We meet at Shutters Hotel on the beach in Santa Monica. Lovely views of the bright blue sky and pale sand. We order lobster salad and white wine. Almost unheard of at lunchtime anywhere in California. Anjelica Huston has never been a conventional woman, one that fits in easily or accepted convention. She’s always been attracted to the dark side, the gothic, most at home playing Morticia in The Addams Family, chopping the heads off roses or being a witch or a mafia bad girl in Prizzi’s Honor for which she won her Oscar.
She’s known for having an alpha presence, yet men in her life have cast heavy shadows: her father, the macho director John Huston, for whom the term hellraiser seems too weak a cliché, and for being involved with Jack Nicholson, larger than life womaniser straight out of the same mould.
She has always had a dangerous presence, edgy. Her face has been called imposing, imperious, corvine. She herself joked it was the kind of face that was only ever seen on old coins.
Today it’s the same interesting face, although the eyes look a little surrendered. She looks well put together, blue Palazzo pants, black patent leather, Tori Burch mules, a soft white T-shirt with net inserts that reveal pale flesh, although perhaps not as vampiric as it once was.
She smells exotic, the scent she’s always worn, Patou. But there’s something that’s very much not the same and no matter how light she might try to make the conversation there is a profound sadness. Two years ago her husband of 18 years, Robert Graham, the sculptor, died. The year before that he was sick in hospital. It’s been an extremely grueling time for Huston. First of all a period of reevaluating love and what it meant, concluding that this was the man she has loved most in her life. And then losing him.
Her hair is still striking, lustrous, but not as dark as it used to be. And her mouth still looks like it was drawn on. A cartoon mouth that turns up and down at the edges as she expresses pain or joy. Intense brown eyes that are not afraid to look right through you.
She talks about death with a disconcerting familiarity. Ostensibly we are here to talk about Horrid Henry, a rather sweet 3D children’s movie where she plays the cruel teacher wearing a prosthetic nose, mouth and wrinkles.
Somehow odd to be talking about something flimsy after we go into the year she spent hoping her husband was not going to die and how it’s taken her a while to accept “widowhood”. She makes me shiver inside every time she mentions the word “widow” it comes with such pathos. It hurts every time she describes herself thus.
I mention in an attempt to be cheery that I came across an interview with Jack Nicholson, her long time love, where he referred to breaking up with her. He said ‘Anjelica annihilated me.’ Her mouth doesn’t quite turn up at the edges. She already knows what he said by heart. She says that he rather spoilt it by in the next sentence saying that he wouldn’t like to change anything, he’d just like to deal with it better.
“I think he recovered quite well. I’ve seen that quote floating around for a bit and the caveat being would you like to go back and make things work and the answer being no, I’ll let that one rest. I paraphrase.”
Interestingly she paraphrases in a slightly more negative way. He actually said, “I have made a mistake, but I don’t want to go back and correct it. I would rather deal with it.”
She says, “You can’t go back in time but you can move forward. I talk to Jack. I don’t speak on a day to day basis but we keep in touch. It’s a nice relationship, mature.”
Quite nice that you were able to annihilate. “Well particularly if they deserve to be annihilated.” A small smile. “At least he let that be known. I remember after we broke up there being a kind of photo layout of him and his new paramour in Life or People magazine with testimonies from his friends as to how he’d found the love of his life. I found that incredibly…” She’s searching for the words, and then just laughs. “There have been so many paramours since then.” She instantly changes the subject.
There’s something dismissive though in the way she speaks about him. Yes they still speak. Yes they’re still friends. It’s not so much that she’s dismissive of him but dismissive of that adrenalin fuelled passion, the intense uncertainty of their relationship where infidelity didn’t necessarily mean betrayal until Nicholson very publicly had a one-night stand that turned into a few weeks, Rebecca Broussard got pregnant, and there was no turning back.
Huston had already been trying for a baby. She remembers the photos in the lifestyle magazines of Nicholson and girlfriend and baby. It was all too public. It’s as if she’s seeing the magazine spread in front of her still.
Perhaps she can take a small delight in the fact that if she was the love of Nicholson’s life he was certainly not the love of hers. She talks about how hard it was. How she couldn’t think straight or do anything except look after her husband.
“When my husband was sick it was impossible for me to work. I dedicated my time to him and now for the first time I’m having the opportunity to look outside. Oddly nothing came to me at that time. I had very few offers. Perhaps people knew what was going on. Perhaps it was just luck that I had enough time to devote myself entirely.”
In the last year I did three movies. There was one called The Big Year with Owen Wilson and Steve Martin. I’ve got to know Steve Martin a lot more and I don’t mean in the biblical sense. I’ve been around him for many years and I never thought that he particularly liked me. But on The Big Year I suddenly saw this other side of him. Compared to the Steve Martin I’d known all those years before he was practically emollient. He was jovial, arranging dinner dates. I think it was because he’s happily married and I found him to be an inventive actor, quite clever. The Big Year is about competitive bird watching and I play a sea captain and Owen Wilson and I have an ugly past where I forced him off the boat with a knife.
“I did another movie. The title keeps changing although it’s being alluded to as a ‘cancer comedy’. It’s a movie that emphasizes the crazy things and emotions that surround a serious illness.”
So she did a movie dealing with serious illness and death just after she’d experienced it. That was harsh. “Life is harsh. My life has always reflected my work. My life, my work. I don’t know which comes first. I don’t know if that’s just what I’m sympathetic to or it’s fate.”
The waiter seems over attentive, very keen to listen in. she says she doesn’t know why she chose this restaurant. It’s always been unlucky for her. Once she fell over, slipped on the floor by the bar, was on the ground and nobody came to help her.
She grew up in Galway, Ireland, in the guest house of a big rambling house called St. Cleran’s Manor House. Her father loved Ireland. He loved hunting. He loved the freedom. He hated McCarthyism, control. She too has adopted Ireland. It’s in her heart. She was very moved by the Queen. “How fabulous was the Queen’s speech,” she says with pride.
Her father got rid of the house when her mother died and his new wife didn’t like it. Something that also causes an ache.
Has she been back to Ireland much? “I’ve been back a couple of times since Bob died and that’s been good for me. I’ve been back to the house. It’s in a bad state. It was a hotel. Merv Griffin of all people bought it. It had a sushi restaurant in it. It was a very strange experience when I went back there. it was like being Alice down a rabbit hole. If you could imagine going from a home with very functional rooms to everything being displaced, every door I opened went into a room or bathroom and some of it not so beautiful. They chopped a lot of the woods down and you could see big mansions to the right and left uninhabited and some half finished. I guess that had been the Germans that were visiting. The cook and the housekeeper sweetly offered me cup cakes and some booklets of St Cleran’s Manor House when it belonged to Merv Griffin. You want to see the place functioning and the fire burning.”
Perhaps she should buy it? “Ha. I’d have to be in a very different place. Those places cost so much to keep. If there were any rich Irishmen who wanted to marry me that could go together quite easily. Even if they were gay that could be arranged.”
The food arrives and she smiles at the waiter. This time he leaves. She talks about the director of Horrid Henry. “He’s such a nice man. He came all the way to California and asked me to play Miss Battleaxe. When I saw her she had purple hair and a pointy nose, so I asked for prosthetics and he said no, no, no one’s going to be using prosthetics and I said I don’t know how to go about this part unless you let me have a little pointy nose and a little pointy chin. They didn’t stick on very well but I thought it was integral to her character that she be pointy. I got fixated with this one nature programme that they have on the BBC where a couple set a trap in the shore lands of Cornwall and they caught a common shrew and he had a very long nose, a plaintive look but a hateful shrewish little face, so I thought I’ve found my template.”
She demonstrates the look. “Exactly like Miss Battleaxe.” Conspiratorially she says, “She gets kindlier. She redeems herself in the end.”
Sometimes her voice is like a cat’s purr. A cat who’s been sipping cognac and had a few cigarettes, warm and crackly. It wasn’t her worse experience with prosthetics. It took only a few hours to get on and off. “Witches took five hours to get on and three hours to get off. At the end of the day you wanted to tear it off but you had to do it piece by piece.”
Was she worried at the way she would look as Miss Battleaxe or in Witches. “No, I knew what I was letting myself in for. I don’t have a problem with that. It’s a kids movie. You’re not looking for subtlety. And I have less and less vanity.
“I don’t like looking bad accidentally. But if it’s my choice to play a hideous looking witch I should be able to do that. But that’s not to say if I see a horrible looking picture of myself I won’t cringe ‘How could this happen?'”
I remember she told me she tried botox once and her husband told her a sad story and she couldn’t react to it so he got upset. She laughs at the thought of it completely impassive to his tragedy. I’m wondering does she really find it still funny or perhaps it’s too sad. Her face doesn’t betray.
“That was the last time I did botox, but one of the oddest things about my present moment is that right now there is no one in my life to tell me what I shouldn’t do so I find myself relying on what people have told me in the past. I don’t know if I should rush out and do all the things that were forbidden. I’ve seen some really good looking women in their sixties with not a line on their face and it’s a different kind of look, a certain amount of not so haggardness, smoothness. I looked very tired after that year and a half is what I’m trying to say. (When she was looking after her dying husband). I don’t know that a little lifting, a little botox, is such a horrible idea this year as it was last. I don’t feel adamant about it any more.”
Isn’t botox quite detrimental to acting as it promotes expressionlessness?” “That’s true and that’s a reason for not doing it. But a few of my friends have had little lifts here and there. I wonder if I go in and have a face lift that in the next few weeks they’ll have an innovation. I just don’t like the idea of pain. It’s not much of a priority in my life.”
Is there another man in her life? She shakes her head looking more relaxed, less savaged by grief. She perks up. “It’s strange I’ve never had a period in my life since I was 15 that I didn’t have a boyfriend or several. It’s taking some getting used to. There are some moments where yes, I have been lonely. You come home after a night out and you go, what’s missing? Oh yes, there’s no one to talk to about it. So you certainly feel that emptiness, but at the same time I don’t feel compelled to fill that space. The first thing I did when Bob died was I couldn’t stop digging holes. I made a garden behind my house feverishly. I went up to my ranch and planted trees. I think that was a healthy thing for me. But I haven’t met anybody that I would want to be with in that sense.”
Maybe it’s too early. “Maybe. I don’t think I’m putting out the signals. I don’t care really. I’m still living in a house I shared with my husband. I can’t imagine establishing a life with somebody in that house.”
Is she comfortable living in that house? “Not only comfortable. I think it’s beautiful. There is a studio that he built that he was going to work in for ever and ever. It’s a very big property. Venice is where I moved for Bob. Venice has been good for me, character building. If it hadn’t been for Venice I’d be behind some gate on Mulholland Drive. I’d be a recluse and afraid of mixing with the public. Venice takes the starch out of you. There’s a very immediate sense of living that you have down here. Positive character building but not altogether easy. When I first came I was jumpy because I was overly recognised and I thought that would infringe on my freedom or my security. And that’s what happened to a lot of celebrities. The next thing you know you are a prisoner. It’s pretty easy to stay behind your gates and stay away from the rest of humanity. Much better to deal with being alive.
There is a sense of sadness when she says that, as if something without Graham is not alive. She’d always been attracted to bad boys and risk takers and taking risks. All of that shifted when she married Graham.
She was 39 and felt “as you go through life people reflect what you need. “Great love affairs don’t necessarily make great marriages or even great friendship. Robert, he was kind to me. I got married because I finally met someone who told me what they were going to do and did it. He was single-minded in his pursuit of me and a genius in his own right.”
All her life previous to this she had been the pursuer. “Pursuing is not a happy place,” she shudders. The pursuing seems lifetimes ago, but still too close.
I remember when I met her before we ended up crying. She had said that losing Jack was “like experiencing a death in the family. It was terrible abandonment and loneliness. He symbolised a whole life for me. He was my family.”
Thinking about it now, their relationship was very fractured at the time. The fact that he was family was perhaps a projection. Now she has lost her actual family, her husband. She’s very aware that her father was the first imprint, a vibrant character who was cruel to actors when he directed them to test them, and was scant with his praise. She would have to make do with a wink or a nod. When he first directed her in A Walk With Love And Death it was a harsh experience. Yet when she won his love it was worth winning.
It seems that all her life, until Graham, she had to pursue, win over, challenge. With Graham the love was just there. Does she feel his presence? “I had one thing happened shortly after he died. I have a shrine to him and I asked him a question and it was answered immediately in a way I can’t be specific about. I have a sense of him everywhere. That he could just walk through the door and I won’t be particularly surprised. And then there’s the knowledge that he’s not going to.
I’ve been following a poet, a Mexican poet whose son was killed by the cartels. He said the effect of the death is so profound that he’s never going to write poetry again. ” She said it as if she has complete empathy.
” He talks about God and the afterlife and the questions that only get answered when we die. …. So I don’t think I’ll know until then. It’s already an act of faith that people think they will know at that moment.”
Her voice is soft, a profound sadness radiates.
Is she religious? “Sometimes. I’m mostly pragmatic. I search less because I know the answer is more remote. It’s like when you chase something it runs away more. If you chase a horse you never catch it. One has to have a lot of energy for those things.
“In terms of spirituality what you put out there is what you attract. The object is to get yourself to a place where you can be receptive, where you can be kind, where you don’t have to be defensive, where you can be at ease in your own skin.”
The dessert menu comes. We decide to share a chocolate tart. “If you’re going to have dessert why go for the fruit.” Good to see she’s all or nothing.
“I have just got a TV series (Smash). For the next half a year at least I’ll be in New York. If I’m going to spend half of what’s left of my life in New York I may as well enjoy it.” It’s a series about Broadway with Jack Davenport and Debra Messing and Katharine McPhee, an American Idol contestant. “A sweet thing. It’s very well written. I’ll put my dogs in cages and just go. I wish I could do the same with my horses. I have two dogs now Mecha, who’s a hairless Mexican dog but she has hair, and another one I think she’s a lhasa apso. I’m taking them on a boat at the weekend to Catalina island. We in California never go to Catalina island. In the olden Los Angeles days people used to make that trip to go to a ballroom, to gamble and drink too much.”
I think it was a boat off Catalina island that Natalie Wood fell overboard and drowned. “I am determined to gather my rosebuds, especially if I’m going to be in New York. I want to make the most of California.”
She says that since she wanted to fill up space with doing lots of movies that’s when offers came in. “You say it’s weird but if your life always works that way it doesn’t seem weird. The question is do you choose the work or does it choose you?
“Sometimes we attract things that are darker. Sometimes we chase rainbows because we think they are going to transform our lives. So many girls go after guys because they think it’s going to transform them. It doesn’t make life easier. Perhaps it makes life harder. Perhaps it just makes you be able to feel. Or perhaps you feel you’re going to go after some other people and see how that feels.”
Did she do that? “Yes. Absolutely. As soon as I got as I wanted I was like, is that all there is?” These days she says she’s not in pursuit of anyone. “Just my friendships and my affections with my animals and with people who are already on my side. Another very strange that happened in widowhood which I never expected is that people can react very negatively to you and be very nasty. That somehow you haven’t done enough. Or they’re owed something. I think that happens all the time around death. There’s an expectation perhaps of money or inheritance. You think people are going to wonderful and comforting and empathic, but they’re fucking greedy. That’s all I have to say about it. So you get a nice dose of human nature and it can take the sterm and drum out of you. In a way whatever can get you through this, even if it’s anger at a person or two for you to plight your sorrow, it will get you through it. It will get you through the pain because the pain is something that gnaws away at you and it’s like an affliction. Whereas at least with anger you can strike it out and get it out of you. That no suffering pain is very difficult. So in a way finding myself in a position where I had to be self-protective was good.”
She takes a fork full of salty caramel chocolate tart. “People don’t want you to be needy. They want nothing to do with a needy person. They want you as strong as an ox. People who have known you strong don’t like to see you needy. Eventually you get a little hardened. It’s not an easy time for women right now. Men have never been more shrill or more feminine. I’ve never known so many gay people. perhaps it’s the opposition. Everyone wants to settle in with people who are more like them.”
Does she? “Do I want to be a lesbian? No. I think when you undergo the loss of a mate sex is the least of it. It seems trivial. I look around right now if I’m in a restaurant or waiting for someone or on the street. I look at men and I think, how old are you? What kind of man would want a woman my age? Would it be a man with salt and pepper hair and a pinstripe suit? Who would it be? Would it be some sort of artistic type that would want to have a shag on the beach? Would it be Rupert Murdoch or Warren Buffet or Donald Trump? Is there a template for the perfect man now? At one point it was Brad Pitt wasn’t it. But who would it be now? I suppose Jack was a universal template.” A pause. A smile. She had Jack the universal template. “I don’t know where the template is now.”
We discuss that everyone’s template is perhaps based on some kind of psychological father figure. Her father was a womaniser who lived only in the pursuit of passion in that moment. He never thought of consequences. No surprise then that Nicholson and her father loved each other.
“I read another book about my father. Every time I read about him he’s making love to more women. This man has a more active love life than I do and he’s been dead 20 years. And then I read about my poor mother waiting around for him and tolerating his stuff. That’s not something I’d be tempted to do now.”
Has she ever done that? “I think I was doomed to replicate that kind of thing. But now, no. My type was, he’s out the door, he must be good. A gorgeous deep-voiced flatterer. The bad dad. I understand now that you don’t have to jump into anything. There’s a certain period of widowhood grace. I completely understand the way you would wear black clothing for a few years, to keep you away from the world. And that’s not unhealthy. You need it. When you’ve been administering to someone who’s incredibly sick, trying to be everything to their nothing, you pour so much of yourself out, you are vulnerable, you are shaky after that. You need a period to rebuild.
“There is this constant reminder that we are alone and there’s no mistaking that. It’s not really a deception. Once in a while you will leave yourself to be part of a couple. You stop making decisions on your own and for yourself. As part of a couple – I’ve been in that position where someone has said, what are you doing this summer? And I say I’m going to do this and that. And I get that sidelong look from my partner who’s like, what about we? You’re going to do what? What about us? And I think it’s not about us, it’s about me.”
In her relationship with Graham she never felt dominated. She was able to be her own person and be with someone else. She wouldn’t know how to do a relationship as one half of a couple. “My relationships haven’t lasted as long as myself, so as a single entity I’m going to own it. Going to New York scares me, but I’m going with it. Where I’m going to be, who am I going to be with, who I’m not going to be with – I don’t even have a child to make those decisions around. It’s all about me now.”
She talks about her horses that are upstate on her ranch. She is sad they won’t be going to New York. “They are extremely intuitive. They can tell by the feel of you if you are tentative on their back.” She talks about CeCe a big strong piebald mare with a big head, the horse that had been given to her by her father’s last wife.
“I’ve got to my ranch and said I’m going to ride all my horses today. I started with the ones I knew best and saved her to the end. I got on top of her and within seconds I was sailing back to the ground on a cloud of dust. I looked at her immense buttocks. She was an incredible animal and I was like a spider scurrying away from her and then I thought I really don’t need to kill myself this way. I used to take risks all the time to really really risk, but now I don’t stand up on the back of motorways going 80mph on an Italian autoroute. I was an athlete and a daredevil, I always took emotional risks, I always put myself in at the deep end.” Has she stopped? “I’d think twice before I took big risks now whereas I never used to think that way.” Does she regret any of those risks? “Not at all. Some were fun and some a bit hurtful. I got over it a lot of love poems later.”
She talks about the shift in her and the shift of her whole family to the east coast. Danny will be going east working on some projects and nephew Jack is in Boardwalk Empire. He used to go out with Cat Deeley. “I think they were both too big for the relationship. They both wanted big careers as well.”
Briefly there’s a look of nostalgia. You see her or you feel her reminiscing about big relationships with big characters, tumultuous ones. Now those love poems? “Thrown away or in the trash.”
Now and again you get a glimpse of a naughty look, a sense of adventure. She may not be wanting to ride the big bucking horse but gradually she’ll work out a new ride.