'I don't pretend to be perfect'Drew Barrymore is back on our screens, this time as a flesh-eating estate agent. She tells Rebecca Nicholson about the endless ups and downs of her life – from child star to teen rebel, and savvy producer to business woman – and explains why she’ll ‘fight to the death to be happy’
Sunday 29 January 2017 07.00 GMT
| ‘I stopped working to have my kids, |
and so I was nervous about working again’:
Drew Barrymore on her return to acting
Photograph: Danielle Levitt
Drew Barrymore walks into the hotel room in Berlin flanked by assistants, caked in heavy TV make-up and wrapped in a brown fluffy jacket that makes her look like a very glamorous teddy bear. Within seconds, the entourage has disappeared, she’s wiped every last scrap of foundation from her face and she’s rummaging around underneath her dress, a kind of earth mother hippy smock, regretting her decision to wear tights on this sub-freezing day. “Why does anyone wear pantyhose?” she exclaims, barefaced, faux-exasperated, shifting in her armchair, trying to get comfortable. “They’re so fucking sadistic! They’re not even control pants,” she says, conspiratorially, “but I’m forcing them to be.”
For a lot of women, especially women who grew up between 1982 and the early 2000s, Barrymore is a particular kind of icon. She’s the accessible rebel we all wanted to be, or be friends with. She’s the child star of ET who hit the skids early and hard, and not only survived, but went on to be one of the most popular (and bankable) female stars of the past three decades. She appeared in, and often produced, the kinds of movies that are vital viewing for teenagers, from the trashy taboo-busting rebellion of Poison Ivy, to the triumphant high school romcom Never Been Kissed, to the moody angst of Donnie Darko. Plus, in her 20s, she seemed to hang out with the best bands, go to all the best parties and always looked like she was having the time of her life. She was the manic pixie dream girlbefore it became a tacky indie film stereotype. The memoir she wrote in 2015 is, appropriately, called Wildflower.
She looks genuinely pleased that she holds such a place in people’s minds, and decides that if people do like her, “If anyone has any goodwill towards me,” careful not to sound arrogant, it’s because she extends goodwill to other people. “Not in an annoying way, but just, like, being in people’s fucking corners.” It’s this combination of soft and sharp, all wrapped up in that valley girl lilt, that has carried her through life. “I want people to be happy, but I know happiness has to be fought for. It’s a warrior trophy. It’s not hippy,” she insists. “I’m like, fight. Fight to the death to be happy, and don’t kill anyone along the way.”
We’re in Germany to talk about Santa Clarita Diet, the new Netflix series which has brought her back into the spotlight again at 41. It’s a warm and occasionally gross 10-part comedy about Sheila and Joel, estate agents who have been together since their school days, and whose marriage is tested when the amiable Sheila develops a sudden taste for human flesh.
“I stopped working to have my kids and take care of them and raise them, and so I was nervous about working again,” she says. “I was going through a dark time in my own life. And then I read it and I liked it. Now what am I supposed to do? I can’t do this right now, it’s terrible timing, my whole life is falling apart.” She ended up executive producing it as well as starring.
That her life was falling apart out of the spotlight was a new thing for Barrymore, who had played out most of her life in a very public sphere. “No one’s talking about my life. I mean, yes, I had a divorce, but even that was real quiet.” She split up with actor Will Kopelman, the father of her two children, Olive, four, and Frankie, two, at the beginning of 2016, but recently posted an Instagram of him running the New York marathon; she was there, with their daughters, to support him. “It was like, ‘Oh, they didn’t work out, I wonder why? Oh my God they seem like such good friends, and so amicable, I guess we’ll stop giving a shit.’ I was so happy about that,” she says, breezily.
In the midst of her divorce, Santa Clarita Diet was a transformative experience. “Ironically, it wasn’t the worst timing. It was great. It was really happy. It was a good summer. My daughters and I got to go out to California and I got three days off a week.” Just as becoming a proto-zombie saves Sheila from the numbing boredom of domestic life, Barrymore went through her own kind of rejuvenation. “I feel like Sheila. I feel like maybe I was dead inside,” she says cheerfully, blowing her nose. “I don’t know. I was in a place in my life where I had gained a lot of weight, and been in a place of fear and sadness, and I felt stuck. I don’t think that’s so much unlike the character.”
Until she took time away from acting to have kids, Barrymore had never not worked. She began her career at 11 months in an advert for dog food, quickly becoming the main breadwinner for herself and her mother, Jaid, who raised her alone. Her father John Barrymore, of the Barrymore acting dynasty – “The great line of loonies from which I come,” as she puts it – wasn’t around much. Her extraordinary youth was public and well-documented. Her breakout role in ET, at five years old, was followed by an outlandish few years of childhood boozing and drug-taking, rehab and institutions, and the sense that, at 14, she was washed up and her career was over.
But it wasn’t. She moved into an apartment by herself, got a job in a coffee shop, learned how to do her own laundry and, eventually, clawed her way back into the business, defeating the curse of the child actor where so many others have been lost. She has said her 20s were a kind of delayed adolescence. Now, in her 40s, she’s had a lifetime’s worth of parties and experiences, and says she doesn’t miss it at all. “I don’t feel like I’m not at the centre of things. I don’t worry about career stuff. I don’t worry about who the hottest band is or that I’m not at that show that night. I don’t care if the latest trend is happening and it’s just passing me by.”
Her idea of a good time these days is taking the girls to Disney World, or “setting up movie nights for the kids in my daughter’s class. I just watched Home Alone and all the moms and I were crying at the end. Oh my God, it’s so good! I appreciate it now much more than I did when I was younger.”
She’s too classy to be drawn into any child actor comparisons – it would be “patronising, annoying, no thanks,” she says, nicely but firmly – but we talk more broadly about celebrity scandals. “Everyone goes up and goes down. That’s life. Nobody wants all of it looked at and discussed. However, if you do put yourself out there, then you need to be prepared for that to be examined and you have to handle it to the best of your abilities. So for people who are like [she puts on a whiny voice]: ‘Don’t look at me’ – you put yourself out there!”
Is there any way to avoid being examined and discussed? “Not in this day and age. You just try to manage things in the healthiest way you can. And by the way? You won’t all the time. You’re gonna fuck up. So fuck up, then pick yourself back up. But just be nice and kind and humble and gracious and have a sense of humour. And don’t pretend to be perfect.”
Barrymore dealt with her own initial fuck-ups in an incredible and startling “memoir”, Little Girl Lost, which she wryly calls, “The mea culpa book I wrote when I was 14.” She appeared on Oprah with her mother to promote it, to go over what went wrong. You can watch it on YouTube; she’s 15 going on 35. Yet the book has a cult following, in part because it makes all the partying she did as a young child sound kind of adventurous. “Yeah! It’s like an 80s cult tragedy book, which is super cool and wrong and fun all at the same time. It’s a little riot grrrl, you know?”
There’s a chapter where Barrymore describes being hauled off to an institution at her mother’s behest, and she’s furious at the starstruck guards. ‘“God, you’ve just yanked me out of my house with cuffs on,” I thought, “and now you’re asking me what it was like to meet ET. What jerks,” she writes. Even at 14, she had a disdain for celebrity. “Still do,” she says, today.
We meet on the afternoon of Trump’s inauguration. She plans to watch it later, as she’s “a total news junkie”, but she doesn’t particularly want to talk about what she thinks of him. “I’m not a painter and I’m not a musician and I think people don’t want to hear it from actors,” she says. “I read this op-ed in the New York Times that was saying, just do things quietly, in your art.”
Barrymore is more about the practical. During her screen break, she wrote Wildflower, which became a New York Times bestseller, and she’s built a sizeable business empire, including Barrymore wines, a production company, Flower Films, and beauty brand Flower Cosmetics. All of which channel some of that free-spirit warmth into profits – reports suggest she’s worth $125m. There’s a line in Santa Clarita Diet where Sheila announces: “I sleep two hours a night. I get so much done!” It struck me that for Barrymore, spinning so many plates, that might be funny. Actually, she says, it was originally written that Sheila would use her spare time to learn French. “Me, in my real life, would spend time learning French. This woman literally has a ticking clock on her mortality. She’d be studying fucking Bruce Lee moves and learning to do shit.” The line was changed at Barrymore’s request: instead of learning a language, Sheila would get the ability to parallel park in one move. “I’m, like, yes! That’s practical!”
It’s strange to see Barrymore, who seemed to be an eternal teenager, starring as the mother of a teenager in Santa Clarita Diet, partly because her fame is life-long, and you can see interviews with her at almost every age on YouTube. But, she says, she never watches them, never goes back. “Hell no. The only thing I ever think when I see myself when I’m younger, if I’m on a talk show and I’m stuck there having to watch clips, is that I was so much more brassy when I was young. I’m like: ‘Where do you get the balls, kid?’”
She says it as if those balls have disappeared with age. She claims she’s much more polite now. Sarcastic, but polite. And worse still, she tries to say she’s newly dull. “In my life I’m just so quiet and boring,” she declares, not entirely convincingly. This is Drew Barrymore, after all, who talks with the hunger of someone who will always be on the lookout for something new, whether that’s being a mother, a businesswoman, or playing a friendly estate agent who kills and eats bad people. “I am pretty boring,” she insists. I tell her I don’t believe it. She smiles slyly, and leans in. There’s a rebel in her still. “I’m not sure I believe it either.”
Santa Clarita Diet launches on Netflix on 3 February