Anjelica Huston is causing a stir on the new hit series Smash.
Stars aren’t born, they are made” is the tagline for Smash, the new drama series on NBC. Produced by Steven Spielberg, the show revolves around the creation of a Broadway musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe, and showcases Anjelica Huston in her first television series.
Huston was born into Hollywood royalty – she is the third generation in her family to win an Academy Award. But she made her own way, honing her talent over many films and a myriad of characters. From the deliciously ghoulish Mortica in The Addams Family, and the edgy con artist Lilly Dillon in The Grifters, to her Oscar-winning role as Maerose in the 1985 film Prizzi’s Honor, which was directed by her father, John Huston, and also starred her then lover Jack Nicholson.
Speaking to Irish America just after the premiere of Smash, she talked about embracing television and how as an artist you must continue to grow.
“Well, you know everything you do is a learning curve, because in this strange world of entertainment that we live in, no two projects are ever alike. I think that if you’re open, and hopefully as an artist you remain open, it’s going to be different every time out,” she said.
In Smash she plays Eileen Rand, a woman who is struggling to reestablish herself as a producer following a break-up with her powerful producer husband.
Eileen is a force to be reckoned with but there’s a vulnerability there too, which Anjelica says she quite likes.
“A lot of people said, ‘Are you playing a bitch?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, she has that capacity but there’s a lot of other things going on as well.’ You know, when you’re playing a producer, particularly a woman who’s operating virtually in a man’s world, she needs to apply the brakes once in a while and get tough, but of course she’s human and she has to be able to sweet talk people and be manipulative, but at the same time she has a personal life and a private life.”
And as the character Eileen seeks to find her footing after a long marriage, Anjelica, whose husband, the Mexican sculptor Robert Graham, died at the end of 2008, is also coming to grips with being on her own. “It was unbearable for the first two and a half years,” she admits. “It’s starting to be more conceivable that I can go on with my life but you know it’s a huge change. You’re not prepared for it in any way at all. So my life is very different. I think if I were still married, my life wouldn’t be what it is now. I’d still be in California and I don’t think I would have made this huge move to New York.
“It was a big jump for me going into series television, but it was a good time for me to do it. It involves leaving my house in California for long periods of time, but as long as I have my dogs with me I’m happily holed up in my nice apartment here. I love the show. I’m having so much fun working with the cast and crew. They’re just a fantastic group of people, and I love going to work every day.”
But once the filming is over she’ll go back to California. “I have a ranch up in Northern California and I have some horses up there to remind me of Ireland. When I get off work here in March I’ll go up there and play around in the mud a little. I love it.”
In conversation, one can’t help but notice that there is still an indelible Irishness to Huston. It’s there in the inflections in her speech and how she says, “I’m grand,” when asked how she’s doing.
Born in Santa Monica, California in 1951, she moved to Ireland when she was 18 months old and grew up on her father’s estate, St. Clerans in Galway. In various interviews with Irish America through the years she has stressed how much Ireland means to her.
“I always think of Ireland as my real home,” she said, when I first interviewed her in 1991. “I have memories of wonderful long summers with excursions to ruined castles and trips up to Connemara and the fair in Galway. . . . And – just life with one’s pony and one’s animals.”
She also spent time on the sets of the films that her father shot in Ireland, including Moby Dick. In one interview with Irish America she recalled “being afraid of Gregory Peck in his big black top hat.”
Peck, for his part, recalled in an interview with the magazine in 1995 that he was afraid John Huston was going to kill him in the process of making the movie. Huston insisted on filming in the torrid Atlantic off Ireland’s west coast – where one day the rubber whale Peck was strapped to broke loose, putting him in imminent danger. (Peck was rescued but the whale escaped!)
John Huston loved Ireland and lived there on and off for 20 years. He loved it “because it was wild – and because he loved horses,” Anjelica said. “He loved to hunt. He liked the people. He liked untamed places, and Ireland had a good deal of that.” He also loved Irish literature, especially James Joyce. “Joyce changed his life. He always said he changed his life,” she said. Working with her father on The Dead, the movie adaptation of Joyce’s short story, “was very poignant” because her father was ill. Yet,“everyone was really happy to be working on that film,” she recalled.
Of Joyce’s character Gretta, which she played with such suppressed sorrow, she said, “There’s a line of Gretta’s – ‘We used to go out walking in the rain, Gabe. You know the way they do in the country?’ Lines like that are so unmistakably Irish, if you’ve ever spent those long evenings there where it’s light until 11 o’clock at night, and it’s kind of misty and you put on your Wellington boots and go out with the dogs. Whenever I said that line, it always got to me.”
The subject matter of Smash also brings reminders of her father, who passed away not long after completing The Dead. “One of the lines in the show pertains to Marilyn’s first movie, Asphalt Jungle, and that was directed by my father.” Marilyn’s last movie, The Misfits, was also directed by John Huston. So her life was very much book ended by John Huston. “It’s funny, these tie-ins. And of course our dialogue is largely about Marilyn and what she was doing and saying, and it all sort of comes full circle,” Anjelica said.
Like her father, Anjelica has received accolades for her work as a director, including her adaptation of Dorothy Allison’s novel Bastard Out of Carolina. She also produced, starred in and directed Agnes Brown, a lovely Irish film based on the book The Mammy by Brendan O’Carroll, which was very well received in Ireland but ran into distribution problems in the U.S.
“What’s really really nice for me about that movie is the feedback from people. What happened to it is sort of heartbreaking. First of all they took the title away, “The Mammy,” which I thought was a vastly superior title, because in America they were afraid it had connotations to the Civil War. Then it was sold from October Films to USA and it virtually just fell through the cracks. They showed it in a letter box theater for four or five days with no title over the door a week before the Oscars, and it broke my heart. But on the other hand, it has a very healthy shelf life particularly in Ireland where they watch it over and over again. So that makes me happy,” she said.
Another Irish project that she has wanted to do is a film about Maud Gonne the Irish revolutionary who is celebrated in the poetry and drama of W.B. Yeats. “That’s still an idea I treasure,” she said. “It was terribly hard to find a good screenplay. We made about three or four efforts with different people to come up with something we felt good about, but the scripts just never came up to par. I think the problem was that we were trying to twist the story into some kind of form that we felt would be good for it but it didn’t want to go there. It’s one of the most famous stories of unrequited love, and with love stories it kind of requires that the love is requited. So it was a difficult one.”
She drops over to Ireland as often as she can. “It’s difficult for me because I’m an out of towner and it’s a long way but I like to get there as much as possible.”
St. Clerans has been turned into a hotel. Of her visit there she said, “It was sort of like being Alice down the rabbit hole. Every door opened to a different bedroom or bathroom. It was a very dreamlike sensation.”
Does she still have a dream of owning a little piece of property in the west of Ireland that she talked about some years back? “Oh, I still do and maybe that will be more possible in the future,” she said.
In the meantime, she and her brother Tony and sister Allegra are very involved with the John Huston Film School at University College, Galway.
“It is a lovely thing and I’m so glad it’s there. It provides us at least with the idea that there’s a pocket of home we can go to, somewhere to be received in County Galway. It’s always great to go back, but I’m particularly happy we have that place and the school.”
We’re proud of the Huston connection to Ireland, I say. “We’re proud too, and we rely on it. It keeps us sane,” she said.