Interview : Elisabeth Shue

Still alluring, Elisabeth Shue, once considered Hollywood’s golden girl, seem to have disappeared, but she’s back, and busier than ever. From her supporting role in the thriller "Hide and Seek" to Gregg Araki’s "Mysterious Skin", we will be seeing a lot more of Ms Shue in the years ahead. PAUL FISCHER caught up with her in Los Angeles.

Question: I talked to you for Leaving Las Vegas years ago. I’m surprised I haven’t seen you more since. Where have you been?

Elisabeth: What happened? (Laughs) Gosh, well right after Hollow Man, after I finished filming it, I went back to school, went back for a whole entire semester and I had five credits to make up in college. I graduated with my diploma in political science.

Question: Harvard right?

Elisabeth: Yes.

Question: Something about helping you pursue your career as an actress.

Elisabeth: Yeah right. The politics I understand. I navigate them so well, as you can see. And then after I finished that, I did the movie that I’m most proud of, but unfortunately not too many people saw because it was on television. It’s called Amy and Isabel, it was for Oprah Winfrey, and it was really the most challenging part I’d ever gotten an opportunity to play, and then at the same time I was about to give birth to my daughter. So that took some time, and then I moved back to New York to live for a year. My husband’s father died and we were very close and I wanted to go be with him. And then I did a play in New York City and moved back to Venice. We live here now and now I’m sort of getting back in. You know, if you take a break, you have to get back into it.

Question: Why a movie like this then?

Elisabeth: I don’t know. I’ve never been that calculated about anything I choose to do, to be honest. I really just love Robert De Niro. He’s somebody that I’ve always wanted to work with, and I thought, I’ll do anything and everything that he’s a part of. I just thought it was a really intelligent script and it was fun, so I just decided to do it.

Question: Were people coming to you with scripts?

Elisabeth: Well, you know, it’s always hard to find material. Every actor laments over the lack of material. What I find more and more, is that you have to go out and motivate what projects you want to do, and if you want, write, write a script for yourself or find a story that you want to tell or think up a character that you haven’t played yet, and go out and try and create that story. I’m starting to do that a little bit more.

Question: So you’re being more proactive in your career?

Elisabeth: Yeah, totally.

Question: What kinds of things are you looking to do?

Elisabeth: Well, I’ve just been producing. There’s two projects that I’m producing right now, one of which is close to getting made and one of which my brother and are working on that we are planning to shoot this summer. I want to write more and I just want to be more proactive and choose things because I really want to do them and be a part of creating them. It’s more interesting.

Question: What about working with Araki?

Elisabeth: Oh, that was an incredible experience too. It’s a very small film but a really powerful film that’s coming out at Sundance. Maybe some of you guys are going. Oh you are? You’re going to love it. It’s very strong material. Very intense. Very much like Leaving Las Vegas in the intensity of it and I got to play a very interesting character because I got to be sort of an inappropriately sexual mom who just wasn’t a very good mother necessarily but had a lot of love for her son, but just didn’t bring him up the way you’d hope that your mom would bring you up. But still, the love between them sort of triumphs over all. So it was a really good story to be a part
of. It’s called mysterious skin.

Question: Can you talk about working with Dakota?

Elisabeth: Well, I don’t know if you guys have met her yet, but when you do you’ll realize that she’s like a little woman. I mean, we all joked about how she was much more mature than any of us were. Yeah, we did two films together. Right after Hide and Seek, I did a film with Kurt Russell and Dakota. Dakota was my child. I got to be her mom and that was really fun. It’s called Dreamer.

Question: What about the intimidation of working with De Niro?

Elisabeth: I wasn’t intimidated, but I was in awe I would say. I was really excited to meet him, really excited to work with him, and I remember the first day that he showed up on the set, everybody was sort of whispering. Nobody would speak very loudly because they were sort of just preparing for his entrance. And then my heart started to pound a little bit harder. I thought, ‘Oh my God, there’s a reason why people are reacting this way. It’s just because of the work that he’s done and how exciting that I get to work with somebody that’s done such great work.’ But then he’s such a warm human being. He’s very funny. He’s got an incredible sense of humour, which is very surprising to me. He was not at all kind of withdrawn?

Question: Shy?

Elisabeth: I think every human being is shy when they first meet people, but he wasn’t withdrawn. He was very engaging.

Question: How do you take a character in a genre film to make them interesting?

Elisabeth: I always think you do as much as you possibly can to make it interesting to yourself and then at the same time you have to accept that it is what it is. But what I liked about this character. There are few moments where you get to see this side of her before her demise. (Laughs) But I just like that she was sort of game for adventure and she was kind of excited by the dysfunctional family and enjoyed the challenge of getting to know this weird kind of withdrawn man. I just loved her spirit, that nothing really threw her. She would almost welcome her end. You know, like that would sort of be exciting and thrilling. ‘My God, that’s how I’m going to go out?’ You know, I mean I always thought of her as that kind of person.

Question: In the script was there supposed to be more of a romantic involvement with you and De Niro?

Elisabeth: Yeah, I think they wanted to keep that sort of mysterious. I think that it could have gone both ways. I think it worked best when it was a friendship with the possibility of romance. The possibility of romance was really coming from my character. She was the one that was sort of fantasizing about, like, she’d become the mother of the house and they would
fall and love and live happily every after and, you know, he was still just dealing with his grief and all the other things he was dealing with. And because of the subject matter of Dakota’s mother dying in the beginning of the film, it was just, you had to be sensitive to that.

Question: What do you feel about the genre of horror and more serious actors working in it?

Elisabeth: When you get a script and Robert De Niro is attached and Dakota Fanning, you don’t really question the genre unnecessarily and I’d been in a movie a long time ago that was sort of a horror film, so I didn’t have any snobbery towards the genre. (Laughs) It’s called Link.

Question: When you were sold on this project, how did they bring it to you?

Elisabeth: I just read the script without having any idea of what it was about pretty much. And just really liked it and was so surprised by the ending. And you guys have seen a lot of these types of films. It’s rare that you’re surprised. You usually figure it out, but I couldn’t figure it out, so I thought that it was really well done.

Question: What problems does your absence present for coming back?

Elisabeth: No really. I mean, I think that because my life is so full. You know, I have two children and I have such a full life that, and I’ve also been through many different cycles in my career. I’ve been through those cycles three or four times, so it didn’t feel different. It felt like, ‘Oh, this is the time where you sort of get reaquinted and you go back in and then slowly but surely more ppportunities open up and they already have and then you’re back where you were.’ And I just think the great thing about getting older is that, the difference is, is that you’re not willing to just sit back and wait for projects because life is short. You finally say, ‘Hey, what do I really want to do.’ Well, God, go out and make it happen.

Question: Do you think you’ll further your education even more now?

Elisabeth: I still think about it one day. I really still have a fantasy of getting my masters, maybe in a different subject that I would be interested in teaching one day. I still have that interest and I can see myself doing it one day.

Question: A fallback position?

Elisabeth: Not a fallback position. It really isn’t. I mean, you know, I could fall back right now. It’s more just wanting to continue to learn and I’ve always
wanted to maybe teach in some way.

Question: Would you go into politics?

Elisabeth: No, never. (Laughs) My past would not look good. I would want to teach one day, so it’s not the degree that need necessarily, it’s more the
information that I’ve.

Question: 15 years ago you said.

Elisabeth: Uh-oh, what was I saying then? (Laughs)

Question: This was one goal you were going to complete.

Elisabeth: I did, right. And I did. I completed it. Was I saying I was going to make sure I finished college, and you were like, ‘Yeah right.’ (Laughs)

Question: How did other students react to you going there?

Elisabeth: Well, Harvard is so filled with students of such accomplishment, that they probably, God, they probably looked down on me for being an actress. God, I don’t know. I don’t think they were really that impressed.

Question: Incomprehensible?

Elisabeth: No.

Question: Natalie Portman was there too.

Elisabeth: I know. I saw her many times walking through the yard. I never went up to say hi because I thought it would be strange just to say hi to her just to say like, ‘Hi. We’re the two animals in the zoo.’ But yeah, it was cool that she was there at the same time. I think it helped my anonymity, because there was already someone else who was much more [makes a shocked sound] on the campus, you know what I mean.

Question: What kind of writing are you doing?

Elisabeth: I just want to write great stories and explore some of the experiences I’ve had in my past that sort of lend themselves to storytelling and, yeah. I think that we just lead such a full interesting life and I think that there are themes that you can take and sort of bounce off of and go in 50 million different directions. And then you can look back over the characters that you’ve loved to play and try to take one of those characters in a
different direction. There’s just so much creativity that you can control when you’re a writer.

Question: Would you direct?

Elisabeth: I would direct one day with my husband possibly. He’s a great director. I wouldn’t feel accomplished enough, like in terms of the camera. Where to put the camera, where the shot is, I think that’s something that you really need to learn over time. I think I’d be good with actors, but maybe with him one day.

Question: Is there a big project you are looking at right now?

Elisabeth: Not at this moment.

Question: Would you want to do a big blockbuster?

Elisabeth: If it’s the right one, always.

Question: You obviously don’t mind if you are doing this or a smaller film.

Elisabeth: No. I love going back and forth. My heart is always in playing interesting characters, and of course more interesting characters do appear more often in independent films. That’s why you have to keep searching there.

Question: What about John Polson?

Elisabeth: John Polson. He was great. He was an actor himself once, so I think that helped his sensitivity with actors and his sort of understanding of people. He’s just a very sure hand, very confident. I had a great deal of respect for him from Bob and just really.

Question: What about his sense of humor?

Elisabeth: He has a great sense of humor too. Everybody on this film had a great sense of humor. I’ve never laughed so hard.

Question: You have to if you’re doing a movie like this?

Elisabeth: Yeah, that’s the whole point. Really, even going to see the movie, I’ve reconnected to the whole horror, thriller thing. I understand it now. It’s fun, it’s funny. It’s fun and exciting and thrilling.

Question: Favorite horror film?

Elisabeth: The Shining. That will just go down as the scariest film I’ve ever seen.

Question: Was there a lot of breaking up laughing when you were trying to be serious?

Elisabeth: Sometime. Definitely. I remember breaking up a lot. And Bob, after a take, really just make everybody laugh. I do remember one day where it was his close up coming up and he had just said something that was really funny and Dakota and I were laughing a lot and then all of the sudden, we had to be serious immediately and it was his close up, and I remember just being terrified that I was gonna start laughing. I didn’t, but the whole time I was sort of like, ‘Oh God.’

Question: Nick Cage became a big action star. Did you ever think about that?

Elisabeth: No. What I respect in him is that he’s gone back and forth. He’s done some smaller films since, but you know, as actors, the more power you have, the more power you have to do smaller films. You have to keep going back and forth, otherwise they won’t hire you for a small film if you haven’t done any films that make money. You really have balance that and I think he’s doing a great job of that right now.

Question: Of all the actors that you’ve worked with, which actor or director which you like to work with again?

Elisabeth: There’s a lot. I would love to work with Nick and Mike Figgis in a heartbeat. Every great actor I’ve worked with I would work with again,

Question: What about that you haven’t worked with yet?

Elisabeth: Well, I always try not to jinx it by saying a name. Then what if it doesn’t happen? But I have to say that Robert De Niro was right on the top of the list so I feel very happy that I’ve gotten that chance.

Question: What female lead star?

Elisabeth: I love Julianne Moore. I think she’s incredible. There’s so many women that I like. I admire a lot of actors. I think it’s important for actors too, to watch each other and admire each other and sort of be supportive of each other. I find that with women, that there is that sort of comradery, where we all sort of hope for each other’s success and I feel that about a lot of women in the business today. A lot.

Question: Were you offered films while you were in school that turned out to be really big films or really bad films?

Elisabeth: Yeah, I had one or two, but I would never take back that choice. It was my greatest achievement so far, apart from being a mom, that I experienced with graduating.

Question: Can you say what films?

Elisabeth: No. That would be so tacky. (Laughs)

Question: Is there anything of your body of work that you would like your kids to see?

Elisabeth: Yeah, definitely. Well, I’m very excited for them to see Dreamer because it’s really a family film and both of them know Dakota so well. Stella, my little girl, and Dakota, just have a love affair so she’ll be so excited to
watch her in a film. They’ve seen Adventures in Babysitting. And I want them to see Karate Kid. I think that has a great message.

Question: How has being a mother changed you?

Elisabeth: It changed me in a lot of ways and then it didn’t change me at all in a lot of ways, which I think is very positive. I think that it deepens your life, most obviously, and the focus is not always on you which I think is very helpful. You learn how to give of yourself in ways that you could not have imagined and that really fulfills you, and at the same time you can’t let it consume you to the point where you lose your individuality of who you
were before you were a mom, and who you want to become apart from being a mom. I find that an interesting struggle to constantly have to reestablish and reassert my independence from motherhood.

Question: How old are your children?

Elisabeth: Seven and four.

Question: Signs of following in the family business.

Elisabeth: I don’t think so, although they’re much more performers than I ever was when I was their age. They really enjoy performing. I don’t think I would discourage them, but I don’t know if I would encourage them. I started out when I was like 16 or 17 so I felt like an adult by the time I started. Dakota is a great example of somebody, even at 10 years old, she wanted to be an actress and she lives and breaths it from a very pure place, so how could you deny, you know, somebody even at that age if that was her passion, and it clearly is. So I think you really need to support your kids and support what they do, but not push them there if they don’t want to.

Question: Did you give Dakota any advice?

Elisabeth: You don’t need to give Dakota any advice, really. She will give you advice. (Laughs) She never gave me, like, specific advice but man, she reminded me to have a sense of humour a lot and to connect to the innocence and the newness of it all and the thrill of doing a film. She sort of embodies that thrill and enthusiasm each day. She’s so happy to be there that it just sort of inspires everyone around her to go, ‘Oh yeah, this is so fun.’

Question: Are there details you can give us about the projects you are producing?

Elisabeth: I think I should wait until they come out, but yeah, sort of wait.

Question: What’s immediately next?

Elisabeth: Immediately next is hopefully a film that I am producing with my brother Andrew that we’re hopefully going to shoot in the summer. He’s doing great.

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