Drew Barrymore takes us on a 40-year journey from riches to rags with Jessica Lange in HBO’s Grey Gardens.
Hollywood loves a rags-to-riches story, but when America met Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier Beale in 1975’s Grey Gardens, a cult following was born. The documentary by Albert and David Maysles chronicles six weeks with the reclusive, eccentric mother-daughter pair, relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. The two were once respected members of the Manhattan and Long Island social scenes but somehow dropped off the radar â€” disappearing completely into their decaying South Hampton manse.Inspired by the documentary, HBO’s new film Grey Gardens reflects on 40 years with the Edies in an effort to explain how these women ended up in isolated squalor.”My God, they were madder than a hatter,” Drew Barrymore (Little Edie) admits to SheKnows and laughs. “But the thing about portraying them for Jessica and me was that they were not just crazy, depressed or angry. They had a real point of view, a real love for each other, and a decision to close out the world. To walk that fine line, make sure that they didn’t seem bitter or feel sorry for themselves, was important. They don’t come off that way in the documentary. These women wanted the opportunity to show themselves off. They were entertainers.”
A story gains cult status
After the documentary’s release, some called the unique relationship codependent and even destructive, but Barrymore and Lange were intrigued by the love affair.”One of my favorite things growing up has been unorthodox love stories like Captains Courageous, Paper Moon, Planes, Trains and Automobiles and The Champ â€” movies that aren’t necessarily the dynamic of a man and woman,” Barrymore explains. “I’ve always been in love with love stories that are not necessarily the romantic kind, and this was epic on that level.”She also couldn’t help falling for her own character, Little Edie. “I realized what a dramatically emotional person she was,” Barrymore recalls. “She is a walking contradiction on every level. She had these great highs, great lows. She acts like a woman, but talks like a little girl. She says that she wants to get the hell out of here, but she never did. That push and pull is very emotionally wearing. I understood why she was in such turmoil and just loved having a challenge this big.”
Known for light, entertaining flicks like He’s Just Not That Into You, Never Been Kissed and 50 First Dates, however, Barrymore admits she had to fight to take on this particular challenge.
“Michael (Sucsy, producer/writer/director) had a lot of other actresses beating down his door, and I was not of their acting caliber, so to speak,” Barrymore confesses. “I have not proven myself yet, so I showed up with a binder that was annotated on every single page. I said, â€˜I will go to the ends of the earth.'”
Her commitment only strengthened after she watched The Beales of Grey Gardens, a second documentary created with footage that didn’t make the original cut. “Edie always said, ‘I wouldn’t want somebody playing me in a movie, except for Leslie Caron,'” Barrymore says. “Then they say, ‘Who would play your mother?’ and she goes ‘Ethel Barrymore?’ I thought, ‘On one hand, I’m hearing Edie say she doesn’t want anyone to play herâ€¦ on the other, I’m hearing my family’s name! This is meant to be.”A coincidence like that held merit for Barrymore because she keeps her acting ancestors close, in general. “I go to sleep to TCM every night, and I’ve seen all of their films,” she shares. “I often walk in my bedroom, and they are on. I’m always like â€˜Hey, guys!’ I have their pictures up on my walls. I love them. We’re a wild and crazy bunch, so I don’t have to act like Miss Perfect, which is a real relief. All I want to do is honor their talent as well as their legacy.”
Method behind the madness
With that and her promise to her new boss in mind, Barrymore threw herself into the character fully. In fact, for the first time ever, she used method acting.
“I wasn’t going to be one of those actresses who was on the cell phone, reading the newspaper, talking smack with one of my friends, then have them say â€˜Rolling!’ and pretend that I was Little Edie,” she explains. “I was Little Edie. That role and this opportunity, for me, deserved that level of commitment.”
Barrymore embraced the isolation of shooting in Toronto, away from the Hollywood hustle and bustle, not to mention her friends.
“I not only went without a cell phone, but I didn’t speak to one person for three months, including my best friend and partner, Nancy Juvonen,” Barrymore says. “She was getting married and sent me a letter addressed to Little Edie. It was difficult and very lonely. But so was Edie.”Barrymore also limited her social outings to the occasional Saturday cocktail hour and spent her Sunday’s watching movies â€” but only the old movies her character would have watched!”That was a big treat for me, because I wasn’t allowed to watch anything,” Barrymore reflects. “The thing that really changed my life was not having anything to watch or listen to, just to be in the head of someone all the time, which was like living in a crazy monastery. The level of focus was amazing.”
Tending to Grey’s gardens
In film, seeing is believing, so while the set folks worked on perfectly reflecting the rise and fall of the Grey Gardens manse (for which the film is named), the makeup folks were tasked with turning two Hollywood beauties into aging socialites.”We have fake teeth, fake eyes, prosthetic (fat) cheese pieces, fake everything,” Barrymore says. “It was a big bonding thing for us to sit in these makeup chairs for four to six hours and then go into a 14-hour workday after that. It’s incredibly intense, but we wanted so badly to look just like them. We were so precise and anal.”Barrymore, for her part, also had to work on sounding like Edie, instead of Hollywood royalty raised in the San Fernando Valley.”Let’s face it: I’m a 30-something-year-old who has facial paralyses and talks out of the side of my mouth,” she says and laughs. “Edie talks very forward. All the lips go forward. She has no â€˜Rs’ and a completely different accent, so I had to do intense vocal training.”I’ve never had this kind of dramatic role, where you go from 18 to 58,” she continues. “You have to embody another human being who has been well documented and is beloved by many people. I had to sing and dance. I worked my ass off, because I didn’t want to screw up the best opportunity that ever came my way.”
Skating through it
Barrymore is obviously proud of her efforts, but she had no idea how hard a landing it would be when she finished taping.
“I thought it would be harder to leave the world, but it was harder to get back into it,” she says. “I realized how freeing and liberating it is to go through life without emailing, texting and talking. It was hard to get back on the horse. I had a real difficult time adjusting and was depressed for a while.”I tried to take some vacations, but I had to go straight into directing Whip It!, which is the first film I’ve directed. That was also the biggest challenge I’ve ever had. I’m so excited, because I’m in editing right now. It’s been the years of fears.”All that fear-facing is paying off, but it took a physical toll. Instead of gaining the pounds needed play the character, Barrymore, whose weight fluctuations are often the subject of public chatter, actually lost 10 pounds. “I was so nervous being Edie that I couldn’t eat,” she says. “Michael was chasing me around with quiche. I could not get food down my throat. I was so uptight and freaked out all the time.”It didn’t help that her self-proclaimed stress-buster is television; Project Runway, Top Chef and her other faves were completely off limits while shooting Grey Gardens.Luckily, that next gig Barrymore mentioned, Whip it!, was ripe with physical outlet: It’s a roller derby movie. “We had a roller derby camp,” she notes. “We got hurt, we were in pain, and it was difficult. I wanted to tear my hair out sometimes, but then you get better. You start jumping things and being able to spin, hit the rail, tackle people. I’m the most uncoordinated person in the world. That’s why I do Charlie’s Angels and roller derby. It’s all fantasy.”Whip It! is not set for release in the US until October, but you can catch Grey Gardens on HBO starting April 18 at 8 pm.