By Zoe Stagg
Photography by Michael Lavine
Deconstruct the prototypical ingenue, and the specs might include: tousled blonde hair, wide-set blue eyes, long legs; into yoga, and… outspoken critic of the Hollywood Boys’ Club? When it comes to Heather Graham, yes. Your model comes equipped with all of the above and then some. Graham is a shimmering A-Lister who’s a self-proclaimed “Nerd.” She’s a sultry starlet who’s also a selfless activist. Even in her big screen journey you’ll find switchbacks. While she’s rocketed from a roller-skating porn star in Boogie Nights, to stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold in the massive Hangover franchise – look beyond that box-office bang, and she’s all disruptor.
One of her first targets? Saving audiences from the superhero scourge. “Men run Hollywood, and men have a fantasy of themselves as a male superhero saving the world. Driving the car faster, killing more people,” Her sweet voice drips with a giant eye roll. “I think it’s a little bit boring, to be honest. I’m a little bit sick of watching millions of superheroes. Is it going to be, those are the only movies they make now? I hope at some point that audiences go, ‘Could you please tell us a new story?'”
A few tales will sneak through the XX Kryptonite, but not enough. “Every now and then they’ll release a “Bridesmaids,” someone like Judd Apatow is brave enough to say, ‘People want to see movies about women.’ And that will make a lot of money and then you’ll go, ‘Okay…where are the other ones?'” Graham isn’t content to play the damsel sitting and hoping for “the other ones,” so she’s written a script of her own. It holds up a big mirror to the powers that bro; a raunchy, sexy, comedy about the plight of the female director and the industry-squashed stories about women. “I think sometimes people get so entrenched in it they don’t even think about it. Sometimes the culture is so sexist that they just accept it, and no one questions it.”
Context then, is everything. What you see at first glance can be so much more — like the movie star with a surprising feminist agenda, or the real meaning of a message — with the properly applied emoji, that is. “I regret to inform you,” she tweets, “That I have become one of those people who uses emoticons (a lot).” And there you have part of her “nerd,” in 140 characters or less. Of course she has a favorite. “That’s easy. Alright, do you know the one that looks like it’s kind of embarrassed or shocked, it could be a lot of different things, but it has slightly reddened cheeks? That one, I feel like it can express a lot of different things — wait, let me just pull it up. It has like the eyes that are kind of like bulging. That’s my favorite.”
The more she reveals of the origins of her “nerd” story, the more you see why she might be drawn to that flushed-face, awkward smiley. “I think you always have this perspective of yourself like how you were when you grew up, and I was, as a younger teenager, super nerdy. I had braces, I had neck gear, I was in the Advanced Placement classes, and I was in theatre and drama, which also made you very nerdy. In my school, that was not cool, you know?” But yesterday’s theatre geek is today’s movie star — even if she doesn’t bill herself that way. “I just think I’m a big goofball. In my life, I’m just super goofy. I sing little songs about food, I get really excited about food, like–” She breaks into ditty, “This breakfast is so goooood, a bagel and egg so delicioussss–” It’s a Heather Graham original composition, and it’s really almost as catchy as “Call Me Maybe.” “I just think it’s important in life to be silly, and I think nerds just really like what they like and they’re not trying to be cool. I admire nerds like that.”
She’s used that fearlessness in the face of looking foolish to her advantage, collecting comedy roles like this year’s Behaving Badly, Goodbye to All That, and of course, a little film called The Hangover Part III. She’s the bombshell who can also land a punch line. So just by showing up to work, she’s taking on a system that wants women to be either, “The Funny One,” or “The Hot One.” That last label is one that comes with the real hazardous duty. “There’s total pressure. All women, of every age. It’s so sad if you think about little girls who are so freaked out about being fat that they’re starving themselves. I think that in our culture, in general, as a woman, you have to work really hard not to go crazy.”
In keeping that sanity, she jokingly thanks “airbrushing” as she continues to nab covers of men’s and women’s mags alike. She’s clocked nearly 30 years in front of the camera — but experience in this arena doesn’t make it any easier. “You’re being sent so many mixed messages about how you’re supposed to be.” No one is safe from the pressure of living up to the cover girl, not even the cover girl herself. “Even the models — it’s not even realistic what we’re aspiring to, because it’s all somewhat computer generated. We’re looking at images that are actually not totally real.”
She’s found an escape from all that image scrutiny. Oddly, what’s probably the official pastime of Hollywood, can provide an escape from just that. “I guess it’s just every person’s journey, that’s why meditation and yoga are so great, to just detach from the culture and say, ‘I am going to feel good about myself regardless of whatever the culture says to me.'” Part of that cultural message is a continuation of the male power plays she derides. “A woman who really knows herself, I think there’s an aspect of men that’s afraid of that.” It’s cowardice then, that would peg any woman over 22 as “over.” Her voice is a mix of bemused and indignant at the absurdity of that notion. “As a woman, it’s our job to just say, ‘That’s not true.’ I know as a woman that’s not true. I know men hit on me all the time. Whatever the culture says, that ‘No man should be hitting on me,’ in reality, I think that more men are hitting on me now!”
With yoga and meditation as a big part of her personal mental and physical healthcare system, the raging debate over access to medical care hasn’t escaped her attention, “I have friends who are just beautiful people and they can’t afford health insurance. They’re going into massive, college-sized debt to have a baby. It’s so disturbing.” She’s quick to put our troubles into perspective, thanks to her varied and passionate activism.
Graham is on the board of the Cambodian Children’s Fund, sponsoring kids and making frequent visits. “When you do travel to those developing nations, you do realize how lucky we are. The problems we have, while they are really bad and we need to work on them, if you go to Cambodia, you just go, ‘Wow. We are so lucky.'” The CCF, started by former entertainment executive, Scott Neeson, is tackling basic quality-of-life issues that a lot of us take for granted. “So many of those people have no running water, they have no plumbing. In a lot of ways, America does do a lot of things right, though we do have a lot of room to improve.” Graham has seen his work in action and can’t help but bubble over with inspiration. “I feel like he’s such a hero. I don’t know how he has the emotional strength. After going and visiting him, it’s really intense. He was taking me into the classrooms and he took me into this young women’s leadership classroom. And he was saying, ‘You guys should dream that you can do whatever you want. Dream big. Where would you guys be if I didn’t dream big?'”
She corresponds with the kids she sponsors. “You really feel involved in a kid’s life. I went and visited one of my kids and she had this whole book of all of our email exchanges, and all of the pictures we sent back and forth. I just thought that was so sweet.” It’s this glimmer of innocence in a brutal environment that keeps Graham working. “On one level it’s so common that children are trafficked, and on another level they’re very conservative — none of the kids would have watched [my] movies. There’s a lot of domestic violence, alcoholism, trafficking, people working in sweatshops, little kids are getting AIDS and hepatitis. So on one level while they’re not watching adult movies, they would not feel innocent.”
With a filmography full of R-rated content, it’s only recently that she’s let it star in her own life, opening up about sex and learning to enjoy it. “People are so afraid of sexuality, and as a result, by not accepting their sexuality, worse things happen.” Thou shalt not point a finger, it seems. “I think that people that try to make these moral judgments of ‘You should be this way,’ or ‘You should be that way,’ usually those people are the most screwed up about sex.”
While she’s letting her own sexuality into the light on screen, it’s about to take a very dark turn. Starring in the beloved V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic, recently adapted for television, she knows it’s a story with a devoted cult following. “When I told my girlfriend that I got offered it, she started quoting lines. There are some people who are obsessed with it. It’s so provocative. It’s so interesting how in families, there’s so much drama and the cycle of child abuse that goes through the generations. It’s an interesting and dark and juicy topic. It’s so disturbing.” The first film version might have given fans a disappointing “Flowers” Lite, but the forthcoming version leaves nothing out. “I think it’s really disturbing. Ellen Burstyn is so good and intense. I know the goal of the producers was to make it a lot darker, whereas I think the other film has an element of campiness, there’s almost a funniness to it. It’s not funny subject matter, but it’s definitely kind of campy. This movie is a little more dark.”
And with this dark turn for the sunny-faced star, it again proves that with Heather Graham, what you see is only a fraction of what you get. You get a girl who is frequent mention on superlative “Sexiest” lists who rails against sexism, a “goofball” who engages in serious activism, a funny gal who’s fiercely feminist — and a brace-face theatre nerd who suddenly found herself wowing on the red carpet.
Opposites, really do attract.