Anjelica Huston is cold. She’s calling me from the overly air-conditioned New York set of Smash, a TV show slated to debut next year, in which Huston is a Broadway producer who’s interested in signing on to a new musical about Marilyn Monroe. Her distinctive husky voice is sweeter than it usually is when she’s in character—after all, she’s best known for playing sociopathic grifters or emotionally remote mystics—and she makes a joke about how she can’t understand why buildings are always freezing when we have global warming. “It’s mad!” she laughs, then graciously asks me how I am.
She channels some of this real-life warmth into the new movie 50/50. Huston plays the mother of a cancer-stricken Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The movie is based on the real-life story of writer and producer Will Reiser. It’s a small role, but Huston makes the most of it by injecting her scenes with genuine pathos. Her character might be domineering and meddling—but she’s also dealing with a son who might die and a husband with Alzheimer's. The audience never stops empathizing with her.
Slate spoke to Huston about the dearth of roles for older women in Hollywood (even the fabulous Anjelica has trouble getting good scripts!), the books she’d like to develop for TV, and her forthcoming memoir.
Slate: It was surprising to see you as an average mom, since we’re used to seeing you as these mothers who are ethereal or glamorous or just plain nuts. Was that part of what drew you to the character?
Anjelica Huston: I think you just sort of hit the nail on the head. She’s Everymom. She’s middle class, she has a huge task. She’s the caregiver for her husband, who has Alzheimer’s. Her son has been diagnosed with cancer. She’s protective and a little irritating, and a bit overbearing, and at the same time, she’s fierce and loving, and there’s never a question as to whether she’ll be there for him. She’s the kind of woman who, for me, is very powerful in the landscape where women aren’t given much due for the things that they do, and for the roles that they fill. But it’s women like this that kind of make the world go round.
Slate: She just seems stretched from all angles.
Huston: Yeah, she’s pretty stressed out. And that, and the effect of how hospitals are, and the kind of regimentation, and coldness, and clinical discomfort of those situations, bad lighting, all of the things you have to go through when you’re in a hospital and working day to day to help the person you love most in the world to live. It’s a very harsh circumstance. So even though she’s for all intents and purposes a normal woman, an ordinary woman, she’s also extraordinary.
Slate: I’ve read how you speak really beautifully and movingly about your own mother’s death when you were still a teenager. You’ve often played mothers of adult children, so what do you draw on when you’re playing these mothers?
Huston: Women have a lot of capacity for love, for people other than their children, too. So that’s what I draw on. My love of my family, my love of my nieces and nephews, of my own parents, love for my husband.