One by One, We’re All Becoming Shades: An Interview with Anjelica Huston

Anjelica Huston is a cinematic adventurer. As grandfather Walter and father John before her, Anjelica is an explorer who has consistently and bravely navigated perilous cinematic seas of death and despair using creative artistic expression as her compass, forging her characters with bittersweet soul and frazzled heart in the most grave situations.

Though she has given plenty of leading performances packed with gravitas and great humor, Huston has of late become equally renowned for her often sly, mercurial supporting turns. Winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her cunning turn in her father’s Prizzi’s Honor (1985), Anjelica was subsequently nominated in the supporting category for her acerbic Holocaust survivor in Paul Mazursky’s Enemies: A Love Story (1989), and then the following year as Best Actress for her electric femme fatale Lilly Dillon in Stephen Frears The Grifters (1990). Cases could be made that she was deserving of — and close to — several other nominations for her blazing work in The Dead (1987) again directed by her father, Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), Sean Penn’s The Crossing Guard (1995), and Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Turn your attention back to the campaign period for 1991 Best Actress race and you will be reminded that Ms. Huston was firmly, legitimately in the conversation for her sleek re-imagining television staple Morticia Addams as a lusty, passionate matriarch of a very unique, slightly macabre brood. In this role, Huston not only stormed the box office, she went on to score in a sequel, doing yet another expert variation on the theme she was becoming best known for playing: binary tragedy and comedy, forever intertwined, forever at odds, totally absurd and surreal.

During my viewing of 50/50, I kept coming back to the feeling of Huston and Huston’s final film together, The Dead, not only because of the film’s cinematic, graceful treatment of death and dying that blends joyousness with heartbreak, but also because of the theme of parents and children confronting death and sickness together in solidarity, as Huston and Huston did on the film’s set. Famous for his brio and audaciousness, Huston chose to approach Joyce’s elegiac tones not in a ferocious or leonine manor that his legend might have dictated, but instead chose a metaphysical, serene denouement for both his career and the film itself. Impressionistically painting the aching final shots of dawn-kissed greens, ceruleans and purplish morning tones on the coast of Ireland, Huston ends the film on a black sea that lays calm and still below a sparkling white flurry of snow, and the camera just meditates on this tranquil moment and goes gently off into nowhere, into a wintery abyss. The scene is at once breathtaking and simple when paired with Joyce’s words read by a faceless narrator. The scenes provide a self-aware, yet elusive, meditative image to end one of Hollywood’s most storied directorial careers, eloquently, they leave much to the imagination of the spectator and connect in a profound way to Huston’s years spent on the Emerald Isle raising his own family.

There is a solemn formality in Huston’s work here with the turn of the century period film intimately set at a family’s religious Epiphany feast, evoking the essences of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s insular, deeply-spiritual chamber dramas Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964). This spectre of death that haunts the themes of Huston’s final, and likely most personal, film makes the presence of Anjelica in the key role of Gretta even more heart-rending. Gretta represents the past and overcoming soul-crushing disappointments, but she also represents goodness, hope for the future. The director gifts his daughter, an actress of formidable skill and range, with one of the most stunning monologues this side of Ingrid Thulin in Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1962) – and the actress says a sincere thank you with a stunning delivery. Huston’s touch on The Dead is indeed ghostly, completely the opposite of the popularly-constructed image of Huston as an uncompromising, bluntly masculine aesthete. He stared death in the eye with this film and wasn’t afraid, mournful or shaken by what he saw coming, yet The Dead also shows a vulnerable man at the end, remaining firmly in control of his spiritual journey, and to a degree, ready to explore the new frontier he is about to face. John Huston, like his daughter, is best known as an adventurer, as fearless in his life as he was in his work, which gives the open-endedness of The Dead‘s ending a sense of excitement, as though the end is perhaps really a new beginning. Death haunts all of us, constantly, yet we persevere, find peace, and through some miracle manage to move forward. Mr. Huston embraces his audience, confronts this cruel inevitability, and comfortingly tells us all it will be ok. As the credits roll, it actually does feel ok, in fact it feels quite triumphant.

I believe this is the exact feeling that Anjelica Huston is able to call upon in all of her work that has since tapped into these basic essences of The Dead, and this absolutely includes her newest project 50/50. Playing Diane, the mother of a young man who finds out he has cancer (played by Joseph Gordon Levitt), Huston again proves outrageously adept at commanding the scene with precious little screen time, getting the film’s biggest laughs and pulling at everyone’s heartstrings at precisely the right moment. Ms. Huston, who has been on my list of dream interviews since The Grifters made it’s mark on me more than 20 years ago, took time recently to speak by phone about 50/50, the creative impulse’s connections to the past, and what is quickly becoming a PopMatters staple question: the misadventures that can often arise from donning a problematic wig. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as Huston tells us, bad wigs can also lead to both comedy and tragedy.

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When you read the script for 50/50, what did you want to show about your character Diane?

I’d been through a couple of very difficult years before I made this movie. My husband became very sick and spent a long time in the hospital and ultimately didn’t live. But my experiences in the hospital and with him, and looking after him were all very much a part of the reality of hospital life, day to day things that go on. So it was really that experience that I brought to the table for 50/50.

I loved the scene between you and Joseph Gordon Levitt where he asks your character from his sick bed “how are you?” That was so poignant. felt very true. And it is such a nice question to ask someone if you mean it! How did you prepare with your co-star for these emotional, funny scenes to find that right tone?

I just sort of played from instinct, really. I think the script is so well-written and was so reliable in terms of what it needed from the actors that not a whole lot of effort was really required. One of the sure things that kills humor is too much effort. I think if its there and the writing was as good as it was in this script then, you know, you just follow along and the humor sort of exposes itself.

The film that I felt had the most similar tone to 50/50 in terms of balancing combining tragedy and comedy in your body of work was Enemies: A Love Story, but you’ve also done a lot of comedy as well. What kind of lessons does doing a films like these teach you about injecting humor into tragedy?

Well, I think that you know, as I say, if you have to make a big effort, its not there originally. I try to choose my scripts very carefully. My immediate reaction to this one was ‘wow what a brave and kind of innovative script.’ I had never read anything that tackled such a difficult subject… or maybe I’ve never been asked to do anything that tackles such a difficult subject with such a light hand in which the main protagonist has such a capacity for humor and observation, even in the middle of his own ordeal.

When you do supporting roles like Diane, they tend to be scene-stealing and I am thinking of Manhattan Murder Mystery, The Crossing Guard, Iron Jawed Angels, Wes Anderson’s films, and now 50/50. What are the differences or challenges for you as a performer in constructing a supporting character versus a leading one?

I think its a little bit different in that obviously one is a supporting role and it’s there to kind of help levitate the central character. But I just like good roles and it seems to me that the meatier, more interesting roles are the supporting roles. The lead roles require that you be in the center of things but not necessarily have a comment. I love character and that’s why I do what I do. I have a real sort of affinity with character roles.

I’m always curious about actor’s preparations, just in general. I remember reading some stories about the intense physical toll playing Lilly Dillon in The Grifters had on you. I’m sure that playing this role in 50/50 took a toll on Joseph Gordon Levitt physically. There have been so many memorable physical transformations in cinema, it is such a tradition. What are your opinions about an actor literally using one’s body to create the character?

Acting is all belief. Its a matter of ‘do you believe who you are?’ and ‘do you believe where you are and what you’re in?’ Does this resonate with you? And that’s my criteria. I think its probably that kind of honesty in the writing that had attracted Joe and the other protagonist in the movie. Thats sort of a hard question to answer, because as far as I’m concerned, you know, I try to know my lines and not step over the furniture as the English like to say. And that’s really the best preparation I can bring. Also, it’s up to the actor to stay open to the director so if the director says ‘no, no; no I don’t see it that way, I see it this way’ one is able to make a switch. Or to be able to take on that direction and interpret it in a way that feels honest and feels direct.

Speaking of The Grifters and transformation in cinema, that movie changed the way I looked at movies, for the better. How did transforming into the character of Lilly change you or make you stretch as a performer?

Thank you! I loved that role, I had immense sympathy with her and I think that one of the things that really pulls me, is sympathy for my character. Understanding where they’re coming from. Even though, obviously, she’s a pretty venal character, I’ve always thought of her as a fox that gets caught in a trap and has to kind of bite off her own leg to get away. Lilly Dillon is not a happy story. She’s never going to be happy. Its a tragic story and it was kind of headed that way from the beginning. I see her as a victim of circumstance, and maybe that’s what made me sympathetic.

The milieu of The Grifters doesn’t seen too far off from certain noirish John Huston films, which brings me to my next topic because I am such a fan of his work, and not only in that particular genre. The Dead is such a favorite movie of mine. What are your memories of making The Dead and doing that amazing monologue?

I was very nervous throughout the entire making of The Dead because that scene, that last scene, came up literally at the end. We shot in sequence. That scene loomed over my head for throughout the making of the movie. It was, again, a very cathartic experience. It was my dad’s last movie. He was quite sick when we made it, not well. He had emphysema and had already been through heart surgery. I think, as Pauline Kael said, you know directing for him at point was easier than breathing. Literally.

It was an amazing experience for my brother and I, because Tony got to write the screenplay along with dad and I was lucky enough to be his daughter and sort of the object of his favoritism in putting me into this film. It was a film that was also very close to my heart because we made it with my father’s very close knit and beloved crew. People he had worked with since The Maltese Falcon. Which is like his first film. His production designer Stephen Grimes. Dorothy Jeakins who did the costumes for The Misfits. So it was a family affair and I think that’s always a wonderful thing for films because one is immediately cast into an intimate situation with fellow actors and of course the crew. To have that in real life, to be able to bring it to the screen, was something I treasured.

It was also a great honor to work with my father. I was grown up enough by the time we made The Dead to realize that, you know, not to ever second guess him, he was a master.

I’ve been reading so many great stories about female actors getting more opportunities to direct films lately, Vera Farmiga, Sissy Spacek, and Angelina Jolie are all getting in the director’s chair for the first time recently. What kind of stories you’re interested in telling, as a director, right now?

Well, it would really depend on the script. Its hard to direct as a female, particularly um, well, you know…I’d say its pretty much still a boys club for the most part. Its sort of a testament to these actresses, in my mind, when they decide to take this on, it’s not a glamorous role, the role of director, particularly if you’re directing yourself because you have to wear all of the hats. Because of the length of time that one puts into a directing project, its a really serious commitment for any actress, but at the same time its a wonderful commitment because it occupies every living, breathing moment and it’s a wonderful occupation and a huge challenge.

What were the pressures of directing your first film Bastard Out of Carolina?

It had another director attached who dropped out over the course of a weekend. It came to me on a Thursday or Friday and I had to get them an answer by Monday. (laughs) Which I did through my terror, a meek little ‘yes.’ Its something that I didn’t regret for a second. I had a few bumpy moments when Ted Turner decided that he didn’t want to show it on his network, the network for whom I’d made it, but then I was saved by Gilles Jacob at the Cannes Film Festival, who asked if I would bring it there and show it in Un Certain Regard, and it did terribly well and was bought by Showtime. Where it aired without commercials. So, in a way, it was better for the film and better for me that it was seen that way. Still, it had a bit of a traumatic passage.

I asked Tilda Swinton this question and would love to know your take as a third generation Academy Award winner: One of my favorite moments from the Oscars in recent years was when you presented the gold to Penelope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona alongside Tilda, Goldie Hawn, Whoopi Goldberg and Eva Marie Saint. I thought that was such a powerful image of strong female talent, and an exciting celebration of film history. What was it like being a part of that group?

Oh it was great! And part of what was great about it was strolling down to the press room after Penelope had gotten her Oscar and — I don’t know if you know that passageway [editor’s note: I do not] — they hang that passageway with great photographs of previous Oscar winners. As we walked down to the press room, Whoopi said in that fabulous voice of hers, she said to Penelope “now your life has changed forever. No longer are you ‘Penelope Cruz: Actress’. You’re ‘Penelope Cruz:Oscar-winner‘. And it made my hairs stand up on end. It was really an exciting moment and so great to be able to help initiate this new beautiful, wonderful young actress.

Who is also a Woody Allen alum…

She’s a real actress, she’s a real character. That’s what Penelope brings and that’s what’s most exciting. She’s not just a movie star, she really works it.

I read that you once repurposed an old wig from Family Pictures on the shoot for Choke. You’ve got a new wig in 50/50

(laughs) That was a really bad wig, by the way. I arrived just a few days before we worked and I said ‘oh God, we’ve gotta do something, give me something with frosted hair!’ That was sort of a testament to the hair and make up department that they came up with that, that rather …well, it’s a certain kind of look, isn’t it? That sort of everywoman, blazer, that particular kind of frosted look that I wanted for the character. I wanted her to be everywoman, any woman, all women. All mothers.

What has been your favorite wig of all of the ones you’ve worn and which was the most problematic?

The favorite and the most problematic was Morticia Addams. Although, actually, that’s a big lie. The wig for The Grifters was problematic because when I leaned down, you could see my dark hair underneath. At a certain point, my hairdresser devised that she should bleach the underside of my hair and bleach my eyebrows. I would have to say, that for serious unattractiveness while one was making the movie, that one probably took the prize. Brunettes with blonde eyebrows… it just doesn’t read. (laughing) Not a good thing! Actually, I just saw an ad for The Girl with the Dragon and Rooney Mara has that pale eyebrows and dark hair… I have to say I thought she looked really great. But it was not a look that suited me in real life. I liked how Lilly looked with the blonde hair and everything, but in my off hours it was not too good!

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50/50, starring Joseph Gordon Levitt, Seth Rogen, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anna Kendrick, Anjelica Huston and her wig, is now playing in theaters.