Agnes Browne

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By Prairie Miller

Providing an insightful and resolute woman’s voice in the very male world of moviemaking, Anjelica Huston may work less than she’d like to, but she relishes calling the shots both as an actress and filmmaker. In person, Huston combines soft-spoken wisdom and inspiring passion. During this interview, she spoke of the sense of fulfillment she derives from showing real women on screen, a process that for her, encompasses a necessary truth-telling and feminist sensibility.

Huston’s latest film — which she directed and stars in — is Agnes Browne. Adapted from Irish novelist Brendan O’Carroll’s bestseller The Mammy, the movie follows Agnes, a poor Dublin widow with a brood of young children to feed, combining compassion, humor, and romance. Huston described her intimate identification with the story, and how she drew from her own life for the trials and strengths that ignite the difficult yet ultimately empowered world of women in Agnes Browne.

Prairie Miller:

That was a wildly retro concert scene you arranged with Tom Jones for the finale of Agnes Browne. Could it be that you were one of his fans back then? You know, the one who would have thrown your underwear up on the stage?

Anjelica Huston:

I remember the first time I saw Tom Jones, which was when he appeared on Top Of The Pops in England in the late ‘60s. But actually, I was more into the sort of androgynous mysteries of Mick Jagger. Tom Jones was very masculine, at a time when it really wasn’t fashionable. He came in with a lot of yin power, and his shirts were open to the navel. He seemed to me like the best iconic love interest for Agnes Browne, because he was the working man’s hero. His father was a coal miner. He’d made it on his own. And all the working girls were just mad for him. My tastes ran more to Jimmy Hendrix, you know? But he felt right for Agnes. Tom is like the fairy godmother in the story. And he actually turned out to be a fairy godmother in quite a few movies lately.

PM:

At the beginning of Agnes Browne, you go to mourn at the wrong grave. That was funny in a macabre kind of way. Do things like that happen in Ireland?

AH:

Oh, all kinds of lunacy happens in Ireland, all kinds of lunacy.

PM:

What drew you to Agnes Browne?

AH:

Well, Jim Sheridan, with whom I formed a friendship ever since I saw his film My Left Foot, brought me this story. We’d talked about working together, and he had seen my film Bastard Out Of Carolina and liked it. So we were discussing a project that we might do. Jim brought me this book, and I immediately felt that it was very charming. It covered a lot of bases. It was kind of a fairy tale, but with reality couched in a fairy tale. There were many things about it that I felt were unusual and interesting.

PM:

What kinds of qualities fascinated you?

AH:

It was old fashioned in a way, and I felt like making a film that was very much a departure from Bastard Out Of Carolina. So I responded to it. I asked Jim whether he might be interested in directing, and he felt that he had really covered the territory. So I said, well maybe I would direct it. Then we went and found an actress, but she dropped out. So I wound up doing it myself.

PM:

That gave you double duty on Agnes Browne, didn’t it?

AH:

Yes!

PM:

How does the movie and its atmosphere reflect your own growing up years in Ireland?

AH:

I lived in Ireland, but my parents were American, and I also grew up in England and Europe. But the Ireland I grew up in was an Ireland without television. There, stories are told in pubs, and people sing in pubs. And you can really be assured of at least a one hour conversation if you introduce the weather as a subject, it’s a guaranteed success. And I think Ireland is a very close country, everyone knows what everyone else is doing. My experience of Ireland is very much based in the ‘60s. So I think that’s reflected in the film.

PM:

What did you draw on from your own relationships with men to play Agnes in the movie?

AH:

I’ve always thought with relationships, that it’s more about what you bring to the table than what you’re going to get from it. It’s very nice if you sit down and the cake appears. But if you go to the table expecting cake, then it’s not so good. And that’s really what I feel about male-female relationships. It’s more about what you have to bring, than what you’re going to get. And then usually, if you bring something, then karma will have it that something will be returned.

PM:

Can we expect that Agnes will live happily ever after with her guy?

AH:

Yes, I think ultimately she will wind up with him. But it will be on her own terms. And it won’t be out of weakness, it will be out of choice. That’s at least how I prefer to go into my own relationships. I don’t think it’s necessarily healthy to go into relationships as a needy person. Better to go in with a full deck.

PM:

This is the first time you’ve directed yourself. What were the challenges?

AH:

It’s a ridiculous thing to do. You never have time, you don’t get any sleep. You’re tormented by scenes, and by things you didn’t get from yesterday. You’re tormented by the fact that you’re not going to get any sleep because you have to go to dailies after the set, and you’re the last person on the set. Then you’re tormented because you’re in hair and makeup, and you’re supposed to be on the set, setting up shots. You’re tormented because all of your departments want to speak to you, and you’re in curlers first thing in the morning, you know? You’re just in a state of perpetual torment. And you love it! The one thing you can’t complain about is that nobody needs you, do you know what I mean? It’s not a lonely situation to be in.

PM:

Would you do it again?

AH:

No! I’d maybe find a nice cameo for myself or something. But no, I don’t think I would do this again.

PM:

Speaking of great direction, you sure handled that baby expertly in the movie. What’s your secret?

AH:

You’ve just got to love them a lot. That poor baby! In his first scene with me in the zoo, I had to scream. And it so didn’t want to be in my arms. I had to bribe that baby into loving me. And he was very bribable!

PM:

What did you bribe him with?

AH:

Cookies! And that baby could drink, like a gallon of milk at a sitting, I couldn’t believe him. It was phenomenal. He was so sweet though, a great baby. And he was at that age where they just parrot everything you say. So you say “monkeys,” and they say “monkeys” for the rest of the day. He was fantastic, he was the easiest of anyone. If only they were all that easy! I think all actors — they’ll hate me for saying this — but we are babies. We like to be loved, and we’ll do anything if we’re loved.

PM:

For all the attention that actors need, there’s a lot of insecurity as well, and being down on themselves. Where do you feel that comes form?

AH:

Well, that’s why we’re so desperate for love and approval. So you can’t have one without the other. I think actors in some way need to have that kind of humility. And that’s why actors can take on other lives. Because I think basically, at the bottom of everything, they are terribly insecure people. They don’t feel themselves to be bright and beautiful, or necessarily beloved. So they’re always looking for it. And as long as they’re looking for it, they work at their best capacity. So in that way, their insecurity feeds their talent.

PM:

When you say “they,” do you mean yourself too?

AH:

Oh well, I’m part of it! I fall in there, somewhere.

PM:

Diane Keaton said that she prefers directing because she doesn’t think there are any more roles for her. Do you ever feel like that?

AH:

I think that’s every actor’s fear. I know certainly, when one job draws to a close, that I feel I’m simply never going to work again. No one will ever want me for anything ever again. I think that’s a vulnerable moment in every actor’s life, and it happens every time you finish a film.

PM:

But I think the tables are turning a little now, with a growing interest in sexy older women.

AH:

From your lips to God’s ears! Yeah.

PM:

Well, that is happening. So what’s going on here?

AH:

Hmm… Maybe the focus for a moment turned from the fourteen-year-old boy to the sexy older woman, I don’t know. There’s always something to be said for novelty. But I think actually the state of the art is very healthy right now. Lots of women are working in the industry, and they’re doing more directing with more coming up. I think it’s all pretty good.

PM:

When you’re on a set, do you feel your dad’s presence there, as some kind of spiritual guidance?

AH:

Yeah. I feel him pretty much on and off the set. I sort of carry him with me. And I felt very much when I was making Bastard Out Of Carolina, I felt my father’s presence with me a lot. I think maybe because that was more his kind of movie! Agnes Browne is more my kind of movie.

PM:

How so?

AH:

Well, it’s maybe a more feminine movie.

PM:

Do you ever find yourself talking to John Huston, and asking his advice on movie matters?

AH:

Certainly when I was making Bastard Out Of Carolina. Before I went off to North Carolina, I was reading a lot of directors’ books, among them my father’s autobiography. Because there’s a very good chapter about the technicalities of filmmaking in that book. I was packing to go off to North Carolina, and the book was there in my office. It wanted to come with me! I was going, ugh, I have so much stuff with me. Do I really have to bring you? And my father “said,” “Yes, I have to come!” So I packed him into my bag and got to North Carolina. I was in this rented house, and there sitting on the bureau in my bedroom was a book stand. I put his book on the book stand, and I consulted him throughout the making of that film. Every morning, every night we had a conversation.

PM:

You’ve been involved in movies for so long now. Have you gotten any idea as to what exactly makes a star?

AH:

I don’t know, because it’s hard to pinpoint. But you know it when you see it, and it’s like a light goes on. And that’s a star. I don’t know what it is, but it’s indefinable. It’s a kind of magic. And the movie doesn’t have to be fantastic.

PM:

How would you describe your vision, and what it is that you want to say in your films?

AH:

Well, hopefully I have more than just a few things to say. I think ultimately what I have to say, or want to say, is that unless we look after ourselves, we can’t look after anyone else. And unless we treat each other with love and understanding, you can’t have a real relationship without that. I think Bastard Out Of Carolina was very potent for me, because an abused child forgives her mother. And that’s such an enormous step for her to take. I feel that about people, and I feel that about countries. Like I’m so sad that the peace process is breaking down in Ireland again, you know? Because so little can be achieved by this constant warring. And I don’t think that’s the women’s way. I think women can ideally do a lot to change the course of politics, and of thinking. Even though there are some pretty warlike women out there too! But ideally, in a perfect world.

PM:

Would you ever run for office?

AH:

No way! I’d just like to continue doing what I do.

PM:

What do you want people to feel when they see Agnes Browne?

AH:

A sense of treasuring their friends. Treasuring what they have, and treasuring their children. And a sense of caring for each other.

PM:

What were you trying to express in particular about Irish women in the film?

AH:

Well, I think it has a lot to do with my mother. But certainly courage, mother love, survival. True grit, yeah. I think the film is a love letter to those women, a love letter to friends and to mothers.

PM:

What do you think about the Oscars, and acting awards in general?

AH:

It actually fills me with… angst! I think it’s gotten to be too much. The emphasis is too much on the poor nominee. You know, never mind you get to be a nominee. Then you’re faced with this prospect of winning or losing. And these shows are very difficult, you know. Because when you walk in, you’re a nominee and everyone’s taking your picture. And then you lose and you walk out, and no one takes your picture.

PM:

But you’ve had both experiences.

AH:

Yeah, and let me tell you. It’s a whole lot nicer to win! You come out of there, and it’s like a slap in the face. When you go in, they’re like, “Angelica! Angelica!” And then you come out and ooh… You can’t put any standing by that, or you’d lose your soul. You’d drown in a sea of tears!

PM:

And then the next day, they’re all talking about what kind of dress you wore.

AH:

Exactly. And after two weeks, nobody remembers who won anyway.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/huston-anjelica/