All Eyes on Anjelica Huston: The Legendary Actress on Love, Abuse, and Jack Nicholson

Anjelica Huston on her new memoir, which details her turbulent romance with Jack Nicholson and the alleged violence by former boyfriend Ryan O’Neal.

11.10.14 1:57 AM ET

Anjelica Huston had never spoken publicly about the abuse she experienced at the hands of actor Ryan O’Neal until last week, when an advanced copy of her upcoming memoir Watch Me landed on a desk at The National Enquirer. The newspaper reprinted the damning quotes: “He turned on me, grabbed me by the hair and hit me in the forehead with the top of his skull. I saw stars and reeled back. Half blind I ran away from him.”

The alleged fight occurred in the 1970s. It was a different time for Huston, before her smoldering, award-winning roles in Prizzi’s Honor, The Grifters, and The Addams Family. At that point she was primarily known for her life off-screen: as a model, as the daughter of legendary director John Huston, and as one-half of Hollywood’s “It” couple, thanks to her on-again, off-again relationship with Jack Nicholson. (During one of the couple’s many separations, Huston began dating O’Neal.)

Watch Me is the second in a two-part memoir series. Her first, A Story Lately Told, was a gorgeously written account that detailed Huston’s life growing up in Ireland under the shadow of her father, and the early death of her mother, model Enrica Soma. Watch Me, however, caters to those interested in the high-wattage Hollywood side of Huston’s life, from her relationship with Nicholson, to her marriage to sculptor Robert Graham, to the behind-the-scenes work of her most memorable roles.

The 63-year-old actress spoke to The Daily Beast ahead of the release of Watch Me to discuss her past relationships, her best performances, and why she ultimately decided to talk about the incident with O’Neal.

I’ve been seeing you a lot recently. Your Gap ads are all over New York City.

[Laughs] Yeah, plastered all over the place!

And now you have your new memoir, Watch Me, coming out this week. The book is the second in a two-part series, but that wasn’t the initial plan, right?

Nope. Originally we intended to make one book, but I just think it was going to be too fat, so it was my publisher’s decision to split it into two.

Did you agree with the decision?

Oh very much so. It wasn’t an initial decision; it sort of happened halfway into the first book. We decided that there was just too much material.

You waited until now to fully discuss your 17-year relationship with Jack Nicholson. Why do you think people are still so fascinated by it?

Um…I don’t know. I would think it’s probably because it was an important relationship at the time. We were a famous couple and received quite a lot of attention for just being together. So I think that continues. And people are always interested in Jack.

You mentioned first falling in love with him when you saw Easy Rider. What was it on screen that did it for you?

Just his immense charm and humor. Jack is an extremely convincing actor. You feel that you’re with him. There are no barriers between Jack and his audience. He really shares himself on screen.

Was it difficult revisiting any of the darker memories, like his infidelity?

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Oh, you know, these things become part of your life. It’s not like all of a sudden you get upset because you’re writing about them [laughs]. You maybe get upset the first time around but I think, no, it didn’t cause me to get re-upset. Revisiting those memories were kind of clarifying.

In what way?

Just that you get that opportunity to look at it from more of a distance. I think you see yourself in a certain perspective too. You see where you were more impetuous, where you might have overreacted to certain things. But you know, it’s the nature of an actor to have to use sense memory. So for me, it’s not that big a thing.

How would you characterize the relationship now between you and Jack?

It’s very good.

You speak a little in the book about tabloid culture today compared with what you and Jack were dealing when you were dating—how it’s now open season on celebrities. What did you mean by that?

Well, I was referring more to the time before the Rupert Murdoch scandal, because it really was open season on famous people, particularly in England, where they would follow you home in their cars. They could really make your life unpleasant—when you couldn’t leave a hotel room, that was unpleasant. I don’t think things are quite as bad as they were then.

Even with something like the recent nude photo scandal?

Well, you know, I think if you post pictures of yourself naked on the Internet, you kind of have to expect that there are going to be repercussions. I think it’s naïve to think that there won’t be. Because I don’t believe in privacy. I mean, I like the idea of privacy, but I don’t believe that it happens anymore. I think privacy is something I am afraid we seem to be waving goodbye to. On the other hand, privacy is about having things to hide and I don’t know that this is a time really where we as a country or in our world really should have things to hide. There is so much nefarious activity.

The memoir also explores the romance between you and your late husband, Robert Graham, whom you speak very lovingly of.

Well Bob and I had a meeting of the minds and of the souls, I would say. He was an extremely gifted and talented artist whose work I admired tremendously. It was a 22-year marriage. It was I think [pause]…a quite evolved relationship, and one that made me very happy.

I think that comes through in the book.

Yeah, it was hard to write about Bob, more than anything else for me, because I wanted to get it right, so it was very important to be accurate about Bob and what he did and who he was.

The book received quite a bit of press last week regarding the passage about your time with Ryan O’Neal, and how he had become physically abusive to you. Did you find it hard to relive that on the page?

No, it was not really that difficult to write about it. It wasn’t one of the more pleasant things that has happened to me in my life. But when I was considering it and thinking about writing it, I thought, Well, if there’s one young girl out there who needs an answer about whether she should stick around in a relationship where she’s being abused, maybe I can help that girl out.

You also spend a great deal of the memoir discussing your acting career, along with your hesitancy about pursuing it after working with your father on A Walk with Love and Death.

It wasn’t that I was hesitant about acting after. It’s that I didn’t want to do that particular film with my father. I wanted to act, but I didn’t really respond to that script, and that was what was really difficult about the situation. I had some bad reviews from that movie, and it was difficult for me.

You refer to a car accident you were in as a kind of spark for you to get back into acting.

It just kind of nailed home the idea that I didn’t have time to waste. Not that, Oh, well, you’ve had a car accident and now you’re going to be an actress [laughs]. It didn’t quite happen that way! I had just worked in The Postman Always Rings Twice. It was about a week after I came home from working on that movie.

Several years later, you got an Oscar for your performance in Prizzi’s Honor. When you won, you had no publicist and no manager. You even went out and bought the fabric for your own Oscar dress, which would be unthinkable for an actress to do today.

It’s kind of an antiquated idea now, but it was very fun. There was a lead up to [the Oscars at the time]. I was nominated with Jack for the New York Film Critics, and we won the New York Film Critics, and some other awards. I think my father won a Golden Globe, which I accepted. But it certainly wasn’t what it is today, where people start bidding on whether people are going to get nominated. It’s become a big race. It’s very different.

So after your speech, you walked directly back to your seat, instead of going backstage to speak with press. What was it like seeing Jack and your father, who directed the film, getting emotional over your win?

I was so happy I did that! I was sort of delirious in the middle of that big thing happening. I don’t know how I escaped off that stage, but I ran back into that audience. It was a magic moment, though. First, seeing my father in the middle of his row crying, and thinking, Why is dad so upset? Then going to my seat and seeing Jack and John Foreman and seeing them both very moved. It was great. I was dry as a bone! [laughs] I was just pumping adrenaline.

I watched the speech last night. You seem pretty composed, all things considered.

I wasn’t in the least bit. It was a complete illusion.

Though you won an Oscar for Prizzi’s Honor, in the memoir you call your performance of Lilly Dillon in The Grifters arguably the best role of your life. Why is that?

I really liked playing that woman. She was cold and bitter but also she had a desperate quality. It was strong emotions. And I loved working with Stephen Frears. He’s a really fantastic director. He knows what he wants and how to get it. The other cast members, John Cusack and Annette Bening, were at the top of their game. They were so good. It was just like having the best secret making that movie, because I think we all three on screen knew exactly what we were doing and how good it was. I looked forward every morning waking up and going Yeah! I get to play this character. I looked so ugly in my off time, though, because every time I bent my head you’d see my dark hair underneath the wig, so all around my face they had to bleach out my hair. I was basically un-presentable for the whole time we made that movie.

That same year, you had The Witches, which was another cold, bitter role––though certainly in a different way.

I was very excited to do The Witches. It was with one of my favorite directors, Nick Roeg, and I loved his work from Don’t Look Now and Eureka. So I was very excited to work with him. The story was a very subversive fairy tale by Roald Dahl, and a fantastic part. Jim Henson’s Workshop did all of the makeup and special effects and they were genius. Although it was a very physically difficult costume to wear.

You think about a movie like that getting made now, they would probably just use a lot of CGI for your costume.

Yeah, and I remember being sort of shocked that I was going to be the one to be under all of that rubber. Because basically all you could see were my eyes. So I was surprised at first. I thought, Oh dear, I have to wear all of this stuff. But I think it made a big difference, the fact that it was me all the way through. There is something about those mannerisms and the way she moves, it’s definitely the same person.

You also had a pretty uncomfortable costume in The Addams Family, which is surprising, since your performance feels so effortless.

Yes, well, that’s part of it, to make it look comfortable. But the problems with Addams Family were mostly just having to wait around in your trailer while people or Thing or It were working. Thing took a lot of time. It was a hand, it was a puppet, it was half-CGI, but mostly puppetry. But it had to be really, really precise. There were some days where we had to just wait for it to work, and sometimes it would take up to five-six hours, and you’d be sitting in your trailer in your tight corset. It was difficult.

You dedicate a bit of your memoir to the work you’ve done with Wes Anderson and your first film together, The Royal Tenenbaums. What about Wes made you want to work with him?

I thought he was very intelligent, very gentle, soft-spoken, precise. I liked him immediately. And I loved [The Royal Tenenbaums] script. All of Wes’s films have a sort of family atmosphere to them, where you get to be part of his chosen group. And I think some of my favorite memories are just being all together in that house in Harlem. It was very cold when we were shooting, so it was either a choice of hanging in your trailer or hanging out in the green room in the house we were using up in Harlem. It was very cozy. It felt more like an actor’s workshop than it did being on a Hollywood movie.

I remember our catering was really bad on that movie. It was horrible food. And all of these lovely ladies up there on 139th street or whatever it was, were making us this fantastic soul food and bringing it to set because they were so sorry for us for the horrible catering we were having! [laughs]. (Of course my memory would be about food.) I remember them coming over all adorable with mac and cheese, collard greens, fried chicken. They were so cute.

What do you look for in a role these days?

I guess just the same thing I’ve always looked for. Am I interested? Am I engaged? Am I excited? Am I turned on? Do I think it’s a good premise? Is there something I can do with this that’s in some way innovative? Can I make this mine?

Have you considered directing again?

I considered directing again, but I won’t consider it unless I find something I absolutely have to direct. It’s not something you want to do otherwise. It’s difficult. You have to have courage and endurance, like certain kinds of horses [laughs]. And sometimes you feel like you’re carrying a big load. So I admire directors. You need to have a lot of stamina.

Is there one in particular you’ve been dying to work with that you haven’t with yet?

Oh there’s a few, of course. I think Bernal is fantastic, Inarritu is amazing. I’d love to work with Joel and Ethan Coen. I’ve been saying for about 100 years that I’d love to work with Scorsese.

What’s the one thing you’d like people to take away from this memoir?

I hope that [readers] are able to learn something from it. Like what I said about a young girl in trouble in a relationship. Maybe she can read this book and say, “You know what? There’s no reason I need to stay here.” I think growing up often we don’t get the proper advice or we have to learn stuff from our selves. Hopefully I can shed a little light on that. Also let people know it’s not all ivory tower stuff. There’s a little life going on in there and we all share it. We’re in it together. There isn’t this huge vast difference between people who have fame and people who don’t.