Kelly Lynch on Magic City, John Hughes, and playing a drag king
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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: Kelly Lynch started in local theater in Minneapolis, then moved to New York and stumbled into a stint as a model for Elite. By the end of the ’80s, she’d achieved the near-impossible feat of being both a mainstream bombshell (thanks to memorably sexy turns in Cocktail and Road House), and an arthouse diva, courtesy of Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy. Since then, Lynch has continued to split her time between film and television work, often working with her husband, writer/director Mitch Glazer. She can currently seen in the ensemble of his Starz series, Magic City, the first season of which is now on DVD and Blu-ray.
Magic City (2012-present)—“Meg Bannock”
Kelly Lynch: When Mitch created the show, there were a lot of different ideas about it. One was that it would be a movie, one was that it would be a miniseries, and then that it would be a series. At one point, there was talk that it was going to be a broadcast-network TV show, but then all the powers that be said they couldn’t actually tell the story that Mitch wanted to tell. It was more of a premium-cable story. And then [Starz CEO] Chris Albrecht read it when he went over to Starz and went crazy for it. After that, there were two different characters that he was interested for me to play. Of course, I had to sleep with the showrunner to get the part, but… [Laughs.] Anyway, it was either the Miramar Playa house photographer who was also sort of a spy for Ike [Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s character] as well a gal-Friday/best-friend kind of thing, or Meg Bannock. And the more we talked about it, Meg just seemed to be the part.
She’s this sort of Doris Duke/Grace Kelly throwback, the ultra-WASP who’s part of Ike’s earlier life, to sort of compare and contrast the Jewish hotel world, which even at that time—although no one realized it—was sort of dying as it kept coming up again and again that the WASP persona in America was being viewed as “the real Americans.” Meg’s a nice person, but she’s a person of her world, where Jewish people aren’t invited into their country clubs, and the South Beach area isn’t integrated. There are colored and white drinking fountains, and this all seems kind of normal in Meg’s world. So I think with her affection for Ike and her being accepted into his family more and more, she’s seeing her world open up a bit.
It’s cool to play a woman from that era who’s extremely wealthy. Her parents are gone; she’s an heiress like Doris Duke, with something like a billion dollars in today’s money. She’s got no children and has just said goodbye to husband No. 2, so she can swim the waters of the world like a man. I mean, you want family and you want relationships, but she doesn’t need a man to take care of her. She just doesn’t need that. Whereas I just did a movie right before I came back to Magic City, a contemporary-set film called A Dark Plan, where I play a woman of today who’s a complete throwback, a housewife and a mother, and loses both of those definitions in the course of her story and has an affair with a very young guy and is just completely rebuilding herself. So it’s interesting for me to have done those two things back-to-back.
The A.V. Club: Although it hasn’t really developed into anything beyond flirtation at this point, the sexual tension between Meg and Ike is formidable. You and Jeffrey Dean Morgan have some serious onscreen chemistry.
KL: You know, it’s one of those things… It happened with Matt Dillon, too, on Drugstore Cowboy, but chemistry is one of those things you can’t… It just happens. And the camera is aware of it and picks it up, the people in the room are aware of it, the two actors become aware of it. But it was something we weren’t prepared for. The first scene we did together, the director said, “Cut,” and everybody in the room went, “Wooooooo!” [Laughs.] And we were like, “What?” And we went back and watched some playback, and it was just like, “Oh. Wow.”
AVC: “Oh, that’s what.”
KL: Yeah. “Okay. Got it.” Because, really, we care about each other a lot and we love working together, Jeff and I. It’s just one of those things where we really look forward to it. We just wrapped our first episode of the new season and did our read-through yesterday for the second episode, which has a lot of Ike and Meg tension and flirtation, and… I felt like I was in Casablanca. [Laughs.] It was just kind of a perfect tone, this one scene in particular, which Mitch wrote for us, where everybody started clapping after we read the scene. It was like, “Wow, this is gonna be great.”
So it’s one of those mysteries, and it’s a great foil, because Jeff and Olga Kurylenko have what my husband wants to be a beautiful, sexual, close friendship. You know, just a totally wonderful marriage. So there is that, and there’s the challenge of doing that, where everything’s about conflict, but the conflict is that he’s trying to keep that marriage together. But obviously there was a relationship before the marriage when Ike and Meg were young, and there are still pieces of it that are twirling around them.
AVC: Since you’ve only just started filming, you obviously can’t say much about season two, but the press releases that Starz has been sending out are certainly revealing some impressive additions to the cast: James Caan, Sherilyn Fenn—
KL: Yeah, it’s great! Not only is he our showrunner, creator, and writer, but Mitch was also very involved in the design of the look of the show, because he grew up in Miami in that era. His father was the electrical engineer in all those great hotels, and he grew up as a cabana boy in the summers, sitting at the lunch counter at Wolfie’s, with Meyer Lansky in a nearby booth telling him to shut the hell up. [Laughs.] So, yeah, the casting, the music… There’s some music this year that’s just insane, and all the casting is done by Mitch. He just thinks of people when he writes, and he’s always hoping that’s the person he’ll be able to cast, and that’s just happened to work. People read their bits and go, “Yeah, I’ve got to do this.”
When he’s writing, it’s almost like he’s Sybil. I hear him once in awhile, and he’ll be reading pieces out loud in a different cadence for different characters. Mitch doesn’t have the performing gene, but he can do all sorts of voices. He’s like Rich Little. [Laughs.] He’s not so good with the females, but… Anyway, yeah, he used Jimmy Caan’s voice for this one character, and then we got Jimmy in to do it. He’s so funny, this character, but he’s so scary. Very scary. And Sherilyn, we all worked together on Three Of Hearts so many years ago. She’s already filmed a real big scene in this first episode, and she was absolutely fantastic. Just amazing. She always had that thing like she was from another time, anyway. It’s been a long time since she’s had something like this where she’s had a real fun part to show off, and she just killed it.
Of course, we have other good stuff coming up, too. A bigger Cuban storyline, and other things are happening in the continuing saga of Ike trying to keep his dream alive down there. It’s also the story of Miami, though, with the cyclical thing of how different people may have the power, but the power always wants to corrupt this beautiful place and turn it into casinos. So far that hasn’t happened yet, but when Cuba fell, all of that money crossed the ocean and tried to turn Miami into what Havana was for a while.
AVC: Magic City obviously isn’t the first time that you and Mitch have worked together, but how is it to work as an actress with your husband as the director?
KL: It’s very weird. We did it the first time on Three Of Hearts, where our director [Yurek Bogajevicz] had, like, a nervous breakdown and didn’t show up for work, and Mitch… He was doing rewrites for us, just to help with that, because it was just a little independent movie. And the producers were like, “So, uh, Mitch is the kind of writer who hears it, sees it, and smells it. Do you think he could direct?” And I said, “Yeah, I always thought he could.” So we got him to come on the set, and he basically filmed a third of the movie uncredited, and those are everybody’s favorite scenes, and he was wonderful. But on the first day we drove to work together, all of a sudden when we were about halfway there, I looked at him and I said, “What if we just start arguing? What if… Oh, my God, this could be horrible!” [Laughs.] And I started freaking out. And he was, like, “Oh God, I didn’t even think about that.”
But then this weird thing happened when we got on the set: He knew exactly what he wanted to do, he had really thought about it and was very prepared, and he became “Mitch Glazer.” Both names. In quotes. [Laughs.] “Mitch Glazer” is my boss. I also love to be directed and relinquish control. Some actors have a hard time doing that, and it shows in their work, I think. You have to trust in the people around you, not direct yourself, and, most of all, do your job. You have to trust that someone has an idea of how they’re going to cut it and what the story is and what the scene is about, all those things, so you can just be in the moment, living and breathing, and not be outside of yourself, watching yourself.
We have a poster of John Cassavetes on the wall of a room in our house, because we were always inspired by him. Mitch and I are huge Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes fans—we got to know Gena very well—and the way they worked together, the family feeling on the set of Cassavetes’ films is exactly what Mitch tries to do. Three hundred-some people work for him on Magic City, but he knows everybody’s name. So there’s very much a family feeling. And TV is fast, and there can be a lot of tension. There are movies where you only do a page or three a day. We’re doing nine or 10 pages a day. So because of the fact that Mitch is the person that he is, we have fun. People look forward to going to work. Everybody on the crew reads the script, which is kind of unheard of, but often you have the boom guy who’ll be thinking about the script over lunch, and… Everyone’s very engaged in the storytelling. When the scripts come out, there’s a buzz from the crew, and I’ve never been around that, where 100 percent of the people are just so connected to what they’re doing. And not just connected to the job, but artistically connected.
AVC: Talk about a trial by fire for your husband: His first time behind the camera, and he’s directing his wife in romantic scenes with Sherilyn Fenn.
KL: Absolutely, yeah. I was on notice. [Laughs.] But, like I said, that’s when I started referring to him as “Mitch Glazer,” which made the whole crew laugh. I still do it now. Even though they just call him “Mitch,” I just feel more comfortable calling him “Mitch Glazer” because it draws a line when we’re working together. It’s the same thing with the read-throughs. They keep seating me next to him in our conference room, and I’m always like, “Would you get me away from him?”
Three Of Hearts (1993)—“Connie Czapski”
KL: I was really, really proud of that part, and, quite honestly, I felt… I’ve played a few lesbian characters in my career, and I’m always happy to do so. It’s always a challenge, and I always learn something. But Connie I liked because at that point… It’s hard to even believe, because we have so many gay characters integrated into TV shows—Modern Family, The New Normal, whatever—but back then the main gay characters were in films like Philadelphia. Or Basic Instinct, which is a movie I turned down right around that same time. I turned down millions of dollars to do Basic Instinct and instead did this little movie for basically nothing, because I thought, “We can’t have gay and lesbian characters on prime-time television or in films where they’re just dying of AIDS or killing people. It’s just too hideous.” And the character in Basic Instinct… I didn’t like her, for one thing, but then the whole crossing and uncrossing my legs? I have a kid. I was like, “I don’t think so.” But I would’ve done something like Body Heat. I just thought Basic Instinct was really cheesy.
And then Three Of Hearts fell in my lap, and my agent’s like, “Well, this is a cute little movie.” And I said, “You know what? I love the fact that she’s a lesbian, she’s got a girlfriend, and the girlfriend’s got issues whether she’s gay or straight.” And Connie’s just trying to make her way through the world like a regular person. We see her in her bar with friends, we see her at work as a nurse, we see her apartment and her regular life. I’m not sure, but I think I was the first actor who got a chance to play a lesbian in a film who’s just a person. And there were some people who were thinking Billy Baldwin—who played my best friend—and I should’ve gotten together, because we had such great chemistry. But in a way, the movie was almost like a mini-Casablanca, where the girl, the Ingrid Berman character, comes into the lives of these men, but in the end she’s gone, and it’s the friendship that remains as she goes off in her plane… or, as in our movie, her cab. But the friendship lasts through everything. Hopefully, anyway. So I was really proud of it. But I, uh, got a lot of heat from the gay community, with the girls going, “We would’ve liked to have seen more sex scenes with you and Sherilyn!”
AVC: In fairness, there was probably a similar outcry from some guys in the straight community.
KL: [Laughs.] I know, I know. There were more than a few guys in the audience, too. But I was, like, “Oh, you idiots, don’t you get it?” It was more covert. It was about getting in there and kind of making Middle America look at people who are just like them, but they have different partners. So here I thought, “I’m doing this important thing!” But in this day and age, people sometimes just want entertainment. They don’t necessarily want to be shown anything that they have to think about or learn from. But hopefully we did something with Three Of Hearts, because I always thought it was a really sweet movie. And it’s always weird who remembers it. For instance, Anna Wintour from Vogue came up to me and said, “I loved that movie Three Of Hearts. It was so sweet and so funny. I just loved it. I loved the whole thing: the way it looked, the acting, story.” I was like, “Oh, cool!”
The Equalizer (1986)—“Bartender”
KL: You know, someone asked me the first time I was on film, and I said, “I can’t remember!” I would’ve thought it was The Hitchhiker. But now that you’ve mentioned it, I do remember that I was on The Equalizer, and, yes, it was my first job. But in my head, I don’t think I was even counting it as a real job, because I had, like, a couple of lines and I was completely terrified. I started in theater, so working in front of a camera was something I had no idea about. The one thing I remember is that the sound department kept having to come over and tell me to stop projecting. [Laughs.] Because I was just enunciating and projecting as if I was talking to the balcony. And they’re like, “You know, you’ve got a little microphone right here, so we can hear everything.” At which point I got completely paranoid, going, “Oh, my God, they can hear everything. They can probably hear my internal organs working!” It was like I was completely out of body. It was hilarious. But I had totally forgotten about it until you brought it up.
Portfolio (1983)—“Elite Model”
AVC: You were just saying that The Equalizer was the first time you were on film, but didn’t you appear in the movie Portfolio a few years before that?
KL: Yeah, but that was kind of, like, they rounded up all of these Elite models and I don’t think I ever saw the finished product, but when I was on set, I thought, “This is really stupid.” [Laughs.] It was kind of a fake look at what being a model is like. It was, like, people practically singing and dancing as they’re doing things behind the scenes at a fashion show. I remember sitting there smoking cigarettes with another girl who I hadn’t met but who worked for the agency, and we were looking at each other and rolling our eyes, just going, “Oh, my God…” I was always trying to put myself in the very back of any scene I was in so that I’d never be recognized. It was almost like what reality TV is now: a scripted fake-but-real look at something that’s just so completely not real.
AVC: So which came first for you: the modeling or the theater?
KL: The theater came first. When I was a kid, my sister was a piano player, and I was an athlete and an actor, but it was a hobby. My family really never thought I would end up continuing in acting. And I didn’t, either! I didn’t even get that it was a job. I just loved it. But I did dinner theater as a child, I worked at the Guthrie Theater [in Minneapolis] and did a few things, but I was on my way to a career in hotel and restaurant management, which is what my family’s business is. My dad is actually a little bit like Ike Evans. Actually, his whole life is, because my mother was an ex-showgirl. [Laughs.] So that’s one of the things that inspired Mitch with those characters. There are these glamorous pictures of my parents, and they look like Ike and Vera!
So, anyway, I went out to register for school, and I had just a weird idea about going to New York and seeing a friend of mine that I had been dating in Minneapolis. And I got up to Manhattan, and I just never left. I got into Sande Shurin’s acting classes, which was amazing, but I was starving—literally—and staying in a flophouse on 42nd and 2nd for $15 a night because I lied and told them I was a model. And, like, a month later, I was a model. John Casablancas from Elite saw me in an elevator and gave me his card. I thought he was some kind of porn director. [Laughs.] I couldn’t understand what he was saying to me. He was all excited and pitching me on the idea of modeling, but somehow I thought it was some porn thing, so I just kind of threw the card in my bag and was like, “Get away from me!” But later I was showing the card to friends and was laughing about it, and they went, “No, no, that’s, like, the cool, big modeling agency.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but I’m not a model. I’ve never taken those classes.” I didn’t get that you could just be photographed. I thought you had to, like, go to college to be a model. [Laughs.] Some sort of special modeling college.
So I went into Elite and met with them, and I started working and started making a living at it, supporting myself as I was studying with somebody who was absolutely fantastic, and I started working as an actress. The hardest part for me was the work you start getting. It’s, like, a line in a movie or TV show, like in The Equalizer. I just kept wanting to stop working and keep studying, stay in class and do these great scenes and characters. And it was Sande who said to me, “You have got to get out there and stay out there. You’re going to be riding in a limousine quicker than you know, but you have to start somewhere. Each role builds on another role, and if you look at these things you’re doing as characters that you’re meant to play, then you’ll learn something from each one.”
It’s very humbling when you start to work. You feel like you’re only showing 10 percent of what you are, but that’s where you start. I mean, for me it was a lot of wearing bikinis for a few years. But now I’m really glad I did it. At the time I was totally humiliated. Now, I’m like, “Yeah, that’s what I looked like.” [Laughs.] “That girl in Cocktail? That was me.”
AVC: Lea Thompson made a similar comment about a topless scene she did for The Wild Life.
KL: Yeah, now you look back at it and you’re like, “It’s all good.” Back then all they did was keep asking me to take something off. Now I’m just waiting for them to start telling me to put something back on. [Laughs.]
Virtuosity (1995)—“Madison Carter”
KL: That was such an interesting experience. I learned so much from that movie. First of all, the Denzel Washington part was a role that written for Mel Gibson, and it was a romantic role. He played a character who was in prison for many years, and he gets out and hooks up with this computer forensic specialist who finds bad guys on the Internet, and they pursue this guy who’s a virtual-reality kind of creation. And Denzel decided… Well, we all had to audition with him, which they rarely do anymore. They just usually put the two biggest actors available for a part in the movie together, whether or not they really have any chemistry, and if you find out on day one that they don’t, then it’s like, “Whoops!” But for Denzel and I, it was very charged. It was really great. We really connected. It was really sexual, funny, we connected intellectually… Everything was working. They were thrilled. And it was a wonderful script. But when we showed up for rehearsal, Denzel… [Hesitates.]
We had kind of an inexperienced director [Brett Leonard], who I think had only done a few movies before that and really didn’t have much experience with big movie stars. And when actors feel like there’s not a real captain of a ship, they can feel like, “I have to take this project under my wing, and I have to fix it, because no one is minding the store.” That’s the kind of feeling Denzel had, I think, so he took the script and rewrote it and decided that my character wasn’t really so much of an expert but worked at a company and had a child, who would have a bomb strapped to her back. So I would be some sort of a hostage, a child-in-jeopardy thing—which I absolutely hate—and there would not be a romantic relationship between these people. Even though this man had been in prison for many, many years, he didn’t feel any connection to women when he got out… or at least not any woman that we see him with. And then he took half of my part and incorporated it into his dialogue. That was kind of the beginning of the end. I mean, the whole script just unraveled.
I was very nice, though. I said, “Denzel, what is it? Why don’t you believe that the man you’re playing couldn’t be attracted to me?” I mean, it wasn’t a cheesy love story. It was actually really well-written and moving. And he said, “You know what, Kelly? I hate to say it, but, you know, white men bring women to movies, and they don’t want to watch a black man with their woman.” I was like, “What? No. Really?” He said, “No, I’m sorry, but that’s truly what it is. That’s what the audience is.” I’m like, “But how about The Bodyguard? That was a huge hit movie.” “Well, that’s different. That’s a white man. It’s different.” I said, “So that’s your main motivating factor on this?” He said, “Yes.” So the love story wasn’t a love story anymore. So I said, “Okay.” Years later on The Larry Elder Show, they were talking about it because some crewmember called up, and he didn’t identify himself but he knew the whole thing. They talked about it, and he said, “Oh, I wish we could get a phone call from Kelly Lynch!” I was in my car, but I was like, “They absolutely have it right, but I’m just not going to talk about it right now.” But it made me very sad. Not only as an actress, because it totally turned the movie into a piece of crap, but… I get that Denzel got a little bit afraid of everything, and I’m sure he believed what he was saying, although I think he’s wrong. I think that people go to movies because they think they’re good movies, or they don’t go to them because they think they’re bad. I just don’t come from that place. And if that’s what people think, then I don’t want to make movies for them. So it was a really weird experience. But I learned a lot.
I watched Russell Crowe, who’s a brilliant actor as well, and he made something out of that movie, which was a complete mess. He took it and he found his place, because he wasn’t involved in any of that weird black/white dynamic. There were all these things that I didn’t understand were happening or were allowed to happen, and not everybody was happy with those choices that Denzel had made, but no one stopped him. But Russell could come and hang out in my trailer, and we’d talk a little bit, and then he just said, “You know, I’m just doing what I’m doing.” He was really funny, because he decided to terrorize me as Sid 6.7 [Crowe’s villain android character] and started decorating my trailer every day. I’d come to work, and my trailer would have more decorations until finally I had flower boxes and trees, and the interior was like a bodega, with all these sort of Our Lady Of Guadalupe candles and banners and shrines. He went mental. It was really funny. And, uh, then it did get kind of scary. [Laughs.] You know, it’s always interesting, I guess is my point, no matter what it is. You always want the movies to turn out to be just the greatest thing ever, but what the audience doesn’t realize is that we’re still having a life experience, the crew and cast. And sometimes that can be highly entertaining or really bizarre. But it’s always interesting.
Charlie’s Angels (2000)—“Vivian Wood”
KL: That was really fun. My husband is an uncredited writer of that Charlie’s Angels movie. He was brought on and calls himself Writer No. 21. I think that’s the number he was. I’ve never seen so much money spent on the writing of an action movie about three girls, but… They wanted Bill Murray to come in, and Bill said, “Look, I’ll do it, but this script isn’t really very funny. I like working with Mitch Glazer. If Mitch can do it, then I’ll come on.” And I was kind of the same way. I was kind of interested, because they were talking to me about the role of Vivian, but once Mitch was there, Bill and I both knew we’d be protected and that we’d have something fun to do. And Sam Rockwell was really thrilled, too, since Mitch gave him some moves. [Laughs.] Sam was hilarious.
The hardest thing was… Cameron [Diaz] and I are kind of both tomboys, so we were determined to do all our stunts except for that fall from the bell tower, that big fight scene. They wouldn’t let us fly down the cable. But we did everything else. And I smartly had a rubber suit that I wore, underneath which were bruises the size of baseballs. I mean, we had the team from The Matrix working with us on martial arts, and she had, I don’t know, eight months to prepare. I had two weeks. So it was, like, eight hours a day of really intense training to do stuff that I didn’t think I could possibly do. Cameron and I are the same height and weight and… We’re really a good pair, except for the fact that I’m 12 years older than her. So I kept saying things like, “I’m a mother, don’t kill me!” [Laughs.] Meanwhile, she’s a force of nature. But we had a really good time. She knows these two amazing Chinese women doctors, and every night we had acupuncture, because we were really doing full-contact. We would look at the monitor, and we would go, “It’s not fast enough.” You can’t really fake this stuff, so we were really kind of going at it. But she was just a complete doll to work with, and we became great friends. We had the best time.
Of course, the scene with Bill and I, where she comes over and he’s lighting a fire… [Laughs.] It was so funny. There were so many takes that didn’t work because somebody from the crew would start laughing. When Bill puts his head in the ice bucket because it kind of ignites his face when he’s lighting the fire… just things like that. It was one of the only times that I’ve ever actually been nervous. And Bill’s a friend of mine, but all of a sudden that morning, I looked at him and said, “Bill, I’m so nervous.” He said, “Aw, c’mon, we’re friends, this should be fun.” I said, “Yeah, but you’re Bill Murray!” It’s like “Mitch Glazer.” They become different people. When it’s outside of work and I’m hanging out with them, he’s my buddy, but all of a sudden, I’m working with someone who I consider to be our generation’s Peter Sellers. He’s a great, great actor, and he’s a very bright man and funny as well. I mean, you’ve got to have your A-game. In the end, we just had a blast. It was just so much fun. But I think the second Charlie’s Angels, without Mitch and Bill… It’s a lot of set scenes, but no heart and not a lot of humor. The girls were adorable, just like they were in the first one, but… Studios often think, “Just grab any bunch of writers, throw in all these elements, and it’ll work.” And it really doesn’t. It really has to be someone who takes a look at the whole thing and sews it all together and gives each one a little character, an arc, and a little something extra… like giving Sam Rockwell some dancing. That was, ladies and gentlemen, “Mitch Glazer.” [Laughs.]
Curly Sue (1991)—“Grey Ellison”
KL: That was another movie that started out as one movie and ended up being another movie entirely. But a great experience. I had a little girl at the time, one who’s now a woman in her mid-20s, but she’d never seen my work at the time, so I thought, “Well, I’ll go to Chicago.” It was like a throwback to one of those Depression-era movies that you’d seen Jean Harlow in: A rich lady ends up taking in this little orphan. I thought it was very sweet, and I thought, “Well, she can finally see what I do for a living.” As opposed to showing her, say, Drugstore Cowboy, which, uh, wouldn’t really be appropriate. [Laughs.]
It was originally going to be me, Alec Baldwin, and Kevin Spacey, which would’ve been a whole different situation. John Hughes had just come off of Home Alone, he was the biggest director on the planet, and it was really exciting to be with him on what was the last movie he ever directed. I loved working with him, and it was interesting to see just how he worked and how he got performances. He really was very clear. It was almost like puppetry, where he had an idea about how you looked, your expressions, and your intonations. It was very precise. But somehow he made it feel organic, like it came from me as well. But he was very specific with what he wanted and very kind about how he got it. I liked working with him a lot. He and Jimmy [Belushi] had a hard time, however.
Alec Baldwin had to walk because he was doing Streetcar [Named Desire] with Jessica Lange, and the rehearsals on that had kind of accelerated because they’d decided that they were going to do them early. So he had to drop out, and I was heartbroken. And then Kevin Spacey got a different play, so his part was recast as well. Those were two guys I knew really well, but I’d never met Jimmy before, and then he and John didn’t get along very well, so I kind of felt like a mom dealing with two 12-year-old boys. “Okay, now you stop it, you go over there and stay there until you can behave.” [Laughs.] It really was almost like that for me. Once, Jimmy had a monologue, and John just about lost it trying to get it filmed. One time production was stopped, and someone said it was because Jimmy needed softer toilet paper or hand towels or something ridiculous like that, and I was, like, “Well, that can’t be true.” I don’t really know what was going on between the two of them, but they, uh, definitely weren’t the best of friends. What I thought would be this cute, sweet little movie experience ended up going on for something like five months, and so much money was spent. It was insane.
I do remember that I met the heads of every studio, because they all came to sort of pay homage to Hughes, because at the time he’d just had this huge, huge hit. But there was a lot of diabolical energy coming out of that production between those two guys. At one point, Mitch, who would come in to visit me, was the stand-in for the little girl—Alisan Porter—because Jimmy was not going to do off-camera work anymore because he was so angry at John. But even with all of that going on, it still remains one of those movies where people say, “Aw, I loved that movie when I was a kid. It was so sweet!”
Road House (1989)—“Doc”
KL: Well, there you go. I mean, what can you say? I got a call from my agent, and I had just done Drugstore Cowboy, which was a little different, but he said, “There’s this other movie.” I was actually one of the last contract players, I guess, but I had a two-picture deal with United Artists, which I don’t remember signing it, but apparently I had it, and that’s how Road House first came up. The actress who’d been cast first to play against Patrick Swayze was Annette Bening, but she was fired. Patrick just didn’t feel any chemistry with her or something. I don’t know what it was. But I didn’t know who she was, I didn’t know what this movie was, all I knew was who Patrick Swayze was, and that’s because he’d just done Dirty Dancing, which was a big movie. And I thought, “Man, he’s a really interesting guy,” so I took the script, but then I read it and I was like, “Okay, I don’t understand what this is. There’s a big-wheel truck, there’s a bad guy, there’s a doctor in a mini-dress, and there are bouncers.” It was just, like, a goulash. [Laughs.] So many elements were thrown into this movie that it just didn’t make any sense to me.
But I took a meeting with the producer, the famous Joel Silver, who did not disappoint as far as offering a larger-than-life personality. He was hilariously funny and charming and a maniac. We sat in his office, and he basically talked me into doing it. He said, “Look, first of all, I don’t make art, I buy it,” which is his famous quote, but here I am, this young actress trying to become an artist, just coming off Drugstore Cowboy, listening to him and just going, “Uh-huh.” But he said, “I promise you that this will be the best drive-in movie ever made. It will be a movie that people will love. It will be fun, we’ll have a great time making it, and just trust me.” And then he just looked at me and said, “And by the way, you don’t have a choice, you know. You’re under contract. You can say ‘no’ and we can get really difficult, but we want you and you should do this. It could be great for you.” So basically he said, “You have to do this.” [Laughs.] So I said, “Okay.”
So I showed up for work, and I have to say that, between John Doe, Jeff Healey, and all these musicians, plus working with Sam Elliott and Patrick, it was like a barbeque on set every day. Just a really good time. All that “pain don’t hurt” and “I used to fuck guys like you in prison,” all those lines, we would be roaring at the time. I mean, it was just hilarious, you know? But no one winked at it. Everyone played it straight. I wore my tablecloth miniskirt dress, and we just had the best time. And I think it shows. And it lives on. I think it’s playing on some network somewhere in the universe every single day, probably even as we speak. It’s pretty girls, guys fighting, good guys and bad guys… and mullets! We all had a mullet, for God’s sake! [Laughs.] I remember saying, “How are you getting my hair to do that?” Because my hair’s really straight. But they put stuff in it and made it happen. It was amazing.
So, yeah, it lives on. In fact, my daughter was at the Fairfax Theater, where they had a Road House trivia night, and she was, like, “You’ve got to go! A bunch of us are going!” They said it was like Rocky Horror, where they do all the lines and everything. So she’s like, “You’ve got to come! You’ve got that dress. I bet it still fits you. Come on, you’ve got to put that dress on!” I was like, “Oh, I wish I could, but I just can’t. You guys go have a good time with it, but…” [Laughs.] It’s so great that it’s such a fun thing for everybody. It is what it is, but people love it for that.
AVC: It seems like your sex scene in the film must be one of the most uncomfortable in cinematic history, being up against a rock wall and all.
KL: Oh, I know, but I was padded. [Laughs.] No one knows, so it looks more painful that it was. They really liked everything about the way that scene looked, with the blonde hair against the rocks behind me, but I was like, “Isn’t this kind of… mean?” So they put a thin padding under my dress, so you can’t see it. But he’s still slamming me against the rocks, so I had to be careful not to hit my head. Thank God Patrick was so strong. He could’ve carried me around that room forever.
By the way, speaking of Bill Murray, every time Road House is on and he or one of his idiot brothers are watching TV—and they’re always watching TV—one of them calls my husband and says [In a reasonable approximation of Carl Spackler], “Kelly’s having sex with Patrick Swayze right now. They’re doing it. He’s throwing her against the rocks.” [Away from the receiver.] What? Oh, my God. Mitch was just walking out the door to the set, and he said that Bill once called him from Russia.
AVC: Sorry, not to dwell on this, but you said that Bill Murray “or one of his idiot brothers” will call. Which brothers are we talking about?
KL: All of them! Joel has called; Brian Doyle has called. They will all call! Any and all of them!
AVC: This was already an awesome story, but now it’s even better.
KL: I know, right? I dread it. If I know it’s coming on—and I can tell when it’s coming on, because it blows up on Twitter when it is—I’m just like, “Oh, my God…” And God help me when AMC’s doing their Road House marathon, because I know the phone is just going to keep ringing. It doesn’t matter if it’s 2 or 3 in morning. “Hi, Kelly’s having sex with Patrick Swayze right now…”
Desperate Hours (1990)—“Nancy Breyers”
KL: Well, that was another amazing… I feel like not only have I worked with every leading man of a particular era, but I worked on movies that were just incredible experiences, if sometimes for some crazy reasons. But those were weird years, you know? The ’90s… There was a lot of money and not a lot of people running the store. And Michael Cimino is famous for making these grand, operatic, money-burning movies. He really pursued me. I loved the script, and I was aware that the story was based on… Well, the original movie was based on a case that Richard Nixon, as a young lawyer, presided over. I just loved the reality of the story about this lawyer, this public defender who fell in love with her client and gave up everything to be with him.
I had a woman lawyer in L.A. who I was following for about a month, and I went to every trial with her, I went to prisons with her and watched her, and… I wanted to base my character visually and emotionally on her, because she was a really interesting woman. Very sexy but, unlike the case of the girl I played, she didn’t wear a lot of makeup. She wore very tight clothing and she was incredibly smart. She would show up with a thin little file of papers, and the prosecutors would have, like, boxes of things, and she would win. Usually her clients were guilty—they were gangbangers, often—and her name was Oksana, and I would say, “Oksana, how do you live with yourself?” And she said, “You know what? I make the law better. If they knew what they were doing, they would easily win their cases. But they don’t, because they’re lazy and they don’t care and they’re not good lawyers.” And that was her way of justifying it. And I was like, “Yeah, but there’s a guy who kidnapped somebody, who shot somebody, who’s now free.” And she would say, “Yeah, well, you know, they’ll end up in prison again because they’re a bad guy. The system will take them in. But I’m not here to make a moral judgment. I’m here to make the law stronger.” That was her thing. And I thought, “Oh, she’s great!” She wore… I’d say the shirts might’ve been a little too low once in awhile, the skirts might’ve been a little too tight, but she wasn’t the full-hair-and-makeup type that Michael Cimino always has.
If you look at Michael’s movies, especially with Mickey Rourke, there’s always a girl who is the designated… what I call the drag queen, someone who has too much makeup and hair, who’s usually a reporter or, as in my case, a lawyer. But it’s always, like, “slash supermodel.” And I didn’t know at the time that Michael was kind of… interested in dressing like a woman. That’s the Michael Cimino we know today, but at the time I didn’t know what his issues were with femininity and all those things. And during Desperate Hours, we started to see him wearing higher heels and fixing his hair like a woman and doing different things, and I said, “Michael, I don’t really want to wear this makeup, I don’t want this hairdo, and I know you’re having me thrust my leg out in this scene like I’m doing a pantyhose commercial, but I’m just a lawyer!” And he would get angry and say, “I don’t want to look at you until you get your hair and makeup on in that trailer. You look like a 12-year-old boy!” And me, in my mid-20s… I did not look like a 12-year-old boy. I thought I looked pretty good! [Laughs.] But I was like, “Okay…”
And then I came to the scene with Mickey in the hallway, where I’m springing him and we’re running out of the courthouse, and there was an exchange between the two of us. We asked each other if we loved each other and need each other and that sort of thing, and we kind of nod and get out of there, a one last look because we could be shot, we don’t know what we’re doing. And Michael came in and took the “love” part out of it. He said, “It’s not about love.” And I looked at him and I said, “A woman in my position would not gamble on losing everything for any other reason. She loves this guy.” And he says, “No, you just want to get laid.” I said, “Well, how long do you think it would take a girl like me, who looks like I do here, to have sex with a guy like this?” I mean, it was Mickey. I’m like, “How long do you think it would take, Michael? A second…?” Probably you’re right. Probably it’s a lustful kind of thing that she’s mistaking for love, but that’s something I don’t want to even be conscious of. I want to feel like I’m in love with this man.” And he looked at me and shook his head and said, “No.” And I said, “Okay, here’s the thing: This will be your performance. Because I disagree with you on everything about who this person is. She’s an intellectual. She’s a very wealthy, very successful attorney, and she knows she can get laid. She’s in love with this man. Or she’s confused and she thinks she’s in love with this man, but she’s in a crisis.” And he said, “Actually, the real truth of the story is that you’re really hot, and you just really want to get laid.” [Laughs.] So I said, “Well, then this will be your performance. I will leave my name on the movie, but I can’t take credit. I’ll even ask for line readings.”
And, basically, that’s how I did the rest of the film. I can’t really take credit for any of it. I thought it was beautiful, as far as the scenery, and there were pieces of it that I believed in and thought were amazing. But it’s all the director’s movie, not mine. A lot of it didn’t make any sense to me. But I loved working with Sir Anthony Hopkins. We’d sit together at lunch and talk about things. And Mickey and I became great friends. We’ve worked together many times, and I’m one of his favorite actors, oddly enough. He wanted me to do The Wrestler with him, which I couldn’t, because I was working on something else, but he’s one of those actors I adore. But, yeah, it was a very weird experience working on Desperate Hours. But I’d just started dating Mitch at the time, too, so I’ve got those memories in there. He kind of rescued me. [Laughs.]
90210 (2010-2011)—“Laurel Cooper”
KL: Well, you know, that was really fun, because I realized that there’s a whole generation of kids who had no connection to me in a contemporary way. So I talked to my agent about doing something that would reach out to the younger audience, and this part came up, and I thought it’d be fun to do something on The CW. It also opened up a whole new cougar era for me. [Laughs.] I had no idea it was such a big character. It was only supposed to be, like, three episodes or something. It was challenging to do television like that. You get new pages in the morning that you’ve already memorized, and then they’re like, “Oh, no, that whole monologue is now this, and then you’re no longer there, you’ll be doing it like this instead. And your character won’t be in this scene, but now you’ve got this.” It was that fast. It certainly prepared me for the work I’m doing now on Magic City, although we’re a little bit more controlled. But doing television is not for sissies.
It was definitely fun, though. I had a chance to work really close to where I live, since my character’s house is this great Lloyd Wright house that’s in my neighborhood in Los Feliz, so the commute was literally a few minutes’ bike ride. And I loved working with Gillian Zinser; I felt our storyline was less CW and more real. Her energy and her sort of Venice Beach grooviness, a tomboy and surfer girl. I see girls like that around L.A., but not the characters on 90210. Some of them are the more beloved characters, perhaps, but I just don’t see them. My daughter and I have a very close relationship like Ivy and Laurel had, and it was fun to sort of play my real life on TV, albeit with the cougar-esque aspect added. [Laughs.] But there was nothing too terribly rotten about me. Plus, there were the beautiful young guys. My husband’s like, “Hey! You can work with Stacy Keach, you can work with…” He had a list of guys who he said were okay for me to work with, most of them being around 80. Leslie Nielsen used to be on it. I’m like, “C’mon, Mitch, it’s just acting.”
Mr. Magoo (1997)—“Luanne”
KL: The opportunity to work with Leslie Nielsen was one of those that I could not pass up. He delivered, as I would’ve thought. A little bit off-screen, a little bit onscreen, but he was a complete sweetheart and really funny. It was my first encounter with martial-arts filmmaking. We had a Hong Kong filmmaker and, again, I had a team of people working with me on kicks and stunts, and I always try to do as much of that as I can. Jennifer Garner had a couple of scenes in the movie, and I thought she was adorable. When she broke through with [Alias], I said, “I thought there was something about her.” And it was fun. I mean, I got a chance to spend most of a winter in Vancouver, and I’m a skier, so the opportunity to work and ski was great. And Leslie was amazing.
AVC: You mentioned that he delivered off-screen as well as onscreen. Does that mean that you fell victim to his infamous whoopee cushion?
KL: Oh, my God, of course. [Laughs.] It was everywhere. Usually I was the victim, with it underneath me, or sometimes it was directed at me. And I think I had 13 different identities in the film—and my sister had cancer and went through chemotherapy—and I had all these amazing human-hair wigs, so I asked production if I could give them to my sister, who was bald. So it was hilarious, because one day she would show up and she’d have, like, a little black China-girl sort of bob, and then long, red curly hair, and then be a platinum blonde. And people were like, “Where do you get those wigs?” So Mr. Magoo was fun for my sister as well as for me.
Miami Vice (1987)—“Lori ‘Blondie’ Swann”
KL: Oh, wow. That was amazing. That was kind of my first real meaty TV role. I played a peepshow girl, the bad-girl sister of Penelope Ann Miller, and in real life she was kind of… Penelope’s a pretty sexy, kind of randy actress. She was kind of that girl. I’m kind of a good girl. [Laughs.] So in real life, our personalities are completely different, but I’m drawn the way I’m drawn and she’s drawn the way she’s drawn. She had several boyfriends in the crew and cast, and I was, like, shocked. But I spent time at real peepshow sex performers, watching what they did. It was such a weird world, these girls who would turn it off and on. A lot of them are gay. You always learn something from the characters you play, especially when you enter another world that in real life you might not ever be exposed to. Of course, it’s just a TV show, so they just told me to look like a sexy girl who’s beautiful but bad.
It was so much fun to work with the two leads in the show, but Don Johnson and Philip [Michael Thomas], they would literally be watching each other to see who was leaving the trailer first. As a young actor, I was just on set, ready to go, and we would just be waiting and waiting there, and I’d be like, “What’s going on? What are we waiting for?” And the second AD was like, “Ah, it’s just a thing. They both want to be the last one on the set.” And I’m like, “I don’t understand. Why would you want to be the last one on the set? Don’t they want to get here and get to work?” I was just so excited, and it was so much fun. I mean, it’s Miami Vice! It’s a cool show, it’s my first big part. And here we are waiting for these two actors. But he says, “This is what happens when you’ve been acting for awhile. You start doing this kind of stuff to keep it interesting.” It was so weird. But I was so enamored of the two of them because they were just so cool.
I remember going to Star Island one night because Don had a dinner party with the cast, which was nice. We had cocktails and dinner, and he brought us out to his big boat. And then all of a sudden, a tour boat comes by with its megaphone: “There’s Don Johnson now! Look, he’s there with his friends!” And this was kind of my first real exposure to what being that kind of star is like. And he turned around and looked at us and said, “It comes by every hour, hour and a half. Same boat, different group of people.” I just thought, “Oh, my God, no wonder he wants to stay in his trailer.” [Laughs.]
White Man’s Burden (1995)—“Marsha Pinnock”
KL: Well, Quentin Tarantino… I’m one of Quentin’s girls that he likes. I don’t know if you know, but he has a type, and it’s tall blonde girls. [Laughs.] And he said, “Look, there’s this movie, I think it’s a really cool idea: What if all the black people were white people, and the dominant race was black, and you’d have all these white-trash people…” And I said, “Yeah, that could be pretty cool. But it’s pretty literal, though.” “Yeah, but I think the script is good, and I really want you to do it.” And Desmond Nakano was directing, and he’s a really bright guy, and then it had John Travolta, who I adore, and Harry Belafonte. But it didn’t quite deliver, you know? I don’t know why except that it’s so literal in the storytelling.
Also, in the middle of the movie, our dear friend Michael O’Donoghue died of a brain aneurysm. But John stopped production for me and let me go to New York to be with all of our friends, like Bill Murray, and say goodbye to Mr. Mike. The fact that they allowed me to do that and then just come back and pick up where we left off was kind of amazing. I look back on it and I think what a dear guy John is. I just can’t say enough about what an incredibly cool and good-hearted person he is. He really is a lovely human being. And incredibly funny. I wouldn’t say I’m a Method actor, but I keep in character until they say “cut,” and then I go home and I’m Kelly. But when I’m there and I’m working, I’m in a certain emotional place. Not John, though. He’s, like, goofing around and being incredibly funny, making everybody laugh, and then slams right into whatever it is he’s doing when they say, “We’re rolling.” It’s kind of amazing.
AVC: Just as a sidebar, in regards to your connection to Michael O’Donoghue, it’s hard to reconcile that your husband, the man who created Magic City, is also the same man who helped write Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video.
KL: Oh, I know. And he’s in it, too! I don’t know if you realized that. In one scene, there’s a guy standing down by an adult-movie theater, and Michael O’Donoghue is up in a window filming him, and he said to Mitch, who’s this 23-year-old guy, “Okay, stand over there in that little area, we’re just gonna film some stuff.” And, of course, it was a gay movie theater, and all these older men kept coming up and propositioning him. [Laughs.] Michael thought it was so funny. Michael was just such a… He was just the most brilliant, funny man I have ever met in my life. And elegant. He was like Tom Wolfe and Sid Vicious in one man, just completely conflicting and contrasting. And hilarious. The world is much more dimly lit without him.
Heaven’s Prisoners (1996)—“Annie Robicheaux”
KL: My love affair with New Orleans began there. It was the first time I was in New Orleans for a film, and I knocked off my second of the Baldwin brothers. [Laughs.] I’ve still got Stephen to go, although I feel like I worked with him, because he came down there with Alec. When we were working on Lake Pontchartrain, I had a large houseboat as my dressing facility, and Alec decided he’d be really super-cool and get a cigarette boat, but he didn’t realize he wouldn’t really have a cabin or anywhere to go of significant space. My bitch barge, as I called it, had a pirate flag flying, and I pursued the cigarette boat and puttered along beside them and got them with water balloons so bad. Stephen made T-shirts and everything promising retribution, but I got ’em. It was a fun film to shoot, and great music. I just adore Alec. There was a scene where I was supposed to be crying hysterically, and Alec would suddenly go into a Captain Kirk impression. I was like, “You fucking asshole!” [Laughs.] Which reminds me: My family was so angry at me, because my character gets machined-gunned about a third of the way into the movie, but I didn’t tell my parents about it. I think my dad almost had a heart attack! But it was such a great experience being in New Orleans. It’s too bad that they weren’t able to make an ongoing series of Dave Robicheaux movies, because the books are great, but there was some sort of production mishap, and it just never happened.
The L Word (2004-2009)—“Ivan Aycock”
KL: Thank you, one of my favorite characters of all time. The way it came to me is that I’d just finished something heavy and dramatic, and I called my agent up and said, “Look, I want to do something romantic. I never get to do that. I’m always, like, the bad, sexy girl, the one who breaks up the marriage, the evil whatever. I want something romantic, sweet, fun, sexy, light.” “Done.” And I literally got a call later in the day. “Look, something just came our way, and it’s really romantic.” I said, “Great!” “You don’t have to audition or anything, they really want you, they think you can do it. We’re not sure, though, so you might not be sure.” “Send me whatever you’ve got!” And I basically get the sides for what the part is, and I’m like, “Ivan…?” And I called, and I’m like, “What is this?” And they’re like, “You’re a drag king.” “A drag king?”
And then I get the full story: “Look, k.d. lang was going to do this part, but apparently she’s Leisha Hailey’s girlfriend, so that can’t happen. So they were just going to get rid of this character, but they want somebody to do it and they think you’re the actress that can pull it off. They have really good hair and makeup people.” And I’m like, “Okay, wait. So she’s, like, a guy? When do I have to do this?” “Well, you have to fly up tomorrow, and then the next day you have to do the drag show.” “Okay, is someone choreographing this?” “Well, no, not really. They’re letting you do that.” I was like, “Wait a minute, but I’m not a drag king, obviously. I don’t know how to do that.” So I took another look at it, and I said, “Okay, who’s the other woman?” “Pam Grier.” “Okay. And her character’s straight.” “Yes.” “But my character’s a lesbian woman who’s identifying as a man who’s in love with a 60-year-old black woman who’s straight.” “Yes.” And I went, “Okay, there will never be an acting challenge ever like this. Done. I’ll do it.” [Laughs.] And then I went, “Fuck!” And off I went to Vancouver.
They said, “Here’s the music we’re going to be doing for the drag show, if you want to choreograph something.” I met with the hair and makeup people, who were truly brilliant, and I said to them, “I want to look like Willy DeVille.” I wanted to do Gregg Allman, but I look too much like a girl. It didn’t work. So I was like, “Well, I’m too Tom Petty as it is, so let’s go with Willy DeVille.” [Laughs.] And they were so great, because I was so worried they were going to make me look like Clint Howard, and I would be funny rather than sexy and romantic and all the things I want to be. And they just gave me Halston suits and great hair and makeup. And Pam Grier was completely in for it. I said, “Pam, look, I’m straight.” She’s like, “I know.” Only two girls on that show were actually gay. But I said, “I’m coming at you, I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna pursue you and get you to fall in love with me. And you are gonna do it. And I’m not gonna make you. You just watch.” And she was laughing, but sure enough, it was this romantic, great thing. At one point, I’m singing Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” to her in a parking garage and dancing her around. It was amazing. I had the best time.
Quentin Tarantino, when he was dating Sofia Coppola, they were in Paris and watching The L Word because I was working with Pam, and he loves Pam. And they see my name in the credits, but they had to rewind. They’re like, “Which one were you?” “I’m Ivan!” These were two people who know me! So I loved it. And all the girls on the show were like, “Can we work with Ivan? I have kind of a little crush on Ivan.” [Laughs.] And I’ll be at a grocery store somewhere, often in L.A., and someone will come up to me and go, “You know, I’m straight, but I really had a crush on Ivan.”
Cocktail (1988)—“Kerry Coughlin”
KL: My audition for that was wearing the many and various bikinis, which… I’d say they’re really just strings tied different ways. [Laughs.] No, that was actually a really complicated story about the ’80s and power and money, and it was really re-edited where they completely lost my character’s backstory—her low self-esteem, who her father was, why she was this person that she was—but it was obviously a really successful movie, if not as good as it could’ve been. It was written by the guy who wrote Fort Apache The Bronx [Heywood Gould], and it was a much darker movie, but Disney took it, reshot about a third of it, and turned it into flipping the bottles and this and that. But it was my first really big movie, and I’m making out with Tom Cruise, who is a really good kisser. [Laughs.] And we’re in Jamaica! Again, it was one of those things where I had to pinch myself. I couldn’t believe it. It was a great opportunity to me. And as embarrassed as I was with all those little bikinis, now I’m so glad. I’m all like, “Yep, that’s me. That’s me walking down those stairs with that butt hanging out right in Tom’s face. That is me.” But we had a really great time. And Tom was so much fun, just a ball to work with, both on and off camera. We’d go to bars in Jamaica, listen to music and hang out. Everybody was great. Bryan Brown was there, with his beautiful wife, Rachel Ward. It was a lot of fun with a great group of people, and it was a really successful movie.
KL: Osa was my very first movie, and I was picked on the streets of New York. At the time, I was still modeling. I was trying not to model, but… Look, I’m a girl from Minneapolis. Someone would call me up, my booker, and say, “You get this much money just to do this for this many hours,” and I would go. And I’d be missing an audition or a class or something I wanted to do for my acting, but I just couldn’t say no. I’ve always been a worker. I’m a union person. Some people feel like they’re artists, and I’ve felt that, but in my heart of hearts, I still feel like I’m a worker. I go to work. So I tried to sabotage myself as a model. I cut my hair really short, like Sting’s, and I dyed it almost white. And, of course, my modeling career took off. [Laughs.] And I was like, “Oh, great. Now I’m doing all sorts of other shit and I’m modeling night and day.” But I was walking around with this little Sting-y, short, androgynous haircut, and a Russian guy comes up to me and says, “Are you an actress?” And I was like, “Yeah…?” Just kind of thinking it would be funny to say that. And he said, “Good, because you’re the person.” And I’m going, “Oh, boy, what is it?” Thinking once again, “This is gonna be porn.” I get a card, and he says, “I want to meet with you. I want to talk to you about this little movie we’re doing in Guaymas, Mexico. It’s Mad Max themed, a futuristic thing.” I said, “Okay…”
I had my agent at the modeling agency check it out, and she’s like, “Yeah, they’re really casting a movie.” So I decided I’d meet with them, because I hadn’t done a movie yet. I hadn’t really done anything. But I met with them, and they said, “We want you to do it,” but I said, “Okay, I’m taking acting classes, but…” “Okay, that’s great.” [Laughs.] Casting by hair. So I show up in Guaymas, Mexico, with a Russian director, a Mexican crew, and a French producer. And there are extras who are friends of the producer and director who only speak either French or Russian but don’t speak English, and much of the Mexican crew doesn’t speak English. We’re staying at a Club Med which was kind of off-season, the doors don’t lock, and I’m the only girl. One of the guys in the cast fell in love with me at one point and put his hand through a glass window and cut his wrist and almost died. Literally, he almost bled to death. There just weren’t any girls around, I think, and they were drinking a lot of Mescal and tequila. I, meanwhile, found out about two weeks into the production that I was pregnant with my daughter, and so I go from looking like a kind of androgynous tomboy to having a figure like Marilyn Monroe in a matter of, like, 24 hours. [Laughs.] And, again, I’m the only girl, and there’s no locks on these Club Med doors. I’m, like, shoving chairs under the doorknob.
We’d wake up in the morning and go to the set, which was the old Catch-22 set. It was in the middle of Guaymas, Mexico. It was so bizarre. It was like an acid trip. In fact, half the crew was doing acid, which was another weird thing. And I’m, like, not telling anyone I’m pregnant, but they’re saying, “Look, you’ve got to watch your boobs. What are you doing? You’ve got this butt all of a sudden.” And I’m like, “Oh, my God, I’m pregnant, and I can’t even tell anyone!” They paid me $3,000 to do this movie, and as we’d walk out to our van to go to the set, the idiotic Club Med guys were like, “C’mon, why don’t you play volleyball in the pool?” Or, “It’s time for arts and crafts!” It was like a Twilight Zone. But I figure it was a good trial by fire for me, because nothing ever got as weird as Osa. The whole circumstance was so funny. Years later, a friend of mine was in Paris and saw in a shop a big, huge French poster for the movie, with me and my big head, holding a crossbow, and they’d kind of made it look like I wasn’t wearing a shirt, even though I think I was wearing a wife-beater. But I have that poster now, and it’s in my house. A reminder of humility, and of how things began for me with the craziest experience ever. [Laughs.] For me, Osa is literally the weirdest it’s ever gotten.
Drugstore Cowboy (1989)—“Dianne”
KL: God, what can I say? I saw the script in my agent’s office—the words Drugstore Cowboy were written on the spine—and I said, “What a cool title! What is that?” And she looked at me and said, “Oh, please. They want Patti Smith. It’s a movie about the early ’70s and drugs, and it’s based on a true story, apparently.” And I said, “Cool! Can I read it?” And my agent rolled her eyes and said, “You’re wasting your time.” But I read it, and I said, “Okay, I’ve got to do this.” And she said, “Yeah, but they’re looking at Patti Smith and Bob Dylan. Do you feel like you’re like Patti Smith?” I was like, “I feel like I could be. I mean, I can be something different than I am.” But I met with one of the producers, and he said, “I think you could do this, and I think this could be good for you.” He seated me next to Gus [Van Sant] at this dinner, and Gus didn’t know he was meeting me, but he’d heard about my name in the mix of things, and we had a great time hanging out together. And then I came in to read for him, and I stayed up the night before all night because everyone was afraid I was way too pretty for this drug addict. But we’re young people. It’s not like drug addicts are exclusively ugly. They’re just… different. And when you’re young, the worst of what’s going to happen to you generally hasn’t happened yet. But we picked scenes and I read with them, but then I asked if I could do one more scene, which was the scene where Dianne comes back and Bob is kind of cleaned up, with that long walk down the hallway, that whole bit where you realize that she’s really in love with him, but she’s an addict. For me, that’s the character. That scene is who that character is. And that’s what got me the part.
I think I was the first person that Gus met, so when he got up and said, “Okay, I want you,” the room of producers and people were, like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa… Gus, look, we’ve got a bunch of people we’re meeting, and, Kelly, you were great, but this is just the very, very beginning of the casting process.” And he said, “Yeah, okay.” Then he walked over to me and said, “Okay, so what are you doing in September? You keep it open.” I said, “Uh, yeah, I will.” Then he pulled me out in the hallway and said outright, “I want you.” And he took a picture of me in the T-shirt I was wearing, just a Polaroid and not a real flattering picture, but the kind that looks into your soul, almost. And that was the only time that’s ever happened, where the director just made this decision. And he was effectively an amateur at the time. He had done a 20-minute short before Drugstore Cowboy, and a lot of people were not up for working with a new director, but that’s always my favorite experience, because they’ve got the passion. That person who’s ready to go, who it means that much to, I love working with people like that, especially when they’ve got a handle on the script as well. Bob Yeoman was the cinematographer, who’s now Wes Anderson’s DP, and I worked very closely with him. I loved what he did with the camera in that, the choices they made. I even worked out what kind of cigarettes I smoked. And that walk down the hallway, I said, “Can we film Dianne walking away? Because I have this weird walk that I want her to have.” And he was like, “We really should see it first.” And then he saw it, and he was like, “Oh, man, that’s so great…” [Laughs.]
It was so much fun. And we really were laughing a lot. You know, in the part with Heather Graham, where her character dies and we’re trying to shove her up in the attic… The whole thing was crazy. To play people who are medicated, who aren’t really aware of how fucked up their lives are, you’re not in a bad place when you’re playing it, but when you’re watching it, it’s a much heavier experience. When you’re playing someone like that, they’re kind of in denial and pursuing their goals every day and reaching them somewhat, at least as far as getting their fix. So making the film, we were in heaven, all of us. The script that I read, the movie we made, and the movie I saw were all the same thing. And that rarely happens.
AVC: As this conversation has proven repeatedly.
KL: [Laughs.] Exactly! They take on a life of their own. But Drugstore Cowboy is what happens when you have a very strong captain of the ship who has a vision that everyone can plug into. Which is why it’s my favorite movie and the best time I ever had.