Ask Heather Graham how much of her directorial debut, Half Magic, which she both wrote and stars in, is based on her real life experiences, and she'll laugh: "A lot."
At 48, Graham has 95 acting credits to her name. But while her early career was characterised by the sexy, dangerous women she portrayed in films like Drugstore Cowboy, Boogie Nights, and Two Girls and A Guy, it's clear that she's now ready for a shift.
The film, a satire that takes on the culture of harassment and misogyny in Hollywood, couldn't come at a better time. The report by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey in the New York Times detailing Harvey Weinstein's alleged rampant sexual harassment and abuse, has sparked a reckoning that has taken down dozens of powerful men in its wake.
As woman after woman comes forward to share experiences often kept secret for fear of retaliation, Hollywood has had to ask itself some hard questions regarding how the industry treats its women, and the power imbalances that have been left to flourish, unchecked for decades. (Graham recently shared her own Harvey Weinstein story in a guest column for Variety, alleging that the producer implied that he would cast her in exchange for sex.)
In Half Magic, that rampant sexism is personified in the character of Peter Brock (Chris D'Elia), a parody of the macho action star who "is all for women's rights," but doesn't think there's a market for their stories. His attitude is almost too extreme to be believed. But with every laugh (and there are many), there's also a twinge of unease — too close to home, too soon.
Still, the movie doesn't dwell in negativity. At its core, it's also a celebration of female sexuality and friendships. Supporting Honey (Graham) on her quest to stick it to the man are Candy (Stephanie Beatriz) and Eva (Angela Kinsey), two women with doubts and issues of their own. Together, they start empowering each other through sisterhood, and yes, a little bit of magic.
In a phone interview leading up to the film's release on February 23, Refinery29 asked Graham what inspired her to take on directing, the hurdles she had to overcome, and what advice she has for young women trying to make their way in a man's world.
Refinery29: Tell me a bit about how this film came to be.
Heather Graham: "I had a group of friends that I got together with, and we would make wishes about things we wanted to have happen in our lives, and a lot of things came true! So, I started writing this script, and I hadn't really written before so it was a bit hard. I gave up, and then a few years later, I went through a bad breakup, and I just started writing it again. I wanted to make myself laugh about all the things in life that had upset me, like bad relationship choices, and sexism in Hollywood. I had also spent like ten years working on developing movies about women, and just couldn't get any of them made. So, it was just my reaction of frustration, of laughing at myself, and trying to get these movies made about women in this really sexist, sexually harassing business."
The timing for this movie could not be more perfect, given the conversations currently taking place in Hollywood. What inspired you to tell that story?
"I had a friend who watched the movie — because I made it before stuff came out in the news — and she said 'You know, I thought the boss was over the top but then I read all these stories in the news and I realised it's real.' And I said, 'Yeah. It is real.'
"I just sort of took the general vibe of being in Hollywood, and just feeling like I'm surrounded by these chauvinistic, sexist guys who think it's no big deal to sexually harass everyone around them and treat everyone like crap. I mean there's definitely a lot of people like that. There's also really lovely people, but a lot of people in the business are quite sexist.
What made you decide to take on directing?
"As an actress, I felt that I hadn't fully achieved my artistic potential, and I didn't feel like I was being offered the jobs that I really wanted to do, that said what I wanted to say. And I thought I had an interesting perspective that wasn't being expressed, so I wanted to tell a story from a female point of view about growing up religious, and having these negative scary shameful things taught to me about sexuality and how I got over it. And just a story about women empowering each other and being the protagonist and not being the objects of a male story but being a protagonist in their own story."
Right, there's a theme throughout exploring how women are taught that sex is something that we can either give or not give away, but not something we should also be receiving. That's an idea that doesn't often get explored in film.
"Yeah, I feel like as a woman, our culture gives us very mixed messages about sex. I think on one hand we're told, 'All that matters is your looks, so you better look good and you better be sexy.' And on the other hand we're told, 'Don't be too sexy or we're going judge you super negatively.' So it's kinda like what's too sexy? And how sexy should I be? And what and who am I really, how do I really wanna be? It's hard to figure that out because I think we're put under a microscope and judged harshly in those ways."
Do you think things are getting better in terms of the types of roles women are being offered in Hollywood?
"There's always the exceptions where they make a movie with female leads and it's really cool, but no I don't think it's a massive change. I hope it changes! I think the huge change that happened this last year is women talking about sexual harassment and men getting fired. I think that's huge because men were never getting fired before over that. In the past, the women who came forward were judged as being as lying, or [making it] up or crazy, and now people are finally saying 'No, this is actually happening, and we should stop it.'"
Do you have concrete plans to direct again?
"I would love to just make another movie because it was just so fun directing! I have some things I'm writing. I have two scripts that I'm writing, and a book that I just optioned [by Liane Moriarty], so yes, I'm hoping that I can make those things."
What's the best advice you've ever gotten from another woman?
"Love yourself first. It all comes from you loving yourself, and that brings the good things into your life. It's not expecting that somebody else is going to fill you up, or some job is going to fill you up, or finding the right guy or having kids. Loving yourself is the cake and all the other good things are the icing, but you need the cake first."
What advice would you have for young women who are trying to break into male-dominated space like directing?
"Well, my acting teacher had this great piece of advice. He said, 'Have the heart of a baby and the skin of a rhino.' You want to keep your vulnerability, but you have to also not take in some of the negative things people say. In the past women that were trying to make it in this male-dominated world, this male-dominated business, became really hard and tried to act like men to fit in. And I think now we're thinking about 'How can I be feminine, and still be successful and still be productive in my work? How do I keep my sexuality and feel good about it, and not let someone judge me?'"
What do you hope women take away from the film?
"I want it to be inspiring, and I want it to be a feel-good movie, and I want women who go see it to go 'Yeah, I am beautiful, and I can feel good about myself and I can go after my dreams.' Appreciate your girls! I think a lot of times women are taught to take care of everyone else first and take care of yourself last, and I think my movie is about take of yourself first. Give from your cup when it's overflowing and not from an empty cup that has nothing. The best generosity and love comes out of a person that's really fulfilled and loving themselves."
Half Magic is in theaters, on VOD and Digital HD February 23.
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