Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we ask actors for memories about roles that defined their careers. The catch: They don't know beforehand what roles we'll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Illeana Douglas, who specializes in playing fearlessly blunt, matter-of-fact women in films like To Die For and Ghost World, and on television shows such as Six Feet Under (which earned her an Emmy nomination) and Ugly Betty. She says she lives by this quote from her grandfather, actor Melvyn Douglas: “All acting, if it’s any good, is character acting.” Since the early ’90s, Douglas has been writing, directing, and producing independent films, in addition to developing the groundbreaking, self-deprecating web series Illeanarama and the IKEA-sponsored Easy To Assemble, currently prepping its second season. These days, she can also be seen performing in the satirical Swedish pop band Sparhusen (debuting during this year’s SXSW) and the Blu-ray and DVD release of Being There, in which she shares her memories of visiting Melvyn Douglas on the set.
The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988)—“Voice In Crowd”
New York Stories (1989)—“Paulette’s Friend”
Illeana Douglas: This is a famous story. It seems like I made it up. I was working for a publicist named Peggy Siegal, and I had given my picture and résumé to Martin Scorsese’s casting director. I had gotten a picture of myself taken in a turban—you know, I was a young actor. “Look at how good I look in a turban!”
The A.V. Club: Like a Gloria Swanson thing?
ID: No, more like an Arabian, Moroccan kind of thing. This was the late ’80s. [Laughs.] Sort of a Kenzo [Takada] look. Anyway, I sent it to Julie [Alter] for The Last Temptation Of Christ—she did not respond—and I sent the other one to Milos Forman, and I did get an audition with Milos for Valmont. But Julie never did anything with my picture. Months go by, and I’m working for Peggy Siegal, and down the hall, they’re doing the editing for Last Temptation. One day, Marty’s assistant—this girl named Julia Judge, who had gotten me the job working for Peggy—said, “You’re an actress, right? They’re looking for someone to dub screams for Mary Magdalene.” And I said, “It says right on my résumé: ‘Special skills: bloodcurdling scream’”—because you have to have something funny or interesting to get a job. Sure enough, she’s like, “Can you come down at 5 and just, like, scream for Marty?”
So that’s how I met everybody. I met Thelma [Schoonmaker], Michael Powell was there. It was insane. They were all sitting there in the dark, and they’re like, “Well, let’s hear it.” So I did my scream, and they all laughed and applauded. They said, “That’s horrible! How do you do that?” I said, “I work for a publicist. It’s pretty easy.” They laughed and said, “We’re doing this thing tonight. Can you come by? It’s no money. Just doing crowd voices.” So I ended up doing all these different crowd voices—you know, “Kill the Romans!” and stuff like that. The next day, I did my scream for the burning of Jerusalem scene, and then they just kept calling me again and saying, “Could you do a couple of lines for Jesus’ mother?” Every time I’d come back, we would talk more and more about movies—you know, I’d quote something from Twentieth Century, and Marty was very impressed by that. I couldn’t figure out if they really needed me to do all these voices, or if it was just because of my vast knowledge of movies and Mel Brooks routines.
Anyway, we got to know each other. This is a very longwinded story, but as we were doing the dubbing for Last Temptation, he said, “You remind me of Rosanna Arquette. I want you to audition for New York Stories.” It was right down the hall, so I did. I was so naïve. When it was over, I said, “Do I get the job?” And they said, “Well, it doesn’t work like that.” And I said, “But if I have the job, I can go down the hall and tell Peggy I quit.” They thought that was funny, so they were like, “Okay, you’ve got the job.” It was one of the easiest auditions ever. That’s never happened to me again. [Laughs.] It’s hard to look at that movie, because I’m smiling inappropriately throughout—because I was just so excited. I shared a dressing room with Blondie, which was unbelievable.
AVC: What went on in Blondie’s dressing room?
ID: Pretty much me trying not to sing “Heart Of Glass.” It’s impossible when you meet someone who’s that iconic. I just kept trying not to embarrass myself. She was very nice, and very nervous. And then Peter Gabriel shows up. I mean, how great for your first movie? My first scene was with Nick Nolte, Steve Buscemi, and Peter Gabriel. The DP was Néstor Almendros, who was very, very famous. It was the most exciting thing in the universe. I remember when we were rehearsing, Nick Nolte was drinking beer, and I said to someone, “Is that ‘near beer’?” They looked at me and said, “You’re so naïve.” But you know, it was 7 a.m. [Laughs.] We were rehearsing a fight scene where he was supposed to throw Steve Buscemi through this glass. They made this big thing about how we were going to stop the scene and put in safety glass, clear the set and all, because it’s very dangerous. So take one, needless to say, Nick Nolte grabs Steve Buscemi and throws him through the real glass. People are screaming, Steve Buscemi is lying on the ground in a pool of glass, and everybody goes, “Nick, are you all right?”
AVC: So nobody cared about the character actor?
ID: [Laughs.]No! It was great. It was just like, “Are you okay, Nick? Nick, do you need anything? Do you need a cappuccino?”
AVC: Your first film had so many big names attached—not only actors, but the directors were Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Woody Allen. How can you ever top that?
ID: I know. I’m working my way down. Now I’m doing a web series, Easy To Assemble. Eventually I’ll just be going door-to-door. [Laughs.] The first three or four movies I did were with Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, and it kind of ruined me, because I was so spoiled. I thought on every movie, you got to have one-on-ones with the director. We were all watching John Cassavetes movies and taking it really seriously. Even though I’d only have two or three lines, I had always, like, written my biography. When you just come out of acting school, you’ve got reams of ideas, like, “Do you want me to do a funny walk or an accent?” And they’re like, “Uh, no. Just sit there and say your line.” After that, I got cast in a Woody Allen Italian TV commercial—which I’ve never seen—so it immediately started leading to things. People were so nice to me. Rosanna Arquette would always say things like, “You know, Marty really likes you.” And I was like, “I really like him!” She was like, “No, he really likes you.”
AVC: Was there always a clear line between the way he treated you professionally and the way he courted you?
ID: Oh yeah, of course. We were friends for a while before we started dating. It was very much delineated. I mean, I had to audition for Cape Fear. That was my fantasy of a relationship, too, getting to go out with somebody that you’re working with—a partnership, like Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes. I enjoy that. I like saying, “Now we’re working and being creative,” and then spending the off hours talking about what happened on set. I could talk about movies all day long.
ID: I did New York Stories, and I did my Woody Allen commercial, and I was also doing theater and stand-up comedy around this time. I had a routine in my stand-up—and I have to keep pointing out that this was the late ’80s—called “Raging Bullwinkle.” You know, I’d do Jake LaMotta as the moose, Joe Pesci as the squirrel. Marty thought that was hysterical. At this point, he’d obviously taken an interest in me. [Laughs.] He’d be like, “Do your Shelley Winters!”
AVC: What’s your Shelley Winters?
ID: Oh, I was obsessed with talk shows growing up, and Shelley Winters would always come on The Merv Griffin Show and be like, [Adopts screechy, stuttering Shelley Winters voice.] “I knew Bobby [De Niro] back in the daaaay, and Marilyn and I…” She would always say these same two things. “I-I-I-I taught Bobby how to act!” She had that very pronounced kind of stutter. Anyway, they all thought I was very funny.
AVC: You actually have one of the funniest lines in Goodfellas.
ID: You mean, “It’s like you died and went to Jew heaven?” [Laughs.] I wrote that myself! At the première of New York Stories, Marty said, “I want you to be in Goodfellas.” Well, it was called Wiseguys at the time. They had to change it because of the TV show. Anyway, he gave me the book to read and said, “Tell me which part you think you relate to.” Needless to say, I wanted the part that Debi Mazar did. He was like, “No, you’re too clean-cut. I think you should be Joe Pesci’s girlfriend or something.” So I was reading the book—and oh my God, this [interview] is getting to be like a book.
Anyway, I went to Marty’s apartment—which was another funny experience. You know, we hadn’t started dating yet, and I’m like, “Is this a casting-couch situation?” [Laughs.] Because we were supposedly going to talk about this part, but I’d read this script, and there really wasn’t a part. So I got there, and Robert De Niro was there, and he was wearing these, like, Clark Kent glasses. I think that was the first time I’d really met him. So I said, “I didn’t know you wore glasses.” He goes [Whispers.] “It’s a disguise.” And I started laughing. I said, “You’re right. I can’t tell that you’re Robert De Niro at all.” He just kinda looked at me, and I realized, “Oh my God. He’s serious. He thinks it’s a disguise.”
AVC: He wasn’t just being deadpan?
ID: No, he was quite serious. I think this was all about secretly getting the approval of Bob, but I didn’t know that. That’s how I got in the movie. And then I got the script, and, you know, I had no lines. So I was trying to figure out a way to get some. I said to Marty, “Why don’t I have a Mary Kay party at my house and invite all the girls from the movie? I’ll invite Lorraine [Bracco] and the wives over, and we’ll have an unsuspecting Mary Kay saleswoman there, and we’ll talk and drink wine and bring the production designer—Kristi Zea was her name—and take pictures of it. And then we’ll kind of improv and hopefully put that in the movie.” He thought that was a great idea.
So I came up with, literally, a book of things I was going to try and get in. You know, you just want to do anything to get noticed. When you’re starting out, you don’t really care. You’re like, “I’ve got to make an impression.” I thought that meant to talk as much as possible, and some of it will get in. And it worked! They called “action” and I just started talking. People were looking at me like, “You don’t have any lines. Why are you talking?” But the next thing I knew, they were setting up the camera on me. Marty came over and said, “Just keep saying the stuff you’ve been saying.” My grandmother had always said things like that. She tried to go live in Florida—she was from Astoria—and she always used to say that Miami was like you died and woke up in Jew heaven. I thought that was the funniest thing.
So when I finished it, it was like, “A star is born.” Everybody started applauding. All the other girls moved away from me after that. [Laughs.] I sort of got taken under the wing of Lorraine, and that was the start of my career. Lorraine really helped me out. She got me an agent just in the first week. That’s also when Marty and I started going out. I found out I was dating Marty on the day we were at the Copacabana. Marty called me and said, “You should really come down today, because we’re gonna be shooting the scene”—which sounds like you’re talking about Citizen Kane or something. “The day.” The day we did the tracking shot in the Copa. I lived on 69th Street, and he said, “You should really come down. We’re gonna be doing this really cool thing with the camera.”
So I wore some insane outfit, something horrifying from the ’80s. I was like Joan Crawford: “When you go to the set, you must wear something appropriate—even if you’re not in the scene.” I went and watched them all day long do “the scene.” It was the first time I saw a Steadicam. Tony Bennett came by, Jerry Vale was there… All these actors around town just started coming to the set. Somebody came up to me—an actor, I can’t say who—and kind of asked me out, and Marty came over and said, “Um, that’s my girlfriend.” This person freaked out. I got really excited, like, “Oh! I guess I’m his girlfriend.” I had no idea. I knew that we had a budding friendship, but we hadn’t gone on any dates or anything like that. It was strictly a working sort of relationship. I just assumed, like, “Oh, he’s taken an interest in me.”
AVC: Had you known that you were his girlfriend, would you have exploited that to get a bigger role?
ID: [Laughs.] No, probably not. I was too naïve. You know, “He likes me because I like movies and he likes movies. Why the heck would he be interested in me?” I just would never assume that anybody would take any interest in me. Now I understand. I was pretty fun to be around. The whole making of that movie was like a movie within itself. It was when there was no thought about what things cost. In those days, they’d hire you for the run of the picture, so they had me under contract for six weeks. I’m in scenes where you don’t even see me, because I’m in the other room. They’d hire you just to be in the other room with the hair and makeup, just, like, eating, just to create atmosphere. Like the wedding scene, which took us four days to shoot and there’s one shot of me, but I went every day. But the Copa is the special memory for me. After that, I came to the set almost every day, once I knew for sure I was Marty’s girlfriend. [Laughs.]
Guilty By Suspicion (1991)—“Nan”
Cape Fear (1991)—“Lori Davis”
ID: Cape Fear was a complete accident. Irwin Winkler came to the Goodfellas set, and because my grandmother was [Democratic Representative and Richard Nixon opponent] Helen Gahagan Douglas—and De Niro was doing a movie with him that was sort of based on the [House Un-American Activities Committee] stuff that had happened with [John] Garfield—I met him on the set. I auditioned for a larger part in Guilty By Suspicion and didn’t get it, but then Irwin, as kind of a consolation prize, said, “We want you to play Nan, the secretary to Darryl Zanuck.” My part consisted of, “‘He’s in.’ ‘He’s not in.’ ‘I’m sorry.’” I pretty much had no lines, but I got to fly out to California—first time I’d been to California—and all my scenes were with De Niro. Plus, people like Mike Ovitz and Steven Spielberg were all coming to the set. That’s when I heard that Spielberg was doing Cape Fear with De Niro, and Marty was gonna do Schindler’s List. He had already talked to me about doing a part in Schindler’s List, so that was actually what was next up. Ironically, I had found these lobby cards for the original Cape Fear, and I gave them to De Niro as a present to say good luck. By the time I got home, I heard from Marty that they’d decided to do this switch: Marty was gonna do Cape Fear, and Spielberg was gonna do Schindler’s List.
I was the one who suggested my part. The original part was called “The Drifter.” She didn’t even have a name. I was in school when Jennifer Levin was murdered in Central Park by Robert Chambers, and I was profoundly affected by that. I just thought it was such a tragedy. She just happened to meet the wrong person and have this tragedy happen to her, yet she was blamed. That was the beginning of “blame the victim” and all that stuff. So Marty said, “We’re gonna rewrite the script,” and I gave him my take on it. He kept saying, “Can you cry on cue?” and then, “You’ll have to audition.” At this point, you know, we were dating, but I had to go through all the regular stages, so I auditioned for Ellen Lewis. Ultimately I did this improv with De Niro, and that’s what got me the part.
We did the bar scene, and I decided I wanted to do this thing with the laugh—just being stupid and not really knowing what was going on. In the back of my mind, 100 percent it was based on Jennifer Levin. I tried to put myself in the position of somebody who’s new to New York, who’s young, who doesn’t see anything bad coming. I said to Marty, “You know, it’s such a cliché. ‘The office tramp who gets what she deserves.’ What if it’s someone who’s a really nice girl? Who’s never done anything bad in her entire life, but one day she says, ‘You know what? I’m seeing this married guy. He doesn’t even care about me,’ and she has this sort of self-destructive impulse, like, ‘I’m just gonna go to a bar and sleep with the first person I see.’ Somebody who spends her whole life doing the right thing, and the one day she decides to go off the beaten path, she meets this terrible person.”
In the script, they had all these scenes where he’s putting handcuffs on her, and she’s saying, “Hey what are you doing? Stop it! Stop it!” I kept saying, “In real life, when you’re young, you don’t do things like that.” When you’re young and you’re in the car with your friend and he starts driving a hundred miles an hour, you don’t say, “What are you doing?! You’re gonna kill us!” You’re just kind of like, “Well, I’m probably going to die now.” You have a tendency to be like, “Some miracle will happen that gets me out of this.” I feel like that was my big contribution to the script. The writer, Wesley Strick, said I gave him more notes than De Niro. [Laughs.]
The way Marty worked—and this was the first time I’d ever seen anybody do that—was with two cameras. So you got this really truthful performance, because De Niro was getting captured too while you were acting. And he’d do this thing where he’d loop it at the end, which was exactly like we’d do in acting class. My teacher, Richard Penner, always used to say, “See where you are at the end of the scene? That’s where you need to be at the beginning, so start again right there.” That’s why it has this kind of authenticity. It got to be sort of an out-of-body experience, and luckily for me, it was all caught on film. The bar scene was the first scene we did. I knew it was my first big scene, and I knew I’d be judged. Like, “Oh, she’s Marty’s girlfriend.” But at the end of the day, I felt anointed. My life changed literally overnight.
AVC: There’s also the famous scene where De Niro bites off your cheek. Do you feel like that was your breakout moment?
ID: Yeah, and again, it was one of the hardest. It took two days to do that. The first was 17 hours of shooting. These days, if you go over 12, people start bitching and moaning. But I was so into acting, I was like, “Yeah! Break my arm!” I was friends with Elias Koteas in school, and his dream was to work with Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. My dream was to be on a sitcom like Seinfeld. I was in sketch comedy and doing stand-up; no one ever cast me in dramatic roles. I always got cast in, you know, The Owl And The Pussycat. I ran into Elias on the street once, and he goes, “You have my life! How come you have my life?” And I’m like, “I don’t know! I don’t know why I’m here!” But it all came from my total fear. I was just like, “Well, you’d better be good.”
Also, it really hurt. My arms really were quite banged up. At one point, De Niro hopped off the bed and started whispering to Marty, and I thought, “Oh my God, they’re going to fire me! I’m terrible!” I’d been crying for hours on end; I’ve never cried so much in my life. Then De Niro hopped back on, and Marty came and said, “Bob says you’re done.” It was like Stephen Boyd in Ben Hur—like, “Just take him off. He’s done.” I could barely walk, and my arms were all cut up from thrashing around, and then De Niro complimented me. He said that Charles Grodin was a pussy, because he couldn’t take the handcuffs when they did Midnight Run. I thought that was a supreme compliment. [Laughs.]
That was also my first lesson in moviemaking, because it’s like, “Now you have day two, and you have to do it all again.” What’s funny is that crying wasn’t enough for Marty. Crying for Marty consisted of screaming, cathartic insanity. I’d be screaming and crying and he’d be like, “I think you can do more.”
AVC: You once said in an interview that you always wanted to find your director, “like De Niro had with Scorsese.” Do you not feel you were a part of Scorsese’s company?
ID: I do now. At the time, I just didn’t know. I was like, “I’m a comedian. Why am I here?” But almost immediately, from Goodfellas on, Marty brought me into the editing room, and he’d ask me, “What do you think of this scene?” He really valued my opinion and gave me a tremendous amount of confidence—which has been both a blessing and a curse, working with other directors. He taught me so much about filmmaking and acting, but the flipside is, he gave me the confidence to believe that the things I thought as a 22-year-old were actually right. All those contributions I made to the script, he didn’t say, “What are you doing? Stand over there and shut up.” I even got to help pick out songs—like in Goodfellas, “Jump Into The Fire” was on a mix-tape I had given to Marty. I guess that was a pretty major contribution. But you just happen to be there in the right place at the right time. I’m not really sure if I was just a muse or a real contributor. I’d like to think that I was a contributor.
Grace Of My Heart (1996)—“Denise Waverly/Edna Buxton”
AVC: Did you think that Allison Anders might be “your director”?
ID: Absolutely. That was a true collaboration. After Cape Fear, I did a movie called Household Saints and worked incredibly hard on it, but I was cut entirely from it. I did a Spike Lee movie [Jungle Fever], a Robert Redford movie [Quiz Show], Household Saints, and I got cut from all three of them. Oh, and another Woody Allen movie [Husbands And Wives], where I played Liam Neeson’s girlfriend. I got cut from every single part. It was kind of depressing. Marty gave me some advice. He said, “I think you’re going to have the same problem that Joe Pesci has. You’re more interesting than the parts you play, and sometimes it’s great, but it almost takes you out of the movie. You should start developing relationships with directors.”
At the time, I had done a low-budget movie called Grief—which I was told not to do, but I did it anyway, because I just wanted to work. And it got into Sundance, and that’s where I met Alison Anders. We just gravitated toward each other, and just kept in contact to try to figure out something to work on. For months we tried to do the biography of Anne Sexton, but we were having problems with the rights, and it just didn’t work out. We’re both obsessed with music, and she was obsessed with girl groups. I said, “You know, I worked at the Brill Building. Maybe we could do something about that.” It was a true collaboration in which I got to express a lot of things. So much of the movie is autobiographical from my point. It explored where my relationship was with Marty at the time. The Matt Dillon character is kind of like Marty.
AVC: The Brian Wilson-like psychedelic rock star is supposed to be Martin Scorsese?
ID: [Laughs.] Well, he’s not, but you know… It’s a strange movie, because everything about Grace Of My Heart sort of became true. Matt Dillon’s character believed that “Edna” was somebody who didn’t value her own talent, and that’s where I was at that time. People wanted me to go off to Hollywood and be in TV shows and movies, and Marty was like, “You’re an artist! You don’t need to do that! You’re in this incubator [in New York]. Why would you want to leave it?” Matt Dillon watching me sing is completely based on me meeting Marty in Last Temptation Of Christ—this kind of budding relationship with somebody who thinks you’re talented, and he sort of chooses you, but you’re living vicariously through them.
AVC: It was taken as a given that Dillon’s character was based on Brian Wilson, and that yours was based on Carole King. Was that true?
ID: Oh yeah, that’s true. Gerry Goffin, who was married to Carole King, gave us a lot of autobiographical stuff. There’s Joni Mitchell in there too. But there was a lot of stuff from Allison Anders’ life in there, a lot of stuff from my life. The scene with me talking about Jay and drugs, that’s from my own life. I grew up on a commune, and the part about how he left the kids, that was something my dad had done—left us at someone’s house, came home without his kids. [Laughs.] And Marty as producer, he saw himself as the Matt Dillon character. He was really pushing for it. He definitely got himself in there. When he came to visit in California, he even volunteered to shoot inserts for us. You know, he just loves the process of filmmaking—and of course, making movies in those days was still amazing. When Allison and I pitched the movie to Casey Silver and Tom Pollack, I mean, she was wearing flip-flops. We said, “We’re gonna get John Turturro”—John Turturro was in Quiz Show at the time—and they said, “You get John Turturro, we got a movie.” We were at lunch afterward, like, “Making movies is so easy!” Of course, everything changed. Within three years, it suddenly became so difficult to make a movie.
AVC: What changed?
ID: I have no idea. It just became harder and harder. The two movies I produced with Marty, you went to the studio, you talked about two or three names. Like, “You get me this person, we’ll get you the money.” Usually there was one name that was magic. On the other movie I produced, Search And Destroy, they were like “Oh, Christopher Walken. We got a movie here!” Now there’s movies I’ve carried around for years. For five years I was trying to produce a movie with myself, Denis Leary, and Alec Baldwin, and eventually I just gave up. I don’t know what changed, but things definitely did.
AVC: Do you feel like Grace Of My Heart was overshadowed by That Thing You Do! coming out right afterward?
ID: Absolutely. It’s too bad. However, in Britain, they called it That Thing You Do Better. The movie got nominated for a BAFTA award, London Critics’ Association… It was really well-received in London. But we had a very small budget. We did the movie for under $5 million, and it became hard to advertise it. [That Thing You Do!] had so much money. But the thing about Grace Of My Heart is that it led, again, to some incredible working relationships. That was the movie that got me to play Garry Shandling’s girlfriend on The Larry Sanders Show, because he loved that movie. A lot of people within the industry flipped out, and it has a really enduring fan base. People come up to me all the time that want to talk about it. And I’m really proud of the music—the Elvis Costello/Burt Bacharach collaboration. That was a suggestion of mine, because I was really into Burt Bacharach. This was way before Austin Powers. They later did their own album and won a Grammy.
AVC: Do you feel responsible for that?
ID: A little bit, yeah! [Laughs.] It was my idea to get them together. And Allison was friends with Shawn Colvin, but nobody knew who she was. That was a really down period for Joni Mitchell, too. They didn’t even want to include her song on the soundtrack. So I’m very proud of all the decisions we made. And John Turturro doing Phil Spector? That’s just so right on.
AVC: A triumph of the wig.
ID: [Laughs.]Yeah, we’re all about wigs. That movie is 90 percent about the hair.
To Die For (1995)—“Janice Maretto”
ID: Gus Van Sant is who I credit with teaching me all about the technical aspects of filmmaking—the cameras, the lenses. He was very open. We’d do a scene, and he’d say, “How would you shoot it?” I’d go, “I’d shoot an overhead,” and it would become an overhead. He was an amazing teacher. I started learning all about the camera, how to clock your performance for different lenses, things like that. Again, it was the glory days of filmmaking, where you’d be there for eight weeks, and you’d see each other breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Casey Affleck, Joaquin Phoenix, Alison Folland, Nicole Kidman—Tom Cruise was there—Buck Henry. It was before “celebrity.” You asked me, “What ruined it?” Probably celebrity. It was when people still wanted to be artists. We still had those John Cassavetes philosophies. You weren’t thinking, “This person’s a celebrity.” That happened sometime in the mid-’90s. Everything sort of changed. We’re this society where everybody is famous now, so actors aren’t really very special.
AVC: To Die For is a really prescient comment on that exact thing. For example, it recently reentered the cultural lexicon when Sarah Palin was nominated.
ID: Absolutely! [Laughs.] It certainly did. That movie will always be referenced. At the end, when you hear that applause—you know, we’re always going to have moments like that. It’s way ahead of its time.
AVC: Do you feel at all fortunate that you haven’t become of those celebrities—like Nicole Kidman or Tom Cruise—whose every move is scrutinized?
ID: There was a time, yes, where I felt like I had to get back to my roots. I heard Richard Dreyfuss once say something I thought was incredible, which is “You strive so hard in your 20s and 30s to become successful. But once you’re successful, what do you do?” You sort of lose yourself a bit. I notice you’re not asking me about movies like Picture Perfect or Message In A Bottle—stuff where I was basically in the background. That was stuff where I was told, “Come in and do your scenes, but don’t get in the way of the celebrity.” [Laughs.] I was doing all these great movies with Marty and Gus Van Sant, and then it was like, “We want you to be the funny friend.”
It was funny, because they’d say, “Oh my God, you were so brilliant in To Die For.” And I was like, “Then why won’t you let me do anything I did in To Die For?” They wanted “an Illeana Douglas type.” I remember one of the [Picture Perfect] writers was like, “The studio said we had to make the character more idiosyncratic, so I said, ‘Why don’t you just cast Illeana Douglas?’” [Laughs.] But they’d put me in something like that, and then they’d keep telling me, “Too much! Bring it down. Don’t upstage the celebrity.” I’m like, “I’m just walking. I’m not trying to do anything!” I started shying away from those kinds of parts, because I didn’t think they were very fun. I mean, it was fun because it was a huge payday.
Ghost World (2001)—“Roberta Allsworth”
ID: Terry [Zwigoff] called me up, and again I said, “I’ve got this take on it. I was in New York in the ’80s and I remember going to this Laurie Anderson concert, and seeing Twyla Tharp, and at one point, some crazy person came onstage with a knife, and we thought it was part of the performance, but in fact it was a crazy person… I’d love to chronicle that that’s where she’s from. She’s not even a failed artist. She’s a failed performance artist.” [Laughs.] He just let me go to town. What was great about Ghost World was that it was the beginning of my “character actor” career. I was like, “I don’t even care what I look like anymore. I’m just gonna go for broke. I’m gonna wear wigs and do things I did back in acting school.” That was the farthest out I’ve ever gone. I came to work wearing the wig and a unitard and I thought for sure—after going through movies like Picture Perfect—they’d be like “Yeah, right. You’re not wearing that.” Terry never said a word. I was just relentless. It was almost like Goodfellas; I was just like, “I’m just gonna do this thing and hope that nobody says anything,” and nobody said anything.
I got in a couple ad-libs there, like when I said, “I thought it was your father.” It was completely based on people I’d seen in New York that were failed performance artists. It would have been so easy to do the art teacher that’s kind of neurotic and pent-up, but I felt like that had been done. And you have no idea until the very last moment that she’s actually a good person. Like when she says, “What a remarkable achievement.” That was my moment—well, aside from destroying the kids’ art. Actually, the first one I did was better, but Terry Zwigoff ruined it by laughing. But I like when I say, “That’s a remarkable achievement,” because you have no idea where I’m going with it. You think she’s gonna be evil, and then she turns out to be nice. Now, the ironic thing is, they did a follow-up called Art School Confidential—
AVC: Which your character was actually based on.
ID: Right, and which I was supposed to be in. They called me and said, “You’re not a big enough name, so Anjelica Huston is gonna do it.” It’s funny: You create a character that’s so funny they want to put in another movie, and then they tell you you’re not famous enough to play it. [Laughs.] I love Anjelica Huston, but I didn’t think the movie particularly worked, in my humble opinion.
Action (1999)—“Wendy Ward”
ID: All the ones you’re asking about are total collaborations. [Creator] Chris Thompson came to me and said, “I’ve got this character I want to base on you.” He let me contribute, to a certain extent. He totally wrote it, and I didn’t get any ad-libs or anything, but I think it was successful because he based it on me and then started writing. Jay Mohr, I’d known from Picture Perfect, so we had a relationship. It was just a great experience. Again, a little bit ahead of its time. Entourage became a big success, but when we came on, it was just too crazy. It foretold a lot of those shows that are about Hollywood, but at the time, they said it was just too “inside.”
AVC: On the DVD commentary, there are some thinly veiled jibes at you, especially during the last couple of episodes, where Erin Daniels’ character essentially takes your place. Was that indicative of some sort of friction?
ID: Things got a little crazy on set. I know they started to take the show in a different direction, and I don’t know why. They wanted me to become a lesbian all of a sudden. I don’t know if that’s because I worked at Fox. [Laughs.] I was like, “Oh, I’m a lesbian now.” If you question that, you get punished for it. You get written out of the script.
The lesson I learned on Action is, just shut up. Don’t question. But again, that goes back to Marty. With Marty, we were all collaborating, but I learned that a television show is not a collaboration. You give your 180 percent, but you do not question the show-runners. I remember doing a reading, and my part was kind of small that week, and I commented on it, and the next week, they cut me out of the show. So I learned that you never ask questions. In TV, you always assume you’re going to be fired. I wish I knew it then. If I had to do it again, yeah, I’d figure out some way to enjoy kissing a girl.