Heather Graham: Come Heather
As a child actor in the 80’s, Heather Graham faced a unique career challenge in that her strict parents would not let her take parts in movies they found offensive. In the 90’s, fully grown and freed from her parents’ restrictions, Graham enjoyed a measure of success as a leading lady. This profile from the May 1997 issue of Movieline magazine sees Graham on her way up with a supporting role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights.
When Heather Graham was growing up, her staunch Catholic parents were so strict they wouldn’t let her watch The Love Boat. In her late teens, they nixed her taking the part of one of the Heathers in Heathers, on the grounds that the 1989 black comedy was “dirty and disgusting.” So what if this was to be one of the career-launching cult films of its era–“Once they got to the line, ‘Fuck me gently with a chainsaw,’ that was it,” Graham sighs.
The actress’s doll-like good looks just seemed to invite corruption, though, and she was terrific at portraying the innocent gone astray. She made her movie debut in 1988’s License to Drive doing a drunk scene so realistically that Gus Van Sant cast her in Drugstore Cowboy, in which she played the wide-eyed junkie who overdoses. “I was very lucky to work with him,” says the 27-year-old Graham of Van Sant now. “He helped me see moviemaking in an artistic way that was exciting.”
Graham does her first nude scene, playing a porn star, in Boogie Nights. Set in L.A.’s drug-infested, disco-era erotic netherworld, the dark comedy stars Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds and Julianne Moore as members of a makeshift skin-flick “family,” and Graham as Rollergirl, a runaway nymphet willing to remove her clothes but not her skates. “My nude scene is pretty quick, not shocking, no sex, just real everyday,” Graham reports. “I’m simply a porn star with little concern for being naked. My concern was vanity. I felt insecure about my body more than the fact that I was going to be naked. But I really wanted this part, so I had to get over it.”
Graham had prepped for her role as an addict in Drugstore Cowboy by reading William S. Burroughs’s drug-infused writings. She boned up for Boogie Nights by immersing herself in the porn of the period, including Behind the Green Door, Amanda by Night and classic carnal clips featuring erotica’s elder statesman, John Holmes. She also visited Ron Jeremy and other X-rated actors in action on movie sets, finding them “really pretty sweet and normal.” The research did not result in a lasting taste for XXX: “I can see the value of entering into a voyeuristic erotic experience–it’s good to feel that sex is part of being human and not something taboo,” she allows. “But the more you watch, the more boring it gets.”
Although Graham says she’s proudest of her work in Boogie Nights, she concedes the “normal girl” she played (quite excellently) in last year’s sleeper Swingers “is probably closer to my real life than a porn star.” Then again, your average “normal girl” probably wouldn’t have had a relationship with then-44 James Woods when she was 22, as Graham did after meeting the actor on the film Diggstown. (Her current boyfriend is Crash star Elias Koteas.)
Also this month, Graham will appear in Gregg Araki’s Clueless-on-acid ensemble piece Nowhere with Shannen Doherty, John Ritter, Traci Lords and Beverly D’Angelo–it’s a stylized look at the sex lives and druggie decadence of L.A. kids on the skids. And she recently completed James Toback’s psychological comedy Two Girls and a Guy (with Robert Downey Jr. and Natasha Wagner), in which she has an already-being-talked-about sex scene with Downey. Graham’s once futilely protective parents might be relieved that she’s currently filming the big-budget, high-visibility role of sister Judy in Stephen Hopkins’s $70 million movie version of the ’60s TV show Lost in Space. But considering that the cast is headed by William Hurt and Gary Oldman, perhaps they shouldn’t relax yet.
Graham suggests her mostly oddball oeuvre is just something her folks will have to get used to. “It’s not what they would choose for me,” she confides. “But I’m an offbeat person attracted to offbeat things.”
Vicki Jo Radovsky interviewed Joey Lauren Adams for the April ’97 issue of Movieline.