Gina Gershon on ‘Killer Joe,’ Tom Cruise, ‘Showgirls,’ ‘Bound’
Gina Gershon needed help. She told me so when I arrived at our recent interview and she had just discovered that the revisions of her new memoir were due at noon, and she hadn’t even started them yet. I looked down at my watch. It was maybe 10 minutes until noon.
A series of frantic phone calls to her publisher confirmed that—yes, indeed—this deadline was final, so the interview would have to wait. But she didn’t send me away. Instead, I became a member of her proofreading team. Armed with a red pen and a stack of loose-leaf manuscript pages in her lap, Gershon sifted through her entire book, catching many grammatical errors and spicing up jokes. “FUCK!” she said, looking at a not-so-perfect passage. “I’ll fix it in my audio book.” The only thing that doesn’t need correcting, it seemed, was the title: In Search of Cleo: How I Found My Pussy and Lost My Mind.
The book is not dirty, however. Just a funny one about how, years ago, Gershon lost her cat, Cleo, after the end of an eight-year relationship and became obsessed with finding him. Cleo, who shares a bed with his owner, is safely back in her life now, and he curls up with Gershon on the book cover—if the book ever gets to print. As her deadline passed, Gershon kept making corrections. A messenger finally showed up. Gershon asked the messenger to take a seat. She was almost done. Maybe. “It’s not my fault,” she said. “I’m just trying to write my book.”
If this were an autobiography, it would include other chapters. There would be the part about Gershon, the edgy starlet, who made a splash in the Wachowskis’ directorial debut, the 1996 lesbian mob movie, Bound. There was also Gershon, the actress turned singer, who released a CD and appeared on Broadway several times. Don’t forget Gershon, the children’s book author. Not to be mistaken with Gershon, tabloid sensation, who denied knowing Bill Clinton, after a Vanity Fair item linked them as a couple in 2008. But one chapter trumps them all: Gershon as Cristal, the weathered Las Vegas dancer who begrudgingly takes Elizabeth Berkley under her boa in Showgirls and had the most famous line in the film: “You see, darling. You are a whore!”
Gershon says that even now, 17 years later, she’s still asked about Showgirls more than anything else. But she’s looking forward to her next movie, because she thinks it will change that. In Killer Joe, a horror comedy directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist), Matthew McConaughey plays the title character, an assassin hired by a Texas trailer-park family (the kids are Emile Hirsch and Juno Temple, the dad is Thomas Haden Church) to murder their mom for the insurance policy. Gershon is the girlfriend, Sharla, a role that challenged the actress on many levels. For starters, Gershon said it’s the first time she’s appeared in a movie bottomless. “The opening scene, she’s right there with her big bush in your face,” Gershon said. To accurately convey her character’s economic status, “I thought it’s got to be the biggest bush I could find. You know what I mean? Not to be crude!”
Luckily for her Method-acting ways, one of Gershon’s obsessions is merkins. She loves merkins so much that she even wrote a song about them that she hopes to one day perform for a Funny or Die music video. (For the uninitiated, a merkin is a stage prop that an actor sometimes wears—like a wig—over her genitals.) To find the right look, Gershon had merkins shipped in from all over the country to the film’s New Orleans set. One “wasn’t right,” she recalled. “I showed it to Billy [Friedkin], and he was like, ‘What?!’ I think it was for a black person. I was scared he was going to say, ‘Forget the merkin.’ I definitely needed the merkin.” How come? “I felt more protected,” she said. “More importantly, it would be starting the character out with a lie. It says a lot when you see that—it's gnarly, right!? That feralness. It’s like this crazy animal. I felt like I was wearing a big fur bikini.”
“The fact is, her vaginal area was shaved,” Friedkin said later, when reached by phone. “It was clear that Sharla would not be shaved. This is a character living in a trailer. I’m surprised she even opened that up with you, because it looks like it is hers.”
Friedkin had considered a number of actresses for the role, but he was turned off when he had meetings with them and their first question was, “How are you going to handle the nudity?” Gershon never asked that question, but she did have reservations about something else. In 1998, when Tracy Letts wrote Killer Joe, he wanted Gershon to play the character in the original stage production off-Broadway. Gershon was interested, until she got to the final scene—where Sharla had to simulate oral sex on a chicken bone—and decided she couldn’t do that onstage eight times a week. “It always bothered me,” Gershon said. “I don’t scare that easily off projects. It’s not that it scared me. It just freaked me out. It’s a pretty harsh scene. But I figured I’m doing it just once. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to think about it. Let’s just do it.”
It is worth mentioning that Killer Joe, which opens in limited release on July 27, is rated NC-17.
For as long as she can remember, Gershon always knew that she wanted to be an actress. She appeared in high-school plays and went to NYU to beef up on literature. Her first big studio film was at 26, as the hot girl in Cocktail. Her first love scene was with Tom Cruise. When she took off her bra, she recalls, he made her turn toward him, so that nobody else on set could see her chest. “He was very protective over me,” Gershon said. “Whenever people say all these crazy things, I’ve always really liked him and he’s always been nice to me.”
From Cocktail to Showgirls to Cleo: how did she come to write a book? A few years ago, she staged a one-woman performance at the Box, the Lower East Side burlesque venue where performers stick vegetables and beer bottles up their anuses. On dark nights, Gershon would take the stage and perform songs, interspersed with the Cleo story. It was Odyssey-like in its scope and telling, and people would often burst into tears, during the climax when Gershon finally finds Cleo. The story also doubled as a parable about what happens when you lose someone you loved. She tried sleeping with another stray cat, but Cleo couldn’t be replaced. She called Ellen DeGeneres’s cat psychic for help. She would roam the streets of Los Angeles in the middle of the night. She even befriended a figure that may have been a hallucination or possibly an angel sent from heaven.
Eventually, she decided to put the story in print. Which brings us to the present and all the last-minute corrections. Most other writers would be hysterical under these circumstances, but Gershon was only kind of hysterical. “It just makes me want to cry,” she said. “It stresses the fuck out of me. The last two weeks have been a fucking nightmare.” She was under the impression she had more time. “It wasn’t like I ever intended to go out and write a book. I love reading books, but I’m not a writer like that.” Even though Cleo is a fun, breezy read, she asked her publisher for a ghost writer and was told that she should do it in her own voice. After she kept deleting chapters on her laptop by mistake, she wrote most of the prose on her iPad. One night, she got drunk and scribbled something about how men are like boots. She woke up the next morning and realized she’s a great writer when she’s trashed.
Gershon doesn’t talk much about her film career in her book, but in person, she dished about all her movies. She said she auditioned for Showgirls—which she thought would be more serious, like director Paul Verhoeven’s Dutch films, a modern-day retelling of All About Eve set in Las Vegas—for three months straight. She wore extra makeup in all of her meetings and lied that she was older to convince the studio she could handle the part of a weathered, diva bitch. When she got to the set, she realized she was making a different movie from the serious drama she had imagined. “I was hanging up by a rope looking down, going, Oh, my God, I’ve studied the classics. I want to do Greek theater. I want to do Chekov. What the fuck am I doing here?!”
Even though “I thought I was doing a Wagner concert” and “realized this is going to be a Britney Spears show,” she said she had to make the best out of the situation. “I just thought, I’m going to camp it up and have a good time and still be good.” There was just one other problem. Verhoeven was suspicious of all accents and wouldn’t let Gershon use a Texas accent to play her Texas showgirl. Her solution was to speak in a Texas accent all day on set, so nobody would notice. Now when she sees Showgirls, “it drives me crazy. I see parts where I wish I could loop and do ADR and fix my accent.” She added, “I have a hard time watching the movie.”
For her next role, she found herself in another contentious situation. She knew she wanted to play Corky in Bound, but her management wanted her to have nothing to do with it. Her agent at the time told her playing a lesbian would end her career. “It was before Boys Don’t Cry. It had a big taboo to it. I was like, This is great part. It was the classic guy-gets-girl movie, and I got to be the hero. The girl never gets to be the hero.” She did the movie anyway. “I was so happy after Showgirls to cut my nails off, to cut my hair off, to not wear any makeup. I wanted to look like a boxer.”
She looked gorgeous. “I was always envious of Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift and all those guys who got to be so cool,” Gershon said. “I really watched a lot of those movies and thought I’m going to become the cool guy I used to fall in love with that did nothing and you project everything onto. I said, ‘I want all the ladies to fall in love with me.’ And it worked.”
Given all her past roles, you might expect Gershon to be like a walking, talking Samantha from Sex and the City. But at 50, she acts a lot more demure. She said she doesn’t believe in one-night stands and has had only one in her life. “It’s really not my thing. Some people like it and it works for them. Why, do you like one-night stands?” She’s been in a relationship with her current boyfriend for just over a year—fortunately, Cleo approved of him.
“Well, listen,” she said. “If the person does not get along with my cat, it’s not going to happen. Period.”