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Id ask my mum: why do you drink? Andie MacDowell on childhood and Hollywood

She learned responsibility young, caring for her mother then became a stunningly successful model and screen star. The actor talks about ageing on screen, why she eschews drugs, and her pride in her daughters acting careers

Andie MacDowells career as a successful model, who went on to become a successful actor, almost ended before it began. It was 1979, in the middle of the Studio 54 era, when she moved to New York. She was 21 years old, had just been signed by the Elite model agency and appeared to have the world at her feet. But she soon wanted to go back to her home town. There was a lot of cocaine around, she says. I had a small experience at the very beginning and hated it. I hated it! It was only, like, a month. I really didnt like the way it felt. It didnt make me feel good and I couldnt sleep. I actually went into my agency and said I wanted to go home, and they said: You need new friends. Youre around the wrong people.

Who was she hanging out with? I dont even remember, honestly, she says. I wasnt around famous people at that point. It was not what I intended to do. John Casablancas, the founder of Elite, flew with her to Paris, and this young man showed up at the agency who didnt drink, smoke or do drugs, and it was like, I had a boyfriend.

The young man was Olivier Chandon de Brailles, the heir to Mot & Chandon. I dont know if they prearranged the whole thing, but it sure did work out well for me. I started working non-stop and my whole life opened up. I was about to go home for a few seconds there. She pauses. Ive never told anybody that story so please dont make it sound like I was a big druggy because I really wasnt.

I meet MacDowell at her house, a secluded Spanish-style property that is modest by Hollywood Hills standards and homely, with a Hello doormat. A tiny rescue dog called Ava Gardner is sunning herself on the terrace. Next door is a building site, which MacDowell apologises for. A house is being built, she says, for her daughters, Margaret, 24, and Rainey Qualley, 29, who have followed her into the movie business.

Margaret is the breakout star of Quentin Tarantinos Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, playing one of Charles Mansons followers. The day before I meet her mother, she has been nominated for an Emmy for her supporting role in the TV show Fosse/Verdon. MacDowell was in her car when she heard the news. I was having a hard time driving, I was so excited, she says. Im trying to figure out where Im going, but Im crying; I was really having to focus.

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MacDowell with Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

It is almost 30 years since MacDowell received her first big industry nod for her acting a Golden Globe nomination for Steven Soderberghs acclaimed indie film Sex, Lies and Videotape. There were more nominations for the romcoms Green Card (in 1991) and Four Weddings and a Funeral (in 1995), and she had success, too, with the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day. Now 61, MacDowell has continued to work consistently, while spending much of the past 20 years bringing up her daughters and their older brother, Justin, in North Carolina, after divorcing their father, Paul Qualley, in 1999.

She grew up in Gaffney, South Carolina, not too far from where she raised her own kids, and her deep resistance to drugs and alcohol can be attributed to her upbringing. Her mother was an alcoholic and the role of carer fell to MacDowell, the youngest of four siblings. She and her mother, had a great relationship and I always felt loved, she says. There was this old-fashioned can opener attached to the wall and shed be in the kitchen drinking and Id clean the oil off the can opener and talk to her and ask: Why do you drink?

When she was 10, she would get up in the middle of the night to check that her mothers cigarettes were stubbed out properly. There were burn marks all over the floor and on the couch; its amazing we didnt burn down, she says. Thats a lot of responsibility for a child, I say. I think Ive felt responsible all my life. But Im good at it. Ive been in training for a long time.

At 16, she was working in McDonalds alongside her mother, a former music teacher, and watched her get fired for turning up drunk. At 17, she involved doctors to try to help her mother overcome her alcoholism, which failed when one of them gave her mother Valium. That was a bad decision because then I couldnt communicate with her. And I communicated really well with her. We could have committed her; we just didnt have the guts. The doctor told us she would die in five years. The strange thing is, she did.

MacDowell was living in Paris when her mother died of a heart attack, and clings to a letter she received from her. She said she had quit drinking and that she was so proud of me, she says. That was the last year of her life and I didnt really get to be around it, which was super sad. I think about going back to Gaffney. Id like to go back and try to find out from other people what that year that I didnt get to experience was like.

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MacDowell with Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Photograph: Polygram/Working Title/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

She is a big advocate of therapy, which helps, although she is not having any currently. I feel like everything is going really well for me right now, she says. The last therapist I had I felt like Id done so much therapy I was like: Shes already diagnosing me and weve only had two conversations. You have to listen a little longer before you start telling me whats wrong!

Her latest role, in the comedy-horror Ready or Not, is fun; she plays the glamorous matriarch of a rich, ridiculous family who embark on a deadly game of hide and seek to initiate their sons new wife into the firm.

I didnt really know what I was getting into, she shrugs. Yet, with generally positive reviews and a supposedly handsome box-office return, it looks set to become one of the years unexpected success stories in the horror genre. It is directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett. She says she liked the fact that they were young guys and theyre weird; their energy was different from anything Ive ever experienced.

I thought it was really smart and original, but scary and gory as well, she says. Theres some classic horror movie stuff, but then all these great lines.

MacDowell adopted a big fake glossy ponytail to make her character, Becky Le Domas, look a bit crazier and more powerful. It is reminiscent of the eccentric Aunt Ivy she played in the latest series of the bizarre British sitcom Cuckoo, earlier this year.

While the roles she has played most recently are entertaining and show off her sense of humour they do not showcase the full range of her talent. By comparison, her depiction of a grieving widow in 2017s Love After Love was so raw that critics compared it to her Sex, Lies and Videotape breakthrough. Im so glad you watched it, she replies. Not as many people have seen it as I would have liked.

She is baffled by this. Is it my fault its not a huge hit? I still did great work, you know. Youre probably seeing better work in that than in Four Weddings. But its not a hit, so therein is the problem, because everyone is looking for a hit. If you dont have hits, you dont resonate as well within the business. Interestingly, very few people have blockbusters. But once youve had blockbusters, youre expected to have blockbusters.

When Love After Love was released, MacDowell described herself as starving for the role. There was just a lack of interesting characters, she says. Youve heard every woman say it, because its the truth. Were a very youth-oriented culture. In most movies, the leads are in their 30s and a great leading role for a mature woman is hard to come by. I have felt lulls. Since I was 40, I have felt particular lulls! Ive been struggling since I was 40.

That was the year people started asking her how it felt to have reached an age where she would never work again. Everyone said everything was going to change at 40 and it was true, she says. I did some shitty movies that Ive never even seen! She cites Town & Country (2001), one of the biggest box office flops in Hollywood history, as an example.

How did she cope with no longer having her pick of roles? I kept trying to be positive. I didnt want to be a whiner because I knew that men were in control and I didnt want it to be harder than it already was. I knew if you spoke out and whined, they hated you. So I just tried to project this positive attitude. Even in the back of my mind, Im still trying to please them, because theyre in control.

The month before we met, she heard a male actor (Im not going to say who) say: People go to movies to see men, not women. Did she challenge him? It didnt feel like I was going to change him, she sighs. There are a lot of people [in Hollywood] that still push that way of thinking. That is what they think. Theyre going to continue to think it. Theyre going to continue to push it. Even if a story is about a woman, theyll cast the male lead first because they believe people do not care about seeing women. Even women, theyll say that women and men go to the movies to see men.

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MacDowell as the eccentric Aunt Ivy in the British sitcom Cuckoo. Photograph: BBC/Rough Cut

It sucks the air out of you. It hurts, not just for me, but for every woman, that this is our position still. She is heartened by the Times Up movement, and the attitudes she sees in women her daughters age. The younger generation are not like my generation. We were well trained to be less than. We had a certain acceptance of our position that the younger generation is not going to tolerate; the wherewithal to teach them they deserve better and theyre not gonna settle for less. I know my kids wont.

I ask if she had any reservations about her daughters getting into the movie business, knowing from her own experience what lay ahead. Its funny; everyone says that like theres some fear of being in this business, but its actually a really good business. I just didnt want them to do it as children. Rainey was asking me at 14. I was like: At 18, if you want to, you can.

Life can be crazy in any profession. When theres a lot of money, theres more opportunity to be crazy, but thats not my lifestyle and its not their lifestyle either. Were really kind of boring people. We barely want to go out … Im a home body and I do yoga and I hike, thats kind of it. No drugs and rock and roll!

She moved to California to be near her daughters in 2017, and says she had no idea how much she would enjoy it. For all the struggles women in Hollywood have when they pass 40, she is clearly realistic and healthy, appropriately optimistic. Everyone has their own journey, she says. Maybe something fabulous is going to happen for me at 70.

Ready or Not is in UK cinemas from 25 September

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/sep/16/id-ask-my-mum-why-do-you-drink-andie-macdowell-on-childhood-and-hollywood

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