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Illeana Douglas’ Woolworth Touch

Illeana Douglas’ Woolworth Touch

Articles - Directing

Illeana Douglas may be blessed with one of the film industry’s
most distinctive faces, but “
I always get the ‘Did we go to school together?’ question,” she

Even on a film set full of
extras, production assistants and flocks of people wearing tool
belts and yelling
into cell phones, it’s not hard to pick Illeana Douglas out of
the crowd. First off, there’s the fact that she’s been blessed
with one of the most distinctive faces of any working actress today—a
beautifully Cubist combination of angular cheekbones, a yard-wide
smile and large, heavy-lidded eyes. Then, there’s her many memorable
turns in the kind of character roles that stick with moviegoers.
There’s Robert De Niro’s unlucky (but apparently tasty) date in Cape
(1991), the ice-skating murderess of Gus Van Sant’s To
Die For
(1994), the lovesick teacher of Mark Illsley’s Happy,
(1999) and the inner-child art teacher of Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost
(2000), to name a few. Whether she’s stealing scenes
by the dozen or just standing quietly off in a corner preparing
for one, Douglas has the kind of presence that draws your attention.

Yet, somehow, people seem to have a hard time
placing just where they’ve seen her before. “I always get the ‘Did we go to school
together?’ question,” Douglas laughs. “But as an actress, really,
that’s what you want. I have a pretty good idea of what people
see in me, which is the role of translating what they are feeling
about the film, even while I’m up there on the screen. I seem to
be the person up there that they relate to the most, in some odd
way. The writer Norman Krasna used to say he had the ‘Woolworth’s
touch,’ which meant he was in touch with the common people. I always
thought I had that quality going for me.”

Descended from royal Hollywood stock (she’s the granddaughter
of ’30s movie star Melvyn Douglas), this self-described “common
person” has slowly managed to become a Sundance generation icon
with an impressive body of work and, in her spare time, continues
to hone her chops behind the camera as well. In addition to gracing
films both big and small, Douglas has directed a documentary on
the no-budget world of early ’90s independent film entitled Everybody
Just Stay Calm
(1994) and made a series of shorts that will
show collectively under the banner of “Illeanarama” on the Sundance
Channel this fall. She’s also got Dummy, the story of an
aimless young man (played by Academy Award-winner Adrien Brody)
who finds love, meaning and happiness through ventriloquism. “I
play Adrien’s sister, who has just been dumped by her fiancé… which
doesn’t exactly help her career as a wedding planner.” Douglas
is also working on a screenplay and she’s about to wrap production
on Jonathan Parker’s The Californians, a satirical update
of Henry James’ novel The Bostonians, set in Marin County
and co-starring Noah Wyle, Keith Carradine and Cloris Leachman.

Somehow, she still managed to spare a few minutes to discuss her
career and the state of independent moviemaking with us.

David Fear (MM): What were your first few
acting jobs like? I heard you had a stint working in dinner theater.

Illeana Douglas (ID): Ha!
I did some dinner theater, yeah, as a kid… I did everything—local theater, background kid
parts, whatever I could do. So, yes, I did do some dinner theater.
I learned a lot of great secrets from that… like you gotta hold
that audience, ’cuz they’re hungry! (laughs). You tend to
pick up a lot of ham tendencies there. I also learned to sing through
that. I could really belt it out.

So, yeah, I did a lot of regional theater in
Mass­achusetts, then
moved to New York when I was 10 and started going to school there.

MM: Where at?

“Whenever a director like Terry Zwigoff sends you a
script, you know it’s too good to pass up, says Douglas,
here in Zwigoff’s Ghost World.

ID: The Neighborhood Playhouse… it’s where
Sanford Meisner taught. So I graduated from there, got a few roles
and I’ve been working ever since.

MM: How did your association with Martin Scorsese begin?

ID: I met Marty when I was working for a publicist a few
offices down from him. He needed someone to dub a scream for The
Last Temptation of Christ
, which he was working on at the time.
Someone knew I was an actress and suggested I do it, and he liked
my scream! I ended up dubbing a few voices for background characters.
Then he suggested I read for a small part in New York Stories and
I got that. He later mentioned he thought he might have a part
for me in this thing he was putting together called Cape Fear.

MM: Your part is one of the most brutal scenes of the
film. Everybody always mentions it.

ID: Film acting is very much about creating
a moment, and we really wanted to make that moment memorable
and very chilling.
Otherwise, it would have just been another tawdry scene in a horror
film. I think it helped, too, that I was the character the viewer
relates to… you have this movie with Robert De Niro, Jessica Lange
and then, ‘Oh, who’s this poor girl?’ (laughs)

“…[The money people] now think ‘Hey,
I’m investing in this,
I’m going to have an opinion!’ It didn’t
used to be like that.
They used to respect the fact that you were an artist and they
gave you a certain amount of leeway in order to get your vision
on the screen. I miss that.”

I’ve been lucky in that I’ve managed to pull
off a few of those moments that people seem to remember. I hear
the same thing about To
Die For
. “Oh, when you skate over her body! It’s great!” Years
later, people still bring that up! On the film that I’m working
on now, my character is afraid of public speaking, and she has
to give a speech at one point. After we shot the scene, the other
actors kept saying, “Oh, you should have seen what you were doing!” Hopefully,
it’s another good moment.

MM: You were lucky enough to come along right when modern
American independent film was really hitting its stride. Having
been part of the heyday, what do you think of independent film

ID: There are still amazing films that continue to pop
out, like Boys Don’t Cry, for example. What I miss about
when I started was that it was a little more freewheeling back
then… The first “indie” film I did was this little low-budget movie
called Grief, which we shot in 10 days. And three of those
days were re-shoots! (laughing) We made it for $17,000,
and that’s what took me to Sundance, where I ended up meeting Nancy
Savoca and, later, Allison Anders. It really started me on this
whole journey of doing independent films, where it was a very hands-on

Basically, with films I was helping to develop, you did everything
you could to get it made and got very little interference. I mean,
something like Search & Destroy was just absolutely
fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants. The backers said, “If you can get
us Chris Walken and John Turturro, we’ll give you $1 million.” We
got them; they gave us the money and left us alone so we could
make the film.

Grace of My Heart was a similar experience.
Allison and I had originally set out to do a film about the poet
Anne Sexton.
That fell through, but she said “How about we do a film about girl
groups?” Which was perfect! I’d been dying to do that story for
years, plus I’d worked in the old Brill Building, so it seemed
natural. The people with the cash said “Get us this person and
this person, and we’ll give you the funding.” Luckily, she knew
Eric Stoltz and I had just worked with Matt Dillon, who we’d written
those parts for. So we both put it together and they gave us $5
million dollars to make it. Again, very little interference… all
we got from them was a few notes, but that was it.

I look back on that now and that just doesn’t
happen anymore. Now, the people who are giving the cash have,
unfortunately, wised
up! (laughs) They think, “Hey, if I’m investing in this,
I’m going to have an opinion!” It didn’t used to be like that.
They used to give you the money, but they respected the fact that
you were an artist and gave you a certain amount of leeway in order
to get your vision on the screen. I miss that.

MM: Did you make Everybody Just Stay Calm to
document that period?

ID: Yeah. I think I’d done about five independent features
in one year, and the experience of it was really quite funny with
everybody rushing around, trying to get these things made come
hell or high water. I had seen all these “glamorous” documentaries,
with stars in their trailers and all that, and I wanted to do a
counterpoint. Somebody needed to do an oral history of that moment
in time, too.

In Dummy, Douglas plays ventriloquist Adrien Brody’s
sister, a wedding planner who has just been dumped by her own

MM: You mentioned before that you
had worked for a publicist. Was that what inspired your short
Devil Talk?

ID: Exactly! The short is about the
devil hiring a publicist to change his image. I worked for this
publicist who was a real
character. She was great; this real strong woman who many people
thought could have been the devil’s publicist! (laughs)
Mostly, though, it was something [actor] Michael Panes and I thought

We were both in this sketch comedy troupe called
Manhattan Punchline at different times… We share the same sense
of humor and the same love of comedians like Albert Brooks and
Nichols and May. Elaine
May is my hero, and the short films Brooks used to do for SNL were
a big inspiration. So we did Devil Talk, and we just did
another short together entitled Super Market. And, coincidentally,
while we were shooting at the market, Albert Brooks showed up to
do some grocery shopping! It was like a weird blessing.

MM: How did “Illeanarama” come about?

ID: I’ve been making these little films for years, and
I showed Devil Talk at Sundance, which they liked quite a bit.
So they asked me if I would put together an hour’s worth of my
shorts and shoot some new stuff. We’re almost finished editing
everything together; it’ll show around November. Plus I’m planning
on adapting Devil Talk into a feature. I’m trying to finish the
screenplay now.

Douglas and Cloris Leachman in Jonathan Parker’s The

MM: Does directing satisfy something in you that acting
does not?

ID: Mostly it’s the chance to do this Nichols and May style
of comedy—very cerebral, yet very broad. I really love that, but
don’t see it much anymore. The filmmaking is an outlet for that,
definitely. But I love acting. Whenever a director like Terry Zwigoff
sends you a script, you know it’s just too good to pass up. I could
tell as I was reading Ghost World that there was a lot I
could do with the part, which is really all I look for in roles.

MM: Like the role in Dummy, for example?

ID: The moment I read Greg Pritikin’s script, I fell in
love with it. I really wanted to do a repressive Jewish family
story, as well. I’ve been in plenty of repressive Italian families
in the movies, but never a repressive Jewish one! (laughs)
Plus, I’d admired Adrien Brody’s work for a while, and had met
him in New York. We both mentioned wanting to work together, then
two weeks later this amazing script gets delivered to me and it
turns out he’s already signed on! Things like that keep me doing
this. Luckily for me, it happens often enough to keep me constantly
inspired. MM

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