My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
Frustrated by the limited opportunities available to most young actresses, 26-year-old Illeana Douglas decided to take matters into her own hands and direct her short film, The Perfect Woman, a satire on what men really want to hear from women. A working actress best known for her role as “Lori,” a law clerk who has the misfortune to bed DeNiro’s “Max Cady,” in Cape Fear, and as a sharp-witted receptionist in the forthcoming Grief, Illeana used her earnings to finance the nine-minute film, which opened for The Piano at this year’s New York Film Festival. It will also appear at Sundance and in an unusual move, Miramax will distribute the short as an opener for a feature, Camilla, due out in late spring. Encouraged by the success of The Perfect Woman, Illeana is planning a sequel, The Perfect Man, as well as another comedic short, Candidates for Prozac: A Love Story. Her busy schedule includes projects with directors Alison Maclean, Alison Anders, and first-time director David Salle, whose film Search and Destroy will begin shooting in January co-starring Illeana and Griffin Dunne. In person, Illeana Douglas is down-to-earth, funny and cerebral, much like the 1940s film heroines she most admires.
Illeana Douglas That tape recorder looks like the first one I begged for as a kid. I taped everything and everybody. I was one of those irritating children. I was obsessed.
Lynn Geller You’d interview other people?
ID Yeah, I’d go around and say to teachers: “What are you doing to stop pollution?” “Who are you going to vote for?” (laughter)
LG That’s so cute. Hippie parents?
ID I was the original hippie child.
LG So when did you start acting?
ID I was 16. I lived in a small town and they opened a dinner theater, so I pretended to be 18—you had to be to work there. You also had to work …
LG As a waitress.
ID As a waitress. I thought it was very glamorous. It was the first time I came into contact with all these gay guys who were in road tours in Vegas. They taught me everything about sex, how to get a guy, how to do June Taylor dancing and aquatic ballet. Basically, everything I learned about life was in that theater.
LG I see a screenplay.
ID But the place was cursed. One night we’re doing Man of La Mancha and this guy died in the audience. (laughter) Literally, while Don Quixote was singing, “To Dream the Impossible Dream.” Then there was a fire, then there was a flood, it was one disaster after another. And then, in-between, when they weren’t doing a show, they would have some has-been like Rudy Vallee.
LG Rudy Vallee?
ID Oh, it was amazing. He did the whole show in a raccoon coat. He was like 80.
LG Would he wear make-up?
ID He wore tons of make-up; he wore lipstick. I was fascinated by him. One day he brought me back into his dressing room. I was thinking, my God, he’s going to pounce on me. But he picked up this tape recorder and said, “Listen to this.” And I’m listening and I said, “It sounds like the ocean.” And he said, “It’s my applause.” (laughter)
LG What was the movie you were in that took place in an office?
ID Oh, Grief. Yeah, I played the assistant to the executive producer of a TV show, The Love Judge.
LG That was a very funny movie. How did they finance that? How did it all come together?
ID The director, Richard Glatzner, financed it with his own money, some from Strand releasing and some from the producers. It was very low budget, $80,000, and we shot it in 10 days.
LG How did you get involved with it?
ID The producer, Ruth Charny, who also produced Mistress, and Richard Glatzer approached me at a party and gave me a script. I liked that it portrayed the relationship of a straight woman and a gay man. I played a woman surrounded by gay men. It’s about the redemptive value of friendship.
LG You were in Alive, the film about the air crash in the Andes where that soccer team had to eat the dead to survive. Grueling, right?
ID Yeah, we were shooting on a glacier for four months in British Columbia—it makes me cold just thinking about it. When the sun came out, it was burning hot and the minute the sun went down, it was 30 below. It was such a remote location that we helicoptered up to the shoot … we lived in tents. I lost 15 pounds, we had two three-day fasts.
LG Just to get you hungry enough to imagine eating a dead person?
ID Yeah. To understand that. Some of the real survivors were there to help us. They have that sort of gone-through-an-amazing-experience look, they almost float, they’re very ethereal characters.
LG Really? Even though—when did that actually take place?
LG Wow. And they’re still floating.
ID It’s in their eyes and their presence. They enjoy life, and they wanted the movie to have that spirit of appreciation.
LG So what was it like, being the only woman?
ID I thought it was great. I was very much the maternal figure, which I had never been before. All the guys would come to me and talk about their girlfriends. And then, of course, Saturday night was fun, because we had this little dance place in the hotel that they set up for us called the Glacier. There were only two women on the crew and me, so we were very popular.
LG Were the men protective of you?
ID Yeah, they really were. For instance, we did the big scene where we have to have to talk about deciding to eat the bodies of the dead. It was a very difficult scene. And we spent all day shooting it and getting the hardest parts done. We had fasted for three days. And when it was over, everyone went out and got drunk and had a big meal, and then the director came over to me and said, “I have some really bad news. Your stuff didn’t come out. It’s all out of focus and well have to do it again.” I was just devastated. But all the guys were like, don’t worry, we’ll be there with you and you’ll get it back. It was, at that moment that I realized we’d been like family. My character gets killed in an avalanche and there were still three more weeks to shoot. I did my last shot and I thought I was going to be fine, but then I finished it and I started crying, and the director was crying, and then he said, “Illeana, she was our mother, our sister, our girlfriend.” It was a really emotional thing. But it was also interesting being the only woman because it made me understand the character of Lilliana. She was the only one who never cried and never complained. And when we did the scene where she gets killed in the avalanche, I’m actually buried in snow, it was so excruciatingly painful. Everyone else who ‘died” in the avalanche would freak out and say, “Get me out, get me out!” But I was overcompensating, I didn’t want to be like, I can’t take it.
LG (squeaky voice) “I’m a girl.”
ID Right, so you go the other extreme. I was in there the longest amount of time because my shot was rather difficult, the way they found my body. And I was the only one who never complained and the only one who never asked to be taken out.
LG You’d done a few other films before that? Smaller roles?
ID Yeah, I’d done a couple of small parts: New York Stories, GoodFellas, and then I did Cape Fear.
LG One of the things I liked about your character in Cape Fear was that she had a real sense of humor despite the tragedy.
ID That’s what I wanted. When we talked about doing the character, I modelled her on this character who was in The Thing, an old Howard Hawkes film. This woman was one of the guys, but they loved her because she was sexy and ballsy, and she had a great sense of humor. I love that kind of character: Roz Russell, Katherine Hepburn, Jean Arthur. I miss seeing them …
LG They can’t seem to write a smart, funny woman anymore.
ID That’s what I was trying to do. Those office attractions, like the one in Cape Fear, usually happen because they’re working together, and maybe his marriage isn’t going so well, and she knows how to play sports and has a great personality … . So I tried to get all those elements into it. Since then, it’s been, “What do you mean, I don’t get to do whatever I want in this movie? Don’t I have a big input on the film?” Because I was lucky in Cape Fear, I did. Rather than the usual, “Just stand there, dear, and do your lines.”
LG So you really were allowed to develop the character.
ID I was very lucky. I wanted what happened to be truthful: bad things don’t just happen to the office slut, bad things also happen to really nice girls. In the original script, she was listed as a drifter. Because bad things happen to drifters and loose women. In my mind, she was someone like Jennifer Levin, a nice girl from a good family who did something stupid.
LG Which we’ve all done and can identify with. Let’s talk about your short movie, The Perfect Woman. How did you decide to do it? Had you already written it?
ID I had written it in my mind, I’d made notes. I always had it in my mind that I wanted all these close-ups of women talking to their guys, saying what a man wants to hear, shot from a man’s point of view. I was doing a play, As Sure As You Live, by Roger Hedden. That’s when I was planning it, writing my list and having people come over to the house, interviewing people to see who was going to be in it. I got 35 women to be in it.
LG And then you wrote 35 things to say?
ID Actually, I wrote about 40 lines. I didn’t think I would find someone to say, “I hope it doesn’t bother you that I’m a virgin.”
LG Just out of curiosity, did you get any input from men about what they would like to hear?
ID Nah, not really. I just based it on a lot of my old boyfriends.
LG “I’m just insecure because I’m not as smart as you are.” (laughter) You know, there’s this old saying, “If you can make a woman laugh, you can sleep with her.” Do you think that’s true?
ID I always thought it was; “If a woman looks you in the eye, she will sleep with you.” You know, all those rules in Cosmo: “Make sure to touch his arm.” “Hold his eye for three seconds.” Please, if you did that in New York, you’d be killed.
LG It’s true, you’d be dead. And also, there’d be millions of people you’d be sleeping with. (laughter) Department of Motor Vehicles. The guy who took your picture for your passport … . Do men like funny women? A lot of them can’t handle it.
ID I must say that for me, we’ve been friends first and then I’ve gone out with them. I don’t get the initial attention. If I walk into a room, the only people who walk up to me are old men. And I don’t mean older, I mean old. Older men get me. Younger guys don’t look twice until after they’ve talked with me.
LG Do you want to direct more?
ID Absolutely. In The Perfect Woman, we had two days to shoot, so I gave up the idea of grand shots and concentrated on the acting and made that the essence of it. I want to explore women’s issues in film, but from a comic perspective. A lot of films that are supposedly “women’s films,” I find very cliché-ridden. Women have to stop being victims. That’s an issue that really interests me.
LG But to do that from a humorous point of view, that is truly challenging.
ID Why are women competitive with other women, why do women not help other women up the ladder? Is it a biological issue? Is it competition: if we’re all animals, is it two women for every man? These are the issues I want to see in films.
LG I think it’s sociological. Too many women think they have to act like men in order to be successful, or that they have to make a stereotypical male movie. On the other hand, there’s Jane Campion who has the self-confidence to have her own visual and emotional language, without apology.
ID If women direct films and complete them, that gives them a tremendous sense of confidence, knowing that they have options in Hollywood besides utilizing their sexuality to get a job. Most actresses I know who go into an audition will appeal to the director in a sexual way, and feel that that is the quality which will get them a job. And 75 percent of that is true but I think as women, that makes you feel bad about yourself.
LG But again, there are films like Alison Anders’ film, Gas Food Lodging, that come from a female perspective without being heavy-handed. That film showed you what it’s like to live in this little society of women with men coming and going.
ID Actually, I’m working on a project with Alison Anders about girl groups in the 1960s where I play a singer/songwriter. My feeling is, if you want to express something to men, put a man in the scene. In The Perfect Woman, it’s all women because I wanted that, but it’s shot from the male point of view. It involves the man somewhat. The next thing I want to do is a man and a woman talking about what I consider to be a real woman’s issue: why do women let themselves be victimized?
LG It’s a great issue for women artists because the act of making art contradicts being a victim.
ID We set it up from the beginning. It starts on your first date when you pick the least expensive thing on the menu. “I don’t want him to see that I really eat.”
LG “Well, I just kind of exist. I’m sort of ethereal.” My attitude now is, “What you see is what you get.” The thing is, most men really don’t care. The last thing they’re noticing is your eyelashes, your new haircut. They don’t notice much; they’re too busy worrying about themselves. Which is the good news and the bad news, and it comes from men being in power. We’re always sneaking around, looking at them, wondering what they’re thinking about us. And they’re not. Why should they? They have the power and they don’t have to sit around and consider what we think until we show everyone that we do have something interesting to say.
Tell me about your future projects. You’re doing a movie with the artist David Salle, right?
ID Yes, called Search and Destroy, with Griffin Dunne and Dennis Hopper. It’s like After Hours10 years later, a black comedy about a guy played by Griffin, who’s on a journey of self-discovery and meets my character, a woman named Marie who works for a self-help guru (Dennis Hopper). She’s a mixed-up person working for this maniac and then she meets Martin. They give each other the strength to do what each wants.
And besides my project with Alison Anders. I’m working on another film with Alison Maclean (Crush). It’s a remake of Bedlam, which takes place in the 18th century, about a woman who gets locked up for speaking her own mind. I saw the original film and thought it was incredible, but it was made as a B movie. I told Ruth Charny about it and she found Alison Maclean. The idea is to try to find work for yourself, to find projects you like and surround yourself with people who can help make it happen, people with names. Because at this point that’s the only way to get to do what you want. If I had just waited around for another Cape Fear to come along, I’d still be waiting.
Lynn Geller is a screenwriter and music supervisor living in New York.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.