Premiere Magazine's Interview
"You're gonna die" Alicia Silverstone promises. This is Hollywood's youngest actress cum producer's zealous advertisement for the dish she endearingly calls "King claw crab," which has just arrived at her table at Matsuhisa, Los Angeles's premiere power sushi joint. The star of this summer's Batman & Robin and Excess Baggage takes a nibble and proclaims, "This is so good. . . . The sauce!" As she gesticulates with her chopsticks, a piece of crab plummets down her blue puffy-sleeve blouse. Silverstone pulls her shirt forward and peers down for the lost morsel, to no avail. She looks up and shrugs, her face breaking into the off-center, self-deprecating grin that won America's heart in Clueless.
It is somewhat surprising that Silverstone chose this epicurean setting for lunch, since she has elsewhere declared her favorite cuisine to be baby food and Lucky Charms. "Lucky Charms are good late at night," she clarifies, "when you're really hungry. They're plain, and then you get the mushrooms."
She pauses and wrinkles her nose. "Wait -- mushrooms? No, marshmallows! " She gives a girlish giggle. (She's full of such malaprops: Later she haltingly refers to this year's Best Actress Oscar winner as "Francine . . . Dormant?")
Actually, Silverstone is a Matsuhisa regular. She first came here with Marty Callner, the music-video director who spotted her in her psychohormonal 1993 film debut, The Crush, and helped launch her star with three infamous Aerosmith videos (including "Cryin'," later enshrined by MTV voters as Best Video of All Time).
"I'm big on food," attests Silverstone, blithely heedless of the out-of-context repercussions (more on such weighty issues later). "And I don't want to eat unless it's the best." She cites another restaurant she just enjoyed called the Little Door, which, she reports, "had really yummy wine."
Also surprising is her attire -- the aforementioned blouse, a navy floral-print skirt, stylishly tousled hair, and clunky black heels -- since she has been known to wear a T-shirt and sweats everywhere, including to interviews.
She's quick to explain the outfit, however: "This maybe looks put together, but I wore it last night to sleep, and on the plane yesterday, and all day the day before." She didn't have time to change, she says, because she'd been caught up in making landscaping decisions with her manager and producing partner, Carolyn Kessler, at the house Silverstone bought last summer in the Valley.
"So I'm totally stinky!" she announces. "I had to spray perfume in the room and run through it so I wouldn't smell gross." She admits to only one concern about her appearance: her eyes. She just returned from visiting her parents in San Francisco, she says, and they have cats to which she is extremely allergic. "Because my eyes are red, I did wonder if you'd think I was on serious drugs."
Serious? No. Goofy, maybe.
But lately one flip-flop above all others has been dominating Alicia gossip. If you're an informed '90s cineast who keeps up with development deals, test screenings, box office tallies, and such, you impatiently await the answer to the burning question: So, is Alicia skinny or fat?
Sure, it's preposterous -- and pernicious -- and would be regardless of how she looked in the recent photographs on display here. But such are the Perils of Alicia, a sobering lesson in the arc of American celebrity. Having gone through the Hollywood wringer in a compressed time span that befits her generation, Silverstone already seems in the position of staging a comeback.
Before Clueless hit two years ago, the press had already begun sniping: Citing her video-laden resume, an Entertainment Weekly cover sneered, a star is made. Then Silverstone confounded everyone, leapfrogging from low-rent cult Lolita to bona fide actress. Clueless, Amy Heckerling's update of Emma, set in Beverly Hills High School, wasn't the biggest hit of its summer, but it had enough style, smarts, and freshness to become the kind of cultural miniphenomenon that is cherished by all the right people: Hollywood titans, press tastemakers, and hormone-fuelled Webmasters. (An astounding 60 Silverstone fan sites were recently listed at http://www.xmission.com/~bbray/ Alicia/links.) At eighteen, Silverstone became America's Sweetheart of the Moment -- boy's fantasy, girl's role model, and only half-conscious of her sex kitten-y allure.
But she wasn't even granted the requisite fifteen minutes before Newsweek had made her the poster child for a new, infantile, "cute" fetishism, linking her popularity to the suppression of women, fear of adulthood, and avoidance of death. Yikes! Silverstone not only remained unfazed, she made herself an even bigger target. Hoping to pattern herself after Jodie Foster, she decided to take charge of her career -- a canny move for someone whose most significant roles before Clueless had involved being a sexual predator (The Crush) or an ogled object (The Babysitter). "Unfortunately," says Silverstone, "being a female in this business, to do the things you want, you have to create for yourself. I'm not going to stand around being one of the people that goes, 'Poor women in Hollywood,' because that's boring and totally useless."
Instead she became a rich woman in Hollywood. Columbia Pictures' then head Mark Canton, in the midst of his hari-Carrey spending spree, gave her a deal to produce and star in two movies for a figure reported to be between $7 million and $10 million. Silverstone suddenly morphed into a poster child for Hollywood excess. No matter that she was merely earning what the (insane) market would bear, that dozens of other actors also had vanity development deals promising a producer's credit; her sin was excess youth. "When a nineteen-year-old blond chick decides she has something to say," says Kevin Jones, Columbia's executive on Excess Baggage, "people say, 'Who gave her the authority?'
Then, since Silverstone had no new product in the pipeline, for nearly two years the press was left to grasp at straws. She'd committed to play Batgirl in Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin, but contractually, she first had to do a movie for Columbia, causing Excess Baggage, the tale of a rich girl who fakes her own kidnapping to get her father's attention, to be rushed into production.
So here's what was gleaned (Entertainment Weekly, April 26, 1996): "Alicia Silverstone, who graduated last summer from Clueless to major stardom, is the latest celeb publicly battling a few pounds. At last month's Oscars, fashion critics thought she looked more Babe than babe." Soon Fatgirl and Excess Baggage jokes were running amok. A few months later, Vanity Fair portrayed her as a naif in the thrall of Kessler, the agent who turned her into a star and became her manager; and the Los Angeles Times called Excess Baggage "troubled," and "plagued by disputes" between Silverstone and director Marco Brambilla (Demolition Man). "It was like the whole world was watching," recalls Jones. "And all the reports dealt with her weight fluctuation and her control."
Schumacher, for one, was outraged. "I don't know what all the mean-spiritedness is about," says the director, who met Silverstone when he produced The Babysitter. "The weight issue is particularly cruel. I have many friends whose daughters are struggling with anorexia and bulimia. The parents say, 'It doesn't matter what you look like, it only matters what kind of human being you are.' And the kids say, 'Look what they did to Alicia! She had a few pizzas and they killed her!' "
"It was just press bullshit," Silverstone says. "But it made me very concerned about my image. I don't want any young girl to think that I advocate being skinny or that I did anything to alter myself."
But the extremely personal scrutiny has clearly affected her. "There's a moment in this whirlwind where I feel so fucked up, I go into a panic," she says. For her, the ideal day would be "to have nobody say a word to me, to sit on the beach with my dog and somebody I love, and have nobody care. And just be of the world. That would be really cool -- to be completely anonymous." Jeez, sounds like this teen idol-turned-mogul gig ain't all it's cracked up to be.
I picked out the carpet!" Silverstone is saying, pointing with pride at the blazing royal blue wall-to-wall lining the offices of First Kiss Productions, on the Sony lot. She and Kessler named her company First Kiss because, says Silverstone, "it's kind of cheesy and sweet and means a lot. We have no idea what will become of what we're doing, and it was as exciting and dangerous and scary as a first kiss is."
Her office is surprisingly spartan, with a cheap Yorx stereo and a few personal mementos: an enlargement of a photo-booth strip with friends, a photo of Kessler's wedding to Michael Packenham (Silverstone's agent since Kessler became her manager), and some artsy black-and-white shots by her older brother, David, 25, who works in movie production. Silverstone sits at her desk and starts signing checks. "I like the office," she says. "I like answering the phone, and -- really stupid, anal -- I love filing. It gives me a sense of order. . . . When I was a little girl, like, five, I'd sit in my dad's office, pretend like I was his secretary, and write poetry, make copies, like this little professional." (Indeed, she still looks a bit like a kid playing dress-up.)
This same dad's head shot now grins out at Silverstone from her office bulletin board. British-born Monty Silverstone has worked in real estate, is the author of the book Monty's Betting Tips, and may finally be realizing his dream of being an actor, having recently appeared on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. He moved to Florida as an adult, where he met fellow Brit Didi, a Pan Am flight attendant stationed there; they married, and she converted to his Jewish faith.
The Silverstone's lived in San Bruno, San Carlos, and then Hillsborough, California ("pretty frou-frou," Alicia says), but the family traveled widely and summered in England. It was Monty's idea to turn six-year-old Alicia into a model, work that she now says she hated. So it seems natural to ask about JonBenet Ramsey; Silverstone's unironic response is, "How come I know that name?" But she does, hesitantly, share some thoughts about her early exploits. "I never wanted to be a model," she says, "but if Daddy likes you when they take pictures of you, you're not going to not do it. Do I think that affects you? Yes. And I think I am one of the lucky ones."
Lucky because, although modeling led only to a failed audition for NeverEnding Story II, Silverstone started taking acting lessons. Through her acting teacher, she got a Hollywood agent (Kessler) the summer before tenth grade, and was soon cast in a failed TV pilot called Me and Nick. By the time she was sixteen, she'd been cast in The Crush, received her GED, been legally emancipated from her parents, and moved to L.A. "I walked into this pretty blindly," she says, pushing aside the pile of signed checks. "I didn't have any kind of connection to film. I haven't seen many movies at all." (She's been catching up; she recently watched Z -- "You need to watch in slow motion, the subtitles go by so fast" -- and "something Wind . . . Inherit the Wind.")
A few short years later, she's iconic enough to have joined the Batman machine, sharing cereal boxes and billboards with such name-brands as Schwarzenegger and Uma. But the assignment didn't sit that comfortably. "Everybody looks at Batman as an opportunity to do something wild and crazy," she says. "I had a hard time because I'm very serious. And I never really knew what the hell I was doing, because it's so huge, it doesn't feel like a film, or a character you're working on." She "hated" the costume, which gave her "tendinitis or something," though she reports that her suit's nipples are "covered," unlike Chris O'Donnell's: "Chris's are, like, ping! I'm not a sexy, nasty Batgirl. I'm, like, a wholesome girl who turns into a robot."
A knock on her office door interrupts her. Creative executive Matt Miranda (who also answers the phone) walks in with a handwritten message: Can she loop scenes from Excess Baggage tomorrow at 9 a.m.? Silverstone frowns. "Is that a 'Can I' or 'I have to'?" She may have her own company, but she still doesn't like to get up too early.
So what was she like as a nineteen-year-old producer? Silverstone likens her experience with Excess Baggage to suddenly being made a doctor's assistant. "You don't know anything about medicine," she says, "and they throw you in the emergency room. You're just going by instinct." Her biggest involvement, she says, was in casting costars Benicio Del Toro, Harry Connick, Jr., Nicholas Turturro, and Christopher Walken. "The studio didn't expect her to be as opinionated or hard-nosed as she was," says director Brambilla.
"She's very honest, she really believes what she believes," says Del Toro, who plays her love interest, a car thief who steals the car she pretends to be kidnapped in. "That could be a bad thing, but it's a good thing. I like to work harder than anybody on a set, and Alicia matched me, man. On weekends we were sitting there in Vancouver in front of that fucking script trying to improve it. She outplayed everybody on that set, including the director. She was sweating it."
Silverstone had been drawn to the story, she says, because of the relationship between the heroine, Emily T. Hope, and her distant father, played by Jack Thompson. (It's clearly a lifelong theme: Asked to name a memorable book from her childhood, she cites My Sweet Audrina, by V.C. Andrews, a horror novel about a girl who can never live up to her dead sister in her daddy's eyes.)
"I wanted to make it very dark," says Silverstone, "and I learned a lot about the difference between making a Hollywood movie and what I consider to be a good movie. They're thinking, Okay, Clueless girl, we'll cash in this much money if she plays the same character. So there's not a lot of room to really go putting heroin needles in your arm, or whatever."
"The studio always thought it was a broader comedy than Alicia did," says Kevin Jones. He claims that Silverstone and Brambilla "had a rapport. I wouldn't characterize it as good, but I believe they still speak." And Brambilla, for his part, is positive about the experience: "Most of the time I agreed with her. She's got a great instinct for what is real, but she has to be reminded about the context and tone of the film."
Looking back, Silverstone says, "Would I do anything different? Sure. But that's because of what I know now. When I produce my second movie, I want a whole script in my face before I hire a director. And I don't want time pressure: You have to be committed to it not happening if it's not right. But I'm still proud of the movie." If audiences take any message from Excess Baggage, she hopes it's " 'Don't try and change anybody, just be what you are.' It's a lesson that takes years to learn. I still haven't figured that damn one out."
"All right Samson," warns Silverstone breathlessly. It's 9 p.m. and, after spending all day looping, she's doing her best to keep her ferocious-seeming dog from scaring off passersby as he lunges past their former apartment in West Hollywood.
Silverstone found Samson, a stray Rottweiler-pit bull-Labrador mutt, on a film location, and has since adopted four more dogs. (An animal-rights activist, she preaches in favor of neutering and against dissection and testing.) Samson, it turns out, is the Silverstone who requires a weight regimen. "He's been on a diet," she says. "He gets really fat sometimes; it's unhealthy. On Clueless, all the transportation guys would give him so much food. I'd say, 'You guys, you can't feed him!' and they'd say, 'We only gave him fat-free chips and fat-free cookies!' "
Tonight she's dressed more characteristically -- a white T-shirt with a cartoon of a puppy on it, mint green sweatpants turned inside out, and an unbuttoned men's dress shirt belonging to her 94-year-old grandfather, Sidney, who, she says, is "my favorite family member. He says things to me, like, he'd be my boyfriend if he wasn't my grandfather."
As for real boyfriends, Silverstone shuts down inquiries, but she pines for a relationship. "I'm distracted by love," she says. "I'm so determined that I meet a man, um, a person. I say man because I'm attracted to men, but I'm not really, because I haven't met any man that has made me feel -- it could be a woman, for all that matters. I just want to completely live free and happy and completely in love. And it screws with me. I'm so romantic that I'll say, 'Fuck all this [career] stuff, it's so unimportant.' "
Her public reticence about boyfriends may be based in part on reporters' questions about her sexiness after The Crush, which she calls "disgusting." "I fear for Natalie Portman, for Christina Ricci," she says. "There's something very innocent about being fifteen and talking about sex. At twenty I can say that I know a little bit more. But at fifteen, I hadn't had it, I didn't know anything about it. I didn't sit around thinking, I'm supposed to be sexy in this scene -- how do I be sexy?"
At this point, Samson has dragged Silverstone back down the hill and out to busy Sunset Boulevard. We decide to go to the Chateau Marmont and finish our talk on an outdoor terrace; Silverstone drinks some bottled water while Samson drinks some bowled water.
Silverstone says that when she won the Most Desirable Female MTV Movie Award after Clueless, "I took it like a joke. It's flattering, but I'm just a very unconventional person, I guess. I don't look at people and go, 'Wow, that guy is really hot, I want to fuck him.' It's rare that I find somebody attractive."
She also has little interest in onscreen sex, and has always refused to do nudity. "It's just the stupidest, biggest cop-out, totally uninteresting. I can't watch women pretend to be aroused, men doing what they think is a really good lover. I don't know anybody who makes love like that. When people get naked, it makes me uncomfortable." In her own case, she says, "it's for the person that I want to have sex with, to spend my life with, only. My body's, like, my own little secret."
Another little secret is that Silverstone recently enrolled in drawing and photography classes at a local college, partly to confront her fear of those subjects, but she had to withdraw because of commitments to publicize her films. She also yearns to do another play (she did Carol's Eve in L.A. several years ago, playing a suicidal lesbian coke addict). And though she has no firm plans for upcoming films, she says she'd love to work with Steve Buscemi or Sean Penn, but then her voice trails off, as if her heart isn't really in it.
The only thing she's certain of is her loyalty to Kessler, whose closeness to and influence on Silverstone has not always been well thought of by those around her (Kessler would not be interviewed for this article). Even one of the young actress's staunchest defenders, Joel Schumacher, says that "Alicia is a beautiful, talented, wonderful young woman who is surrounded by bad management." In Kessler's defense, Silverstone says, "My relationship with Carolyn is a marriage. I'm going to have her as a friend forever. Carolyn supported me being who I am. She'd rather I be happy than successful as an actress. That's been really helpful. I don't trust anybody here." In Hollywood, Silverstone says, "people are greedy and insensitive and eager to be successful in a really nasty way, almost where everybody's a mini-Hitler."
It's getting late, and Silverstone has started to wilt. "I never expected any of this to happen," she says, "and I would've been just as happy -- or more happy -- just going along, working as an actress, without having to be a celebrity or a movie star." She knows she sounds like an ingrate. "I am respectful and thankful for whoever has allowed me the opportunity to be as successful as I am, but you could take it all back, because I'm not going to do what it takes to maintain it. I'm twenty years old, I've done a lot of things that take focus and commitment. Nobody can say, 'She's just a flake,' right? But I think I'm entitled to be a flake for a little while."
Silverstone leads Samson downstairs. She's worried that he might not be allowed in the Chateau Marmont's elevator, but then she remembers, "I once saw Julia Roberts here with her dog. Samson has met Julia Roberts's dog twice -- but he hasn't met Julia Roberts." She gives another goofy grin. They walk outside into the cool night air and head up the hill to their car.
Magazine, August 1997 By: David Handelman
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