Gina Gershon on Being Donatella Versace, ‘Showgirls,’ and Bill Clinton Rumors
She plays the fashion superstar in the Lifetime film House of Versace, premiering Saturday night. The actress sat down with Marlow Stern to discuss her gay-icon status and more.
The de facto descriptor when it comes to the allure of Gina Gershon is “sultry.” It’s a lazy, one-word appraisal that’s more in line with her on-screen persona—that of the tough-as-nails vixen from Showgirls, Bound, and Face/Off—than with reality. The first thing you notice upon meeting Gershon is her freshness. She’s one of those people blessed with an almost preternatural self-assuredness, and doesn’t look a day over 30 (I was shocked to learn that she is in fact 51).
We’re seated at one of her favorite restaurants in the posh Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, where she resides. As soon as she sits down, as if on cue, the Lana Del Rey ballad “Video Games” comes on. Gershon is pretty spent. She’s just returned from a brief sojourn to Paris with her boyfriend and has been making the publicity rounds for her latest project, the Lifetime film House of Versace, where she plays embattled fashion designer Donatella Versace.
“I’m living on caffeine today,” she says. “It’s one of those days!”
The movie chronicles Donatella’s rise from outré muse to icon and the turmoil she endured within the fashion house. Gershon studied videos of Donatella to capture her mannerisms and movements—as well as her distinctly hoarse voice. Days after our chat, the House of Versace would denounce the biopic, calling it a “a work of fiction.”
She orders a tea and a bowl of radishes to nibble on.
What did they do to transform you into Donatella?
For me, I just view it as part of the role so I tend to take it for granted. Nobody’s sat there and said, “Hey, you got really skinny for this part!” I’m like, “Hey, I lost 10 pounds! Did anyone notice?” But it’s what I do. I went to a Halloween party dressed like a man and nobody recognized me, and when I did Curb Your Enthusiasm, a lot of people didn’t recognize it was me, either.
I loved your performance on Curb. Where did that accent come from?
Thanks! Larry David told me it was his favorite episode, although maybe he tells that to everyone. I think it was a waxer I had once, to be honest. She was Russian. I love doing comedy the most, and that show was a total blast. If I was younger, I’d try out to be a Saturday Night Live cast member and maybe change my whole career. Improv is the most fun.
You would? How do you feel about the way your career’s progressed?
I’m having one of those days where I’m feeling a little bit lost: what am I going to do, where am I going to live, what am I going to be when I’m older? I don’t see myself leaving New York. I just love the energy, the little neighborhoods, and the food. And people are so nice. It’s always this big rap against New York, but they really are nice. But there are opportunities out in L.A. in television that I’m thinking about, so who knows?
Back to Donatella—you must’ve had to get a serious spray tan for this role.
I did a spray tan. Ugh. I’m not a big fan of the spray tan. The wig as already made in advance, so they’d just plop it on. For the makeup, you have to figure out which look you’re going for—is she happy? Sad? Fucked up? But it didn’t take that long. We got the whole thing down to probably an hour and a half. And I was smoking so much as her.
Were they those fake herbal cigarettes they make actors smoke?
I tried the fake herbal ones, but they were killing me. I went for the full-on French cigarettes and the Marlboros. To channel your inner Donatella, you better be smoking hard-core stuff. I’d say that I was smoking about two packs a day, and the shoot was 21 days. It was very fast.
At this point in the interview, our waiter comes by and says to Gershon, “Me and my friends are SUPER excited for ‘Versace’ ... We’ve cleared our schedules, and there’s a big groupie invite going on.”
Have you heard any feedback from Donatella or the Versace team?
Not personally. No. I wish. We have a lot of mutual friends—really good friends, actually—and I’m surprised we haven’t met. I feel like we’d have a good time together. Listen, it’s got to be weird for her, and I’m not sure I’d be too happy if someone was doing my life story, but she’s got a fun sense of humor. And I think she comes off great in the movie. One of the reasons I did it was that I was really impressed with what she did and how she got to where she is now. I only have the utmost respect for her. She’s a smart, funny woman, and she’s thriving.
Does she actually have a gold cocaine-holder keychain, or was that an added flourish?
I would hope so! I’d hope she’d have a diamond-and-gold cocaine keychain! I think those days are behind her now, but back in the day? I wouldn’t expect anything less. And as far as the drug habits, she’d been very open about that. Plus, it was during a time when everyone was doing coke and tons of drugs—especially in the fashion business.
Cocktail is always on TV, and it’s so watchable still. Perhaps it’s the scenery, with half set in ’80s New York City and the other half set in Jamaica.
I had fun! It was the first “love scene” I ever had, and it was with Tom Cruise. I thought, I’m getting paid to kiss this cute guy! He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever worked with and ever met. He was so protective over me and made me so comfortable, and you just fall in love with the guy. I had a big crush on him. And [John] Travolta is one of the other nicest guys I’ve worked with on Face/Off. Say what you want about Scientology, but the two nicest guys I’ve ever worked with have been Scientologists. I don’t know what that says, but it’s true.
Tom is a really nice guy. People don’t give him enough credit for that. So in doing my research for this interview, every headline I’ve read of late for you has been about how you’re a gay icon.
My gay-icon status stands? That’s awesome.
Bound was a groundbreaking film as far as queer cinema is concerned. Back in ’96, you’d have been hard-pressed to find many films featuring badass lesbian heroines.
My agents at the time told me I couldn’t do it because it would ruin my career, and no one knew who the directors were because they were first-timers, but I knew after meeting the Wachowskis that they were the real deal. And it came right after Showgirls, which everyone was excited about, but I knew it wasn’t going to be what people thought. I wanted to cut my hair off, cut my nails off, and act. Plus, it was great to play the typical hero part, which is always a guy’s part—I get the cash, I get the car, and I get the girl. It was challenging for me because I’m a bit girly. Maybe it did hurt my career in some way, but I don’t care. I’m really proud of it.
Showgirls has become a camp classic. It almost seems like Paul Verhoeven’s films are designed for home viewing, where movies like Showgirls, Starship Troopers, and Robocop have generated these cult followings.
I love Paul’s Dutch films, like Spetters. I thought Showgirls was going to be a very dark, intense movie, and when I got to the set, I felt, wow, this is not what I was expecting. It’s like you’re going to see a Wagner orchestra and it’s a Britney Spears concert. I thought I was maybe in a different movie than everyone else. I thought, OK, this is going to be really funny! So I just had fun with it.
You are hilarious in it, and I mean that in the best way possible. Another NC-17 movie you starred in was Killer Joe, which is now in regular rotation on HBO. It’s a fantastic film, but really seemed to get a bad rap because of the rating.
That movie deserves to be seen. I thought it was one of the best movies of last year, and unfortunately, there was the NC-17 issue. With Showgirls, it was a joke to me that it was NC-17. That movie would be PG-13 today.
It’s all such crap, the ratings system. Is it tough for you to watch the fried-chicken fellatio scene?
It took me like five or six times to actually watch it, but when I watch it, I still get nauseous. I have such a visceral reaction. I could barely do the scene, so to watch it is tricky. But it’s so well done, and Matthew [McConaughey] and all the actors are incredible. It’s great that it’s being revisited on TV, but it’s a shame that more people didn’t see it in a theater, because you don’t know how you’re supposed to react, and it really plays with your emotions. People aren’t sure whether to laugh or be put off.
To tie this up with Versace, one of the other big themes of the film is Donatella’s interest in Princess Diana and how she was tormented by paparazzi. An interesting thing about you is that you’ve managed to keep your private life very private, an incredible feat these days.
Well, a lot of stuff has been written about me and, fortunately or unfortunately, most of it isn’t true. A lot of my private life goes on in Europe, so I think that’s why.
The rumored “improper relationship” with Bill Clinton that was printed in Vanity Fair was a pretty crazy story.
That was a total drag, you know? It was a bummer on so many different levels. It was wildly untrue. Maybe I was really naive before, but it was right before the 2008 presidential election, and I was like, “Wow, this is the level they’d stoop to? We’re about to vote for the next president!” And I was doing this play Boeing-Boeing, which I was really proud of, and was about to do tons of press on it and was so excited, and I had to cancel everything because all people wanted to talk about was the Bill Clinton thing. It was so disrespectful to President Clinton and Hillary, because she’s such a badass. It made me realize how lies have become the new facts.