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LA People 2009: Fucking With Drew Barrymore

Drew Barrymore
Kevin Scanlon

Drew Barrymore loves fucking. Mostly it happens when she gets excited. And she gets excited about a lot of stuff — movies, music, historical icons, roller derby, challenging herself. She likes fucking so much, she starts up with it before the interview. Like when I present her with an ancient Lou Reed cassette I find in a crumb-infested corner of my car while searching desperately for a tape because I seem to have forgotten one for my recorder, and Barrymore insists that no human hand can keep up with how much and how fast she talks.

“No way,” she says, when I hand her the Lou Reed. “This is the greatest gift ever. I fucking love cassettes.”

Dylan Tichenor, the guy editing Whip It, Barrymore’s directorial debut, and who also edited There Will Be Blood, Brokeback Mountain, The Royal Tannenbaums, Magnolia and Boogie Nights, to name a few, is “fucking dope.”

At one point, she’s so excited that she interrupts a discussion about Donnie Darko — the 2001 film, written and directed by a then-unknown kid named Richard Kelly, which Barrymore got made when nobody else could or would — just to start fucking with the Weekly:

“If I could say one periodical that is my favorite and most important and I live or die and breathe from and can’t fucking function without, it’s the L.A. Weekly.”

By my calculations, Barrymore drops an F-bomb every two minutes. “I’m a dirty girl,” she confesses with a sly grin.

I have to admit, I’m a bit taken aback when I encounter Ms. Barrymore on a shimmering Friday afternoon at the postproduction house a stone’s throw from the Arclight Theater, where she’s overseeing the editing on Whip It. And it’s not because of the ribald language she deliciously slathers on her speech like mustard on a hot dog. Even the dirty-girl joke isn’t dirty. It’s sweet, and the slyness is about inclusion, not about using sex as a weapon. Her F-bombs are about enthusiasm, not aggression.

What surprises me is how tiny she is. Greeting me in some sort of workout pants that look like she picked them up in the ’80s and decided to remain loyal to, a concert T-shirt, and a surplus-store Army jacket, with her hair undone and no makeup, Barrymore seems smaller and more vulnerable than I’d expected given her oversize personality. And she’s very skinny, most likely a symptom of the stress she’s been under while directing her first film and having recently tackled the enormous role of “Little” Edie Beale for HBO’s dramatic rendering of Grey Gardens.

“I’ve never been so scared in my life,” says Barrymore, of taking on “Little” Edie. “She such an icon and . it’s the scariest part. That and directing are the two scariest things I’ve ever done in my life. If I haven’t given myself a cancer ulcer, I’ll be shocked because I’ve never been more fucking freaked out than in the last two years of my life.”

Grey Gardens is based on the famous Maysles brothers’ 1975 documentary about “Big” Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, “Little” Edith. An appetite for the eccentric (some would say tragically so) mother and daughter and the East Hampton mansion where they went to seed, while clinging to their affectations like life preservers, has been fed over the years with numerous books, more documentaries, a Broadway musical, etc. And now, posthumously, thanks to HBO, these two collateral Kennedys have crossed over from a subcultural obsession to the full-blown stardom they so desired, perhaps delusionally, during their lives.

Like Jackie O, if you’ll allow a minor comparison to Little Edie’s cousin, Barrymore has also been part of the public firmament for so long she seems a permanent part of the culture. Think about it, 28 years ago, she played the adorable Gertie in her godfather, Steven Speilberg’s, ET: The Extraterrestrial. She was 7 then. We’ve watched her grow up and go through well-documented trials and triumphs along the way. (And I’d certainly count her table-dance and boob-flash birthday gift to David Letterman back in 1995 — a spontaneous eruption of the goofy, Everywoman sexiness that is one of her trademarks — as one of her triumphs.)

She is the girl next door, who became a preteen megastar and substance abuser, who was institutionalized and went to rehab when most girls were just getting their periods. She emancipated herself at 15 and before she could legally drink, she’d already gained the sort of perspective that would set her on the path to being a role model for female empowerment. Yes, I really said that. On the one hand, I’m talking about how Barrymore started her own production company, Flower Films, with partner Nancy Juvonen when she was just 20 because she knew by then that she wanted to be in Hollywood but not of it.

“I loved all aspects of filmmaking. I studied it so much that I just kind of clicked and I was, like, producing, producing, producing, hmm. So, I decided to start a company and on a guttural instinct I asked this woman to start it with me,” she explains. “She’s very organized and I’m very disorganized, but we had the same creative tastes and intentions and approach to life. I had all this background and experience, but we both said let’s create like a college for how you [get to] be a producer. And we’re definitely not going to read any books written on it because that’s all going to come from, like, Hollywood people, and we definitely don’t want to party with Tinseltown and wine and dine — we want to go to school for how we would make movies. And that’s what we did.”

So they logged years — really years — watching documentaries, studying film, reading scripts, meeting with agents, making lists of writers and directors they wanted to work with. After starring in and unofficially helping hits such as Scream and Ever After get made, Barrymore’s Flower Films debuted as a full-blown production company with the modest back-to-high-school hit, Never Been Kissed. A year later, Barrymore also starred in the company’s monster Charlie’s Angels.

On the other hand, though, I’m talking about an underlying message discernible in most Barrymore films, going back to the Cinderella redux, Ever After, which says, basically, girls don’t have to take shit.

“What excited me most about that movie was that [it showed] the way I feel about life,” says Barrymore. “Don’t wait to be rescued, rescue yourself. I was so excited to do that movie. I was, like, yeah, man.’”

I confess that I still get verklempt at all the girl-power shit in the Charlie’s Angels films.

“I’m so glad you feel that way,” she says, delighted. “That’s all I wanted to come across. I love people who love each other and have a lack of competitiveness, but when they band together, there’s no stopping them. Oh, and P.S., if you can’t laugh at yourself, yeck, vomit.”

If her entirely human, preternaturally approachable persona is a put-on, it’ll take a keener eye than mine to discern how. For example, when I succumb to exhaustion and go prone on her leather couch seconds after introductions are made, the first laughing words out of her mouth are, “Please, make yourself comfortable.” When I bolt upright, she insists that I stay down. Then her ancient golden retriever, Flossie, who once rescued her from a house fire, ambles over and starts licking my hands.

I take that as a sign and from my back ask her about this movie Whip It, which she directed and is working mightily to finish up for a fall release.

“In a nutshell (and I can make a good story sound bad whereas my partner, Nan, can make a bad story sound good), it’s about a girl, played by Ellen Page, who lives in a small town and is battling her world — her family has a sort of a set of ideas of what your life is supposed to be — and she finds this Austin roller derby team. The movie is really about finding your tribe out in the world. It’s not about winning or losing. It’s about being yourself and being okay.”

When I tell her my grandmother, like the characters in Whip It, was a roller derby girl, she says, “Get the fuck out, that’s awesome!”

Barrymore plays derby demon Smashley Simpson, and the story fits with a credo she’s pursued in both her films and her life.

“It’s a little bit of be your own superhero. I was a girl who never believed that girls couldn’t do what boys can do. And I don’t believe in being repressed, or ‘no’, or that your dreams have limitations. And whatever people told me or society or anything that got in the way, or was tearing away at that idea, I just never let it. I think that’s very, very true to derby. It’s, like, this is who I am. I don’t care if it has to come out in another form and an alter ego, but I want to go out there and kick ass and have fun and be theatrical and capable while I’m fucking doing it and have a good time and party. It’s this whole culture, and the metaphor of it is so beautiful and interesting and I dig it and agree with it.

“That’s just the derby part of the film,” she says. “It’s also got a lot of comedy and a lot of drama because if you’re not laughing through life, you’re fucked, and if you don’t explore the heartaches of falling in love and getting your heart broken or the struggles you go through with your family in order to try and make it work . there’s drama in life and there’s bad-ass action and I just love all those things and I wanted to incorporate them all into one film.”

In case you haven’t noticed, with Barrymore, words come in waves and it’s a testament to her charm that you want to put them in your pocket and take them home with you, like seashells after a day at the beach.

Meanwhile, the film playing now on HBO is a bit of a revelation. Barrymore’s performance in Grey Gardens delivers on the depth and maturity she hinted at in her brief turn as the empathetic teacher, Karen Pomeroy in Donnie Darko. One of that film’s most gripping scenes is when Pomeroy leaves her class to go outside to have a private moment with God during which all she can do is scream, Yes, fuck.

“Richard actually took that from a moment I had after we met with a studio, because I was so fucking disgusted by what they said and what their vision of the movie was. I was just like FUUUUUCK. So, we finally got to make it with people who let us make it the way we wanted to, and God bless them for it.”

I tell her that scene changed my perception of her as an actor. She gets it.

“I think for as much as I’m so supposedly accessible, people don’t really know me. I think it’s funny and I’m kind of glad, because then I go and have my own private life, even though I don’t really get to have one, and the Donnie Darko of it all, that’s a huge part of who I really am.”

Despite that, Barrymore had to do everything but stalk Grey Gardens director Michael Sucsy to get the part.

“I’ve beat down the door for every opportunity I’ve gotten, or I created it for myself. I love a good fight because I don’t believe in things that are just handed to you. It doesn’t feel right to me. Nothing’s happened like that,” she says. “This was that thing where I was, like, beyond crossing a line where I might, like, get arrested. I didn’t want to personally upset this person too much, but I was, like, I have to do this. I hounded. I finally got a meeting with [Sucsy]— he didn’t even want to take a meeting with me. I came with a binder this thick, annotated, highlighted, researched, on her, her life. I knew her school curriculum. I knew her class schedule at Miss Porter’s. And I was, like, I’ve got an overriding theme of what she is and who she is and that is a walking contradiction. Everything in the next moment will totally oppose what she just did or said.”

To prepare for the role, Barrymore took diction lessons for a year and half, transforming the ways she speaks from her natural mien (“ . like Moon Zappa . if you want to cast me as Spicoli’s girlfriend, I’m your guy”) to Edie Beale’s more formal, Yankee diction. She also cut herself off from friends, family and technology for months.

“I told Michael, I’ll give up my life for this and I’ll do what’s right for her, which is I’ll shut out the world, because she decided to shut out the world. And I’m very outgoing. I love my friends, I’m totally social, and I want to live like her so I understand what it really feels like.”

To keep herself company, of sorts, she composed letters to herself on an old typewriter.

“I wrote manifestos about how I’m a fraud and I’m naked in a snowstorm and everybody’s laughing at me because they see the fucking joke. I’m a joke,” she says, laughing at herself. “I had nothing to do at night. I was going crazy.”

If you haven’t seen the film yet, I daresay you will also be taken aback by Ms. Barrymore. It’s a powerful, transformative performance. One in which she busts through what you might think you know about her and what she’s capable of.

When you think about it, Barrymore’s lived a lot in her 34 years and if you can imagine it, she just seems to be coming into her own. The Hollywood girl who put the girlie in girl power, who grew up in the public eye, turned into woman when we weren’t looking.

“My struggles were the best thing that ever happened to me, just because they made me so humble and grateful, and I think that everybody should have it all taken away at some point so that they never forget it,” she says. “When I was, like, 13 and got locked up in an institution because my mother stuck me in it and all this bad shit happened and I went off the deep end and blah, blah, blah, that was my important lifetime revelation — that one must always conduct oneself with humility, grace and gratitude.”

Some would say that runs contrary to the prevailing Hollywood attitude.

“Well, fuck that,” she laughs.

 

Click here for a complete list of L.A. People 2009.

 


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