Heather Graham

Heather Graham wrote, directed and stars in the new film Chosen Family, and chosen family is a concept close to her heart: The Boogie Nights and The Hangover star spoke in a career retrospective Saturday at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival about how her conservative parents used to discourage her from taking roles, including one in the iconic dark comedy Heathers.

“I got offered it, but that’s when I was living at home with my family… and my parents read the script and told me I couldn’t be in it,” she said. “I was very sad and later regretted that, but they would’ve kicked me out of the house if I was in the movie.”

Of course, her career worked out, as she sought and earned sometimes provocative and frequently iconic roles. After achieving financial independence with 1987’s License to Drive at just 17, she went on a run that included Drugstore Cowboy, Twin Peaks, Swingers, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Bowfinger, and many more.

She began writing and directing with 2018’s Half Magic, and was honored for her filmmaking Saturday with SLOIFF’s King Vidor Award as she prepared to screen Chosen Family at the festival.

Graham spoke with The Hollywood Reporter senior writer Chris Gardner as her own chosen family looked on from the front row — including one of her best friends, Legally Blonde and 10 Things I Hate About You screenwriter Karen McCullah.

Heather Graham on Her Family and Chosen Family

Born in Milwaukee to an FBI agent father and author mother, she moved around a lot before going to Agoura High School, west of Los Angeles. She had a high IQ but wasn’t popular, she said, and expressed herself by starring in school plays.

“When I was younger, I was in these advanced placement classes, and I just wanted people to think I was pretty,” she said, to audience laughter. “And now I’m like, ‘Oh, people think I’m pretty? I want them to know how smart I am.'”

Her household was so restrictive that she had to sneak R-rated movies during babysitting gigs, including Fast Times at Ridgemont High. She knew early on that she also wanted to make movies.

“My father is extremely, very, very Catholic to probably an extreme amount, and my mom was more artistically leaning, so she was more supportive. I kind of got a mixed message. On one hand, my mom was saying, ‘You should do this,’ and on the other hand, my father was kind of saying, ‘This isn’t good.’

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Once she was no longer reliant on her parents, she began taking on roles in now-praised films that shocked some people at the time — like the drug addict Nadine in Gus Van Sant’s 1989 Drugstore Cowboy, the porn starlet Rollergirl in P.T. Anderson’s 1997 Boogie Nights, and Austin Power’s liberated love interest in Jay Roach’s 1999 The Spy Who Shagged Me.

She said some of her best-known roles are attributable to the built-in sexism of Hollywood.

“As an actress, I was trying to work, and then the way I feel like I broke in was playing like sexual characters. And then I feel like these are the breaks I got through men who wrote these parts, and men who greenlit these movies, and men who released these movies. And then people judge you, like, ‘Oh, you’re too sexy.’

“And I’m like, ‘These are the roles I got, because these are the roles being written.’ And then now you’re judging me like I’m too sexy? I need to make money to pay for my life, guys.”

In 2017, she wrote a piece for Variety in which she described Harvey Weinstein unsubtly proposing she have sex with him for roles. She avoided him afterwards. She told Gardner on Saturday that the reversal of Weinstein’s New York rape conviction was “depressing, but at least he’s still in jail.” (Weinstein was also convicted of rape in California.)

“The culture still has a lot of ways to go before we can become a truly fair and safe place to be,” Graham said.

Heather Graham on the Value Ascribed to Male and Female Actors

She also said that in making Half Magic and Chosen Family, she was struck by the blunt assessments she received of female-focused movies.

“As I got into being a producer, writer and director, I did understand more about the financial stuff,” she said. “And I really understood that when you get the money for a movie, they go, ‘Well, this is what this person’s worth.’ And they won’t make the movie unless somebody is worth this much. And basically, men are worth more than women. They’re telling you: You can’t make a movie unless there’s a male name.

“So any movie that’s about women — without having a big male movie star, and most of them don’t want to be in something unless they’re the lead, and it’s about them — blocks the system from making these kinds of movies.”

She added: “I don’t think audiences go and say, ‘Oh, I don’t care about movies about women.’ I think they’re just not really given many options,” she said.

She said that by casting herself and Julia Stiles in Chosen Family, she got they money she needed to make the film — “but we didn’t get as much money as if we would had gotten a very famous man.”

Graham also shared many candid anecdotes about her early career — including having a crush on her Licensed to Drive co-star Corey Haim, and being a little surprised by his and Corey Feldman’s drug use.

“I was super sheltered, and hanging around with kids my age that were doing lots of drugs, that was new for me, because I wasn’t very wild like that,” she said.

She also recalled Sarah Jessica Parker giving her a gift certificate for a foot massage after she mentioned, while shooting a Sex and the City episode, that she didn’t love wearing heels. “I just feel like a fan of hers,” she said of Parker, noting that she was a die-hard fan of the HBO series, as well.

Another shoot she especially enjoyed was Frank Oz’s Bowfinger, with Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy.

“I grew up also having a crush on Steve Martin. He’s obviously brilliant. And I watched Saturday Night Live, and of course, his films. And I was just excited to work with him and Eddie Murphy, of course, and Frank Oz, who was part of The Muppet Show, which is one of my favorite shows as a kid. And it was just a really funny script. And I got to be so silly,” she said.

She also recalled working with Johnny Depp in the underrated Jack the Ripper film From Hell — and how he wore an earpiece so he could listen to music during filming.

Gardner asked if she had any similar quirks during filming, and she said she just likes to do yoga in her trailer. That feeds into Chosen Family, in which she plays a yoga instructor who forms a close-knit inner circle. Graham, who noted that she’s no longer close to her parents, said that the film is about creating a better support system for yourself.

“I wanted to tell a story about how people can grow up in a dysfunctional family and how sometimes you can get attracted back into those dynamics that you hate, and why are we drawn to sometimes the things that we don’t want to be drawn to? And just this idea that sometimes your friends can be your family. I feel like my life has been like that.

“Whatever kind of lessons and learning you get from your family, you can find people in your life that can also be there for you — and maybe in a more healthy way.”

Main image: Heather Graham in Chosen Family.