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Scott Larson

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Public Interview with Anjelica Huston

Happily, at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh Myles Dungan was back posing the questions. After an emotional farewell to his annual interviewing chore three years ago, he is back and thank goodness. He really is the right man for the job. In the course of something like an hour, he comfortably and knowledgeably chatted with a major star, bringing her and us on a chronological tour of her life and career. He asked most of the questions we wanted asked as well as some we hadn’t even thought of.

Anjelica Huston looks just as you expect her to look. By the luck of the draw, I was sitting just four rows back from the stage and, with my new artificially enhanced vision, I saw a woman who looked younger than her 58 years (her birthday was four days before) and definitely much younger than the gray-haired woman she played in Clark Gregg’s Choke. While clearly more mature than the woman who wowed us with the simple line “Holy Cow!” back in Prizzi’s Honor, she is still statuesque, still wears her hair long and black and still has that exotic beauty that clearly comes from her Italian-American mother, Enrica Soma, who was a ballerina and model. Huston was nothing but natural, dressed in denim jeans, western boots and a loose white top that made one think more of, say, Arizona, than rainy Galway. She gave every indication of not being used to so much attention, although she surely must be. She had just the slightest hint of shyness that made her seem approachable.

While the actor has clearly been in front of many audiences and endured endless interviews, this time it had to be a bit different. After all, she grew up in Galway, and it was obviously an emotional homecoming. When the time finally came for questions from the audience, a few were from people who either knew her or could cite some connection. One woman was the niece of the Huston family gardener. One man had been a friend of her brother Tony’s. Huston not only remembered him well and that he had been a greater hurler but she provided him with a lifetime of pub chat by confessing that he had been her first crush. This visit marked something like only the second time she had gone back to St. Clerans, the estate where the Hustons had lived. She recounted how, on a previous visit, she had walked up to the gate to have a look (she has never actually brought herself to into the main house since her father broke her heart by telling her it had been sold, after the fact), and a teenage boy walked up to her and, looking at her directly with intense blue eyes, said simply, “I have always dreamed of the day when Anjelica Huston would return to St. Clerans.”

Although born in Santa Monica, Huston said her earliest memories were of France, where the family were while her father John was directing Moulin Rouge. They later moved to Ireland, staying for a while in County Kildare and then settling in Galway. Her childhood sounded a bit lonely, as in the country any neighbors would be a good distance away. And her father was absent for long periods because of his work. Her closest friend was a girl named Mary, whom she had been seeing on this visit and who was in the audience. Another memory prodded by Dungan was of her and Kate O’Toole (currently the Fleadh chairpeson) performing as small children for audience that consisted of John Huston and Peter O’Toole. Huston recounted her years as a pupil in the convent at Loughrea and how her father, “a staunch atheist,” had admonished the nuns not to indoctrinate her. She broke our hearts, as she told how she begged her parents to let her have a First Communion, apparently to no avail. She was also exempted from the usual requirement to learn the Irish language. As one of her former classmates would tell her during the Q&A, the rest of them were very well aware that she was getting special treatment.

One interesting tidbit that came out was that, as a teenager, she was in serious talks with Franco Zeffirelli to star in his 1968 movie Romeo and Juliet but was thwarted by her father, who insisted that she instead star in his own, less successful, film about young love, A Walk with Love and Death, opposite Assi Dayan, an actor who happened to be the son of Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan. (The role of Juliet went to Olivia Hussey.) It was an altogether unhappy experience, and she said she would have much rather been in Italy with Zeffirelli than in Austria with her father.

She returned to America after the tragic death of her mother, who died in a road accident in France while Huston was still a teenager. Still clearly devastated by the loss, her voiced quavered, as she said, “You never get over something like that,” and it was clear that discussion of that topic was over. Dungan had made a passing reference that this had been one of a number “bereavements” Huston had undergone, but at no time was any reference made to the fact that Huston’s husband of 16 years, the sculptor Robert Graham, died just after last Christmas.

Huston did some modeling, but she was told that her “shoulders were too big.” She also had a few small acting jobs, including a couple of guest shots on her friend Penny Marshall’s sitcom Laverne & Shirley and a turn as a space warrior buccaneer in Ice Pirates. Dungan also reminded us that she had been in This Is Spinal Tap. She told how she met Jack Nicholson when he opened the door to a house on Mulholland Drive, where she was attending a party. She recounted with a Cheshire cat smile how she saw his devilish grin and thought to herself, “I like you!” She mentioned, as an aside, that she had met Don Johnson at the same time, “but he didn’t have the same effect on me.” She and Nicholson were together on and off for years, and he got her parts in some of her movies like The Last Tycoon and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

But it was she who led him to the movie that turned out to be her breakthrough. The producer John Foreman, who had worked with her father on The Man Who Would Be King (and also with her on Ice Pirates) gave her a copy of Richard Condon’s novel Prizzi’s Honor and asked her if she would be interested in playing the Mafia princess Maerose Prizzi. She jumped at the chance but was less thrilled when he suggested that she get Nicholson to star and her father to direct. But it all worked out, and the rest is history. Dungan asked mischievously if it had been difficult to play a character who has to fight a rival for Jack Nicholson’s affections. “No,” she replied quickly with her feline smile. No elaboration was forthcoming. She did recall, however, with much satisfaction how the studio had not wanted to pay her anything and only grudgingly gave her scale. She had her revenge, of course, on Oscar night when she walked away a statuette. It was the first time a child and grandchild of Oscar winners had also won one, and it was a record that stuck until 2004 when Sofia Coppola won for directing Lost in Translation.

Dungan asked if it was difficult to see her father failing, as they collaborated on his final movie, The Dead. She said that his health had actually been declining for many years but that, by force of personality, he always appeared stronger than his health would indicate. The movie was an adaptation of a story from James Joyce’s Dubliners collection, penned by her brother Tony. She was the only American in an all-Irish cast in a film based on what the literary world considers sacred text. And yet her childhood experience did enable her to convincingly play a woman who grew up in Galway. Asked if she found her father a difficult director, she said that his style was to give one simple piece of advice to each actor. Approximating John Huston’s famously stentorian voice, she said, “Mine was, ‘Don’t out-Irish the Irish.” More amusing was his direction to the actor Donal Donnelly: “Freddy Malins is an alcoholic. He is not on cocaine.” The Dead was screened after the interview and it is hard to believe, as Huston recounted, it was practically all filmed in a warehouse in Valencia, California, because her father was not well enough to travel abroad. Not the least surreal touch in seeing this classic again, especially in the Town Hall Theatre, was seeing childhood friends Anjelica and Kate acting together again.

Whether intentional or not, it seems that a tradition of the public interview is for the guest to tell a Woody Allen story. He cast Huston in Crimes and Misdemeanors and Manhattan Murder Mystery, and she seemed not to have a problem working with him. She did describe, however, a director who has virtually no interaction with the actors beforehand and whose only communication is to give explicit instructions immediately before the scene. She said she didn’t question anything he said because she had heard that he had replaced an actor who had wanted to do something a different way.

She spoke of her audition for The Grifters, for which she earned her third Oscar nomination (Enemies: A Love Story was the second) and how she thought about wearing a blonde wig but decided against it because it would seem “arch.” After she got the role, director Stephen Frears then suggested a blonde wig.

She jumped at the chance to play Morticia in the two Addams Family movies, having been a fan of the Charles Addams cartoons from an early age. She loved the character of Morticia and had always wanted to play her. She said she based her characterization not on the old TV series but on a mixture of the subjects of the documentary Grey Gardens and her friend, the model and actor Jerry Hall. She said she wanted to capture Hall’s sense of ease and centered-ness.

Another director she has worked with multiple times is Wes Anderson. She agreed to play the matriarch in his The Royal Tenenbaums, even without having seen Bottle Rocket or Rushmore. She convinced Anderson to have her character forgive Gene Hackman’s, something not in the original script, and he agreed. This despite the fact that he is a stickler for detail and for following the screenplay as written. He once made her read a line multiple times before pointing out that she was ignoring a comma in the script. She said that she and Bill Murray were great friends while working on The Royal Tenenbaums and he was always doing things like bringing her coffee. When they played husband and wife in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, however, he became distant and cold. Finally, it dawned on her, “Oh, I get it, we’re divorcing.” She said that she and “Billy” are still good friends.

Anjelica Huston has directed two feature films. Bastard Out of Carolina starred Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Huston recalled struggles to keep in frank scenes involving child abuse. Her other film was a bit more lighthearted and brought her back to Ireland. As with her first film, she did not plan to have an acting role in Agnes Browne, adapted from Brendan O’Carroll’s novel The Mammy. Her choice for the title role was Rosie O’Donnell, but the comedian/chat show host dropped out a few weeks before production and Huston knew it would mean a major delay to cast the lead, so she offered to take it herself. Her inner-city Dublin accent was apparently as good as her Galway one, and during the Q&A one fan asked her to say a few words as Agnes. (Huston demurred.) She explained that the story of her and her costar Marion O’Dwyer getting arrested on Moore Street was exaggerated. They were doing research for their street vendor roles and someone did apparently tip off the Gardai that they didn’t have a license. Asked if it was difficult to get Tom Jones to appear in the film, she replied, no, again with that Cheshire cat smile. “Tom likes to please the ladies,” she said.

Ever the thorough researcher, Dungan wound up by noting that Huston had worked with Michael Jackson. She played an evil queen in Francis Ford Coppola’s 3D production for Disney theme parks, Captain EO. Dungan posed the somewhat odd question, “Was he a gentleman?” After a rather long pause, she responded, “He was perfect gentleman,” adding words like “delicate” and “fragile.” She described him as a consummate performer. She told how, when the camera shots on her were finished and she thought she was through with the arduous process of getting into elaborate makeup, she was informed that Michael wanted her in full costume and makeup and hoisted up in the air in a tangle of intestine like cables while his shots were filmed. As she dangled there uncomfortably, she said she was electrified by his performance.

When the floor was turned over to the audience, it became apparent that Huston has quite a fan base among the very young. One child took the microphone to praise her for her role in Daddy Day Care. Another waxed enthusiastic about her role as the Grand High Witch in The Witches, based on Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of the Roald Dahl book. (Hey, kids, she’s also the voice of Queen Clarion in the Tinker Bell movies.)

The public interview was recorded for broadcast on RTÉ 1 radio sometime over the August bank holiday weekend. And RTÉ usually make them available for listening on their web site afterwards. If you get a chance to listen, do. She is good company. (Attended 12 July 2009)