Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Between films, television variety specials, and jeans commercials, Brooke Shields spent the later part of her pre-adolescence and most of her teen years as a virtually ubiquitous pop-culture icon. Although she struggled to find her place in Hollywood as an adult, Shields eventually earned the opportunity to showcase her comedy chops with the NBC sitcom Suddenly Susan. In addition to a role in director Susan Seidelman’s upcoming basketball movie, The Hot Flashes, Shields is also returning to ABC’s The Middle to reprise her role as Frankie Heck’s neighbor/nemesis, Rita Glossner.
The Middle (2010-present)—“Rita Glossner”
Brooke Shields: One of my more glamorous roles. [Laughs.]
The A.V. Club: You already had a history with executive producers DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler, since they created the pilot for Lipstick Jungle, but how did your guest spot on The Middle come to pass?
BS: You know, I think Patty Heaton also had something to do with sanctioning and being sort of positive about my playing the character. I obviously knew DeAnn and Eileen, and we’d had a good time and a good relationship, but I think it was just that they were looking for someone who would be somewhat of a surprise in a role like that. [Laughs.] It’s not a role that I commonly play. But then I could tell that Patty was very excited about it, because she wanted to add a cold sore to Rita. So I knew that she was thinking a lot about my character… and not sabotaging me at all.
AVC: So how much input did you yourself have into the character?
BS: I said, “You know, she has to have a mullet. And she should have tattoos.” And I got there and they had all that ready. Now, whether I actually originated that thought or they were just so happy that I’d suggested something that they’d already thought of, I don’t know. But I did say, “If I’m going to do this, it really should be all out.” But not cartoonish. Oddly enough, there still had to be an element of believability to her. Even if it was a heightened reality. But when they asked me, I didn’t hesitate for a second. I was hoping, actually, that they would let me go as far as I did. Many times I’ll get hired and then people sort of get scared and don’t want me to look bad or possibly be unappealing. So it was nice that they were very willing to have me both look bad and be unappealing!
AVC: What did your kids think of your performance?
BS: They said, “Ew, gross.” They only saw the pictures, though. They haven’t seen the actual performance. But I’m sure they’ll be more interested in the fact that it looks like I cigarette—they call it “cigaretting”—and that my son on the show wears cowboy boots and diapers and that’s it. I think they were really impressed with that in the photos.
AVC: Based on these comments, presumably you didn’t blink an eye when they asked you to reprise the role.
BS: I said yes without even looking at the script. [Laughs.]
After The Fall (1974)—“Quentin’s Daughter”
BS: Oh, gosh! Well, that was basically my first job, my first role on film. It was a stage presentation filmed for television, and I walk on the stage, I sit on my father’s lap, and then I walk off the stage. That was my big moment. But I think I was brilliant. I did a lot of research to prepare for that part.
AVC: Plus, the lap in question belonged to Christopher Plummer, so it’s not a bad way to start an acting career.
BS: [Laughs.] Why, yes, the lap in question did belong to Christopher Plummer. So it could’ve been worse. And he was very sweet.
Annie Hall (1977)—“Student” (scene deleted)
AVC: So what led you into a career in acting in the first place?
BS: Well, as far as a career, it was actually a role that was destined never to be seen. In Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall, I played a little girl in the school play. I was… God, I was 8 when we filmed it. Maybe not even that. I actually just found pictures from it, which is pretty amazing. But I was in the school scene where it was him as a little boy, and he falls in love with this girl who’s in the Thanksgiving pageant, and I, uh, played a sexy pilgrim. [Laughs.] And I sort of flirt with him. I’m actually next to the girl who’s in leather, in the next row, but I got cut out. But that was my first role in movies, and it allowed me to get cast in other movies.
Alice Sweet Alice (1976)—“Karen Spages”
Freaked (1993)—“Skye Daley”
BS: Freaked was fun. That was a lot of fun, because I got to have monster legs. [Laughs.] And the prosthetics were a first for me, at least having something that large. When I was nine, I did a movie called Alice Sweet Alice, in which I get burned, and I had a prosthetic thing on my face, but I get killed pretty early on. In Freaked, it was just fun to be surrounded by all those actors who were young and really talented. And I’d never worked with a special-effects team like that. It was really like being a part of a very intricate, well-oiled machine, because of the squibs and the special effects and the mechanics. It was very intricate, but it was just a lot of fun playing that over-the-top, strange character who really is a monster.
BS: Oh, yeah, and all of those guys who were in it were great. Just a wide variety of actors and comedians.
AVC: Well, since you brought it up, what was the Alice Sweet Alice experience like?
BS: Well, there was the prosthetic, of course, but being all-of 9 years old, I thought being burned in a deacon’s bench meant you would get all charcoaled, like you would a steak, so I had no idea what I would look like. And because we were filming in the basements of all these churches… Filming the movie was almost as scary as the movie itself, and I think it’s one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. Although I don’t see a lot of them, so… But they did my makeup, and when I looked in the mirror—it was literally part of a cracked mirror, just a piece of a mirror—and they said, “This is what you look like!” And it looked like I had pizza stuck to my face, at which point I started to cry. And all the tears went down on the prosthetic, and they kept going, “Don’t cry! Don’t cry! Please don’t cry! You’re going to ruin the makeup!” [Laughs.]
BS: Not as memorable. [Laughs.] The trip was more memorable to me than I remember liking the movie. It was fun being in Israel for four months and driving a car. I flipped a car once, and I was in it, so that was a big deal. They’d mounted the camera on the side of the car, and it flipped it over, because they didn’t balance it on the other side. Stuff like that happened all the time. It was enjoyable to be in the Negev desert and in Eilat and sort of in the Dead Sea, but the experience of it and living there for that long was definitely more memorable than the movie itself was. For me, anyway.
AVC: Your co-star from the film, John Rhys-Davies, said he had some problems on the film as well, but he spoke very highly of you.
BS: Oh, he’s so sweet. He was so respectful and lovely, despite the fact that he had to, like, rape me in the film. [Laughs.] He kept saying, “Are you okay? Are you okay?” He was such a gentleman.
Hannah Montana (2007-2009) / Hannah Montana: The Movie (2009)—“Miley’s Mom”
BS: Playing Miley’s mom made me a big hit with my children’s friends. And with my daughter to a certain extent, but she didn’t like that I called Miley [Cyrus] “my little girl,” so Miley had to say, “Thank you for sharing your mom!” [Laughs.] But I think, more interestingly, it widened my demographic in a way that I just couldn’t even believe. I was just recently in The Addams Family [on Broadway], and backstage and out front, the people who were waiting in line for me to sign their Playbills, it ran the gamut, but just so many of these young, young kids would come up to me. A few years ago, I didn’t dress up for Halloween when I took my kids trick-or-treating, and I was more recognized by the 7- and 8-year-olds than I ever imagined. I thought I would be safe, but they all knew me as Hannah Montana’s mother. And then the grandparents know me as somebody that they wanted their daughters to sort of look at, because I stood up for, uh, good things. [Laughs.] But being Hannah Montana’s mother has just given me a whole new fan base, and they’re so sweet. I’ve done Nickelodeon movies now!
Quantum Leap (1992)—“Vanessa Foster”
BS: I had more fun doing that character and working with Scott Bakula. He made me laugh, and it was such a good screen kiss. [Laughs.] He was so sweet. Just lovely. And we had so much fun in the mud fight. And we both threw ourselves into… Well, I throw myself into everything, but this was a full-on mud fight. Then we did the underwater scenes, and they didn’t take into account that the prom dress I was wearing was going to get so heavy when I went into the water. They had little frogmen at the bottom with tanks, I was supposed to fall over and swim from point A to point B, and it was all lit underneath, but I fell over and the weight of the wet dress was like a lead balloon, and it sunk me down to the bottom. And they thought I was acting, but I couldn’t get up, and I was absolutely terrified. And drowning. Then finally one of the guys with a tank went down and got me, and he breathed with me and gave me oxygen. And I said, “Please, I don’t want to do it again. I don’t want to do it again!” But, of course, I had to do it again. [Laughs.] Welcome to Hollywood.
The Blue Lagoon (1980)—“Emmeline”
BS: That was… again, a lot of the movies I did were, for me, more important in the experience that I had filming them. I made all of my movies during the summer, so that I wouldn’t miss any school, and I lived entirely different lives for the three or three-and-a-half months of the summer. So when I lived on that island for the entire time, I became like an island kid. I mean, we dove for shells to make people presents, we swam with sharks, we rode wild horses… things I don’t think you’d ever do now, because they’d probably helicopter people in and then fly them to a Four Seasons each day after you wrapped. But we lived in huts that had rats. There was just this kind of raw way of filming that they were still able to do in the early ’80s. So when I look back at these movies…
Whenever I see the movies, I’m less wowed by the films themselves. And especially not by my performances, because I was never directed. They thought because I was me, that was enough, and I was so famous…Well, I really wasn’t famous until after Blue Lagoon. Or maybe Pretty Baby, I guess. But most of the directors didn’t feel the need to direct me. It didn’t matter if they directed me or helped me hone in. They didn’t care if I had talent. Who knew if I even had any? [Laughs.] But if I did, it definitely was never nurtured. So looking back at those early films, the most memorable aspects of a huge number of them were where I was and who I was working with, the relationships and the family, rather than my sort of squeaky voice. I may have looked unique and pretty, but I think Pretty Baby and Endless Love were really the only two of those early movies that I was actually directed in.
Lipstick Jungle (2008-2009)—“Wendy Healy”
BS: I miss Wendy Healy every day. I also miss Susan [from Suddenly Susan], but I really miss Wendy Healy. And the other cast members do, too. Whenever we send each other emails, they only send them to Wendy Healy. And that includes Candace [Bushnell, series creator]. It had such potential. Let’s put it that way. I think we just got caught in such an unfortunate political game. We were really starting to hit our stride, and… There’s not a week that goes by or a plane ride that I take that a woman doesn’t come up to me and say, “Why did they ever cancel Lipstick Jungle?” I’m like, “I don’t know!” I’ll be one of those old ladies who sits there with her remote control—if there are still remote controls by then—watching my old Lipstick Jungle episodes over and over. [Mock sobbing.] “Look at how wonderful I am in this episode!” Glug, glug, glug, as I’m drinking Scotch. [Laughs.] Oh God, I hope people get that I’m joking…
But, yeah, Wendy Healy was sort of my first adult role that had both comedy and depth of character. It was the most like me of anyone I’d ever played, and it was just so natural. It felt so easy and… well, not easy. But it felt so natural to me. And I just adore New York. I loved it. I thought she was great, and I miss her.
AVC: And, as noted earlier, you obviously forged an ongoing friendship with DeAnn and Eileen on the show.
BS: Oh, yes, absolutely! I mean, we were sorry to see them go, you know? I had no… again, I’m always very naive about the political play that happens with these shows. It’s just sort of… I’m so busy with my life and trying to not get too crazy about all the politics, and yet you have no power when people think you do have the power. Very few do. But we loved working with DeAnn and Eileen, that’s for sure!
[To clarify the “political play” in question, Heline and Heisler created the pilot and were set to serve as showrunners, but while the series was still in pre-production, Ben Silverman replaced Kevin Reilly as NBC’s president of entertainment, at which point he decided that he wanted to bring in his own people to run the show instead. So although Heline and Heisler received credit on the entire run of the show, they were not actually involved. – Ed.]
Just You And Me, Kid (1979)—“Kate”
BS: Just You And Me, Kid was just a lovely Hollywood experience, where the old guard was still intact. You were on the lot, you got a bike, and you sort of felt like there was still a semblance of the studio system. I got to work with all of these legendary actors and prestidigitators. [Laughs.] They were amazing comedians, these old guys. George Burns could not have been more of an ideal grandfather figure to me. He was just so funny. And then I made him laugh! It was just such an elevating emotional experience for me. I couldn’t even tell you what the movie was about, but I remember the coat with the fake hands, running away and hiding and being another squeaky-voiced little kid. But it didn’t matter, because making those movies was my summer sport. My friends went to camp; I made my movies. I can’t say I ever really took them seriously. I took my work seriously, but not as a craft. More as a life.
AVC: With that film, it seems like even the critics who didn’t necessarily love the film were fans of the scenes with George Burns playing poker with his buddies, who were played by Ray Bolger, Burl Ives, Carl Ballantine, and Keye Luke.
BS: Because those are people who were a dying breed, even back then. The actors from that era still had such a genuine quality to them. I’m not sure if I knew that when I was 13, but I did know that I was in the presence of kind, talented, funny people. That’s just my sensibility. It always goes to humor. If you’re humorous and you’re nice, then I’m sunk. [Laughs.]
Tales From The Crypt (1993)—“Norma”
BS: [Sighs.] That was an unfortunate experience. I loved the show, and I really wanted to work with… was it Uli Edel? Yeah. And I was so excited to work with him because of his sort of pedigree, so I kind of said yes just hearing an outline of the show. But the problem was that he didn’t really know enough about… They were smart to get film directors, these very cinematic directors, on the show, but the problem was that if you ran out of time, you didn’t get more time and more money. You just got a shorter script. So it, uh, didn’t make any sense. Our episode didn’t make any sense. I mean, it was the druid princesses, the guy picks me up, he wants to dress as a woman… It didn’t even fall into the normally well-crafted Tales From The Crypt scenario, where you can kind of track it in sort of a Twilight Zone way. You knew it was going to look cinematic, but it was just a disaster. We spent all our money, and we spent most of our time out in the rain at 3 o’clock in the morning, and then they were like, “Oh, let’s tie her to a bed, and then he’s going to dress up as a woman…” There was just nothing that you could follow. Seriously, it was a disaster! [Laughs.]
And Perry King… poor Perry King. I don’t know, he was in his own world about where his career was at that time, and you could tell he was like, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” I’m never going to do anything and look down on it. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to be 100 percent. I’m going to treat it like it’s the best thing in the world. I’m not going to do it and say, “I can’t believe where my career is.” Because it’s just… I feel lucky whenever I get asked to be a part of something. And I’m going to take it seriously, or I’m not going to do it at all. And I get asked to do plenty of things that I don’t do because I know I’ll feel fake doing them. But I went into Tales From The Crypt so wholeheartedly, and then I was so disappointed and so frustrated, going, “This just doesn’t make any sense! There’s no storyline, it doesn’t track, and why am I strapped to a bed?!?” [Laughs.]
It was just horrible. I liked the scenes in the car, because at least they felt somewhat realistic, but mostly I was just thinking, “What a shame… and what a waste of money.” It was just such a depressing thing, and did I even see the full thing? I might not have even watched it, because I was just so disgruntled. But I did get voted the best screamer in all of Tales From The Crypt. [Laughs.] You know, that sort of classic thing where you’re backed up against the wall, just before you’re about to die, and you give a bloodcurdling scream? So, yeah, the crew did vote me the best, most bloodcurdling screamer.
AVC: Well, that’s got to count for something, surely.
BS: Yes, it does. It was a perfect Dear Diary moment. [Laughs.]
The Misadventures Of Margaret (1998)—“Lily”
The Weekend (1999)—“Nina”
BS: [Misadventures Of Margaret] was with Parker Posey. We filmed all in London. The director, Brian Skeet, had said that I reminded him of… Eve Arden? Is that possible? I don’t remember for sure. But he said that he wanted the character to be sort of an over-the-top lipstick lesbian. [Laughs.]
AVC: That was right at the tail end of when Parker Posey was seen as kind of the queen of the indie films.
BS: Right. And it was so much fun working with her. I mean, she’s such a unique person, and she’s funny and quirky and intense. It was great. Elizabeth McGovern is one of my favorite actresses of all time, and we became really good friends after that, which was just such a gift.
I also ended up doing The Weekend with Brian after that, which was one of the first, one of the only times I’ve worked with a director more than once. [Laughs.] But The Weekend was probably one of the most important experiences for me, because to work with Gena Rowlands and play her daughter was a dream. It was something I always wanted to have happen, because she’d always reminded me of my mother. And just to be able to be with her, I learned so much from her. We lived in this big house, everybody on the film, for a few months out in Rhinebeck, and it was just such an unbelievable experience. Jared Harris was in it, too. Just all of these talented, smart human beings. And we got to play this story that was one of the first real mature roles that I felt I really had as a film actress.
Late Night With Jimmy Fallon: Downton Sixbey (2012)—“Lady Nora”
BS: I’m such a fan of Downton Abbey and, of course, to be able to pay homage to Elizabeth and her character… It’s just too good. It’s unbelievable. I wish we could do a whole season of those shows, because it’s just unbelievable to be with Jimmy and all the guys. The stuff that happens between the filming is almost always even funnier than what makes the cut. [Laughs.] It’s a very young director doing them, and I absolutely love the look of it. I think it looks so real. It’s so beautiful the way they do it, the makeup and the hair and the costumes. That’s one of my favorite eras to be in. If I could live in that era, I would.
The Midnight Meat Train (2008)—“Susan Hoff”
BS: That was such a quick experience. I went in and auditioned for it and got it instantly, and we had, like, one shoot for a couple of hours, and that was it. I got friendly with Leslie Bibb at that point, which was nice, because we ended up working together later [in the Roger Kumble play Girls Talk] and still remain really good friends. I finally saw the whole thing, and I thought it was terrifying, but I, uh, never really understood the end. Also, the director [Ryuhei Kitamura] was Japanese, so I have to admit that I couldn’t always understand what he was saying. Ever. [Laughs.] That was also right as Bradley Cooper was about to break big, and he was still married to Jennifer Esposito at that point, so… it’s always funny when everything’s on the brink of changing.
Speed Zone (1989)—“Stewardess / Brooke Shields”
BS: Yeah, I was playing myself, which… It was pretty rare to get to play myself at the time, so I was glad I got to play it bitchy. [Laughs.] Plus, I got to talk back to one of the Smothers Brothers. I mean, they’re basically national treasures, so that actually felt wrong!
Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)—“Carol Ferris”
BS: That was fun. I love doing the animated stuff. But working in that genre… The process is both similar to working on a film and yet very different. They’re very interesting people to work with, voice actors. Their roles are all much more fleshed-out than you’d think, and they really understand their characters. In fact, it was weird for me to just do a regular voice and not play with my voice and do some sort of caricature.
King Of The Gypsies (1978)—“Tita”
AVC: It seems like everyone we’ve talked to who was in King Of The Gypsies is loath to discuss much of the experience.
BS: Really? You know, I mean, I touched on this earlier, but that was an era where it was kind of “everything goes” when it came to filmmaking. It was as if everyone was kind of crazy. You know, Sterling Hayden was lovely, but I didn’t really have to work with him that much. Shelley Winters was just… loony. [Laughs.] She made me eat ham and ketchup on white bread sandwiches, because she said she was a method actor and that’s what happens. But I was like, “Yeah, but… I hate ham and ketchup! How am I supposed to do it? If it’s method, I’m supposed to pick the sandwich that I want, right?” Eric Roberts was in his prime in his, uh, Eric Roberts way. Susan Sarandon was my mother.
It was sort of like we lived the life. We were all on night shoots in New York City, and you got the feeling that it was more of a documentary. They didn’t have stunt people protecting me. We got into a crazy car accident and we couldn’t get out of the car, and Eric wanted to do all of his own stunts… It was just stuff like that. It was just unprecedented. But I was young. If I was older, it might’ve affected me a little bit more, because I might’ve been… I wasn’t drinking or doing drugs or sleeping with anybody or any of those antics. It was Dino De Laurentiis producing, and… Basically, it was a very debaucherous production. The word “Caligula-esque” comes to mind. But, you know, it was New York in the ’70s. You could do anything you wanted… and, uh, I think that might be why people aren’t opening up a whole lot. [Laughs.]
Brenda Starr (1989)—“Brenda Starr”
BS: I loved it. I was so thrilled that it was happening. I think in hindsight the problem was that it was never backed by a studio. It was [Menahem] Golan and [Yoram] Globus, and it was all sort of fishy to begin with. We also were the first of that kind of comic-book movie, and unfortunately it took seven years to get released, by which point Batman and Dick Tracy and every other superhero and cartoon-inspired movie had already come. We were originally going to be part of that first batch. I always thought it was unfortunate, because the idea and the cast were both so good. Timothy Dalton! But the direction fell short, and it got legally tied up, so to me it was such a shame. I think that movie could’ve been… It was really fun, and I thought it was unique. And I loved playing that character. She’s still one of my favorites.
Freeway (1996)—“Mimi Wolverton”
BS: Freeway was… Well, I loved working with Kiefer [Sutherland], because he’s just such a smart actor who’s always thinking. It was a little disturbing, though, because I was such a cheesy, crazy character, and to actually blow your brains out onscreen… It was a little disconcerting, I have to say. [Laughs.] But Matthew Bright… Whenever I get to work with these sort of quirky indie directors with interesting sensibilities, I’m always fascinated, because they’re these young guys who have an obsession with a genre or something, and they really have a vision. The whole movie was obviously inspired by Red Riding Hood, but it’s always refreshing with guys like Matthew, because they’re not trying to be commercial. Freaked is another example. You’re working with people who really do have an artistic sensibility, and it’s less about commerce and more about the quality of the product. It’s just refreshing. I remember every detail, all the way down to the furniture and the yellow bow stuck to the wall. It’s just this totally morbid, dark, weird humor, and I always appreciate that.
That ’70s Show (2004)—“Pamela Burkhart”
BS: A spray tan and lots and lots of hair. [Laughs.] That was such a well-oiled machine over there, and all of them couldn’t have been nicer to me. All of the kids, Debra Jo [Rupp]… Everyone was just respectful, no one was a brat, and it was nice to see a successful show where everyone was still good people. I also brought my baby to work, and they had a little nursery set up because the showrunner had just had a baby. It was a harkening back to the sitcom days that I’d just loved so much, and I got to have fun being cheesy. And tan. There’s one scene where I’m supposed to flash someone, and the camera was behind me, so… I can’t remember what I wrote, but I taped something over my boobs and wrote something for them to read.
The Muppet Show (1980)—herself
The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)—“Customer in Pete’s”
The Muppets: A Celebration Of 30 Years (1986)—herself
BS: My understanding is that I’m the only actor who ever got to work in the workshop and make a Muppet that actually ended up in a crowd scene. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did The Muppet Show work with its guests? Did they pitch sketches to you, or were you able to suggest ideas?
BS: Well, unfortunately, because I played Alice in Wonderland on the episode, there was a plot in place and I had to do so much of it on green screen that I didn’t really get to work with them as much as some. They didn’t really pitch me any ideas other than that. But then I went on to do The Muppets Take Manhattan, which was fun. The whole group was really like a family. We filmed the show over in England, and I spent a lot of time with Jim [Henson] and his family. He was such a down-to-earth, sweet man whose dreams and his creative mind were so far ahead of his time. And, God, his heart was just so amazing. You got that feeling whenever you were around him. They were just this big family that put on a show and played all day. It was amazing seeing how many voices everybody got to play, and… They really were alive, the Muppets. You just feel that they’re really alive. I also ended up doing a huge show (The Muppets: A Celebration Of 30 Years) with Miss Piggy and Kermit and the whole gang as a tribute, but it was also the first time they ever really showed how the Muppets are operated. So they had a split stage, we were all on top of it, and the bottom was not cloaked, so you got to see them with the monitors and really see how it’s done. But even though you saw it being done, they still seemed alive.
AVC: I can appreciate that: I once did a brief interview with Kevin Clash, and it didn’t occur to me until after the fact that I’d held the recorder in front of Elmo the entire time.
BS: [Laughs.] You see? It’s kind of amazing, really.
What Makes A Family (2001)—“Janine Nielssen”
BS: I wanted to work with Cherry Jones so much. She’s such a quality actress, and I’d seen her on stage so much. Again I was playing a lesbian. It seems to be an occasional theme. [Laughs.] A very dramatic role, and one where I was really directed, which, as you can probably tell by now, I always appreciate. It was a true story, and I don’t do a lot of those. I don’t really enjoy doing too many of them. But the director [Maggie Greenwald] was a woman who I just loved talking to and wanted to work with, and, of course, Cherry Jones was amazing, but to be in a movie and get to play it down so much was really nice for me, because it was unique.
Bob The Butler (2005)—“Anne Jamieson”
BS: Tom Green was so funny. We would go out and it was like being with the mayor, because we were in Canada, where everyone knows him. We’d just go on these bar crawls, and we got into so much trouble together.
AVC: The prospect of going on a bar crawl with Tom Green seems pretty daunting.
BS: Yeah, you do sort of take your life into your own hands. [Laughs.] But there’s no malice with him. He’s like Gumby. Somewhere between Gumby and the Scarecrow. But he’s just really funny. He’s got a really great sense of humor. We laughed so much making that movie. Kids really love that movie.
Friends (1996)—“Erika Ford”
Suddenly Susan (1996-2000)—“Susan Keane”
AVC: It’s been said that your appearance on Friends was directly responsible for you getting your own sitcom in Suddenly Susan. Is that more or less accurate?
BS: That was one of those drugstore-counter scenarios that… I don’t even know if they happen anymore. I was asked to do the episode of Friends, I said yes without even seeing the script… Are we seeing a pattern? [Laughs.] My bad. But with Friends, it was great. I was such a fan of that show, and to be a part of it for their Super Bowl episode, I was just beside myself. I couldn’t believe it. And then to play this crazy character? It was amazing.
But when we were doing it, they started pulling me back, and they were worried that I wouldn’t be likeable, or that the stakes would be too high for Joey, and, like, “Why would he like a crazy person?” And I’m like, “If you make her attractive enough, the crazy is going to go much farther than you think, because he’s a guy.” [Laughs.] It’s like, “Dude, c’mon!” But they were, “No, no, no,” so I just thought, “Okay, there’s another one bites the dust. It’s gonna be another thing where I’m just underused and not challenged and not allowed to be as risky as I always want to be.” And we did the whole first day of filming and the first run-through in front of an audience, and I wanted to do some things, but they told me not to do them. And I said, “Okay, all right, you guys know better. You do my favorite show. I’ll do whatever you tell me to do.” So I pulled it back, and I didn’t do any of it.
And then all of these executives came in, and I heard [executive producer] Marta Kaufman from across the stage say, “Hey, Shields! Put it back in!” I go, “Okay!” And that’s when I’m at my best: when I’m working on my feet. So I did my crazy licking of the fingers and maniacal laugh and all that stuff, and I saw all of these guys in suits suddenly come closer after that second take. I thought, “Oh, they must be giving some investors a tour,” because I didn’t really know how TV worked. But then the next day, my agent called me and said, “Uh, yeah, they want to talk to you about doing your own show.” I was like, “I feel like Lana Turner!” [Laughs.]
Meanwhile, all of the executives were in their 20s and probably didn’t even know who Lana Turner was. But I did. And I was very excited. Then my agent at the time and Nina Tassler, the two of them together found this single-camera show that they converted to a multi-camera format, and that was Suddenly Susan. Four of the best years of my life.
AVC: Do you have a particular favorite episode? Or more than one?
BS: God, anytime I was able to do a full dance number. And eat cake. [Laughs.] The one where I’m eating all the cake because my birthday was ruined and I attack the stripper was one of my favorites. But the full-on dance numbers, particularly the Tina Turner one… Once they knew I could do all that, they started writing it in for me, and that was a lot of fun. It was just such a gift, that show.
Pretty Baby (1978)—“Violet”
Endless Love (1981)—“Jade Butterfield”
BS: Endless Love was the second time I was ever seriously directed in my early years. That was [Franco] Zeffirelli, and it was not pleasant. At all. But I look back, and I can actually say that Pretty Baby and Endless Love are the only two movies from my youth—let’s say pre-college—that I’m really proud of. And it’s an example of European directors… not that European is better than American, because this is not that, but at that time there was an aesthetic and an uncompromising nature, and they were less impressed with celebrity than they were demanding of talent. So with those movies… with Pretty Baby I wasn’t well-known, but by the time of Endless Love, I had a reputation of being a well-known person, and, thank God, someone like Zeffirelli, that wasn’t enough for him. We filmed the whole last scene, the kind of rape scene—well, not really rape, but—we filmed it four-and-a-half months after we wrapped. Because Zeffirelli said, “This is not strong enough, it’s not good enough, we need a better ending.” And I was miserable having to go back, but it was some of the best stuff I think I’ve ever done. There’s an example of a director who wouldn’t accept less from his actors.
AVC: Preceding that, then, what was the Pretty Baby experience like?
BS: Louis Malle… He didn’t micromanage me, he didn’t support me a whole lot, but you knew that he wouldn’t let something pass by that was less than what he wanted. I don’t know that I knew that at that age, though. I was just all about being a good kid and wanting to be liked and wanting to be accepted and get the stamp of approval. So having said that, you knew that he was very hard to get approval from, so when you did get it… He never stopped until he got what he wanted, so when you finally did get that approval, you knew it was warranted.
AVC: Given your age at the time, were you aware of the controversy surrounding the film and its subject matter?
BS: No, because the filming of the movie didn’t feel terribly controversial. I mean, the subject matter felt… adult. But it didn’t feel taboo in the way the early 1900s dealt with it. I came from Manhattan. Like, I knew 42nd Street and prostitutes, I’d seen the drugs, and I knew about the streets you didn’t go to. And here was this elaborate, beautiful home with someone who protected the girls, so… there was sort of a romantic nature to it. And it was all fake and cinematic, you know? And I was a virgin myself, and I certainly didn’t my lose my virginity while I was on the film. [Laughs.] So… I think it was not nearly as traumatic for me as it seemed to be for other people and what they projected onto it.
BS: Well, my moment on The Simpsons, I have that framed. But to be able to mime “cunt” on The Larry Sanders Show, that’s going to go down in my gold file. [Laughs.] Garry [Shandling] and I talk about it all the time, because after that, I can definitely call Garry a very close friend. That’s just a great moment to have in your file.
AVC: It seems too obvious to ask you about your multiple appearances on Bob Hope’s specials, so what do you remember about being on Leif?
BS: Oh, please. I was so madly in love with Leif Garrett. I would’ve been the Juliet to his Romeo any day. [Laughs.] Are you kidding? I was besotted. And I just couldn’t believe that he wouldn’t ask me out. Could. Not. Believe it. Not because I thought I was all that, but just because I had such a crush on him. I was like, “I’m playing Juliet! It was meant to be!” But I still got to fly out to California, I got to be on this show with this heartthrob of Teen Beat and Tiger Beat, and I wasn’t even allowed to buy those magazines at the time!
The Almost Perfect Bank Robbery (1998)—“Cyndee Lafrance”
Nip/Tuck (2006)—“Faith Wolper”
BS: Ryan Murphy begged me to do Nip/Tuck. And I said, “Look, I just had a baby. I don’t feel right. I feel sad. I don’t want to be in this. I don’t want to have to be… y’know, it’s a sexy show, and I can’t do it.” And he said, “You have to do this.” And I said, “Why? Can you promise me it’s going to be some cinematic experience?” He said, “Look, it’s multiple episodes, and it’s off-center, which I know you like, and…” I don’t know what else he said, but, basically, he convinced me to do it. [Laughs.]
And it was… I felt slightly insecure the whole time, because I’d just had a baby, and… It just seemed incongruous, you know? But I loved being a part of that show, because I was a fan of the show. And I was happy to be a part of something that was that cool after having had my second baby. Do you know what I mean? It felt very good for my ego to be desired in any way… and in Hollywood, no less! [Laughs.] It took a while because of my insecurity, but finally I was like, “This is gonna be cool, it’s gonna make me feel good.” And they were just lovely people.
Dylan [Walsh] and I had done a movie called The Almost Perfect Bank Robbery, which is one of my favorite characters I’ve ever played. She was sort of a white trash, very Southern girl, and they rob a bank. It was sort of high-concept and ahead of its time, but we had a really good time. So Dylan was so sweet, and I was like, “Yeah, I want to do Nip/Tuck with Dylan!” And then I ended up having no scenes with him! I said, “Ryan, you didn’t even put me in scenes with my friend!” [Laughs.] But my husband really liked the tattoo on my butt that kept changing. He was like, “I like that! But… who’s Marco?” I’m like, “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that…”