Heather Graham has made a career of playing the fresh-faced, often drug-addled sexpot, from Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights to the Hangover trilogy. “People sometimes think I’m more wild because of the parts that I’ve played,” she says while sipping tea at her favorite yoga studio in Manhattan. “Somebody once said, ‘I’m afraid. Are you gonna fall off the wagon?’ And I said, ‘The only wagon I’m gonna fall off of is the frozen yogurt wagon.'”
The clean-living 48-year-old, who’s currently single, is so disciplined, in fact, that she spent seven years pushing through her screenplay for Half Magic. Her directing debut (she also stars), bowing Feb. 23 via Momentum Pictures, is a timely satire about a female writer struggling to be taken seriously in a Hollywood so rife with sexual harassment that it just might rival the real thing.
As a first-time feature director and a woman, how hard was it to get the financing?
It was so hard. I looked for financing for a few years, and then I made it and then we got distribution. Before this, I used my own money and developed two female-driven films that never got made — a project about the Triangle Factory fire of 1911 and a sex comedy about an insecure woman who is afraid that no one would ever want to have sex with her called The Accidental Virgin. And people read it and were like, “I don’t understand why you’d be insecure about this. I don’t believe it.” (Laughs.) And then the Triangle Factory fire, they said, “Nobody cares about women’s stories. If you want to get a movie made, write about a man.” So I put that line in Half Magic. I did this film as a reaction to the frustration of all that.
Who was the inspiration for the misogynistic A-list actor-producer character played by Chris D’Elia?
There was a guy I dated who’s a director, and there was also a director that I worked with. I combined a few people. Also male action stars and how arrogant and egotistical they are and the way they treat women as unimportant objects. He represents the chauvinistic, sexist film industry. But I won’t name names.
Your first film was with the two Coreys, Feldman and Haim, in License to Drive. How was that?
I was 17 years old, and I got to drive onto the Fox lot, and that felt like heaven. It came out that they were both being molested, which is so disturbing. I was not aware of it. I was pretty sheltered. They were both emancipated minors. I had a guardian. I had to go to school. They basically had no supervision, so I think they got into doing drugs at that point.
Was there more sexual harassment in Hollywood in the ‘80s or now?
It’s probably the same, except now people are getting in trouble, and that’s great. I was reading a piece on Israel Horovitz, the playwright, how women came out about him harassing them in the ‘90s, and the head of the theater company said, “These women are uptight.” And now these same women’s charges are being taken seriously. He harassed me when I was a kid, and I dated his son [Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz]. When that story came out, I thought, “Wow, good for those women,” you know?
You came forward with your own Harvey Weinstein story. Did you feel like your career suffered at all because you didn’t acquiesce to him at the time?
Well I was never hired by Harvey Weinstein, so … Whether or not he blackballed me, I don’t know. I came forward because I wanted to support the other women who were coming forward, and I felt my silence is enabling an abusive person to continue abusing people. And it just felt like the right thing to do. I wanted to support the other women speaking the truth.
What’s the one role you wanted as an actress that you didn’t get?
Monster. I met for it. I mean obviously Charlize Theron was so great in that. I’m just saying that that’s a very rare role for a woman. It was a really well-written script by Patty [Jenkins]. You see so many male characters that are so complicated and not super-likable. They don’t let women play those kind of complicated characters often.
Your Catholic upbringing is hilariously portrayed in the film. Was it that traumatic in real life?
Yes! As a kid, if you’re told you’re going to hell for having premarital sex; that’s pretty scary. And even though, intellectually, I didn’t believe it, I think that there is an amount of programming that you have to unprogram when you become an adult. So the movie is a journey of how I learned to feel good about my sexuality and not feel fear or shame about it.
Was it awkward or liberating directing yourself in a sex scene?
It’s awkward when you first start shooting. And I just wanted to tell a story about sexuality, so I had to bite the bullet and do the sex scene, be naked. I mean it’s not super-graphic. But I wanted to tell a story about feeling good about your sexuality, so there had to be a sex scene.
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.