After spending the first few years of her career as a journeywoman actor, popping up in movies like 1998’s One True Thing and doing stints on TV shows like NewsRadio, Lauren Graham became a household name by portraying the flighty, talkative and brilliant Lorelei Gilmore on the WB’s cult mother-daughter dramedy Gilmore Girls.
Starring opposite Alex Bledel as her equally loquacious daughter Rory, Graham spent seven seasons playing a single mom fulfilling her dream of running a hotel, struggling to raise a brilliant kid, and eventually finding love with a local hunk. Graham developed a huge and dedicated following of fans who loved her beauty and quick-talking wit.
When Gilmore Girls ended in 2007, she had just turned 40, an age at which roles for Hollywood actresses become notoriously hard to find. Still, with her bright blue eyes and easy laugh, Graham is practically the poster girl for aging gracefully.
By taking risks on meaty roles in independent films such as Flash of Genius and Birds of America, she has successfully transitioned her career from the small to the big screen.
In her latest film, the 2009 Sundance Film Festival favorite, The Answer Man, Graham is again playing a single mom–this time raising her smart and sensitive son, and struggling to start her own chiropractic practice. She‘s clever but lonely romantic foil to a reclusive writer (Jeff Daniels).
Graham, in New York to talk about The Answer Man, converses about her role in the film, her career choices on the big screen and her recent Broadway debut starring as Miss Adelaide in a revival of the ever-popular Guys and Dolls.
RICH: The Answer Man delves deeply into questions of spirituality, life‘s purpose and the issue of growing up. But it‘s also very, very funny and particularly tender. What about the project most appealed to you and convinced you to do the film?
GRAHAM: It just was such a good script. That’s always the reason for taking a project. I’m sure Julia Roberts is at home thinking, where’s the next good script? It doesn’t matter who you are. It’s really hard to tell a story–and it’s hardest to tell a story that has depth and humor and interesting characters, and The Answer Man so obviously had all of that. My biggest worry was that somebody else was going to get to do it
The film’s director John Hindman has compared your comedic style to that of the big movie stars of the 1940s and 50s, especially the glamorous and hilarious Rosalind Russell. Has the work of actresses like Russell, from the golden era of Hollywood, influenced your style of acting? Do you hear that comparison a lot?
GRAHAM: It’s something that seems to come up frequently, and it doesn‘t surprise me. I haven’t consciously tried for that, but it’s really the kind of comedy that I like best. It’s just my taste, I guess.
Even the first play I ever did in high school was The Man Who Came To Dinner, which was the Kaufman-Hart play from the 30s. Even Gilmore Girls had that kind of quality. So it’s a style that I seem to have come to naturally through the projects I’ve worked on.
In this film you’re working with Olivia Thirlby and Kat Dennings, who are both up and coming young actresses. When you’re working with girls that age, do you have a sense of mentorship or passing down your knowledge?
GRAHAM: Mostly the idea of striving to do a good job, but I really relate to them as peers.
It was the same thing when I was working with Alexis [Bledel] on Gilmore Girls, which was her first big job. In that situation, we became friends over a long period of time, and I’ll always have a sense of looking out for her, and wanting to know what she’s doing. I’m always available should she have questions.
What I remember from my own experiences coming into the profession is that on one of the first movies I ever did — where I played Renee Zellweger’s friend in this movie (One True Thing in 1998) — starring Meryl Streep, and she was just so nice. And that’s really the best thing you can do, be so nice, and be sort of just available, and lead by example.
Your move from a regular job on a well-established television series to making movies happened after the age of 40. Have you found validity in complaints that career options for women over 35 in Hollywood are quite limited?
GRAHAM: Oh, I don’t know. I just want to keep working for a long time. I’ve had a very logical progression in my career, almost like I worked at a bank or something. I’ve had a little job, then a slightly bigger job, then a job that lasted a long time. I don’t know, I just focus on trying to work and on doing stuff that’s interesting.
I heard rumors that you want to try your hand at directing? Any truth to that?
GRAHAM: Actually, that came up on Gilmore Girls, but then the show just ended before we had time to do it. I’m interested in every aspect of this business. I like all of it. From doing that show for so long, there are certain technical things that — had I not been on a set for seven years — I might not be so aware of. But I feel aware of them and they intrigue me. The technical process in that world of directing is of interest to me. But I think directing is the hardest job, and I would much rather be an actor as long as I can be an actor. Directing requires all kinds of things that I don’t like doing — dealing with the minutae and incredible organization. The part of directing that I like is having the vision for something, and leading a team of people. But there’s a lot about it that’s really, really hard.
Since Gilmore Girls ended, you did Evan Almighty, a big Hollywood movie, and then it’s been a lot of small independent movies from there. Is that a deliberate choice of style and pacing, or are the independents offering the more interesting scripts?
GRAHAM: It’s a combination of what comes to me, of what I like, and I don’t know what else. I’m really trying to avoid playing the same role — the same type of character — every time. But there’s a lot of roles and projects out there that are kind of similar. Also, I’m just trying to work with somebody good every time I work. Every time I decide to a project, there’s a good reason. I guess I don’t think that much about how my choices look to other people.
You’ve mentioned that you liked the script for The Answer Man a lot when you read it, but John Hindman is a first time writer-director. Were you concerned about that?
GRAHAM: No, from the moment you meet John Hindeman, you know he’s capable. He is so calm and kind and funny. I was clear from the start that he knew what he wanted and I trusted him immediately. And the atmosphere on set was so easy and felt so safe and comfortable. Like I said, my only worry about it was that he’d cast someone else in the part.
Getting back to Gilmore Girls for a moment, the show really established you as a major star. When you went into it, you were in one phase of your life, and when it finished seven years later, your circumstances were completely different. How has that shift been for you?
GRAHAM: It’s mainly been good, because I have more choices now. Because of Gilmore Girls, I have more choices, and I have a better sense of myself, more confidence to try new things. I know that I will be able to work in television in the future, for a long time. The trick now, in that world of television, is to find the right project that will connect with audiences. You can work with great people and still something doesn’t connect. There are all kinds of ways for things to go wrong. There’s only one way for it to go right. Finding that way is the challenge.
And, you were really close to coming back to television with a new pilot, is that right?
GRAHAM: Yes, I did a pilot, and it was really good — but it didn’t get picked up, and I totally understood why. Actually, there were things about it that I would have changed, too, if I had the chance. It really takes a couple of tries, like it did with Gilmore Girls, to get something to take off. It’s just such a weird accident when it all works.
But I don’t think Gilmore Girls was so big that it’s, like, going to stay with me forever and be the most important thing in my career. Gilmore Girls has kind of a cult following, which is, I think, perfect. That way, people stick with you as fans and you have a following, but the world doesn’t define you so much by that show and that role that you don’t get to do anything else. For me, and for what I want to do — which is a to try a lot of different things and to last a really long time — it’s kind of perfect.
Speaking trying new things, you recently made your Broadway debut playing the romantic lead in the classic musical Guys and Dolls. That must have been a hugely rewarding experience. The show wrapped in June, and how does it feel to not be going to the theater every night to perform, to leave that show behind?
GRAHAM: It feels really strange. I think I’m still recovering from it in a weird way. Actually, it was the most physically draining job I’ve ever had — those performances take a huge amount of energy and focus. But playing Broadway was a dream that I had always had, and a lot about the experience was incredibly positive. Even though It was received in a mixed way, and the run didn’t last as long as we would have liked, I feel really thankful to have had that experience. I kind of can’t believe it actually happened.
Other than the physical challenge of doing the show night after night and in matinees, how did you find working in the theater different from working in film and television? GRAHAM: You know, it’s all similar — more similar than different. The basic thing is, actors work in all those media. So there are some new people and some new experiences every time you work, but I thought Broadway was going to be a whole lot more different than it actually was. I thought that in New York, like, everyone’s going to gather in Liza’s living room! But, no. It’s just actors, it’s still just actors and it’s still just the business of show business.
The difference is that in theater there‘s such a high level of labor. But that’s also true in television where you work 14 hours a day, and also in the movies. None of these jobs are as easy as they look. Part of the job is to make it enjoyable for people, and not have them see or be aware of all the work that goes into doing it.
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