Anjelica Huston on 50/50, Discovering Her Grandfather's Films, and Oprah's Oscar Grudge
Anjelica Huston is renowned Hollywood royalty, but in the new movie 50/50, she's just right as a Seattle mother whose son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is diagnosed with cancer and whose husband is a longtime sufferer of Alzheimer's disease. For the woman who's played everything from Maerose Prizzi to Morticia Addams, the role is yet another departure that always feels like a perfect -- and revealing -- fit. We caught up with the dynastic actress to discuss the real-life pain behind her performance in 50/50, the fun of discovering her grandfather Walter Huston's work, and the problem with winning an Oscar over Oprah Winfrey.
I think of you as such a self-assured screen presence, and your character in 50/50 is not self-assured. She's confused and worried for much of the movie. Did that attract you to her?
Well, yes! Poor Diane is taken by surprise. She thinks she knows everything, including how her son should live his life. She's been supervising her husband's actions, you know -- he has Alzheimer's -- she pretty much thinks she knows the score until she's hit with this curveball and everything falls apart.
This seems to be a passion project for screenwriter Will Reiser, who survived a spinal tumor. Is it daunting to get involved with a movie that reflects so deeply upon the filmmaker's life?
No, I think just the opposite. It's a pleasure to be able to interpret the truth. Will's script was so honest, and at the same time so funny. The humor came organically. It never felt pushed to me, on the page. I immediately saw what he and Jonathan [Levine, the director] were going for. I'd had some very difficult time in the hospital the year before I made this movie with my husband being sick, so it was a way really both to address my own feelings and also to take on this fine balance of somebody who might be irritating and overbearing or pushy, but also someone who's dealing with this terribly difficult conundrum of a son who has a life-threatening illness and a husband who has Alzheimer's -- and who has no one else really to turn to in your life.
Have you worked through personal pain in a role before?
Yes, The Grifters was a kind of a [laughs] therapeutic movie for me. I was going through a difficult time when I made that film, and that also informed my choice to play that character. My present circumstance really influenced my choice to play Diane.
Speaking of The Grifters, sometimes I look at Joseph Gordon-Levitt and think he's the new John Cusack with his blend of self-deprecation and cool. Since you've played mother to both actors at separate times, can you perhaps validate this argument?
Well, I don't like to say there's a new something -- a new John Cusack when we have a perfectly lovely John Cusack walking among us -- but I think Joe's his own man, and he brings a kind of sweetness. He's very moving on screen, particularly in this. He's very touching, and I always feel like I want to protect Joe against the trials and tribulations of life. I think Johnny certainly gives me the impression of someone who's better able to take care of himself, at least in his movie persona. Joe, I feel, is a bit more tender, a bit more vulnerable.
I looked over your filmography and noted not only the variety of films, but the variety of roles. Then I thought about the precious few actresses who truly receive enough praise for being able to play many things. Do you agree that men get more credit than women on that front?
Well, yes, I kind of do. I sort of agree with you on that. I think women are always second to get credit anyway. Boys always like to credit themselves first. I think characters are what inspire me, and if I go to the movies and I see the same person in the leading role, I can't help but get bored by it. I like people who transform, and I think that's the magic of acting. One can transform.
You have a distinct presence, even within your famous family. What roles of your grandfather's do you connect with?
Well, I grew up on my dad's movies. I grew up in the west of Ireland, a very rural situation, about an hour and a half from the biggest town. Most of what I saw were movies on the home projector. I must've seen Maltese Falcon 50 times, and African Queen, Treasure of Sierra Madre, and Moulin Rouge. Those were the movies of his that influenced me when I was a girl and continue to influence me. I never knew my grandfather, but I thought he was that character in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre until my early 20s. Then I saw him in Dodsworth and realized what an amazing actor he was. It's the gift that keeps on giving! Every once in a while Congo or Rain or a more obscure film of my grandfather's might come up on television. I'm always sort of thrilled to see him and get to know a new aspect of his character and his life as an actor. It's an ongoing thing. That's the magic of film. It's been able to provide me with a real image of my grandfather, who I never knew.
Your father famously hated Beverly Hills and Hollywood life. Since you've moved about a bit yourself -- from Ireland all the way to bohemian Venice in California -- has your perception and affection for Hollywood shifted much?
Yes. It does evolve or change. I don't share my father's loathing for Beverly Hills. I feel rather happy or at home in Los Angeles, particularly in Venice, which was my home with my husband for 20 years. Yeah, it's ongoing. I like living there. Sometimes I regret that it's not more seasonal because years can go by and you can think, "W-w-what happened?!" Apart from that, it's an easy place to live. It's the home of my profession.
You play a role in Smash, the upcoming NBC musical series about budding Broadway stars. Is the Broadway world new to you? Is it a comfortable fit for someone who's spent her entire acting career on screen?
So far, and I think it's a testament to the good writing and our work with Michael Mayer, who's worked on Broadway for many seasons. I don't know if it's a comfort world they've brought to me or if I just feel good in the role, but things seem to be falling into place nicely. It's all very reassuring! I like my character a lot. I love the cast. Everyone's great, so far so good.
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