It’s hard to believe looking at Heather Graham today that she’s already had a career of more than 30 years in the movie business. In topnotch shape and with a mane of blond hair and a face that belies her age (she’s 49), she’s an advertisement for healthy living and the practice of transcendental meditation, which she began after being introduced to it by film director David Lynch while working on TV series Twin Peaks.
Nevertheless, Graham, the first speaker in the Ringling College of Art and Design’s Studio Labs this season (the series now bears the additional moniker “Inside the Industry”), does have a film history stretching back to an early, uncredited cameo in 1984’s Mrs. Soffel. By 1988 she starred as Corey Haim’s love interest in License to Drive, and the following year she was featured as a young drug addict in Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, a role that helped propel her to public attention.
That was one of many independent films Graham has starred in over the years (although she’s equally known for higher profile films like Boogie Nights, where she played young porn star Rollergirl, and The Hangover, where she was Jade, a stripper with a heart of gold). “I love independent film; it takes more risks and is less formulaic” than a lot of Hollywood moviemaking, Graham said in a media roundtable prior to the Studio Lab appearance last night. Last year she wrote and directed her first feature film, Half Magic, a comedy featuring female friends and partly sparked, she says, by her own experience of growing up Catholic and being told that premarital sex would lead her to hell.
“I wanted to do a story about a woman feeling good about her sexuality,” Graham said, noting that women are placed in an awkward position about this compared to men. “You have to be sexy, but you can’t be too sexy,” she said.
“I loved directing,” she added. “Growing up, it wasn’t so common to see female directors and writers.” She also talked candidly about sexism in Hollywood (Graham has spoken about being a victim of harassment by film mogul Harvey Weinstein), admitting that in her earlier days she felt she had to be “sweet” to land roles. Now, she laughed, “I’m an angry feminist.”
Graham offered some tips to would-be actors in the audience, advising “Don’t always draw from your own emotional experiences; use your imagination, or you’ll go home really depressed every night.” And she reminded young female filmmakers, “Your story is important to tell, in your voice. Make your own content; don’t wait for someone to hire you.”
Graham recently completed work on a 10-episode retelling of Stephen King’s The Stand for CBS All Access and also stars in the upcoming thriller Wander opposite Aaron Eckhart and in the female-led comedy Desperados with Nasim Pedrad and Anna Camp.
Coming up next in the Studio Lab season: actor Bradley Whitford, Jan. 14.