Q&A: Anjelica Huston
Once upon a time, Anjelica Huston was known solely as John's kid. That was a long, long time ago. She had been acting successfully for several years when her supporting turn as a Mafia princess in Prizzi's Honor landed her an Oscar. Since then, she has appeared in a staggering variety of films, ranging from ensemble work with Wes Anderson's crew to the irresistible matron of the Addams Family films. Her latest role has her returning to familiar territory as a con artist succumbing to dementia in Clark Gregg's Choke. She sat down to discuss her work both new and old at a press conference for the film.
Question: How did you find yourself involved in Choke?
Anjelica Huston: I was simply asked. (Laughs.) Clark Gregg knew my work, and sent me the script, which I thought was strange and interesting. Another fiendish mother, which I have a hard time resisting.
Q: You've played a number of them in your career. How do you work on bringing them to life in ways beyond just stereotyping?
AH: I think I'm attracted to these characters because they're imperfect. So am I. There's always something fascinating about people who have a lot going on under the surface, who have secrets, who maybe have a little bag of tricks. That's how I see Ida. There's a tongue-in-cheek quality about playing characters like her. Like you have a dirty little secret nobody else has. It's a bit like how I felt about Lilly Dillon in The Grifters: just something to keep in your back pocket. Really good dialogue has a lot to do with that. You can put it on like a coat.
In this particular case, I was very attracted to the flashback sequences, and to the relationship with Victor as it unfolds and unravels. Ida isn't who she said she is, to begin with. She's lied to him all his life. That's always interesting to me: the secrets that a character is holding which the audience gradually discovers. It was also an attraction to play Ida as both a younger and an older women, especially without prosthetics. Finding ways to make that work was a challenge.
Q: Choke apparently had a very tight shoot. Did you ever have to play young Ida and old Ida on the same day?
AH: Oh yeah, over and over. When you're working on a very low budget movie, it comes with the territory. But that's also what makes it fun for me. Mercifully, I can go into a big Disney movie once in a while and make some dosh, but when you're faced with something like this -- something interesting and warped and a little strange -- the challenge becomes how to make it work without all the bells and whistles. We didn't have the money to get wigs or prosthetics made. I brought my own wig to this show for old Ida. I had worn it in a thing called Family Pictures about twenty years ago. Then the young Ida look just kind of came spontaneously. My hairdresser on Choke had this wig she was going to use for the stunt girl during some of the flashback scenes, but we didn't have a look for Ida. So I slapped on this stunt girl wig, knowing that Ida was a mistress of disguise among other things, and it worked. It looked a little odd, and we weren't sure if it was really her hair or not, but that feeds into the character.
All of that stuff makes a difference. All of those choices that you make. You don't necessarily have to have a lot of money in order to make it good or convincing. I always like scraping things together a little bit. I did that in a little movie that my brother [Danny] is in, Bernard Rose's new movie The Kreutzer Sonata. Bernard works with maybe five people. He shoots it himself, he shoots on the Golden Gate Bridge without a permit, he shoots on planes post-9/11 without a permit, everything. I think it's quite extraordinary, and I like that. I like participating in guerilla filmmaking as opposed to the perkier, high-toned stuff.
Q: You don't usually have much prep time for those sorts of shoots. How much guidance did you get from Clark Gregg or Chuck Palahniuk about this character?
AH: I think we had one or two rehearsals before we left Los Angeles. I talked to the cast as much as I could and I spoke with a sex therapist who was working with Sam [Rockwell] and Brad [Henke] about their characters. I got a sense of Sam and Clark, and they got a sense of me, and then suddenly we're in New Jersey shooting this thing. So it was all on the run and all by the seat of your pants. A lot of it became almost instinctive.
Q: Was the dementia aspect an extra challenge?
AH: I just believed whatever she was saying or thinking at the time. Ida has her own set of beliefs and her own set of rules. The hospital experience was funny. Anytime I do a movie, somehow it reflects on what's going on in my life, and I had just spent some time in a hospital with somebody who's been very sick. That really was the experience in the film. I mean, you cook them this extremely important meal and you do it from scratch and it takes hours, and you make it absolutely fantastic. Then you take it in and they just make a face and give it back to you. And that's what Ida is. It's all about expectations and contorted love.
Q: There were so many layers of cognition with Ida: points where she recognized her son and points where she didn't. Were there moments, in your mind, where she recognized him and didn't want him to know?
AH: Yes, I think so. She's running it her way, and she always has. But at the same time, I think she's fairly honest about where she is in those hospital scenes. When he brings Brad in and is passing Brad off as himself, she really believes it's him. She's still messing with his head from time to time, but she did most of the messing with his head when he was a child, in order to steer it in her direction. The bottom line is, whether she's lucid or delusional, she's always doing what she does for herself. Her main interest is always looking out for number one, much more than expressing sympathy for her son or his issues.
Q: You've played so many strange and unique mothers, and yet you don't have any children yourself. Do you think that gives you a certain perspective on motherhood than an actress with children might not have?
AH: I think so, though I'm not that precious about subject matter. Which is good, because the subject matter I'm attracted to right now is a bit off the wall and appeals to my taste. Certainly on television, there's some interesting stuff going on. But yeah, I think I can be irreverent about children in ways that serious mothers maybe can't be or shouldn't be. Children are very adaptable. They can take a lot more than we give them credit for. I did a movie with Nick Roeg years ago called The Witches. It was considered so terrifying for children in America that it could barely be shown to them at age nine. In Europe, kids were watching it at age five or six, and it's nothing. There was a scene in that movie where a couple of parents are in an elevator, and they're talking about how lovely it is to get away from their children for a day or so. The distributors thought that American children would be traumatized by the notion that parents may want to get away from them for an evening. That idea wouldn't ever cross an Englishman's mind.
Q: You've finished up on Medium now. Is there a chance of you going back?
AH: I don't know. Television is such a challenge. I'd finished Choke and headed right to Medium. I flew out on Saturday and learned my lines on Sunday, and Monday morning I went to work. To top it off, I was sick from that hospital in New Jersey. We all got the Crud, it was terrible. But I think the experience was good for me. I'd never worked like that. They give you your lines the night before, nine pages of lines, and I didn't like that. I've never worked not knowing anything about my character before. It's really acting by the seat of your pants. But I loved Patricia Arquette; she's a jewel of a girl. I was in tears the first day, saying, "I just can't do this." She said, "It works, believe me. Don't worry." And she's right. They somehow patch you together and make you look good. And I've never met a nicer or more understanding crew. There was not a person on that crew who wasn't totally sympathetic and totally there for you.
Q: What was meeting Chuck like?
AH: I was very impressed. He came on set and we were doing the pudding scene -- a scene of incredible bravery on Kelly Macdonald's part, where she kept coming up with this donut of chocolate on her mouth. It was truly revolting. Anyway, I made my way back behind the monitor to where Chuck was sitting. As a way of introducing myself I said, "This must be very hard to see your work suddenly translated into this rather gruesome reality." He said, "Oh no, I can't tell you what a pleasure it is to see my work being realized so well. It's exceeding my expectations." That's such a lovely thing to hear from an author. You could fully expect to be horrified by the sudden reality of seeing your work interpreted by all these different people, and with Chuck that wasn't the case at all.
Q: How about Gregg?
AH: He's got great humor, which is vital. A kind of cheerful air of expectation to him which works very well as a director. He's up for the best, he's looking to be pleased, and he's always positive. You see how a first-time director is going to evolve on a movie stage. For the first few days, he's a little static, and then you notice a new sense of relaxation. Things start to flow more, and the camera gets a bit more experimental. When that starts to happen, you really see a director start to get into his stride. Clark has a very good eye, and he had no time, so he had to be very succinct with his choices. Like most really good actors, he knows when he's getting a good performance, and he doesn't have to go in there and meddle. I think he's going to be fine, and I think he'll go on making movies if he wants to.
Q: Gregg's a new director, but speaking of experienced directors, are there any plans for doing anything else with Wes Anderson?
AH: Not right away, though of course I'd be happy to work with him again. He's doing The Fantastic Mr. Fox right now, but I'm not in it.
Q: You've done some directing in the past. Would you ever like to go back to that?
AH: I have a really beautiful script, and actually Sam is interested in doing it with me. It's called Give Us a Kiss, and it was written by Angus MacLachlan who did Junebug. A sort of Ozark-noir story. I'd love to do that, I'm hoping to do that. I have to raise money though, which is such a drag. It would be so much nicer just to set up the camera and shoot it.
Q: Maybe there's something genetic there.
AH: Could be. I give all the credit in the world to him [John, her father]. He deserves it.
Article published 10.06.2008.
Also read: Rob Vaux's review of Choke.
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