Illeana Douglas Returns to the Alamo to Talk About a Life Lived in the Movies

After almost thirty years in showbusiness, actress Illeana Douglas isn’t really a household name — and that’s too bad. The great character player has been in dozens of films since the late ‘80s, and even if her name is unfamiliar, once you see the wide-eyed actress, she's instantly recognizable...and unforgettable. This Saturday she’s returning to the Alamo Drafthouse to present a screening of one of her most popular film roles in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World; she'll also be talking about her new memoir, I Blame Dennis Hopper: And Other Stories From A Life Lived In and Out of the Movies.

Douglas, the granddaughter of famed Oscar-winning actor Melvyn Douglas (Being There, Ninotchka, Hud), studied theater and began jumping into film roles in 1987, when a chance meeting with Martin Scorsese led to a crowd role in his The Last Temptation Of Christ. But her charm soon earned her bigger roles in Scorsese's subsequent films, including Goodfellas and Cape Fear. Still, her role that created the most buzz was in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, when she stole the spotlight from that film’s star, Nicole Kidman. These days, along with acting and producing, Douglas does a regular turn on Turner Classic Movies, where she can be found introducing dozens of cinematic gems and interviewing special guests. Still, she found time to return to Denver (she was here a few months ago for a screening of director Alison Anders's Grace of My Heart). In advance of her appearance, we talked with Douglas to get the early word on her life lived on the big screen.
Westword: How did you enjoy your previous visit to Colorado?

Illeana Douglas: It was great, although I do not partake in the marijuana, so I guess I’m missing out. When you grow up with hippie parents, I guess you end up going the other way!

How was getting to rewatch and talk about Grace of My Heart in the theater with an audience again?

It was fantastic. I love Alison so much and we’ve stayed friends all of these years and it’s great to go back and revisit the film and watch both of our artistic journeys as well as our personal journeys on screen. Alison is so knowledgable about movies and music and it was amazing to reconnect with her.

Can you tell us a little bit about your new memoir and just why are you blaming poor Dennis Hopper?

I blame him for everything! (Laughs.) The title refers to the movie that he made, Easy Rider, and how it affected a whole generation of people to change their lives. The movie predicted the whole counterculture in America and my parents became hippies after they saw it and so I grew up in the hippie lifestyle — which meant that when I was growing up there were goats and I didn’t expect to grow up with that childhood, so I grew up to resent it because I wanted to be rich and go to college and all of those things that were suddenly not going to happen. So I always felt that Dennis Hopper led me in the direction of becoming an actress to rebel, and as I grew up all of my ideals and values stemmed from my parents watching that film.

When you’re little you don’t appreciate what your childhood stands for, but when you grow up and look back on it you realize how lucky you were. And the fact that I was able to eventually meet Dennis Hopper, have an experience with him, work with him on films and tell him all these things, I think that I’ve had an amazing journey and the book comes out of this idea that so many of my life decisions stemmed from being in and out of going to the movies. We’re in a new digital age where we’re losing what that experience feels like, to actually go to the movies and have a movie so shift your perception, you know, that you change your life — and I felt it was important to write the book now before we completely get lost without film. I write with great nostalgia about seeing movies and what that experience was like, and it’s just not quite the same as the movies that we saw in our childhood and at the drive-in and at the multiplexes, and all of those great moments and I wanted to catalogue them, for my generation, I guess. Oh, and it’s got funny stories in it, too!
You talk a lot about your grandfather, Melvyn Douglas, and how he was the one to really show you the ropes in Hollywood and set you on a good path. What was the best advice you think that he ever gave you?

The funny answer is that when I was younger and visiting him on the set, he told me that if I was going to get into acting that I needed to remember to always order the club sandwich because no matter where you were, no matter where in the world, you could always order that one consistent thing and it’d be pretty hard to screw up. That was the funny answer, but seriously he was so dedicated to his craft, he worked so hard at it to build a studio-system career, and then regroup to go to Broadway, have a stage and television career and then transform into a character actor and have a secondary career that way. That longevity is what I have tried to maintain in my career. The idea that he won an Oscar when he was 80 — he won his first oscar when he was 63 — that’s kind of something that is very inspirational to me. It gives me tremendous respect for actors that are there for the long run, that are troopers in a sense.

Let ‘s talk a little bit about Ghost World, which I can’t believe came out almost fifteen years ago.

That’s the hardest part. I didn’t just do it last week? It feels like it!

Right? Why do you think people still love and identify with that movie?

It’s such a great film and Terry Zwigoff’s dark, quirky sensibility is just so amazing in the film. What I personally like about it is that it brilliantly describes this narrow world, that when you know that world, you delight in seeing it. I’m a movie buff and I go to these poster collectible shows and so the scene with the guy with all the records, that extremism of that kind of a record collector and what kind of guy Seymour is, I was like, "Oh, my god, I know people who are JUST like this," and that’s what I think is so funny about it.  Of course, there’s nothing better than going to a movie and you think you’re the only one who knows someone like that but everyone knows someone like Seymour, and the movie celebrates people with small, little dreams — and I appreciate that.

The second great thing about that film is that Terry Zwigoff himself was just such an amazing director and audience for our acting, and he would ruin half of my takes by laughing! I would be doing something and then he’d start to laugh and then the kids would start to laugh because he was laughing and I absolutely loved working with the kids during that time, and I wish I could do more with it. The camaraderie of doing a take and everyone would be trying keep these straight faces. It was so much fun. I have so many nice memories of the kids and everyone was just so young and innocent back then.
Did you base your art teacher character on a teacher that you knew personally?

No, I actually didn’t. I based it on a performance artist I knew when I was in school and a little bit on an acting teacher I had that was a little more over the top. I had the hippie-dippy art teachers, but I definitely knew people like that when I moved to New York, and creating aspects of that teacher, that was the one big contribution that I made. I said “Can she be, rather than just a failed art teacher, a failed performance artist?” I mean how do you become a failed performance artist? Even your performance art film failed, so you’re reduced to showing it to your kids and I think that’s why that opening scene with the kids is so crucial. But those were my examples, like crazy acting teachers I had in the ‘80s, which was such a crazy time. When I read the original script ,that character seemed more like Marin County hippie-dippy and I felt like I’d seen that and I wanted to do something more. I wanted the hair to be more Laurie Anderson; these were people I knew that came out of New York in the ‘80s.

It seems like you have a lot on your plate these days. What are you excited about doing?

Well, I’m working with TCM doing hosting and interviews, which is very rewarding. I absolutely love that, it satisfies my movie lover inside and feeds my soul and connects me to the movie fans and that’s a full-time job. But when I’m not doing that I just finished a movie called Unleashed with Kate McCoochie, who’s a great up-and-coming actress, and then I’m producing and co-starring in a web series called The Skinny, which is a comedy about bulimia and we are doing that with Jill Soloway's (Transparent) company. I try to do a lot of female-based stuff.  It stars a young comedian named Jesse Conwheeler, I play her mother and we’re actually going to be premiering it at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

This whole crossover of web and indie film has been really interesting to explore. Those are the two main things I’ve got cooking, and soon I’m going to start on book two of my memoir and I have a script of my own that i’m going to try and get moving.
You spoke of your grandfather’s longevity, so looking back at all of these roles that you’ve done so far, what’s been your absolute favorite?

I would really have to go to Grace of My Heart. It was truly a labor of love, both behind the camera and in front. I got to build my relationship with Alison, and that’s why I wrote a whole chapter in the book about it. It’s a great example of how movies have shaped and formed my life, and I wanted a collaboration with a female director. That’s what I truly sought out, and so I watched a bunch of films — but her Gas Food Lodging really affected me. She’s so inspiring, not just as a director but also as a person, and she’s such a courageous woman. And geez, we were just youngsters then, but we’ve both grown so much in both of our careers.

That’s what’s so great about movies is that they’re timeless. I mean Cape Fear, Ghost World, people think we made them a year ago, and I’m the same way when I meet people from films that profoundly affect me and they’re older, in their seventies, and it just doesn’t matter. I just think about the movie that they’re in that I love and I really love all of that.

Ghost World, with Illeana Douglas in person to talk about the film, screens at 7 p.m. Saturday, November 14 at the Alamo Drafthouse, 7301 South Santa Fe Drive in Littleton. Tickets are $10 or for $37 you can also get a copy of her new book. For more information, go to