In the early 90’s Annabella Sciorra was riding high after back-to-back hits; Jungle Fever and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Her next movie, the erotic thriller Whispers in the Dark, would test whether or not Sciorra was a box office draw on her own. In the August 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, Sciorra met with Martha Frankel to discus her new movie. Frankel tells Sciorra that she has a reputation as a difficult interview but not to worry because she is sure they will be fast friends. Awkward silence follows.
“The first time I saw you on-screen, in True Love,” I tell Annabella Sciorra as we get settled in an outdoor cafe on Columbus Avenue, “I knew you were going to be big. There was something about you that made me feel as if you were my best friend.”
“Really?” she says. “Because the very first time I saw myself on-screen, I almost died. I couldn’t concentrate at all. I just kept saying, ‘My thighs, oh my God, my thighs!’ They looked huge.”
“Well, that just proves my point. My girlfriends are always shrieking about how enormous their thighs look, too.”
Whether she’s the lead (True Love, Jungle Fever, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle) or the lead’s girlfriend or wife (Internal Affairs, Cadillac Man, Reversal of Fortune, The Hard Way), Sciorra sticks in your mind.
“By the way,” she asks, “is this going to be a question-and-answer thing?”
“No,” I tell her, “they don’t let me do those Q & A things. I’m not a good question-asker.”
“Good, because I did one of those once, and it ended up sounding silly.”
“No, this is going to be more like a D & C … dialogue-and-conversation. But I do have a few questions to ask, so let me get those out of the way.”
“How old are you?”
Total silence. “C’mon,” I bluff, “I could figure it out from your resume.”
“Okay then, figure it out.”
Uh-oh. We’ve been together all of three minutes and already we’re at a stalemate.
“Do other actresses … ?” she begins.
“To tell you the truth,” I say, “I can’t remember the last time I interviewed a woman. They only send me to do guys.”
“I have no idea. I guess they figure I’ll flirt with them and they’ll open up to me.”
“Is that what happens?”
“Nah,” I admit. “What happens is, they’re usually pouty or tough-as-nails, and it takes hours until we can finally get comfortable with each other. .. just like in real life with guys. But they do tell their ages. Don’t worry, though, because this interview is gonna be different.”
“Because we’re going to bond instantly, and find that we have tons to talk about, and it’s going to go like a dream.”
“Okay,” Sciorra says with a laugh, “under 30. Is that enough of an answer?”
“For now. So, you’ve had the wedding from hell in True Love, the nanny from hell in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and now you’re about to have the relationship from hell, right?”
“In your new movie Whispers in the Dark…”
“To tell you the truth, I’m not even sure what the movie’s about,” says its leading lady. “I haven’t seen it yet. When we were making it, the title was Sessions. But they had to change it, and I guess they’re going to call it Whispers in the Dark, which I don’t think is a very good title. Anyway, you know that they can change the whole thing in the editing room.”
“I saw about 10 minutes of it in a reel that Paramount is showing,” I volunteer.
“Oh really? What do you think it’s about?”
“She’s a psychiatrist. I mean, you’re a psychiatrist, who has a patient who’s involved in a sadomasochistic relationship…”
Sciorra perks up. “Yes. At least, she thinks she is. It’s mostly in her mind.”
“Okay. The relationship may or may not be sadomasochistic, but then the patient winds up dead?”
“Yeah. And they’re not sure if it’s a suicide or a murder, but then you find out it’s murder. In the meantime, my character falls for a man, and I eventually realize that the man I fall in love with is the same man that my patient’s been telling me about in her sessions. At least, I think it’s him. She’s telling me all these hot, sexy stories that are mostly intriguing to my character because of their sense of abandonment. My character not only has a hard time with intimacy, but she doesn’t know that sense of abandonment, and longs for it very, very, very much.”
“Yeah,” I say, “everyone who hasn’t had it longs for it. And everyone who had it would rather pass on it the second time…”
“Right,” Sciorra agrees. “The opening scene in the movie is my character having a wet dream because I’m thinking about all these stories that the patient has been telling me, and there was a picture I found in a magazine, a photo called ‘Longing.’ It looks like it was shot underwater. It’s a woman, lying on a bed naked, and you see her from the back … you see her back, and her butt and her legs, and she’s reaching out. It’s a very sexy photo. I had cut the picture out and I had it in my notebook, and I kept looking at it and looking at it, and when I had to do the wet-dream scene, I suddenly knew that that’s what the character was about. That longing. And suddenly I found myself in the same position on the bed.”
“What’s it like, shooting a ‘wet-dream’ scene?”
“The cinematographer, Michael Chapman, and I talked a lot about women’s fantasies, because he wanted to make sure that what he was shooting was not just a male fantasy. In the love scenes, they wanted to keep cutting to other things that women found really exciting. We would have these in-depth discussions about what I found sexy, what images. So I felt a lot of trust…”
“Personally, I think women have these really involved, weird sexual fantasies that have never been shown on film,” I say.
“Yeah,” Sciorra says, nodding her head in agreement, “I think so, too. I saw Lovers the other night, with Victoria Abril. It was really good, and very sexy. The sex in it was really sexy. I went by myself, and I like to sit really close to the screen. It was very crowded, there was just one empty seat, between this couple and this single guy. I took that seat, and the movie got so sexy that nobody was making a sound. And I thought, I can’t move a muscle right now, because anything I do is gonna show that I’m affected by this. You can’t just say, ‘Oh wow, fuck, this is great.’
The sex was great, very erotic, at times rough. It was very risky, in that it was real. There was this unbelievable shot, where the camera is at the end of the bed, and you see the guy on the bed, and Victoria is singing this song about women who perfume themselves, and she gets up on the bed, and her legs are on either side of him, so what you see are the backs of her seamed stockings. And then she starts…”
Sciorra is forced out of this reverie by two guys who are walking by on the street. They have passed us, but now they’re circling back.
FIRST GUY: “Hi, how you doing?”
FIRST GUY: “Brilliant movies you make. I like them a lot. [Kisses her hand] I’m half-blind and [pointing to his friend] this guy recognized you before I did.”
SECOND GUY: “You really were very good.”
FIRST GUY: “Anyway, let me let you get back to whatever it is you’re doing.”
SCIORRA: “Okay. Bye.”
FIRST GUY: [Can’t quite make himself leave] “I know this is tacky, but can I have your autograph?”
SCIORRA: “Okay.” [He hands her a pen and a business card.]
SECOND GUY: “What’s your name?”
SCIORRA: “What’s my name!?”
FIRST GUY: “Sign it to Herbie.”
SECOND GUY: “I forget your name.”
SCIORRA: “What movie did you see?”
SECOND GUY: “Anna-bella what?” [Sciorra rolls her eyes at me. To the guy she says, “Sciorra.”]
SECOND GUY: “Okay then. Arivaderchi.”
We’re both hysterical when they walk away. “This always happens to me when I’m being interviewed. One time I was being interviewed for Jungle Fever, and this waitress came by and said, ‘I saw that movie, and my husband’s black.’ She went off on Spike, saying, ‘Spike sucks, what the fuck kind of movie was that?’ And I’m saying, ‘Really, I’m sorry you didn’t like it.’ A lot of weird things happen to me. People call out to me on the street and I figure I know them, and I walk over. And then they start to talk about a movie, and I get so embarrassed. Sometimes they think I’m Lorraine Bracco, or Laura San Giacomo or Marisa Tomei. I’m sure it happens to them all the time, too. The thing that drives me nuts is when I get stopped in a crowded place, and they look at me and say, ‘Who are you?’ I don’t know if they’re friends or fans, and I say, ‘I’m Annabella Sciorra,’ and they say, ‘What have you done?’ So I start to give them my resume. It’s so embarrassing.
“Okay,” I say, “so Victoria Abril is about to sit down…”
“Right. She pulls up her slip, and then she sits right down into frame, completely naked … and onto his face! It was so different, so sexy, just the intimacy between them. I felt like it was real sex, not…”
“Yeah. Because movie sex is usually so boring. So what happens in Sessions, I mean Whispers in the Dark, is that my patient meets this guy every Tuesday at noon at Tavern on the Green. And one day I’m driving through the park, and it’s a Tuesday, and I tell the cab to take me to the restaurant, which I shouldn’t be doing. I see her with the guy that I’m falling in love with. But then he convinces me that he hasn’t seen her in a long time and that she just happened to call that day. And it’s a matter of whether I’m going to trust him or listen to everyone else, because they’re all telling me not to trust him. At one point in the movie, there are four suspects, and you’re never sure. It was written really well. I felt like it was a psychological thriller, not a psychotic thriller.”
“Talking about psychotic thrillers, can you believe the success of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle? I saw it with a friend over in Times Square. And people were yelling at your character, ‘Don’t open the door, Claire,’ ‘Don’t do that, Claire.'”
“I know,” Sciorra says, practically jumping up and down in her seat. “I saw it down there, too, the second night it opened, and people were screaming all through the movie. The weird thing was, it was like they had already seen it, it was like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. They knew a lot of the lines. ‘Don’t go in the cellar, Claire.’ It was hysterical. I have to say that I didn’t expect it at all. I didn’t see it until it opened because I was working on Whispers in the Dark. But the people at Disney kept calling to tell me how incredible the test audiences were. They kept telling me these figures and explaining what they meant in terms of how it was testing. But I still didn’t expect it.
Rebecca and I used to laugh and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if people would start quoting lines, like, “You’re not my mommy.”‘ But I don’t think either of us actually thought it would explode like it did.”
“I heard that you wanted to play Rebecca’s part and that when you had to do the other part, you were so pissed that you wouldn’t do any publicity for the film.”
“Where the fuck did you hear that?” Sciorra says, no longer playful.
“From the same people who told me you were going to be a tough interview.”
“Obviously they were wrong, right?”
“Right. Absolutely right.”
“Well, here’s the truth,” she says. “Originally, they wanted me for the nanny and they wanted Rebecca for the mommy. We screen-tested both ways. I don’t know if Rebecca had real strong feelings either way, and I didn’t either. I think it would have been just as interesting to play the nanny, it was certainly the flashier part. But then Curtis [Hanson] and I had a very long talk and he explained why he decided he’d rather I play the other part. I wasn’t so sure about it at first, but then we kept talking, and he explained how he felt. And I agreed to do it. I think Rebecca was great.”
“Okay, I think we cleared that up.”
“Yeah. I’ll tell you something: Some of the hardest things I ever had to do were in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. That whole sequence with the breast pump was a horror. I was like, okay, everyone has to leave the room because this is so embarrassing to say. I couldn’t deal with it. It was a classical thriller line, you had to do it to explain the story. But I had to say, ‘Oh, a breast pump,’ and the guy says, ‘What’s a breast pump?’ And I have to explain it to him. I knew the audience would be hysterical over that. Remember the scene where I punched Rebecca? And then I had to turn to my husband, who doesn’t understand why I’ve just done that, and say, ‘Because she was Dr. Mott’s wife, honey.’ I think those were some of the hardest things I’ve had to do.”
“Really?” I ask. “Harder than kissing Wesley Snipes?”
“What do you mean?”
“I wrote this piece about kissing, and one of the things I said was that Spike Lee was single-handedly disproving the theory that black men are great in bed, because when Wesley Snipes came at you with his tongue in Jungle Fever, I got scared for you. I thought he might stab you with that tongue.”
“You wrote that?”
“And they printed it?”
“Yup. And our enquiring minds want to know about Wesley.”
Sciorra is hysterical. “I think you’re going to have to ask me questions here, Martha, because I’m not sure I can wing this.”
“Okay, how was it kissing Wesley Snipes?”
“It was good, very good. It’s always weird doing love scenes. And the thing is, you can’t really photograph two people kissing naturally, because then you wouldn’t be able to see anything. That’s what I learned in True Love. There’s got to be this . .. distance. Because you have to be able to see something.”
“I don’t know, maybe it would be better to see less and imagine more.”
“You say that, but it would be very boring. We shot the love scene in True Love for a whole day. I’d never done anything like that before, it was my first film. Ron [Eldard] and I were good friends, and then all of a sudden we had to do this love scene. It’s almost easier to do if you don’t know the person well. We were like, ‘Okay, maybe you’re not going to like the way I kiss, okay, just tell me if I do something you don’t like.’ It was so embarrassing. You get so intimate when the cameras are rolling, that when they yell ‘cut,’ you’re mortified. But I don’t know what to say about the love scene in Jungle Fever, because they’re always very uncomfortable. The thing is, when we do fight scenes, when we kill people in the movies, they bring in experts to choreograph it bit by bit, because you can’t really kill someone, and you don’t want to really hurt them. And in the love scene, you can’t really fuck someone. It’s make-believe. But when they do love scenes, they don’t do anything like that. They don’t bring in the love-scene choreographer.”
“Hmmm. Who could they get?”
“I think most American directors don’t really want to discuss the whole issue. You have to force them to do it. It’s a physical situation where two people are pretending to be intimate.”
“You know,” I say, “that’s a job I might like … what a job description! Where do I apply?”
“In Whispers in the Dark, Jamey [Sheridan] and I talked about the love scenes. And Mike Chapman worked with us. They can be very boring. How many ways can you shoot something that’s probably not a really attractive thing to look at? You don’t want it to look ugly, because that’s certainly not sexy. In Whispers in the Dark, it became very involved … crane shots, the camera coming right down into my face as I have my cathartic orgasm…”
“I don’t think Freud ever talked about those. Vaginal and clitoral, yes, but cathartic…?”
“Well, he doesn’t know what he was missing,” Sciorra says with authority. “My character’s sex in Whispers in the Dark is about her letting go more than she ever did before. Anthony Heald plays my ex-boyfriend in the film, and you can tell by seeing them together that they didn’t have great sex. I was so intimidated when he walked on the set. We started talking about the histories of our characters, and I couldn’t talk until I told him that I thought he was such a great actor and that I didn’t feel like I was fit to be talking to him about that stuff, because he’s so good at what he does. I was embarrassed. But with Jamey, my character feels an abandon that she never felt before. Everybody in this movie has a history, there are demons everywhere. And my character’s demons have to do with not being intimate. Where you open your guts, and the other person opens their guts, and you mix it all around on the table, and that’s your life together.”
“Jesus. I never thought about relationships quite that way before. All those guts…”
“Hey, what’d you mean that you heard I was a hard interview?”
“That’s just what I heard when I told people I was interviewing you.”
“I think if you’re a woman and you care about your work, they say that. Another thing is, they send morons to interview me. They ask you questions that have no real answers. Like this one interviewer once said, ‘You’ve worked with the three most difficult men in Hollywood.’ And I said, ‘Oh really, who?’ And she said, ‘Richard Gere, Jimmy Woods and Ron Silver.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry that you don’t like them, but I had a great time working with all three of them. And why would you ask me that? What’s your problem?’ That’s a good interview?”
“I know that when The Hard Way came out, people were giving you a hard time about it…”
“Yeah, I had to defend myself to all these women reporters who kept saying, ‘How can you do a role like this, such a girlfriend role?’ And I said, ‘So what? It’s not offensive, or homophobic or misogynistic. So I play Jimmy’s [Woods] girlfriend. Big fucking deal.’ I thought it was really funny and charming. I thought Michael [J. Fox] was great, and that Jimmy was hilarious. I enjoyed working with both of them. It was a great thing to do; I had a ball, because all I had to do was bounce back and forth between the two of them and enjoy myself.”
“You also played Richard Gere’s wife in Internal Affairs. I’ve had to watch that film a dozen times, because I’ve interviewed everyone in it. That was a terrific little role.”
“Yeah, and it was such a disturbing movie. All of the sex was so disturbing. The scene that I think is amazing is the scene between Richard and Faye [Grant], where she’s sitting on his lap and she’s on the phone with Billy [Baldwin] and he’s taking her camisole off. I found it very upsetting.”
“So, is your next role a lead, or a girlfriend?”
“It’s Mr. Wonderful. The director is Anthony Minghella, this great Englishman, a terrific playwright, who just won a British Academy Award for his first film, Truly Madly Deeply, which I loved. Mr. Wonderful is about three people. It mostly centers on the guy, and I play his ex-wife. They split up because she wants to be something other than just his wife, and he can’t deal with that. She tries to find out what she wants. It’s very sweet and simple. They really love each other, but he can’t deal with her wanting to be something other than just his wife. He gets this girlfriend, which is another great role, and she makes him understand that it’ll never work between them, because he’s still in love with his ex-wife. In the end they get back together, but you’re not sure of what’s gonna happen to them. Sort of like in True Love. The ending of that always makes me cry. Even when I think about it I cry.”
And right then, Sciorra starts to cry. Which is precisely what one of my girlfriends would do.
Martha Frankel interviewed Gabriel Byrne for our July issue.