The actor: Beth Grant, whose Southern upbringing and naturally terse features have landed her more than 100 feature film and television roles, primarily playing flinty, comically uptight women. A latecomer to movies after spending many years of studying drama and appearing in plays by Horton Foote and frequent collaborator Del Shores, Grant got her official start at age 38, but she quickly established herself as one of film’s most recognizable (sour) faces—although it took appearing in Donnie Darko as high-strung Sparkle Motion mom “Kitty Farmer” for her to truly arrive. Grant’s filmography also includes small but memorable roles in two Best Picture nominees (Little Miss Sunshine, No Country For Old Men) and stints working with directors ranging from the Coen brothers to Clint Eastwood to Michael Bay. More recently, she’s branched out into producing with the low-budget independent film Herpes Boy, in which she co-stars with her husband, actor Michael Chieffo. She can currently be seen in Crazy Heart.
Rain Man (1988)—“Mother At Farm House”
Beth Grant: I had a very hard time accepting myself as a character actress, because I wanted to be glamorous and a leading lady like everybody else. I looked in the mirror and thought I looked pretty good, but casting didn’t ever see me that way. I was the pioneer woman, or whatever. I had this great teacher, Milton Katselas, who was this loud Greek who had directed Bette Davis and Liv Ullmann, and brought Edward Albee to this country. He said, “Why do you keep trying to be a Rolex watch when you’re the salt of the earth?” Except he said it much louder. Then he said, “Who are you to look down your nose at Anna Magnani and Maureen Stapleton? Who do you think you are?” I was doing this kooky meditation at the time called inner-guide meditation, where you go into a cave and you have a guide, and you fly around. So I said to my inner guide, “Take me to the energy that’s blocking me from accepting my casting”—because I understood it intellectually, but I didn’t want to do it in my heart. So [the guide] took me to a white clapboard house out in the country, and I knocked on the door, and I came to the door. I had this ponytail, no makeup, I was in a housedress, and I said to myself, “Hello. We’ve been waiting for you.” I showed me around the house, and the meditation was over—and I got it. I got that all of these women needed me—my face, my angular jaw, my nose, my big hands, my big feet, and my big butt—to tell their stories. Then it became like a quest for me. I thought, “This is my glory. This is what I’m going to do!”
So then I was up at Big Sur with Christopher Reeve and Christine Lahti, doing this woman in a big fat-suit—Mrs. Bassett in Tennessee Williams’ Summer And Smoke—and my husband was in the show too, playing [Lahti’s] fiancée. Every night he’d be proposing to beautiful Christine Lahti, and I’d barrel onstage in this fat-suit. I hated it! But I did it, because by then I knew that that was my casting. After it closed, we went up to Big Sur, and long story short, I was so frustrated with my whole life that I walked up this hilltop and screamed at the heavens. It was very dramatic—but then again, I am an actress—and I said, “Fine! I’ll be a character actress! Just tell me what you want me to do!” I was so angry at the universe. The next day we went hiking, and we came to where the founders of Big Sur had raised 12 children in this little bitty cabin. I looked at that cabin and I said to my husband, “You know, they have never portrayed a real pioneer woman. I’m gonna do it someday—and no makeup.” That woman had to be a bear! There’s no way that the pioneer women you’ve seen in the movies were like that. They couldn’t have survived! So lo and behold, the next day my agent says, “You have an audition for the next Dustin Hoffman movie, playing a pioneer woman.” And I go, “All right!” I passed Barry Levinson in the hall on the way into my [audition], and I saw him do a double-take. I think I looked so determined that I got the job right then.
We shot at Hinton, Oklahoma. They found this actual family that had eight kids out in the country, on a self-sustained farm. We used six of the eight kids, and Tom [Cruise] thought I was their real mother. That was kind of cool; I felt like, “Ooh, I’m doing good!” On the set, Dustin was loosening me up. I asked for a diaper to hold—I just had to be drying dishes with a diaper. I thought that was something a real mother with six kids would do. Well, Dustin got that diaper away from me, and he was chasing me around, poppin’ me on the butt and teasing me. And when it was my close-up, he was doing all these funny things to loosen me up. How lucky was I to get Dustin Hoffman to teach me how to do that? They were both so generous to me. I remember Tom was in the trailer when I said to the makeup guy, “You know, I would really like to not wear any makeup. I just have this feeling that she wouldn’t have any.” And Tom said, “Yeah, that’s cool!” So the makeup guy did a magic spell on my face and blessed me, and I got to not wear any makeup. I mean, he might have let me anyway, but I think Tom’s support was good. The other thing about Tom is this. My father died right after the movie was released. He got to see it, then literally the day before he died, he asked Mama to take him to see it one more time—because he knew he was declining. Tom’s assistant at the time told him my father died, and he wrote me a very personal note. I haven’t seen him since, but you can’t say anything bad about Tom Cruise to me, because anybody who takes the time to do that is very special.
To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar (1995)—“Loretta”
BG: Patrick Swayze was in an acting class with me. We were working on [Who’s Afraid Of] Virginia Woolf together, and there was this beautiful blonde who was playing Honey—and I’m playing loudmouthed Martha—and she was so gorgeous, and the two guys were flirting and having fun with her, and so I started crying. Buddy came over and said, “Don’t you know that you’re beautiful? Don’t you know that these women are beautiful?” It meant so much to me, because he was already sort of a star. He had done The Outsiders already—he was certainly the star of our class—and for a big, sexy, horseback-ridin’ Texan to come over and tell me that I’m beautiful, and look me right in the eye and make me accept that there’s a beauty in the characters I play meant so much to me. Fast-forward to when Buddy and I did To Wong Foo together. He comes to town as the transvestite, and he completely redoes me. There’s the scene where I come down, I’ve got a boa, and my hair is in curls. I’ve been Loretta, the town drunk—referred to as “Baby Ugly”—and now I’m gorgeous. I was doing her very campy, and Buddy came over and whispered, “Hey, this is a little bit like that day [in class] when we were rehearsing that scene.” I immediately teared up. It became a completely different scene. Instead of being campy, I played her more moved to have her inner beauty brought out by these transvestites. That came from Buddy.
Valley Of The Sun (2010)—“Marva” / Little Miss Sunshine (2006)—“Pageant Official Jenkins”
BG: I’ve got Buddy on my mind a lot, having just been at his memorial. They talked a lot about his risk-taking—because he not only did a transvestite, but in Donnie Darko, he played a pedophile! Talk about a risky thing for a movie star, and he jumped right in. We even shot some of those video sequences of his character out on his ranch. I mean, he opened his heart and his ranch to us. He was just an awesome guy. Anyway, after the memorial service, I was considering doing a movie, and I couldn’t decide whether to do it. It’s called Valley Of The Sun, and it’s about a porn star who has a mental breakdown, almost kills himself, and comes to live with his parents in a retirement community—and that’s me and Barry Corbin. I was nervous about the porn elements, and I thought, “Gosh, a first-time director, I don’t know.” And then I went to that memorial service, and I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about Buddy and his risk-taking. I thought, “Let me read this thing again.” I asked my agent the next day to have [Stokes McIntyre, the director] call me.
It made me remember Little Miss Sunshine, because I’d had similar feelings. Tone is so important, because you can have a great script just be ruined with the wrong director—if they shtick it up or something. With Little Miss Sunshine, I was so concerned they weren’t going to play the pageant official realistically, because you don’t have to wink to play those kinds of characters. You just play ’em real, and they’re funny enough. So I remember as soon as I got on the phone with [McIntyre], the first thing that he said was “We want to keep her really real.” I thought, “I’m in.” I never regretted doing Little Miss Sunshine, so—coupled with what I just learned from Buddy’s memorial—I jumped in.
Donnie Darko (2001)—“Kitty Farmer”
BG: [Sighs.] I love that movie so much. Just before I got that script, I had been to see some European art film. I walked out of that movie and said to my husband, “That’s what I want to do! I want to do an art film and take it to the edge.” Within two weeks, we were getting ready to go on vacation, and my agent called. The first thing she said was, “You don’t want to do a play, do you? It’s by Horton Foote.” I said, “Horton Foote? Uh, yeah, I think I might be interested!” And she said, “Oh, it’s a world première.” And I said, “A world première of a Horton Foote play? I think I’d like to do that!” Then she said, “And there’s also this movie called Donnie Darko, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s going to be in it. They want to meet you tomorrow.” And I went, “Oh, there goes my vacation.” So I had a slight chip on my shoulder about taking it, but my husband said, “Look, you’ve gotta do this.”
I read the Horton Foote play first. Loved it. It was called The Day Emily Married; they later did it on Broadway. I had to play a 75-year-old with Alzheimer’s. Estelle Parsons played it on Broadway, which was great—I mean, she well should have. She was the right age, and I’m sure she was brilliant. I was just so honored to create the role. So anyway, it was probably 10 at night when I started to read Donnie Darko. I had first seen a line earlier in the day about animal feces, and I thought, “Oh no, this is some stupid teen movie where they think that’s funny.” So I was kind of putting off reading it, because I was expecting the worst. I get in bed and read the first page, and I go, “Hmmm. That’s interesting.” Second page, “Wow.” By the fourth page, my heart started to beat, and I knew. It makes me cry, because I knew I had found a classic film. You just know when you get certain material. I’m flippin’ those pages, flippin’ those pages, and then at the end, of course, there’s [Donnie’s] great decision. Richard Kelly would kill me if I said it, but I feel—it’s just my interpretation—that it is this Christ myth, and [Donnie] does make this supreme decision, and it asks all the questions that are important in life: What is life? What is family? What is death? Where do we go after death? Is there time travel? Is everything happening at once and we’re just channeling? All those questions are there, like a great myth. And Richard wrote it in six weeks—it’s crazy! I feel like he just opened his channel and it poured in. He’d probably hate me for saying that, but I love him so much. I just did another movie that his company produced called Rogue’s Gallery that I’m very excited about it. It’s about the CIA kind of imploding the day before the inauguration, and there’s this elite killer squad in the CIA—well, I don’t want to give too much away. We did not base it on anything to do with Dick Cheney. It’s just a coincidence.
But back to Donnie Darko. It’s now 11:30 p.m., I’m weeping thinking of Jake doing the part, I can’t wait to meet the writer, and I have no one to call because it’s too late at night. I look around and realize I’m standing in the middle of my bed. I had actually stood up in an effort to try to express my enthusiasm for this thing. By the next morning, I was like a hurricane blowing into the room. I knew exactly how to do her, because she was like my P.E. teacher in junior high. I even wore this funny little pointy bra, because I remembered that was the way she dressed. [Producer] Sean McKittrick told me later that as soon as I walked in with all that energy, they knew they’d found Kitty Farmer. Which is kind of embarrassing, because I wasn’t quite in character yet, I didn’t think. Richard said he didn’t want her to be shticky—which is always such music to my ears, because there’s a fine line between taking it to the edge and going over the edge. He said, “I want to take it as far as it can without going over.” And I thought, “That’s exactly what I just ordered from the universe!” So I read the Sparkle Motion scene: “Sometimes, I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion!” Except I got the words mixed up and said, “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to miracles in motion!” They laughed hysterically because I’d screwed it up, and I said, “You have to give me this part!”
The A.V. Club: Do you still get asked to say that line a lot?
BG: People ask me to say it all the time. I’ve given it to people for their answering machines, I’ve done it on telephones, videos, other movie sets. People come up and say, “Would you do it for my girlfriend?” I love it, because it is a great line. It’s one of those lines that’s deceptively simple—what’s the big deal? But it’s so complex, because she’s self-righteous, and she’s kind of pitiful at that point, because her hero has fallen. She’s arrogant and she’s sincere, because she really does think we all should be committed to Sparkle Motion. I also like the line leading up to that: “I made your daughter the lead dancer, and you’re not committed!” It’s how people in their own little narrow worlds get so bent out of shape over the silliest things. I’ve seen it all my life, especially growing up in the South—the tempest in a teapot. She’s vulnerable, self-righteous, a combination of so many things in that one line. It’s Richard Kelly’s brilliance, because he led me to that performance. He wanted sincerity, he didn’t want it to be one color, and he made me go vulnerable, and I think that’s why it works. When you can get all those different colors and levels in one line… [Pauses.] Time Out New York voted it “Best Line Of The Year”—which is crazy, because how many words is it? “Sometimes. I. Doubt. Your. Commitment. To. Sparkle. Motion.” Eight words. It’s crazy.
AVC: Well, “Rosebud” is only one word.
BG: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s pretty good too! Hopefully this’ll last as long!
Sordid Lives (2000)—“Sissy Hickey”
BG: There are several things iconic about that character, too—even just sounds. Like, “Awww.” People love that sound! “Awww.” I actually didn’t want to do the role, because I didn’t think I looked like a smoker—even though I used to be a smoker. I love smoking. I miss it every day of my life. If I found out that it didn’t cause cancer, I would go out and buy, like, eight cartons right now. Anyway, I thought [Sissy] should be really skinny and leathery and have one of those really husky voices, but Del [Shores] kept saying, “I wrote this part for you.” He took me to his house and showed me pictures of all his Texas relatives, and they looked exactly like my family. I started to get it: “Oh, we’re ripped from the same fabric of life here.” Then he showed me the picture of Sissy Hickey—his real Sissy—and she looked exactly like my grandmother. She had those big glasses, but she didn’t have that hairdo. That actually came from another movie I did, because I didn’t want to do a traditional beehive. I showed it to Del and he said, “I love it! It’s a French twist gone awry!” [Laughs.] In fact, I think Sissy Hickey’s sister is the character I did in No Country For Old Men, with the little white curly hair. That’s the way my grandmother wore her hair, and she had the big glasses. To me, they’re kind of kissin’ cousins or sisters.
I never have broken up in comedy, ever. There’s something about me that I just don’t break on camera—maybe because I’m just so cheap, and I know how expensive it is to shoot—but I broke on Sordid Lives, and I broke on The Office. Those are the only two times in my life. See if you don’t think this is funny: Bonnie Bedelia is stealing drugs from the medicine cabinet at the mental hospital where her brother, Brother Boy, has been institutionalized for being a transvestite for 27 years. The setup’s pretty funny. So she’s stealing these drugs, and the security guard catches her. So she’s telling me about it, and then she calls the security guard an “ingrate.” That is the strangest use of that word! What about him makes him ungrateful? [Laughs.] I went to Del, laughing like I am now, and said “Del, why is he ungrateful?” And he said his mother—who is a Texas drama teacher in high school—always called people “ingrates.” That was her standard putdown for people she didn’t like. [Laughs.] I kept getting tickled over it. It just seemed like such a strange use of words. So we get in the scene in the car—and you know, Bonnie is very serious about her work. She says, “That ingrate!” and I go [Muffles a laugh.]. Finally I just let go. I thought she was going to kill me! I was mortified. You don’t want to offend Bonnie Bedelia.
AVC: Why’s that?
BG: Well, she’s so serious about her work. She’s been a movie star for a long time, and she was on Broadway when she was 16. She was the biggest star we had. Well, Olivia Newton-John—but Olivia’s different. She’s more of a singer-songwriter than an actor, and she’s Australian, so she has a very different type of attitude. Very loose kind of girl. Bonnie’s just very professional, you know, she expects things a certain way. I’m sure she didn’t really care. And it is unprofessional to break up. But I don’t care. It’s one of the best laughs I’ve ever had in my life!
The Office (2008)—“Dwight’s Babysitter”
BG: Then I did it again on The Office. Greg Daniels, I worked with on King Of The Hill. After Tammy Wynette died, I had taken over to play Tilly, Hank’s mom, and then I had done other voices, so Greg knew me. During the Writers’ Guild strike, I ran into him on the picket line—because actors were all supporting the writers, of course. He had seen No Country For Old Men and really liked it, and as soon as they went back to work, he called me to do the “Dinner Party” episode. The director won an Emmy; it was this great, great, dark episode. It really is one of the edgier ones. [Laughs.] Their fight is so embarrassing to everyone concerned—and with Dwight bringing me as his date, who’s also his babysitter, it’s just sick!
I knew Steve Carell because of Little Miss Sunshine, so I felt very comfortable with him. Maybe he always does it to guest stars, but I felt as though he was being particularly funny with me, and particularly stretching the boundaries of improvisation. He’s such a comic genius. I hate to use that word, because everyone throws it around, but Steve Carell is channeling something. If Richard Kelly can channel Donnie Darko, then Steve can channel and just go to that place, wherever it is. So he’s greeting me at the door, and he just keeps going way off the script, and then more and more and more, and I just finally couldn’t hold it in. I’m holding that cooler, and I started making this bizarre sound. [Wheezes heavily.] But they weren’t calling “cut,” and my head went all the way down, and then I came up and had tears streaming down my face. And Steve goes, “Look at her, now she’s crying!” I’ve never been so glad when somebody called “cut.” I went hysterical, and I was so embarrassed. I love that show so much, and I love everybody there, and I’m just a guest star and I’m cracking up, But then I noticed they break up around each other, too, and they’re constantly saying, “Oh, sorry.” So I felt better, but I think that was the very first shot, so I was like, “Oh my God, am I going to do this all week?”
And then Dwight—I mean Rainn Wilson—kept cracking me up, because he was sucking on those beets, going, “Mmm, mmm, mmm.” They have a little bit of that, but they couldn’t get it all in. I bet it’s the same every week. If they had wanted a crazy, wild feature film using all the comedy that I saw in just those few days, you could absolutely have had one. You could have had five minutes of Rainn just eating his food.
AVC: It was sort of left open to interpretation as to whether Dwight really had a “carnal” relationship with his babysitter, or he was just saying that to upset Angela. Do you have an opinion?
BG: [Laughs.] Yeah, I don’t really know for sure either. But I definitely flirted with him, and I definitely felt very comfortable being his date. I mean, I did make that decision that it was fine with me if we made that transition. And I like that last moment we have. We do give each other a funny look. He pulls up in that car, and I’m standing there, and it’s interesting. I think you can take it however you want, but I think she’s completely willing if he wants to pick her up. And of course, Steve is passed out in the car, so that would really have been sick, but there is this moment where we look at each other. I felt it was definitely a possibility. I was probably not all that much older than him, and he was probably a wild little kid, so who knows what happened on that beet farm? Steve was joking that I should come back and be somebody else’s date—like, there should be an office party, and I walk in and look at him and I say, “Dwight…” Which is pretty funny, but I don’t know how she’d hook up with somebody else, or who it would be.
BG: Joss Whedon did the rewrite for Speed—the movie, not the drug. Sometimes I’ll say, “When Sandy [Bullock] and I were doing Speed—the movie, not the drug.” Just in case someone’s listening. Joss actually called me in for a part once—not on Angel, but on something else—and I jokingly said, “You know, your rewrite of Speed, you completely destroyed my character.” Originally I was one of Sandy’s friends, because we rode the bus together every day. I think she was a stand-up comedian, and I had been to the club to see her routine. I had just gotten engaged. I had a dog on the bus. There was just more backstory for all of us. It was kind of like The Poseidon Adventure, and very wisely, in this case, the studio said, “No, let’s just get on the bus and go.” Joss had done that rewrite, so I teased him about it. In the first script, the bus driver has a heart attack and I give him CPR. I was a hero! Then I volunteer to be the first one off the bus and get blown up—again, as a hero! So then I get Joss’ script. First of all, there’s hardly anything in there, and what is there is this whining coward who tries to leap off the bus to save her ass! [Laughs.] He said, “Oh yeah, sorry about that.” And I said, “No, thank God, because that’s why it was a hit.”
AVC: Plus, it got you your very own [since removed —ed.] YouTube video: “Helen Gets Blown Up.”
BG: Oh, really? Oh, cool! I know the music is on the CD, because somebody gave me the soundtrack. It’s called “Helen’s Death.” And it’s good! I’ve died so many times in so many movies. What is it about my face that people want to kill it? I’m sure they would’ve killed Kitty Farmer if they could’ve!
AVC: It’s that conservative, judgmental edge. People want to see you taken down a peg.
BG: Well, I grew up around those people, so I know ’em, and I do like playin’ ’em. I’m not religious, but I am kind of a spiritual fanatic, so maybe I understand them in that way. Kitty’s just trying to find some answers. She’s so confused, and she desperately wants her daughter to be a star. She wants Sparkle Motion. She wants to be somebody. She wants to be accepted. She wants to be popular and liked, and she just has no idea how to go about it. I really felt for Kitty. I’ve just known women like that all my life, so maybe that’s true in a lot of these.
A Time To Kill (1996)—“Cora Mae Cobb”
BG: That’s one I almost didn’t do. Joel Schumacher had been in my acting class, and he sent me the script. I’d never read the book, and I read those first two scenes—where that little girl gets raped by those redneck boys—and I find out he wants me to play their mother. I’m in New York to celebrate the première of To Wong Foo and have a vacation with my family, and I just couldn’t read the script. So I called my agent and I said, “Tell Joel of course I’ll do it. I’ll be honored to do anything that he does”—I had done Flatliners with him, too—and so I didn’t even read the whole script until later. And so the first day on set, I went to him and said, “How do I still love these boys after what they did? How do I do this?” He said, “It’s your fault. Maybe you’re a janitor at the high school and you have to work, and your husband’s a drunk. You don’t protect your boys from the drunken father, and you’re never there.” I said, “Say no more. Love ’em. Got it.” Guilt. There’s always that key to every character that lets you go to those places you need to go to. No matter how much you might hate the character, it makes you understand it.
Angel (1999)—“Maude Pearson”
BG: David Greenwalt called me in for the “ghost mom,” and he said, “By the way, Joss said you’ve got the part. He said to tell you that you don’t have to worry.” Which was nice. The makeup was intense. They had this idea that they wanted a ghost that aged—which was pretty unique—and they didn’t want to do prosthetics, so I was in makeup quite a lot. Joss was directing a Buffy [The Vampire Slayer] episode that week, and at one point he came over and visited the set and worked with us on this one scene. I love that character. I love that she walls her son up because he has a girlfriend! In fact, I have that clip on my reel—her walling him up and saying, “What are you going to do about that streetwalker now? You belong to me! What are you going to do?” And did you know the ghost mom has her own Angel trading card?
AVC: And the “walling up” scene is in the opening credits—so in a way, you’re in every episode.
BG: I forgot that! Oh, wow, I hadn’t even put that together. Thanks for telling me!
Southland Tales (2006)—“Dr. Inga Von Westphalen”
AVC: What was it like reading that script for the first time? Did it make any sense?
BG: I didn’t understand it at all! I read it and I said, “Oh boy. Well, it’s Richard Kelly. I’m going to say yes.” In fact, I had to drop out of another movie to do it. I was supposed to work in Georgia, and I had a whole family reunion planned around it—but you know, it’s Richard Kelly. I still had to go pick up all my relatives and fly ’em to Georgia, but that’s how much I love Richard Kelly. I just trusted him. And that movie… [Pauses.] Is there a single word to describe it? Cacophony? It’s celebrity meets pornography meets politics—it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my life. And slapstick humor, communism; I mean, what doesn’t it have? It’s crazy. I didn’t go to Cannes, but I guess [the first cut] was three and a half hours or something? So I knew I was going to get cut a lot, and indeed I even had a second character in the movie that got cut altogether: Marion Card, who was this tarot-card player with a red wig. I did this whole thing where I recited The Wasteland to The Rock on the beach. It was this awesome, awesome scene, but it just did not carry the plot forward whatsoever, so unfortunately it had to go.
It was such an odd prosthetic that they gave me. She was so deeply wrinkled, it almost was like a burn. You could almost picture that she had, in her experiments, caught a Bunsen burner that had flared one day. It was not what I expected. But again, I trust Richard. He said, “I want a little German accent. It doesn’t matter if it’s authentic. Just enjoy it.” I think he’s the one that said that the thing about Germans is that the reason their accent is so pronounced is that they’re trying very hard to communicate, so that was kind of my thing: She was trying to communicate. I love that I brought about the end of the world. [Laughs.] I went to see the movie after it was cut. The publicist shows ’em to us ahead of time, usually, so that if we’re going to talk about the movie, we’ll have something to say. So I came out and said, “Gosh, I’m really going to have to think about this. I don’t know if I can say anything.” Then I was talking to my husband about it, and I kept explaining it, like, “And then these SNL characters come in, and they have prosthetic noses!” You know, I couldn’t put my finger on it.
And all of a sudden I got a vision of Guernica—Picasso’s painting, which is one of my all-time favorite paintings in the world. I remember reading that it was very controversial at the time—some people said even used the word “childlike drawing”—and all of a sudden I thought, “This is like Guernica in Los Angeles!” And then it all made sense to me. It was all the elements that are the Southland. Tone is a very difficult thing. You can’t write tone, I don’t think. You can try—you certainly try. I write too, so I know I’m trying desperately to communicate to whoever’s going to direct my pieces, the way I see the humor. But it’s very difficult. When I read it, I just couldn’t get a handle on it, but now I’m a huge fan of Southland Tales. I’ve got the graphic novels—I totally get it now. But it’s not for everybody. I would say most people would probably not get it, or want to take the time to really think about it and understand the elements. When you live in Los Angeles, you see all this. These porn stars, that’s not a joke. I mean, who would have thought that porn stars would have such credibility now? It’s an odd world right now. Reality television, anybody can be a star at any minute. I thought the fact that this porn star had this screenplay and all these merchandising ideas was such a great look at the Paris Hiltons of the world, and the next step is going to be that. Some porn star probably will come out with a line of cosmetics or something. They probably already have sexual aids. Not AIDS the disease. I mean, like, paraphernalia. [Laughs.] So I think it’s kind of brilliant.
AVC: Do you think it’s better to be in an ambitious mess rather than something merely adequate?
BG: Absolutely. I’m telling you, I really am about risk, and I was so glad to be at Buddy’s memorial to remind me, because that’s what I love. I love to take chances. I love first-time directors. I love super-low-budget movies. I’ve been around for a while now. I’ve done 80-something movies, and I want to just keep experimenting. First-time directors have new, fresh ideas, and lot of times they’re risking a lot to do it, so it means so much to them. They’re not just hired; they have their heart on the line, because if you’ve gone that far, you’re probably a very passionate person. Everything I’ve done hasn’t worked out—you know, some things aren’t as great as others—but I’m having so much fun, who cares? Isn’t that what an artist is supposed to do? We’re trying to change the world. Otherwise, why be an artist? You want to shake people up and make ’em think.
I think the New York Times reviewer, Manohla Dargis, and The Village Voice loved Southland Tales—even at Cannes! I thought, “Well, I’m in pretty good company if The New York Times and The Village Voice like it. I’m not so stupid!” [Laughs.] I’d much rather insult people and make ’em angry. You know, Donnie Darko’s very controversial. Not all of my friends like it. Honestly, it’s almost become a test for me. If somebody says they don’t like [Donnie Darko], I think, “Oh, I don’t know you as well as I thought I did.” One friend said, “That movie was weird!” And I thought, “Hmm. I don’t think we’re as good of friends as I thought.” It’s not like I disliked him for it; it just meant we weren’t on the same page I thought we were. Because I can’t imagine watching that film and not being moved to tears. I’ve seen it however many times, and I cry almost every time. If you just think it’s a weird movie, you don’t want to think. You don’t want to feel your feelings. So yeah, I do want to shake ’em up.
Child’s Play 2 (1990)—“Miss Kettlewell”
AVC: Since we’re having all this high-minded talk about art, I’m going to be a jerk and bring up Child’s Play 2.
BG: [Laughs]. Hey, I love Child’s Play 2! I love Don Mancini. That movie has a great theme: You better listen to children. That’s why I wanted to do it. I was scared to do a horror movie—a blatant, studio horror movie—but I liked the script, and I thought that was such an important theme, because I don’t think adults listen to children enough. I didn’t feel listened to when I was a child, and I’ve seen other friends of mine with their kids, and they’re not paying attention while the kid’s trying to tell them very important stuff. But when I was considering doing it, even though I liked it, I still thought, “Gosh, should I do this big ol’ studio horror movie?” I’d just done Rain Man and a couple of other big movies, and I called my friend Dinah Manoff and said, “Dinah, what do you think about me doing Child’s Play 2? It’s about this little doll, Chucky”—and she said, “Well, if you see Child’s Play, you’ll find that I’m in it.” [Laughs.] She was the one that had gone out the window with a knife in her head or something like that. I felt like that was a sign.
AVC: A doll beating you to death with a yardstick—does that rank among your best death scenes?
BG: How do you beat that? Actually, he punctures my lung with a bicycle pump, and then he beats me to death with a yardstick. That’s hard to beat. There’s the one in Speed, and on Flatliners, I had a baby and came back to life. What else?
AVC: You were killed on Six Feet Under because you thought The Rapture was happening.
BG: Oh yeah, Six Feet Under was awesome! And you know, that’s an old urban legend. And then I had the heart attack while walling my son up in Angel. Those are all pretty good, but yeah, Child’s Play 2 is hard to beat.
Jericho (2006)—“Gracie Leigh”
AVC: You were killed in Jericho.
BG: Oh, what an awesome death scene I had! I took that one the hardest. It was as though a relative died. I had the best time on that show. First of all, I just believed in it. It seemed so bold to me, and [head writer] Carol Barbee used to be an actress, and we’d done Summer And Smoke together—that thing I was talking about earlier with Christopher Reeve. She played the young ingénue, Nelly; we really bonded. My husband had gone to Julliard with Christopher Reeve, so we all used to go out to eat afterward. We did this crazy thing one day: We were driving down the road, and Carol was in the car with us, and Chris was driving his convertible, and we acted out this whole scene on the street. They started looking at each other and flirting with each other—I mean, it was a game; they weren’t boyfriend and girlfriend or anything—and we were pretending that she was my daughter. So she leaped out of my car and got in his car, and I’m screamin’ and yellin’ and Michael’s cursin’, and they drive away. And the onlookers—can you imagine people on the street seeing Christopher Reeve pick up our daughter? We fooled ’em! Anyway, I love Carol, and I say that story to illustrate what a great sense of humor she has. I loved my character—again, conservative, very complex, greedy. But I never blamed her. I understood her. And people hated her!
AVC: Well, wasn’t she bartering for people’s family heirlooms and stuff like that?
BG: [Laughs.] And not giving ’em much! Like, a loaf of bread. The worst! Usury and gouging—she was awful. But I understood her. I said, “It’s the end of the world, guys! This is all she’s got.” I loved that they had the guts to make her complex like that, because they could have gone a different way. She could have just been the nice Midwestern storekeeper like on The Waltons, but they didn’t do that. They let her have this dark side, and get in cahoots with the bad guys. Of course, that was her downfall. I knew my deal was only for seven shows, and I was already on the ninth show, so I knew I was gonna die any minute. In fact, in the pilot, when he says to me, “I’ll never let anything happen to you,” I knew I was dead meat. I said to my husband “I’m getting killed off!” [Laughs.] I mourned for her, really, for a couple of weeks. My heart was heavy. But Carol said, “We’re going to give you a great death scene,” and I think they did. I think it’s hysterically, ironically funny that she comes back to the good side and then gets killed. I mean, hello! That’s life sometimes. And that great song, too. [Sings.] “What kind of world do you want? / Let’s start at the start.” It’s just such a great song to die to. [Laughs.] Whenever that song comes on the radio, I’ll act out the death scene for my daughter.
No Country For Old Men (2007)—“Carla Jean’s Mother”
BG: First of all, I’ve worked with Ridley Scott, Barry Levinson, Barry Sonnenfeld—some of the biggest directors in the world.
AVC: And let’s not forget George Romero in The Dark Half.
BG: Oh, right! I love him! What a gracious, kind, loving, beautiful man he is. Always so sweet. So yeah, the Coen brothers: Of all the directors I’ve worked with, they’re the only ones who have given me the storyboards attached to the [script]. It was very cool for me, because I knew when I was in close-up or if it was far away, and it also made me know that anything that happened [in the edit] wasn’t personal. Because they edit their own movies, so they were editing it as they went. It was just such a relaxing situation, because I didn’t feel like I had to prove anything. I could just bring the character. It was a huge gift to me. I don’t know if they do it on every movie, but they did it on this, and I loved it. But here’s the funny thing: I met with them, I loved them, we got along great, and I thought I had a really good chance of getting it, and then I didn’t hear for two months, so I figured I didn’t get it. And then they called on a Friday and wanted me to come in on a Saturday and be put on tape, and I couldn’t go. I was mortified! I thought, “Oh my God, the Coen brothers!” Miller’s Crossing is actually my favorite—I love Fargo, I love all of them, but Miller’s Crossing just happens to be my favorite. When I heard they were doing this, I thought, “This is it. This is their masterpiece. This is going to be the one, because it’s going to bring every element together.” I just had a feeling about it.
But I couldn’t go because of my daughter—who’s my number-one priority in life, above all else. As much as I love being an artist, I love being a mom even more. She’s 6 feet tall—I call her a “glamazon,” because she’s so gorgeous, but she’s built like an Amazon. She’s really an exceptional girl. She’s an all-star goalie. I was doing a celebrity golf tournament, and it was sponsored by the gold medal women’s soccer team, and they were picking us up. Mary had invited one of her soccer buddies to go with her; there was no way I could cancel this weekend. I couldn’t do it to her. I said, “What am I going to do? It’s the Coen brothers!” And my husband said, “This is what we’re going to do: I’ll tape you, and I will personally deliver it, and you’ll write them a note on how much it means to you.” So I wrote them a little personal note, my husband got out our little cheap video camera, my daughter read the cue lines, and I put it on tape. My husband hand-delivered it to Paramount and made sure that the casting director had it in her hand. Then they asked me to do it on Monday. So I felt like it was meant to be.
Again, she reminds me a lot of my grandmother and those women, but it wasn’t the look I had in mind. I thought it would be more me. I was just going to pull my hair back, maybe sallow my jaws a little bit, and have dark hair pulled back with gray—because she’s really only 58, but she does have cancer. And the brilliant [costume designer] Mary Zorphres had done all this research on West Texas in 1980. Every woman looked like that. At a certain age, they would get their hair cut off, let the gray go in, get that permanent, and wear those big glasses. She gave me a beanie bra so my boobs would hang down, and these old dresses. My hat’s off to her, because I thought it was perfect for the movie. It was so great to have some comic relief right at that moment. It’s such an intense film.
The Coens both give you direction, and then it’s up to you to kind of figure out the music of what they’re saying. They actually work very similarly to the couple that did Little Miss Sunshine, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. I never heard them get defensive, ever. My husband and I can’t get through dinner without being defensive. We’ve been married 24 years, and I love my husband to death, but sometimes I say, “What are we? Two injured creatures who can’t talk to each other without going, like, ‘Ahhh!’?” Then you get with these filmmakers doing the hardest work in the world, and they’re not defensive. They’re happy together, they crack jokes together, they have different opinions—and it doesn’t bother them that they have different opinions. So no wonder their work is so good, because you’re getting two for the price of one. I’m just so lucky. Can you believe I’ve worked with all these people?
AVC: You do have a classic “Beth Grant line” in No Country For Old Men: “It’s not often you see a Mexican in a suit.”
BG: And did you notice I said it like a real Texan? I left out the “I.” I used to date a guy from Azle, Texas; that’s how I knew that. It’s not “Mex-i-can,” like we say in the South. It’s “Mex-can.” I knew exactly who she was when I read that. I’ve met her a thousand times. After that, I was going somewhere in Texas to shoot something, and I got off in the airport, and I saw my character walk by. [Laughs.] I also like, “You know how many people I know in El Paso?” [Makes a circle with her finger and thumb.] “That’s how many.” That’s my grandmother’s wit to a T! With the sarcasm and the dryness. But I love that she’s not bigoted. She says, “Well, thank God there’s one gentlemen left in West Texas.” She calls him a gentleman. She respects him, she likes him—but he is a Mex-can! I love the complexity of that. Those are the characters I’m drawn to.
All About Steve (2009)—“Mrs. Horowitz”
AVC: From the Best Picture winner of 2007 to what was called one of the worst movies of 2009.
BG: Aww, I feel so bad they say that! I like that movie. My daughter loved that movie, because she’s 6 feet tall and she’s different. And I got a lot of great e-mails from people who are different. I’m a gay icon. I’ll just say it. That’s what they say to me, so I’ll accept it. I got so many e-mails saying that it meant so much to those people. My daughter said, “They didn’t like it just because she didn’t get the guy! If they had lived happily ever after, people would have liked that movie.” To me, it’s sweet-natured and sweet-hearted, and I can’t get enough sweet-hearted movies. I want to be inspired right now. I think things are pretty tough in the world. And people at the première were loving it—I mean, loving it! So I’m so sorry to hear people saying that. I don’t buy it at all. And I thought Sandy was brave to do it. Because for a leading lady to talk a studio into doing a movie where you don’t get the guy… [Pauses.] Maybe because it is about offbeat people, they don’t want them to be heroes. There is something archetypal in us that we like a leading lady, we like a leading man, and we like people with my features to get killed. [Laughs.] Maybe that’s why [the reviews] were so severe—because good Lord, I’ve seen much worse films!
AVC: Do you think it’s that subconscious need for actors to stay within their archetypes that’s kept you in character roles?
BG: Yes. I built a career on it, and I’m grateful, but I’m trying to stretch. I would love to do some classics. I have such a great thing I want to do with Lady Macbeth—make her one of the witches—and I have this whole thing where she’s very light and dressed in pink and dancing Gaelic dances and throwing roses, but then when her husband’s coming home, she does incantations and pulls her hair back, puts on a black leather trenchcoat. I mean, I could tear it up if somebody would give me the chance! But do you think someone would ever let me do Lady Macbeth? I doubt it. But I’m going to keep talking about it. I’ve worked on The Visit. I’ve got a great interpretation of that, where I have rock-star bodyguards with bare chests and black eye makeup, and they bring me in a white nightgown, and I’m throwing money at the crowd. I’m telling you, it rocks. I’ve workshopped all these. I’ve workshopped Medea where I have goddesses, and I’m naked onstage and painted gold, and talking in tongues, and the goddesses come and dress me, and Hecate arrives and fills me with the power to go kill the children so I can send them to the afterlife and do this for all women. They’ve never done a Medea like that. They’re cheating themselves by not letting me do these roles. I’m ready. Maybe I wasn’t in the beginning. I weighed 179 pounds when I got to New York, and I had that thick Southern accent. I still talk Southern, but I can do without it.
Do you remember that book by William Goldman, Adventures In The Screen Trade? Great, awesome book. He talks about this very thing—that you can’t get a star to do a part that’s not what their public expects. And Sandy’s not like that. She’s taken a lot of chances over the years. And Buddy certainly wasn’t like that. But I mean, maybe that is true. Maybe that’s exactly why they didn’t like [All About Steve]. And maybe the actors that used to turn down William Goldman’s scripts—where he wanted them to stretch and grow, and he was mad at ’em, and said, “Why won’t they be a real actor?”—maybe they just knew their audience. It’s too bad.
AVC: In terms of you breaking your own typecasting, although you’ve had a lot of roles, you started your career very late. So maybe it’s just a matter of time?
BG: You really did your research! No one’s ever noticed that, ever, with any interview. But you’re right. Rain Man, I was 38. And before that, I had really just started working when I was 36, so you’re exactly right. I was very late. So I’ve got time, right? As long as I stay healthy and eat right.
AVC: And if you think about it, more people remember Jessica Tandy for the work she did in the winter of her life.
BG: Aww, you’re gonna make me cry! [Chokes up.] Excuse me. God, I can’t believe I got so moved by that. You just gave me a lot of hope! [Laughs.] Wow, Jessica Tandy. Nice company! And Ruth Gordon. They worked all along, but you’re right. She didn’t really get any big star recognition until Driving Miss Daisy. So what if it takes me that long? Slow and steady wins the race, right? Better a tortoise than a hare. Jessica Tandy, wow. I can’t believe you mentioned that. I never have compared myself to her in any way, and that’s such a great role model for me to look at. I’m seriously going to put pictures of her in my dressing room and commune with her from now on, I think. Thank you for giving me that! That’s exactly what I want to do.