Killer Joe’s Gina Gershon on merkins, film ratings, and laughing at brutality
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Although she already had almost a dozen films under her belt, Gina Gershon found her defining role in the 1996 film noir Bound, as a tough, sensual ex-con who plots with lover Jennifer Tilly to steal millions from the mob. The movie, directed by a pair of unknowns named Larry and Andy Wachowski, was matter-of-fact about its protagonists’ sexuality in a way that was then completely off the mainstream map, and Gershon’s swagger made her seem like the butch equivalent of Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Unfortunately, the stench of Showgirls was still in the air, and though Gershon’s knowingly camp performance allowed her to emerge from the debacle relatively unscathed, it’s been with her ever since. In the years since, she’s worked with John Woo (Face/Off), Volker Schlöndorff (Palmetto), Olivier Assayas (Demonlover), Michael Mann (The Insider), and mostly recently William Friedkin, whose Killer Joe represents a comeback for several parties involved. In a pitch-black comedy adapted from Tracy Letts’ play, Gershon plays the vulgar and conniving stepmom to a diseased Texas clan, a woman who is bold and forthright as well as dimwitted. “Forthright” fit Gershon in person as well, when she talked to The A.V. Club about getting brutalized on screen, the movie she thought Showgirls would be, and why she’s seen The Exorcist a hundred times.
The A.V. Club: You enter Killer Joe naked and framed from the waist down. Did you have any qualms about doing the scene as written?
Gina Gershon: I wasn’t too concerned about that. I was actually excited about the introduction. I keep using this as an example because I just think it illustrates it the best: If I was playing Don King and my introduction was just on my head, I’d have to wear a Don King-esque wig, like a wild, unruly wig that says so much about who Don King is, his irreverence, his whatever. To me, Sharla, it says who she is right away. It’s the close-up of my character.
AVC: You’re speaking specifically of your character’s grooming, or lack thereof?
GG: She should just be unruly, feral, wild, out of control, doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks. And I needed the right sort of look for that, which I unfortunately or fortunately didn’t have. So to me, my only conversation with [Friedkin] about that was like, “Listen, I need to make this look right, or else you’re starting off Sharla on the wrong foot, and you can’t recover.”
AVC: So the word “merkin” was involved early on.
GG: Oh yeah. He was a little hesitant at first, and I was like, “Look, I don’t look the way Sharla should look, it’s as simple as that.” If my hair was cropped and blond, it would have been like, “Look, you got to get a wig because you don’t look right.” There’s no difference. I mean, I treated it that way, and so I felt like it actually helped me, because she has to be so uninhibited and like she couldn’t give a shit. If it was just me it would have been like, “I don’t know,” I’m not sure I could achieve that, to be honest.
AVC: The criticism of Killer Joe has centered on the brutal treatment of your character. It comes from the play, but it wouldn’t have seemed quite so realistic onstage.
GG: I think onstage it was so in-your-face because it was live. I never saw the stage production, thank God, but I hear two things: I hear the nudity is so bizarre because they’re doing it right in front of you, and everyone’s walking around. It’s not like you cut away. You’re, like, there. And I also heard it was so funny, people were rolling in the aisles laughing. I mean, really. So it’s like, “Wow, okay.”
AVC: It’s a hard movie to talk about, in a way, because there are genuinely shocking moments that you don’t want to give away in advance.
GG: I know, that will be kind of a bummer when people discuss it and then they’ll go see it waiting for it—but even though you’re waiting for it, it’s still shocking. When it first hit me, it’s just like, “Holy shit!” I mean, I did the scene and for the first three times I watched it, I was just like, “Oh, my God.” Now I can watch it, but I’m still like, “Holy…” It’s crazy.
AVC: Have you seen The Killer Inside Me? Also a movie where women get graphically beaten.
GG: This movie reminds me of a Jim Thompson novel. It has that pulpy, noirish sort of vibe. I never actually saw it. I want to see it. I mean, it was one of my favorite books when I read it.
AVC: There was this ridiculous gossip when Jessica Alba walked out of the Sundance première—“Obviously, she hates the movie!”—when it makes more sense to assume that she just didn’t want to watch herself get beaten to a pulp on screen.
GG: Listen, when I watched the scene the first few times, I literally… it’s not even then. As soon as he starts interrogating Sharla, my stomach tenses up. It’s such a visceral scene, and you can imagine actually making it. It’s visceral because we’re all feeling it, so the first few times seeing it was almost like I was reliving it. I was like, having an anxiety attack. I guess I was still acting it in my chair watching it. Now I can watch it and be a bit mellower about it.
AVC: Where some actors would feel safer rehearsing that scene extensively beforehand, you chose not to act it at all until the cameras were rolling.
GG: I didn’t want to think about it. I really, truly—and not because it was so horrific—but it would be much more effective if it were happening to me as it was happening. I have a tendency, sometimes I have to watch out I don’t over-intellectualize something, because I’ll read into things and intellectualize it to death. As an actor, that’s something I have to be aware of, and in this, there couldn’t be any of that. I knew the more I thought about it, I’d start thinking of other things. I just wanted it to happen. That was, to me, the most exciting part about it. I thought, “Let’s just let it rip, see what happens.” But that’s a testament to Billy [Friedkin] and trusting in Matthew. We’re just filming, let’s just go for it and see.
AVC: It is amazing a director as far into his career as Friedkin can still let it rip quite like that.
GG: Ethan Coen came to see it twice. I invited him the first time, and he wanted to see it again. He’s like, “Now that’s a movie.” You know, all these really great film guys who are younger are going to be psyched to see this. Whether you love the movie or hate the movie, you cannot deny that it’s well-crafted. I’ve seen it five times now, and I’m starting to see all these other things. Like as I watch The Exorcist. I’ve seen it, and I’m not kidding, over a hundred times. And I’m like, “Wow look at that lighting there, it’s casting this weird cross that I had never noticed the other 99 times.” He’s very symbolic, and even the sound design is so crucial. It’s exciting. He’s a real, full-on filmmaker. They’re rare, you know.
AVC: Having seen The Exorcist a hundred times, did you have any trepidation about finally getting to work with Friedkin?
GG: No, I had to get it out of the way, because I was just going to geek out, going, “So when you shot this scene…” and, “When you shot this scene….” I was definitely an Exorcist geek. I love asking him questions. Obviously, so many times I’ve done projects that people think are out-there. I just think they’re kind of interesting characters. But sometimes when you’re working with a director who is not as confident, I’ll go out there, I’ll be like, “Hey, why doesn’t my character jump out of this window and turn into a bird?” Whatever, I mean, as long as it makes sense. So many times they’re like, “That’s pushing it a little bit too much,” and it’s like, okay. Everyone’s like, “Don’t push the envelope,” but it’s like, with Billy, there’s no envelope. “It’s outside of the box”—what box? Let’s just do what’s honest to the character and see how far we can go. And he can handle it, so to me he was like a dream director on that level.
AVC: So while we’re on the subject of over-intellectualizing roles, let’s talking about Showgirls.
GG: Because it’s such an intellectual film? [Laughs.]
AVC: Paul Verhoeven is a very—
GG: He’s like a theologian and a mathematician.
AVC: Everyone knows what Showgirls is now, but what did you think you were making, heading into it?
GG: We knew what it was ahead of time: We’re going to go into the desert and see what sort of shit goes down. [Laughs.]
AVC: It’s so crazy and over-the-top, which is what makes it so enjoyable sometimes.
GG: Look, I’m kind of sick of talking about Showgirls, to be honest, and I feel very much like, for years I can’t talk about it because I really respect Paul, and I’ve been very discreet with a lot of stuff. But I will say, from my point of view, I thought I was going to make a very different movie. I’m thinking Soldier Of Orange, I’m thinking Spetters, I’m thinking, you know, The Fourth Man… The Third Man?
AVC: The Fourth Man
GG: Which is the one with Rutger Hauer?
AVC: Turkish Delight?
GG: Yeah, Turkish Delight. Anyway, I was such a huge fan of his Dutch films, so I’m thinking it’s like a dark All About Eve, and I get to play the Margo part. I was really psyched. Then when I got to the set… Listen, when you get to a set, you have to deal with what’s in front of you. Like in Killer Joe, just to bring it back, I always thought, Sharla has a plot and she’s using Dottie; Dottie’s a part of the plot, she’s part of the bait. But when I got to the set, and I actually met Juno [Temple], I kind of fell in love with her. I felt so protective over her and I felt very maternal. She was very young, and when she was going to go do her love scene or nude scene with Joe, I mean with Matthew, I could tell she was nervous. I was outside going, “How’s it going? It’s going to be fine.” I felt nervous for her; I love her. And all of a sudden that translated into the script. Instead of just saying, “Okay, I need her,” I’m like, “All right, I want her to get out of this environment.”
So, you have to deal with reality in a film, and incorporate it. So in Showgirls, when I walked onto that set and you see Elizabeth Berkeley, who’s playing the part, and you see what’s going on, I had to shift the way I thought of the film and how it was going to be, or else I’m an idiot. Then I just started having fun.
AVC: Some of the movies Verhoeven made around then, especially Starship Troopers, work best when the cast doesn’t seem to know what movie they’re making.
GG: Like bugs and shooting things…
AVC: Instead of, “This is a satire about fascism in which I’m going to be stealing shots from The Triumph Of The Will.”
GG: He’s an amazing filmmaker. But Showgirls, I don’t know. It wasn’t exactly as I imagined it.
AVC: Part of the reason Showgirls got hammered was out of pure prudishness.
GG: Talk about NC-17… Why was that movie NC-17? That’s something you would see on Starz or on HBO today, without a doubt. That doesn’t make any sense to me. I think they were going after [writer] Joe [Eszterhas] and Paul about that. I think it was more of a personal thing. Listen, the ratings board is so arbitrary, you know?
AVC: Sure. I wouldn’t take a 16-year-old to see Killer Joe, but—
GG: Listen, my boyfriend’s daughter is 15. I brought her to one of my screenings, and she loved it. She’s like, “I’m going to show my friends.” And I was like “Dude, you can’t show your friends!” She’s European, and she’s like, “But why not, if my dad says I can go?” They don’t have NC-17 in Europe, so she didn’t understand. She’s like, “Oh, but I have a fake ID.” And I said, “Well, okay, I guess with a fake ID you can get in.” But she loved it. Another 15-year-old, like my niece, when she was 15, I wouldn’t let her see it for all the tea in China. It just depends on the personality. At 11 I talked my parents into letting me see The Exorcist. I was obsessed when it was coming out. I couldn’t wait. My mother was horrified, but I loved it. You need to know yourself or you need to know your kid. But, in saying that, it’s a hardcore film. Even if you’re 37 years old, you should know what you’re going to go see. It may not be your cup of tea.
AVC: It’s hard. You don’t want to give people a road map beforehand because they’re meant to be surprised, but not everyone responds well to that.
GG: When I was having screenings, I told a couple really good friends of mine, “Listen, you’re going to hate this film, this is not your thing.” One girlfriend of mine, if you see a bug and you’re going to smoosh it, she freaks out, she can’t stand it. When you cut your finger, she can’t stand it. I said, “You shouldn’t see it,” but she wanted to see it anyway. She definitely kept looking away, but she was like, “I weirdly like the movie,” and I was shocked. My boyfriend, I thought, was going to have a fit when he saw it, because he likes these big soulful films and nice romantic comedies, and I said, “I’m letting you know, hey, you’re going to hate it, this isn’t your thing,” and he actually really liked it. So, go figure.
AVC: Bound is such a taut, nifty genre piece, and it’s matter-of-fact about the sexual relationship between your character and Jennifer Tilly’s in a way that was completely off the map in 1996. Nobody did that then.
GG: Believe me, I know. Everyone was freaking out. My representative was like, “You’ll never work again, I can’t represent you.” I was like, “Fine, don’t represent me. I’m doing the movie.” I was kind of shocked about how freaked out people were, but they were like, “This is going to ruin your career.” Literally, people said that to me. And you know what, maybe that skewed it for a second, because then you get typecast as the lesbian, or the killer rock-’n’-roll chick. Maybe people think I’m some lesbian on a motorcycle with a machete in my back pocket, I don’t know. But yeah, now people will say, “Play it, you can win an Academy Award for a part like that.” You know, “Oh, you’re gay? Great!” It’s good that the times have changed, but back then it was like, [whispers] “Don’t play a lesbian.”
AVC: When people get nervous about roles, does that make you want to do them more?
GG: My mom always jokes to me about that, she always says, “We can tell you anything, you’re always going to do whatever you want anyway.” Supposedly ever since I was little, if I wanted to do something, I would do it, and I’m not really going to care what people think. It didn’t really make me want to do it more, because I’m not going to do something in spite of what people think, but it did give me a little bit more of a righteous attitude, saying, “Why is this bad, because they’re lesbians?” I thought that was really horrible, and I was like, “It’s a great part, and I get to be the hero.” When do girls get to be the hero? I saw it like that, and to me it’s a movie about trust, and I loved the story, and I knew instinctively, that these guys were motherfucker directors. Like, I started to get literally a tingly sense when I would be around them.
AVC: In retrospect, Bound is clearly the odd film out in the Wachowskis’ body of work, but for obvious reasons no one was going to give them the money to make The Matrix without seeing what they could do first.
GG: Because of Bound they were able to do The Matrix.
AVC: Right, and that sort of mass spectacle is clearly where their interests lie. It’s not like they’ve gone back and done a three-character drama since then.
GG: No. They always wanted to make The Matrix. They were always telling me that when we were doing Bound: “We want to do this, but we have to do this first.” I think they knew that they had to prove themselves as directors.
AVC: Moving on to something more personal, Prey For Rock & Roll seems like a movie you put a lot of yourself into, even though not many people saw it.
GG: Well we didn’t have distributors who were pushing it. I was on tour, promoting it, and all of a sudden, it wasn’t showing up in theaters that it was supposed to show up in. It was insane.
AVC: I think it actually got pulled in Philadelphia. They screened it for critics and then decided not to open it, even though you were booked through town on a tour playing songs from the film.
GG: Yeah, that’s right. I remember being there, going, “What the fuck am I doing here? Why isn’t my movie showing here?” Those guys were motherfuckers. Seriously. I’d love to put Billy in a room with them. Give them the old one-two. It’s just that you work so hard on a film and the director, Alex Steyermark, did such a great job. I think maybe they took the money and used it for something else. I don’t know. But I spent a year and a half of my time and my money on that movie, and then they just didn’t do anything with it. It was a really good film, and it wasn’t like it got bad reviews. I got great reviews, and the movie got great reviews. So I don’t know.
AVC: It does actually get the milieu of rock clubs right, which movies almost always fail to do.
GG: He did a great job. I mean, listen, I’m into music, Alex is into music. We swore to each other we weren’t going to make a lame “rock ’n’ roll!” movie; it had to feel raw and real. This woman never made it. Ultimately, it wasn’t about rock ’n’ roll, but what do you do when you love doing something, and you just don’t succeed at it and you’re turning 40 years old? What are you supposed to do? Do you continue doing it? That can go for any career choice.
AVC: You haven’t sung much onscreen, but it’s always been important to you, hasn’t it?
GG: Oh, I love singing. I had to stop. I’d made the album, my CD, In Search Of Cleo, which I named because I coupled it with this story that then I got offered to make into a book, which I’ve been doing. It’s weird, when I’m writing [prose], I can’t write music. When I’m doing music, I can’t do acting, unless it’s together. I thought I was going to play the album out more. I did Bye Bye Birdie on Broadway a couple years ago, and I thought, “Okay, I’ll do the show and then I’ll go out with my band at midnight to go play a show.” But I had eight shows a week, and I had eight songs in the show. There’s just no way, you don’t even want to talk after a show.
AVC: Rosie isn’t exactly a low-energy part, either.
GG: No, I’ve got solo dance numbers. Then I was like, “What was I thinking, that I was going to go do my music with my band after?” After that, I have to tell you, it just knocked the music out of me. And then I started writing, and once I started writing, it was interesting, because all of a sudden, prose started appearing in my brain instead of lyrics, like something shifted. Also, I think I’m happier now, I’m in a much better place, and it’s really hard for me to write songs when I’m happy. [Laughs.] It is, to be honest.
AVC: It’s hard to make drama out of being content.
GG: Unless you’re Stevie Wonder or Paul McCartney. I mean, trying to write a happy song is impossible, or near impossible. People obviously do it who are brilliant songwriters. I had to write a song for a movie once, and it was about being miserable and sad and in a fucked-up relationship. I had a really hard time writing it. I mean, I did it at the end of the day, but is it a good song? Probably not. I don’t know. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to write again. Hopefully I’ll be happy and never be able to write again, but that would be a good reason for not really writing music.