Heather Graham has turned out to be quite the prolific actress.
The stunning blonde first burst onto the scene as the junkie Nadine in Gus Van Sant’s 1989 film Drugstore Cowboy. Several juicy roles followed, including a six-episode arc on David Lynch’s cult TV series Twin Peaks—and the spinoff film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, as well as parts in Six Degrees of Separation and Swingers. Her big break came in 1997, when she portrayed the porn star Rollergirl in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights.
After a bunch of indie film roles, as well as memorable turns on the TV shows Arrested Development and Scrubs, she had a comeback playing Jade, the stripper with a heart of gold—and the apple of Stu’s (Ed Helms) eye—in Todd Phillips’s 2009 film The Hangover. Now, Graham is back in the film’s third installment, The Hangover Part III, which sees the Wolf Pack—Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu, and Alan (Zach Galifianakis)—return to Las Vegas in search of their kidnapped pal Doug (Justin Bartha). Graham’s Jade is now a knocked-up suburban housewife who helps the gang during their frantic search.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Daily Beast, Graham discussed her nerdy, strict childhood, favorite roles, The Hangover memories, and what it’s like being a woman in male-centric Hollywood.
I saw you on Craig Ferguson the other night talking about your nerdy childhood.
[Laughs] Yeah, I did wear headgear. It’s pretty sad.
Was it like Joan Cusack in Sixteen Candles-type headgear?
She had full-on headgear; I just head neckgear so it wasn’t as bad. But I really did love her in that movie. Luckily I was pretty young. I was 10. But people would come up to me and be like, “You look weird!” And I’d be like, “No way, this is the cool new style.” I’d try to convince them that it was a cool thing. But luckily I hadn’t fully gone through puberty yet, otherwise I would have been superhorrified.
When did you start getting attention from guys, and was that a sort of a culture shock for you?
Well, in school I was very smart and in accelerated classes, so it was slightly nerdy. Also, I kind of dressed bad and was very awkward and shy. I was very surprised when I first started acting that I was being sent on these auditions to play the attractive cheerleader type. So when I got to go in for those roles, I was pretty excited because it was very different from my high-school experience.
So you pretty much remained in your shell all throughout high school?
I did this teen movie when I was 17 [Student Exchange], and I was still in high school. It came out right as I was about to graduate and I think people were like, “Whoa, maybe she was pretty!” But it was funny because I used to look at all the pretty homecoming queen-type girls and think, Wow, they’re so lucky.
I also read that your father is a former FBI agent? Was that a little weird growing up?
He’s retired now, but growing up, he was an FBI agent. He was really just a dad who went away for work, was gone from eight to five, and would come home. He never really talked about it, but he did have a bulletproof vest and a gun.
You have this new screenplay you’ve finished that I heard in some ways mirrors your strict Catholic upbringing, and how you got over certain sexual hangups from that.
It’s about sex, and having a healthy attitude about sex when you’re brought up with these very strict rules. I don’t really want to get into details about my parents. But things inspire you based on your personal experience, and then you exaggerate or incorporate other stories from friends. I think it’s confusing being a woman in society with all these different messages about sexuality. You’re being told to be a demure person and a mother, and then every ad is telling you to be supersexy. In media, it feels very black-and-white—you can either be this person who’s slutty, or this very Madonna-whore type. It’s confusing to me, as a woman, and I think it’s confusing to men as well.
You attended UCLA before quitting to go into acting, and said you were in accelerated classes in high school. Do you feel like you’ve found yourself being typecast as the “pretty woman,” so to speak?
Hollywood, in general, is run mostly by men, and women’s roles are being told through the perspective of a man. There are some very exciting exceptions, but on the whole, most female parts are from the male point of view. As an audience member, I miss seeing things from the female perspective. But it’s exciting that more women are starting to direct. At Sundance this year, half the movies there were directed by women, so if more women start to write and direct stuff, we can see more roles where women are portrayed as the complicated, complex individuals they are—like in real life.
You spoke of looking up to the homecoming queen-type girls earlier but I read that you turned down a role in Heathers?
It’s so funny because I’m working on this show now, Californication, and the director of Heathers [Michael Lehmann] directed one of the episodes, so we were like, “We finally got to work together!” I would have loved to have been in it. My family was very strict. I was living at home, and they weren’t in favor of me doing it, so I didn’t get to do it. I was going to play one of the Heathers. But it’s fun that they wanted me to be in it. At that point in my life, it was a great vote of confidence.
You did manage to land on your feet, landing roles in Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy and on Twin Peaks, directed by David Lynch. What’s David Lynch like?
I was so young when I worked with him. I really loved Twin Peaks, so it was so great just from a fan’s perspective. I had worked on a commercial with Lynch, with Benicio Del Toro, for Calvin Klein Obsession, and it was this cool lyrical poem over us kissing, with cool photography.
Would you say Boogie Nights was the role that really seemed to put you on the map?
Drugstore Cowboy helped a lot, but I’d say Boogie Nights helped the most. Basically, I didn’t have to audition anymore, which is what every actor wants. [Laughs] It was so fun making Boogie Nights. Paul [Thomas Anderson] is so passionate, and it’s amazing the way it turned out. I was very scared to do nudity because I had never done it before, but in terms of just getting a great job, I was very excited about the opportunity.
And the following year came Two Girls and a Guy, directed by James Toback. That also starred Robert Downey Jr. during the height of his meltdown period.
I know! He had somebody with him and his insurance was I think testing him on a daily basis. But he’s such a cool guy and so charismatic that you can’t help but have a total blast working with him. And we shot that in less than two weeks, which was crazy.
I also heard this crazy story that you were flying into New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, and saw the smoke from the Twin Towers. Is that true?
I bought my apartment in New York right before 9/11, and I moved in on that day. I went to the Toronto Film Festival and left on an 8 a.m. flight to go to New York, keys to the apartment in hand, and at about 9 a.m. we were landing and we flew past one tower and smoke was coming out, and we landed at JFK airport. Once we got to the baggage claim, the second tower was hit, so they told us we couldn’t go back into the city. We spent the night at a friend-of-a-friend’s house with our driver, who picked us up, and stayed up just watching the news. The next day, they opened up the trains and I moved into my apartment, which was actually downtown. It was a crazy, crazy thing. I had no furniture in the apartment—just a bed and a TV in the bathroom. So I remember sitting in the bathroom and watching all the crazy news on TV.
The Hangover was a mini-comeback of sorts for you after dabbling in some indie films in the mid-2000s.
Yeah, I was really lucky to be a part of that. I really loved Old School, so I was excited to work with Todd, and he has this great knack for discovering relatively unknown actors, like Will Ferrell in that.
You were pretty much the acting veteran on that set, as far as movies go, since Bradley, Ed, Zach, and Ken were relatively unknown commodities at that point.
I just remember going to the London premiere and nobody knew anyone in the film but me! And now, those guys are SO huge.
Were you disappointed that you weren’t asked back for The Hangover Part II? In hindsight, that film did seem to lack a solid female presence.
It’s cool because in the third one they also added Melissa McCarthy. I was bummed that Jade and Stu didn’t end up together because I’m a romantic, and I thought that was a very sweet story. But for The Hangover Part III, basically Todd just emailed me and said I was in it, and I was like, “Yay!” and he sent me the sides. At this point, they’re very freaky about the script getting leaked so they sent me this top-secret script with my name on every page. It was very different from the first one where we just got the standard script everyone sends you.
In the first film, the three Wolf Pack members were unknown and now they’re these huge stars and this is an established blockbuster franchise, so was the vibe making this one different from the first?
I think there’s an aspect where Todd, Bradley, Zach, and Ed are movie stars now, and they know it, but they’re still the same people. They are getting all these special perks and treatment that they didn’t get before. You can feel that they want the movie to be good and there’s that pressure there, and at the same time they are getting a lot more attention and acclaim, everyone has nicer trailers, and there’s a lot more money to make the movie.
You play a suburban housewife in this film, which is a far cry from your stripper character in the first. Have you ever wanted to settle down?
Of course it would be fun to find love, but at the same time I feel happy about where I am. My life is very good and I’m having a lot of fun.
I read this Fox News headline the other day that said, “Heather Graham Not Looking for Mr. Right, Just Good Sex.”
[Laughs] That’s hilarious. I think the culture programs women so that if you don’t get married and have kids, you’re considered a failure. It’s not the same way with men and I think that’s very sexist. People say that there are all types of men in the world and some want to get married and have kids, and some don’t. The same should apply to women, but women who don’t want to have a traditional, conservative life aren’t treated the same way as men. I would like to see more women out there having unapologetic fun and not conforming to this idea of what a woman is supposed to do.
People talk ad nauseam about the hurdles actresses face when they reach their forties, but you seem to buck the trend.
I don’t want to have to accept any of those things people say. I’ve always had this weird feeling that my career is going to get better as I get older, and I feel like I haven’t fully explored my potential as an artist yet. I think the fact that people saw me as beautiful—in some ways that can hold you back from playing certain kinds of roles, so I think, “Well, maybe if I get uglier I’ll get better roles.” In my dream-reality, I would become a writer-director who would make my own projects, but also work with other great directors as an actress.