It’s amazing that Heather Graham, at school mocked as “a flat-chested geek”, should have grown up to be regarded as one of modern-day cinema’s few sex sirens. Not only is she seen as physically beautiful, but also, in contemporary parlance, completely “up for it”. This is partly due to her most famous roles: as porn star Rollergirl in Boogie Nights: agent Felicity Shagwell in Austin Powers 2: prostitute Mary Kelly in From Hell: a voracious starlet, sleeping her way to the top in Bowfinger: then another porn star in The Guru. On top of these, there’s been a string of high-profile boyfriends, and a succession of sexually candid interviews concerning her purposeful rebellion against a strict Catholic upbringing. Seldom is her name mentioned without sex being mentioned also. And even more seldom is her acting ability discussed – and this is an actress talented enough to have been nominated for an Independent Spirit award for one of her very first roles.
She was born Heather Joan Graham on the 29th of January, 1970, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her father, Jim, worked for the FBI, specialising in anti-terrorism techniques, while her mother, Joan, was a successful children’s author. Both were staunch Catholics. There’d be a younger sister, Aimee, who’d also turn to acting, appearing in the likes of From Dusk Till Dawn and Jackie Brown.
Jim’s FBI work meant the family were forced to relocate occasionally when Heather was very young, not easy for a shy girl. She’d attend her first elementary school in Virginia. Eventually, though, they’d settle in the Agoura Hills, just north of Los Angeles, where Heather would attend Sumac Elementary School, then Lindero Canyon Middle School, and finally Agoura High School.
At school, young Heather was not one of the popular crew. As said, she was mocked for her lack of breasts (they would come later. And keep coming), ignored by the boys and labelled a geek. More specifically, she was known as a “theatre geek”. That acting bug had struck again. Heather’s mother later recalled often finding her daughter behind the furniture, play-acting with her dollies. Heather herself remembers seeing Raiders Of The Lost Ark and being intrigued by a love scene between Harrison Ford and Karen Allen. That, she says, was when she “fell in love with the movies and the opposite sex”.
Having first taken to the stage as Dorothy in a school production of The Wizard Of Oz, middle and high school saw Heather really go for it. In her high school sophomore year, she was President of the Drama Club, appearing in The Bad Seed, as the seductress Lola in Damn Yankees, and in many other productions. Her senior class would vote her Most Talented.
But she was also ambitious out of school. Though her parents did not really approve of her choice of career, her mother would drive her to auditions in Los Angeles. In her mid-teens, she scored adverts for Ivory shampoo and Mountain Dew, as well as an uncredited role as a Factory Girl in Gillian Armstrong’s Mrs Soffel, starring Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson. By 15, she’d have an agent, and by 16 a major part in a middling Hollywood movie and a minor one in a blockbuster.
1987 saw Heather appear as Dorrie in the high school comedy Student Exchange, where some unpopular kids try to win their peers’ approval by stealing the identities of foreign students who don’t show up. And there were two appearances in the Family Ties-style sit-com Growing Pains. Then the next year saw something of a breakthrough with Licence To Drive. This was a movie very much of its time, one of several vehicles for the two Coreys, Feldman and Haim, who’d made a name for themselves as a teen double-act in The Lost Boys. Here they’re buddies once more, with Haim, who doesn’t have a driving licence, feeling forced to “borrow” his grandfather’s Cadillac, in order to impress hot girl, Mercedes. Naturally, the hole he digs for himself gets deeper and deeper as the night goes on, with the car getting gradually brutalised. And Heather shone as Mercedes, bemused by the pair’s antics, as well as dancing suggestively on top of the poor vehicle. Her efforts won her a nomination as Best Young Actress at the Young Artist Awards.
Having also scored a small role, in flashback, as the young mother of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito in Twins, Heather was on a roll. She’d even been able to turn down a soap part, thinking it wasn’t worth leaving school for, and a 3-picture deal with a major, believing it to be too restrictive. She was certainly far more popular with the boys. But there was strife in the Graham household. For a start, Heather was not keen on Agoura, later saying “It was way conformist; people were just white, Republican, upper middle class – everyone was the same. The arts were not embraced”.
And the arts, at least Heather’s kind of arts, were certainly not embraced by her Catholic mum and dad. As a kid, she been encouraged to enter a convent and forbidden even to watch The Love Boat. Jim and Joan were absolutely adamant that she should not appear in any movie featuring sex, an attitude that cost her the lead role in Heathers, the dark high school comedy that made an instant star of Winona Ryder. Perhaps it was lines like “F*** me gently with a chainsaw” that turned them off.
Whatever their reasons, the damage was done. Now earning enough money from acting (she’d not got quite enough from her jobs at Toys R’Us and as an usherette at the Hollywood Bowl), she moved out, taking her own flat in Hollywood – and this while she was still finishing school. Her feelings of oppression at the hands of her parents and their religion would cause her to often mouth off against Catholicism. Once she claimed the Church was “made up of closed-minded men who believe a woman’s sexuality is evil”. By her mid-twenties, Heather would stop seeing her parents at all. For their part, they’d claim that “Our religion has to do with love and forgiveness. We never expected her to become a nun”, adding that they invited Heather to all family occasions, but she never returned their calls. In interviews, Heather would not discuss the matter.
Her parents may have denied her Heathers, but now she was 18 and away from home, they could do nothing to prevent her taking on her first important role, as Nadine in Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy. In fact, her reaction to Jim and Joan’s severe faith may well have informed many of her later choices, too.
Drugstore Cowboy was a tough and heavy portrait of two junkie couples in the early Seventies, who turn over drugstores for money to feed their addiction. Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch starred as the Bonnie and Clyde-style prime movers, with Heather and James LeGros as their goofier, more pathetic friends. By appearing to glamorise addiction, the movie was controversial, but it was also brilliantly made. And Heather was really good as the sad, OD-ing Nadine, being nominated for an Independent Spirit award.
It seemed as if fame and fortune must surely be hers. In fact, she’d have to wait another eight years to hit the heights. Perhaps Drugstore Cowboy was too heavy, perhaps her Nadine made casters believe she was just too out-there, but the parts dried up completely. There was a brief appearance in I Love You To Death, where jealous wife Tracey Ullman tried to get River Phoenix to kill her cheating hubbie Kevin Kline, only to see him hire bungling assassins Keanu Reeves and William Hurt. But, losing out to Sarah Jessica Parker for a part in Steve Martin’s LA Story, that was it.
Faced with a bleak present and no future, Heather decided to better her chances by returning to education, enrolling at UCLA and majoring in English. She remained there for the best part of two years, but couldn’t shake the bug and returned to the fray.
Now parts, albeit minor ones, began to come her way. First was the utterly bizarre comedy drama Guilty As Charged, where religious zealot Rod Steiger, aided by sidekick Isaac Hayes, rigs up his own electric chair to punish the wicked. Heather played the assistant of a dodgy politician who frames an innocent man for murder, throwing Steiger into a quandary. Then there was a TV cult hit with Twin Peaks, which Heather entered late in the day, as Annie Blackburn, the ex-nun who becomes Agent Cooper’s girlfriend. She’d also appear in the Twin Peaks prequel, Fire Walk With Me.
And she’d date Cooper for real, getting involved with Kyle MacLachlan. This was the first of several flings she’d enjoy with colleagues. Later, she’d explain “When I was younger I felt that when I was on a film set pretending to be in love with someone, it helped to take an extra step and really do so. It’s supposed to add chemistry between the characters. But a movie set is fake. It’s such a false environment, your own judgement is hurt”.
After Twin Peaks came Shout, where she played the girlfriend of James Walters, a rebellious Fifties school-kid sent to reform school but aided by rock’n'roll loving teacher John Travolta (Gwyneth Paltrow would also have a small role). Then came O Pioneers!, based on Willa Cather’s hit novel, where Jessica Lange played Alexandra Bergson, an independent and free-spirited farmer at the turn of the 20th Century, battling with her brothers over the family’s land. Heather played the younger Lange.
Next there was Midnight Sting. Here James Woods makes a bet with a smalltown big-wig that ageing boxer Louis Gossett Jr can knock out ten of the town’s finest in 24 hours. Heather was there looking pretty, at the personal behest of Woods. She’d taken his fancy when he saw her reading The Brothers Karamazov, and the pair began to date though, then in his forties, Woods was twice her age. Later Heather would say “I dated a lot of older men until I went into therapy and discovered I was looking for a father figure”.
1993 brought small parts in three intriguing movies, two of them with an overtly feminist bent. First was The Ballad Of Little Jo, the true story of Josephine Monaghan, who pretended to be a man to get by in the Wild West. Then she was back to the Seventies and Gus Van Sant as Cowgirl Heather in Even Cowgirls Get The Blues. Here she formed part of a feminist gang who run their own ranch, the Rubber Rose, and educate poor, confused, big-thumbed Uma Thurman. And then there was Six Degrees Of Separation, where Will Smith cons his way into the home of rich couple Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland.
1994 saw more “interesting” projects as Heather learned her craft. There was Alan Rudolph’s Mrs Parker And The Vicious Circle, featuring Jennifer Jason Leigh as the sharp-tongued Dorothy Parker, as well as Heather’s Drugstore Cowboy co-star, James LeGros. And LeGros, as well as Heather’s Twin Peaks co-star Sheryl Lee, turned up again in Don’t Do It, where three couples, who’ve all dated each other in the past, meet in a cafÃ© and discuss their true feelings.
Slowly, Heather was rising through the ranks. After playing a Perfumery Saleswoman in the Jennifer Beals-starring romance Let It Be Me, she won her first starring role. This was as Olive in Terrified, a genuinely scary little number, and the first of Heather’s more sexual roles. Here she played a cheating wife (perhaps a nymphomaniac) whose husband kills her lover and then himself. Traumatised by the sight, she begins to sleep around with strangers, and then discovers that someone is stalking her. Freaked-out and paranoid, Heather was again great, with the film earning comparisons to Polanski’s Repulsion.
After Terrified came a few more low-budget operations, one of which would see her breakthrough. There’d be more love, too. First came Desert Winds, where Heather communicated with a man via a mystical 500-mile wind tunnel, learning to face her fear and follow her heart. It was a quiet and sweet romance, all the better for being a tad strange. And Heather once more fell for one of her co-stars, this time that dandy highwayman and wielder of fake pistols Adam Ant.
And now, at last, seven long years after the disappointing non-reaction to her performance in Drugstore Cowboy, came the turnaround. It’s said that writer Jon Favreau had once taken Heather out swing-dancing. Now he had her cast in his indie sex comedy Swingers, where Favreau himself played a loser in love, taken under the wing of date-expert Vince “That’s really money” Vaughn. Heather appeared towards the end, in an eye-catching role as the girl of Favreau’s dreams, dancing to Go Daddy-O.
Now Heather was really on the up. There was a part in Entertaining Angels, the story of rights activist Dorothy Day, and then Nowhere, a kind of “90210 on acid” concerning the tribulations of angsty LA kids, where Heather engaged in riotous rumpo with Ryan Phillippe. Next came Two Girls And A Guy, a modern-day sex comedy where both Heather and Natasha Gregson Wagner are two-timed by Robert Downey Jr, only to react in the most unexpected way.
That same year, 1997, came Heather’s real arrival. Now going out with Elias Koteas, she won the part of Rollergirl, the porn star who never takes off her skates, in PT Anderson’s fabulous Boogie Nights (yet another Seventies flick). For research, Heather went to the shooting of a small porn movie, starring Ron Jeremy, then moved on with the cast to view the filming of a bigger production in Hollywood. Sadly, they were asked to leave as their presence was making it difficult for the male stars to, well, you know…
Rollergirl was not a starring role but, flitting across the screen regularly, and indulging in a comic sex scene with Mark “Dirk Diggler” Wahlberg, Heather certainly stood out. So much so that there was talk of a Boogie Nights 2, based around her character. The role also made Heather a major pin-up and sex fantasy.
Now she was up and running. Scream 2 saw her star in movie-within-a-movie Stab, based on the events in Scream 1, where she played Drew Barrymore’s murder victim. Then she was young Judy Robinson in the film version of TV series Lost In Space, with her I Love You To Death co-star William Hurt playing her father, as the family zoom off into hyperspace, seeking redemption for an Earth fast running out of fossil fuels. Along the way, Heather fought with Gary Oldman’s Dr Smith, and wittily undermined the sexual advances of Matt Le Blanc. The filming also saw her begin a new relationship, with director Stephen Hopkins.
Next came Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, where Heather played agent Felicity Shagwell, helping out Mike Myers’ Powers once Dr Evil has transported himself back to 1969 and stolen Austin’s “mojo”. Heather had a whale of a time, strutting about in tiny hot-pants, riding in a yellow submarine, and engaging in repulsive sex with Myers’ disgusting Fat Bastard. Weirdly, some audience members complained that Shagwell was thus being unfaithful to Austin – very odd considering what Austin himself gets up to.
After this, as if to make up for her earlier LA Story let-down, Heather appeared beside Steve Martin in Bowfinger. Here Martin played a film producer so desperate to have superstar Eddie Murphy in his movie he films him in secret and tries to build a story around the footage. Heather was Daisy, an aspiring beauty from Ohio who sleeps her way to the top, starting with the camera operator and moving up to the director. There were some who claimed the part was born of Martin’s dislike for ex-partner Anne Heche, who’d left him for Ellen DeGeneres.
With this series of big hits behind her, Heather was free once more to indulge in smaller, more educative projects. Kiss And Tell was a weird little black comedy where police are investigating the murder of a performance artist whose been penetrated (to death) with a carrot. Heather played one of the former artist’s bizarro buddies. Then came another starring role in Committed, an off-kilter rom-com where she was Joline, an intense young lady who, when her husband leaves her to find his “own space”, goes after him, crossing the country with a couple of wacky friends, getting into all manner of scrapes.
Next was Say It Isn’t So, produced by gross-out kings the Farrelly Brothers, where Heather played a useless hairdresser who starts seeing nice-guy Chris Klein. Unfortunately, her mother, played by Sally Field, doesn’t think he’s good enough for her, so she claims the couple are brother and sister, something Klein must disprove if he’s ever to win Heather’s hand. As you’d expect from a Farrellys movie, there’s much humiliation and severe vileness, though it’s nowhere near as hilarious as Dumb And Dumber.
Following this, Heather was off east to a new project and a new love. In Sidewalks Of New York, she played the wife of love-rat dentist Stanley Tucci, falling for Edward Burns as the lives and loves of six New Yorkers gradually intertwine. Heather also fell for Burns, the writer and director, in real life, dating him until 2000. Many thought they’d marry, but it was not to be.
After leaving Burns, Heather moved on to her next big project, the Hughes Brothers’ Jack the Ripper drama, From Hell. Here she played Mary Kelly, a prostitute and possible victim who Johnny Depp’s psychic cop tries to save from the killer. Though set in London, the movie was mostly shot in Prague, and it was here that Heather met her next lover, Heath Ledger, also in Prague to film A Knight’s Tale. After undergoing therapy to understand her penchant for older men, it appeared that Heather was now going the other way. She’d be with Ledger into 2001, and later be seen with Cher’s son Elijah, and then with Friends star Matthew Perry.
From Hell led Heather to another London-set film, Killing Me Softly, where she played a research scientist smitten by mysterious mountaineering type Joseph Fiennes. But, after marrying him, she begins to suspect he’s done away with several of his past partners. The movie contained much paranoia and lots of sex, and Heather continued on her sexy way with The Guru. Here a young Indian comes to America to become the next John Travolta. But, winding up in a porn flick, he meets its star, Heather, and she teaches him everything about love, knowledge he then uses to forge a career on the talk-show circuit by pretending to be a profound master of spiritual and sexual enlightenment.
Following The Guru came Hope Springs, a comedy romance with Colin Firth and the excellent Mary Steenburgen. Then, four years after it was shot, came Alien Love Triangle, an episodic movie where Heather, as if to avoid her new sex symbol image, had a bald green head, black lenses and pointy ears. Courteney Cox would have fun here too, as Heather’s alien husband, trapped in a female body.
After this would come Anger Management, where Adam Sandler is a businessman wrongly sent on an anger management course and faced with super-aggressive instructor Jack Nicholson. And there would be .45, another comedy, this time involving a Bonnie and Clyde-style couple turning on each other in Hell’s Kitchen.
So, Heather Graham has arrived. She’s worked hard, meditating twice a day to keep her stress-levels down. And she’s also, like all the others, had her share of luck. In fact, Heather is a pretty lucky girl all round. On September 11th, 2001, she was flying into New York from the Toronto Film Festival. As she crossed the city, she saw huge plumes of smoke rising from the World Trade Centre beneath her. Her plane was one of the last to land in New York that fateful day. She was so very close.