Heather Graham has always fashioned herself a go-getter; someone who sets a lofty goal, puts in the necessary effort and finds a way to achieve it. Consider her 30-year career in Hollywood as proof.
The vivacious actress—who spent her childhood vacationing at the Jersey Shore—dreamed of a life in the movies and made it happen at a young age. She was just 18 when she made her major film debut as the beautiful Mercedes Lane in License to Drive, a teen comedy starring Corey Haim and Corey Feldman. From there, it did not take long for Graham to prove she was more than just a pretty face, as she earned acclaim in critical favorites like Drugstore Cowboy and Boogie Nights.
She has also shown her comedic chops alongside the likes of Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy in Bowfinger and Mike Myers in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. That versatility has allowed Graham to bounce between drama and comedy, film and television, in a distinguished career that shows no signs of slowing down.
But steady work and fame have not always led to Graham getting the most from her acting. Even with memorable roles in movies like Swingers and The Hangover—two cult classics centered on male friendship—she began wondering to herself, “Where are those same types of movies for women?”
Her disappointment grew as she attempted to develop movies about female camaraderie, only to have door after door slammed in her face.
“As a woman I wanted to go to the movies and watch a movie about my friends and I,” Graham says. “I felt that people weren’t really making many movies about that or movies that I could relate to. So I made my own movie.”
That movie is Half Magic, Graham’s directing and writing debut. Released at the end of February, it stars Graham as Honey, a would-be screenwriter working for a misogynistic boss who seems to share a trait or two with disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein. That is fitting, considering Graham was one of the first people to speak out about her experiences of harassment with Weinstein last fall.
As Honey struggles with low self-esteem and self-doubt in both her career and romantic life, she meets Eva (Angela Kinsey from The Office) and Candy (Stephanie Beatriz from Brooklyn Nine-Nine) at a female empowerment seminar. They instantly bond over their frustration with male dominance and vow to support one another in their professions and relationships.
Although it deals with serious issues, Half Magic is an R-rated comedy with plenty of laughs. It also comes at a time when more and more women are voicing strong opinions and making themselves heard. In a wide-ranging interview, Graham spoke to us about what the movie means to her. She also talked about her role in last year’s Wetlands—a crime thriller shot on location at the Jersey Shore—and why that experience reminded her of the summers of her youth spent in Wildwood.
SOUTH JERSEY MAGAZINE: Half Magic seems like a great movie for a group of women to see together because of its portrayal of female friendship, but I also think it works as a date movie and could start some serious conversations between women and men. How do you envision it?
HEATHER GRAHAM: I’m hoping for [women to see it together], for sure. But hopefully some open-minded guys can enjoy it too. I think it’s sexy and raunchy and it’s got a good message.
SJM: There are several themes involved i n the movie. One is certainly embracing your sexuality and finding a partner who can do that as well. Why was that important for you to write about?
HG: Well, I related to that journey about growing up in a way that I felt a sense of shame about sexuality and feeling like there’s something bad about it, I guess because of some of the things I got out of religion. It’s about my journey of how I learned to feel good about my sexuality. Also, I think choosing the right person is definitely something that I talk to my girlfriends about. Guys can probably relate to this too, but sometimes when you’re younger you’re really drawn to the [bad] guy. As you get more wise, you realize, ‘I want to go with someone who is really kind and appreciates me.’ It’s about my journey of learning how to make better choices.
SJM: Of course we see all three of the main characters make bad choices, and your character Honey gets it wrong more than once. Is that something you think a lot of people can relate to?
HG: I think it comes from self-esteem as well. I wanted to tell a story about a woman learning to have more selfesteem and how that affects her life and her choices, and how her girlfriends inspire her to feel good about herself and believe that she can get what she wants.
SJM: Another important issue the film addresses is the difficulties women face in the workplace, particularly with your character’s struggle to be taken seriously as a screenwriter. It seems to fit in perfectly with the #MeToo movement and other ways that women are making their voices heard.
HG: It’s really good timing. I wrote this six or seven years ago. I felt like I had to deal with sexual harassment and a lack of opportunities and a lack of stories being told by women. This was my way of protesting that or expressing my feelings about that. The movie is happening to come out at a time when women are really speaking up about how they feel about sexual harassment and lack of opportunities, and people are really lis- tening. It’s a perfect time because it seems like the culture is open to listening to women now, more than it ever has before. I think that’s really inspiring as a woman, to feel like, ‘Wow, people are finally starting to care about how we feel.’ Women are becoming more brave to speak up about how they feel and things that bother them.
SJM: Chris D’Elia’s character—the boss/boyfriend of your character—is abusive toward women in the workplace, which is also timely in light of what has happened in Hollywood in the last year. Do you feel like the public is finally starting to understand what has been going on behind the scenes for many years?
HG: I did base that character on some real people; it’s sort of a mixture of people. I had a friend who watched the movie about a year ago and she said, ‘I thought that character was over the top, but then when all of these stories came out about Harvey Weinstein and all these different people, I realized it’s actually true.’ For sure, there are guys like that. In fact, there are guys who are way worse.
SJM: His character has the line: ‘I’m not saying I’m against women’s rights; I’m just saying there’s no market for their films.’ But the top three grossing movies last year all had female characters in the lead roles. Do you think studio executives are starting to see that female movies can be successful?
HG: I hope so. I mean, there’s always been exceptions to the rule, cool movies coming out with female protagonists. But it’s never been the majority of the films being made or even 50 percent. So hopefully the culture will change and women will be able to tell their stories more.
SJM: Despite these important issues, the movie is also a comedy with many laugh-out-loud scenes.
HG: I didn ’t want to be too dark about it; I wanted to tell the story in a funny way. While Chris D’Elia’s character is the villain in a lot of ways, he’s also pretty funny and charismatic. I think it’s making fun of that guy and saying he’s [a jerk], but in a loving way. “I spent a lot of my summers in Wildw ood. Some of my best child- hood memories are being on that beach. ”
SJM: You have been able to work on your comic timing as an actor for years. How did it feel to use those skills as a writer and director?
HG: I feel like I’ve always been really lucky to be in comedies. I don’t think when I was younger that I appreciated comedy as much as I do now; maybe because I think that life is dark enough and I want comedy to make me laugh and make me feel happy. So when I told this story that had a lot of themes in it that could be told in a more dramatic, serious way, I wanted to tell it with humor, because I thought it would be more healing and a better way to get the message across than just telling an angry, depressing story.
SJM: Your co-stars, Angela Kinsey and Stephanie Beatriz, had some of the funniest lines in the movie. Was it important for you to share the spotlight and were you happy with their performances?
HG: Angela is hilarious. Both Angela and Stephanie are super talented and Angela just comes up with such funny improvs. It was really a pleasure to watch them work. SJM: The chemistry was terrific between the three of you, which is crucial in a movie like this. Had you known either of them before this experience? HG: No, th at was just really lucky. I felt that we bonded, and I really admire and respect them. I thought we had a really beautiful relationship and we had a lot of fun too. At the end of the movie, a lot of people said it was the most fun job they ever had, and one of the guys on the crew said, ‘The hardest thing about the job was trying not to laugh.’
SJM: The whole cast is great, with familiar faces like Thomas Lennon, Molly Shannon and Rhea Perlman. Did you get everyone you wanted?
HG: I love everyone in the cast. Chris is hilarious and I’ve always been a fan of Thomas Lennon; he’s a genius comedian. Jason Lewis from Sex and the City; I was obsessed with that TV show. Luke Arnold is amazing and [so is] Michael Aronov. Molly Shannon came in; she’s a friend and she was so funny. And Johnny Knoxville did a cameo, which was so sweet of him. I’ve known him a long time. I just felt like I lucked out with a lot of really talented people.
SJM: Wetlands was a much different movie —a crime thriller—and you got to show off your versatility in that film. Do you like going back and forth between roles like that?
HG: Yeah. I’ll work in comedy or drama. I’m just grateful that I get to work. I think there’s a lot of exciting Heather Graham things going on in TV too. Movies have always been my first love, but I feel like TV is getting so exciting and it’s really fun to work in TV. S
JM: What was your experience like filming Wetlands at the Jersey Shore, even though it was not during the summer months?
HG: I love New Jersey. My mom is actually from New Jersey and I spent a lot of my summers in Wildwood. Some of my best childhood memories are being on that beach in Wildwood. When I was working there, there were a lot of memories of growing up there. I love the beach down there; I think it’s so charming.
SJM: You stayed in Cape May for that shoot. Did you get to enjoy local restaurants or sites?
HG: We wer e there in the off-season, so it was pretty deserted. But [Cape May is] a super charming town. I loved walking around. It’s so old-fashioned and quaint and there were so many cute little stores, and the beach is beautiful.
SJM: A lot of that movie is set in Atlantic City. Did you make it up that way at all?
HG: We did n’t spend as much time there, but we were there for one or two days. It’s a cool town. I love the East Coast beaches and the boardwalks. It just makes me think of my childhood. It makes me think of being on the beach as a kid and going on the boardwalk. It’s a magical place.
SJM: How do Jersey Shore towns compare to the California beach communities you usually frequent? HG: The Ca lifornia coastline is a lot more mountainous and the water is really cold all year round on the Pacific. It’s pretty different. There’s something that’s really charming about the East Coast beaches, probably because I spent my childhood there. It’s very [family-oriented] and I love the beaches there.
SJM: Getting back to Half Magic—was writing and directing something you aspired to for a while?
HG: Not really. I really didn’t think about it that much. Then I started writing a little bit because I had met these girlfriends, like the girlfriends in the movie, and we would get together and make wishes. It was inspiring me and I started writing it down, but I didn’t really like what I was writing. A few years later when I was going through a breakup, I picked it up again. I just thought, ‘I want to make myself laugh at some of the things in life that have bugged me and I want to find the comedy in the tragedy.’ So I started writing to make myself laugh, basically, at my own life and my friends and the silliness of dating people and dating the wrong people. I [also] wanted to laugh at my frustration with Hollywood. I spent about 10 years working on developing female-driven projects and I couldn’t get any of them made. So I wrote this movie as a way to laugh at my frustrations with Hollywood and trying to get movies about women made in this male-dominated business.
SJM: A lot of the lines stick out in this movie, whether they make you laugh or cringe.
HG: A lot of those things were said to me, so I put them in the movie. For example, when [Chris D’Elia’s character] says, ‘Nobody cares about women’s stories; if you want to get a movie made, write about a man.’ I was told that a bunch of times, so I put that in the movie.
SJM: Speaking of famous lines, what movies do fans usually bring up to you when they meet you in person?
HG: It depends on the person. People who are really into film bring up Boogie Nights. A lot of guys have seen The Hangover and Austin Powers. Then there are the people who remember License to Drive, which is funny. If you were a teenager at that time, it might have hit you in your formative years. I was skiing once and this guy said, ‘Hey Mercedes.’ It was funny that he remembered that.
SJM: You have worked with many talented directors. What did you bring from those experiences into your role as a first-time director?
HG: I wanted the actors to feel really supported. I know when the director makes me feel really appreciated and comfortable, I feel like I have more to give. I felt a little bit like a mother; I wanted to love everyone on the set and nurture them and make them comfortable so they could do their best work.
SJM: Do you think it will change you going forward when you’re just acting?
HG: It gave me a lot of appreciation for actors. I thought, ‘This is really brave to put yourself out there like that.’ I can see the perspective of the director more, because I understand the time pressures and how much money it costs every minute that you go over. I love acting and working in the movie business and it’s just fun learning about all the different aspects.
SJM: Do you want to do it again? Do you have any other ideas floating around?
HG: I do. I’ve never been a person who liked drugs, but I feel like making movies is like a drug. I really want to do it again; I think I’m addicted. So hopefully I’ll get to do it again.
SJM: Are there any future projects you can talk about, whether it’s writing and directing or just acting?
HG: I have two new ideas that I’ve written and I just optioned a book. I also did a British TV show that the comedian David Cross wrote and directed. [It came out in the UK last month] and I guess it will be coming out in America in a few months. It’s called Bliss.
SJM: You’re also heavily involved in several charitable foundations. Is there anything you would like to share about that side of you?
HG: The main charity I work with is called the Cambodian Children’s Fund. My friend started it, a guy named Scott Neeson who I met on a yoga retreat. I visited it about five times and it’s very inspiring. The level of poverty there is extreme—they don’t have running water or plumbing—and it’s inspiring to see him get these kids out of trafficking and give them an education. But there are a bunch of different charities that I support. I really like charities that involve empowering women, education and human rights.
Photograph by Michael Lavine
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 15, Issue 1 (April 2018).
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