'Empire' Guest Star Courtney Love on Mistakes and Second Chances

The 51-year-old, having grown disillusioned with music (“I'm over it”) and fallen in love again with acting (“a different kind of rock and roll”), says of her generation, “We were just so young and so dumb and so full of ourselves.”
Chuck Hodes/FOX
Courtney Love on 'Empire'

Until the airing of the first season of Fox’s Empire a few months ago, it had been a very long time since people had thought of Courtney Love as an actress, let alone a good one.

All indications were that the bleached-blonde rebel — who created and fronted the 1990s rock band Hole, married and then tragically lost grunge father Kurt Cobain and subsequently battled numerous personal demons — had long ago blown her chance at a multi-hyphenated career. She had shown such promise, landing small parts in several 1980s movies, including Sid and Nancy, before convincing no less a director than Oscar winner Milos Forman — the man behind One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus —that she deserved to play the female lead in his 1996 film The People vs. Larry Flynt. His faith was rewarded: she gave a stirring turn, ultimately receiving a Golden Globe nomination. After that, though, she appeared in only a few other films, of varying quality, but for the most part, rather inexplicably, faded away from the acting scene.

When I connected with Love by phone on July 9 — a day after her 51st birthday and one week before the announcement of this year’s Emmy nominations, at which many feel she deserves a nom for best guest actress in a drama series for her self-reflexive, “cathartic” portrayal of a troubled rocker on Empire — she sounded like a woman who had thought plenty about the road not taken, as well as about making up for lost time.

“Why did I go Norma Desmond on it?” she says with a rueful laugh, referring to Sunset Boulevard’s aging silent movie star who emerges from retirement trying to restart her career in the sound era. “I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t wise enough. I don’t think I was gracious enough at the time. The junkets and the press stuff really, really scared me. I came from rock and roll. I was used to rock and roll.” She continues, “I have to tell you, it was really a choice — and one that I regret, in some ways.”

About three years ago, somewhat out of the blue, she had a change of heart. “I had just kind of tired of music,” she says, noting that she finds it harder to relate to audiences of millennials, “and I saw a Sean Penn film at Cannes [This Must Be the Place], and Sean was so good in it that I got this fire in my belly. I was like, ‘Dammit, I want that again. That is rock and roll, to be able to do what Sean does; it’s just a different kind of rock and roll.’”

Now, she says, “I’m older and I'm wiser and I have a great team around me that knows what I want and that knows how to get it.” And what she wants, she insists, is to act. “Part of my return to acting is that I’m over [music], do you know what I mean? I’ve seen it all and I’ve done it all in that field. But I haven’t done it all in acting and I would really like to learn more. I’m having more fun doing this.” (She says proudly, “On my birthday I got three scripts, which is miraculous.”)

“I’m so grateful to the industry and to the fans,” she emphasizes. “I mean, they are basically pretty forgiving because, you know, I went through some stuff.” She adds, in apparent reference to her and her generation, “We were just so young and so dumb and so full of ourselves. You just mellow out with age.”

Read on for a lightly edited transcript of our full conversation.

* * *

The roots of her interest in music and acting…

Ever since I was two or three, I wanted to act. When I was a kid in Portland, Oregon, I did a lot of children’s theater. I really wanted to go to Interlochen and I really wanted to go to North Carolina School of the Arts, but I didn’t. I didn’t start wanting to do rock and roll until about fifth grade or sixth grade, when I started getting in trouble and relating to it more — somebody bought me Patti Smith’s Horses and I was also listening to a lot of [Bob] Dylan. I was a kid and I was hustling. [Eventually] I moved to New York and I wanted to catch Andy Warhol’s eye and I did — I basically went into The Factory and pretended I worked there. I mean, it was crazy how I did that stuff in the early ’80s but, you know, when you’re 14 and 15 and 16, you think you can do anything.” Then I did those Alex Cox movies [Sid and Nancy and Straight to Hell] and I knew I wasn’t going to make it as an actress in the ’80s — I just wasn’t, it wasn’t going to happen — so I returned to rock and roll because I felt that I could make it as a rocker. I had a lot of nerve, I had a lot of sass, I had a lot of verve, I had good leadership abilities and I knew how to do it by myself. It isn’t something that requires an entire community rallying behind you, which acting is; I could do it by myself with a small group of kids, and that’s one of the reasons why I did it. I took out an ad in The Recycler [the local newspaper], got one guy [with whom she formed the band Hole], saved all my money and got a van. That’s all true.

What she regards as her first “big break” into the world of acting…

It was definitely Milos. It was the way he fought for me just refused to take no for an answer — I mean, when he brought me up [for The People vs. Larry Flynt] people were like, “Hell no,” and he was like, “Hell, yes.” It was a really famous fight. He didn’t know anything about my music. I think it was my auditions — I went to several auditions and he just saw something in me and fought for that. I really didn’t know what I’d walked into on that film. I was like, “Oh, I’m breathing really rare air. What am I doing here?” And I didn’t regard it with the regard that it needed to have. I have that wisdom now.

Why she walked away from acting years ago...

Why did I go Norma Desmond on it? [laughs] Because I got offered everything and I didn’t want it. I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t wise enough. I don’t think I was gracious enough at the time. The junkets and the press stuff really, really scared me. I came from rock and roll. I was used to rock and roll. I just kind of gave it [acting] up. I was in my early thirties and I just kind of didn’t want to do it. I have to tell you, it was really a choice — and one that I regret, in some ways.

Why she returned to acting…

About three years ago, I decided to start acting again. I had just kind of tired of music — and I saw a Sean Penn film at Cannes, and Sean was so good in it that I got this fire in my belly. I was like, “Dammit, I want that again. That is rock and roll, to be able to do what Sean does; it’s just a different kind of rock and roll.” I went to an agent and said, “What do I need to do? I want to come back.” And he said, “You need to do this: you need to get really good PR; you need to get a really good agent; and you need to make sure that you don’t create problems.” So it was a process, getting those three things together.

As you can imagine, it [mounting a comeback] is not the easiest thing in the world. When I did the Milos Forman movies, I hadn’t studied very much, but when I decided to try acting again I knew that I had to study, I had to get more chops and understand more about Mamet, more about Pinter, more about theater, really. I’ve been studying with a guy named Michael Woolson, who’s really respected — he’s high up on all the agency lists of the best acting coaches in town — and he’s awesome. And, you know, yesterday I got three scripts sent to me — two features and a television show — so I’m progressing a lot. I think Empire is the thing that really kick-started it the most. It’s just so great that I got this opportunity.

How she landed Empire

I was having dinner with Andre Leon Talley, who was at Vogue at the time, and he was like, “My god, you should do a movie with Lee Daniels!” I didn’t know Lee so I was like, “I’m not going to cold-call him — that’s just weird, right?” And then I heard it again from somebody else. And then my friend Pablo called me and he said, “I was with Lee Daniels last night and he was talking about you and you should take his number.” I was like, “I’m not going to cold-call him!” But then I thought about all those stories about famous actresses who had cold-called directors — big movie stars — and I was like, “Okay, you know what? I’m a huge fan of Lee’s. I’m going to call him.” So I called him, I got his voicemail and he called me immediately back and said that he was doing a television show about hip-hop and thought he had a part for me. I thought about it, “Me and hip-hop? What?!” And then I saw the script and it was really good. And I’ve seen Precious, I’ve seen Monster’s Ball and I’ve seen The Butler, so I know what he wants — he’s got that Milos thing about him, a real human darkness. And then I found out Taraji P. Henson was going to be in it and I was like, “Oh, god — I have to do this.” So I was like, “I’m so in.” Then Lee came over to my house a few times and he directed me and videotaped it on my phone. I showed the directors of the episode the video and they agreed with what Lee had directed me to do, so that’s how I got it.

Other ways in which she prepared for the part…

Elle was supposed to be sort of a Whitney [Houston] type of person — that’s how it was written — so I had dinner with Mariah Carey. She’s a bigger star than I am, just like Elle — Elle “started” Empire by selling 153 million records, so Terrence’s character and Taraji’s character owe her. I’ve been around people who have sold 153 million records in my life, but I’ve never personally done it. The music industry is really not doing well, but people like Mariah are their own industries so they don’t know about that as much, you know? I call it “Forever Island,” where you just have real estate forever in music that’s never going to go away — your catalog is always going to sell, so you don’t have to do anything except open your mouth and sing beautiful notes. It’s different than the Average Rock Star Joe. [laughs] So I just went to dinner with Mariah and spoke with and observed her — that was my study. And I went to a lot of acting classes.

What it’s like portraying a musician battling some of the same demons that she has battled…

Oh, it’s so cathartic, it’s so fun. You know, I did that with The People vs. Larry Flynt and people were like, “Oh, she’s just playing herself.” But I don’t see it like that at all. I think it’s really fun to go through stuff you’ve already gone through as a person. I welcome those kinds of roles.

The challenges of being a guest actor who pops into a series versus someone who is on a film or TV show from the outset…

It’s tougher. I just finished a movie with James Franco and I was there on the first day. On the first day, you become a family, you know what I mean? You can do anything because you become so close-knit. It is harder to go almost like an interloper into what is already an established rhythm, everyone’s friends, everyone feels really safe. But on Empire everyone was so supportive — Taraji was so supportive and Lee was so supportive — that I actually got into the rhythm of it really seamlessly and it was awesome. They were all so welcoming.

The prospect of her character returning in season two of Empire

I hope it happens — it would be really fun — but I’m not in the writers’ room so I don’t know. But I really hope so. I think the show is awesome and it deserves all the accolades that it’s getting. I was just so honored and happy to be on it.

Her thoughts on the music business today versus when she was starting out…

It’s so different now. It’s so different. I come from rock, where we wrote our songs; now it’s about authorship — you get the publishing with it. It’s kind of a different thing. I recently did a show with Lana Del Rey and I did this little tour — only eight dates, but it was like 20 days. And there were a bunch of millennials and they screamed at everything. They’re great, I love them — but, I mean, they’re kids, and I’m a mature woman. So part of my return to acting is that I’m over it [music], do you know what I mean? I’ve seen it all and I’ve done it all in that field. But I haven’t done it all in acting and I would really like to learn more. I’m having more fun doing this.

On the sorts of roles that she can play…

I heard about this one role and I really wanted it — but I realized I’m not 34 anymore. I can’t play it. It’s just not in the cards.

Her secret for survival, having out-lasted, in every sense, many of the people who first hit it big when she did…

[laughs] I got asked to do a TED Talk about this very thing but I couldn’t figure it out. If I had a patented answer, I would give it to you, I swear I would. I just think, “Don’t let them beat you down.” And as things change, adapt—adapt, adapt, adapt. People sometimes don’t adapt and they get bitter and they get crusty and they get un-fresh. You have to adapt with the times, just have to. Other than that, I don’t know where the resilience that I have comes from. I’m really glad that I’m around to have this renaissance in my life and to do it again, you know what I mean?

The slew of anniversaries of major moments in her life — happy and sad — currently being acknowledged in documentaries, retrospectives, etcetera...

I think you should honor the past — I think that's OK. But if I have to play "Doll Parts" one more time, I'm going to throw something at somebody. There are times when I want to play "Doll Parts" and bring something fresh to it — but I can't do it every night, there is no way. So I think honoring the present, honoring the present and definitely honoring the future is really, really important. I know some people who are really stuck in the past — not just musicians, but actors, too, who are really stuck in their big moment — and you've got to adapt. So I'm not really big on anniversaries or whatever but, at the same time, when it's my turn for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I'm going to fight for it, the same way Patti Smith fought for it. I want that thing now, too. The funny thing is that when I was growing up it was like, “That's so cheesy. Who wants that?” You know what I mean? We were just so young and so dumb and so full of ourselves. You just mellow out with age.

The three people from whom she has learned the most...

Well, Milos Forman, for teaching me what it is to be a man. I've got to give it up to Edward Norton for teaching me about acting and about philanthropy. And my daughter for teaching me how to be a mom.

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