Interview: Gretchen Mol
by Carlo Cavagna
LEFT: Gretchen Mol stars in The Notorious Bettie Page.
Gretchen Mol isn't exactly an icon. She was briefly Hollywood's flavor du jour back in 1998, appearing on the cover of the September Vanity Fair and in a substantial (albeit thankless) supporting role with Matt Damon and Edward Norton in Rounders. Mol went on to appear in two Woody Allen films, Celebrity and Sweet and Lowdown, as well as Tim Robbins' ensemble theater drama Cradle Will Rock, but her subsequent choices were poor (The Thirteenth Floor, Attraction, Get Carter) and her film career didn't take. After appearing in Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things, Mol turned to theater (playing Roxie Hart in “Chicago” on Broadway) and the small screen.
With little track record, Gretchen Mol might seem an odd choice to star as the most famous pinup ever in director Mary Harron's new biopic The Notorious Bettie Page. The fact that Mol is blonde makes the choice even odder. But thanks to a little acting, a lot of enthusiasm, and a good wig, Mol quickly makes you forget that she's not Bettie. Mol proves to be up to the challenge of portraying Bettie's more difficult experiences as well.In Los Angeles, Mol spoke with a small group of reporters about her performance and the iconic Bettie Page.
Question: How much weight did you have to gain?
Mol: I don't know. I never really weighed myself. I had just done a stint on Broadway. I was dancing every night for a couple months so I felt physically strong. If anything, yes, I was worried about being too thin so I just sort of stopped— I didn't think about exercise or anything. I just ate whatever I wanted. But I didn't go overboard because who's to say it would've gone to the right places.
Question: We look at you now, and you look very little like Bettie Page. What made you connect to Bettie and think you could play her?
Mol: Well, the truth is the script came to me kind of the old fashioned way. I thought, “This is a big cattle call and everybody's going in. I'll never get the part.” But, there was something there. I felt connected with the script and Mary's version of Bettie. And I always thought of Bettie, too, as sort of a vixen with a whip, and a bad girl. Truth is, she was so much more—almost the opposite when I did a little bit of research. So I sort of thought I had nothing to lose, and that maybe then is why it worked out. I don't know. I just went in and had a good time with the audition. Right away, Mary really responded to it, and then we had to kind of get everybody else on board, which took a little more doing.
Question: Was it easy or fun trying to get all those Bettie poses?
Mol: It was fun. It was like choreography, really. It was looking at those poses— She did a lot of loops where she was dancing. She had a very specific style of moving around and dancing. It was so Bettie. I did have to figure out her moves.
AboutFilm: What elements of her life and her personality did you focus on in preparing for this film?
Mol: I focused on where she was from of course, her voice and her history, her relationship with God—her religion. This was probably the strongest relationship she has had, really. She never seemed to maintain close relationships with husbands. People sort of came and went in her life. That was the strongest relationship I could find. And of course there were the physical things, the wig. One of the first things I did was go out and buy one of those $15 Ricky wigs just so that while I was working on it, I could get out of myself and see Bettie a little bit. Little by little, it all came together and that had a lot to do with the hair and makeup, the good wig and a great costume designer who worked with my body and fitting these clothes. There was so much source material, really, that I could focus on. It was great.
AboutFilm: Did you feel as comfortable and relaxed in front of the camera as she obviously did, in your more intimate or explicit scenes?
Mol: I don't know. I think—I hope so because that was something obviously that was so important and integral to the character was her lack of self-consciousness in front of the camera. So I thought if nothing else, I owe this to Bettie because this is her philosophy, really. She was a true naturist. She just seemed to be at her best and her healthiest and her most beautiful when she was doing the nudity. Particularly outside. And so when we came to do those scenes, I remember Mary said this is sort of like her religion. That stuck in my mind, and that was something that really made doing those scenes easier.
Question: Mary Harron has said that the later events in Bettie's life, which you didn't portray, could be the subject of an entirely separate movie. For you as an actor is it important to know where the character goes after the events you show?
Mol: Yeah, I think so, especially when you're dealing with a real human being. Yes, her whole story and as much as I could get about that story played into what we did. I would think of where she was going, the next step afterwards and try to— That was the full journey and we're just bookending it here. Yeah, I needed to know all that. But at the same time, what was interesting is how at the end of the day, Bettie is still kind of an enigma. You never quite can nail down who Bettie Page was, and I love that Mary lets her retain that mystery. I think that's just such a beautiful way of telling the story because so many times with biopics it's, “Well, we start here and we see what happened in her childhood, and then we move on to how everything in her childhood affects her life and bumps and ebbs and flows and somehow she breaks through it and everything works out.” I think she retained that mystery about Bettie, and I had to be comfortable playing Bettie not knowing all of the answers.
Question: Did you ever try to contact Bettie Page?
Mol: Well, no. What happened was that Mary [Harron] in the beginning, when she started work on this, had tried to get in touch with Bettie. I think it became clear that she didn't want to have anything to do with this film, or [that she] had sold her life rights to another film production and so didn't feel that she could. By the time I got involved, it was clear that Bettie wasn't talking to us. So I had to respect that privacy. This part of her life that we were covering was pretty much in the past for her, so I felt that the script was such an affectionate depiction of her and kind of a love letter to her almost.
AboutFilm: Why in your opinion has Bettie become an icon?
Mol: Well, I do think it's because of that quality. I think when she was in front of the camera, she had this— She unleashed this purity, this innocence and this healthiness of her spirit. She never was playing sexy. She was never playing with any need for a reaction. She was just fully in herself. And there's that line in the movie where she says she wanted to be lifted up or taken to another place. I always felt that when she was posing, she did go to that place. And when I saw the loops where she's moving around, she's like in her own atmosphere. It's Bettie's world. And I think then that really allows whoever is looking at and admiring and using this photograph, it gives you permission for it to be whatever you need it to be. That's why I think Bettie's appeal crosses borders of men and women and generations.
Question: What's your beauty ritual?
Mol: [laughs] Changes day to day. Try to get sleep, try to drink water although I don't always do enough. I don't know. [laughs]
Question: What does sexiness mean to you and how does that relate to how you played Bettie?
Mol: Well, I don't know. I don't know what my definition is. I just know that any time you're trying to do it or be it, it's probably not it. I learned that actually from Bettie. Bettie confirmed that to me. When I looked at other pinup models and you'd see them doing the come-hither look, it just didn't quite— It wasn't as sexy as when Bettie was just flaunting it out there and she had so much self confidence and lack of self consciousness. It's so infectious. It's such a sexy quality. And subtle. Less is more.
AboutFilm: And yet when Bettie's actually trying to act—the film makes a big point of this—she's uncomfortable when she tries to act on stage, or on camera. As someone other than herself, she's very uncomfortable.
Mol: Yes. Actually someone brought this up because we had a Q&A last night. We did a screening, and someone said, “It's interesting because actors, at least the method of acting, is that you bring your own life experiences, whatever the trauma or whatever, into your roles and then you can use it and tap into it for a certain character.” He made this point, and I thought it was great that somehow Bettie wasn't able to use the things that had happened to her when it came to acting. It's that Fifties—keeping everything under the rug and not talking about things—the whole idea of acting at that time was the discovery of things that have happened to us and how we can use it, bring it into our work. She was so probably busy putting that behind her and moving on, that she didn't do that. She didn't connect in that way. But I think in front of the camera, because of that lack of judgment, she could go there.
AboutFilm: Well, I guess the logical follow-up question is, what of your life did you bring into this role?
Mol: Well, I actually looked a lot to my grandmothers because they were, you know, women in the Fifties, both of them— One of my grandmothers is from North Carolina so she had a sort of very ladylike Fifties Southern woman quality that was very much Bettie. Then my other grandmother worked on a dairy farm for most of her life, and so there was that survivor [quality]—push the cows in, get the cows out —you know. That was very much a part of Bettie too, that country girl. I didn't realize it at the time as much, but I did really look to them a lot. And feeling that I'm of them somehow. It was nice.
Question: Was this you first time in 8” stiletto heels?
Mol: Do I have to answer that? [kidding] They're tough. Those shoes were actually made for me. I mean, they were really— It's hard to find those shoes.
Question: Did you take anything home with you?
Mol: Well, I did get to keep my entire wardrobe. There was much of it that was rented, but the things that were actually built, they built a lot of the bathing suits.
Question: You're seven or eight years past that first supernova, when you had the Vanity Fair cover, and there was all that press. How do you look back at those times?
Mol: I just think I was young and it's part of the story.
Question: What do you want to do next?
Mol: I hope to just find more great roles. I had such a good time being so involved with this project. As much as it feels like “let's get the movie out there,” it's been so fun that it's dragged on as long as it has, frankly, because I've been able to really feel involved in it. You just want to keep finding things that you can sink your teeth into and get busy with and then feel proud of afterwards.
Question: Do you discuss roles with your husband [Door in the Floor director Tod Williams]?
Mol: We end up talking about things we've read.
Question: What did he think of you playing Bettie?
Mol: He was really excited about it because he knew how hard I worked to try to get the role. It was such a process really, from the first day that Mary said, “Yeah, I think you can do this” to actually getting on that set. There was probably a year and a half of just, the film was going to go, and then it didn't, and then raising the money and then, “Is there anyone else with a bigger name that can play this?” Not from Mary. Mary always stood by her original idea of me, but he saw me go through all that so I think he was just really excited.
Question: Did he have his own image of Bettie Page?
Mol: Not really. I think he believed me.
Question: One of the problems Bettie had in her relationships with men seemed to be insecure, or couldn't handle her success as a glamour model, let alone the darker stuff. Have you been luckier with men than Bettie, men being secure with your success?
Mol: Well, I'm married now so we support each other fully.
[Read the AboutFilm review of The Notorious Bettie Page]
[Read the AboutFilm interview with Mary Harron]
Article and interviews © April 2006 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE images © 2006 Picturehouse. All Rights Reserved.
ROUNDERS image © 1998 Miramax. THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR image © TriStar Pictures, Inc.
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