Jonah Hill has cracked enough dick jokes. Maybe it’s his Oscar nomination. Or his upcoming turn in Martin Scorsese’s next movie. Or the fact that in about six months, five days before Christmas, he will turn 30. “You’re catching me at a very emotional time in my life,” says Hill on a gray spring morning in Lower Manhattan, where he keeps one of two homes (the other, in Los Angeles, he spent years designing). “I’m growing up. My friends are growing up. I’ve gotten to live a bit of a rock star life, and now I’m contemplating if that’s what I’m still interested in.”
Goodbyes can’t help but drum up elegiac introspection, and Hill’s current project is a doozy of a final hurrah. In This Is the End, Hill, playing himself, parties like there’s no tomorrow when Armageddon strikes during a bash at James Franco’s house. Along with his real-life pals Seth Rogen (who co-wrote the film’s script with his writing partner Evan Goldberg), Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, and Craig Robinson—not to mention ill-fated party monsters like Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Michael Cera, Emma Watson, and Aziz Ansari—Hill fights to stay alive against all odds: fire and brimstone, snarling Beelzebubs, and a dwindling supply of fresh water (and, worse, candy bars). “It definitely feels like the closing of a certain chapter with this film,” says Hill of This Is the End, which reunites him with the coterie of comedians who were there during the nascence of his career. “Like, literally, we all die.”
It wasn’t even a decade ago that a 23-year-old Hill, wearing a Bruce Lee T-shirt and ill-fitting, pre-stressed jeans, penetrated mainstream cinema in the Rogen- and Goldberg-penned outlier orgy Superbad. As Seth, Hill embarks on a mission with his best friend Evan (played by Michael Cera) to score alcohol for his crush (Emma Stone) while spouting pearl necklaces of wisdom such as, “Nobody has gotten a hand job in cargo shorts since ’Nam,” and, “I’ll be like the Iron Chef of pounding vag.” Porky’s for the new millennium, Superbad turned Hill and Cera into unlikely leading men overnight. “One day we could walk around and the next day we couldn’t walk around,” says Hill, whose acting credits at the time were limited to small parts in David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees (costar Dustin Hoffman, the father of Hill’s friends Jake, Becky, and Ali, set up the audition), as well as Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. “There was a huge billboard above my tiny apartment with me on it. In that moment, Michael and I realized that we were kind of famous, like, everywhere in the world.”
Cera and Hill met at a party celebrating actor Henry Winkler’s 60th birthday. “He could not have been less interested in me, which I later learned is his stock first impression,” Cera says jokingly of Hill. Two years after their first super-awkward exchange, Hill and Cera were touring the world promoting Superbad, which found Hill indulging in his newly discovered fame: getting wasted with the cast of High School Musical; attending Edward Fortyhands parties (competitors ducttape 40-ounce bottles of beer to each palm until they’re emptied) with Rogen, Baruchel, and Jason Segel; and courting countless drunken advances from thonged throngs at nightclubs.
When the Apatovian bacchanal tapered off, Hill’s nagging professional hangover left him questioning his career. “All I ever wanted to be was, like, regarded,” he says. “A genuine fear of mine was that I was going to be known as ‘The Guy from Superbad’ for the rest of my life.” Around that time, director Todd Phillips approached him to play “any one of the three main parts in The Hangover,” says Hill, who declined the offer, along with another to play Shia LaBeouf ’s sidekick in Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. “They were both really big decisions, and ones that most people didn’t understand,” he says. “I knew I could be a dramatic actor, but I also knew I couldn’t go from Superbad to Schindler’s List.”
Instead, Hill phoned brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, whose indie film The Puffy Chair he’d loved, to let them know that his star power could probably finance their next film. Over Mexican food at a taqueria in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood, they discussed Hill playing the lead in Cyrus, the story of a creepily overbearing son whose mother (Marisa Tomei) has trouble incorporating her new boyfriend (John C. Reilly) into their fold. On the strength of Hill’s depiction of the titular character—a cross between Kevin McCallister and Norman Bates—Cyrus landed on many critics’ year-end lists after its 2010 release. “Jonah astounded me every day,” Tomei says. “I’m not even being hyperbolic—he just dazzled me. I could see that he could really take on anything.”
Director Bennett Miller saw the same thing, and cast Hill as an assistant GM in Moneyball, Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’ 2003 book of the same name about the Oakland Athletics baseball team’s 2002 attempt to put together an all-star roster. With costar Brad Pitt by his side, Hill earned the type of acclaim normally reserved for people who haven’t spent screen time getting high and hitting on Russell Brand. Following his Screen Actors Guild nomination, Hill racked up nods for a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, and an Oscar. “You always see those videos of people sitting with their family members, waiting for the news, but I was just kicking it in bed watching TV,” Hill says, recalling how he found out about his Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Much like the overnight metamorphosis that followed Superbad’s release, Hill’s world was flipped upside down when actor Jennifer Lawrence and Academy president Tom Sherak uttered his name in the company of Kenneth Branagh, Max von Sydow, Nick Nolte, and Christopher Plummer (who eventually took home the award). “They said my name and then my phone almost exploded,” he says. When Hill arrived at Sony Pictures Studios to film promotional videos for 21 Jump Street with costar Channing Tatum a few hours after the announcement (Hill, the film’s executive producer, spent five years writing the action comedy’s script), “There were camera crews everywhere—it was like a crime scene,” he says. “I thought, What the fuck is this? My agent was like, ‘They’re here for you, Jonah.’ I kind of thought I was at the height of people knowing who I was before that. I thought it couldn’t get any crazier.”
We’re sitting at the back of Café Select, one of a handful of restaurants that Hill frequents when he’s in New York. He knows the staff that assiduously refills his dewy glass of iced coffee. He happily takes smiling photos with fans who stop to say hello as if they were old friends. He returns every compliment with enthusiastic thanks. He even insists on covering the tab when we’re ready to leave.
Describing Hill as a well-liked guy is sort of like calling testicular cancer a mild annoyance. Those with whom he has worked were so ebullient when asked to comment on the actor that only a small sampling of their unanimous praise can be printed here:
“The whole last awards season, when he was nominated for Moneyball and I was around for The Help, I would see him at every show and we would basically just screw around and be tipsy and ridiculous. But he’s also deeply feeling, unbelievably witty, and has lots of layers. When he brings that to a character, it’s magic.” —Emma Stone
“Jonah is a very smart actor. He can draw from many sources because he is aware of the history of film and also attuned to what’s new. I guess you could say he’s hip.” —James Franco “Jonah came in to read for The 40-Year-Old Virgin. I felt an instant soul connection to him. It was comedy love at first sight. He is a brilliant, hilarious person who makes you happy to go to work every day. Who wouldn’t want to chat with Jonah between takes? That’s why I got into this business.” —Judd Apatow
“He’s super fucking funny. A few years ago, some of the Jersey Shore kids invited us to go drinking with them after the MTV Video Music Awards. We got insanely drunk and I honestly don’t remember most of the evening. But there was a picture of Jonah and me in People magazine the next day that kind of summarizes the time we had.” —Seth Rogen
“We’d spend just about all day together while we were shooting 21 Jump Street—hours upon hours—but when I’d go home at night I’d still catch myself thinking, I wonder what my little buddy is up to. He is one of the smartest and most driven people I’ve ever met, and I admire him more than he knows.” —Channing Tatum
“He has that quality of affability, along with a remarkable wit, daring, inventiveness, transgression, and truthfulness.” —Martin Scorsese
Hill’s eyes get misty when he hears this, and I half-expect him to cop Sarah Silverman’s joke about using his lacrimation as personal lubricant. He does not. “I am the luckiest guy. I have the best family and friends in the world,” says Hill, who was raised the middle of three kids in Los Angeles by his mother Sharon, a onetime costume designer and fashion stylist, and his father Richard, a business manager for music acts like Madonna and Guns N’ Roses. “I always pride myself on staying close with all the friends I had growing up. But the people I make movies with also hold such a special place in my heart. It really moves me that they’d say such nice things.”
Later today he’ll head uptown for a taping of Saturday Night Live. Kristen Wiig, the enduring sketch-comedy show’s most recent silver-screen crossover, is hosting. Wiig called the day before to see if he’d be willing to appear in her opening monologue, a this-is-your-life spoof for which she’ll retread the hallowed corridors of NBC’s Studio 8H. Along the way, she’ll stumble into a broom closet and catch Hill locking lips with an eight-months pregnant Maya Rudolph. Hill couldn’t be happier to oblige, especially since Vampire Weekend, headed by his good friend Ezra Koenig, is the episode’s musical guest.
As if on cue, Koenig and his girlfriend Nadja walk into the restaurant. “Ezra! Ezra!” Hill yells excitedly into cupped hands to get the musician’s attention. “This is so crazy! I was just talking about how you and I come here all the time! You have to see these crazy photos from this shoot I just did,” he says, swiping through the BULLETT outtakes on his iPhone. “Blood in Blood Out!” Koenig says when he sees a picture of Hill making the hand sign from their favorite movie about Chicano street gangs. They chat for a minute and then wave goodbye, making plans to catch up after tonight’s show.
Hill has hosted SNL twice, in 2008 and 2012. It’s his first appearance, however, that has stuck with him. He’d been dating someone at the time who “didn’t have any respect for how big a deal it was for someone to host SNL,” he says. “Not like, Hey, I need you to make a big deal about this. But just what a personal achievement it was, how scared I was, and how much I needed her support in that moment.” A week before the broadcast, Hill and his then-girlfriend were invited to dinner with the show’s creator Lorne Michaels. “She was texting the whole time,” he says. “Lorne was talking to us and she couldn’t even pretend to give a shit about being there. It was just incredibly rude.” He forgave her, though, and to commemorate his hosting gig the two got matching moustache-shaped tattoos inked onto the inside of their index fingers.
More fighting followed and, during a run-through on the day of the show, she called to say she’d flown back to L.A. and was reuniting with her ex-boyfriend. “I was dressed for a sketch, which ended up getting cut, where I was meant to play a white Madea from the Tyler Perry movies,” he says. “During the 30-minute break between the dress rehearsal and the actual show she tells me she never wants to see me again. I immediately start crying and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I’m wearing a grandma muumuu and there’s mascara streaming down my face. It was the weirdest, saddest moment. Bill Hader and Andy Samberg came in and were like, ‘Get your shit together. You’re fucking awesome and you’re about to host SNL.’”
A bros-before-hoes outlook on love suits Hill, who, though currently single, would eventually like to settle down and have kids. Fame, however, has hindered his ability to meet women. “The idea of celebrity is incredibly seductive and it brings out the evil in people,” says Hill, who used to only date girls with whom he’d gone to high school “because I knew they liked me before I was successful.” He’s confessed to past threesomes and to bedding a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, but he admits, “It’s not sustainable in a way that will give you any real gratification. It won’t have kids with you because it’s just an idea.”
The idea of family has been weighing heavily on Hill, who just wrapped the filming of True Story throughout New York State. The movie is based on the twisty real-life relationship between Michael Finkel (Hill), a disgraced journalist who tarnished his name when he falsified information in a 2002 article about an Ivory Coast cocoa plantation laborer, and Christian Longo (James Franco), a onetime FBI Ten Most Wanted fugitive who, for years, lived outside the U.S. under Finkel’s name. “That was the most challenging time in my life, and it’s still so fresh,” says Hill, whose Finkel strikes an unlikely friendship with Longo. “Most of the movie is about my character losing everything he cares about and his obsession with a guy who killed his own wife and infant kids. I would start to get happy on set for a second, or think about something funny, and immediately feel guilty because these people died.” Things got so difficult for Hill while filming True Story that his mother flew out and sat with him on set every day. “She didn’t leave,” he says. “Marty told me that his mom would be on set all the time and cook for everybody, and that always resonated with me.”
“Marty” is, of course, legendary auteur Martin Scorsese, who directed Hill in the forthcoming The Wolf of Wall Street, another reality-rooted tale based on Jordan Belfort’s memoir about corporate greed in the gogo ’80s. The genesis of their relationship started in, of all places, Cancun. In April 2012, Hill flew to southeastern Mexico for Summer of Sony, the studio’s annual event to toast its successes and promote its upcoming projects. Hill used the occasion to announce that he’d begun writing the sequel to 21 Jump Street. While there, he also arranged a meeting with Quentin Tarantino, who cast him in a small part in his slavesploitation bonanza, Django Unchained, starring Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Between drunken, late-night ocean dips with Tatum, Hill sat down with DiCaprio, who had already signed on to topline The Wolf of Wall Street, to discuss possibly collaborating on the project. Hill insisted that he was the right choice to play Donnie Azoff, an amoral and hedonistic entrepreneur inspired in part by Danny Porush, who was incarcerated in the ’90s for a $200-million “pump and dump’’ stock fraud. The role called for Hill to change his voice, appearance, and thought process—to totally disengage from his own solid moral code. “Even though it’s about excess, it’s really about the darkness of money and greed and drugs and power,” Hill says. “I knew that I was being considered among a list of other actors, but not my contemporaries—Andrew Garfield or Joseph Gordon-Levitt—people who are usually up for the same stuff as me. I was hearing names like George Clooney.” When Hill was done selling himself, DiCaprio said, “‘Now it’s up to Marty.’ And then we partied. And then Channing and I partied. It was a blast.”
Hill was in New Orleans shooting This Is the End when his agents phoned to tell him that Scorsese had agreed to meet him. “I said, I don’t want to meet him. I want to audition for him. I want to show him what I can do.” He flew to New York and told Scorsese what he told DiCaprio: “I’m meant to play this part. That’s just the way it is.” He read three scenes, one of them twice, and left without getting a single note from the director. “That walk home was the craziest walk of my life,” he says. “I was like, Fuck it. Even if I don’t get this, Scorsese called me in to meet with him and I didn’t pussy out.” Two weeks later, back in New Orleans, Hill received a call from a blocked number. “It was Leo,” Hill says. “‘Marty just called me,’ he said. ‘Let’s do this shit.’”
It’s taken some time, but Hill has finally achieved the regard he so desperately sought at the beginning of his career. He’s currently editing the script for a movie he’ll soon direct, about which he’ll only say, “It focuses on what it’s like to work in a field where immaturity is not only allowed, but also encouraged.” Hill, however, can still get pretty wild, especially around Tatum. “We bring out the crazy in each other. There’s almost like a one-upping of each other’s insanity,” he says. “But I’m no longer like, I don’t give a fuck! Let’s party! Where the molly at?”
Earlier in the week, Hill ate dinner at the Beatrice Inn in Manhattan’s West Village with SNL’s Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Seth Meyers. Once a storied, smoky den of debauchery for Olsen twins and deep-pocketed frat brothers, the Beatrice was shuttered a few years ago and recently reopened by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter as an upscale restaurant. “I used to have the greatest time there at the height of being single. I was like, I remember sitting at this very table, making out with a stranger, and now here I am, eating swordfish,” he says laughing. “It grew up as we grew up, I guess. I used to want to be an actor, then a dramatic actor, now a director. But more than anything—more than being a movie star who acts like a rock star—now I just want to be good.”
Photography by Naj Jamai.
The Wild issue is out now at The Bullet Shop!
“Do you think that I come off as not humble?” James Franco asks, curious to know how he’s perceived, or at least how I perceive him. We’re sitting across from one another on a pair of doughy, black leather couches in a Santa Monica photo studio, part of a strip mall lined with ticky-tacky art galleries. His mouth may be smiling but his heavy, flinty eyes, even from beneath the shadow of his baseball cap, are clearly not. He looks handsome but tired. Of course he’s tired. He’s James Franco, and the only thing everyone seems to agree on when it comes to James Franco is that the man has no use for repose. The Telegraph says he “barely sleeps.” New York magazine is pretty sure he considers it a “waste of time.” Franco himself, in an interview with Details earlier this year, went so far as to call it “defeat.” The 34-year-old Palo Alto native’s aversion to rest has been so regularly reported that the one time he was caught dozing off, during an after-hours seminar at Columbia University, it became a full-blown news story.
Franco’s ego is intrinsically linked to his studied insomnia. There’s simply no time for nightly eight-hour nonsense when you’re trying not only to learn, but to master, every form of creative expression known to man. He is considered many things by many people—an Oscar-nominated actor, an art world darling, a sex-obsessed filmmaker, and a leading voice of the Rx Generation—but who is the person behind the tired eyes? What follows are three portraits of the artist as a young anomaly.
VOLUME I – THE IMAGE
“He’s not what I think people perceive him to be.” –Mila Kunis
Few actors know Franco as well as Mila Kunis. The two met in 2008 while costarring in a reality TV–skewering online skit directed by Judd Apatow (the czar of sophomoric humor who gave Franco his big break on NBC’s Freaks and Geeks almost a decade earlier). In the five years since, Franco and Kunis have filmed as many projects together, including Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful and Paul Haggis’ upcoming relationship drama The Third Person. “James is unpindownable because he refuses to pin himself to any one thing,” she says. That much is obvious even from a cursory scan of the disparate group of Francophiles who make up his coterie: A-list actors, stoner comedians, gender-thrashing performance artists, poet laureates, teen-pop idols, art powerhouses, punk legends, vanguard filmmakers, fashion designers, Old Hollywood royalty, celebrity train-wrecks, pillars of academia, and college coeds. It seems inconceivable now that much of his early career as an actor was spent trying to convince those same crowds that he was more than the sum of his symmetrical parts.
The oldest of three kids raised in an artistic family (middle brother Tom is a painter and youngest brother Dave also has a career in show business), Franco toiled in middling teen comedies (Whatever It Takes, Never Been Kissed) until earning critical recognition—and a Golden Globe—for his turn in 2001’s TV movie James Dean, in which he played the icon of teenage disillusionment. The success of that film led Franco to roles that would emphasize his biceps over his ability to carry a scene. In 2006 alone, he played a fighter pilot (Flyboys), a naval officer (Annapolis), and the medieval equivalent of a star-crossed Romeo (Tristan + Isolde). “I don’t know if I ever tried to break away from being considered a heartthrob,” says Franco, who has been one of Gucci’s celebrity ambassadors since 2008. “I actually think there are times when a role calls for you to look your best. It was more that I was doing movies I didn’t believe in,” he says of that period in his life.
It was around that time that Franco became seduced by art and academia, and the freedom they afforded him. Six years later, countless publications devote barrels of ink to understanding, defining, or deriding the actor-writer-director-artist-musician-activist-model-poet-journalist-curator-blogger-teacher-student-celebrity—a man whose hyphenations have become so bombastic that it’s gotten increasingly difficult to take his endeavors seriously. To date, Franco has graduated from UCLA (where he reenrolled after dropping out a decade earlier to pursue acting), and studied in five graduate programs: Columbia and Brooklyn College for fiction, New York University for film, Warren Wilson for poetry, and Rhode Island School of Design for digital arts. He’s now working toward a Ph.D. in creative writing at Yale, while also teaching five classes at various schools across the country. No wonder New York magazine, in their 2010 cover story on the actor, asked, “Is James Franco For Real?”
Maybe it’s the many hats he wears that led Disney to cast Franco as the eponymous character of Oz the Great and Powerful, a prequel to the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz that pulls back the curtain on the Emerald City’s mysterious ruler. “I guess the studio just has to give everything to Johnny Depp,” Franco says laughing. “But Johnny was already busy with The Lone Ranger so they came to me. And in many ways, there are parallels between what Oz did and what I do as a creative person.” The film re-teams Franco with his Spider-Man director Sam Raimi, but if the collaboration reveals Oz as an enterprising, small-time magician, it also serves to muddy Franco’s more recent role as an experimental filmmaker and Ivy League aesthete. “I’m very director-driven and I obviously love working with Sam,” he says of his decision to return to the world of blockbuster moviemaking. “At first I had the same concerns I had when making Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Another Apes movie? But because it was a new visual take on Oz created by the best people in the industry—paired with the fact that my character was written as a slightly irreverent, flawed hero—it allowed me to take the piss out of it just a little bit.”
As much as Franco loves to take the piss out of his creative projects, the public loves to take the piss out of him. In fact, he’s become something of an obsession for those who chronicle every move of the man with the million-dollar grin. The intensity of his following, one assumes, would inflate anyone’s ego to the size of a wrecking ball, but Kunis insists otherwise. “I think people would be surprised by what a calm and decent person he is,” she says. “I don’t want to get too personal but he’s very humble. People know that he’s well-educated and that he’s well-read, but they might not know that he’s also a really good guy.”
VOLUME II – THE ARTIST
“The most interesting stuff is in the abstraction, in the randomness and the jaggedness of the reality.” –Harmony Korine
Harmony Korine had been trying to track down Franco for years. Although Franco was a fan of the Korine-scripted Kids in high school, the two only met in person at artist Dan Colen’s New York Gagosian Gallery opening in the fall of 2010. Korine, the virtuoso of vice behind films like Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy, and Trash Humpers, admired Franco’s work. In his own words, he’d seen Franco “in that movie where he rips his arm off. And the TV thing about the freaks. And the one where he acts with the monkeys.”
For his new cumming-of-age odyssey, Spring Breakers, Korine wrote the part of the cornrowed, grill-toothed, Riff Raff-esque Floridian rapper Alien—“a collision of gangster and mystic,” says the filmmaker—with Franco in mind. In the film, Alien bails out the four main characters (played by Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens, and Harmony’s wife Rachel Korine) after they run into a spate of legal trouble during an especially orgiastic spring break. “I needed James’ character to be really authentic,” Korine says. “The voice, the accent, the mannerisms, the swagger, the cadences—it all needed to be legit.” During the year leading up to the film’s production, Korine sent Franco hundreds of reference photographs, videos, and audio files—anything that tonally or “psychologically” connected to Alien and his environs. “He loves scouring the Internet and finding the craziest stuff on there,” Franco says of Korine. “I guess he was into college debauchery at the time.”
Photography by Frederik Heyman
“It’s like climbing out of the mud,” says Angela Sarafyan of 2013, which is poised to be a banner year for the 29-year-old actor who’s been slogging through Hollywood (in commercials, gueststarring TV spots, and a web series called Hot Sluts) for more than a decade. “You know how there’s the A-list? Well at the other end, on the bottom, there’s a lot of crazy shit happening, lots of fear and corruption,” she says. “But I’m pretty stubborn—I know that this is what I want.” The “this” she’s referring to isn’t necessarily mainstream recognition—although that’s bound to happen—but rather the opportunity to explore and question the human condition through acting.
The Los Angeles–based Armenian actor did just that in two high-profile films slated for release later this year: the James Gray–directed romantic drama Nightingale, in which she plays the younger sister to Marion Cotillard’s burlesque dancer–in-distress; and Paranoia, a corporate espionage thriller starring Gary Oldman, Liam Hemsworth, and Harrison Ford. There’s also the recently released Cullen clan finale, the second installment of Twilight: Breaking Dawn, for which Sarafyan bared her fangs as Tia, an Egyptian vampire. “I wasn’t really into it at first,” she says of the billion-dollar franchise. “But it turned out to be one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my career.”
Memory Lane: “I was 6 months old when I started walking, and I remember everything. I remember the walls and the room, and I remember falling. People think I’m crazy when I tell them that, but I can picture it like it was just yesterday.”
Scoot McNairy, an avid fly-fisher, was knee-deep in the icebox waters of Utah’s Heber River when his agent phoned to say that filmmaker Andrew Dominik needed to meet with him in Los Angeles. By the following day, the 32-year-old Texan, who lives about two hours east of Austin with his wife and onetime costar, actor Whitney Able, had committed a three-page monologue to memory and nailed his audition for Killing Them Softly. He was offered the part of mob heister Frankie in Dominik’s grimy noir and, five weeks later, was sharing screen time with Brad Pitt.
The role put McNairy on Hollywood’s fast track: Dominik called Ben Affleck, who was auditioning actors for Argo, his fictional retelling of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis (McNairy landed the part of one of the six American diplomats hiding out in Tehran’s Canadian consulate; the film, of course, went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards); not long after, longtime Affleck collaborator Gus Van Sant cast McNairy in this season’s fracking drama Promised Land, which also stars co-writers Matt Damon and John Krasinski; finally, Pitt “put in a few very nice calls,” and the next thing McNairy knew, he and Pitt were back together on the set of Steve McQueen’s plantation-set period piece called Twelve Years a Slave. McNairy was also recently cast in the AMC tech-drama Halt & Catch Fire. Not bad for a guy who once spent six months living out of his car.
Unhook the Stars: “For the first 10 seconds of my first scene with Brad, it was like, Holy shit. Now it’s just like any other working relationship—same with Matt, Ben, Gus, and John. But can I believe I’m saying that? No, I cannot.”
Photography by James Orlando
When Macaulay Culkin was 8 years old, two years before he starred as Kevin McCallister in Home Alone, he watched the film Big, in which a precocious boy named Josh wishes he were taller. The next morning, Josh wakes up in Tom Hanks’ 30-year-old husk, and is immediately ushered into a world of rent checks, promotions, and sex. Big and Home Alone both exist in a fantasy world where the innocence of youth is tested, but proves resilient, when prematurely faced with the scary realities of adulthood. It’s an apt allegory for Macaulay Culkin, who became a millionaire at 10, retired from acting (for the first time) at 14, was estranged from his father at 16, married at 17, and divorced at 20.
Culkin, now 32, has what he refers to as “Big Syndrome,” a forever-young playfulness that calls to mind Everlasting Gobstoppers, the Lost Boys, and Neverland Ranch. It’s why he recently transformed the living room of his 5,100-square-foot downtown Manhattan apartment into a playground workspace where he creates art with the other two members of 3MB Collective, Adam Green and Toby Goodshank, both former members of the Moldy Peaches. “After seeing Big,” says Culkin, “I wanted a loft space with an elevator that opened directly into my apartment, just like Tom Hanks did”—and now he does, only his has a fleshy, oversized dildo glued to its door.
It’s a few weeks before Halloween, and the former child star is dressed head-to-toe, and without explanation, in a costume-shop pastiche dedicated to the late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain: white Jackie O sunglasses, the red-and black striped wool sweater made famous by Freddy Krueger, a blond “grunge” wig, and his own kneetorn, paint-splattered jeans. (For the actual holiday, he will throw a party at his place called “Hoganoween,” where only those outfitted like the less-incredible Hulk will be allowed in.) Drinking a can of Red Bull, he smokes cigarette after cigarette, discarding them in one of the many ashtrays scattered across his expansive home.
Nirvana songs float from Culkin’s laptop. Green and Goodshank, also done up as the tortured rock star, pore over images of a Japanese woman with a bagelhead, the latest temporary “ModCon” procedure that has doctors injecting 400 cc’s of saline into their patients’ foreheads to create the illusion of a bagel having sprung from their heads like a yeasty Athena. The room is littered with junk. Photos of JonBenét Ramsey and Jean Reno from The Professional share space with 40-ounce alcohol bottles of varying fullness, illuminated strings of red Christmas lights, mounds of faded and grease-stained delivery receipts, Mandy Moore’s Coverage CD, and a hardcover copy of Julia Child’s autobiography, My Life In France. With the exception of a few larger canvases resting against the space’s tall, white walls—and a smaller text painting that reads, appropriately, “Courtney Love follows me on Twitter”—the place feels conspicuously devoid of actual art. That’s because most of the group’s shared creations are currently on display at (Le) Poisson Rouge, a bar and gallery space in New York’s Greenwich Village.
Entitled “Leisure Inferno,” 3MB’s debut show—the trio’s name is a nod to another iconic ’80s film, Three Men and a Baby—is comprised of brightly colored paintings that incorporate and skewer a buffet of ’90s cultural references: the cast of Seinfeld standing nude on the Wheel of Fortune; Korn’s lead singer, Jonathan Davis, playing to a surreal crowd that includes E.T. and Wally from the Where’s Waldo series; and Kurt Cobain himself, rendered as a character from the 1995 film Hackers. “We tried to hit this generation in their sweet spot,” Culkin says. “We took a lot of things from our own youths, from 5 to 25 years old. It’s almost self-referential in that we’re referencing ourselves when we’re referencing Hackers. It’s essentially a box within a box.” Green, who has since changed into his own clothes—a British military jacket from the Revolutionary War—adds, “Drawing things that are half-remembered gives you the opportunity to draw a self-portrait inside of the thing. When I draw Garfield, I’m drawing myself.” Culkin nods in violent agreement. “That’s because you’re drawing your Garfield.”
Photography by KELSEY BENNETT
Parker Posey is contemplating small plates of Brussels sprouts and sautéed Swiss chard when I arrive to meet her at the Crosby Street Hotel’s airy restaurant. It’s a fresh afternoon in October and the 44-year-old actor can’t shake the cold. She puts on her coat, but that doesn’t do it, so, like a Starbucks-era MacGyver, she fashions her white linen napkin into a makeshift Pashmina. “Well, that’s better!” she says, with a smile so infectiously pleased that it’s hard to determine whether or not she knows how absurd she looks.
For the past two decades, Posey’s acting success has hinged on the ambiguous gray area between sincerity and humor. As a Dewey Decimal System–loving good-time gal in Party Girl, a Jackie O–obsessed crackpot in The House of Yes, and a Gale Weathers–impersonating thespian in Scream 3—Posey’s most enduring performances straddle the liminal space between darkness and comedy. It’s why she’s been such an asset to the Christopher Guest canon, appearing as a series of sad-sack women who’ve chewed the scenery in Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration.
In her latest film, Price Check, the New York–based, stalwart indie actor plays Susan Felders, an ambitious corporate boss determined to resurrect a struggling supermarket chain from obsolescence. Along the way, she befriends, and eventually beds, her married employee, Pete (Eric Mabius), causing the tightly wound rope she’s been climbing toward white-collar domination to unravel—and quickly. Price Check finds Posey at her best portraying a knotty mess of emotions, at times manic and hilarious—at others, lonely and damaged. I found her wearing a doily toga.
Price Check, with its cubicles and watercooler culture, seems kind of anathema to the world in which you live. Have you had any experience with a nine-to-five job?
Well, I read The PITA Principle [How to Work With (and Avoid Becoming) a Pain in the Ass] for this movie I did called Clockwatchers. Did you ever see that one? It’s about this group of girlfriends who are temps, and I played an antiestablishment type within the corporate system. Someone’s been accused in the office of stealing from the tip jar—like a quarter from the tip jar—and it’s about how the insidious quality of that fishbowl environment, the paranoia and fear, can affect how people behave and how they lose friendships. There was something in The PITA Principle that said if you’re going to have a job and sit behind a desk with your name on it—if you’re the boss—then it’s guaranteed that the level of your competence will be mediocre. The person sitting behind the desk is never the real leader. But Susan [in Price Check] is a very passionate woman who desires to bring change to her office.
So much so that in one scene she falls to the floor and throws the equivalent of a childhood tantrum.
That’s because, to her, it’s personal. Susan wants to make the supermarket into the greatest space it can be. There’s another book, Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, in which the writer talks about putting video cameras in newspaper stands to observe how people shop and the things they stop to look at. It sort of speaks to why there are old people in front of Walmart or Home Depot stores. Someone, at some point, thought to put that person there, namely because most people won’t steal if they see an elderly person at the entrance to the store. There’s manipulation behind it, like, “There’s my grandma—better not walk off with this picture frame.”
Can you relate to the careerist aspects of Susan’s personality?
I’m not sure, but it’s fascinating when people are intensely passionate about a job that’s so undeserving of passion. Susan doesn’t have a sexy job, but she’s like, “I’m going to make this the hottest thing ever! I’m really going to turn people on to what this could be.” But then she gets a few drinks in her and she’s like, “This job? What a joke!”
I think that happens a lot, where people have to trick themselves into believing that the thing they devote their workweek to is important. Pete encapsulates that idea when he comes home one day, shortly after Susan starts to shake up the office, and tells his wife that he’s finally starting to enjoy his job.
And she’s like, “What? Are you kidding me?”
The emasculation he’s had to endure at the office—a small salary and little opportunity for upward mobility—permeates his private life, and it’s the only brief moment where I could understand, although not condone, his extramarital affair.
Sure, and the idea of a woman coming into a boardroom is sexy. She’s just as strong as the men. But then there’s that dinner meeting she sets up between herself, Pete, and her boss—her father figure—Bennington [Edward Herrmann], the man she’s dying to please. She goes to the restroom and when she comes back, they’re deep in conversation and she’s so jealous. She’ll never fully escape the old boys’ club.
Have you encountered that type of thing in your profession?
Oh, yeah. But the last time I was in L.A. it felt more like a girls’ club. I guess I was just gravitating more toward female producers and writers. But, of course, there are times when, at a meeting, you feel like you’re on a date with three guys at the same time.
Show business is, in a way, a never-ending courtship.
It can feel like that. But you just go with the people who make you feel natural.
About 10 years ago, during an interview to promote Personal Velocity, you sort of excused your character’s infidelity because she was in her 20s and still trying to sort out her place in the world. How about with Susan, a woman in her 40s? Are you able to embody her without judging her?
I have a new friend who’s a Jungian analyst, and he’s so cool. I met him during a dinner party at the Rubin Museum of Art. He was saying, “People really judge alcoholics and sex addicts, but infidelity and addiction is often about a strong desire to find wholeness. That’s what that’s about—“I’m not feeling whole.” And when you start to see it like that, you don’t judge. Susan is a great character to play, and I approached her, right from the beginning, as wanting to find her heart and soul—even if she’s not that deep. With her, I discovered, it’s like: “I don’t have that. I don’t have this. I want that. I want this.” When you see someone like that, you know there’s something missing in her life—she’s a bottomless pit of need.
Before we go, I’d like to talk about your recent video, “Just Act, Naturally.”
[Laughs.] You can call her JA,N.
Was it inspired by any actual acting courses that you’ve taken?
It’s sort of a hodgepodge. Let’s see how that came about—originally, the idea of me playing an acting teacher was pitched to Acura by some UCB directors. I went to P-town [Provincetown, Massachusetts] in April, and saw some amazing drag queens there.
I’ve never been.
You have to go. They were so good. Anyway, when I went out to L.A., I got invited to Trina Turk’s showroom, and then I just started dressing up with, like, fake eyelashes from the ’60s. I rented a Lincoln Town Car, just to feel like I was driving myself around in Hollywood. So I was like, Okay, I’ll play the part. I’m 43, but I feel like Phyllis Diller in her 70s, you know? You know how women, when they reach a certain age, they start dressing in a certain way—there’s honesty to those boas, and a ballsiness that comes from being a seasoned entertainer. So that’s kind of where JA,N came from.
I’m sure it’s a far cry from Grace of Monaco, which you’ve been filming in the South of France with Nicole Kidman. Is the character you play based on a real woman?
Yes, but [the film’s director] Olivier Dahan is kind of meshing a traditional biopic with a Hitchcock film. Hitchcock is actually a character within the film [played by Roger Ashton-Griffiths], but I’m talking more about his style of filmmaking.
Hitchcock, the man, is having a real moment right now.
He’s coming back…
He’s. Coming. Back.
There are two other Hitchcock films: The Girl and Hitchcock.
Isn’t it interesting when that happens? It gets in the air. Anyway, Grace Kelly had an Australian lady-in-waiting named Madge. But my Madge is more like Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca, so it’s more of a villainous part—you don’t know if she’s a traitor, or what she’s up to. The costumes are really… real, really ’50s. Poor Madge.
In the summer of 2010, Kylie Minogue suggested we meet for Sunday brunch at Supercore, a Japanese restaurant and laptop-lit coffeehouse in Williamsburg. It was one of the last places I’d expected to interview one of this generation’s most famous and beloved pop stars. But then, the 44-year-old Australian showgirl has always thumbed her nose at convention, defying expectation through a giddy embrace of reinvention that cuts much deeper than wardrobe changes and Day-Glo wigs. Her most recent creative detour—Holy Motors, a surreal cinematic joyride courtesy of French auteur Leos Carax—has taken her down what is, quite possibly, the most bizarre path she’s ever trod.
Denis Lavant stars in the film as an Odysseus-like actor whose day consists of embodying all manner of otherworldly characters in a series of seemingly unrelated vignettes: a homeless woman begging for change; a beastly sewer-dweller who kidnaps a supermodel (Eva Mendes) and fashions her designer gown into a burka; and a gangster out for blood. Holy Motors’ most emotional scene centers on a chance encounter between Lavant and the mysterious Jean (Minogue), who sings about lost love before changing into a flight attendant uniform and jumping to her death from the roof of a dusty, abandoned department store. The episodic narratives, inspired in turn by various film genres, are circuitous, dreamlike, and breathtaking, and they come together to create a masterwork of dissonant but surprisingly holistic pastiche.
In celebration of the film’s October 17 release, I visited Minogue at the Soho Grand Hotel to discuss rebirth, reinvention, and the single greatest obstacle to her own artistic freedom: herself.
When you told me, two years ago from that patio in Williamsburg, that you were getting back into acting, I never imagined you meant something like Holy Motors.
Right? [Laughter.] Here’s the thing: there were reasons to do it and no reasons not to do it. I know it’s an unlikely pairing but throughout my career I’ve always been attracted to left-field independent stuff. I’ve done plenty of incidental things that by their very nature people just don’t know about.
You’ve always seemed to me like an outsider who’s been able to thrive in the mainstream, so, in a way, a Leos Carax movie makes sense.
Exactly, and it was like a gift from heaven. I was and I wasn’t looking for roles, but the entire time I was hoping to find the film equivalent of my collaboration with Nick Cave [1995’s “Where the Wild Roses Grow”]. Actually, the only thing that Leos knew of me was my work with Nick Cave. So I think the energies all went to the right places. I read the script and then I met with Leos and I thought he was either a crazy fool or some kind of genius. Anyway, I explained to him over lunch how I started out acting and blah, blah, blah. But it was a real blessing that he’s one of the few people who know very little about me, so he wasn’t clouded by all that other stuff.
He took me at face value without seeing Kylie.
That must feel so liberating.
You’ve hit the nail on the head. It was extremely liberating to be part of a team where things don’t fall entirely on my shoulders. It’s not my name carrying it. It allowed me to go back to what I started out doing, and that gave me a very warm feeling. As much as it was a challenge to do the film, and as much as anxiety it gave me, it felt good to be on set.
In what other ways were you able to shed the trappings of Kylie the pop star?
Everything came from living. I wasn’t thinking about what it looked like—I was thinking about what it felt like. That’s not to say that during concerts I’m only considering how things look, but presentation is a big part of it, and here there was none of that.
You’re adding layers during your live shows, and in this case you’re stripping those layers away. Was that frightening?
Actually, it was great. The only frightening part of it was if I could do it. I didn’t know if I would be successful—that’s what I was scared about. I was scared it would reach the point in the film where I first appear, and people would be like, “What’s Kylie Minogue doing in there?” But I hardly recognize myself in the movie. We were able to leave Kylie Minogue behind, which was great because I wanted to feel like I did when I was not much more than a kid, just starting out, and no one could spell or even say my name.
The film feels like a loving pastiche to the art of cinema.
But then Leos says in his interviews that it’s not about cinema! I’m trying to sort out how that works. He says that cinema is his language, that it’s his island. So I guess if he’s telling a story about what it is to be alive and his language is cinema, then that’s why all those references to different movie genres are in there. From what I’ve heard him say, he never set out to reference this and this and this. It’s all just within him.
When preparing for your part, did Leos give you any genre or character to look at for inspiration?
My character’s name was initially Elle, but we later settled on Jean because Leos kept bringing up Jean Seberg and Gene Tierney as references. My character can only really explain her past through song, and I kept wondering how I would go from speaking into singing about something in one fell swoop. He said to think about it as if it were just too painful to say—there are no words. Nothing is going to make it better and it’s almost like the song is coming out of her. The biggest challenge was to deliver the song but not to perform the song.
It couldn’t be further from “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” which appears as one of the character’s ringtones in the film.
That was cheeky. Holy Motors is an independent film, and songs cost a lot of money to use, so I tried to put in a good word… I was thinking they wouldn’t get it, but they did.
You’ve seen the film three times now. Do you get something new from it with each viewing?
As the great Homer Simpson once said, “It works on so many levels.”
Has your experience on Holy Motors reinvigorated your passion for acting?
Yeah, I’m doomed. [Laughs.] My life is busy enough already! I want more of this experience of expansion. I want to broaden my experience as opposed to always running on the same road. That’s not going to come to a grinding halt—I’ve got an album coming out next month, and I’ve got another album I’ll be working on next year—but it’s nice to wander and explore.
Leading up to Holy Motors, as well as your work in Bradley Rust Gray’s Jack and Diane, were you turning down a lot of offers?
I don’t know about a lot, but they’ve definitely rolled in from time to time. And it’s normally like, “So we’ve got a character for you: She’s Australian and she’s a singer…” Oddly, I was put in touch with Leos through [filmmaker] Claire Denis, who I met because we share the same hairdresser in Paris. That’s basically how all of it happened. Everything goes down at the hairdressers. It’s the epicenter of the universe.
Do you have any other films lined up?
[Whispers.] There are a couple things in the pipeline but I know better than to jinx them, and I think it’s a small miracle that any film ever gets made. But, yes, there are a couple of sparks out there and we’ll see which embers manage to burn.
Klaus Biesenbach, Director of MoMA PS1 and Chief Curator at Large at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, selects five works that best exemplify love.
Michele Abeles—Man, Shadow, Table, Fan, Rock (2009)
Brooklyn-based photographer Michele Abeles, who will be included as part of the MoMA’s New Photography 2012 show in October, pairs quietly haunting still lifes with truncated male nudes. “Michele is an artist with whom I worked on the Greater New York exhibit [MoMA PS1’s mixed-media quinquennial],” Biesenbach says. “Despite my general rule that I always ask how a work is made and what the production process is, I have refrained from asking Michele in order to keep these mysterious works in the realm of secrets.” Of “Man, Shadow, Table, Fan, Rock,” Abeles, 35, will say this: “During the shoot, I played Usher on repeat, burned incense, and applied body oil to the model, who helped me cut the paper and apply it to the fan. After that I forgot there was another body in the room.”
Frances Stark—My Best Thing (2011)
With her latest video project, My Best Thing, Los Angeles–based artist and writer Frances Stark constructed a feature-length animated film using dialog from her own interactions in online video chat rooms. (Its title is a nod to how one of her online paramours described his penis—as in, “Want to see my best thing?”) Instead of showing poorly lit flashes of skin, Stark, 45, chose to re-imagine her exchanges using brightly colored, Lego-like avatars, which are seen alternately wearing briefs, covered with fig leaves, or naked. “My Best Thing visualizes, in a humorous but still serious way, dialogs that normally happen between chatters cruising the Internet,” says Biesenbach. “Specific tendencies, preferences, and fetishes depict versions of loneliness and longing, of contact and distance, exploration and caution, and casual commitment.” Stark, who came up with the idea when she found herself wasting time online, says, “I think it’s possible to be genuine and romantic when chatting online with strangers, but genuine romance is tricky because it’s associated with real-life pay-offs, involving real-life commitments and all the trappings of socially acceptable monogamy.”
Clifford Owens—Performance of Kara Walker’s Score (2012)
Last spring, 41-year-old photographer and performance artist Clifford Owens took over MoMA PS1 with Anthology, a mixed-media installation centered on scores—written or graphical instructions for actions—contributed by 26 artists. But it was Kara Walker’s set of commands—and her alleged last-minute withdrawal from involvement—that injected the show with a sense of infamy. Her score in full: “French kiss an audience member. Force them against a wall and demand sex. The audience/viewer should be an adult. If they are willing to participate in the forced sex act abruptly turn the tables and you assume the role of victim. Accuse your attacker. Seek help from others. Describe your ordeal. Repeat.” Says Biesenbach, smiling, “I don’t really want to add to the score by Kara Walker.” Uncomfortably physical, Owens’ execution of the scores called upon all five senses. “The scent of my sex, the texture and taste of my tongue, the softness of my skin, the ‘grain of [my] voice,’ and my image,” says the Queens resident, who insists that there’s nothing romantic about the nudity or sexual overtones of his work. “I don’t like the word ‘romantic.’ It’s as silly a word as ‘sentimentality.’”
“AS IF! ” Those two little words, italicized and paired with a perfectly plucked brow furrow, were all it took for Alicia Silverstone to forever cement her status as a ’90s icon. It was the summer of 1995, and multiplexes were grunting with the testosterone of blockbusters like Batman Forever, Apollo 13, and Under Siege 2: Dark Territory. Writer-director Amy Heckerling was best known for her sex-addled comedy, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Silverstone, then 18, had achieved modest fame for her turn as a deranged teenager in The Crush, and by appearing in a trilogy of Aerosmith videos with Liv Tyler.
Clueless, Heckerling’s Beverly Hills High School–set reimagining of Jane Austen’s Emma, became a sleeper hit and turned Silverstone, who played the ultimate Valley Girl Cher Horowitz, into an overnight star. Shortly thereafter, the young actor signed a $10 million, multipicture deal with Columbia- TriStar and started her own production company. She named it, appropriately, First Kiss Productions, and two years later it produced its only film, Excess Baggage. Silverstone went on to appear primarily in romantic comedies (Blast from the Past, Beauty Shop) and franchise films (Batman & Robin, Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed). Heckerling followed up Clueless five years later with Loser and, seven years after that, I Could Never Be Your Woman, which, due to a money-related fallout, was released straight-to-DVD.
Silverstone, who continues to steadily work in theater, began to pursue her twin passions for environmentalism and animal rights. In 2009, she released a New York Times best-selling guide to vegan living called The Kind Diet, which led to The Kind Life, an offshoot website and a less smug version of Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP, and, most recently, a green cosmetics line for Juice Beauty. She also married musician, radio host, and fellow vegan Christopher Jarecki, with whom she had a baby boy, Bear Blu, last year.
Now 35, the onetime queen of Valspeak has reentered Hollywood through the back door, appearing on critically acclaimed television series (Suburgatory and Childrens Hospital) and in festival-friendly films (The Art of Getting By and this fall’s Butter, an ensemble comedy centered on a butter-sculpting competition). But it’s her reunion with Heckerling this October in Vamps that has people, like, totally buggin’. As Goody, Silverstone swans about New York City with her socialite best friend Stacey (Krysten Ritter), until they fall in love with two mortals and are forced to choose between eros and life everlasting.
In anticipation of the film’s release, we brought Silverstone and Heckerling together, and asked them to take us back—all the way back to the very first time they met.
ALICIA SILVERSTONE: We met at this fancy-ish restaurant in Beverly Hills called Maple Drive. My agent told me that I’d be meeting an amazing director who’d done Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I was 17, so I didn’t really know what that meant, other than that it seemed important.
AMY HECKERLING: I’d seen your Aerosmith videos. The first one was “Cryin’,” where you’re mad at the guy and then someone steals your purse and then you do the bungee jumping. I’m always on the treadmill watching videos starring millions of supposedly hot girls. But I responded to you. You had personality and a soul. When I was writing the script for Clueless, I had a vague notion in my head of Cher as a pretty, sweet blonde, who, in spite of being the American ideal, people still really like. You had that marilyn monroe thing, which is that other women love you, too. I’m always so happy to see you in things. I saw the play—what was it? Time and Again?
Time Stands Still.
And I saw you in the mamet play [Speed-the-Plow] and the Shakespeare movie [Love’s Labour’s Lost], and the one where you meet what’s-his-name in the fallout shelter…
Blast from the Past.
Yeah, Blast from the Past!
You were always so hip. You always knew what was going on with young people much more than I did, and I was supposed to be the young person. I even went to the Clueless school, Beverly Hills High, for a semester, but you noticed all these things that I didn’t. When we worked together on Vamps all these years later, I felt very connected to you. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman now, too.
There are a few people in my life who I’ve watched grow up. The nature of our relationship has changed, of course, but the feeling that I need to protect you didn’t go away.
There are so many things I would have done differently after Clueless, but I think we all have that period in our lives where we think, if I could just press the restart button!
You went through the biggest, craziest upheaval. But that’s what happens when you take someone who’s 17, and start telling her that all of these millions of dollars are dependent on her. There was a headline on the cover of a magazine back then that said, “Can Alicia Silverstone Save Sony?” What the hell? I always thought you should be reading the classics and going on dates. It was just crazy, the weight that was put onto you.
I can’t tell you that if I went back in time, as that little girl, I wouldn’t have made the same choices.
But they were decisions that a lot of people around you were making: studio heads and management. It’s hideous the way people hang on—and suck from—talent. It’s the kind of stuff that makes a lot of people go crazy.
Photography by Zoey Grossman
Bag-lady chic. It’s the first thing that comes to mind when Elizabeth Olsen enters Il Buco on a balmy afternoon in July, but not for the reasons one might expect. The 23-year-old actor and budding fashion darling, who is currently between apartments, walks into her favorite upscale Italian restaurant carrying a paper shopping bag from Pamela Rolland, which tears in half just before she sets it down next to our table. “Shit. Shit. Shit,” she whispers to herself while expeditiously gathering its quotidian goulash: a stick of deodorant, a pair of gym sneakers, an empty water bottle, the latest issue of Whole Living magazine, and used copies of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, both emblazoned with Oprah’s seal of approval.
A week earlier Olsen was in Serbia, where she spent two months channeling the eponymous heroine in filmmaker Charlie Stratton’s adaptation of Émile Zola’s novel-turned-play Thérèse Raquin. Yesterday she started preproduction on Very Good Girls, the story of two recent high school graduates (Olsen and Dakota Fanning) who fall for the same guy. “This has been the fastest I’ve had to shift between two projects,” she says, before ordering a glass of 1997 Burlotto Barolo from the restaurant’s hideaway wine cellar. “Actually, that’s a lie. When I filmed Martha, it overlapped with another movie I was doing at the same time.” She is, of course, referring to Sean Durkin’s award-winning Martha Marcy May Marlene, in which she played a troubled drifter who escapes from a Spahn Ranch–type farmhouse where she’d lived under the lecherous rule of a magnetic cult leader (John Hawkes). As a bruised and rough-hewn shell of a woman on the verge of a paranoia-fueled breakdown, Olsen’s nuanced performance managed to combine very adult terror with teenage petulance, and it’s the reason she’s been busy ever since. “Truth be told, I feel a little crazy right now,” she says of her frenzied work schedule.
It doesn’t help that she’s still two humanities courses shy of earning her undergraduate degree from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “I’m a six-year college student, which is so embarrassing,” says Olsen, whose academic career has been stalled by her recent onslaught of movie roles, including, ironically, Liberal Arts, a semi-autobiographical romantic comedy written and directed by Josh Radnor, who also stars as Jesse, a thirty-something college admissions officer who returns to his bucolic alma mater and crushes on Olsen, a sophomore theater student. “Liberal Arts is special to me, because it was the first movie I was in the position to choose,” she says. “I’d done three psychological thrillers back-to-back—Silent House, Red Lights, and Martha—and I wanted to do something more like me, something that had a sense of humor.”
Although she hated her actual first-year campus residency (“It was terrible! People should avoid it”), there was something comforting about living in the dorms of Kenyon College, where the majority of Liberal Arts was filmed. “Everything smelled like beer, just like in college,” Radnor says. “I think some people were a little freaked out when they walked in, but two days later they were blissed out and wouldn’t have wanted to stay anywhere else.” Says Olsen, “It was really fun, actually. I had lots of days off to take these long bike rides on a converted train railway. I’d ride over these creeks and when the sun was setting, when it was almost too dark to be riding, I’d pass an infinite cornfield and millions of lightning bugs would sparkle across the horizon.”
In Radnor’s second directorial offering, Olsen plays Zibby, an opinionated young woman who seizes every opportunity to debate the merits of anything from Monteverdi to Bella Swan. “I wrote Zibby as an old soul in a young person’s body. Lizzie brought all that to the part and more. She’s wise and sophisticated but she’s also young and energetic, and can be really goofy in the most charming way,” says Radnor, who was impressed by how intensely prepared Olsen was when she arrived to set on the first day of shooting. “You’d be surprised by how many young actors show up not knowing their lines,” he says. “Lizzie isn’t one of them. She puts a lot of thought into her characters, but she doesn’t show her homework.” Olsen’s portrayal of a woman who views the world as an endless tangle of possibilities is perhaps so authentically lived-in because it mirrors a similar stage in her own life. “It’s this awesome time when teachers encourage you to change the world, literally, with your intellect,” she says. “There’s something about being in college and having theories about life and the world that exists ahead of you. It’s a really fun phase to go through until, you know, everything gets shit on.”
While the film centers on Jesse’s willful but temporary regression from experience to innocence, it also shows, in subtler ways, the twilight of Zibby’s teenage years—specifically in one scene, when she offers Jesse her virginity. “Being 35 and taking a girl’s virginity? That’s crazy,” says Olsen reasonably, although she admits that she’s always had a thing for silver foxes like George Clooney and Frank Sinatra. “If I were an older man and I saw a girl my age, who maybe didn’t know herself that well, I would find her so unappealing, because if you’re in it for sex, the sex won’t be that great. But when I see a woman in her 40s and up, I think, God, you know a lot. One day, I’ll get to be desired like you.”
Photography by Jeff Bark