Sunday, January 21, 2007

In The Driver Seat: Minnie Driver On Playing A Fat Girl 03.23.00

In a few short years, Minnie Driver has become one of the most sought-after actresses in and out of Hollywood. Earning mad praise for the role of the overweight teenager who falls for jocky Chris O’Donnell in the 1995 sleeper Circle of Friends, Driver was inundated with work, building up an impressive resume of films like Big Night, Sleepers, Grosse Point Blank, and even the Bond thriller, GoldenEye.

However, it was her portrayal of Sklyar opposite Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting that really put Driver on the map. Her performance, at turns funny, sexy and heartbreaking, garnered Driver an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Since Good Will Hunting, Driver has bounced back and forth between Hollywood and the independents with ease, starring in Hard Rain, An Ideal Husband and The Governess as well as voicing characters in the animated Princess Mononoke, Tarzan and South Park. This year, Driver will star in Beautiful, a Sally Field-directed picture Driver also produced, and the romance Return to Me with David Duchovny.

I sat down with Driver to chat about Return to Me, her upcoming projects and the meaning of “beautiful.”

What attracted you to the Return to Me?
I think the innocence. The whole idea of starting your life as an adult. Having been infirm and sick so much of your life and what would that be like? Everything is new. Everything is extraordinary. The mundane is amazing, suddenly. And I got an idea just from meeting Bonnie. I thought, “She will have an edge.” She has a humor that will balance what could otherwise be overly saccharine and sentimental.

What part of yourself did you bring to the role of Grace?
A lot of her is me. A lot of her is a younger me, I think. Her exploration. Her idea of romance and the real enjoyment in the kind of details. I’ve got a garden. I paint a bit. I think those were a character choice--painting and gardening--that a sick person could do. That’s really why I felt they were there. Because she couldn’t go out, she couldn’t ride a bicycle, she couldn’t go to the gym, she couldn’t go out dancing, she couldn’t go out sailing a boat or learn to climb--things that regular people can do. So I thought those things by default, which is kind of interesting.

What was it like working in Chicago with Bonnie Hunt and a cast who are mostly from there?
Well, they’re just phenomenal actors. Jim (Belushi) is Second City as well. Pretty much everyone in Bonnie’s family is in the movie, as well. It’s like a family reunion. There was always someone around, who’s a cousin or a nephew or a niece or a sister. It was so great. It was a great feeling. You know it’s such a great place to make a film. People were so welcoming into their communities. You know it’s a terrific thing. I’m sure Bonnie being from Chicago smoothed a lot of that, because they’re pretty invasive, film crews. There was definitely a great spirit on the set, coming home, that kind of thing. I would go and visit the High Fidelity set, and John Cusack is a Chicago native and had the same thing going on too. It was great.

Grace is a waitress. Did you ever have that actors’ day job and, if so, did you draw on that experience?
Right when I left drama school and I had absolutely no money. It was terrible. I worked in a Polish restaurant and all the other waitresses were Polish and the orders would be in Polish, and I couldn’t understand any of them. And I would end up convincing people that they had ordered whatever was on their plates, since I had no clue what it was.
“No, it’s veal.”
“It looked like chicken.”
“No, I promise you, it’s veal--Polish veal.”
The restaurant was called Vodka. It was a Polish vodka restaurant. All of the vodkas were iced over. They were put in the freezer and they were completely encrusted in ice. There were seventeen different kinds of vodka, so you’d have to squat down behind the bar and sort of swig them and learn them by taste, to see what was the honey, what was the cherry, what was the pepper? And learn them that way, so you’d get wasted. You just have a foul hangover the next day. Bad money and a nasty boss. I mean it was just crap. I was there for three weeks and then I got an agent, and she got me a job.

It wasn’t too long thereafter before you were an Oscar nominee. How was that helped your career?
It really does have an impact. You can never be guaranteed great roles as a result of the nomination, but definitely your profile, I think your net worth as a performer--how much, unfortunately, that counts--it goes up. Your stock rises, as it were. And you can facilitate more films definitely a lot more easily. You can help get financing on films that we’ve wanted to make because of that. Like I said, I don’t think that anything can guarantee a great role. A director, a good director will want to work with you whether you’re a nominated or not or whatever. It just raises your profile.

You have a production company as well. Does producing help insure those great roles?
That was the great reason for doing a lot of these films was to get great roles. But with the first two that we produced, I just did it to get things going. Beautiful was the kind of the payoff--the great role. It was the best role I’ve ever had a chance to play. It’s about a girl who grows up in kind of pretty, regular middle American poverty, as much as that is regular. She is quite plain, nothing unusual about her except her ambition to get out of it. Her love of beauty pageants and how she sees becoming Miss America--Miss American Miss, Miss America wouldn’t allow us to use that name--as her way out.

And it is that way for so many girls. The notion of beauty and the notion of responsibility as a woman and the things that you’ll do to in order to project this two dimensional image and what beautiful really is. It’s an exploration of that and someone who is not necessarily a very nice person, but who you can completely understand and identify with because of the pressures of being a woman today and living in a still--how ever much we like to pretend it isn’t--tough, patriarchal society. There’s a polarity and sadness in that. Sally Field’s made a great film, she really has. I am so incredibly proud of her.

You certainly deal with the same things as an actress. There may be talk of your performance, but there’s just as much focus on what you’re wearing and which magazine covers you grace…
You know, you just keep a really firm handle on what it is that’s always been important. It’s not like you suddenly wake up and you’re a different person just because they’re talking about the frock that you wore or that suddenly your notion of yourself is going to change because people are more interested in the outside. It just seems so retarded and ridiculous--the idea that who you are would suddenly fly out the window because there’s more of a public interest in the outside. You’re still guarding and foraging and looking and doing all these things because you’re a human being first and foremost. I mean, I imagine.

The theme of Beautiful would seem to resonate with a lot of young girls in our culture who are inundated with images of celebrity and beauty and are constantly consumed with fears of not being thin enough or pretty enough. What sort of message would you want to convey to them?
That you really can and that even if you are, it really wouldn’t change anything in your life unless the inside was okay and had been attended to and looked after. So the whole idea of looking at someone and going. “Wow, I could never be that thin and that pretty.” You really could. That’s the one thing you really could do. What’s harder is to love yourself, to take care of yourself, to respect yourself, to be good to yourself. Those are the things. You can’t look at a picture or any actress you want and go, “Wow, I wonder if they respect themselves or I wonder if they’re kind to the people in their life.” You kinda gotta get it straight in your head. We’re all going to get old and wrinkled and saggy and fall apart. So what is the point? If you base your entire life around that, you’ll just be monstrous.

You definitely seem like someone who figured that out at an early age. You were able to gain weight for Circle of Friends and a lot of actresses may not have been brave enough to do something like that.
Well truthfully, I don’t know if I’d do it now. Back then I had absolutely nothing to lose. I was coming from a place where it just wasn’t a big deal. If you’re playing a fat girl, then you put on some weight. There’s no pressure to be beautiful in England. There’s no pressure to be perceived as being someone who could then go and play Juliet in a heartbeat. Where as now, if you get involved in Hollywood and you start presenting yourself in a certain way, no matter how dumb and annoying it is that there is that perception about the way that you look, you sort of have to pay attention to that. If I were to gain weight now, I would have to have a cushion of time on each side where I can lose it and get back in shape and blah, blah, blah. But then it was just easy. But I would be lying if I said I would do it again tomorrow. I think that would be silly to say that.

Of course, gaining weight for a role is considered the apex of great acting for male actors.
Because it’s a so much more of a cosmetic thing with women. Their work is perceived so much in the way that they look. A guy can be ugly and really rich and be a brain surgeon, but who could fall in love with an ugly rich woman? I mean it’s a foul, awful thing to say, but I think it’s the truth. There is a different perception. Weight equals something different in a woman. “She doesn’t take care of herself. She doesn’t have lots of guys ringing her up.” But her worth? Where as a guy, it’s really a really, brave, incredible thing to do. It’s just rubbish.

And a guy can be old and saggy and is still considered sexy, but god forbid a woman is over the age of thirty-five.
It’s a really tough one. I can’t say it doesn’t exist, it really does. I don’t know. I’m on this side of the fence right now. I’m still in the comfort zone, still being young and looking good. It’s gonna happen. It’s gonna happen as sure as eggs is eggs. I don’t know what I think. I think it’s retarded and awful and you’re missing out on so much incredible talent because of that. It’s so frustrating when you see actors who are a hundred acting opposite girls that are twenty-five. That’s awful. And that is the way it is. I don’t know what you can do about it. Develop other things to not put all your eggs in that basket of going, “I’ve gotta keep having facelifts. I gotta keep my body looking young so they’ll believe that I’m attractive and worthy.”

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