- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
Alison Lohman rarely gets recognized anymore, and that’s just the way she likes it.
It helps that Lohman has long since left Hollywood, an industry that made anonymity impossible for her in the early aughts when the Palm Springs native was one of the most in-demand talents in town. A self-described shy child who was obsessed with musicals, Lohman got her start on stage before her 10th birthday by performing in community theater in the desert in productions of The Sound of Music, Kiss Me, Kate and Annie before moving to Los Angeles around the time she turned 18.
Though she initially toyed with the idea of a music career or studying drama at NYU (where she got accepted), Lohman’s destiny unfolded on the West Coast where acting work came quickly and consistently, mostly on the small screen to start with bit parts on 7th Heaven (playing a pregnant teen) and series regular work on Safe Harbor, Tucker and Mike White’s short-lived Pasadena.
Then the break of a lifetime: Lohman beat out 400 actresses to land the coveted lead role of Astrid in the feature film adaptation of Janet Fitch’s best-seller White Oleander. The coming-of-age story, anointed by Oprah Winfrey as an official “Book Club” selection, follows a teenage girl who enters the turbulent foster care system after her mother is convicted of murdering a cheating boyfriend.
For filmmaker Peter Kosminsky, Lohman anchors the Warner Bros. film, released Oct. 8, 2002, and appears in almost every scene by leading a cast that featured Michelle Pfeiffer, Renée Zellweger and Robin Wright. Her work opposite a trio of A-listers catapulted Lohman to movie star status and she segued to starring roles for top auteurs in a swift seven years, including for Ridley Scott (Matchstick Men), Tim Burton (Big Fish), Atom Egoyan (Where the Truth Lies), Mark Mylod (The Big White), Tom DiCillo (Delirious), Susanne Bier (Things We Lost in the Fire), Robert Zemeckis (Beowulf) and Sam Raimi (Drag Me to Hell).
The last one on that list hit theaters in 2009, the same year she starred opposite Gerald Butler in Gamer, a film co-directed by Mark Neveldine, whom Lohman married. The two made the decision to leave Los Angeles, settle down and start a family. Aside from cameos in some of Neveldine’s films, Lohman, who now has three children, has essentially said goodbye to Hollywood, happily letting go of fame and all of that attention.
“I always wanted to have kids and a family, that was always a huge thing for me,” explains Lohman, now 43. “In a way, if someone does find out that I was an actress before, in a weird way, it’s kind of a bummer because they don’t see me anymore. The bubble bursts and I’m now an actress. I just want to be me.”
To mark the milestone 20th anniversary of the film that made her a star, Lohman granted The Hollywood Reporter’s request to look back on her enviable career, opening up about what it felt like to be inside of a meteoric rise, getting real about a role she now wishes she had turned down and why she ultimately decided to leave it all behind.
You beat out 400 other actresses for the part of Astrid. Do you remember when you first heard of the project?
Oh my gosh, yes. I was an avid reader so I knew of White Oleander and had read and loved the book maybe about six months to a year before they decided to make it into a movie. When you’re not known at all, you have to audition all the time and keep proving yourself to casting directors. Probably three times a day, I would get breakdowns with sides [with dialogue] that I would have to memorize, which is always the most boring part of acting. I was getting so many at the time that I was overwhelmed because you have to prepare in a day or two and I’m a little bit of a perfectionist. I can’t take on too much or I feel like I don’t have to do it. When the sides came in for White Oleander, I looked at the number of pages and I thought, my gosh, this is the longest monologue. I told my manager at the time, Richard Glasser, that I couldn’t do it because I was exhausted.
I already had so much on my plate and even though I loved the book, I wanted to focus on these other auditions. But Richard said, “Put the other projects aside and do this one.” I remember fighting it and tell him, “No, no, I can’t. It’s too much.” Astrid was such a huge character and I knew I would need to give it everything. Richard told me to just do it and I agreed to give it a try. I was a little insecure at the time because I had a shaved head coming off the Kevin Costner movie Dragonfly. I actually got cut out of that but I played a leukemia patient. I had really long hair down to my waist and they gave me the option to wear a bald cap but I wanted to shave it and my eyebrows. I remembering thinking, what am I going to do? I had a wig but it looked really bad because I put it on wrong. I do remember hearing that the director, Peter Kosminsky, liked me but said something like, “Her forehead is a little strange, what’s going on?” Richard told him that it was a wig because I had no hair at the time. It was a funny start.
Was it a rigorous callback scenario?
It definitely was. They got me a better wig that was more realistic for when I did the screen test. I think I tested with Michelle Pfeiffer and a few more. I just remember that it was really exciting because usually with big roles like that, it would usually go to actors like Anne Hathaway or others who had been working a lot at the time. Usually unknown actors really didn’t get a shot and I was so used to that because I was not known at all.
Were you aware of your competition? I read that Alexis Bleidel was also in the running …
Not really. My manager tried to not focus on that but, of course, I was curious. You would naturally see actors [in the waiting room] and recognize them from other movies, you know? But what was great about it is that I was the underdog so I was happy to even be in the same room. I couldn’t even believe that I was even on the same level because, in my opinion, I didn’t deserve that. I felt like I hadn’t worked enough or hadn’t studied enough. It was just all luck if anything happened and that was a good head space for me to be in. If it happened, it happened. If it didn’t, I would continue to live the same life I had before.
Lucky for you, it happened. Where were you when you got the call?
I do. I was on the set of Pasadena and we were actually shooting in Pasadena. I was in the trailer when my manager told me. I think fell to the ground, honestly. I was so overwhelmed. That’s still my personality, even to this day. My first reaction is, “No, no, no, no, I can’t do that. I won’t be able to do a good job, that’s not possible.” So, I was really, really excited but also very insecure. “Are you sure? Because there’s probably a better actress out there.” That’s the kind of actor I used to be. It’s so funny to look back on that time, because I’m a mom now and I just want to say to myself, “Girl, what? Why did you not have the confidence?”
It’s one thing to get a big job as a lead in a film but it’s another to play Michelle Pfeiffer’s daughter opposite Renee Zellweger and Robin Wright. How did that add to the pressure?
Oh my gosh, I was shaking in my boots. But meeting them, they were all so personable and helpful and so understanding of the situation I was in. I was studying English literature at the time at Santa Monica College to get credits for an undergrad degree. This is always what happened — I would commit to going back to school [and then get a job]. I maybe said one little thing about school to Renée, and literally the very next day in my trailer, there were all these books. I’m talking piles and piles of all the literary classics. She was so unbelievably caring and kind and so interested in me. She remembered everything and took the time to get to know the people she was working with. It’s like they were these famous actresses until you talk with them and get to know them and then they become really wonderful people.
That’s such a good story.
The same with Robin and Michelle Pfeiffer — they went so far out of their way to help and be there for me in any way. I think they knew that this was such a big role for me and they wanted to be there to help; that’s just who they are. I remember being so happy and so thankful for them because, you know, I hadn’t worked with actors of that caliber before and it was all so surreal.
Astrid asked so much of you as a performer as she goes on this real metamorphosis, staring out as an innocent teen who gets sucked into the foster care system only to come out on the other side as a completely different person. What was your process in preparing to play her?
The book was incredibly helpful, and I did get to chat with [author] Janet Fitch, who came to set periodically. It was a true collaboration, for sure, with Peter and Janet. Peter had a definite idea of how he wanted the story to play out. As far as playing Astrid, that’s one of the things that I love about acting is that nobody can tell you how to play a character because it’s coming from inside. I knew how to play Astrid, and that’s one of the only things that gave me confidence because while I didn’t have a technique, I had an understanding and a grasp on who she was. I knew this girl more than anybody on the planet. I feel like if you have a connection to a character, nobody can take that away.
Even to this day, I really love acting still for that reason. It’s just so personal and private, and a good director will respect that. That was one of the great experiences of White Oleander because Peter was like, “OK, I cast you because you are her.” When a director gives you that confidence, the acting becomes a little bit more effortless. It’s hard to explain.
What were your conversations with Peter like?
He was so great. Before that, I had mostly played supporting characters and when you’re a supporting character, you have to quickly give the audience all the pieces because you don’t have much time on camera. When you’re a lead, you have more time to allow the layers to unfold slowly and you don’t have to necessarily push anything. I really enjoyed that and Peter would say, “Why are you showing me? You don’t need to show me. Just be.” That was a real lesson for me because it allowed me to trust myself in ways that I was never really allowed to before that. I love that kind of acting because there’s so much behind the eyes. The audience is smart and they can read a lot of subtlety. That’s much more interesting to me.
That comes through, especially in scenes with Michelle Pfeiffer at the prison, you say so much with your eyes and with what you’re not saying. In what other ways did White Oleander impact you?
At the time, I was just trying to get work and that’s where my focus was, and when I think back on it now, I cannot believe how lucky I was. Even the book itself was such a great book but then, I can’t believe that I got to play that character. Even to this day, I love White Oleander. I think Janet Fitch is brilliant and incredible. I sometimes cannot believe it.
It’s obvious from your resume that White Oleander changed your life. It catapulted you to a new stratosphere in Hollywood, bringing all these opportunities to work for major directors. How did you respond to that new reality?
There was a part of me that felt like I didn’t deserve it. Like, “Wait a second. Hold on, guys. Are you sure?” Because after that film, I got offers for movies and I didn’t have to audition which was such an eye-opener for an actor who had previously been staying up until 3 a.m. just to memorize lines and be a nervous wreck for auditions. When you’re an actor trying to get work, it can be a rigorous life and then all of a sudden, everything changed.
I would even ask my agent, “Are you sure I don’t have to audition for this because they shouldn’t choose me yet until I’ve proven myself.” Even to this day, I definitely feel that you have to kind of prove or show the director that you understand the character. So, there was a little bit of insecurity that came with how everything changed and I really learned that I had to weigh more heavily on how much I understood the characters and which ones I felt like I should be doing, and saying no to projects that they may have wanted me for but that I knew I wasn’t the right person to play those characters. That gave me a lot of confidence in myself.
Anything notable that you turned down?
I’m sure there was. I remember my agent coming to me for a part in Spider-Man, the one that Kirsten Dunst got. Not that I would’ve gotten it but when my agent said they were auditioning and I was in the running, I decided not to do it because I wasn’t that interested in the character. I also think there might’ve been another project that I was leaning toward at the time. I remember thinking to myself, there’s another actress who is going to get this more than me and understand this character more.
That’s such a healthy way of looking at it.
I still feel that way, you know. I’m not going put myself also in a position where I don’t feel like the acting is going to turn out well or that I won’t be any good.
Along with the parts that you did get came a new level of fame complete with magazine covers and all this attention. How did it feel to be at the center of that, especially as someone who loves the craft but didn’t get into the business to become a star?
Initially, it was fine, you know, it was flattering. But, as an actor, there’s a certain amount of anonymity that I like to have. It’s hard to study people when they are looking at you. I generally don’t like attention, but my publicist at the time said something that was helpful. He said, “Look, this is the job you chose and part of that job means you’re going to be in the limelight. If you’re going to accept being an actor, you have to accept that part as well.”
It’s true and I was always kind of fighting against it. I didn’t really want the attention so it was a decision I had to make. Do I want to get more into a field where I will really lose my anonymity? That might have been part of the reason why I wanted to take a break as well, just to re-evaluate. Do I want that or do I not?
I love acting and I have to be honest, I love talking about acting and I like hearing that I did a good job or even that I didn’t do a good job. I’m OK with both. But what I didn’t like is to how the focus is always on you. That’s not really healthy for any human being, in my opinion. I think it can only make you a bad actor, in a way, unless there’s something I don’t know. It shouldn’t always be about you. I like my life when it’s not always about me. I do better as a human being.
Again, that sounds so healthy. Let’s talk about what came after White Oleander. I will mention a film and you tell me what springs to mind about the experience. Up first: You played Nicolas Cage’s daughter opposite Sam Rockwell in Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men …
We had such a blast. Honestly, we laughed our way through that movie and it was so much fun. Sam is one of the funniest people and just so, so talented. Nick is, as well, and we laughed the entire time. Ridley Scott really let us go and trusted us; that’s what a good director does.
Right after that, you played a young Jessica Lange as Ewan McGregor’s love interest in Tim Burton’s Big Fish, a fantasy about the stories we tell ourselves and each other …
We shot in Montgomery, Alabama, and being on set felt so larger than life. The story is such a beautiful story and I got to work with all of these incredible actors. The experience just felt so large. You would think Tim Burton would have this big ego because he’s Tim Burton and he was at the center of this real circus with so much pressure on him. But that was not the case. He’s so humble and so normal and so down-to-Earth. Because he’s a creative genius, you would think he would be using all these big words and speaking this language that I didn’t understand but he’s just a regular guy.
Even his directing style, he was so understanding. I remember telling him that I was unsure about one scene and I didn’t feel quite prepared and he cut me off and said, “Alison, let’s not do it today. We’ll do it when you want, when you’re ready. You let me know.” He was not hard on his actors and he didn’t have an ego. He always listened and he really changed my opinion of what a creative genius would be.
You segued from that to playing a young journalist on the hunt to solve a mystery opposite Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth in a sexy, neo-noir Where the Truth Lies for director Atom Egoyan …
That was a trickier piece for me. I learned a couple lessons on that. Atom Egoyan is a great director but I didn’t understand the character so well. That was one of the roles I probably shouldn’t have done. I tried but it didn’t really gel. I really do feel that a character needs to resonate with you in order for you to play that part so I feel that another girl could have done a better job. It’s not anybody’s fault. I was kind of out of my league in that one because I didn’t really understand the character.
Is that something you felt as it was happening or after you saw your performance?
No, I knew it from the beginning but I took a chance because Atom was very encouraging. Then, we both realized it was not really happening the way we thought it would. I think even he got a little insecure with my abilities and that caused it to kind of snowball. He tried to save it and control it but the more you do that, the more it gets twisted. That was one of the performances that I learned a lot from about what to do and what not to do.
I just rewatched it and it was definitely more daring than your earlier work with love scenes, nudity and these surprising scenes with Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth. How did that experience impact you as an artist and what kinds of parts you wanted to play?
It was a big leap for me to take that movie. I didn’t know how it was going to turn out and I didn’t have a lot of control over what my character was doing. I was just at the mercy of [the process] and, in a way, I was like the journalist I played. She didn’t know what was going to happen, either. At the same time, I think Atom had some ideas of what it could be and I had other ideas. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out so well. That’s the nature of anything in life, whether you’re building a house or doing anything, really, and I think that’s OK. That’s just part of living and learning, you know?
That was filmed in Skagway, Alaska, a small, little port town. All the cruise ships pass through there and the city has an interesting history. I stayed in the same hotel as Robin Williams and he’s another wonderful, awesome human being similar to Tim Burton because he’s a genius as well. He didn’t think of himself in that way, he was so self-deprecating and so normal. He taught me about the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. He was so smart and so curious about everything. That’s how I would describe him, just very, very curious. He left a big impression as someone so humble, so kind and even as famous as he was, he didn’t have an ego. That’s so rare. Most people on his level would not be as humble.
It’s always fun to watch actors play actors and that’s something you got to do for Tom DiCillo hi his film Delirious opposite Steve Buscemi and Michael Pitt …
So much fun. That was another leap for me, and, at the same time, I got to sing and dance. It was a little bit of a parody but it was great. Steve Buscemi and Michael Pitt were so great, really fun to work with and they are both such good actors that it felt really easy.
Right after that, you got to ride horses with Tim McGraw in Flicka, based on the beloved blockbuster novel …
That was so great. It might even be my favorite experience of all because I got to learn how to ride horses. We filmed in Wyoming and I went to Cowboy Camp for a couple of months and learned how to ride bareback. I loved the movie and Tim McGraw was great. He knows that life very well and already knew how to ride a horse. Once again, I feel like each movie I’ve done, I’ve been able to learn something. It was like learning a whole new life with each movie. With that one, I learned how to ride a horse, fall off and get back up while showing the horse who is the boss. I learned that the hard way.
I love the story [of Flicka]. It’s a good story for girls and I just loved playing that character because she was asserting herself and figuring out that dynamic you have to learn with your parents. When I was growing up, I loved the film Wild Horses Can’t Be Broken about a girl doing something daring. Gabrielle Anwar played the lead and that film really resonated and had an impact on me. I just love nature and being in the country.
Then you played Benicio Del Toro’s girlfriend in Susanne Bier’s Things We Lost in the Fire starring Halle Berry …
I love Susanne and all the films she’s done so I was so excited to work with her. I truly don’t know if I should say this or not but that is one where I think back on it, I don’t really remember that much about that character. But I do remember that I was just so happy to work with Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro.
You went on to star in Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf, the motion capture animated fantasy film …
That was very interesting because I didn’t really know what we were doing. We had all these little dots on our face and bodies and it would transfer to the computer so they could animate it. It was all green screen and Robert gave us as many details and direction as he could. It was an interesting way of working because it was a lot of miming. If you were supposed to use a chair, it would just be tape that looked like a chair. That’s true acting, in my opinion. I have to say that it was incredible to watch Ray Winstone. I just wanted to watch him work and bring it all to life. The level of commitment he had to something in front of him that wasn’t really there was incredible.
Then you got terrorized and dragged to hell for Sam Raimi opposite Justin Long in the scary fun ride that is Drag Me to Hell …
That was an unbelievable experience. Sam Raimi was so much fun to work with and just like I said about Tim Burton, no ego at all. He is all about the work and [he’s] so specific and nuanced with every scene. Working with Justin Long was great. That movie required a level of commitment that was way more than what I thought it would be when I first started. It was long, long, long hours.
In an interview you said that you wanted to sleep in your trailer because you would wrap and have to be back on set in five hours …
Yes. Actually, I got shingles after it. I went to my doctor and she was like, “Whatever you’re doing, you need to stop because you’re getting sick.” It really was like being dragged to hell [laughs]. I would say, “Sam, this is a movie.”
Sam has said such great things about working with you and that he would do it again if you’re up for it. I know you’ve said similar things over the years, so would you do it again?
Oh yes. I would do anything with Sam. He’s so great and so good at what he does. He’s a creative genius and also like a kid in a candy store. He’s so excited and curious about everything. It makes the film and the set so much fun, even though it was a really tough, rigorous one.
Lastly, let’s talk Gamer, the movie that you made with your eventual husband, Mark Neveldine. It appears as though after that is when you decided to take a break …
We shot Gamer in Albuquerque and I met Mark there. It’s funny because he initially did not like me and didn’t want me for that part. I had these dreads at the time so he had another girl in mind. So, when I came in, he was like, “What is this girl doing here? We don’t want this girl in dreads. This is not going to work.” It’s so funny because that’s how it started. Even for myself, I didn’t understand the concept of the script but looking back on it now, it was way ahead of its time. It was a great experience though because I met Mark.
And you’ve lived happily ever after. What inspired your decision to step away from Hollywood?
Well, we didn’t really have it all planned out but I remember reading an article in the newspaper about this girl who started her own farm and just started gardening. It really started a little before that because when I was working on Flicka, we traveled through Wyoming and I had the thought that I didn’t want to live in L.A. anymore. I wanted to live in a place like that, in the countryside. That is probably another reason why that film left such a big impression.
When I met Mark, he knew that I had shingles and he said, “You know, you don’t have to work. You can take a break.” No one had ever said that to me. I said, “Wow, take a break? What would I do?” I thought about it and came up with all these ideas of what I wanted to do and that included living on a farm. So, we bought a farm in upstate New York on 200 acres. It became like another role for me, but it was real life. It was so much fun. Then we started to have kids and it was so hard for me to get back into acting. I would see all these other actresses being able to have kids and still work but I realized that it was not for me. I miss it but I cannot do two things at once, in terms of juggling motherhood and my career. I decided that I would be a mother and raise them and maybe later, get back into acting. In the meantime, I started teaching acting on Skype, all over the world. It’s been really fun to do that, too. So I’m just waiting now to see how life unfolds without putting too much pressure on myself to control it or plan [what comes next].
Have you fielded any interest or incoming calls about acting jobs over the years?
Aside from a couple things I’ve done in Mark’s films — parts where they needed someone for a couple of hours — it’s been about 10 or 12 years since I’ve really worked. I would say within the first five years, that’s when offers were kind of coming in but my kids were so little. I could not wrap my head around leaving at that time. Then, I think people assumed I was not going to work so after that, there were no offers.
You mentioned that you miss it. Anything you don’t miss?
It’s been nice to have that perspective when you can look back on something and learn from it. I would make sure that whatever film I choose, that the character really resonated within me somewhere. And that the director had the confidence in me and trusted me with that role so that they wouldn’t feel the need to control it.
You mentioned early how you loved having anonymity. Do you ever get recognized these days when you’re out in the world?
No, hardly ever. The part that I do like about anonymity is when you meet someone and they don’t know who you are, they are so different towards you. That’s what you miss as a famous actor because people treat you so differently and it’s true. You’re not really going through what normal people go through because it’s so coddled and not real. And I have to be honest, I love it. I’m like, “Yes, treat me like you would treat anyone else or how you want to be treated.” It’s just real interactions and to be a good actor, you have to be able to experience and draw from these real moments.
The whole reason I got into acting to begin with was to be able to bring real emotions to the table. I love life. And sometimes I have a hard time [explaining the decision] because I always wanted to have kids and a family, that was always a huge thing for me. In a way, if someone does find out that I was an actress before, in a weird way, it’s kind of a bummer because they don’t see me anymore. The bubble bursts and I’m now an actress. I just want to be me.
In a way, I would imagine that you get the best of both worlds in a way in that you get to live your life while also teaching acting and influencing other artists. How fulfilling has that business been for you?
So fulfilling. It kind of came about naturally because I had friends wanting my advice on a scene or something like that. I just enjoy it. Also, my journey with acting has been so different from many others because there’s this whole stigma that in order to be an actor you have to suffer and your teaching has to yell at you or there has to be this trauma you can pull from and, for me, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Maybe because I have kids, but I want to pass along something that was inspiring for me that I was able to discover in my own journey, that was, “Hey, you know, you can do it your own way.” Actors don’t have to be belittled and they can be allowed to have confidence in themselves based purely on the beauty of who they are, using their own unique selves. I really enjoy passing that along. In my opinion, I feel like that is what I would want my legacy to be. The films were fun and all but the journey is so much more interesting.
Speaking of the films though, when was the last time you’ve watched any of your work?
The only film that I’ve seen in the past 10 years is Flicka because my daughter recently got into horseback riding and she wanted to see it. So we saw that one.
What did she think of her mom?
Well, she was asking a lot of questions, like, “Is that you right there? Or there?” She picked up on all the scenes where it wasn’t me and it was the stunt girl. It was so interesting to look back and see how young I was now. Now, I have wrinkles and dark circles [laughs]. It’s wild because it feels like so long ago.
You mentioned the idea of possibly returning to acting once your kids are grown, so you are open to it?
Yes. Open to it eventually. Definitely. Even now, if something came up where it was the right film because I have my mom who can watch the kids and that would work out fine. But I wouldn’t mind waiting either. It’s not like I have this dying need to go find a project and work.
Alison Lohman, thank you, I so appreciate you doing this and taking the time …
Thank you! I mean, I really am just flattered that you even thought of me. Truly, I’m impressed that people even care. It feels like so long ago and I’m just happy that people even remember.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day
Samuel L. Jackson