Screen legend on her heroine roles, dodging a gay Pride penis, and why Morticia was ‘almost drag’
By Chris Azzopardi
Give Anjelica Huston a character so fierce it will single-handedly galvanize the gay community and she’ll devour the role. Unapologetically powerful, her Grand High Witch in “The Witches” wielded kid-hexing Wiccan powers, her ghastly face both a hideous fright and a delicious, drag-queen-dream marvel.
A year later, in 1991, she made weirdness cool as Morticia Addams, bringing a grace all her own to “The Addams Family” as the household’s ghoulish glue. On NBC’s short-lived musical-drama “Smash”, from 2012 to 2013, the Academy Award winner played legendary tough-as-nails producer Eileen Rand. Now, complete with Russian accent, she portrays The Director – the leader of the assassins’ headquarters – opposite Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry and non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillon in “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum”. A mighty role for a mighty woman.
During a recent call with the 67-year-old actress, just hours before the “John Wick” premiere in New York, Huston discussed her affinity with the LGBTQ community, her wig in “Smash”, and going head-to-head with a giant latex penis during a Pride parade.
What do you think is the connection between your strength and resilience as a woman – both in life and in film – and the gay men who are empowered by you?
Aww! Well, I like to think I empower the people around me, and that definitely is something that I would wish. I think maybe, hmm… I’ve never really considered it. But I think maybe it’s just a sort of similar feeling, similar reaction to certain things, and I think maybe the ability to speak out for yourself even though it might get you in trouble sometimes (laughs). I think that’s something, you know, that we all have to deal with.
You laugh like you might have just had experience with the latter.
(Laughs) Recently, I had a little experience with this Vulture interview (Huston recently gave a controversial tell-all to the news site). But you know, it has to do with speaking your mind and speaking your truth, and I think that’s something that has gone a little bit out of fashion since I’ve been working and giving interviews. (Laughs)
One of the things about the gay community is that they’ve always been outspoken; they speak their truth and they’ve taken a lot of chances in their lives, because often these opinions aren’t popular. But it takes all kinds to make a world, and I think we narrow our sights very much when we constantly adapt to the sort of rigors of everyday life and that everything has to be safe and that everything has to be presentable.
And you don’t do that. You don’t play it safe.
I’m afraid I don’t. I’d like to a lot of the time, but I don’t really think that that’s my truth, though sometimes it is. But overall, I like to have the freedom to have my opinions that don’t necessarily adhere to everyone else’s. And I think that’s sort of an individuality, maybe. A sign of speaking one’s own mind and not necessarily being influenced by trends and what people consider to be proper.
Because you play these powerful women and because those women sometimes dress exuberantly, many gay men have even given you credit for their gayness. Looking back, what roles of yours do you think could have had that kind of power over them?
I don’t know, and I’m sort of hesitant to say because, again, everyone’s different and I think different things attract different people. But I think overall the parts that I’ve done that are not necessarily cookie-cutter, in which characters have some kind of power even though it’s not necessarily going to win them any kudos (laughs), are the ones who have a personal power that I think is attractive to the gay community.
There was a real appreciation in the gay community for the shade you threw as the evil stepmother in “Ever After”, and with simply a single eyebrow raise.
Aww, well, thank you. (Laughs)
Some in the LGBTQ community have classified Morticia Addams as a gay icon. Do you think she has what it takes to be one?
I can only wish! (Laughs) I loved playing Morticia, and I think, also, probably because she had so much going on – so many corsets and wigs and nails – that yeah, she was almost drag.
Your role as The Director could be potential inspiration for drag queens. When it comes to her look – but also her attitude – what should a drag queen keep in mind?
I don’t know. I think she’s a tough gypsy, she knows the score, she’s lived the life, she is rigorous, she’s strong. And I think that appeals to people. It certainly appeals to me.
How do you explain the fact that, while most kids were scared of you in “The Witches”, gay boys wanted to be you?
(Laughs) Well, she has fabulous powers and she revels in her ugliness and in her vileness; she’s somebody who takes full advantage of being horrible! (Laughs) And in a way, I think that’s something very attractive, to be able to really enjoy your hideous outer shell; there’s something to be said for fully being who you are. And I think it doesn’t necessarily just belong to the gay community, it belongs to all of us who are searching to find a way or searching to find out who we are and how far we can go.
What do you think of Anne Hathaway playing the role you originated?
I think, great, good luck to her. And I hope they find a way to not have to encase her in rubber for seven hours at a time (laughs). The makeup was very challenging on that movie.
CGI has certainly come a long way.
It has, it has. But I think one of the things that’s so beautiful about the Nic Roeg movie is that there was practically no CGI. A little bit around the mice, but overall it was all makeup, it was the Jim Henson workshop, and I enjoyed the reality-based visuals of that film. And actually, it’s rather simply shot. There weren’t a lot of trick shots or anything like that. A few fish-eye lenses, but all of it was sort of based on what the camera could do and not what you could do post.
Will you star in the remake?
Oh, I have no idea. They haven’t spoken to me about it at all. I know nothing about the remake or how closely it will adhere to the Roald Dahl story. I have no idea.
Some gays had problems with your “Smash” wig. They said it could’ve been softer, that it made you look like a drag queen. Are we to assume a gay man did not pick out that wig for you?
(Laughs) Yeah, well, I don’t know – it helped me because I felt it was kind of an armor for my character, and she’s dealing with a lot of volatile, crazy stuff and kind of has to be the anchor in the middle of it. Something about that particular wig – although, no, it wasn’t the soft approach – helped me and kind of grounded me.
What about your role in “Transparent” spoke to you as an actress and as a longtime supporter of the community?
I think “Transparent” was just kind of a wonderful show, and I started to watch it for quite some time before they invited me on the show. I thought it was very moving and also very reality-based, and I loved these characters. I found it very involving. For me, to play a member of the LGBTQ community was important and fascinating. I didn’t want to make it a caricature in any way and so I didn’t go to great lengths to kind of change Vicki’s sexuality. I felt like, you know, she’s a sexual person, she’s not someone who has a rule book about who she should be or if she should fall in love, but she’s a person who’s making it on her own – who’s got her cheese shop! (Laughs) A normal woman making a life who happens to be gay, which I think many people in the community are.
It’s not that you carve yourselves out to be sexually different or to make those choices. A lot of the time the choices make you, and it’s up to you to find your way and negotiate your life. And there’s a lot of resistance out there. People love to criticize. And people really think they know better. I think a lot of the time we’re dictated by our feelings and by who we find ourselves to be. It’s not that we can go out and carve ourselves a personality a lot of the time.
Your history with the LGBTQ community goes back: In fact, you met your late husband, Robert Graham, at Pride. What brought you there?
I’m not quite sure. I think probably because – I don’t want to say. I can’t really remember why now that you’ve stirred my memory. (Laughs)
Do you have a memory from being at Pride that day?
I’m trying to put two things together. I can only say that it would’ve been a perfect day for Bob and I to meet, for Bob and I to get together, because I think it was a coming together of individuals – and a very artistic love-match, as far as I was concerned. I fell in love with his work, I fell in love with the man, and I think something about the liberation of gay Pride weekend is always a thrill and it’s always a great day in Los Angeles. And probably here (in NYC), although I haven’t spent many gay Pride weekends here. But I think it’s an ebullient moment, it’s a moment you can get out there and show who you are and not be ashamed. And flaunt it!
And weren’t you almost run over by a giant latex penis at a gay parade?
Oh, yes! (Laughs) That was in New York, on 10th Street. That was a gay Pride weekend. Yes, I was stuck behind a latex penis for at least 20 minutes trying to get downtown.
Is there photo evidence of this?
No! None! “None”. And also, the skies opened, and it began to rain, so it was a huge latex penis and me struggling through the crowd. But there’s actually very little that’s funnier than gay Pride weekend in New York, now that I think about it. The imagination, the costumes! I remember there was a whole team of cocktails trotting down the street, and another one where the people put their faces inside milk cartons and were dancing down the street (laughs). There’s a great sense of fun and liberation and celebration.
With “Smash” and “Transparent”, both of which represent the underrepresented, how much did their cultural significance factor into your involvement?
Well, I think, because they’re current and they’re modern they hopefully represent the strengths in the community, and I think in some way those kinds of characters symbolize a certain freedom and a declaration of independence, and I think we all need that.
“Especially” now, where things are very safe. In actual fact, they’re not that safe (laughs). I think our normal news every day is – there’s a lot that they worry us with. One of the wonderful things about the LGBTQ community is that they kind of throw caution to the winds and it’s a moment where people get together and celebrate the positive rather than the negative.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in GQ, Vanity Fair and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.