Carla Gugino is no stranger to playing sexpots: Her smoky voice and sinuous curves have made sure of that. But a pregnant porn star is something new. In Elektra Luxx, the second film in a projected trilogy written and directed by her longtime boyfriend, Sebastian Gutierrez, she plays an erstwhile adult star who has quit the business and is now teaching unsatisfied housewives how to get themselves serviced Jenna Jameson-style. (The first installment, Women In Trouble, was unveiled in 2009; Women In Ecstasy is on the way.) The irony is that Elektra herself is moving in the opposite direction; she has as much to learn about living a normal life as her students do about exotic sexual positions. In recent years, Gugino has played Watchmen’s Silk Spectre and the Spy Kids’ spy mom, as well as a carnivorous agent on Entourage and an unabashed seductress in Every Day, not to mention highly acclaimed stage turns in Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under The Elms and Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer. At an age when many actresses are struggling to land parts, 40-year-old Gugino seems just to be getting warmed up, as evidenced by the half-dozen movies she has scheduled for 2011. The A.V. Club talked to Gugino a few days before the SXSW première of Girl Walks Into A Bar about the downside of reality TV, why she was never an ingénue, and her undaunted love of period drama.
The A.V. Club: Your character in Every Day is a vamp, which isn’t unusual for you. What’s interesting about her is that she doesn’t apologize for going after her married co-worker, played by Liev Schreiber. How did you reconcile that to yourself?
Carla Gugino: Well, I think that what’s interesting about it is that I don’t think that she is a homewrecker, so to speak. I don’t think her intention is, “Oh, I’m going to get this guy who’s married.” Her view is much more selfish than that, in a way. She’s made this decision that she’s going to live her life in the moment, and if she gets hit by a bus tomorrow, then she wants to have left no stone unturned. When she’s asked to come and actually help him write, I think her intention is she is going to help him write. She is really good at it. She’s figured out how to navigate that world. And he does seem like he’s pretty uptight, and he needs somebody to kind of loosen him up, creatively. I think her intention is, “Let’s order in some food and write.” But then her process is also, “Let’s get stoned.” One thing leads to another. She’s more like a kid in that way. What’s actually interesting [is] that Richard [Levine] wrote her as a woman, because it would be different if the character was a 20-year-old who doesn’t know better. It’s more morally ambiguous, but also more interesting, that she does know better. She’s like, “He’s an adult, and he can make his decisions.” I kind of love that, because I’m not like her in that way at all. It was interesting to play this woman who doesn’t have to hold the moral compass of the movie.
AVC: You’ve played a lot of characters with double lives, most obviously in Watchmen and the Spy Kids franchise. Is that quality attractive to you?
CG: I don’t go for that intentionally, and yet, what I do realize is that I guess that’s how I think people are. We are all multidimensional and kind of have dual personalities. Everyone puts on different roles depending on what circumstances they’re in without even noticing that they do that. I do love seeing the flip-side of that coin, and I think in that way, without even knowing it, I have attracted those roles. With Robin in Every Day, I was interested in why this woman functions this way. So hopefully by the end, when you see that scene in the parking lot, you go, “Oh, she’s going to have some looking at herself to do.” I do think that I am intrigued always by the duplicity and the complexity of people.
AVC: I have to ask about Karen Sisco, just because there are a lot of fans of that show around The A.V. Club.
CG: That is awesome, and thank you for that. I love that character so much.
AVC: Obviously there was some disappointment involved there. How do you feel about that experience, looking back at it?
CG: It’s an amazing character. I loved playing her so much. It was disappointing because I think we could have had a longer life, but really none of the reasons, as are usually the case with these things, had to do with the show itself, and much more with the politics in terms of studios and networks. The truth is, I got my first opportunity to go be on Broadway and do Arthur Miller’s After The Fall because Karen Sisco had gotten cancelled. I was available for it. So I guess what I really feel I value so much is that I got that experience. People come up to me about Karen Sisco all the time, and ultimately people think that we did multiple seasons. And we did 10 episodes total. So in that way, it’s really meaningful to me that it sort of made its mark. But I love that character. I love the fact that she’s kind of like Robert Mitchum, but in this hot Florida U.S. Marshall’s body. I have to thank Elmore Leonard for that.
AVC: What about The Center Of The World? That was quite a surprising move for everyone involved at the time.
CG: Interestingly enough, that character is one of my favorite characters that I’ve gotten to play. That’s a perfect example of a character who I’d never want to live her life, but to play her as an actress is amazing. It was funny, because at the time, I had tested for Molly Parker’s role, and she got the job. Even to me at that moment, I was like, “This seems so right. She seems so much righter for what that needs to be.” Then Wayne [Wang] called me and said, “We wrote a role, Paul Auster and I, with you in mind.” And he sent it to me. “How could this have me in mind? She’s crazy!” [Laughs.] It scared me so much that I thought I had to do it, and it ended up being such an amazing experience. I know Wayne wanted to make like a little bit of a Last Tango In Paris set modern-day in Las Vegas. What’s interesting about my character is it was so not physically explicit at all, but it’s verbally so explicit that people feel like it is. I think that’s a really interesting movie, and I feel so happy to be a part of it. I think Molly and Peter [Sarsgaard] are both amazing in that movie.
AVC: Regarding Elektra Luxx, how do you react when your boyfriend of many years says to you: “Honey, I wrote a part for you—it’s a porn star.”
CG: It’s interesting, because of Sebastian’s sensibility and because I was a fan of his writing, before we were ever in a relationship, and likewise he of my acting. That’s always a nice way to start something. [Laughs.] I think if most other people had said, “She’s a porn star,” I’d be like, “Okay….” But knowing his sensibility, I was intrigued by that. And secondly, it came as the sense of, she’s a porn star who finds out she’s pregnant by a rock star who has just died, and now she has to figure out what to do with her life. I was like, “This is fantastic!”
AVC: Obviously, you and Elektra are involved in very different sorts of performing. But did you see any parallel, in terms of being in an industry where women become much less desirable, economically speaking, after a certain age?
CG: I think definitely one of the things I find interesting to explore in regards to her and that subject matter is the fact that, in the last 10 or so years—since reality television has been so predominant and also there’s the thing of people sending in or leaking sex tapes and getting famous that way, and not even porn stars—there’s this kind of desire for celebrity and fame, but not necessarily being famous for something. For me, I never, never, from the moment I started acting, had a desire to be famous. I had a desire to be recognized for doing something really well, and hopefully having that give me the opportunity to do more things that I love to do. But it was so fascinating when, in society, people just want people to watch them pee or watch them get in an argument, or this sense of, “I just want to be known by many.” But not necessarily for something. That’s always really intriguing to me.
I’ve spoken to several porn stars, and I’ve watched a few documentaries, which were really, really interesting and helpful. I didn’t need to do research on their work, so to speak, as much as kind of the mentality that goes into that. As we know, some people have been sexually abused, and some people are just very healthy in that way, and this was a choice they made, and they feel really good about it, and they make a lot of money doing it. It takes all kinds. But I was intrigued at the idea that you can become very, very famous for something that you later have to deal with a lot of consequences from.
The thing that I would say that I do relate to as an actress is this notion that you do something very private, relatively private—you do something with a small group of people in an intimate space, and then all of a sudden, it’s given to the world. I think that must be really an intense thing to accept, because I’m emotionally intimate, but to be at that level, physically and explicitly intimate, is a lot to deal with. I kind of like the idea that Elektra was totally at peace with that. She made these decisions, she supported herself, she hasn’t had any big moral quandary about it. It’s not until she’s pregnant that she sees herself potentially through the eyes of her child, and then realizes, “Oh, wow, maybe I need to make some changes.”
AVC: Documentaries about porn stars tend to be, on the whole, enormously depressing. That’s obviously not where Elektra Luxx means to go.
CG: That was the thing at the very beginning when we were talking about doing it, this sort of series that started out as Women In Trouble and then became the little trilogy-in-the-making, is that this is a screwball comedy. It does have those hearkening back to the ’40s elements in regards to that. There’s two ways to go with this story, of course, one of which is to go with the much more gritty, darker view of a porn star. This one’s more, “Of course her work informs things and informs the way she looks,” and all that. The truth of the matter is, her job is a bit of a backdrop, intentionally. Women In Trouble, the theme of that really was how women bond in the most unlikely circumstances in the most unlikely matches. This one, it’s certainly paying homage to something like Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, where she is in some way the most grounded of our characters, and yet she is losing her mind. [Laughs.] Which I certainly always have to give credit to Carmen Maura. I think she did it so beautifully in that movie.
AVC: Porn is different from the movie industry in that the female performers are the stars, and the men are paid the pornographic equivalent of scale.
CG: Which is really interesting. And they’re celebrated. Certainly, porn has never been more chic than it is right now, but I still have found it fascinating, because anytime I begin to explain this character, I can think of very few professions that engender that sort of strong response, whether it be, “What, a porn star?” and be kind of grossed out, or whether it be a man and like, “Hey, a porn star! Hey!” No one says [bored voice], “Oh, a porn star.” [Laughs.]
AVC: The characters in Elektra Luxx have those polarized reactions to her as well, although it turns out that a lot of them are more familiar with her work than they initially let on.
CG: Exactly. [Laughs.] It’s always interesting to me, for example, the scene when Elektra is at her lowest, and Sebastian and I, we were discussing, “Who would Elektra go to?” Sebastian is Spanish and therefore is raised Catholic. We started discussing it, and he was like, “The Virgin Mary.” What I do love about that scene—and it was important to execute it that way, and obviously Julianne Moore is amazing—is the idea that if you came from a different planet, you would just think these are two women, one who is guiding the other through a difficult time. I love that. Again, I think that [Pedro] Almodóvar certainly has been able to do that really beautifully. When you do tell a story about a porn star and a high-class prostitute, all these characters you might have these kinds of judgments about, but the truth is, they’re just trying to get through their day like everybody else and looking for the same things.
AVC: Between Watchmen and Sucker Punch, as well as Rise: Blood Hunter and the Spy Kids movies, you’ve done something very unusual for any actor, male or female, which is that you’ve kicked a lot more ass in your thirties than you did in your 20s.
CG: Right. [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s true. It’s sort of wild, and I also do Broadway, so I feel so blessed. I’ve learned something from every different medium and genre for sure. But the graphic novel arena, which sort of started with Sin City, wasn’t something I was specifically looking to do. I wasn’t a huge graphic novel fan. Of course, now I have become more interested in that world, just because I’ve been more intimately involved with it. I feel like I’ve done so many different roles, and it’s sort of what I want to continue to do for my life, but in the midst of that, for a while it kind of confused people. Now hopefully it’s being more recognized as a body of work. [Laughs.] It’s true that the way in which my career has gone, I wouldn’t have necessarily known that it was how it would develop.
AVC: There’s always the complaint that good roles for women on film dry up as they age, but considering that you’ve been playing Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill on stage in recent years, can any role measure up to that?
CG: You’re absolutely right. It’s actually a huge part of my decision-making process, the fact that I love to do theater in general, and the first time I got to do Broadway was Arthur Miller’s After The Fall, and he was still alive, and he was with us during rehearsals, and that role of Maggie is so exquisite. Then getting to do Suddenly Last Summer, and Desire Under The Elms we started in Chicago, and Robert Falls directed it, who had done Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Brian Dennehy and Vanessa Redgrave and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and then previous to that, he had done Death Of A Salesman with Brian, and Brian was also in Desire Under The Elms. That was one of the most incredible roles I ever got to play, and also one of the darkest and most difficult roles.
It’s really hard, because I love film so much, and that’s really where I started, but it’s rare that we see the complexity and depth of those kinds of roles that I’ve gotten to play on stage in film for a woman—maybe once in five years. Because I tend to be a pretty proactive and positive person as much as possible, I felt like, “Well, I’ve had that experience, I would like to bring that to some extent into film.” I want to find a role that I feel as passionately about as those roles. And yet, what’s exciting on the level of it in terms of theater—and it’s been really important to my experience as an actor, and my life, really—is that there are so many great roles that I am just getting close to old enough to play in the theater, which is sort of how it should be. As you grow older, we all get deeper and stronger and more knowledgeable of ourselves, and better at what we do, and all those things. So that’s when you want the biggest opportunities to come. It is the classic irony of Hollywood, certainly these days. It’s an old story, so it’s sort of a boring one to talk about. I think it is changing, also, now that we’re getting to make smaller-budget movies that don’t have to depend on millions and millions of people seeing them. A lot of times women are at their total prime on all levels, and there aren’t as many interesting roles to play. I started so young, even when I looked like an ingénue, I never really sounded like one or acted like one, so I knew that it would really be my thirties where the meaty roles that I wanted to do would start to be possible. I guess I expected that on some level.
AVC: It doesn’t seem like you’ve done as much straight drama on film, certainly nothing as gut-wrenching as the theater roles you’ve talking about.
CG: The Center Of The World I think is. And I suppose something like Righteous Kill, which is more of a cop-drama-thriller thing, but a bit more of that ilk. It’s funny, because I’ve certainly done them, but I do think about the projects that one does that they feel are very reflective of themselves, and the ones that maybe aren’t, and those have been the biggest movies for me, or television shows. Entourage is a great, really fun character, and then this season I just did Californication, which was also a really fun character to play, with really great people. But those are more adult-ly comedic, they’re not broad comedy. And then of course Night At The Museum and Spy Kids and Race To Witch Mountain and those kinds of movies, a lot of people have seen them. It seems like mostly the dramas that I do are smaller and seen by fewer people, which is interesting.
AVC: There’s a scene in Elektra Luxx where you play Elektra’s twin sister, whom she visits in prison. You’re sitting at the visitor’s table in an orange jumpsuit, without makeup, and your affect is completely different. It felt like something we haven’t seen you do before.
CG: Yeah, I love that character, and she’ll come more in the third one, too. But it’s just bizarre, because I did a miniseries called The Buccaneers many years ago, it was a wonderful Edith Wharton piece for the BBC, and it was certainly a drama, a period drama, and what’s funny is, that’s kind of where my heart is. As much as I love to do comedy and I love to do action—I mean, I say that’s where my heart is, but if I could only do that, I’m sure I’d be craving to do the other things, and I do always like to mix it up. But truthfully, drama and probably period drama are absolutely my passions. When I grew up, for me it was Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice and in Silkwood, and Jessica Lange in Frances that were the reason I wanted to act. Of late, I think the truth is that they’re just not making them, which is what’s really depressing, except for rarely and occasionally. For me, our lives go in chapters. Each time it’s always acknowledging what has been accomplished and looking for what I want to do next. I really do want to find a really wonderful drama or noir, something where there’s that kind of complexity in a female character.
AVC: In terms of period drama, there’s a universe of great characters that you’re not even quite old enough to play yet. It’s perhaps the space between young and older women that isn’t as well populated.
CG: I know, although the truth is that it’s only right now, because if you think of Ava Gardner or Bette Davis, they were actually in their thirties, probably into early forties, with their prime time. The Age Of Innocence or Dangerous Liaisons, there are things that have women all across the board, age-wise. It’s just that they don’t make those movies any more. I mean very, very rarely. It’s true, there are certain ones like Jane Eyre, that have been aged down.
I think we’re always craving something good. I’m a huge Wong Kar-Wai fan. I’ll look at a movie like that, or Pedro Almodóvar’s movies, or François Ozon. In Europe, they’re doing that. We have a business plan here where the studios spend an equal amount on marketing as they do on making the movie, if not more, and that then precludes niche audiences, which auteurs were able to have. But I also do think that we are in a time that now that the discrepancy is so huge; it’s like, $2 million movie or $100 million movie. You rarely get the $10 million movies made anymore. Some are, but rarely. What I’m hoping is that there’s going to be a new area that’s making movies that can’t be made in the mainstream system, but that can also be seen by many people because of the different distribution abilities in terms of Internet and that.
AVC: There a lot more roles for women of a certain age on television: Glenn Close or Holly Hunter or Jeanne Tripplehorn.
CG: For women, for sure. Certainly Mad Men has been great for everybody who’s done it, or Julianna Margulies’ show [The Good Wife], who’s a dear friend. It’s interesting, because there is the nature of being able to have a continuous story. Women’s lives have so many facets to them in a very particular way—in a way, it’s the structure of television, and probably more so cable television, because you still have the ability to make a very good quality show, because you’re doing fewer episodes. I think frankly—and I am such a cinephile—but in terms of a revolution, the more exciting things that are happening are happening in television right now. There are so many filmmakers now doing TV. I’ve gone between film and television for so long, but I remember when I was doing Spin City, it was like, “Really? Really? And you’re doing Snake Eyes? That’s so weird!” It was sort of to me, a very clear, “Why not?” Why should I be limited if there’s an interesting sitcom to do here, and a really interesting movie to do with Brian De Palma and Nic Cage here? I don’t know why I wouldn’t do both. But there were those lines, and I don’t think those lines are there anymore. Now all the stars that are getting cast in movies are from TV, too.
AVC: You’ve described your childhood as schizophrenic. Your parents were divorced, and you lived partly with your hippie mother in a tent, and partly with your father, who would take you vacationing in Europe. Did that teach you something about playing roles, or fitting into different situations? That’s a lot more ground than most people have to cover at a young age.
CG: For sure. One of the things that I value more now that I never recognized until very recently, was that because of that kind of childhood, and because I was exposed to so many different kinds of people and so many different places, sort of the whole spectrum, is that it gave me a great empathy for people, and also a real curiosity to get into other people’s heads. So it was sort of less me and them, and more, “Oh, I want to understand what it’s like to be them.” And I’m so thankful for that, because not only was I not raised with hatred or judgment of somebody who’s different than me, I actually was raised with a genuine curiosity. And I think that’s what keeps us strong artists and young spirits and all of those things. All of the people I’ve met—I just spoke with Angela Lansbury, who, you know, to her I’m a child. I’m literally less than half her age. Seeing her, she’s just absolutely sharp as a tack, wonderful, so fantastic. Her advice to me was, “At whatever age, never ever say you can’t do anything anymore. You can decide you don’t want to do it, but never say you can’t do it. Never tell yourself you can’t do it.” I’ve joked that I would have either become schizophrenic or an actress, but as an actress you can do both. I do think it gave me the taste for living out different lives, and I’m actually really thankful that I get to do that in my profession.