more challenging.
G: Other than obviously rehearsing for those dances, did you do anything particular to prepare to play this role?
HG: Uh, you know, I had sex with a lot of women. Just kidding. You know, I talked to some friends of mine that are gay, and talked to them about coming out. Mainly, I talked to the director's sister. The director, Sue Kramer, wrote the movie based on her sister, Carolyn Kramer. And one night we went out—I took her out, I got her drunk, and I just asked her, "Well, what was it like the first time you kissed a girl?" and "What was it like when you were growing up?" and I just tried to understand what that would be like, to realize one day that you might be gay.
G: Is there any difference between kissing a man and a woman onscreen, or does it just depend on the individual you're dealing with?
G: (Laughs.) That's pretty much it, huh?
HG: Ummm, no, I mean, I think that women are—a lot have—. Well, I don't know—I think Bridget is really fun to kiss. I think women are probably a little bit more gentle and sensitive about kissing, whereas some men are much more aggressive.
G: Now I heard that there's more explicit love-scene footage on the cutting-room floor. Is that true?
HG: No, that's just something I was making up when we were doing the press junket, to have fun.
G: (Laughs.) Okay.
HG: There was a really racy scene that got cut out.
G: So you're making things up again.
HG: (Laughs.) It's kind of a more sweet movie than that. But, you know, it's in your imagination, the X-rated scene.
G: You also have a scene in the movie with Gloria Gaynor, who's an iconic singer—what was that day like—?
HG: There's a scene where we sing "I Will Survive" with her. Bridget and I and Tom—well, Bridget and Tom go to Las Vegas to get married, and the night before they get married, Bridget and I go out to hear Gloria Gaynor sing, and she ends up getting on stage with Gloria and singing "I Will Survive," and then I get up, too, and we're like—we dance around Gloria and sing "I Will Survive." It was unbelievably cool.
G: One of the big issues in the film is self-image, and there's talk about chin tucks and Weight Watchers and, of course, shame over sexual orientation. How has being a Hollywood actress affected your own self-image, in good ways or bad ways?
HG: Um, well, I think that when you see the crazy celebrity photos and the way that they make comments about what people wear, on their appearance and everything, it just makes you think that—in a way, having it in your face so much makes you just think, "I cannot think about this." It just makes—it's so in your face that it forces you to hopefully find a way to have the self-image not based on just your appearance.
G: Is it difficult to keep a perspective about it—is it kind of a struggle?
HG: Well, you know, I don't see myself as one of those people that's always being in those things and being so incredibly watched. So I feel like I definitely do have privacy, and in the moments when I feel like, "Oh, something got written up," and it pisses me off, I just think, "You know what, I have a really lucky life and this is a small cross to bear, considering what some people are going through in the world."
G: Sure. There's all these trappings that go along with being in the public eye, and I wonder if you try to shut that out, or do you find it kind of interesting to, every once in a while, check out your own press or what they say about you online.
HG: Ummmm, I don't know. I suppose if there's a nice picture of [me] somewhere, I'm like, "Ooh." I might want to see it, but to be honest, I try not to read it, because I just don't want to be too self-conscious. I think it's just good to do things that feel good and not completely based on getting a certain reaction or worrying about what other people think about you.
G: Does it bother you to watch yourself on screen?
HG: Sometimes it's hard, I have to say. It is a bit weird, and it can be strange. But it's also kind of amazing to think, "I can't believe I'm in this movie and, like, people are watching it." It's so cool.
G: At one point in the film, your character Gray says, "It's so much easier to be someone else." Of course, it also takes an emotional toll on her to keep up that façade. Could you relate to the character, being—? She's similar to an actor, in a way.
HG: Yes, I could completely relate to it, because I felt that it's sort of like what I was just saying. If you worry about how people are going to perceive you, or if, you know, certain people in your life want you to be a certain way and you're not that way—just feeling judged, basically. And worrying about how other people think. And not only that, but being judged by yourself, because the worst critic is ultimately how you feel. It's how you feel about yourself that's the most important thing. And if you are hard on yourself, then that is the worst. And I completely have struggled with that at certain points in my life, and I know whenever I feel really free and really good is when I can just shut up that voice in my head and say, you know, "I think I'm great. And I think I'm wonderful." And I think that's what the movie's about.
G: You started out in the business quite young, and I know your parents were watching over your career. And then you set out on your own and started taking chances on riskier material. What guiding principles do you follow in choosing what projects are best for you both as an artist and in terms of career?
HG: Well, I think a lot of it is the script. I think when you read the script if you feel excited about the story, or something about the story makes you relate to what is going on. Or to be honest, sometimes I think, "Well, what kind of energy do you want to put out in the world?", too. You know, "Do you want to put out something that's positive?" And I think a lot—I really, like—when I see the world, I think, "I want to see women more empowered," so I'd love to see more things out there that are empowering to women. So I definitely do really want to do things like that, as much as they are available to me.
G: That's something I wanted to ask you about, too, is that some of your most high-profile or memorable or big-budget, Hollywood kind of roles have been some kind of questionably hyper-sexual women, but always in a context that makes sense for the story, whether it's a Victorian streetwalker, or a porn star, or in Bowfinger, the comically ambitious actress, or Felicity Shagwell. And I wonder have you ever had to request script changes to protect yourself or your characters from exploitation, or you've just been maybe lucky in that respect?
HG: Um, well, I think it's really interesting how people have—I think our culture is kind of confused about sexuality. And I think that a lot of times—I mean, I grew up Catholic, and there are some things about that where I felt confused about sexuality. And I definitely think, like, sometimes women are blamed as like, "Oh, being sexual is bad, and it's bad that women are sexual," and it's not really taken up, "Well, why, why are they being perceived like"—you know, it's kind of really interesting: if a woman can stand there, and if a man perceives her sexual, he can say, "That's evil," but when really it's his perception of her that's sexual. She's just standing there. So I think that, you know, just sexuality in general is just a really interesting subject matter, and I think that through the centuries, it's just really interesting how women have been the scapegoat, a lot of times, of sexual confusion. I think people are confused about sexuality, and a lot of different times, I feel like women get blamed for it. So I just think that's an interesting subject. And I think that—as a woman, I just think—I think that hopefully everyone can feel good about their sexuality and just have the sexuality that they feel right about and they feel good with, and that women—I don't know. I think it's hard to feel that way, because I do feel like it's so confusing—we get so many confusing messages about it. And I think it's hard to have a good, healthy image about yourself, sexually.
G: I know you're developing some projects for yourself, and along the lines of what we were just talking about, one of them is a comedy called The Accidental Virgin. What is that about?
HG: Well, that is about—it is a sex comedy. It's actually about female sexual confusion. I mean, maybe males can relate to it too. It's about a girl who hasn't had sex in a year, and she reads in a thing that if you haven't had sex in a year, you become "devirginized." And it's just about—it is true how you get these different messages as a woman, like "Oh, you're supposed to be sexy," "You're supposed to not be sexy," "You're supposed to be not sexy in your daily life," and then really sexy with a guy you're with. You know, it's just like very confusing sometimes—well, how are you supposed to be? And it's basically about a girl who just has been living her life, working really hard, and she kind of opens up and just decides, like "I want to be happy." And just about her confronting her fears and deciding she wants to be happy in her life. I mean, I personally love sexual humor. So it's got a lot of that in it.
G: That sounds pretty interesting.
HG: There's a scene where there's a guy who wants to go out with her. And it's a point that she realizes, "Oh, wow, it's been a year since I've had sex. Maybe I should go out with him." And then she sort of starts to pursue him. He gets completely turned off, because he doesn't want to be pursued. (Laughs.) So it's about sexual politics, like, "Well, how are you supposed to be as a woman?" Are you supposed to be pursuing, not pursuing, etc.?
G: Do you have any ambition to direct yourself, now that you're going into producing?
HG: You know, I've thought about it. It's something that, its burning in my mind that I need to do, but who knows? Maybe one day.
G: I read that your father worked for the FBI, or was an FBI agent. Did you feel that affected your upbringing in any particular way?
HG: Um, I think that my parents were definitely more conservative than I am. I think I'm definitely more liberal-minded, so yeah, I guess it is a learning experience to grow up with people who think differently than you.
G: One of my favorite of your roles goes all the way back to when you played the girlfriend to an FBI agent, Agent Cooper on Twin Peaks.
HG: Oh yeah!
G: How were you cast in the role of Annie Blackburn, and what do you recall about being directed by David Lynch?
HG: Well, I was obsessed with that series. I watched it every week—I loved it so much. And I can't—you know, I think—how did I get cast in that? Um, I think—you know, I had done a commercial with David Lynch. He did these Calvin Klein Obsession commercials with—some of the actors from Twin Peaks were in them. I did one with Benicio Del Toro. (Laughs.) Basically, we—we just—you know how they have those Calvin Klein commercials, and I think we kiss in the commercial. And so I met him through doing that commercial, and then I met with him for the show. He's just one of those people—he doesn't really make you audition. He just meets you, and he just thinks you're interesting, and he just sticks you in there. And I was so excited to work with him.
G: Yeah, he's notorious for not auditioning, but just sort of just striking a conversation about anything but the script. Do you remember what you talked about with him?
HG: Um, I think at one point—I remember him telling me that he was doing this art project in his backyard. And that he was putting turkey, and laying it out and having ants crawling on it, and then he was going to, like, I don't know, I think take pictures of it.
G: You were, of course, in the famous finale of that series, too. And that red room has such a mystical quality on screen, but I wonder how much ambience you really feel when you're on a set like that, and how much of it you are bringing to it by sheer force of will as an actor.
HG: Well, I think it's completely me that made that red room good.
HG: I don't know, the red— I think to be honest, it's a lot the director, and the music. I mean, he has the most amazing—you know, Angelo Badalamenti. It's just like the most unbelievable music. I think a lot of it is the music you're playing and the direction—you know, how something looks, and just the tension that he built up, going into the red room, which was such—I love those scenes. It was funny learning how to speak backwards.
G: Who taught you that?
HG: You know, I think it was—what's the name of the guy? [To herself:] What is his name? You know, the midget guy in the—.
G: Michael Anderson.
HG: Yes! He helped us. For some reason, he's, like, brilliant at that.
G: You and Lynch also share an affinity for transcendental meditation, I think. Do you feel that practice has helped you in your art?
HG: Yes, I mean to be honest, he's the one that told me to do it. I remember when I was working on the show, we were talking, and I think I was telling him like, "Oh, you know," telling him that I was just feeling a little bit down, and I wasn't really sure why, and he said, "you know, you should really try meditation." And so he recommended me to his teacher, and that's how I learned. I love it; I still do it every day.
G: I consider your breakthrough film to be Drugstore Cowboy, and you seem to have had a good working relationship with Gus Van Sant: to you, what makes him a good director?
HG: Well, when I did that movie I was so young. He actually—I mean obviously he really knows how to tell a story. And to be honest, as a director, he really didn't direct me that much. I think he sort of, you know, picks great material, and casts something well, and he really—he's just a great storyteller. And he shoots stuff cool, too.
G: Oftentimes probably people ask you about industry horror stories, and I wonder if you have one that sticks out. But also if you have an industry dream experience. Sort of the high and low of your career.
HG: (Inhales.) Hmmmmm. Well, I could say that it is fun to meet some of the people that you meet when you work on these movies and you meet all these amazing people. And it was—I remember going to the Venice Film Festival and being at a party and meeting Bono. And I was with my best friend Nadia and my publicist, who's also a friend of mine, named Robin. And he was like, "Well, we should all go out!" So I remember we all went out to clubs that night. We went out to a club, and we were dancing. And then I think we got on a boat in the middle of the night. I was just like "This is such a crazy—that I would be an actress and that I'm on, like, a gondola with my two best friends and Bono in the middle of the night, just going to clubs." (Laughs.) "This is hilarious."
G: And not to be negative, then, but do you recall a low point?
HG: Well, I think the low point is anytime that people criticize things that you've done or that you aren't working for a long period of time. That can be hard, too. Though sometimes that's incredibly great, because it's wonderful to be lazy. Just hearing a lot of people's opinion about you that can be negative. That can be really, you know, hard.
G: What role of yours, or what piece of work that you've done do you wish more people knew about or had seen, or should seek out?
HG: Hmmm. Hmm.
G: Or that you thought you didn't get enough credit for at the time.
HG: You know, I mean, I like this movie Gray Matters. I hope people see that. You know, a long time ago I did this movie called Committed that not a lot of people saw, but I just thought there was some interesting things about it. It's funny; she cast all these actors that went on to be really famous after the film. But I don't know, there was something about that script that I loved. It's sometimes hard to be objective about the movies that you do and just look at it afterwards and go, "Well, did the magical thing that I saw in the script really come across in the movie?" You know. But there was definitely a feeling about the story that I liked. Y'know, the one thing that I really feel impressed with is making this movie about the Triangle Fire of 1911: that's something I'm doing as a producer, and that's—I've been working on that for years, and I'm really, really impressed with that.
G: Is that something that you have strong forward motion on—is it going to happen soon, you think?
HG: Yeah, you know, I've just been fooling around with the script, and stuff. So I'm hoping—in my mind, I'm thinking of making it next year.
G: Gray Matters takes place in NYC—what does New York mean to you?
HG: Well, I live here now. I'm actually here right now. I think that there's just—New York is a place for a lot of great adventures. And that there's a lot of interesting people. It's just an incredible place to meet people. And to go out at night, and it's a great culture—. (Pause.) I'm looking for the word. Like a great culture mecca, I guess. You know, of all these people coming together: really interesting artistic people.
G: You've done a lot of work that could be described as having a cult audience, and another one that leaps to mind is Arrested Development, which I think is another one for the television history books. I wonder what the set of that show was like. In my mind it would be kind of crazy, and I know there was a lot of pressure that they weren't getting the ratings they wanted, and all that.
HG: Well, I love that show. It was so funny. The set was so great. I mean, all those people are so funny. I remember doing this one scene where we're in a high-school party and basically, you know, all the different actors were doing some improvs and it was just—everyone was cracking me up so much. It was really, really fun.
G: Do you have a sense of what your fan base is like? Do you have a contact with your fans?
HG: I mean, I guess how—sometimes I feel like, as an actor—"Oh, I'm really struggling," you know. And then I'll go out in the street, and so many people will come up to me and say nice things, or people can be just really, really—. Sometimes I just feel like someone will just really just get what I'm trying to do, and it just feels so good. So it's weird: it's a mixture of—you know, feel like you're fighting sometimes to get jobs or to get the movies made that you want to get made. And then sometimes you just feel, like, this outpouring of meeting these wonderful people who really have gotten a lot from what you've done.
G: Thank you for your time, Heather, and I hope when you're promoting the films that you're producing you'll come out and visit us in San Francisco.
HG: Oh, thanks, I'd love to! Actually, my best friend, she lives up there in Los Altos.
G: Alright, thanks a lot—
[For Groucho's review of Gray Matters, click here.]