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.
Slate: I know you’ve done a lot of TV work in the past 10 years, and you’re continuing to get work with shows like Smash. There’s a stereotype that it’s easier for women over 40 to find meaty, good roles in television. Has that been your experience? Or are those just the projects that have piqued your interest in the recent past?
Huston: I think television is a savior for actresses, particularly right now, and I guess actors, too. But there are more meaty, interesting roles for women than ever before on television, which is a good thing, because there are less in film, by the day [laughs], by the hour.
Slate: Since you’ve been in the business so long, can you pinpoint the time when things did change for the worse?
Huston: With female roles, it’s always been difficult. Particularly since one actress gets all the great ones, and the rest of us scurry around to kind of beat each other for the other ones. I’m sick of making excuses for the fact that there are very few good roles for actresses. Over the years I try to be positive. But in the long run, when you really look at it, I think it’s sort of a bit sad, because there are so many women out there, I think, aching to see good work, and to identify and all of that.
Slate: Absolutely. And you’d think that women being in positions of power in the studios would help matters, but that doesn’t seem to change anything.
Huston: Not at all. Not at all. I think they just cast their favorite male stars. But you know, once in a while a great role comes along, and even though it might be a supporting role like this one, it’s a great role, and one that I can really identify with, and sink my teeth into, and explore. But certainly on television there are a lot of great opportunities now for women, and I’m so happy to see my friend Julianna Margulies doing so well in The Good Wife. That’s reassuring.
Huston: Well, thank you.
Slate: Are there any other books that you’ve loved recently and want to develop?
Huston: There are two really wonderful books by the author James Kunstler. One is called The Witch of Hebron, and another called World Made by Hand, that I’ve been talking to some networks about, so I think they’d be amazing as a mini-series or as a series. Hopefully somebody will recognize their potential, because I think they really would be wonderful.
Slate: You’re writing a memoir, which is already hotly anticipated. What’s been the experience of going back through your past?
Huston: You know, I’m just starting. And it’s one of those things, I don’t really want to talk about it too much because as soon as it’s out of my mouth then it sort of loses its potency. I don’t know how, really what form it’s going to take or how the narrative is going to evolve, so hopefully I’ll be able to answer that question more succinctly in months to come.
Slate: It takes a long time to really come up with that narrative that you feel satisfied with when it’s your own life.
Huston: I think so, yeah. And for some reason the early life is a lot easier than the later life. Probably because one has less judgment on it.
Slate: You’ve spoken in the past about your start in film, and how you felt like it was your father the director John Huston’s idea, and it took you a while to come into your own. Do you feel now that you have transcended those early beginnings, and that the decisions you make now are yours as an entity, separate from your family’s storied history?
Huston: Yeah, um, wow, it’d be pretty sad if I hadn’t at this point [laughing]. Yeah, I make my own decisions now, not that I ever really adapted that well to following along with other people’s decisions as to how I should run my life. I’ve always been a bit obstinate on that score, but, yes, I feel like I’m more the mistress of my decisions now.
This interview has been condensed and edited.