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Indie Film Sweetheart Adrienne Shelly

Indie Film Sweetheart Adrienne Shelly

Articles - Cover Story

At the Seattle International Film Festival, 1996.

Adrienne Shelly is well aware that
something about her makes you want to wrap her in a blanket, kiss
her on the forehead and ask her if she wants some hot cocoa before
you tuck her in.

Whether she’s in movie star mode, looking every bit
the blonde bombshell with all the trimmings — big eyes, pouty
lips, slightly submissive demeanor — or adorned with nerdy glasses
and civilian clothes, speaking confidently about her latest directorial
effort in front of a thousand Seattle International Film Festival
fans, the vulnerability factor is always there, and she’s smart
and honest enough to go with it. Although she’s made her reputation
as an actress, starring in Hal Hartley’s Trust and The
Unbelievable Truth
as well as nine other independent films,
including Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me and the soon-to-be-released Grind and Sleep
with Me
, her true passion has always been storytelling.

She has written and directed several plays, has served
as the artistic director of the New York City theater company "Missing
Children," and directed a 26-minute film called Urban Legend
before writing and directing her first 35mm feature, Sudden
Manhattan
, an accomplished, quirky comedy produced by Marcia
Kirkley’s new company, Homegrown Pictures.

Like most interesting people, Shelly is a package
of contradictions. She is at times painfully shy, at other times
disarmingly outspoken; her speech is peppered with references to
Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard and … Mattingly; she’s a Cancer who eschews
domesticity; she’s the ultimate insider’s outsider, an artist who
could take full advantage of a high-profile independent film career,
but who chooses instead to blaze her own trail toward her own brand
of fulfillment. She’s been patient and methodical and, with the
acting offers still coming in and the directorial career taking
off, she’s just about where she wants to be. I recently had the
pleasure of speaking with Adrienne at several restaurants, bookstores
and coffeeshops both in Seattle and in New York’s West Village,
where she makes her home.

Tim Rhys (MM): So you decided not to go
the Hollywood route. Can you talk about that? When you were first
becoming well-known as an actress I imagine you were getting
a lot of offers … were you turning down a lot of work? Tell
me how you kind of guided your career in the early stages.

In Chris Kentis/Laura Lau’s Grind (1996).

Adrienne Shelly (AS): I don’t think I guided
my career so much as I reacted to what was happening. I went to
Sundance with The Unbelievable Truth and I remember being
surrounded by lots of agents and producers and I was really scared.
I went back to New York and managers and agents were flying themselves
out to see me, agencies were sending limousines to pick me up to
have lunch with them. It felt a little like the emperor’s new clothes,
you know? It didn’t feel real rooted in anything. I didn’t like
it. I don’t know. I think what was really imporant to me was to
stay in New York, continue writing, working in theater, confining
myself to doing what I ultimately started to do, which was create
my own work. The opportunity to go to Hollywood was certainly there,
my agent was there, I’d been offered a lot of different television
series, for example, which would have made me very wealthy, and
kind of established me in a particular way. But I didn’t want to
be established in that way.

MM: What gave you the X-ray vision glasses
that a lot of people don’t have? How did you see through some
of the–

AS: I don’t know, I was just reacting honestly
to some of the people I was meeting. It was a gut instinct that
was saying "Don’t put your hand on that stove, it’s going
to burn." I have a really sensitive bullshit detector. I think
I just stayed where I was happiest, and I’ve been able to make
a decent enough living. I’ve never been very wealthy, working in
independent film, but I’ve been able to support myself doing what
I’ve wanted to do. I’ve never needed anybody else to decide if
I was successful or not. I’ve felt successful.

MM: Give me some of the requisite background
stuff. Like where did you grow up…

AS: I was born in Queens, my family moved
out to Long Island when I was about five, and I grew up there.
My mother is still there.

MM: What kind of kid were you? Shy, outgoing,
what?

AS: I was a shy kid, and very sensitive, and
quiet. I was a nice kid, I guess, except to my older brother, who
was not allowed to hit me, but I was allowed to hit him. He got
the brunt of my aggression.

MM: Were you a loner as a child?

AS: No, I always had close friends. That’s
always kind of been my modus operandi in the world. In high school
if you didn’t know what was really going on you’d think I was terribly
popular. I was at all the parties and I was sort of acquainted
with all the popular people. But I only had three very close friends
and they were my life, and my steady boyfriend, who knew everyone,
and I never felt like I was really fitting in all that well. But
I did a really good job of seeming like I did. I’ve never had many
friends who were not extremely close to me.

In Joel Hershman’s Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me (1992).

MM: Did you do any acting when you were
a kid?

AS: Yeah. When I was really young, at a day
camp. I was so shy that I really never spoke to anyone. My earliest
memories were looking up at people’s knees because I was so small.
And then they were doing a production of Peter Pan and they
couldn’t find anyone who wanted to play Wendy. And I went up to
the counselor and said I wanted to be Wendy. And they were shocked
because they’d never heard me speak before. And the teacher said "We’re
sorry, you can’t be Wendy because you’re too small." I was
really bummed because I really wanted to play Wendy. So they made
me a lost child or something and thus it began. I always wanted
the biggest part even though I was really quiet in real life.

MM: They say that’s typical of actors.
A lot of actors are very shy people who use the stage as a place
to open up.

AS: Yeah, I guess so. Try out different aspects
of their personality.

TR: Were your parents supportive of your
desire to become an actress?

AS: They were supportive. They didn’t take
it very seriously. I was at a performing arts camp when I was about
10 and we put a show on, and there were agents in the audience
who came up to my parents afterward and said your daughter is talented
and she could have a career and my father barked at them and put
his foot down and said no way. There’s actually a line in the Sudden
Manhattan
that was my father’s response to the agents. He said "I
will not have my daughter jumping out a window when she’s 30." That
was his idea of what would happen to you. That’s kinda my tribute
to my father.

TR: Did you act in high school?

AS: I did. I had my first professional acting
job. I played the oldest orphan in Annie in a summer stock production.
But by that time I’d already started writing. As soon as I was
old enough to realize I enjoyed making stories up I was doing that.
I’m not sure which came first. When I was very young we used to
put these shows on when we’d gather at one relative’s house or
another and I’d always choreograph them. I made the stories up
and cast everybody. The most enjoyable thing, even when I’m acting,
is storytelling. And then college, and I’d gotten into a couple
of the acclaimed drama programs across the country, but my mother
was paying for college and she didn’t allow me to go. And I’m really
glad she didn’t. I wound up first starting as a journalism major
at Boston University and then transferring to the broadcasting/film
dept. And I’m really grateful that I had the education that I had.

TR: On the screen you project a certain
amazing vulnerability that I think a lot of people are attracted
to. In fact you alluded to it in your film, how people want to
protect you and run to your rescue. Is that something that you
do consciously in your work? Or maybe I should back up — is
that part of you naturally, and because it’s part of you do you
put that on the screen more readily, or is it more of a public
persona…

AS: I think it’s a true aspect of my personality.
But I also think of myself as pretty strong and capable of withstanding
a lot. But I think my way of dealing in the world is to be honest
about my vulnerability, and not sort of hide it. I’m not an extremely
hardened person.

TR: Not for living in New York all your
life, especially–

AS– No, and I think because I’m as small
as I am size-wise, that people do have a feeling like they’re supposed
to take care of me.

MM: It’s interesting to me because I’ve
always heard that actors do better at playing a part that’s opposite
of who they really are.

In Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth (1990).

AS: I think often I get cast for who I am
when people first meet me. I think I could play someone really
monstrous, but because of how I look and my size I never get cast
that way.

MM: So you’ve wanted to play the
bad girl?

AS: Oh, sure. Actually I did play a bad girl
once, in a film called Roadlflower, a Miramax film which went direct
to video. I played this sort of bad girl in a bad gang who manipulates
other people into killing. She’s a different sort of femme fatale
that she has no realization that she’s so monstrous. She’s kind
of childlike. In that role I played up the girlishness, so it juxtaposes
between something innocent and something evil. It was fun to play
her that way. I get shot like 18 times at the end.

MM: How do you feel about getting into
character in a role like that?

AS: It’s my belief that everybody holds within
them many different aspects of humanity.We all have a wide range
of personalities within us. They’re not difficult to tap into depending
on the scenario you’re facing.

MM: You seem to do it effortlessly and
very honestly.

AS: It is effortlessly and it is a part of
me.

MM: No long, agonizing nights thinking "Oh,
god, I’ve gotta be in this character?"

AS: No, I don’t do that. I don’t write journals
about a character’s past. I work through details if necessary,
but I don’t do the preparation that a lot of actors do. I try to
work moment to moment when I’m in front of a camera or on the stage;
the given circumstances and basic understanding of who I am and
who my character is, and I work off the other actors.

MM: Meisnerian style?

AS: Yes, I’m a Meisner-trained actress.

MM: Have you always been a writer?

AS: Yeah, that’s what my family always thought
I’d be.

MM: Are you more of an optimist or a pessimist?
In the film (
Sudden Manhattan) the gypsy says we all lead
lives of terrible torture, misery and then death. How much of
that is you talking? You told me you want to live forever, right,
so obviously you’re an optimist?

AS: Well, no, I want to. I won’t. I’m as optimistic
as someone who is mainly Russian in her geneology can be. I’ve
got that sort of moody, dark underbelly, but I think there’s also
sort of an element of optimism that quietly helps me navigate through
the jungle. I have both sides of that coin.

MM: I have to ask the Hal Hartley question.
How did you hook up with him?

AS: When he was casting The Unbelievable
Truth
I’d sent my picture into another producer in his office
who was casting music videos. Hal had received about 200 headshots
through an ad in Backstage and someone in his office held up
my picture and said "What about her?" So I was called
in along with all these other people. I had to go back two or
three times to read and then he gave me the part.

MM: So it was that serendipitous?

AS: It was. I was living in apartment with
another actor and two strippers and the actor and I were really
frustrated. One day we got Backstage and sent our pictures to every
call that sort of applied to us. We did it just that one day and
then three or four months later I got the call from Hal’s office.

MM: That seems to happen to you a lot.
You read the script for Sudden at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and
Marcia (Kirkley, former director of acquisitions at October Films)
happened to be in the audience, and happened to be looking for
a project for Homegrown Pictures. Good things happen to you.

AS: Sometimes they do.

MM: What was your working relationship
with Hal? Did he allow you a lot of freedom, or was he pretty
controlling?

AS: He knows what he wants and he’s very strict
about the script, about how he wants the performances to be. Nothing
is an accident. He sticks to the script and to the characters in
his head, how they speak and how they move. There really wasn’t
a lot of freedom. It was like "Turn to the left, wait three
beats, turn back to the right, say your first line, scratch your
head, wait three beats, burp." And the whole time he’s saying "Less,
less, less, I don’t want to see anything on your face at all."

MM: That sounds pretty frustrating.

AS: Yes. Sometimes I wanted to kill him. And
the other actors did, too. He tends to do that mostly with the
lead actors; the supporting actors can have a little bit more fun.
It was definitely a very controlled atmosphere. It taught me a
lot, working that way. It taught me to have a real respect for
the script. Hal is sort of the lead in every movie he makes. His
voice is so strong and so singular and I think people really enjoy
his films for that reason. There’s something powerful about one
person’s vision, closely adhered to. Other people may react negatively
to exactly the same thing, but my favorite work has always been
by auteurs.

MM: Being that closely controlled by a director,
did that make you want to direct more, so you’d have that auteur
experience? Did that make you want to direct sooner? Did you
feel you were stunted in your creative expression at all?

AS: No. After I worked with Hal I worked with
a lot of people who didn’t control me at all, and just said "Do
whatever you want here. Do you like this line? Would you rather
say another line? Is this the line you want to say?" I was
really given free reign. Given a choice between the two, I prefer
the former– someone who really knows what they want and has a
vision and a style.

MM: Do you feel like you were prepared
enough as a director? Were you apprehensive at all about the
technical process?

AS: I think I’ve been around enough, and I
also directed the short film a year earlier. I felt okay about
it. I wouldn’t have done it if I felt totally neurotic, like what
am I doing here, I don’t belong here, they’re all gonna figure
it out. I try to stay away from those situations in life. There
was no time for that kind of stress, really. We shot the film in
20 days; three weeks before we went into production my DP quit
and she took a higher-paying job. So the business at hand was finding
another DP, storyboarding, going into rehearsals, working with
my production designer. And I got extremely ill, also. It was a
really bad stomach virus — I had to go to the hospital, be on
IV, I was totally dehydrated. I was finally better about five days
ahead of time. When you’re working that hard and that fast and
there’s that much pressure on you, you don’t have time for the
self-doubt that maybe you walk around with in your normal life
when you have plenty of free time for self-hatred.

MM: What was your involvement in the editing
of
Sudden Manhattan?

AS: I was never not there. I can’t imagine
giving your film to someone… I know there are people who do it
and they’re fine with it.

MM: So how do you spend your time when
you’re not busy on a project?

AS: I hang out with my friends. We read. We
go to the theatre, we see movies, go to coffeeshops.

MM: You’re just one of those snobby members
of the literati.

AS: I am. I’m a big old snob. It’s probably
one of my biggest flaws. I’m a big old snob. I have a real snobby
attitude. What’s art, what’s not art, mainstream cinema. I have
opinions, dogmas.

MM: So, your social life is really boring.

AS: My social life is a mess. In Sudden
Manhattan
there’s this theme that’s sort of based on all
of the strange relationships and situations I’ve been in with
men throughout my 20s…

MM: They’ve all been impotent? (like Tim
Guinee’s character)

AS: I don’t even know what that would be like.
But these sort of situations where you’ve met someone, they’re
really charming, you really like them, and then you find out they
live in a car. "You live in a car!?" Or, "You’re
actually an alcoholic, and I never knew?" These strange sort
of scenarios where people’s identities are hidden from you. That’s
been kind of a running theme throughout my 20s.

MM: Are you religious in any way?

AS: I’m an optimistic agnostic. I’d like to
believe. I’m willing to listen to any sort of evidence. I hope
there’s a God, I sure hope there is. I hope we don’t just die and
that’s it. But there’s a part of me that really needs some sort
of scientific. There remains in my work, in my writing, an element
of spirituality. But there are other moments when I feel profoundly
insignificant. And that actually is a feeling that kind of frees
me. A kind of feeling that this is it. This is my life, so I’d
better enjoy it and I’d better be responsible. My father died when
I was very young, and he died suddenly, without ever having been
sick. So I’ve gone through life with this feeling that life could
end at any given moment. When I wrote Sudden Manhattan and
a writer friend said to me "Look, Adrienne, it’s your first
feature. It might take seven years to get produced." And I
thought that is not acceptable to me. Because in my way of thinking
I might not live another seven years.

MM: It’s an intelligent outlook. It’s the
truth.

AS: There’s something Kierkegaard writes about,
in a similar vein. Don’t make plans for the future without adding
the phrase "However, I might be dead in the next 10 minutes,
in which case I shall not attend to it."

MM: Never buy green bananas.

AS: It’s opposed to how modern culture would
have you think about life.

MM: This is a young, immortal society we’re
living in. We act like we’re going to be around forever.

AS: Everything is so darned pleasant.

MM: And you being Russian, pain is important.

AS: Well, I just think people can enjoy life
with the acknowledgement of the entire human experience, pain included.
An acknowledgement of death, too. Otherwise it’s kind of prozac.
We can’t live in a society that has us forget pain and suffering
so that when it does happen, which it inevitably does, we’re not
prepared for it and don’t face it with dignity or grace. We’re
also very closed off to the suffering in the rest of the world.

MM: But you have to have small talk.

AS: Whatever I small talk about is actually
extremely important to me. Like baseball, which is a complete representation
of my life, actually. I just feel better when the Yankees are winning.
I’m no fair weather fan. I’m always a Yankee fan. When they suck,
when they’re great, when Steinbrenner is a bastard, I love ’em.
You might be disappointed in them but you still love them. I cried
when Reggie Jackson was traded. I wrote letters. And when Don Mattingly
left the Yankees this year I was utterly heartbroken. I had framed
pictures of him in my kitchen. He’s the only person in the world
who renders me completely starstruck. I saw him on the street once
my knees became weak and I started sweating. And I’ve met everybody.
Martin Scorsese came up to me at a party a couple of weeks ago
and told me he was a fan of mine, and I thought that’s great. But
Don Mattingly nearly bowled me over just by being within 50 feet
of me.

MM: That’s because you can be a Martin
Scorsese, but you can never be a first baseman like Don Mattingly.

AS: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think I could
ever be like Martin Scorsese. My father instilled a real love of
baseball in me. I used to go to baseball games with him and my
brother all the time. And when they’d lose my father would get
so angry and he’d say Finito! Finito for the Yankees! In 1978 the
Yankees were in last place, they were doing terribly. And my father
died that August. And right after he died they made this amazing
comeback. I felt like Dad had a hand in it. MM

(Ed. note: This is the first time in 18 years that
I’ve felt okay about Bucky Dent’s home run which sunk my beloved
Red Sox in ’78. Thanks, Adrienne)

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