A fascinating article on how Drew Barrymore prepared, and on her opinions of the Edies. I appreciate her honest, thoughtful responses.
From Gotham Magazine, by Cristina Greeven Cuomo, on April 2009
The ever-charming Drew Barrymore digs deep in HBO’s Grey Gardens.
It's safe to say that Drew Barrymore is all grown up. Since her debut at age six in 1982’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, she’s inhabited roles in a long line of quirky, spirited films (Scream, The Wedding Singer, Home Fries, Donnie Darko, Music and Lyrics). She’s also become involved in all aspects of her craft, heading her production company, Flower Films, with her business partner of nearly 15 years, Nancy Juvonen (wife of Jimmy Fallon), and directing the film Whip It!, due out this year. This month, it’s back to acting. Her emotional intelligence, dedication, and unmitigated talent converge in a role that is sure to be memorable: “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale in HBO’s Grey Gardens.
The movie is a riches-to-rags love story of a mother (“Big Edie,” played by Jessica Lange) and daughter whose lives disintegrate into utter squalor and abject folly at Grey Gardens, their Lily Pond Lane beachfront estate in East Hampton. Little Edie, the cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, was a vivacious, yet fragile, aristocratic young woman. And Barrymore plays her with precision and dignity—as evidenced by the resounding parallels to the real Edie, who starred in the cult favorite 1976 documentary Grey Gardens by brothers Albert and David Maysles. One barely notices the film’s time warp—the aging debutante is 61 by the film’s end—and Barrymore’s drive for authenticity is evident and effective.
GOTHAM: What was it like to “become” Little Edie?
DREW BARRYMORE: It’s very difficult to play somebody who’s so absolutely uptight with fear and upset and regret over the decisions they’ve made in life—wanting to get out and do things differently, but then constantly doing everything the same and being a walking contradiction. She’s also wildly entertaining and flirtatious and fun and outgoing and energetic. It’s a weird dichotomy, playing someone whose attitudes and emotions and feelings run such a gamut. I walked a very fine line, trying to keep all my emotions readily available. I felt tense inside my stomach all the time, playing her.
G: Was this the role of a lifetime for you?
DB: Of my lifetime so far, absolutely. It’s the best, most thrilling opportunity I’ve ever gotten, and I took it so beyond seriously. I didn’t speak on the phone or watch television or read the newspaper and BlackBerry or speak to my family or one friend for three months.
G: That’s dedication!
DB: I couldn’t believe in my own luck being her—I wanted to feel what she did.
G: She has a very distinct voice that would seem difficult to mimic.
DB: I don’t sound anything like her. That was one of my biggest fears, because I talk in the back of my throat and I speak out of the side of my mouth and she speaks from the very front of her lips and very forward. So I worked with a vocal coach for a year before we even started shooting, and then trained every day while I was at work on not only how to figure out her voice but how to get away from the things that are normal for me. I completely retrained my facial structure so I’d speak not only in the sound of her voice, but in the facial structure that she worked from.
G: You obviously relish acting. Do you prefer it to directing and producing?
DB: I love all of it. I love production design, and casting and writing, which are so important—the people you work with, and the lens package that you buy for your camera to decide how you want your film to look.... When you’re directing, all those things are fun. And when you’re producing, you find great directors and protect their process. Acting is a great emotional release, and a huge challenge to do the best you can. They’re all weirdly different jobs and at times they fight each other, but if you love everything about moviemaking, you want to be involved in every aspect.
G: You immersed yourself in all aspects of Little Edie’s life—books, film footage, documentaries. What else?
DB: I researched everything. She went to Miss Porter’s School, so I studied their curriculum. I tried to understand what she knew and what etiquette classes she was taking. I studied the family bloodline and the culture of the time to understand what was going on in her mind at certain periods of her life. I watched the documentary [Grey Gardens] every day, but I also watched The Beales of Grey Gardens, which is the other documentary that only recently came out, with all the stuff they didn’t put in the [first film].
G: Christine Ebersole, who portrayed Little Edie on Broadway, said, “Eccentric with money is eccentric. Eccentric without money is crazy.” Did you think Little Edie slowly lost her grip on reality, or was she a misunderstood eccentric?
DB: I could never write these women off as just being crazy. They don’t deserve that. I could write their relationship off [as] codependent and unhealthy. This is a life that they chose. It was them against the world, and I think it’s a real love story because of that. I think they were women who were both brought up incredibly dignified, and they said, “I don’t like these societal lines that you’ve drawn for me, I’m going to step outside of them.” On a hygienic level, I don’t think I could ever understand how they tolerated what they tolerated because it was so much worse than even what the documentary shows. The house was actually cleaned up by then.
G: Did you feel that you had to be a little crazy to play the part?
DB: I felt like I had to isolate myself. It was really painful for me not to have contact with the people I love. I think that was the hardest sacrifice. It was really lonely, and I only had Jessica Lange and Michael Sucsy, our director. And that’s how it was for Little Edie: She had her mother, and for some glorious weeks had these two filmmakers [the Maysles brothers] come in, and life opened up for her. And so I thought that if I felt like that, then I would understand how she felt. I felt like it would be fraudulent to talk on a cell phone—“Like, yeah, I’ll call you back in a second”—and walk back on set and pretend I’m this person who wouldn’t even know what a cell phone was.
G: You’ve been through a lot—how do you manage to stay unaffected by fame and Hollywood?
DB: I try to realize what and who’s important. What’s important is being good to the people I love and earning their respect and being available to them physically and emotionally. That’s my biggest and only priority, and the rest of it you just can’t control.
Grey Gardens premieres April 18 on HBO.