My life as a witch
Anjelica Huston, Hollywood's favourite character actress, tells John Patterson why she'd hate to be a sex symbol
Thursday 9 March 2006 09.30 GMT
blustery weekday afternoon in Venice, California, and Anjelica Huston needs somewhere to smoke. Outside the lobby of the oceanfront hotel there's a balcony with tables overlooking the sunless beach, but none is empty. We decide to look for somewhere downstairs, but as we descend, a drilling sound that had been merely earsplitting becomes almost nauseatingly loud.
"Oh, I never seem to have much luck at this hotel," Huston yells as we head back upstairs. "I took the most incredible fall here once, right in the dining room. I fell so violently that everybody blanched in shock. And nobody so much as put an arm out to catch me! It was one of those slow-motion falls where everything seems suspended, and I came crashing down, clutching a huge bar stool that missed me by centimetres." And she lets rip with a big dirty laugh at her own expense.
A table is now free on the balcony, so we establish ourselves, calling for coffee, iced tea and, most important, an ashtray, as Huston laments the smoking laws of the Golden State. "Soon we'll only be able to light up in our bedrooms!" Still, I only see her smoke one cigarette.
Huston is a tall, willowy woman of 54, with raven-black hair and that splendidly imperious nose. Her height and the nose often get her cast in witchy roles, like The Addams Family's Morticia, but face to face she's unambiguously beautiful, with lively eyes, that big laugh, and a wraparound smile that feels like a gift when she flashes it, which is often. She is friendly and approachable in ways that many upper-echelon Hollywood types are not.
Her latest movie is These Foolish Things, a modest drama about a theatre company in 1930s London, in which Huston plays an American impresario. She was impressed by the determination of the writer-director Julia Taylor-Stanley, who struggled for five years to find backing, but was most interested in working with Terence Stamp, who plays a slightly menacing valet. "Terence Stamp!" she exclaims. "He's imperishably sexy. I once saw him in the mid-60s, when I was at school in London, walking along Piccadilly with Jean Shrimpton, and I just thought, 'Well, there's the best-looking couple I've ever seen in my life.' And those blue, blue eyes are undiminished ... " She sighs theatrically.
I ask if it's true that Camilla Parker Bowles will be at the film's premiere. "Apparently so. I totally admire that lady - she gives hope to all us would-be scarlet women, and she certainly gives encouragement to all women over 50."
Huston's British and Irish connections go deep. "Long, strong connections," she agrees. She grew up mainly in Galway, on an estate her father, the legendary director John Huston, bought in the 1950s. A friend had invited him to go foxhunting in Ireland, and he finally settled there. McCarthyism had encouraged him to get away from Hollywood. "He felt disgust at what was going on in his country, so he moved my mother and us kids there - in 1953, I think. It was a fantastic place, a big manor house, driveway, lodges, and an old Norman castle. We rode our ponies and we fished and caught frogs and ran around and dressed up. There was very little else to do. I don't think I saw anyone else's movies, apart from Bambi, until I was at least 10."
Was Huston Sr reluctant for her to act?
"He didn't really want me to be a child actress. He imagined a more innocent existence for my brother and me, away from America and the excesses, even then, of Beverly Hills. Still, when I was 18 he directed me in A Walk With Love and Death in 1969, in which I was the star and the male lead was Assi Dayan, the son of Moshe Dayan."
For most of the 1970s, after moving back to Los Angeles, Anjelica Huston modelled rather than acted, and often she was seen as the partner of Jack Nicholson rather than anyone in her own right. She had small parts in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Last Tycoon, but mainly she drifted through the gossip columns, bearing the brunt of Nicholson's womanising, and conducting a second, intermittent relationship with Ryan O'Neal. She also made headlines when Roman Polanski was busted at Nicholson's house for raping a 13-year-old girl; a "pinch of cocaine" was found in her purse, but no charges were ever filed.
In 1981 an eye-catching cameo alongside Nicholson as a lion tamer in The Postman Always Rings Twice roused the actor in her again. Three years later she had just finished the B-movie Ice Pirates ("I was the best swordswoman in space") when the movie's producer, John Foreman, gave her Richard Condon's novel Prizzi's Honour and told her to look at the part of Mafia spinster Maerose. Although she was reluctant to do a "family movie" - her plus Jack, with Huston Sr as director - the project got under way after Nicholson and John Huston pored over the script in Huston's compound in Mexico.
"Jack was persuaded once Dad told him that it was a comedy, which wasn't initially evident. For research, Jack went to gaming parlours and Brooklyn dive bars - and I went to church." And, in her first major role since the age of 18, she won a best supporting actress Oscar. Since then she has kept busy in mainly character parts, demonstrating that she was here to stay after a run of well-reviewed roles in Enemies: A Love Story, Nicholas Roeg's The Witches and particularly The Grifters, in which she gave a toothsomely amoral turn in a bleach-blonde fright wig. As she eases into her mid-50s she finds herself keeping company with all manner of oddball directors, from Terry Zwigoff (the forthcoming Art School Confidential), to Woody Allen (Crimes and Misdemeanours) and Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou).
Huston also became a director for hire, proving herself no slouch behind the camera with HBO's gruelling story of white-trash child abuse, Bastard Out of Carolina. She did us all a favour by discovering the marvellous 12-year-old actress Jena Malone, whom everyone later fell in love with in Donnie Darko.
In 1999 she directed the likable Irish romantic comedy Agnes Browne, but found working both sides of the camera very demanding. "It was difficult directing myself. For a woman it's extra-hard because you have to spend an hour and a half in hair and make-up and you're late to set up shots and you're changing clothes in the street and there's no time to recover."
Awesome Dublin accent, though. "Why, thank you, though my really awesome Irish accent is my Galway one." At which point she talks for a while about Ireland in the 1960s, and the phenomenal degree to which it has changed. "When I was growing up there, it was a poor country. Council houses were going up in Galway and people were filling up the bathtubs with peat for the fire. Dirt floors and thatched cottages - all very scenic, but deeply impoverished. So one misses the simplicity of those days, but on the other hand it's better for the rural Irish to have central heating."
As we prepare to part, I ask if she has encountered any of the usual problems for actresses of, well, a certain age.
"I've never been the kind of actress whose sole interest was sex appeal, so I think that earns you some longevity. And I like character parts. It's a lot more fun and you don't have to rely on being the taste of the moment. That level of fame is probably very difficult to deal with. People screaming your name in the streets, quite honestly, isn't an audience I'm desperate to capture.
"I'm lucky," she concludes. "The people who tell me they like my work tend to be the kind of people I might be friends with anyway. I have a really nice audience."