Anjelica Huston, On Her Own Terms

In celebration of her 73rd birthday, revisit Anjelica Huston's conversation from Mastermind 10 about her expansive career.

In the last decade, Anjelica Huston has made herself scarce. A few small roles in independent films briefly released in theaters, some dubbing of animated films and a single scene, as brief as it is striking, as a Russian mafia godmother in the 2019 blockbuster John Wick: Chapter 3. Even when summoned by her favorite filmmaker, Wes Anderson, her job was just to voice a mute dog (in Isle of Dogs) and to be an invisible narrator (in The French Dispatch). So when the possibility of an interview arose, we didn’t hesitate, knowing that such an opportunity might not come again anytime soon.

Spending most of her time in California, between a villa in Los Angeles and a ranch in the north of the state – in the middle of the forest not far from the world’s oldest redwoods – the actress remains as fascinating as she is elusive, the perfect embodiment of a Hollywood nonchalance that was in vogue in the 1970s and ’80s and tends to be rare today. Her father was John Huston, one of the greatest filmmakers of the Hollywood Golden Age. Famous for his stormy temperament and his taste for adventure, he raised his daughter in Ireland and then England before directing her in several films, notably Prizzi’s Honor, for which she won an Oscar for best supporting actress in 1985.

Faithful to the type of character she often plays on screen, Huston has lost none of her bite. Her answers were sometimes generous (when she told us, for example, about her years modeling in New York with the era’s greatest photographers) and sometimes reticent (when we tried to evoke the impact certain men had on her) but always full of wit and the scathing spirit that has characterized her throughout her career.

Your latest movie, The French Dispatch, happens to be your fifth collaboration with Wes Anderson – although you weren’t really in Isle of Dogs – making him the director you’ve worked with most often. How would you describe your relationship with him? Why does he often ask you to play isolated women?

AH Wes is a true auteur and a true friend. Etheline Tenenbaum, Eleanor Zissou and Sister Patricia may seem like isolated matriarchs to some, but I really find them to be the great unifiers and hearts of their families.

Are there roles you refused and then regretted? Were there any you think could have changed the course of your career?

AH I’m sure there have been roles I’ve refused, but I don’t really think about them so much. I’m quite happy with the state of my career. Maybe The Piano for Jane Campion.

What is the film you’re most identified with, the film that people mention the most when they meet you? And what is the performance you’re most proud of?

AH The Addams Family. Also The Grifters, The Dead and The Witches. Depends on the audience. Morticia Addams and The Grand High Witch are the most iconic, I’d say. And I’m most proud of Maerose Prizzi in Prizzi’s Honor.

Do you sometimes re-watch your old movies? What about the three films you made with your father, are they special?

AH Sometimes. It’s amusing to introduce my younger nieces and nephews to Morticia or The Grand High Witch. The Royal Tenenbaums just screened for its 20th anniversary, so it was fun to re-watch after all this time. The last two movies with Dad, Prizzi’s Honor and The Dead, are very special to me, because they were with him, and I was old enough to value his criticism and direction, and I think we made a couple of really great films together.

Which movies or TV shows have impressed you the most lately? Who are the directors you’d like to be approached by?

AH Lars von Trier, Pedro Almodóvar… Although directors are difficult to pin down. It’s more to do with subject matter for me.

I know there are fewer female than male directors, but your filmography is almost entirely composed of films directed by men. How do you explain that? Who have been the defining women in your life?

AH I don’t have an explanation really; I suppose there are more male directors who are asking me to be in their films and collaborate. I’ve had only good experiences. I’ve also been lucky enough to be directed by some incredible women in both film and television through the years – Mira Nair, Theresa Rebeck, Martha Coolidge, Mimi Leder, Tricia Brock… My mother has been the defining woman in my life.

You’ve directed three films yourself. What have you learned in the process? Would you like to do more?

AH You learn something new every day. Yes, I’d like to do more. I always have something up my sleeve. So, we shall see…

You have long had close working relationships with top fashion designers, from Halston in the past to Alessandro Michele today. Tell me about your collaboration with Michele. How did it begin, and what about him intrigued you?

AH Alessandro is a visionary, too, and an extraordinary talent. He asked me to work with him a couple of years ago, and that’s how it all began. He’s charismatic and inspiring and a wonderful person.

You star in the mystical campaign for the Gucci Bloom fragrance. Did you prepare for that role as you would for a film part? What message do you think the campaign communicates about beauty today?

AH The campaign consists of a short film and images shot by Floria Sigismondi. Before I went to work on it, I saw mood boards and photos of the location in Italy – the abandoned theaters of La Scarzuola, a surrealist architectural compound built around an old Franciscan convent. And I very much looked forward to working with Florence Welch, Jodie Turner-Smith and Susie Cave. We had an incredible time together on set. Whenever I go to work, I try to bring to life a director’s vision. We were liberated and unselfconscious. It was late summer and very hot. We were in Umbria, but we were all on the same wavelength and all shared the same purpose.

The message is clear and romantic, like an Alma-Tadema [painting] or a Rossetti. Very based in fairy tales and illusion. Alessandro is a great interpreter – I think the message is freedom; beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

When you were a model, in New York in the ’70s, you worked with legendary photographers. Richard Avedon launched your career. How did that happen, and how was he with you? Was it easy, natural for you?

AH Luck, I guess. Dick was a friend of my mum’s and had taken some photographs of me when I was a schoolgirl in London. He told my mum that my shoulders were too broad, and he doubted that I would ever be a model, crushing my dreams of a career in high fashion. And then I guess he changed his mind! A few years later, Dick called and asked me to shoot American Vogue with him in Ireland in 1969. It ended up becoming a 28-page feature. Working with Dick was always easy and natural for me.

Then you worked with Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton. What do you remember of them?

AH Before I worked with Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton, I had a relationship with the photographer Bob Richardson. Bob came into my life at a time when I felt like I didn’t want to act anymore and had lost my nerve a bit. It was Bob who gave me the confidence in front of the lens – who taught me about movement and timing, what the camera sees. I loved being a model.

I remember working with Guy for the Spring collections in Paris at the Vogue studios in the Place du Palais Bourbon. He wanted the models to be fresh-faced, all-American, which was so not me. It made me very unhappy, and I ended up having a full-on breakdown. Guy asked me what was going on, and through my tears, I explained to him that I thought I was ugly, my eyes were too small, and my nose was too big, and the makeup wasn’t helping. “If your eyes are small, then we should make them smaller, and likewise, if your nose is big, we have to make it larger,” he said. “You think these are your failings, but it is just the opposite.” And he decided to make me look like a vampire for the shoot, and that worked beautifully.

Later that night, I received a phone call from an editor at Vogue [asking me] to return to their studios to work with Helmut Newton. The famous Mr. Newton. It was music to my ears. It was three in the morning, and he photographed me in a dark, empty street with one light and a Polaroid. I stalked the pavement for him, the red flash reflected in my eyes, like something from Night of the Living Dead. Guy and Helmut were both visionaries and knew what they wanted.

What was it like, as a young woman, to live in New York at that time? Was it as decadent as we picture it? Do you think it was a richer time than today artistically?

AH It was a decadent, dark time. A lot was going on. I had a love-hate relationship with New York from the start; the city that never sleeps, where you could find whatever you wanted in 20 minutes or less. My grandfather, Tony Soma, was a self-proclaimed yogi with a restaurant off Broadway called Tony’s Wife. I’d sometimes pop in there for lunch.

I don’t think it was a richer time, just different. It all really depends on what you are looking for and what you make of it.

In your memoir, you say Los Angeles felt like home right away. Why? How has the city changed since you moved in?

AH L.A. was my parent’s life before I appeared, and it felt instantly familiar. It was like a village, compared to now. It has grown exponentially – many people have lived and died here.

I know you own a ranch in Three Rivers, near Sequoia Park, and there have been fires there. Is your house okay?

AH Thank you for asking! My ranch in Three Rivers seems to be safe and out of any imminent fire threat, though this latest fire is only 11 percent contained.

For the last two years, we’ve had to evacuate due to wildfires. It’s not been easy. All of my animals – horses, goats, pigs, cows, chickens – were moved to safer ground for a couple of weeks, and they were depressed being away from home. They’re back now and very happy.

I try to spend as much time as I can up there. I lived there full-time during the first year of Covid; I have a sweet pottery studio on the property. It’s just a perfect haven to escape to.

Do you often think about your childhood? Did you realize, at the time, that you had an extraordinary childhood? Are you a nostalgic person?

AH I do think about my childhood. I am a very nostalgic person. I didn’t realize at the time how spoiled I was to grow up on an estate in the west of Ireland, and later in London. My dad a renowned filmmaker and my mom the most beautiful woman in the world, a former ballerina, a Renaissance Madonna and a real influencer of her time. What a great way to grow up!

When you think of your father, what images come to mind first?

AH Tall, strong, fearless, funny, challenging, complicated.

Your second memoir is called Watch Me. Is it the fate of the daughter of a great director to want to be watched?

AH Watch Me is about my power to self-invent on my own terms.

This feature was originally published in Mastermind 10 – buy all issues here.

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