It’s a safe bet that anyone even near a TV set, movie theater or magazine during the past three years has on more than one occasion seen a black female face, topped by a dread-locked coif, staring back with a street-wise grin and wondered, Who or what is a Whoopi Goldberg?
Good question, and one that until now has been only partially answered. Unless you had caught her critically acclaimed one-woman Broadway show in 1984, had seen it as an HBO special or had bought her album, you might have thought that Whoopi appeared overnight. And although she gave interviews, she was stingy with biographical details–including her real name and age. Personal history was most often relegated to a few terse sentences. The past didn’t matter.
In fact, although her experimental-theater credentials were first-rate, Whoopi was mostly the secret darling of the aesthetic cutting edge–until Steven Spielberg tapped her to play Celie, the central character of The Color Purple. That bit of inspired casting earned her an Academy Award nomination for best actress–and ensured that when Milton Berle told his Whoopi Goldberg joke (“A black woman with a Jewish name. She doesn’t do windows, because she’s got a headache”), only the media-deprived wouldn’t know whom he was talking about.
Today, Whoopi is having a love affair with the public. Her second and third films (Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Burglar) have been released; she was a very visible prime mover in last year’s Comic Relief benefit for the American homeless; she presented the top award at this year’s Grammys; she’s done a TV special with Carol Burnett and another with the Pointer Sisters; and she narrated the Disney film Captain Eo. Currently, she’s filming Fatal Beauty, co-starring Sam Elliott, in Los Angeles.
Has success changed Whoopi Goldberg? Well, sort of. True, she still lives in Berkeley, near the University of California–with no plans to relocate. And her 12-year-old daughter, Alexandrea, treats her just the way she always has. But Whoopi–a veteran “overnight” sensation–has also had to come to grips with the velocity of her ascension. She is, after all, a long way from her childhood years in a housing project in the Chelsea area of Manhattan.
Her parents split up soon after she was born, leaving her mother, a practical nurse and, later, a Head Start teacher, to care for Whoopi and her older brother. Whoopi’s youthful passions were Halloween and watching movies on television. When she was eight years old, she joined an afterschool drama group at the Hudson Guild, a local settlement house, and acted in local children’s theater productions.
She also spent a lot of time on the street, suffering the insecurities of the less-than-popular teen–in part because she occasionally had white boyfriends. Eventually, she got into drugs and dropped out of school–and continued to act. But at 18, she married her drug counselor and got pregnant–in that order. A few months later, the marriage was over and, in 1974, with baby in tow, Whoopi moved to San Diego. There, a series of odd jobs and welfare kept her plugging away at acting–improvisation with groups such as Spontaneous Combustion and stage work with the San Diego Repertory Company.
When an acting partner canceled on a Berkeley gig, Whoopi debuted as a solo artist. Soon, she relocated to Berkeley, found a live-in boyfriend and continued her work, most notably with the Blake Street Hawkeyes. She also began developing her one-woman outing, The Spook Show.
The show traveled to Europe, then settled in for a run at New York’s Manhattan Dance Theater Workshop, where producer-director Mike Nichols caught Whoopi’s act, reportedly cried and offered to put it on Broadway. The rest is more or less history.
We asked Contributing Editor David Rensin to meet with Whoopi as she finished up Burglar and, at this crucial career juncture, put her life into perspective. Said Rensin afterward:
“Although Whoopi was wrapping her third film in two years, packing for a six-week honeymoon and fighting the flu that wouldn’t go away, she agreed to squeeze in as much time with me as possible before she left for Europe.
"We met first in the Burbank Studios commissary, then moved to her trailer, parked by the sound stage on which Burglar was being filmed. Like most dressing rooms near wrap time, hers was a collection of clutter. Among the items: a case of brown and blue glass eyes fashioned into key rings; a Comic Relief poster; assorted Negro art (including idealized blacks selling Coca-Cola); and an ample supply of M&M’s. Whoopi sat on the floor, near the door, chain-smoking. It was the perfect spot from which to field the nearly constant interruptions.
"Later that week, we resumed our conversations at the Hollywood Hills house Whoopi and David Claessen, her new husband, share with her manager when she’s in Los Angeles. It, too, was filled with memorabilia: Jumpin’ Jack Flash watches, neon sculptures, old movie posters, a Groucho Marx doll, etc. But without other intrusions (except for her Elvis-lipped dog, Rutger), we managed to get a lot more done, talking over cranberry juice and Vantages in the dining room.
"Between sessions, I couldn’t escape the feeling that things were going too well, that perhaps I was being too easy on Whoopi. But upon reviewing the transcripts, I saw it wasn’t true. She’d fielded some painful questions with tough answers. Still, when read, her answers seemed more aggressive–even angry–than I recalled. Then it dawned on me. I had been taken in by her face.
"Whoopi describes her face as ‘Silly Putty. Round, with lots of cheeks, huge teeth and big black eyes.’ Add a wide mouth framed by generously sensuous lips and a broad nose, and it sounds like something only a mother could love. Yet it is a crucial part of the package that makes her fans numerous and fervently loyal.
"Some might credit other things: according to American Film, for instance, her uncanny ability to 'synthesize elements of stand-up comedy, improvisation, tragedy and cautionary tale … into six widely different characters.’ Or her pinpoint sociocultural insights or, simply, her creative use of foul language. They wouldn’t be wrong, but the face is the key, revealing basic emotional truths in a larger-than-life manner. It’s impossible to ignore, and the connection is immediate. Whoopi slips under your guard with that goofy, sincere grin and seduces you while you think you’re still making up your mind.
"Throughout the interview, she was open and outspoken, wheeling in and out of various characterizations, and all with a casual self-assurance. In fact, her belief in her talent was consistently apparent. Behind the well-known dramatis personae, there is a woman who knows her stuff–and has no qualms about saying so, especially when she feels that her spontaneity and creativity have been restricted or slighted. Furthermore, Whoopi was very aware of being, at this point in her young film career, deep in the heart of the heart of the Hollywood star-making machine. She knew that called for extra concentration on the work at hand, but she couldn’t resist slipping into an analysis of the process and the price of fame as we spoke.
"Ultimately, though, Whoopi sensed that our talk was also an opportunity to voice her concerns about social issues, as well as finally set the record straight about her name, age and background. Unclouding her shadowy past seemed a perfect way to begin.”
Let’s clear up a few basics–such as your name and how old you really are. You’ve said your age is anywhere from 30 to 36. What’s the truth?
I’m only 31. My birthday is November 13, 1955. [Shows her driver’s license] I lied about my age for a long time, because nobody would hire me to act. Everyone said I was too young. So, when I was 20, I put six years on my life. I also said I’d studied with Lee Strasberg. I’d already done a lot of acting. But, for some reason, people don’t give you credit for learning anything in a short amount of time. I grew up in New York and knew stuff that people growing up other places just didn’t.
Your real name was finally reported as Caryn Johnson, but why the big mystery? Why did you choose Whoopi Goldberg in the first place?
The name was a fluke. A joke. It started when I was doing A Christmas Carol in San Diego. We’d sit backstage and talk about names we’d never give our children, like Pork Pie or Independence. Of course, now people are walking around with those names. A woman said to me, “If I was your mother, I would have called you Whoopi, because when you’re unhappy you make a sound like a whoopee cushion. It sounds like a fart.” It was like “Ha-ha-ha-ha–Whoopi!” So people actually started calling me Whoopi Cushion. After about a year, my mother said, “You won’t be taken seriously if you call yourself Whoopi Cushion. So try this combination: Whoopi Goldberg.”
That simple? It wasn’t an encounter with a burning bush, as you’ve claimed? Just your mother’s idea?
Yes. She suggested Goldberg. She just thought it flowed better. Mothers, you know, they sit and think about shit like this. But you tell people the truth and they go, “Oh, come on. It’s not interesting enough.” So that’s why I made up the burning-bush story. All I know is that when I tried it, the name worked. People said, “What a great name! What a great fucking name!” Except critics. In a review, one said, “Whoopi Goldberg was fantastic as Mother Courage, but that name is ridiculous.” I wrote him a letter and said that a rose by any other name would still be an actor.
So why the secrecy?
That was only when I was on Broadway. With the influx of magazines and television, I was thinking of my kid. I had a whole life, and I did not want people invading my home, asking questions that I was not prepared to answer at the time. I just wanted a little privacy for myself, for my kid. Couldn’t even go to the P.T.A. anymore. When my real name came out in the press, it pissed me off.
How did it slip out?
I did an interview with People magazine at my house, because I don’t like to travel. The reporter figured it out at my home. I asked the magazine not to mention where I lived and to leave my name out. They said OK but didn’t put it in writing. Next thing I knew, there it was. Now, every time I’m in People, they make it a point to write my real name. Now all the magazines do. Every fucking magazine. [Sighs] It’s funny, because I want to tell people stuff. I want to be able to explain myself a little bit, but not if people are going to turn around and fuck me up.
Don’t you think that after all the build-up in the press, a certain amount of tearing down is inevitable?
It pisses me off that people wait for you to fuck up, for something to happen to you. I like having different-color eyes, so I sometimes wear blue contact lenses. Then I get criticized for wanting to be white. It’s play stuff. But it’s turned into “Oh, you don’t want to be black.” I don’t want to deal with this crap.
The press helped make you a star, though.
Because I was doing my stage show before any press came out. HBO helped make me a star. Television. The Color Purple. People came to see me on Broadway because Mike Nichols was involved. They came to see if he had fucked up. Mike Nichols gets the same treatment as just about everybody else. [Laughs] Word of mouth is what made me famous. And then the press wanted to talk to me.
You sound angry.
No, I’m just annoyed.
Will the situation improve?
No. I think that it’s only going to get a little bit worse.
Did you expect better treatment?
I don’t know what I was expecting. I didn’t expect to become big. There was no time to think, no time to pack. I was in the delivery room instantly! But I think I’ve fared pretty well. I read movie-star biographies. Sid Caesar’s autobiography prepared me for one big aspect of being popular that I hadn’t anticipated. He wrote that the biggest down, the biggest crevice most people fall into is “Am I going to wake up and not be good at this anymore?” That’s what scared Sid. Marilyn Monroe. John Belushi. Errol Flynn. Am I going to wake up suddenly and not be able to do this anymore? I don’t have that fear.
No. Because acting is all I ever knew I wanted to do. I know I can do it. I know I’m good at it. This movie stuff could all fall apart tomorrow. That’s OK. I have the four-letter word to fall back on.
T-O-U-R. That is the saving grace. I have my theater work to fall back on. There are theaters I can work in in San Francisco, in San Diego. As soon as people see what you’re doing, what the press says doesn’t matter. It’s all in the box office. That’s obvious to me, because there wasn’t a lot of great press on my show in New York.
Could you be happy just touring after this dose of movie stardom?
I’m gone! I’m going back next year! Listen. I go on the road by myself, take the old man if he wants to go. And I work. And once I get on the stage, it doesn’t matter what’s happened before. It’s like heaven, man. It’s like fucking heaven. I come when I work. I fucking come when I work. That’s what matters, not being some star. Stars don’t get to do anything. Stars only are. They’re a state of mind. I’m not a star. I’m a working character actor.
In three years, you’ve gone from near anonymity to being a household word. When did you get the first clue that you’d arrived?
I’m not sure that I have, because arriving to me means longevity. But it’s funny. The first inkling that something was happening came from Mad magazine. My kid gave it to me. She said, “Oh, look, Ma! You!” It was like, “Heeeeeyyyyy!” They did a parody of Beverly Hills Cop, and in one of the panels, you see a hotel lobby. Eddie Murphy is in the background, and in the foreground is a picture of me labeled Valley Girl, which is based on one of my characters. It was a big deal to me.
Even Eddie Murphy, who was famous for keeping his poise when he became famous, supposedly has had difficulties handling the rush of success. How do you think you’re going to manage?
Sometimes it’s tough to keep my ego in check, but I blame it on the people around me, because, suddenly, I can’t do any wrong. They tell me shit that’s not true. And if enough people tell you that your shit doesn’t stink, you start thinking that maybe it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s hard for me to get my head through the fucking door. Meanwhile, I’m actually thinking that all this star stuff is a goof, because I’m really just a kid from the projects. But no one wants to hear it. People think I’m bragging. But, shit, I see Jack Nicholson and I’m a puddle on the ground. It’s hard to think of myself in those terms. This is all new for me.
But I know this ego stuff will kill you. It’s very isolating. Suddenly, the way you wipe your ass is news, big fucking news! People try to take your picture in the bathroom. No kidding. Once, I’d posed for some photographers and then went to the toilet. I heard someone come in while I was in the stall. Now, I have this thing, because I saw a movie once where there was a killer in the bathroom and a guy went into the stall and the killer dropped down and strangled him. So, whenever I go in, I look through the little slit to see who’s there. It was this woman with a camera, waiting just outside the stall for me to come out. I said to her, “Don’t do this. It’s not good and it will really fuck you up. Really fuck you up!” She left.
What other kinds of problems do you encounter?
People, friends, suddenly treat you differently. They don’t even wait for you to change and becomean asshole. They just assume you’re going to be one and treat you accordingly. This is very painful when all you’re trying to do is figure out that you’re still OK.
When actors talk about how tough it is, most people’s response is, “We should all have it so tough.” What do you think?
I think this is a motherfucker of a business. I work 16 hours a day. I sit around. Then I have to come every time someone says, “Action.” I do 80, 90 performances a day when I’m working on a movie. But people don’t understand that movie people are still human beings. They say, “Your name is in magazines, you’re making movies and you’re complaining!” I’m not. I’m freaked because I’m in the middle of it and I can’t tell what I’m doing. But I’m also lucky to have friends who can still say, “Look, bitch! Don’t get cute.” My kid’s like that. She says that if she has to make her bed, so do I.
You gained national attention as Celie in The Color Purple. You also received an Oscar nomination for best actress in 1986 but didn’t win. Should you have?
No. I knew immediately it wasn’t mine. In fact, I was probably lucky not to win. If I had, there’d be nowhere for me to go. People would have wondered if I was just a flash in the pan. Now they’ll wait for me to get better.
Why didn’t you go to the Oscar party afterward? Pissed off?
No. People assumed that. I was ready to go party. Are you crazy? I had Michael J. Fox with me, and we were going to boogie all night. Instead, while I was presenting the editing award, I got very sick. I have ovarian cysts, and one burst while I was standing there. On tape, you can see me lean on the podium. I was in pain! Poor Michael ended up taking me to the hospital.
To get the part of Celie, didn’t you do a sort of command performance of your stage show for director Steven Spielberg?
My management initially said, “You don’t have to go audition for him.” I said, “Are you crazy?” One of the great things about Steven is that when he hears about something new, he wants to see it in case he can work with it. That’s why new directors get such a shot with him. Apparently, enough people had said to him, “Man, we’re hearing about this girl.”
The Color Purple created a lot of controversy. There were complaints by the NAACP about the depiction of black men, criticism that the film skirted the lesbian relationship of Celie and Shug Avery, the fuss over Spielberg’s failure to get an Oscar nomination, the film’s getting stiffed at the awards. In retrospect, was Spielberg the right director for the job?
Fuck, yes. Nobody else–black, white, male, female–could have made it the way it was. His name attached to the film got people to see it. Who better? Because of him, it got out to Butt-Tussle, Idaho; to Supreme, Georgia, a town of 28 people with one moviehouse, where it played for months.
What about the charge that black men were portrayed one-sidedly in the film?
No one said anything about how black men were portrayed when the book was published. Again, the key word here is Spielberg. If a black director had made the film, the NAACP wouldn’t have said shit. The branch here complains there’s no work for black actors. So Spielberg goes mostly with unknown black actors and the NAACP says black men are depicted in a bad light, the movie’s fucked up and you shouldn’t go see it.
But before that, the movie, Purple Rain came out, with a lot of black men in it. They throw women into trash cans and scheme and lie and nigger around, as it were. Great concert footage. I’m a big fan of Prince’s music. But that movie is the most disgusting throwback I’ve ever seen. These guys are abusing women. Is that image different from what they think Mister is doing? Is Morris Day any different from Harpo? Nobody said a word.
By the way, after the Oscars, the same branch of the NAACP bitched because The Color Purple didn’t win anything. That says there’s some bullshit floating around here.
What difficulties have you encountered, being black in Hollywood?
I don’t think of things in terms of color. Hollywood does. When I grew up, it was never an issue. My mother would say, “Look, you’re black. You woke up black this morning, you’ll go to bed black tonight. But it doesn’t make any difference. It doesn’t mean that you will be better or worse at school. It doesn’t mean that you will get or not get jobs,” which was kind of–in this field–not exactly true. But I didn’t know that until very recently. People kept saying, “You know, there aren’t a lot of black movies.” And I didn’t get what they meant. In New York, actors are not black and white. They’re actors. You have Diana Sands and Alan Alda doing The Owl and the Pussycat. But you come here and people say, “You’re good but, shit, we can’t have an interracial couple.” Is there a law that says you can’t? “Well, no. It’s just that our audience wouldn’t be ready for it.”
How did you manage to get used to that attitude?
I didn’t get used to it at all. I just kind of ignore it, and I tell other people to do the same. I’m always asked what advice I have for black actors. Simple: Don’t think about being black. It’s not like you can pretend to be a white person.
Well, of course.
Not “of course.” It’s the same thing as my being told I want to be white because I wear blue contact lenses. Does anybody tell Cher she wants to be whatever because she wears blue or green contact lenses? Does anyone say to Tina Turner, “Damn, Tina! You wanna be white because you don’t have nappy hair! How come you wearing those wigs?” It doesn’t have anything to do with being black or white. There are plenty of black people who have green eyes. I don’t have them. But if I want 'em, I can get 'em!
Actors have no color. That is the art form. I’m not colorless–I’m black. It’s not something I consciously think about. It just is. It’s like having a dick. You don’t think about having a dick. You just have one.
True. But the issue remains. Isn’t a strong identification with one’s roots, in this case black, a way to circumvent ever being criticized for trying to act white.
Well, how do white people act? How do black people act? How do you know on the phone who’s what? When you listen to my Surfer Chick, you can’t tell that I’m a black woman doing a white woman. You can’t, you know. I don’t deal with people and their color, because it means I can’t work. As soon as I put a limit of being a black and a woman on myself, that narrows down the field of work to nothing. To nothing. Actors have no color. That is the art form. Actors are supposed to be able to do anything. Be anyone.
Do you believe in promoting black pride, black ideals?
I believe in promoting pride. Just people’s pride.
Some might say your “colorlessness” was simply a way of side-stepping confrontations.
With whom? I’m not colorless. You can see that I’m black. It’s not something I consciously think about. It just is. It’s like having a dick. You don’t think about having a dick. You just have one.
If being black is not an issue with you, is being a woman?
No. I don’t think of life in terms of being a woman, either.
Would you call yourself a feminist?
No. Look, I’ll tell you what I’m into. I like the idea of being able to talk to people about certain issues that affect men and women. For example, abortion. Otherwise, I’d have to think about life as a woman, then as a black person, then as a black woman, then what happens if I add Catholic–it’s endless! I’m trying in my own way to maintain a humanistic view of everything. It sounds peachy-cute to a lot of people, but I don’t give a fuck. I don’t want to represent this or speak for that. That only leads to people fighting, and then someone says you’re not fighting hard enough for women with behinds that sag closer to their knees. And what about the men with no toes?
What were your attitudes while you were growing up?
I grew up in a place where people said, “Do whatever you can do and do it well, because it’s going to be tough, you know? Not because you’re a woman, not because you’re black, but because it’s a motherfucker out there.” I didn’t know about women’s rights or men’s rights. As far as I knew, I had all the rights that I needed. Then, suddenly, in the Sixties, we had middle-class women who decided that P.T.A. wasn’t enough, that being a cuff link on their husband’s arm was not enough. So they called themselves women’s liberators. But they weren’t liberating people in my neighborhood, because the mothers were always working mothers. Single parents often raised their children.
In 1965, you were ten years old–a little young to be so aware of social change. Was it your mother who was aware of what was going on around her?
No, no. Awareness had nothing to do with it. Everybody’s parents worked. Some people had two parents and some people didn’t. I was aware of what the women’s movement was asking for. These women were burning bras and saying, “We want to be able to do this and that.” But that had nothing to do with the people in my neighborhood. The issues that were raised then were issues that my mother had already fought for. She worked as a practical nurse at French Hospital in New York. Female practical nurses made what male practical nurses made. Equality was never a question. In my neighborhood, it’s about your kids’ being hungry, you know?
How does that attitude work for you in Hollywood? Haven’t you ever been offended as a woman by, say, a male-chauvinist producer or executive?
As a person, yes. Never as a woman. Of course, I don’t like people having nasty attitudes toward me for no reason. People have told me I wasn’t pretty enough to do certain films. But then, because they can’t get the really pretty people, they have to switch and pay an ugly woman’s price. [Laughs]
Let’s turn it around. Has being a woman made it easier for you?
I’ve never fucked my way anywhere, if that’s what you mean. Could never do that. [Pauses] I don’t think so. The only time I think about being a woman here is when I see how women treat one another. Basically, people don’t fuck with me, because I don’t intimidate anyone overtly, like by being glamorous. I’m sure that if someone has to spend two hours on her make-up and then she looks at me and knows I spend five seconds just wiping myself off, it may be a bit intimidating. [Laughs] In the same way, I look at some women and think, Goddamn, if I could just look like that for five minutes, I would be happy. I’d love to look like Shari Belafonte Harper–gorgeous and a nice person. If you’re lucky, you get both. I have days like that.
Is it tough to relate to these pretty fashion plates?
We don’t have much in common. I can’t talk about nail color, because I bite my nails. I can’t talk about the best hairdos, facials or shopping. I have watched a lot of women play woman games, especially if I’m at a function with my husband. A woman will say hello to me and “Hiiiiii” to my husband. The first one is kind of a “Watch this” to me; the second is an “I can make your dick hard” to him. I could whisper in her ear, “Bitch, if you come near him, I’ll chop your fingers off,” but I don’t have to. I’m too secure to think he’s going to go out onto the veranda and fuck some stunningly gorgeous woman. In fact, I’m rather pleased that women notice him.
Women’s jealousy–sounds like a subject you might discuss with your friend Oprah Winfrey.
Yes. She and I and Rae Dawn Chong got very tight with one another on the set of The Color Purple. We’d sit and gab in the fucking Holiday Inn. We went to see Patti LaBelle in concert. Also Springsteen. I took Oprah to buy cowboy boots. We talk about everything. Girl talk about guys, mostly. You know: “Whoopi, what’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened to you?” And I said, “My Rolodex.” So Oprah and I went through my Rolodex together and she was going, “Ooh, girl! Oh, shit! I want this number!” Now we just call each other ho. That’s for whore. “Hey, ho!”
On your next picture, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, the problems apparently happened during filming, not afterward. What stands out about that experience?
Making that movie was awful. It was a fucking terrible experience that made me an ugly person–and I didn’t like that. The fact that the film has done well is no consolation. None. The producers wanted me to be the female answer to Eddie Murphy. But I’m not the black female answer to anybody. At the outset, they said, “We want something original. You put it together with the writers.” They went through a lot of fucking writers. But very little of what you see on the screen was on paper. It’s me.
Wasn’t the script originally done—-
For Shelley Long. It’s a mistake to try to rewrite things for me. Only I can take the material that’s already there and have some fun with it. They’d said I could–which is why I said yes to the script. Eventually, I sat in a room with an executive who said, “Well, I know we promised you all this, but, frankly, we’ve got you. You have signed on the dotted line. You have to make this movie and you’re going to do it this way.” I got the “artistic-control” handshake in the beginning, but I’ve learned never to assume anything again. From now on, every minute detail will be spelled out in my contract so that I know where I stand at all times. It was quite an education–like graduate school. This film deva-fucking-stated me! I’m not even positive that the producers wanted to make this movie work. [Pauses] It’s a piece of shit that flew for some reason. It flies because I’m cute in it. It doesn’t have any redeeming quality, and it’s not a great performance.
Nonetheless, it was a box-office success. Does its director, Penny Marshall, deserve the credit?
No. Donald Duck could have directed that film and the producers would have gotten what they got. Penny Marshall should have been the actress in the movie. We clashed, because I had been on the movie for a while before they brought her in and had been going in a specific direction. The producers had given me some leeway to play with things and she had her own very definite idea of how it was going to go. There were times when she’d be standing behind the camera giving me nuances as I was working, as the camera was rolling, showing me what she wanted to see.
That’s directing, isn’t it?
It’s annoying. [Sighs] But the further I get away from it, the easier it is for me to calm down and see that it wasn’t meant as an insult. A month ago, I would have said it was because Penny was a rotten, terrible, horrible person. And she’s not. She would never have been my choice for a director, but this was her first time out and there’s a lot of stuff she didn’t know. And a lot of faith she didn’t have in me, OK?
For me, this is not a good way to work, because I’ve been spoiled rotten. I got spoiled by Mike Nichols, who said, “You know how to do this. What are you going to do here?” And Spielberg, who said, “OK, great. How would this go?”
The only thing I know how to do is act and do characters. It’s one of the reasons for all this hoopla about me. If you don’t allow me to show you what I’ve developed for the character you’ve given me, then you’re fucking yourself. You can get someone else.
Hasn’t that very self-confidence led some to call you a prima donna?
That’s fine. Of course.
Have you heard it yourself?
People don’t tell me shit to my face. But, like I told you, people are waiting for me to fuck up–and now I have. But that’s OK. Jumpin’ Jack Flash made money because I’m in it.
Your most recent film, Burglar, wasn’t written for you, either.
No. It was written for Bruce Willis. I was supposed to play his sidekick. When Bruce didn’t sign, the studio canned the project. I called a week after they’d shut it down and said, “I can do this.” And they said, “Of course!”
The role in Burglar was written for a man, and one of your main characters, Fontaine, is a man. Do you like playing male roles?
My attitude is that I can play anything. I meet with resistance, but people forget that playing different genders is nothing new. Actors did it in Shakespearean times. Or look at Linda Hunt [in The Year of Living Dangerously]. No one knew for a long time that she was a woman. I’d like to play Bob Marley. I’m not saying actors should be allowed to play anything, but they should be able to play anything. That is the art form.
Why do you say it’s a mistake to write or rewrite scripts to suit you?
Because I do too many things. You have to give me a character and let me build from there. For someone to attempt to write for me means he or she knows what I’m capable of–and it’s too soon to know that. I prefer to have things written for Meryl Streep or Shelley Long or Diana Ross or Robert De Niro. And let me play.
Aren’t you also saying that roles written for you would be limited to black women?
Yes. But also, people think they have to write comedy for me–and I’m not a comedienne. I do not do stand-up. They try to write what they think I do.
How has this philosophy been received in the corridors of Hollywood? It’s certainly not playing by the rules.
I get strange looks. And I don’t know the rules. They don’t apply to me.
It is. But so far, so good. Rules of limitation on what I can do don’t apply, because if they did, then I wouldn’t be an actor. I’d be a piece of meat. I’m not interested in that. I’m a good actor, and actors can play anything.
Did you act as a child?
I started when I was eight. I lived near the Hudson Guild in Manhattan. They had a children’s group. It’s a settlement house. You went there after school to do whatever you were interested in–until your parents got off work and came for you. For me, it was like being in a candy store and being able to have any piece of candy I wanted. I knew right away that I liked it.
Did you do characters early?
No. I just wanted to do what I saw on television. I wanted to be a Dead End Kid. I wanted to be Carole Lombard. I watched The Million Dollar Movie. I didn’t even know these movies were old or that they were all in black and white. I figured they were in color–only to discover I was wrong when I got a color TV. But ultimately, the absence of color made it easier to fantasize along with the movies. Like Psycho. All the color you see is nonexistent. But it was perfect for me, because I love to live in my head. I love to pretend: Watching The King of Comedy was scary for me, because I sat at home and had conversations with Johnny Carson.
Apparently, you had lots of time alone, since your mom raised you by herself. What happened to your father?
They separated soon after I was born. One thing about my family: It’s pretty closemouthed. My mother doesn’t talk about this or her age or her parents or her relationship with my father. She’s like the Mystery Woman.
Have you ever met your dad? Spent time with him?
Yeah. He and Mom never divorced. I never found out why–and to learn about it now would probably only piss me off. I grew up in an apartment with my mom and older brother, Clyde, but we were like three separate islands. I love them very much, but it was distant.
No. My mom was distant but generous. My brother is six years older. He was out playing softball and didn’t want to hear from his little sister. There was not a whole lot of John Boy stuff going on. But, hey, we always had enough to eat. We could always get a hug. There was some affection. There just wasn’t a whole lot of talk about family. Or a whole lot of communication. [Pauses] I should balance this boohoo tale out, because there were lots of great times. Mom is a wonderful lady, just very dry. We’ve grown closer in the past four years.
Has having your own child affected your perspective?
Yeah. I couldn’t know how tough it is raising kids until I had mine. One day I called my mom up and said, “Shit. I’m sorry for being such an asshole.” For my mother to have done what she did–she was a nurse and then a Head Start teacher–is phenomenal. We never wanted for anything. We were always clean and Christmas was always fun. [Pauses] I’m realizing now as we’re talking that maybe what I thought was her distance was simply her taking needed space for her time and private thoughts.
You’ve apparently resisted or overcome the temptation to be bitter.
Man, I’ve done too much stuff to be bitter. There’s no point in it. I’ll give you an example. When I was going to go to the Dance Theater Workshop, which is the first theater that I played in New York as an adult, I wanted to go back to the neighborhood. I figured, I’m going to show these guys. They had laughed at me. Treated me like shit. But when I got back there, I found that a lot of the people who’d made it tough for me hadn’t moved an inch. They were still in the neighborhood. They were still in their parents’ houses. They hadn’t seen anything outside the neighborhood. And that killed, for probably the rest of my life, that infantile desire to just have a little bit of revenge, to twist the knife a little bit. It was a revelation. Now I feel joy that I was the odd man. It gave me an out that I didn’t recognize at the time. I’ve spent a lot of time recovering from the feeling of being inadequate. I’m building from that now. But then, I did all kinds of weird shit to try to get people to like me.
I was born a hippie and will be till I die. When I say hippie, I mean humanist. Environmentalist. Someone who wants world peace. Zen politics. Sunshine, rainbows, God. But that was not cool in my neighborhood.
Well, just saying things that I didn’t mean and trying to be ways that I wasn’t. See, I’m a hippie. I was born a hippie and will be one till I die.
Still a child of the Sixties?
Yeah. When I say hippie, I mean humanist. Environmentalist. Someone who wants world peace. Zen politics. Sunshine and rainbows. God. It all appeals to me. [Pauses] But that was not cool in my neighborhood. I knew I had to be black. It’s not something I could ignore. I saw myself in the mirror. Brown-skinned woman. But somehow, one also had to be hip and black. And I wasn’t hip. I was just this kid who liked theater and music and guys. It didn’t matter to me what color people were. But then, I’d be with a white guy and we’d get hit with eggs.
I didn’t understand this. And I tried. I tried really hard to get into it and I couldn’t, because it was bullshit to me. Why the fuck should I be worried about whether or not the guy’s white? If he’s an ax murderer, then I’m concerned. My instinct was always to just go one on one and see how it went.
Did you go out with black guys, too?
Yeah. I went out with anybody who wanted to go out with me. Guys were so hard to find. I was just not a popular girl. I couldn’t get a boyfriend. I couldn’t get into a clique. I felt I wasn’t hip enough or smart enough or fast enough or funny enough or cute enough. I couldn’t even dance well. The people who were those things were the people who were going places. I am an overly sensitive person. It’s very easy to hurt me. Only I know that, though. People can say things to me and I’ll just respond, “Hey, fuck you!” But inside, it hurts, because I’m still this kid. The best way to explain it is I wanted so much to be accepted that I’d hang out in the park with some of the girls and guys, and when they’d say, “Well, we want to get some candy,” I’d run and I’d get some candy. But I’d come back and they’d have gone. And I’d sit and I’d wait. What hurts so much about things like that is that I didn’t learn. I’d get the candy again. But it contributed something to me, because I don’t let myself do that to people. [Pauses] Sometimes I get so busy, I get callous. I forget stuff. But that memory has made me concerned about how I treat other people, because it’s painful, still.
Did those experiences push you into your drug-taking phase?
It’s hard to tell. [Flatly] I just did drugs.
When did you start?
[Hesitates] I was young. Young. Acid, pills and heroin were in vogue. I did everything. And large quantities of everything.
Do you have a problem with this topic?
Yeah. Only because it involves my family and Mom. If I start talking about how young I was, it doesn’t look good for her. If I related my full drug experience to you before relating it to her … it would not be the way I’d want her to find out about it. I don’t want a million people reading about it before I make my peace with her. I’ll talk about it all some other time. It happened, I did it, it’s done. I’m not ashamed. Suffice it to say I was young when I started and I don’t do them now. And I don’t encourage their use, because they’re too fucking dangerous.
Why did you latch on to drugs?
I had something to say to myself. It’s the greatest thing in the world, to me, to have done drugs and survived them. Besides, they changed me forever. The drugs of the Sixties were social drugs. Everybody got high. Everyone smoked pot, did ups, downs, opium, acid. Everyone was in the same condition. It was almost normal. You could be real open and do good stuff when you were loaded.
As opposed to today.
Yeah. Drugs are cut with rat poison and shit. I could never do now what I did then. Today’s drugs are too powerful.
Money changed it. Money is a funny thing. It’s the biggest killer of quality in any venue. Once you find a product and realize you can make lots of money with it, the mass production overpowers the quality. When money people started getting interested in drugs, the quality dropped.
You also did heroin.
I did heroin. Yeah.
Shooting it? Snorting it?
Shooting it. At the time, it was just another drug.
Just another drug?
Look, strychnine, rat poison and Clorox will all kill you. They’re all fucked. Acid will get you killed. Opium. Pills. [Annoyed, tired] For me, it was just another drug. I did lots of drugs. I was a junkie. I was chemically dependent on many things for many years.
You quit school in the ninth grade. Why?
Because it was boring. You couldn’t ask questions. People would tell you what they thought you should know.
How did your mother react?
She was not pleased. She was not pleased.
What did you do afterward?
This and that.
What does that mean?
It means this and that.
Did you live at home?
On the streets, then? What is life like out there when you’re 14 years old?
I don’t know. It’s not the same now.
What was it like for you?
You don’t want to—-
No, I really don’t.
You’ve admitted doing drugs, heroin. What could be worse?
I have answered most every question you’ve asked.
It’s not as if you were in jail for three years.
No, I wasn’t in jail.
Well, we’re still curious about those mystery years.
They’re not a mystery. It’s just something I don’t want to talk about for public consumption, you know? I am a little gun-shy these days, for reasons I explained at the beginning. And so I just keep this stuff to myself. I lived, I survived, I grew up, I got married, I had a kid, I got a divorce, I moved to California, I lived, I got lucky in New York, got lucky in California, I’m making movies, I’m doing OK. People don’t have to know everything about me. [Laughs]
Let’s finish with the subject of drugs–or as much as you feel you can say. Do you remember the moment you realized you had to stop?
Actually, no. Maybe I just got tired of it. I just knew it was necessary. I decided to go into a program. They took me–and yelled at me a lot and I yelled at them, and they put me through this Gestalt therapy and it straightened me out.
What is that therapy like?
It’s very military. You come in at a certain time, have certain chores. There’s a group. You have confrontations, heavy talks, people going, “Fuck! What am I? Why am I? Drugs didn’t work. What do you have to offer to make me feel better about myself as a person?” The therapists say, “Only assholes do drugs. Look in the mirror. What do you see? An asshole!” [Pauses] Drugs made me feel good about myself, only not for long. That’s the pain-in-the-ass thing about them. After feeling great for three or four hours, you gotta turn around and do it again. So what’s the worse evil: trying to make friends and keep them or trying to get high and keep the feeling? At some point, I had to decide what I really wanted. People in drug programs are often looking for some part of themselves. They’re very shy. Drugs make it easier for them to talk. Or they feel small and drugs make them feel big. Sometimes it’s a power trip. Sometimes it’s just a miniroad to death. There are a million stories.
Did you see friends O.D.?
A lot of people. It was just bad luck. The junkie’s attitude is “I hope I don’t.” But if you do, you’re on your own. No one wants to go to jail as an accessory to murder. But a lot of the drugs started doing that–killing people. [Mutters] Little mousetraps. Little mousetraps.
How do you feel about the idea of drug testing?
I have to take tests all the time for movies. Honey, now they want blood. I hate it. I fight it. I say, “Are you asking me if I do drugs? Why don’t you ask me? You think I’m not going to tell you? You think you won’t be able to tell? Why do I have to give you blood? How do you know I’m not clean for X amount of time just to be clean for you?” I give urine. No blood. I don’t like needles. I wouldn’t give blood to anybody. I don’t like anybody poking me. If you want to know if I’m into drugs, you’ll just have to keep your eye on me.
How old were you when you cleaned up?
Seventeen. And then I married my drug counselor. It seemed like the thing to do at the time. He was bored with what he was doing and wanted to try something else. I figured nobody was ever going to marry me, so I might as well do it just in case.
Were you pregnant?
Oh, no. Good girls don’t.
How long did the marriage last?
Not long. It wasn’t right. You get married because you love someone and for no other reason. It can only last if you’re deeply in love, and we weren’t. It was mutual. I split back to Manhattan with my kid. I stayed with my mother for about a month until a friend who had been working in the theater called to ask if I wanted to go to California. Bingo! We drove a barf-green car to San Diego via Lubbock, Texas. I was appalled. I thought we were going to Hollywood. But it was OK, because I was going to be acting.
Are you still in touch with your ex-husband? Does he see his daughter?
No. His loss.
However, when you got to San Diego, things were tough. You were a welfare mother, had lots of odd jobs.
Not odd jobs. Gigs. I went to beauty college and worked in salons, because I’d been a hair model. I worked in strip joints–but I never got my clothes off. People were screaming, “Don’t do it!” I have great legs, but once you get up near my butt, it’s not good. I also know how to lay brick, how to Sheetrock. And I worked in the morgue. Did their hair.
You did hair on dead bodies?
Yeah. You play with the bodies. They’re like big dolls. [Giggles] No one’s around. You put them in a chair, paint their lips, do eye shadow. Make them look punk. Or very, very dead.
They don’t look dead enough?
[Laughs] You can powder their face totally white. Or make them look like a Raggedy Ann doll. And then you get to work. It’s good work.
Did you have any time for a social life or boyfriends in San Diego?
I had a boyfriend for a little while, but otherwise I kept pretty much to myself. I didn’t want a lot of guys in my house when my kid woke up.