Beyond Sparkle Motion: A Q&A with Beth Grant, Character-Actress Extraordinaire

by Tom Blunt

If you’ve watched any movies or television at all in the past three decades, then you know Beth Grant better than you think. The prolific character actress has appeared everything from Rain Man (her first big break) to Donnie Darko (in which she stridently doubted your commitment to Sparkle Motion) to No Country For Old Men. Her most recent film, The Artist, screens this week at the New York Film Festival, and next week Grant will be the guest of honor at a monthly NYC event, Meet the Lady, where she will be joining me (me!) to screen and discuss selections from her vast body of work. During a pause between pre-show nervous breakdowns, I recorded this chat with Beth about my three favorite subjects: acting, Jake Gyllenhaal, and baby Jake Gyllenhaal.

(I omitted the part where she told me she used to own a car with the name “Gandalf” embroidered across the dashboard. We have to save something for the live show…)

Right now you have over 150 film and television credits on IMDb. What are some things about acting and filmmaking you wish you’d figured out a lot earlier?

This is going to sound so corny, but that I’m enough. That I don’t have to be someone else, and that I don’t have to be the traditional definition of beautiful to be beautiful. I feel blessed and lucky to be exactly who I am… I wanted to be 180 degrees from what I was when I started, so I wish I’d figured that out earlier. My twenties would have been much more pleasant.

What about from a technical point of view?

It might be a little risky to say, but you don’t have to know your lines perfectly to say them perfectly. When I did Rain Man, which was my first big studio movie, I thought I had to do it exactly the way I’d auditioned. And then I got on the set, and Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise were improvising — still sticking to the script, but loosely and more organically. I came from theater, where you rehearsed it and then did it exactly that way. Dustin, god bless him, really loosened me up and got me to play with him. I went into it as a perfectionist, but it really is all just make believe — “play pretend” as we use to call it in the South.

So all that perfectionism went right out the window?

Yeah. Because there’s no such thing. Really being a person is what it’s all about. I think if I’d known that, it would have been easier. Now, I’ve really gotten to a point in my work where I trust myself to guide myself through that. You do all the work, and then you let it go.

Your memory for names and details is truly amazing. How do you keep track of it all?

It’s a gift and a curse. I love my memory, though, because I get to go there. I accepted this award in Boston called the “Career So Far” award. And when they showed clips to the audience that night (I don’t usually sit around looking at my clips) it was like visiting friends. All the characters I’ve created are real to me, they’re almost like memories of my actual life. I mean, I’m not psychotic — I know I was pretending, but I love visiting with them again. My friends always marvel at things I remember, but I can’t always remember my husband’s name. As we get older, the current stuff is not always as easy to hold onto as the older stuff… what was I just saying?

While everyone remembers you from different things, for me it was Donnie Darko that brought you into focus — you really stole a lot of that show. Were you surprised at how big and memorable the part turned out to be?

Oh, absolutely. I just loved her so much on paper. It’s a long story, but I literally begged for the role, which I don’t think I’ve ever done before or since, and said, “You have to give me this part!” The producer told me later that as soon as I blew into the room, they knew they’d found Kitty Farmer. I think she was a special character for Richard [Kelly] because maybe he knew someone like her in real life. He would get so tickled on the set with some of my lines that he’d have to leave and go laugh. I didn’t realize in shooting it how important she was to the story… you really do need to have that antagonist. I was playing her so sincerely that I didn’t realize she was that antagonist; I understood her pain and her desperation to have very clear answers, wanting the world to be black and white. I understand that. I understand Southern Baptists! I don’t agree with them, and I think they are missing the journey, but I understand the idea that, oh god, if only we could take the Bible literally, and if only it were black and white, wouldn’t that make our lives easier? But it didn’t work out that way for Kitty, and it doesn’t work out for anyone. Life is more than that: the universe is infinite.

And of course, it’s so tragic when her hero [Patrick Swayze] falls, in the worst possible way. And that brilliant montage to “Mad Love” shows her just sitting on that bed in that darkness, despondent, like, “Now what do I do, where do I go from here?”

You and Patrick Swayze had already been close well before Donnie Darko. Was this your last project together?

We saw each other afterward a few times on a personal level, but that was our last work together. That was so perfect. It was not just that Jake Gyllenhaal was doing the part, whom I’d been in love with since he was three years old. The first time I saw Jake he was running across my in-laws’ back lawn to the pool, because he was best friends with my twin nieces, and I remember turning to my sister in law and asking, “Who is that beautiful child?” He just was magical, always, so generous and open. I remember the sixth grade show they had at the end of the year. There he was, this sixth grade boy, and he stood up and sang “The Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera. What a song for an eleven year old! I thought, this kid is a star. Whether or not he’s going to be a movie star, who knows, but he’s a star in the world, because he’s luminous.

Don’t you wish you had a video tape of that?

We do have it on video! My in-laws have it. It’s just crazy, we looked at it one Thanksgiving, still before he became a star, and I thought it all over again. So, for me to be acting with him — and also with Buddy [Swayze], who in many ways was a hero of mine, because he’d been the first person from our acting class who’d really made it, and who’d been a big influence in teaching me to love and accept myself as a character actress — the role became kind of true to life. It was a magical experience doing that film, it really was.

Have you seen the unofficial sequel, S. Darko?

No, I kind of boycotted it I guess. Is that bad? I just didn’t have the heart. Maybe I was wrong, maybe I should. Every once in a while I see it in a bin of videos but I think, “I can’t.” Richard didn’t have anything to do with it, did he?

No, they just used the characters. Did they contact you about being in it?

No, not that I know of.

Imagine a world where you didn’t become an actress: where are you and what are you doing?

Teaching school in the South. Without question. And I still sometimes think I would like to teach. But I don’t know, I am such a nervous person that I don’t think I’d be very good in a grammar school setting. And I have that Kitty Farmer thing — I can be a little terse! [My daughter] had a teacher that didn’t last the whole year, would really get freaked out with class management problems, and I thought, “That’s me, maybe.”

I could teach at a college level though. I would also to teach non-professional actors acting. I’m like what’s-his-name in Ratatouille, “Everyone can cook.” Not everyone can be the greatest actor ever born, but I really do think everyone has the desire within them to communicate their souls to other human beings, and acting is one way to do that. That’s one reason I’m so excited about The Artist, because we were communicating our souls with no dialogue, and it really inspired me to direct a short of my own with no dialogue — I went in to the writers after we did a table-read and said, “How would you feel about taking out the dialogue?” [laughs] But I think every human being has that ability, and I think my highest calling is teaching.

As a nervous person who doesn’t sit around looking at her clips, are you nervous about sitting around and looking at your clips in front of an entire audience next week?

Well I’m nervous about what you may have chosen, but I’m not nervous about visiting these friends. I don’t have many bad memories — though there are some films from which I’ve been cut, or my part was diminished, and I’m sure some of those will appear. When you mentioned Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael to me, I thought, Oh god, he’s found clips I haven’t seen in many years! I remember going to that premier with my husband and my agent, and not having been told in advance that I’d been cut. It was so embarrassing But they’ll make for funny stories, so it will be okay.

Tom Blunt is a film journalist and professional lady-meeter. In the last year he produced and hosted twelve consecutive Meet The Lady events for 92YTribeca’s film program. He is currently considering changing his middle name from “Paul” to “Beth Grant.”