Robin Wright: The Wright Stuff?
After a promising debut in the titular role of The Princess Bride, actress Robin Wright spent a few years toiling in movies most audiences had never heard of much less seen. She wouldn’t appear in another hit until Forrest Gump seven years later. During that time, she became romantically involved with her costar Sean Penn and dropped out of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves to have a baby. In the April 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, Stephen Rebello asked Wright about her relationship with Penn, the press and her frustrations as a working actress.
Robin Wright smiles coolly, slowly puts down her forkful of Chinese chicken salad, and falls stonily silent. We’re sitting in a tucked-away expanse of her publicist’s home-cum-office, and I’ve just remarked on some pointed parallels between Wright’s real life and the goings-on in her new movie, The Playboys.
Onscreen, Wright plays a comely, wild-hearted ’50s unwed mother who falls for a roving Irish actor. Offscreen, Wright is the comely, wild-hearted, unwed mother of the child she had by Irish-American actor Sean Penn, her co-star from State of Grace, with whom she now lives. Wright’s steely look tells me there will be no such discussion. Nor, she makes clear with another chilly smile, does she care to expound on the dizzying irony of replacing The Playboys‘ first leading lady, Annette Bening, who became involved with Warren Beatty, the man with whom Madonna took up after divorcing Sean Penn.
“I don’t want to bring myself out,” she declares about getting personal with the press. “When I did interviews for my first movie, The Princess Bride, I said everything that came to mind. But now, I think I only owe audiences who I am–good days and bad–period. Now, I would choose not to do interviews at all, just let the work speak for itself, to the people looking at it. That’s how they know who you are. That’s why they go to the movies.” Just around the time I’m thinking, “Swell, she might as well be Mrs. Sean Penn,” I find that, if you hit on any other subject that interests Wright–aside from her live-in companion and the tabloid headlines that dog him–she’ll merrily let fly. And it’s a good thing I decide to hang in because, eventually, Wright will hold forth on Penn, too.
Ask her, for instance, how she and coworkers–like co-star Aidan Quinn–got on while shooting The Playboys in Ireland, and she reports, “I got a lot of ‘Oh, she’s become Mrs. Sean Penn,’ which means I spoke my mind and got a lot of shit for it. Like I don’t have a mind of my own, like I’m not my own person. For actresses, there’s a fine line between being established enough or not to become assertive. I felt I was on that line on The Playboys. I watched my p’s and q’s a lot of the time, but I don’t believe it would have gotten me anywhere if I hadn’t been vocal.”
Okay, Mr. Sean Penn has been legendarily vocal and physical on- and offscreen, too. But in all fairness, the 25-year-old Wright’s flint was forged way before she took up with the actor-director Hollywood loves to hate. She is, after all, a girl who, as a 17-year-old, struck poses for Paris couturiers, but on her own time “tried to get the other models to revolt” against being treated like “pieces of meat.” At a meeting four years later with director Rob Reiner for The Princess Bride, Wright nailed that project’s Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman, whom she didn’t recognize, with: “Why are you asking me so many questions?” In spite of this–or, perhaps, because of it–Reiner and Goldman hired her.
Publicizing the same movie in People magazine, Wright, whose only prior acting experience was in TV soaps, loftily proclaimed, “No nude scenes for five years.” At 23, she stared down 27-year-old Phil Joanou, who was auditioning actresses to play the uppity, bruised kid sister of Irish Mafia brothers Ed Harris and Gary Oldman in State of Grace, and said, “You’re the director?” Looking for the right girl to embody the movie’s “moral and ethical force,” Joanou signed her up like a shot.
This is nobody’s Mrs. Anything. So, since I know that Wright, who is sheathed entirely in black down to her boots, today has an appointment with John Badham about playing La Femme Nikita, a ferocious hit girl, in the director’s Americanized version of the Continental success, I sound her out on her feelings about going up for lesser jobs, ones that would have her playing Babes-Waiting-on-the-Sidelines-for Mel/Tom/Kevin in commercial-minded stuff. The notion gets her ragging on certain filmmakers’ “upsetting lack of imagination, like, you walk into a meeting in a black dress, and they just can’t see you in jeans and a T-shirt.” I ask if maybe her looks make people confuse her with such other placid looking, tow-headed beauties as Rebecca De Mornay and Kelly Lynch. She shakes her head no.
“Uma Thurman, Penelope Ann Miller, Winona Ryder, Nancy Travis, Nicole Kidman,” she says, ticking off the women she perceives as rivals. “We’re all likely to get a look at the same parts–not that we’re the same type, or anything. Most times, you’re cast just by an energy, a connection between you and the moviemakers. I went up for Mortal Thoughts, Days of Thunder, Billy Bathgate, and The Freshman, just like I’m going up for everything that’s around now. But I’ve done four movies, only one of which people have seen. Those other [actresses] have done 10. Even if only one of those 10 films was good, it’s like you’re shit if you haven’t done that many movies. It’s a very by-the-numbers-on-the-board kind of thing and I wish I didn’t have to become a name to move forward in this business. But,” she says, shrugging, “that’s the nature of the beast.”
It perhaps says something about the nature of the beast that is Wright that she has failed to mention the name of another rival, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who replaced her, when Wright was pregnant, in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. After all, the deal had been set; she had even won co-star Kevin Costner’s crucial casting approval. “It was really just a 20-minute meeting to see if we saw eye to eye,” she recalls, staring distractedly out the window at trees rattling in a cold California wind. “It was like, ‘Yeah, you’re cool’ and ‘You’re cool, too. We can work together.'” Any regrets that they didn’t?
She shoots me an incredulous look and snaps, “It was The Princess Bride revisited. I haven’t seen the movie and I don’t really have a feeling about it. I’ve felt in the past when I’ve turned down movies, ‘I’m dying to see what they did with it.’ With this one, I just felt it was fate, a sort of knowingness that it was not meant to be.” Did any career advisors suggest what impact a baby, particularly a Penn baby, might have on her career? “I wouldn’t have let them say that to me,” she says, evenly, squaring her jaw. “Nobody’s here to create your destiny or write anything into your contract, whether or not they represent you. A baby is an act of some higher spirit that’s so beyond Hollywood, nobody can even touch it.”
But, so long as Wright chooses to make movies, she isn’t beyond Hollywood, a town apparently undecided about whether to embrace her as a likely successor to Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer or to spit her out as just another willowy, spirited blonde. So far, she’s transmitted mixed signals and crosstalk. She caused a critical splash by approximating for Reiner “the young Julie Christie” he wanted for The Princess Bride, then, bafflingly, went straight back to work on the soapy trials and tribulations of “Santa Barbara,” on which she had at the time a continuing role. Career hara-kiri? Bad management? Sheer orneriness? “I had a clause in my two-year TV contract that let me out for four weeks once a year to do films,” she explains, digging out a pot of balm from her handbag and smoothing it over her chapped lips. “But no film gets shot in four weeks and I did two movies, so every extra week extended approximately a month or two onto my contract. I could have walked, but I would have had to have paid [in legal fees] three times the amount I made on that show in the whole two years.”
Wright says that she agonizes over whether to continue making what she calls the “small, quiet” movies to which she gravitates, or movies she knows could propel her career. “If I did one hit movie, I could be out of my rut, not trudging through the mud for the next 10 years. Being in a big movie means you don’t have to audition anymore and you’re offered things constantly. You are known. You are one of the pack. I still have to meet directors. My quote never goes up.” So why not make the leap? Wright sighs and says, “I don’t have an aversion to commercial movies. I would just love to find a potential hit that’s also good, you know? I’ve heard that people perceive me as an uprooter, too dark, too serious, someone who loves to hate herself, someone who hasn’t done her Lethal Weapons.”
Get Wright going on the subject of how a Lethal Weapon or, for that matter, a Robin Hood can jolt a male star’s career into mega, without doing likewise for its female stars, and she simmers. “I wish women could all congregate, have a meeting of the minds, and become this empire who demands: ‘Give us more credit. Respect us. Stop condescending. Stop being so demeaning.’ In every script I read there’s a scene where the woman has frontal nudity and the man doesn’t. Say you won’t do it and the [producers] say, ‘Too bad, we’ll get somebody else who will.’ If we could all just come together and say, ‘No, we’re not going to stand for it,’ there wouldn’t have to be a subordinate woman over there in the corner saying, ‘I’ll do it.’ The world always does a 360 and I feel like we’re at 350. But, I’m pushing it, you know?” After a moment, she adds, with a sardonic chuckle, “Aren’t I being positive today? I need substance, otherwise, it’s bullshit. This will sound self-indulgent and spiritualist on paper, but, if I don’t like Chinese chicken salad–” she tosses down her fork to demonstrate her point, and continues, “I just can’t eat it and I’m not going to act like it. When you’re acting, you’re showing your soul’s clothes. I don’t want to be an image. I want to follow my idea, to be my belief. I just don’t want to sell out by doing anything other than what’s here (she taps her heart) “home.”
The problem, of course, is that following one’s heart isn’t always the best career strategy. Witness Wright’s turn opposite Jason Patric in the faux artsy Denial, a film she made after The Princess Bride. Filmed in 1987 under the possibly more appropriate title Loon, this offering (which finally surfaced, on video shelves, in 1991) has Wright, backgrounded by a doleful Harold Budd soundtrack, ruminating on an old amour fou while she scrubs porch floors, tends flowers, tosses salads, stares out windows, hurls herself across the railroad tracks, and, finally, freaks out on the kitchen floor of a rich artist and his teen daughter for whom she works. Here, clearly, was a project to avoid. (Sample dialogue? He: “I’m sick. I need help.” She: “I’ll help you.” He: “You’re the sickness.”) But Wright, who talks worshipfully of such independent-minded movies as Wings of Desire, The Last Picture Show, and Scarecrow, remains fiercely, touchingly loyal to Denial‘s writer-director Erin Dignam, who, she enthuses, “freed me up, taught me how to build a character without the tools” and who, she predicts, “will profoundly affect this business if people recognize her.”
Obviously, Wright hasn’t gotten where she is by spouting the conventional wisdom or by listening to anybody else. Of German and English ancestry, she was reared, until age seven, in Dallas, Texas, after which she and her brother were constantly on the move with their mother, a three-times-married sales director for Mary Kay Cosmetics. At 17, when she went broke while tooling around Europe, she did three months as a Paris model, a stint she calls “demeaning, chauvinistic, emotionally damaging,” but one that “prepared me emotionally for men and taught me how destructive it can be if you live with your innocence.” She found better luck landing TV commercials and a role in the short-lived nighttime TV soap, “The Yellow Rose,” starring Cybill Shepherd.
After four years of being–alternately–raped, kidnapped and remarried on “Santa Barbara” (a gig she now calls “heart-wrenching”), she made the movies that eventually propelled her into Penn’s orbit. “I knew him as a friend a couple of years before we made State of Grace,” Wright says quietly of the person she earlier swore she would not speak of. “I think we both always felt this unspoken familiarity and the fact that it was unspoken was so nice. It was a sort of feeling like, ‘God, there you are. Where have you been?’ No need to catch up on the trivia, you know?”
Now that they have been together going on three years, does she recognize in the man she loves the bellicose loose cannon the press portrays him as? “It makes me wary of the press,” she says, her gaze direct. “You just feel like crossing your arms and saying, ‘I don’t owe you anything.’ We’re all human, so there are certain days when you’re moody or you look and feel like shit–you know, you’re in your human state. And suddenly you’re approached by people who yell and scream at you.On the back end, you think, ‘I can’t be this way to my fans.’ Then, you think, I can’t? Why not? I’m just like they are.’
“You have one bad day and, whoops, there goes your reputation. That’s who you become. You have a bad period in your life, an angry period, and you never get to live it down.” But surely Penn’s had more than the odd bad day? “Yeah, if you want to get specific,” she allows. “But what [the press] tends to do is generalize and label a person. We’re all fucking angry. We’re all selfish and arrogant in our own ways. But it doesn’t make up a whole person and it doesn’t make up Sean’s whole person. He’s protecting himself. He’s been hurt. I wouldn’t take off my Band-Aids, either.”
So, how does the private Penn stack up, say, as a daddy? “Would you be surprised if you saw the three of us?” Wright asks, smiling, shifting in her chair. “Completely. He’s a rarity as a father. He’s so there. He responds to [parenthood] more than anything in life. It’s a scary thing to love something so much in life, like when you have a baby. To see a man feel that about a little girl, not a little boy, is an amazing thing. It’s all about purity, honesty and that cliche: ‘unconditional love.’ It’s amazing, really. I always knew he was that way, though. He was that way with his dogs.”
Wright bursts out laughing when I ask if there are any plans afoot for another on-screen collaboration with Penn, who says he has renounced acting for directing. “It might be good for us,” she says. “It would teach us patience. But people want fast food at the movies. They don’t want to go through the emotional stuff, which is the whole point of seeing a movie. We’ve bred uneducated, unthinking people by force-feeding them. Depth seems to be equivalent to depression, somehow.” Depression, as in, say, The Indian Runner, Penn’s ambitiously offbeat, wayward directorial debut? “Sean and I always knew that the movie was not meant for the masses,” Wright observes of the film, which has yet to attract even a small cult. “Sean made what he believed and felt and, whoever sees it and responds to it, right on. And on that level, it did great.”
Wright glows when she describes the rush of playing “a rebel against convention” in her own new film, The Playboys. But even though her dukes arc slightly down by now, she still won’t comment on any of the movie’s resonance to her personal life. She will talk about the experience of replacing Annette Bening, whom the Samuel Goldwyn Company is reportedly suing for at least $1 million for departing the project, allegedly without explanation. “I felt funny in the beginning,” Wright allows, “not so much out of insecurity, but I didn’t want the company to feel like, ‘Well, we couldn’t get her, so ….’ I only wanted what they wanted: the best person for the part and the best movie we can make.” But was there a shakedown? “Well, the first week was–” she allows, shaking her downturned palm to suggest a 5.5 disturbance on the Richter scale, then continuing, “Maybe it was me being too sensitive. Finally, I decided: Just do your job. Go with it. I hadn’t worked in two years. I’d just had a baby and had a lot of stuff to let go of–good stuff, new energy. I was like a fireball ready to explode.”
Combustion might have been just what the company was after between Wright and her co-star, Aidan Quinn, an actor she admires “because I look to do movies with people who are truth-seekers. No matter what we were doing, I felt [Aidan] and I were on the same wave.” This sounds a little more sanguine than various rumors that circulated during production. Sources say that she and Quinn had little opportunity to cut a groove, what with Wright constantly dashing to her trailer to breast-feed her then two-month-old. Further, Wright apparently let it be known that she was not always delighted with the course the movie was taking.
Which is when the Mrs. Sean Penn charges kicked in. “All I had to say about the ‘Mrs. Sean Penn’ stuff was (here she pastes on a robotic, California babe smile) ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ Can’t win for losing, you know? I’ll just have to take it one movie at a time. People are shocked when you establish yourself as having a certain personality. If you start speaking out, you’re brazen. Debra Winger knew how to handle this stuff. She was ‘no holds barred’; people accepted her that way, and she had a likability on top of it.” Is it a Winger-like career she’s after? “I don’t know if I admire Debra Winger’s career,” she volleys back. “I admire her as an actress.”
As Wright gathers her things together to ready herself for her meeting on La Femme Nikita, a role for which such names as Julia Roberts and Kim Basinger were once bandied about, Wright admits that yes, she’s conflicted about whether she really wants a big, commercial movie role “that everybody and her daughter is up for, for which I probably don’t have a chance in the world.” Until she decides about the direction she wants her career to take–or has it decided for her–pretty much all she can do is just wait and see how it goes. With a shrug, she concludes, “I’m not looking for the whipped cream, just my part of the crust.” Too bad she makes it sound like an either/or deal. Wright is just the woman to lace some of that appealing crustiness into the cream.
Stephen Rebello interviewed Drew Barrymore for our March cover story.