From Boogie Nights to The Hangover, why does Heather Graham continually return to stripper-pornstar roles? Paul Byrne gets the scope in our latest hungover interview!
It was the role that launched her career, and in many ways, Heather Graham is Rollergirl from 1997’s Boogie Nights.
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Like that wide-eyed, star-struck kid from Paul Thomas Anderson’s wonderful trip through San Fernando Valley’s porn industry of the 1970s and early ’80s, Graham’s move into the wonderful world of filmmaking didn’t exactly come with a seal of approval from her parents, James and Joan, two Irish Americans who had raised their daughter in the strict Catholic tradition.
They didn’t raise their daughter to start dating the 44-year old James Woods when she was barely out of her teens.
Having started acting whilst still in high school, Graham dropped out of the University of California at Los Angeles early, to pursue acting, a move that finally paid off with Boogie Nights. It’s a role that won the young actress enormous acclaim, and roles in such big-budget outings as Lost In Space (1998) and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999).
Graham has never enjoyed that kind of acclaim again, as the movies themselves (Say It Isn’t So, From Hell, The Guru, Hope Springs, Miss Conception) proved increasingly unpopular, and a TV vehicle last year, Emily’s Reason Why Not, was cancelled after four episodes.
Not that Ms. Graham looks all that bothered when I met up with her in Dublin’s Merrion Hotel earlier this week. Even though her role as a stripper mum is little more than a cameo, Graham’s latest movie, The Hangover, is sitting at no.1 in the US. And her current boyfriend, Yaniv Raz (the writer/director of Son Of Mourning, starring, yep, Heather Graham), is out at the Guinness Brewery, soaking up Ireland for the first time.
Q: The Hangover hardly has the most original premise – Las Vegas bachelor party goes wrong; it’s written by the duo, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who gave us the goddawful Four Christmases and Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past; and director Todd Phillips is coming off a flop, 2006’s School For Scoundrels remake. Were you at all reluctant to sign up?
HEATHER GRAHAM: What’s School For Scoundrels?
Remake of an old black’n’white comedy, with Billy Bob Thornton and the nerdy guy from Napoleon Dynamite…
Ah, that’s right, that’s right. You know what, I loved Old School, so, to me, it’s like, there are a lot of people who can make a bad movie, but to make a really good movie shows that you’re talented. I actually never saw School For Scoundrels, so, I can’t speak for it, but I just thought the script here was really funny, and my love of Old School just hooked me in.
The opening Friday of $16.5m is the second biggest ever for an R-rated comedy, and the weekend take of $45m nabbed the no.1 spot. The critics are raving too – realise early on that this was special?
I think we were all just really excited to have the job, because Todd is able to cast people – he doesn’t have to cast Ben Stiller; he’s cast the people he really wants to cast. Actors who are good. I feel like it’s cool that he got the cast that he wanted, and he cast these fresh people like Zach Galifianakis. We haven’t seen him before as the lead in a movie, so, that’s cool. I think Todd was pretty brave, and he just goes for it.
When it came to playing stripper Jade, Todd had a friend whose girlfriend had a ‘whatever’ attitude to her stripper job – was there a need to think about this character much?
I guess I thought, I don’t want to make her… It’s not a Leaving Las Vegas movie, right, so, I didn’t think my character should be totally devastated. I just thought it would be more fun to make her a new age hippy stripper, where I’ve got this sexuality, and it’s my gift to the world, but I’m ready to move on now, and get married. I’d like to get married now, you know? I tried to picture here as very hippy. When I read for Todd, he said, ‘You have a hippy quality’.
Sounds autobiographical – ‘I’ve had my fun here, but I’m ready to settle down…’?
Maybe. Maybe I am, actually. I guess you relate to things that are going on in your life. But that’s what I thought – yeah, I’ve had this crazy life, and I had this baby with this guy, but he’s not around, so, I think it would be nice to settle down with this guy?
I read that having the six babies that play your little tyke in the movie around didn’t exactly make you feel maternal though?
I know. My best friend has the most amazing kids – I’m so in love with her kids – but some babies are so obnoxious, and two of the six babies, they would just cry so much. I felt so bad.
Those early years, when you moved to Hollywood, your parents, James and Joan, were not impressed. Did you have any doubts?
They were protective, yeah, and I definitely had doubts, for sure. I guess, you know, you have something you like doing, and even if you have doubts, you think, oh, this is what I’m supposed to be doing, so, I’ll just keep doing it.
Did the success of Boogie Nights take away any doubts that you might have had?
That movie helped a lot, but I still have doubts all the time [laughs]. I wish I didn’t. Do you?
Very rarely. I’m really good at my job, and I’m incredibly good-looking, so…
That’s good, that’s good. Well, I think too much, and if you think all the time, all kinds of crazy thoughts go in there.
Like me, you’ve never been afraid to use your sexuality, and you’ve excelled at taking on male fantasy roles that most women would shy away from – perhaps because you’re blessed with an angelic face and a kick-ass body. Is that something you recognised early on? Took a look in the mirror and though, hey, I’m going to use this…?
[Laughs] That’s hilarious. Gosh, I don’t know. I think I was pretty naive as a kid. I didn’t think, oh my gosh… Actually, I remember I was going to read for a job, and normally I wouldn’t really pay any attention to what I was wearing, but this guy said, ‘Wear that, and you’ll get the part’. I was like, ‘Really?!’. I think I was pretty clueless. It took a while for me to understand what was going on.
When did you realise what was going on? In the same way that Samuel L. Jackson will always play the big scary blackman, it seems that Heather Graham will always play the angelic country girl who just got off the bus. In San Fernando Valley.
That’s funny. I guess it’s once you start getting those parts. It’s more about being an actor, and, I don’t know, ‘this works’. You start to learn. I was kinda like a serious kid though. I remember not knowing how to dress. I was pretty clueless. I think some people helped me figure out what to do by being in movies, probably, and having people dress me. I remember in high school, I wore the worst clothes. I remember I did this teen movie, and this wardrobe woman said, ‘You should wear this. And this’, and she put me in these clothes, and I was like, ‘Wow! I didn’t know I could dress like this’. I see girls now, and they dress so sexy as teenagers, and I was just like wearing the worst, ugly, not-sexy clothes. It was the eighties, though.
Was there a day when you realised that you could dress a certain way to make people go ‘Bada-Boom!’?
[Laughs] Yeah. Or maybe you learn though your boyfriends? ‘Yeah, wear that!’ [laughs].
The Hollywood life is a tough one, for most people – have you ever struggled for work?
I’ve definitely struggled for work, but I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve never had to get another job. So, I made enough money that I didn’t have to get another job, but definitely there were years where I went on a lot of auditions and didn’t get almost any jobs. I’ve struggled, but I’ve been really lucky too. I’ve been able to keep working as an actor, and make a living.
Is there a part of you that wants to fight against a stereotype? People will often assume you’re there for a certain kind of role, given how good you look…
Thank you, that’s sweet. I have played some other things that have been different, but they just haven’t been as seen or successful as the sexy parts. I just got offered this cool movie, about this Russian actress. It’s starts when she’s this really glamourous actress, but then she gets thrown in prison, and she’s tortured, and she’s there for ten years. That’s cool, because there’s all these different things going on.
I can’t imagine you looking bad, like you’ve been beaten down by ten years in prison…
Ah, that’s sweet. Without professional hair and make-up, I might not look that good [laughs].
Same here. You had a strict Catholic upbringing, which would explain a lot…
Look at those crazy Catholic girls [laughs]. They’re the craziest girls of all. God bless strict Catholic upbringings – otherwise, there wouldn’t be such wonderful explosions of rebellious carnal madness…
Did you have a strict Catholic upbringing?
Kinda. Church ever Sunday, and the general fear of any man in a white collar, but it didn’t cause too many nightmares. Did that oppression spark your desire to become who you are now?
I guess it’s hard to look at yourself from the outside and be so objective. ‘Oh, are you rebelling against this?’ I guess this is just who I am. And I guess there’s just something about sexuality that I find interesting. And I’m a woman. You look at the roles for women – it’s not like there’s a lot of choices out there. Not many war movies. Yeah, I don’t know, it’s hard to be completely objective, to figure out, well, did my upbringing make me who I am, or is this just who I am?
Would your parents accept now that you have a good life?
Yeah, they try to be supportive…
Do you feel that this is the life you dreamt of, or are you still waiting for that perfect happiness?
I feel really lucky, and I feel really grateful, but there are still things that I want to do, so, I guess it’s a mixture of the two.
You just finished two movies on this side of the Atlantic – Miss Conception and Boogie Woogie; pure coincidence that they were both in the UK, or are you thinking about a move?
Who wouldn’t want to come over here and work? It’s great, you know. There’s a lot of amazing actors who are Irish and English, and Scottish, and stuff, so, it’s so cool. In Boogie Woogie, I got to meet Charlotte Rampling.
I read that you dabble in a bit of light witchcraft with a group of your female friends, calling yourselves The Goddesses. I’d really like to join…
Well, we do have an honorary guy in there, so…
All just fun and games, right? Or are you deeply into this hocus pocus stuff?
It is just fun. It’s kind of just your intention. If your intention was, you want to become a writer, well, then you just become a writer. If you’re clear about what you want, and you put it out there, sometimes it comes to you. Or maybe I’m just a witch.
There’s definitely something going on here. I’m guessing you’ve got a few spells going on right now…
There are a lot of spells…
You’ve got a script based on The Goddesses…?
Yeah, yeah, I’m writing a script about it. It’s kinda cool, because all of us, like, really amazing things have happened to all of us. I’ve just written the first draft, and now I’m going through it, but, I don’t know, I read it, and it’s just hilarious. Because we all met in this female empowerment class, and it was really crazy. It’s very wacky and silly, but kind of amazing, so, I just wrote the whole experience.
Why the hell would Heather Graham need female empowerment classes?
It’s amazing. They were so fun, and I made a lot of really good friends. It would make for a really funny movie, because class is so silly, but at the same time, it’s really cool.
The roles for women in Hollywood seems to have gotten better, when you look at the likes of Streep, Sarandon, Foster, etc. Do you think about getting old in this business?
Well, I guess it’s like, you hope you can get those amazing parts, like Streep or Sarandon – or The African Queen. I guess you don’t know, and that’s why I’ve started working on developing stuff, and producing. I want to see more women at different ages in movies, and hopefully I’ll be part of that.
Finding true love in this business is tough too. Do you accept that, given the nomadic nature of the job?
Well, my boyfriend’s with me right now, and it’s kinda great, because he’s a writer/director, and he can come with me and write. So, hopefully, things can work out where, when he’s working, I can travel with him too. It would be ideal if you can both travel like that, I guess.
You’ve been here before? Holiday? Researching Mary Kelly for From Hell?
[Laughs] Okay, once I came with a boyfriend, and… twice I came. I worked here once. I worked in Belfast for two months. When I was a kid, just out of high school, I came here with my sister, and we just drove up and down the west coast. We went from Donegal down to the Beara Pennisula. So, I’ve been here twice.
Looking over your career, it’s hard to see a pattern? Is there one?
Certain scripts come up, or certain directors, and it usually works like that. But, yeah, maybe I need a gameplan. Thanks for reminding me about that.
I was disappointed too, in my research, to find little or no trace of you in the tabloids – what’s going on there?
I never go out. It’s funny, my friend knows the US Weekly editor, and she was telling me that a lot of those actors call the paparazzi and tell them where they’re going. You kinda know, if you live in LA or New York, where the paparazzi are going to be.
Celebrity is perhaps the world’s strongest currency right now. Aren’t you interested in cashing in?
Not really. I was reading this article about Angelina Jolie, where she calls people and say, ‘I’m going to the park with my kids, and you can take photos if you want, but I’m not going to do any interviews’. She does these amazing humanitarian things, and she says, ‘I’m going to be here, and you can take pictures’. And I thought, wow, maybe I should have been doing that? [Laughs]…
Words : Paul Byrne “The Hangover” is in Irish cinemas from Friday, June 12th.