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: Heather Graham first burst onto the big screen as the teenage dream girl of 1988’s License To Drive alongside Coreys Haim and Feldman. She soon graduated to films that had a more indelible cinematic impact, like Gus Van Sant’s breakthrough Drugstore Cowboy, Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic Boogie Nights, and Jon Favreau’s landmark indie Swingers—with a stop off in Twin Peaks along the way. Graham then swayed into comedies, making her mark in hits like Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (as Felicity Shagwell) and The Hangover (as Jade the maternal stripper). After all that time in front of the camera, she tried her hand at writing and directing in 2018’s Half Magic—something she tells The A.V. Club she’s eager to do again. Until then, Graham can be seen in the conspiracy thriller Wander (now available in theaters, on demand, and digital) and, beginning December 17, on CBS All Access’ Stephen King adaptation The Stand. In our Random Roles interview, she discusses those performances, as well as learning to swing dance with Favreau for Swingers, enjoying Rollergirl’s surprisingly cathartic scene in Boogie Nights, and disliking the setting of The Hangover.
The A.V. Club: Your new movie Wander seems like kind of a departure for you.
Heather Graham: Yeah, it was really cool. I play a D.A. and it’s a big conspiracy theory thriller. I always kind of wanted to be a lawyer, so that was fun.
AVC: And conspiracy theories sure seem to be pretty topical right now. In the movie, you’re like the sole voice of reason.
HG: I have a few close friends that are very deep in the conspiracy theory world, and so I hear a lot about that from them. And it’s super interesting. I definitely believe some of them and maybe not some of the other ones. But I think it’s cool to just question things sometimes, because if you do look at the past, like crazy conspiracies have gone on and have been covered up. In the movie, you’re just not sure who to believe. The main character is an unreliable narrator, and you’re just wondering, well, is this true or is he crazy, because you’re just on the edge of your seat wondering what to believe.
AVC: Let’s go all the way back to License To Drive. That was your movie debut, right?
HG: Yeah, that was my first movie that I was ever in.
AVC: What was that like with the two Coreys?
HG: Honestly, I was elated to be in a movie. I was so excited. I lived in the Valley and I used to drive onto the 20th Century Fox lot and I thought, this is the coolest thing ever. They are letting me drive onto the 20th Century Fox lot where they made all these movies. And I was really impressed by the two Coreys. I just thought here are these two young actors and they’ve been in movies. This is the coolest thing ever.
AVC: Do people still reference that movie to you? It seems like one of those that has a long life.
HG: Yeah, for sure. I remember once I was trying to learn how to ski and I was skiing badly down this mountain, and this guy said, “Hey, Mercedes!” It was definitely a teen movie of that generation.
AVC: You were just a teenager when you were in Drugstore Cowboy, which seems incredible.
HG: I know. I feel like that was the first time that I ever got into that whole world of these people that were making art films. Because I grew up in suburbia, and I don’t think I really watched a lot of art movies as a kid. I mean, I watched like The Godfather and Sophie’s Choice. I remember one of the other actors in the movie, James Le Gros, played me a Tom Waits song. And I just felt like my mind was blown. I didn’t know music like this existed. I felt like I went into this very cool world with all these cool hipster artists. And it was just what I was looking for, coming from my suburban life, where pretty much everyone was like a jock or a cheerleader, and there wasn’t this kind of cool, edgy, arty crowd.
AVC: How did Gus Van Sant find you? Did you audition?
HG: I auditioned. I remember I watched his first movie [Mala Noche]—it was very low budget, and I think he made it for like $20,000. And it was really good. And I was just so excited and it was just cool to be in a movie that was seen as artistically good as well.
AVC: It seems like the four of you—Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, James Le Gros, and yourself—are in a lot of scenes together. Did you spend a lot of time together? Was there offset bonding that went on?
HG: We did. I mean, I was 18 and they were all probably, I guess, in their 20s, older than me, and I was basically straight out of suburbia, never really had such a cool group. So I was definitely the young, inexperienced person. And they were the older, cool people that I looked up to.
AVC: You must have been so excited with the response that that movie got.
HG: It really was during an exciting time, where independent movies were so, so important and people really loved them, and people really wanted to watch them. I wish we had more today, because I still love them and I feel like there’s not as many as there should be. Because I think it’s so exciting when people are not trying to fulfill the tentpole—you know, “Let’s do a sequel of another tentpole movie and we can’t really do anything too creatively interesting because we don’t want to risk that we don’t get our money back.” So it was an exciting time where people were making fresh content that was original and interesting.
Twin Peaks (1991)— “Annie Blackburn”
AVC: Then you joined Twin Peaks in its second season. What was that like?
HG: That was so cool. I was a huge fan of the first season. I was really in love with Agent Cooper, Kyle MacLachlan. I was so in love with him, his character. And I loved that show and the music. And it was just so moody and cool.
And David Lynch, of course, I was a huge fan and it was so exciting to be in that. I think I actually got the part after David cast me in this Calvin Klein perfume commercial with Benicio Del Toro. After that, he put me in the show.
AVC: I feel like for a lot of people, if they think of Heather Graham, they think of Rollergirl. Does that still happen?
HG: Yeah, I definitely think that’s one of the things I’m the most proud to be in.
I auditioned for that. I think they had offered it to some other more famous person and that person had passed. So then I got the role and it was so exciting. I really thought it was an amazing script. And it had a lot of really cool actors, but some of those people just became huge from that movie, like Philip Seymour Hoffman or John C. Reilly. But I do feel so grateful that I was in that movie. It’s probably one of the highlights of my career.
AVC: So you knew you were going to be in a movie about people making pornography. But did you have any qualms about that at all, especially the nudity?
HG: I think I was a bit nervous, but I just thought the writing was so good. As a young actress in Hollywood, you know, you get in these situations. It’s like, “Okay, are you willing to do nudity?” And I said “no” a lot. But when we got to that, I just was like, “Screw it, I’m going to do it. I think it’s really good.”
You know, it’s very hard to be like a young actress in Hollywood and never do any nudity [Laughs.] because it’s just so often asked of women—especially, I guess, whatever roles that I was going up for. But I was totally nervous. Of course, as a woman, even if you look good, you want to nitpick every little flaw you think you have. But there was something free about just going, “Okay, I’m just going to do it.”
AVC: You have that great scene when Rollergirl goes off on that guy in the limo.
HG: I know, that was fun. [Laughs.]
AVC: How was that fun for you?
HG: Well, just like as a woman to get to fight and be angry and lash out. It’s fun to let out your anger and to fight back and to just be so angry. It felt kind of freeing. And they just had this pad there where his face was. So while I’m kicking him, obviously it wasn’t really him; it was like a sand bag. And I remember it was very fun to get to express those fiery emotions.
HG: It’s so funny that that movie was made for, I think, $250,000 dollars during a time when [indie] movie budgets could be like $5 million or something. When we made that, I remember thinking, “Oh, this is a little indie, probably no one will see it.” You don’t think, “Oh, wow, this is going to be this movie that people will always think of when they think of young men in Hollywood and their dating lives.”
AVC: Did you know those guys? Is that how you got cast in that movie?
HG: Yeah, I knew Jon Favreau because we worked together on this episode of this Showtime TV show [Fallen Angels]. He’s like, “Oh, I’m working on this thing. You want to be in it?” And I said yes. And he said, “I want to teach you how to swing dance.” So we used to go to the Derby for like a month. We went there almost every night or every other night. And he taught me how to swing dance, so fun. I remember we would dance and then I would be so sweaty and he would drive me home; I think he had a convertible or something. And I got so sick by the end of it, I think I was really sick when we were actually shooting it. But it was so fun. And he’s a great dancer.
Because we had no budget, they couldn’t shut down the whole club and just have extras there. So we shot it when [the club] was actually open and people were there on a regular night drinking. And we had such a small crew and such few lights, that basically, I did a scene where Jon comes up and sits next to me. But regular patrons were sitting there and we had to be like, “No, no, you can’t sit there,” because nobody knew that we were shooting a movie. They just thought it was like a regular night that the bar was open. We were radio miked, so the mic is inside your costume, and then I think they had placed the lights in certain sorts of spots so it wasn’t super-obvious, and they had just one person holding a camera. So nobody realized that, of course, and they would turn right into the camera. They just couldn’t afford to do it any other way.
Scream 2 (1997)—“Casey in Stab”
HG: You know, they’re making another one. I think it’s like Scream 5 or something.
AVC: Was your cameo as Drew Barrymore’s character in the Stab movie just a fun thing to show up and do quickly? You really resemble Drew Barrymore in that movie. Is that how that came about?
HG: I wish. Oh, gosh, that’s a compliment. I just think that movie was great. It was so scary, but also funny and irreverent. And it just seemed like a cool thing to do to get to work with some interesting people, like Wes Craven and all these actors I think are really talented.
It’s funny because they just sent me that clip because they’re using it in the new Scream. And I had to, I guess, approve it or allow them to use it. So I just rewatched it and I’m wearing that wig, kind of what Drew Barrymore’s hair was like, and I’m like, “Cute wig!” I want that wig now.
AVC: Lost In Space was one of your first big special effects movies.
HG: Yeah, I went to London for six months. When you watch those special effects movies, I think people don’t realize how long it takes to make them because every single shot is so specific. I don’t know if boring is the right word, but you’re sitting around waiting for just like really big technical things to happen.
I mean, I loved working on it. They had these really good actors like William Hurt and Gary Oldman and Matt LeBlanc and all these actors that I was excited to work with. But just the idea that most of it’s CGI and that it goes slow a lot of the time. It’s all kind of effects that are going to be done afterwards. And you’re just looking at somebody holding a tennis ball on a stick. And they’re like, “That’s the spaceship.” You’re just reacting to all these things that aren’t really there.
AVC: So you weren’t that disappointed that that franchise didn’t take off?
HG: Well, of course every movie, you’re in, you want it to do good, but that was around the same time I got Boogie Nights. So I think after my disappointment, I felt better because that was more fun to work on.
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)—“Felicity Shagwell”
HG: It’s funny because Mike Myers has a joke in that movie where we’re driving down this road and there’s like a red phone box, and he goes, “Isn’t funny that London looks like California?” Basically we’re in California, but we just put a red phone box to try to make it look like we were in England, you know, so we were never went to London. It was all just shot in L.A. And we were on the studio lot for some of it.
AVC: What was Mike Myers like on set? He was doing multiple characters in that movie. He had to be “on” so much. Is he like that off-camera, too?
HG: He’s much more serious off-camera, extremely hard working and focused. But he was playing music during the breaks to kind of jazz everyone up, and have everyone dance around before a take. And he would go into character and he would entertain the crew a lot and he would just keep everyone laughing. Because some comedians are pretty quiet and then they go on, they do their thing. He would definitely entertain the crew and just say funny things. He was very generous and wanting to entertain people.
The Hangover (2009)—“Jade”
HG: That was during the [2007-2008] writers’ strike, I think, so a lot of things were shut down. I was so grateful that I had a job. And all those actors were really not known then. Bradley [Cooper] was not a movie star like he is now. Zach [Galifianakis] was not the star that he is now. I think Ed [Helms] was the most famous one because he had been in The Office.
So it was working in Vegas. I think Vegas is gross, though. [Laughs.] I really hate Vegas! I think it’s like a No. 1 vacation destination in the United States. And for me, I think it’s just disgusting. It seems like the armpit of America.
AVC: Well, you’re in the perfect movie then to show how gross Vegas can be.
HG: It’s so funny because people associate me with Vegas, like, “Let’s go party in Vegas and, you know, celebrate The Hangover!” And I’m like, uhhhh. I want to go to Big Sur and stare at the ocean; I don’t want to go to Vegas.
But I’m so grateful to be in that movie. I think I started to appreciate comedy more as I got older. Like when I was younger, I thought, “I want to be in the most depressing dramas and I don’t care about comedy.” But I feel like now I really just I admire comedians so much and I admire people that can make you laugh, and just everything about comedy, like the writing, the directing, and everything. I think it’s such an art form to do something that’s funny.
I was like the only woman on that set, too. It was all these guys, you know, a bunch of guys.
AVC: Was that hard?
HG: I mean, in a certain aspect it was good, because you feel like, “I can get attention because I’m like the only woman.” Of course, there were some women behind the scenes. But I definitely was doing that movie thinking, we’ve seen men’s stories about men going wild. I want to see more stories about women going wild.
But I love my part. And I’m so grateful because I feel like that’s a movie that is kind of like a classic comedy movie that people probably watch for a long time. So I feel super grateful to be in it.
Half Magic (2018)—“Honey”
The Stand (2020)—“Rita Blakemoor”
AVC: What’s a movie that you made that you wish more people would see?
HG: I directed a movie called Half Magic that was really fun and I wrote and directed. I thought it was very inspiring to write something and then shoot it. I definitely want to do that again.
And also I have something else coming out, which is The Stand, a Stephen King book that they turned into a limited series that’s coming out in the middle of December on CBS All Access.
AVC: Did you read the book first? Were you familiar with that source material?
HG: No, I didn’t read the book. But ironically, it’s about a pandemic. So it was just so weird because we shot that before the pandemic and then we were shooting like, “What would it be like, if there was a pandemic?” and I just remember thinking, this would never happen. And then it did. Really weird.
Desperados (2020)—“Angel de la Paz”
Love, Guaranteed (2020)—“Tamara Taylor”
AVC: You’ve also had some fun appearances in some Netflix movies recently, like as a wellness guru in Desperados and a mogul in Love Guaranteed.
HG: And I just did two other films as well. I did a western called The Last Son and I also just did this horror movie called Oracle. And I’m just looking at a bunch of different stuff that I’m also developing, for this TV show I’m working on with a friend that we’re writing together, and I have another movie that I want to direct, and I have a book that I optioned. So it’s fun to get into behind the scenes stuff. I like stories told from a female perspective, so I like to make stuff like that. I’d love to have a production company. That’s my dream to have that.