Article written on March 1, 1997 by Riikka
In her movie performances, the prickly Rose McGowan evokes the brittle glamour and imperious moods of Bette Davis, although with a fiercely modern twist. Considering that she’s only twenty-two and has already lived a life and a half, she could even better the formidable Bette. In fact, who’d bet against it?
Whichever 1-900 impresario or Larry Flynt manque coined the term nasty girl might have been thinking of Amy Blue, the caustic speed freak played by Rose McGowan in Gregg Araki’s The Doom Generation (1995). With her Bette Davis eyes, rasp, and sneer, and her exaggerated Louise Brooks bob, Amy was a spectacularly bitter and ironic Gen-X movie queen. But Amy would have been a mere cipher had not McGowan made her, if scarcely lovable, an oddly sympathetic minx – all too clearly the victim of some parental malfeasance or neglect. She was not so much a nasty girl, then, as a deeply wounded one. It was a dynamite seriocomic performance, and it announced McGowan as an actress with a giant talent and the kind of knowing postmodern glamour that would have made George Hurrell drop his camera.
She has since played the smug blonde coed who gets squashed by the garage door in Scream, and this January there was a McGowan minifest at the Sundance Film Festival, where she appeared in Araki’s latest, Nowhere, Mark Pellington’s Going All the Way, Rod McCall’s Lewis & Clark & George, and Karin Thayer’s Seed. The latter film, a seventeen-minute short, is remarkable not only as a psychological case study of a hooker who had been molested by her mother during adolescence but also as a deconstruction of the sleazy allure of prostitution. Says McGowan, whose performance is astonishing, “It’s the favorite thing I’ve done lately.”
To what extent McGowan was and wasn’t playing herself in The Doom Generation becomes clear in the following interview, which took place in the Interview library one Saturday evening. She had just flown in from the Colorado location of the supernatural thriller Phantoms, and, fighting her desperate need for sleep, she talked unguardedly about her wayward journey through her teens. At the age of twenty-two, McGowan is a wise old woman, yet girlish enough for all her smarts.
GRAHAM FULLER: You’re currently the “danger girl” of independent movies. No one else is – you are. Why do you think that is?
ROSE MCGOWAN: I’ve lived it.
GF: You had a wild childhood, right?
RM: Comparatively, I guess. I was born in Florence [Italy], and brought up in the same cult River Phoenix grew up in, the Children of God. My father ran the Italian chapter, and from the outside it would be considered strange, but if you grow up in it, it’s normal. I suppose all children are at the mercy of their parents, and whatever trip they happen to be on, and my parents were tripping pretty hard. [laughs] I have no memory of them almost until we got out of it, although I learned to read when I was three, and I’ve clear memories from that time on. By the time I was six, I was reading “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” My mom says that every time I’d go into a house with wood floors, I’d feel the floorboards to see what was under them, and I had really bad nightmares and started sleepwalking all over the place. I was also a very stressed-out kid. Apparently, I’d get very angry if my dad wasn’t treating my mom right, or if I saw any injustice.
GF: What happened when your family decided to leave the Children of God?
RM: Well, my dad left my mom for my nanny. It was a very soap-operatic life. I’d live one year with my father, who’s a pretty amazing artist and had shows in Europe. He had a great house and tons of money so I could have whatever I wanted. Next year, I’d be living with my mom, and we’d be standing in line for groceries from the [free food] kitchen. She had no money because she put herself back through college after having six kids with my dad.
GF: Which one are you?
RM: I’m the second oldest. I have an older brother, but he basically abdicated. He just checked out. He’s a good egg, but he didn’t want to deal. While I was living with my mom, I pretty much raised my brothers and sisters – fed them, clothed them, blah, blab, blah. Occasionally people say to me, “Oh, isn’t it sad that you didn’t have a childhood?” But I don’t think that way. I think, That’s just the way it was. I can’t relate to anything else.
GF: Were you a sophisticated child?
RM: Through my father’s art contacts at Vogue, I had became a child model, and I was in Vogue Bambini and all those Italian magazines from the time I was three. I was ten when we came back to the States, and I had short, choppy, dyed, jet-black hair and I wore red lipstick. I still have four little ’40s-style men’s suits that were my favorites from this one shoot that I did. I wore them all the time. I certainly looked strange. But of all the horrible places to live in, my mother had randomly chosen Oregon, which was Tonya Harding Land. All the kids in the school I went to had that little chicken-hawk, feathery thing going on with their hair, and every one of them came up to me in the first week and said, “You’re the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen!”
I was pretty much in the smart-kid classes, so I was with the eight kids who were total outcast nerds with bad dandruff. I wasn’t an outcast or a nerd myself. I always got invitations to join the cliques, but they weren’t my scene, so I would hide in the library, which was what prepared me for acting. I’d live with one foot in a book, and one foot in reality, and every week I’d have a different accent. One week I’d be Jane Eyre, and the next I’d be Dominique from “The Fountainhead”. I fully believed in whatever I was doing, and that’s the only actor’s training I’ve ever had, other than working.
The teachers didn’t know what to do with me because I would sit and argue with them and take up everybody’s time. I probably talked too much. I’ve always operated – even if it’s egotistical – on the principle that rules don’t apply to me, because I’ve always done whatever I wanted. In some ways that’s good and in some ways it’s bad. When I was growing up, my parents didn’t notice I was there, so it didn’t matter what I did. I’m lucky I didn’t turn out to be a hooker or someone who holds up grocery stores. I think I’ve turned out O.K. considering I had absolutely no guidance.
GF: Didn’t you have some kind of crisis when you were in your teens?
RM: It’s a long story. When I was fourteen, I was locked up in a drag-rehab clinic, but I had never done drugs at that point.
GF: But people don’t end up In drug rehab for no reason.
RM: This is what happened. My mom always had different boyfriends or husbands or whatever; one was, like, a twenty-eight-year-old surfer dude from California. I think he had experience trying to get sober himself, and during one of those periods he convinced my mom that I was a drug addict because I was so thin and wore black. One day she was like, “Hi, honey! I’m going to drive you to school!” I knew something was up. I was thinking, Who is this alien that’s invaded my mother’s body? Because she’s a funny, cool woman, but she’s not maternal at all. She basically hijacked me and I got locked in a room on the eighth floor of this hospital. It was horrible. They had this system: If you did well, then you got to wear your own clothes, and the next thing, ooooh, you could talk on the phone for an hour a week, and then spend a day with your family. But I never made it out of the hospital clothes and little blue slippers with the traction pads underneath. They would do things to torture us, and I would do things to torture them back, and I guess that was bad because everybody else there had a legitimate problem. I’d be sitting there cutting up lines of Sweet’n Low and snorting them to piss them off. I don’t recommend it because it’s probably the nastiest thing you could imagine.
They stuck me in this room with this girl who was a speedmetal head, who said she was involved in some gang. All night long she would walk back and forth punching herself really hard and saying she could hear her gang calling and it was going to get her out of the big house. I was like, “What bad movie have I landed in?” So I went AWOL from there and I was homeless for a year. I teamed up with this other girl – I met her the first day I was on the streets – and we roamed all over Oregon and Washington. If your parents report you missing and you turn yourself in to the police in those states, they’ll give you a ticket to go home on the bus. I would call my mom and lie to her. I’d say, “Can you file a police report so I can come home for free?” That way I could go wherever I wanted.
GF: How many times did you do that?
RM: Like, eight. I’d always been a wanderer. I would hop on planes. One time I woke up in the middle of a freeway when my little knapsack got knocked off by a car. I would almost space out; it was like astral projection without trying. I’m surprised that I did all this now.
GF: Do you think you’re lucky to be alive?
RM: Yup, definitely.
GF: Where did you end up?
RM: I traveled up to Portland and started hanging out and dancing in gay clubs, where you could spend all night and be safe – although I was gay-bashed one time coming out of a club. I got socked in the face because someone thought I was a lesbian, and I woke up in the parking lot. But this isn’t even an eighth of the things that happened to me. My formative years were like Mr. Toad’s wild ride. As a result, things don’t faze me much anymore.
GF: And there we all were thinking you probably came from a Beverly Hills showbiz family.
RM: That thought gives me hives.
GF: When did you start to get serious?
RM: I went to art school in Seattle for a while when I was seventeen. I lived in Montreal with my dad. I just bopped around. To be honest, those years are a little hazy. Then, when I was around nineteen and a half, I was visiting an actor friend in Los Angeles. There’s this gym on Beverly Boulevard that I call “Butt Row” because you see all these butts going up and down on the StairMasters. I refused to go in on principle because I thought it was tacky. So I was standing outside and my friend came back out with one of Gregg Araki’s best friends, and somehow I wound up getting offered the role of Amy in The Doom Generation. It was wild because, physically, the way my character looked in that movie was an homage to my fifteen-year-old self. She was a lot more two-dimensional in the script, and the story had her being under the two guys’ thumbs, so I thought it was quite sexist. I wanted her to be more than someone saying, “Fuck,” about everything, so I played her like I was when I was fifteen – not sexually, but in every other way – someone who presents an armor to the world. It’s just a bluff, because if somebody poked her she would come tumbling down. I tried to get that in there because otherwise there wasn’t a lot of subtext.
GF: So that sardonic quality Amy has – that was you at fifteen?
RM: Absolutely. She’s filled with rage but it’s obviously pain that’s fueling it. I get a little touchy when people say, “She’s such a bitch!” This sounds dumb, but living that part was like going back to my own life and saying good-bye to it, because I had a lot of residual rage – and still do – against various situations that were forced upon me. My dad refused to take pictures of me after I was thirteen because I was too ugly. If I went into a store, I’d get followed around. People would throw things at me out of their cars. It was just built into me that I was bad, bad, bad. So doing the film, I was basically healing that part of myself. I realized I wasn’t, like, this evil being that I’d been made out to be. I had held myself responsible for years for a lot of things I’d done, but I was not a person with some secret agenda to blow up the world. Although I did burn down a barn once. [laughs]
GF: In the two years since The Doom Generation, have you turned your life around?
RM: Well, I’ve skipped over a big thing. I had a boyfriend who was an amazing person. It takes a while to get close to someone, and when you let down that wall, you start to feel that you want to hold on tight to that person and not fuck it up. But four months before I did The Doom Generation, my boyfriend died. That’s why, I think, I don’t know what I was doing during that period because I blocked a lot of stuff out. There’s a saying that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, but I continually got more and more, and when my boyfriend died, I just snapped. I’d held up for so long, but I couldn’t be strong anymore. It was like I was this incredible skyscraper, but I was missing the third floor and the fifth floor, the foundation was funky, and the elevators didn’t work. It looked good on the outside, but eventually it all came crumbling down.
So when you ask me, “Have you turned your life around?” the answer is, I have, completely. But it’s not just to do with the film thing; it’s more internal. If I had self-worth or good feelings about myself based on what magazines I’m in, or what movies I’m in, or who says this or that about me, I’d be having a very rocky existence. I have a good group of friends, and I think the longer you’re away from the pain spot, the more you heal and the more you slowly and painstakingly rebuild from ground zero. I don’t know how many chances in life we get to rebuild from the ground up, but I hope I never have to go through it again.
Eventually, there came a point where I’d go, “Wow, I haven’t cried in five minutes.” Then, “Wow, I haven’t cried in an hour,” and it went on from there. As I got some strength back, I used up every ounce of it getting through The Doom Generation, which entailed working fifteen hours a day and doing sex scenes at seven in the morning before I went home. It was very hard, but what I appreciated about it was that it was boot camp for movies. It was sink or swim, and obviously I’m a survivor so I tried to swim as much as possible.
If one good thing’s come out of that whole hellish period, it’s that I’m not nearly as terrified of everything as I was. I didn’t know I was terrified because I thought I was tough. These days I’m relaxing more, and I think I’m getting younger as I get older. Having been a mother to my brothers and sisters when I was fourteen, it’s total freedom to me not even to have a dog to look after.
GF: Did you channel your grief into your acting?
RM: I’ve always felt guilty about it, but I did. I used my boyfriend’s death as part of my mental preparation. If I start thinking about it now, I can go back into that hole. It doesn’t read onscreen because I’m so pale, but there are tears all over Amy’s face in the film. I’m not a trained actor so I have to completely go on instinct.
GF: Did doing the movie give you a sense of direction?
RM: Oddly enough, I went and lived with my father for a while afterward, which was not a good idea. I didn’t assume that I was going to get an agent. The idea of an acting career immediately slipped my mind and I started taking classes and just reading. Then at the Sundance Film Festival in 1995, I was this little fish among sharks. I couldn’t figure out why all these lawyers were giving me their cards. Why would an actor need a lawyer? Even now, applying the word actor to myself is foreign. For a while, I was freaked out about acting because it seems such a self-serving thing to do. Now every time I have angst about it and try to quit, I get a movie.
GF: When you’re acting you give off this simmering anger. Are you conscious of it?
RM: I’m conscious that anger is a shield for fragility, and that I get hurt very easily because I have this tough exterior. Maybe I should go around being weepy so people will be nice to me. In terms of movies, I seem to play characters that may or may not be a lot smarter than everybody else around them – for example, I’m a con artist in Lewis & Clark & George – or characters who play by the rules long enough to get away with everything. Maybe a certain frustration shows through that. Actually, I’d love to do a role that’s not about that. I try to bring as much depth as I can to each character. The whole point of acting is to immerse yourself, and with certain kinds of characters or roles you can only immerse yourself now and then. I’m certainly not in any position where I can say, “Get me this movie.” But I can’t understand why some name actresses in my age group make such safe and boring choices.
GF: Is there a desire in you to push the limits of what’s socially acceptable?
RM: Why else would I be here? People bore me and I don’t particularly have patience for them. It’s funny how I’m considered this quirky, offbeat, avant-garde thing, because it’s not true. I can certainly act like that, but in a weird way, I’m Miss Manners. For example, I’m sitting here cross-legged. Normally, I would never be sitting like this, or eating while I’m doing an interview, but I’m so exhausted. On the other hand, I would get on the floor with Jesse Helms any day of the week for any kind of debate. I still say I can do whatever I want as long as I’m not hurting anybody else. I don’t understand why more people aren’t like that. Anybody who is somewhat self-aware and has a brain should be pushing at things, because in this decade, and the one before it, we’ve been going backward; it’s like we’re regressing emotionally as a country, and I don’t think it would be that terrible if we had a 1960s kind of fight-against-the-power mentality. The trouble is, most people are too busy listening to the Grateful Dead and going to see – what are those other horrible bands? – Blues Traveler and Phish. Fuck that. There’s a lot of things to protest and get your duff up about now. So am I pushing at things? I don’t know. But I know I’d be uncomfortable living a lifestyle where the only people I ever spoke to were managers and publicists and all I did was drive around in a BMW and had lunch at Barney Greengrass. That would be suicide.
GF: Does acting satisfy you intellectually?
RM: I’ve been struggling with that a lot. The hard part is that I occasionally get emotional satisfaction from it, which I would guess most people don’t get in their work. But it’s not often enough to counteract the sensation that I’m experiencing brain death most of the time. I’ve noticed that my attention span is getting a lot shorter because of all the scripts I’m reading, and that I have half-finished books all over the place. It’s easy to get lazy. I don’t think I could ever hang out with actors and discuss the Method without laughing hysterically. And I’m never going to wear cowboy boots, and, even though I keep thinking I’m a man, I’m never going to have a girlfriend with big tits. But you never know, I could get lucky someday. I’m going to grab those ’40s men’s suits and throw them back on and see what happens.
GF: Having been through the mill several times, are you cautious about wanting too much from life?
RM: People ask me if I have any goals. What am I supposed to say? “No, I hope nobody loves me, I hope I’m dirt poor and just have a cactus to sit on.” I do, actually, want an emotionally fulfilling life. That’s where my primary ambitions lie. I have this strong feeling that I can fly, although I don’t know exactly what that means. I know I need to be free of the cage in my mind and all the things I rail against. For a long time I was fearless and did anything and went anywhere, and leaped before I looked. It’s almost like I had a mid-teenage crisis and, basically, a breakdown. I still have to look into fear, but in a more healthy way. I think I’m going to be pretty kick-ass by the time I’m thirty, and I can’t wait. Right now, I’m on that weird girl-woman cusp and I go back and forth all the time. The idea of being a child mortifies me, and the idea of being an adult terrifies me, too. But I’m sure just by time taking its course I will come into my own. I think that if I stay in this business I’ll actually make movies that are good and have some sort of thought behind them; or maybe I’ll go back to school one day.
GF: What you’re doing now is surely increasing your options, not closing them down.
RM: Oh, definitely. I think I could have a pretty interesting life. Who knows?