Heather Graham: The Heat on Heather

Heather Graham has always deftly balanced edgy indies and major studio to-dos--this fall she's starring in the small, heartfelt Sidewalks of New York, the small, twisted Killing Me Softly and the big, scary From Hell. But it's been a long road to success. Here she shares what she's learned along the way, from how it's impossible to predict which project will work out to why on-set romances aren't a good idea

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Heather Graham knew she wanted to be a movie star at age 17, when she danced atop a car in the Corey Feldman/Corey Haim vehicle License to Drive. But she had a roadblock in her way. Raised in the Valley in a strict Catholic household, Graham was told by her parents that she would not be permitted to play off-color characters, which is why she turned down one of the lead roles in Heathers. When Drugstore Cowboy came her way, though, she didn't let her parents hold her back. This time she chose to move out on her own so she could take the part. She's gone her own way ever since. As other actresses broke through, peaked, and faded, Graham thoughtfully sought out films with staying power, including such seminal indies as I Love You to Death, Six Degrees of Separation, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. Though her parts were often thankless, their collective quality helped her get respect. Just when it seemed to her that she'd never get her break, Graham followed a charming role in Swingers with her widely praised turn as Rollergirl in Boogie Nights, which gave her the sort of buzz that opens doors fast in Hollywood. She soon was having fun with her newfound high-profile status, spoofing Drew Barrymore in Scream 2, entertaining a solid audience in Lost in Space, filling the post-Elizabeth Hurley spy-chick role in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and winning further critical praise for her turn as an amoral actress in the surprise hit Bowfinger.

Now, at 31, Graham is sneaking up on full-fledged stardom. This month she appears opposite former beau Edward Burns in the small ensemble Sidewalks of New York, and with Joseph Fiennes in the twisted love story Killing Me Softly. Next month she plays a streetwalker trying to help a Scotland Yard investigator (Johnny Depp) trap Jack the Ripper in From Hell. Directed by Allen and Albert Hughes, the film has the clout of a major studio in 20th Century Fox, but the pedigree of an indie by merit of the directors, Depp and herself.

When I walk into a Greenwich Village eatery 15 minutes early to meet Graham on a hot, steamy day, I spot her right away--I had heard she's a pro, but I didn't expect her to arrive before me. Graham chose to meet at this restaurant because she's recently become familiar with the neighborhood, having filmed the comedy The Guru close by. Though she's only spent a few months in New York, she's long been a fixture of the city's gossip columns, which began when she dated Burns and reached an all-time high when she started dating Heath Ledger. She's looking for an apartment in the city, but considering her packed slate, it's unlikely she'll be able to stay in one place for long.

MICHAEL FLEMING: Early word on From Hell is that it's the scariest Jack the Ripper film ever made. What interested you in such a dark story?

HEATHER GRAHAM: It's a great script. To me, it's always about the script. And the Hughes brothers are very talented. Plus, I'd always wanted to work with Johnny Depp. He's a hero for a lot of actors I know--Johnny's the guy they look up to because of the work he does.

Q: Christina Ricci, who's worked with Depp on several films, including the recent The Man Who Cried, has described him as a generous actor. How did you find him?

A: Generous is a really good word for him. He's been in the business so long that he's confident enough in himself to be supportive and warm. And he has his own way of doing things.

Q: Like what?

A: Well, he listens to music through an earpiece while he works.

Q: Isn't that distracting?

A: No. He listens to this music really faintly while he's doing a take. He let me listen to it and it was really cool. One time he was listening to Billie Holiday, another time, Lauryn Hill. I recall him saying he got the idea while doing a movie with Marlon Brando, who used an earpiece to remember his lines.

Q: Is Depp's style of acting different from other actors'?

A: He's really big about cutting out lines. He doesn't need to dominate a scene. He has quiet, strong confidence.

Q: How does that mesh with your style:

A: I think I'm kind of similar to that. I'm definitely not trying to dominate the room. Not a lot of ego, supportive and fun.

Q: What is Depp like off camera?

A: Lighthearted. He's mischievous, maybe even eccentric, but mostly, he doesn't pretend to be somebody else. He enjoys being who he is. One night he had a bunch of gypsies in his trailer, and they were all playing music. He's really great at creating a mood in his trailer. It's decked out like an opium den. He had all these benches with fabrics over them, and lights, candles, incense--it didn't look like your normal trailer. He is also really in love with his daughter and he constantly talks about her.

Q: In the film you play a streetwalker who's targeted by Jack the Ripper. How did you give her dimension?

A: She's fiery and doesn't accept the circumstance she's been put in. My character tries to help this Scotland Yard investigator find out who the killer is. It was the first time I tried an accent. I had this great coach. I was going through a lot of things in my personal life at the time, and we'd have these long talks about it, staying in the accent the whole time.

Q: You've just made several movies back-to-back. Did you give yourself enough of a break between them?

A: I'm trying to give myself a bit more time, really. Sometimes, as an actor, you get offered something, and you don't want to turn down what might be that great movie. You don't want to find out you've turned down Citizen Kane.

Q: You've been acting for a deceptively long time. Why aren't you more at ease that you won't miss out on something?

A: It seems like, especially for a woman, there's a time when you'd better take advantage of the opportunities while they're there. But I get tired. After Austin Powers I didn't work for about a year, so it's not as if I always drive myself.

Q: Would you describe yourself as a hard worker?

A: I'm really hardworking, and I'm not afraid to look dumb. I'm persistent, and if I hear people say, "Oh, that movie wasn't good," or "You're no good," I just keep going. I don't take too much to heart. I don't like to be criticized, but it's not that important to me. Thanks to therapy, which helps. I probably wouldn't have a career at all if I didn't do therapy.

Q: You've starred in some of the most seminal indie movies of the past 15 years. Has this specialization in indies been by design?

A: I wouldn't say it was all by design. I've just been attracted to many indie films.

Q: Do you think indies are better than big studio pictures? A: Oh, I like big Hollywood movies. I liked Titanic, so it's not like I'm a snob. But independent movies are less predictable. They speak to me.

Q: There were great expectations for Say It Isn't So because it was produced by the Farrelly brothers, who brought us There's Something About Mary. Were you disappointed at how poorly it did?

A: The script wasn't completely there, but I wanted to work with the Farrelly brothers and they were saying, "Just trust us," so I did. I also hadn't worked for a year, and I thought it would be good to get back into doing something like that. But you just never know, sometimes you take a risk. I've always been a bit of a gambler.

Q: Is it hard to keep that philosophy in mind when a film fails?

A: Very hard. You want everything you do to turn out well for the people who watch it. But as an artist, what can you do? I didn't produce it or direct it. You have to factor in a bit of loss of control. Even the smartest, greatest people don't bat a thousand.

Q: Drew Barrymore has more control over her career because she produces her own films. Is that something you'd like to do? A: I think it's so cool how she does that, produce movies. But then I think, How hardworking do I really want to be? I wonder if I'd rather have a more relaxed personal life. But I am meeting with development people because I'd like to develop my own projects.

Q: Do you think Boogie Nights made you a better actress? A: I walked away from that movie thinking, "Hey, I know what I'm doing. I'm a good actress and I did a good job in a really good movie." It gave me confidence, strength. It helped that the film was a commercial hit as well. You've got to realize, I had just come from a period where I wasn't getting any jobs. I mean, no jobs before Boogie Nights. Suddenly, I'm on the covers of magazines.

Q: Were you really that cold?

A: I felt that way. I had done Swingers, but it hadn't come out yet. I was having trouble even getting readings for things.

Q: Did you read for Boogie Nights?

A: Someone else was supposed to do it but dropped out. I went in and read for it and the director, Paul Thomas Anderson, said, "Let's go out and talk about this." We went out for drinks and he told me he was meeting Mark Wahlberg at that bar. We saw him and he said, "Hey, Mark, this is Rollergirl." I was like, "Yes!"

Q: That was the first film where you appeared completely nude.

A: It's the only film. Everyone thinks I've done a lot of nudity but I haven't. It was fun to live out that alter ego part of me.

Q: What part of the character did you most relate to?

A: Her wanting a family. These people were like my surrogate family. They accepted me.

Q: Did Boogie Nights help you win the coveted female lead in the second Austin Powers?

A: The producer on Austin Powers, John Lyons, was also the producer of Boogie Nights. I just met with Mike [Myers] one day, talked to him for an hour, and he offered it to me. When you're an actor used to killing yourself to get a role, that's a surprise. These were the nicest people, and I would definitely come back for Austin Powers 3, which they're working on.

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