Interview : Laura Elena Harring

Frequently drawing comparisons to such glamorous Hollywood starlets as Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth, former Miss U.S.A. turned sultry screen siren Laura Elena Harring had been acting in features for over a decade when she entranced audiences with her enigmatic performance in David Lynch’s surreal mystery Mulholland Drive. Born in Los Mochis, Sinola, Mexico, Harring relocated to San Antonio, Texas, with her mother and two sisters at age 11. Travelling abroad to study at Switzerland’s Aiglon College at the age of 16, the worldly student later spent time doing such unglamorous work as digging ditches and planting gardens in India as a social worker

Though she would spend a brief period backpacking throughout the world following her exploits in Switzerland and India, it wasn’t long before Harring returned to her family in Texas and made the fateful decision to enter the Miss El Paso contest. After becoming the first Latina to win the title of Miss U.S.A. in 1985 at the age of 21, Harring entered the world of royalty with her marriage to Count Carl Edward Von Bismarck. Shortly after her marriage, Countess Harring would pursue her love of drama at the London Academy of Performing Arts. Refining her talents on the stages of Los Angeles’ downtown theatre arts district, the Countess made her screen debut as the bride of Santa Anna in the 1987 made-for-television film The Alamo: Thirteen Days to Glory. Harring alternated between television and film in the following years, later igniting the screen with her passion for tango in 1990′s The Forbidden Dance. Amicably separated from her husband shortly thereafter, the emerging actress focused her career and continued to alternate between the small and silver screens with roles in Exit to Eden (1994), The Elian Gonzalez Story, and Little Nicky (both 2000) before hitting her stride under the assured direction of eccentric director Lynch the following year. Originally conceived as a television pilot, Mulholland Dr. was rejected by the networks before being retooled into a feature that fascinated audiences and critics at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, where it earned a Best Director award. Drawing much attention at the 2002 Oscars for her pricey footwear, the now in-demand starlet continued her Tinsel Town ascent with a role in the Denzel Washington hostage drama John Q. the following year. She can currently be seen starring opposite Crispin Glover in the remake of Willard. PAUL FISCHER reports.

What was your incident with the rat in the theatre?

It’s the creepiest feeling in the world. This was in India. I went to a theatre. Indian people love films. They used to make something like 700 films a year. And that was back then, I was just fascinated with films and so I went to see a movie, and it was very, very dark. Black, black, black as hell. You couldn’t see anything but I kept hearing this [noise] and I kept looking and there was nothing. It was so dark. But this kept coming up. I put my feet up, because I knew. You know if something’s around. And then at intermission, a huge theatre, a humongous rat starts crossing the screen. And I couldn’t sit through the second half. I had to move. You saw that big black shadow, but I knew that I had to do this movie and overcome my fear of rats.

Any other fears besides rats?
Oh, absolutely. As an actor, I have been able to overcome several of my phobias. Claustrophobia. I wouldn’t even get on an elevator when I was little, but that was before I was an actor. I overcame that slowly somehow. Sometimes I still, if somebody’s too close to me, I don’t like it. You know, when you’re waiting in line at the airport and people are right next to you. You can feel their energy and you want your own space. But I overcame fear of heights. [On a film], I was flying 50 feet up, 60 feet up in the air and the first day, you feel your heart beating. By the third day, I don’t wanna come down. I was so happy. And it’s so amazing that you can really train yourself. I mean, it’s all mental. It’s all a mental thing. And if you look for example at the show Fear Factor, we have a fascination right now with testing ourselves, with putting ourselves to the limit of how much fear we can have before we pull the plug on something. And that’s quite a phenomenon. I mean, it really is. This show is extremely popular and it’s all about scorpions and stuff. I saw this girl get submersed in scorpions and she’d scream and she was crying and crying but she didn’t want them to lift her up. She wanted to go through it even though she was in such tremendous pain. And I think we’re fascinated with that. I mean, people are watching the show. This is a very popular show. I watch the show. There’s something about de-intensifying fear. I think it’s an unbelievable thing where you can go into the movies and through the sound, through the actors and the mood, the movie can make your heart beat faster. Even though you know that it’s not real, that you’re not going to die, that they’re not going to get you, I just love that feeling where my heart’s beating faster and I’m just getting all tight and I love that feeling. I love laughing in a film, I love crying, and I love being scared.

Why is your character attracted to Willard?
I feel that I was a lost soul who was able somehow to barely manage getting my feet up on the ground. So, like attracts like in life. I know. I know what he’s going through and I know empathy. And also, I’m so frustrated because I can’t quite- – comes close in the funeral where I’m able to touch him a little bit, but we’re interrupted. But I do feel that it’s also my own projection of my own insecurities and low self esteem issues that I’ve gone through and have slowly overcome.

Would your character be romantic with Willard?
Yes. Definitely so much compassion. Do you know when you feel so much compassion over someone, so much that it turns into love. It just turns into love. Anything that opens up your heart.

What did Mulholland Drive do for you?
One of the most amazing things it did for me is that Hollywood no longer categorizes me. They let me read or they offer me roles that I’m physically right for. They don’t care about ethnicity or anything else, so I think that’s wonderful. Also, there are so many David Lynch fans and in Hollywood, he’s very well respected, so it’s definitely given people an opportunity to know my range and my name. A name is really important in Hollywood. I don’t care what anybody says. Sometimes it’s not the best one for the role, it’s the bigger name. So, it definitely put me a couple of steps higher on that.

Would you go for someone like Willard?
I have in the past.

What happened?
I think women, if you have an open heart, you’re attracted to somebody that you can save. It’s not necessarily the healthiest thing and I’m trying to overcome that, but people have to save themselves. You can’t save anyone. People have to make their own effort and dust themselves off and try to work through their own issues by themselves. So now, as a mature woman that I have, a whole big 24 years old [sic], I know that it’s very problematic when you’re trying to save someone.

What type do you go for now?
Macho Latino types but I’m not saying who. I don’t want to be taken care of. I’m a dancer. Tango is my specialty.

Lambada?
That was the first movie I ever made. That started my dancing passion. But salsa, meringue, samba, I’m learning swing and Lindy Hop and Balboa now. But every Latin dance that you can imagine other than the Flamenco, I can dance.

Did you start as a dancer?
I’ve been dancing for a long time, over 10 years, but mostly Tango. But I can dance salsa with the best of the best salsa dancers. I’m just a natural dance lover.

Would you like to do a musical?
I would die to do a beautiful musical, really. I saw Moulin Rouge six times. I love the tango number, but they modernized it. And Chicago, I just love films that affect you. No matter how they affect you, I believe that if a movie transforms your state of being, your consciousness for those two hours, it has done its job. And you pick how you want your consciousness to transform. You go to a happy romantic comedy to laugh. You go to a scary film to get scared or creeped out. You choose what you want to do.

What’s your dream role?
Maria in West Side Story would be really good. I have an auntie who looks just like Natalie Wood even to this day, so I often got- – they said, ‘You kind of look like Natalie Wood.’ But I would eventually love to do also a Tango movie. A great script though, not just about the dancing, but a great script.

Oscar picks?
Well, I think Nicole Kidman’s going to win. I think she’s very talented. I think she’s a wonderful girl. She’s nice. And she just did an amazing job and I think she’ll probably get it. I love The Oscars. The Oscars are the one day a year that everybody’s in the spirit and everybody celebrates. The whole town. It’s our big night. I mean, the Golden Globes are really fun too, but there’s something about everyone gathering together. It’s actually a very small world. We’re all making entertainment. We’re making people laugh and cry. Sometimes when it’s really, really tough, I remind myself how lucky I am to do what I love to do. And that I’m getting paid to kiss some beautiful, sexy man. Or beautiful sexy woman. And you feel your own emotional issues. When you’re working a lot, you’re even tempered. It’s an amazing thing. It’s like our psyche needs to cry, even if it’s for a film. It doesn’t know the difference. And that’s why I think being creative is really healthy. I really believe it. That’s why I dance because when you’re dancing, your canvas is your body. You’re improvising, you’re creating art every minute when you’re dancing. But, I believe sports and things that are physical are really, really healthy because we’re in a society that’s so into our hearts. We’re thinking, we’re worrying and if we do that combined with challenging our fears, I think we’ll all be good.

You’re Latin?
No, part. Part Latin. But I was always told that I was too white to do a character. So, somehow or other, now they don’t care. They give me the role that I’m right for, and they’re mostly American roles. But the Latin roles still haven’t come. Isn’t that unbelievable. So, what I did the other day, don’t tell anyone, a heavy dark makeup on [her arms], I put this dark mousse in my hair and I put the dark eyebrows and I walked in with no makeup on and they went wow. They bought it.

Who were your acting influences growing up?

You’re going to think this is crazy because it really is crazy. I never wanted to be an actress. I never wanted to be an actress. When I heard my really good friend was going to be an actress, I read lines with her to help her rehearse.

Who?
Kelly Hu. I said why the hell do you want to be an actress? I thought it was the strangest concept. I couldn’t get the whole thing about being an actor. So, I read with her, she booked the job and then somebody saw me and said this is the girl we need opposite Raul Julia in The Alamo: 13 Days to Glory. And I walked in, in my suit and I sit down and I’m totally aloof. I said there’s tons of actresses out there. I don’t know why you want me. I was totally arrogant and I booked the role. And I knew when I saw Raul Julia acting. It was a small little role and he was playing President Santana. And I said this is what I want to do. You know that special quality and magic that happens sometimes. You feel it when you see a play, a musical, just intensity? We felt that with Raul Julia. He was so focused and his voice and the way he- – and I got goose bumps and I knew and I was just fascinated.

You were young then?
Yeah, I was 19. 18, 19. I was really, really young and that’s how I started off. After that, Raul Julia is a big influence to me. So is Stella Adler.

How did you know Kelly Hu?
We met a long, long time ago. We’ve been friends for a long time. It’s so nice to have a girlfriend and both of your careers start going at the same time.

Would you do martial arts like her?
She’s been telling me for years that you need to do martial arts. I wanted to do Wushu. I used to do Tai Chi. You need two hours every day. I don’t even have time to go to the gym. But I do want to do that. They say the future in Hollywood… Do you see me as a martial artist? Honestly.
What would you be doing if you didn’t become an actor?
I always thought a gemmologist because I love crystals and stones. I’ve always loved them and my grandfather was a miner and I lived for the day he would give me an amethyst. I like even the normal rocks on the street. I love stones. I have a collection, when I go hiking or to Sedona. I track these beautiful rocks. I remember we had a cattle ranch years and years ago and Mexico’s very corrupt, in case you didn’t know. There was a time where it was a huge deal, but the governor wanted a ranch and we had to leave right away, they were threatening our lives. I’ve had so many dramas in my life, you cannot even imagine. And then, my mother said, ‘Just take your most valuable possessions. I’m not kidding you. Just take whatever you absolutely need.’ I took my rock collection. And so that’s how much I love nature and stones. I was a social worker in India when I was 18. Nobody knows that about me. Everybody always says, ‘You’re too glamorous.’ It’s the roles or whatever. But my friends, they know me as kind of a hippy. I was a vegetarian for eight years. I’m no longer, but I was. My friends, if you ask Kelly Hu about me, she always says, ‘Laura, you’re so spiritual.’ The friends that know me. I just believe that everything is sacred and divine and I believe that this is it, right here, right now, all of us. And so I love nature and I love camping. I love being with that. I like hiking.

What brought you to India?
I was at a boarding school in Switzerland, one of the really, really good ones over there called Eglin and they were training one or two people from each school for [UNINTELLIGIBLE] conference. So I volunteered and I was chosen out of – - my roommate also wanted to go, but she was a bit too arrogant. I got trained and went off to the Himalayas and was digging ditches and building vegetable gardens, helping against the soil erosion. I was 17, 18 and I remember finding something inside me that I didn’t know existed.

Would you go back?
I’ve been back a couple years ago. My sister lives in Thailand, so it’s very easy to go. I’ve gone back on journeys and seen different [SOUNDS LIKE: saints]. I love expanding your horizons and I believe that India, the people there. Do you know how they say love? They say manastay. Manastay means I bow to the God within you. So, they don’t believe in black or white. They don’t believe in good or bad, love and hate. They believe male/female, not one is good and the other isn’t bad. They both just are. They see it like a mushroom will faze you and the next mushroom will kill you, but it’s all still part of nature, part of creativity. So, that’s why I think that all films are good.

What’s next for you?
Well, I have Masked and Anonymous. That comes out at the end of the year. Jessica Lange was a dream come true to work with, and Jeff Bridges, Christian Slater, Penelope Cruz and Val Kilmer. And then the other one is called The Poet which is very cinematic, very sensual, a very European film. It’s French style but done in Austria. Spanish and a little French.

WILLARD OPENS NATIONALLY ON MARCH 14