Sean Young: Dancing on the Edge
Sean Young has a special place in the hearts and minds of readers here at Le Blog. She’s a one of a kind actress known for her beauty, talent and outrageous behavior. We especially appreciate the latter. In 1990, Young’s career was going down in flames, but she was not beyond redemption. Not yet anyway. When Stephen Rebello interviewed Young for the cover story of the June issue, the actress brought a notepad with her. You might think an actress in her precarious position would be careful about burning bridges, but that’s not why Young took notes. If she was holding back at all, you would never know it.
Anyone who has seen Cousins, Blade Runner, or No Way Out knows that Sean Young can be compulsively watchable. Offscreen, she’s been compulsively watchable too, of late–her recent past’s riddled with crazy-lady headlines and rich, fast-travelling stories. Oliver Stone reportedly fired her from Wall Street, amid rumors that co-star Charlie Sheen won plaudits from the crew by sticking on her back a Post-it note reading: “I Am the Biggest Cunt in the World.” Then, James Woods, her co-star in The Boost, accused her of bedeviling him and his fiancée with a disfigured doll. Later, a riding accident threw her off Batman, and Woody Allen cut her out of Crimes and Misdemeanors. And to top it off, Warren Beatty bounced her from Dick Tracy.
Such career-battering upheaval would seem to nominate Young as Hollywood’s prime candidate for 24-hour damage control. But now, copping to a new attitude and aerodynamic haircut that mirror her role as a scout pilot in her latest film, a Top Gun-like barnstormer, Fire Birds, (aka Wings of the Apache), about a U.S. air strike against a South American drug cartel, Young–who appears determined to play her film roles out in real life–is fighting back.
We meet at a secluded table at a Beverly Hills restaurant. After a champagne toast and an order of exotic entrees (“I’m trying to be less middle-class and they say spicy food is supposed to increase your sex drive,” she says, laughing dryly), Young spends the next few hours proving that it may be impossible for her to be anything but endearingly, dangerously out on a limb.
This is a business full of raunchy people,” she declares, then whips out a list of observations about her directors and leading men. She has, she tells me, spent most of her morning preparing these notes.
You would think, after all the bad publicity, Young might take discretion as the better part of valor and recite the bland compliments most actresses utter in interviews– or at least leave James Woods out of this litany. But she gets to Woods in no time: “… God would have been merciful if he had given him a little teeny penis so that he could get on with his life,” she declares.
In case you missed every one of the countless accounts of this fiasco, Woods and his fiancée Sarah Owen (whom he has since married and separated from) filed a civil suit in 1988 charging Young with playing out a full-tilt, woman-run-mad scenario: crank calls, anti-abortion mailings, arranging for an iodine-spattered doll with a slashed neck to be left on his doorstep. According to some co-workers, Woods and Young were enmeshed in a love affair during the shooting of The Boost–an accusation denied by both parties. Days after the voodoo doll appeared on the actor’s doorstep, Woods allegedly received an apologetic note from “a friend” of Young’s accusing the actress of having put the party up to the deed.
“That letter,” says Young, who joined AA and quit drinking a month after the movie wrapped, “was the thing that allowed [Woods] to abuse me and the people that know me. It gave the police the right to fingerprint me, my boyfriend, and the person I was with at the time the doll was left. Why would the person who left the doll identify the only person who could identify them? Because the person had nothing to do with me at all. That note existed to make it possible for the police to do what they did and for James Woods to do his little number. He was masterful in the way he wove together all the facts of my particular personality so that he could use those facts against me.”
What motivated Woods to retain attorney Dale F. Kinsella to launch a $2 million harassment suit? “We’re talking about a criminal; we’re talking about an extortionist,” Young says. “[Woods] went to great effort to set me up and do this whole drama for two reasons: jealousy and a love of publicity. He wanted me to sleep with him. I didn’t. When Woods met somebody who was as strong internally and, in fact, more powerful, his biggest desire was to destroy that purity and that power. I didn’t want anything from him, yet I could still offer all of my good feelings toward him. He thrives on publicity. Here’s an actor who shows up on the cover of GQ going, ‘Ahhhh, I’m a real actor’s actor.’ But he’s not. He wishes he were Cary Grant and punishes himself every day that he’s not.” She adds, quietly, “What was so laughable was him wanting to portray me as obsessed. Who can’t stop bad-mouthing? Who really is obsessed here?”
But if Young was innocent of the harassment, whodunnit? “He and his girlfriend,” she says, flatly. “I’m positive of it. Go to the child abuse houses across the country and you’ll hear stories about things that lovers or wives and husbands do to each other that you wouldn’t believe. What he really wanted to create was something he could use the press with. It’s just this man’s pattern. He is the saddest man on earth. What do you say about someone like that? You just pray as much as you possibly can that they’ll go away and that their never-ending source of anger may one day dry up and stop torturing the people in his life or anybody that comes across his path. The reason he dropped the case was because he finally had to prove the case. There was no proof. And the reason there was no case is because I didn’t do it.”
Rather than defend herself at the time, Young says she chose to “suffer with humility.” She explains: “I took the pain, did my yoga, saw my shrink, went to co-dependency and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.” Perhaps not surprisingly, considering her background and predilections, part of Young’s new persona is shot through with a mix of est, Catholic doctrine, and New Age-ism. “Throughout it all, no one could destroy my faith,” she says. “Remember when Christ is on the cross and he goes, ‘Why have you forsaken me?’ When God stepped away from me, it was my first opportunity to exhibit a forceful faith.”
According to Dale Kinsella, James Woods’s lawyer, “The case was settled and there were financial terms in the settlement which cannot be disclosed pursuant to a court order.” But Young insists that she is more concerned with the repercussions in “the cosmic court” than in any court of law. “I have a faith so great that there is really no fear in my heart about the damage that was attempted. By virtue of my being able to forgive, I have already conquered. The story, as it will unfold, is something I don’t have to and don’t want to be a part of.” Still, Young asks that her industry colleagues “consider the source of whatever is said about me [and] think about [the stories] and consider their plausibility. I would ask that the industry become long-term thinkers, rather than gossip-mongers of the moment.” Woods, says Young, “will end up coming face to face with that karma and it will be a bad day. He will undo himself. And may God have mercy on him when he does. But, you know, he must have really loved me to get that crazed.”
Having exorcised Woods for the moment, Young begins to generalize. “It’s time that the fallacy of difficult leading men be exposed,” she says. “It’s a disease that should be discouraged because it has run amok and is not positive for anybody. There are a lot of difficult leading men, but that’s not talked about much because we’re in an industry where men occupy most of the powerful positions. What’s really sad is that some leading men would be much happier if they had a job on a farm or at a rodeo.”
Actresses, according to Young, “are much more activist, much more aware, and terribly solid as individuals… They have to be or they don’t survive.” Survival skills probably came in handy for Young when Warren Beatty fired her, after only seven days, from her role as Tess Trueheart in Dick Tracy. Young characterizes the 53-year-old hyphenate as “impossibly self-centered, more vain than any woman I’ve ever met, and obsessed with sex, his penis, and conquering women.” After she apparently “shocked and bugged” Beatty by admitting that she had seen none of his movies except Splendor in the Grass (which she mistakenly called Tender Is the Night), Young compounded her sins: “I made him look too old and didn’t respond to his endless hitting on me.” Then, the coup de grâce. “One day, [Beatty] said to me on the set, ‘When I get too old, I’ll just direct.’ I turned to him and said, ‘Oh, really? And when will that be?’ “If Beatty had a comeback, Young was canned too fast to get it. “After having someone like [Beatty] just fire me, I [thought], ‘Is everybody in the business like this?’
Young reads aloud from her notes scrawled across folded pages she holds in her hand: “Good directors are talented, communicative, and still possess humility and kindness.” Grinning drolly, she adds, “Not a very prevalent group of characteristics among directors.” But Young isn’t quite as hard on everyone as she is on Woods and Beatty. Kind to James Ivory (“very sensitive, very courteous”), who directed her in her small-scale debut, Jane Austen in Manhattan, which was shown on the BBC and in limited theatrical release in 1980, she is less so about herself at that time: “Thank God the character was a space cadet because I knew nothing.”
Making Stripes taught Young that scripts are expendable when one’s leading man is Bill Murray (“funny, a little rough, extremely intelligent”) and one’s director is Ivan Reitman (“a funny Jewish businessman”). Recalling her “phony, plastic, uncomfortable, clichéd” reading for Blade Runner, she credits “painter and visionary” Ridley Scott with helping her hold her own with Harrison Ford, whom she remembers as “funny at a moment’s notice,” but also “rude and unfriendly.”
“Very funny and, at times, very inexperienced” is how she describes Garry Marshall, her director on Young Doctors in Love, a lowball farce in which she played an intern who almost swills urine from a beaker. David Lynch, who cast her as girlfriend to the Dune messiah, was “a creative brat.” Young reportedly alienated her co-star, William Katt (“athletic, a real nice guy,” she musters, for posterity), and co-workers on the set of Baby… Secret of the Lost Legend. (“She was awfully full of herself,” says a crew member of that movie, in which Young played scenes with a family of mechanical dinosaurs. “In 110-degree weather, after two weeks of rehearsal, she’d ask the director, ‘What’s my motivation?’ and she’d play her goddam flute till we were ready to strangle her.”)
Young remembers Oliver Stone, who reduced her already “small” role to a virtual cameo in Wall Street, as “kind of funny, doesn’t like or understand women.” She adds, “I argued with him a little bit,” then back-peddles. “It wasn’t really arguing, but pleading with [Stone] to give me a hint of what was going on. Which he couldn’t do.” As for Charlie Sheen, her leading man and prince of the raunchy Post-it notes, Young observes, he is “funny and probably would be much sweeter with less success at an early age.”
Young praises No Way Out‘s director Roger Donaldson (“not afraid of women, nice, talented”), who is on record as saying he would “love to work with her again.” On the other hand, she sizes up co-star Kevin Costner as “an excellent businessman, an average actor, very good at working the camera.” Cousins director Joel Schumacher she describes as “the father figure I never had,” and she also has praise for co-stars Ted Danson (“the most conscious, awake person I’ve ever worked with”) and William Petersen (“the most attractive and desirable”).
“The more you work in Hollywood,” Sean Young once said, “the more you learn you can protect yourself by making people know that you can make them afraid of you.” And now, at age 30, she defends her spikey rep. “If anybody says that I go around terrorizing anybody, they’re just a plain old liar. There is certain truth to the fact that people don’t respect you until you have enough strength to say, ‘Stop right there. That’s where I draw the line.’ If you can’t do that, they’ll just eat you alive.”
Look up every crew member of every movie I’ve ever made,” she challenges, warming to her theme. “They would all say, ‘She’s tops.’ “Says Young, who has been linked romantically with actor Robert Lujan (Vampire’s Kiss) since 1985, “I tend to be meaner in my very, very close relationships than I am at large. But even then, there’s a balance of co-dependency that encourages that behavior.” Yet Young, who is capable of such fancies as describing herself as “a rare elf with paradoxical qualities,” readily admits that she rattles people. “There’s something about me that tells the truth. A lot of times, a lot of people don’t want to hear the truth. I don’t have much patience for big egos and unnecessary arrogance, not with the suffering people who are all around us. It’s unendurable. And I make fun of it rather expertly.”
Perhaps too expertly. While I was preparing this story, the assistant to a past director of Young’s refused to put through my “prank call” for a comment about the actress from her boss. The agent for one of Young’s co-stars said, laughing, “You mean, you want [him] to tell you whether Sean Young really is ‘the biggest cunt in the world?’ “Gosh, hasn’t Sean Young kissed up to anyone in her entire career? More important, how long can she survive without learning how to work the press? You’d think Young’s mother, Lee Guthrie, a journalist and unauthorized biographer of Woody Allen, Jackie Onassis, and Cary Grant, might have helped her daughter out here. But Guthrie, who, until last year, Young says, “used to manage me and was very protective of me,” had rather the opposite effect. According to a crew member on one of Young’s earlier films, Guthrie pushed Young “unmercifully… they had a strange Brooke and Teri Shields kind of relationship.”
Movie journalists recall Guthrie standing up at a press conference to extol one of her daughter’s “markedly beautiful” performances. Although Guthrie has since explained away the gesture as a “put-on that the audience took straight,” the incident back-fired on an actress increasingly dogged by rumors of prima donna-itis. Last year, Young says, she and her mother decided it “was time for me to experience more independence. It’s not easy for us to give each other space, but we understand the necessity for it.” David Green, director of Fire Birds, assesses the relationship as having been “a little unnatural, and it contributed to a lot of the bad press. Now that Sean’s thrown that off, she’s much more her own person.”
A touch of reckless bravado surfaces when Young reflects upon how her well-publicized run-ins with directors and leading men have had their upside. “Show business has endowed me with a lot of mystery,” she says, aware at least on some level that in Hollywood, where power is perception, she emits an ominous, if seductive vibe. “If you meet me and know me, one of the clearest things you see is that I’m direct and very honest. Mystery, rumors, and all that, have sort of been endowed to me. And there’s a lot of that to overcome at this point. My mystery, or whatever you want to call it, has a kind of currency in the film business.” With a shrug, she adds, “Without all of these problems, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the covers of Premiere and Harper’s Bazaar.”
But it would be naive to overlook the negative side. According to published reports, producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters replaced Young on Batman with Kim Basinger when Young was thrown from a horse. Or was she? “I fell off the fucking horse,” says Young, chortling. “Go ask Michael Keaton, go ask the horse trainer.” As for Woody Allen cutting her from Crimes and Misdemeanors: “Woody wrote me a letter saying, ‘Don’t feel bad about this. I was experimenting and my performance and your performance just didn’t work.’ ” Allen went on to hire Young for a day’s work in his upcoming movie; she plays a Madison Avenue lady (“I don’t even know my character’s name, but I got to do a few jokes”) in a scene with Mia Farrow and William Hurt. “He respects me a lot,” Young says of Allen, “and I adore him.”
It is a tough call to make as to whether Young will land the sort of roles that have made noise for Melanie Griffith, Meg Ryan, Michelle Pfeiffer, and now Julia Roberts. For the present, there is Fire Birds, which Young calls one of her first “fun movies,” in which she plays a helicopter pilot who becomes a combat hero.
“The movie is a lot like Top Gun in the sense that it has dazzling aerial shots,” admits Young, who is committed to such causes as ecology and women’s issues. “On the other hand, I play a straight, capable, confident and honest woman who goes into combat and is not left on the shore, saying ‘Oh, puh-leeeeeeze come home safely!’ ”
David Green, Young’s director, admits that he got “mixed reactions” from the filmmakers he contacted before hiring Young for Fire Birds. ” ‘Be careful,’ they told me,” he says. None faulted Young’s talents, but “some felt there had been an attitude problem more closely tied to the people with whom she was working than the material she was working on.”
After working with Young, who trained for a week with army instructors at Fort Hood, Texas, Green declares, “I can’t praise her too highly. She is ruthlessly honest with everyone around her to the point of being blunt. She tends not to filter her thoughts. Some people might see that as being unsubtle or tactless, but there’s an in-built honesty and integrity there. She doesn’t try to hide her emotions. She needs personal attention, involvement in every element of the production, and constant reinforcement of her belief in herself. I think this movie may have brought her through something she needed to get through, both physically and mentally.”
During shooting of an intimate scene between Young and Nicolas Cage (“a really good actor who’s not very generous or good unless he can be weird in the part,” Young says), director Green arranged for cameras to keep rolling while a birthday cake was brought onto the set to commemorate Young’s thirtieth. “Sean seemed to think it was a part of the scene she hadn’t grasped,” Green notes. “For a moment, she was totally lost, trying to work out what was happening in front of the camera, until she realized it was just a birthday celebration. That sort of bloody-minded, total concentration and intensity often rubs people the wrong way.
“Not only did I encounter no problems,” continues Green, “but with the right roles and a populist movie, I think she could be a major screen star in the next decade. If the audience is fascinated at the moment by these strange stories, that’s a substitute for wanting to know Sean as a good actress.”
While claiming to go about her personal and professional business armed with new strength and smarts, Young puzzles at her colleagues’ misconceptions about her. “People are always surprised that I’m not a monster,” she notes. “And that I’m as verbal as I am. They’re kind of confused by how much force can be generated by someone that doesn’t exemplify that [negative] vibe. In a way, my ‘image’ has been propagated by my absence. I’m not very social and I would really like to be a little more social. I haven’t put myself in the circuit of show-business society, and I don’t know if I will. On occasions where I meet one or two people, they always say, ‘You’re cool.’ And I appreciate that, you know? In that sense, there’s a lot of baggage. But not all of us have somebody that spends 24 hours a day bad-mouthing us either.”
If Young had her way, her public persona might be closer to Ruby Keeler than Miss Trouble, imagining herself, as she does, to be the perfect sparkler for feel-good musical extravaganzas. “I would dance and sing in light-hearted material put out to ease people, where I would make people walk out of the theater saying, ‘Yeah!’ Most people today don’t respect light-hearted material because people don’t know how to create it. Life has gotten so heavy.”
Pat Rico, the tap dance instructor with whom Young has studied “on and off” for six months, says he is baffled by his student’s stormy reputation. “She’s very friendly, especially for a star.” Rico’s the one who coached Young for her bewildering turn on the David Letterman show done as a promotional stint for The Boost, during which she tap-danced to “Fine and Dandy” and bared hirsute armpits for the cameras. Despite that appearance (“the floor was slippery and they didn’t magnify her taps,” her mentor says in Young’s defense, leaving the armpits to fend for themselves), Rico praises Young as “a good hoofer” whose dancing exemplifies her as “a light-hearted, sparkling, energetic person with no pretense; she’s almost humble.”
The next one up for Young is not light-hearted or designed to put anyone, including Sean, at ease. She is currently starring with her look-alike, Matt Dillon, in A Kiss Before Dying, a remake brew involving twins, betrayal, and murder, directed by Fatal Attraction screenwriter James Dearden. Considering that Dearden has in the past staunchly denied rumors that he and Young once dated (“Sean” was the original name of the woman scorned in an early script draft of Fatal Attraction), the subtext alone should be worth the price of admission. Perhaps on the horizon for Young is a role as The Catwoman in the next Batman movie.
“I’m excited about the future,” Young says, trilling along to the restaurant’s scratchy, background offering of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” by Josephine Baker. “I am attracting a higher caliber of people now because I’ve basically begun to respect myself. I have all the confidence in the world that my destiny is quite good, full, and secure. A year ago, I don’t think I might have felt this way. I was like an abused wife. People ultimately judge you by your work and I haven’t really done anything in quite awhile. But, now, I’m the fiercest competition for Kathleen Turner, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Debra Winger–fiercest because I’m so much younger and less successful than they are at this point.
“I’ve always known that the nineties will be my decade. We’ll see who has the last laugh and who has the best reputation at the end of the decade.” She narrows her gaze and lets out a fiendishly comic giggle that suggests she may already be perfecting her Catwoman chops. Personally, I can’t wait until Sean Young wins her Oscar. Her acceptance speech should be one for the books.
Stephen Rebello has written several cover stories for Movieline, as well as articles for GQ, Premiere, and L.A. Style.