Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Gretchen Mol had a quicker ascent to fame than most. Coming into acting from a brief but successful modeling career, she quickly established herself, moving from strong but small roles in Abel Ferrara films to major supporting roles in movies like Rounders and The Thirteenth Floor. Her biggest acclaim came in 2005 for her lead performance in The Notorious Bettie Page, and she’s since continued to work steadily in film and television, most notably for five seasons as Gillian Darmody on Boardwalk Empire. Mol graciously reminisced with us about being a working New York actor, the macho atmosphere on 3:10 To Yuma, and throwing water in Steve Buscemi’s face—on camera, of course.
The A.V. Club: In your new drama Family Man, the majority of your scenes are with Gerard Butler, who is usually more known for shooting guns and punching people in movies.
Gretchen Mol: It was a little bit—what’s the word? I mean, this isn’t a funny story. It was a very cathartic kind of experience. I knew I was going to be playing this grieving mother trying to keep her child alive. So I wouldn’t say it was a ball of fun. Everybody knew it was kind of a delicate thing, but we did have some fun in the beginning scenes. Before you find out that our son is sick, there are a little bit more playful scenes. But yeah, for the most part, it was a little heavy.
AVC: Did that carry through for the duration of the shoot?
GM: Yeah. I was there because I had—actually, I was interested in this sort of cathartic experience, I guess, for my own kind of grieving. I was grieving a lot for my own father at the time, so I think when I read the script, I thought, “I’m right in this film right now.” It’s all very easy for me to call this kind of thing up—this world of hospitals and sickness. You don’t realize it, but you get drawn to these things based on, probably, where you are emotionally at the time, and then it ends up being a nice place to stay for four weeks. And then, after you’re done, you realize, “That’s probably why I did that. That was probably really good for me.” Because you get to kind of indulge—you live in that place for a little while—and not put my family out in the process. My own family.
I was focused on that—I was drawn to the job more because of the subject matter. It moved me. Once you’re in that world, in a hospital. I mean, I guess we had—we definitely had some light moments, because I think that’s what people do.
AVC: You have to have some moments of lightness, right? To break the intensity.
GM: Definitely. And I don’t even—I’m not one of those people that likes to stay in the moment or anything. It’s just to say that the mood wasn’t super fun. We were working on a tight timeline, and it felt like everyone was trying to get through the day and get it done. It wasn’t one of those super fun jobs.
AVC: IMDB lists this as your first credit. Is that accurate?
GM: Yeah, it is. That was my first big film. It was, essentially, kind of a glorified extra playing a phone sex operator, but I got the job. We had to do a string of auditions. I kept having to go back in—I don’t know, it was probably three times. I was just so excited to be on the set for three weeks straight and working, and there were a lot of actual phone sex operators there doing—I guess they were consultants, and then what [director] Spike [Lee] did, he sort of gave everyone a chance to do one phone call on set.
At the time I thought it was such an opportunity. I’m sure it was a real kick for the crew. Each actor that he had hired got their opportunity to do these calls. It’s just that point, when you feel like you have nothing to lose. I’m sort of shocked. I think I would be so much more shy about doing that now, but at the time, I had no fears. Everyone had their minute when the camera got to roll on them and they were doing their call. They ended up using mine throughout most of the opening credit sequence and everything. I could hear my voice, but I barely was on the screen for the movie. It was a wild first gig. I remember saying to Spike—he said to me, “I hear this is your first real movie role?” And I said, “It is.” Before that, I’d just done commercials and plays and things, and television. And he said, “Take it and run. Take it and run.” I was like, “Okay, Spike. I will.”
AVC: In some ways, that’s got to be pretty helpful, right? When you do something like that on your first film, everything from there on must be like, “This is easy. I’ve got this.”
GM: I remember at the time feeling grateful because you’re at that juncture where your career can take any turn. You’re always happy for a job. I had my eye on doing film. At the time, television was sort of a different thing. If you want to break into film, that’s what you really have to focus on. At the same time, I was auditioning for whatever came along. I remember being really happy that I was working with such an esteemed director who I had admired, because I grew up—when I moved to New York, his movies, Do The Right Thing and Jungle Fever, that was the time of those movies. I’d just come out of that. So I really had a lot of admiration and respect and even intimidation just being there.
The Funeral (1996)—“Helen”
New Rose Hotel (1998)—“Hiroshi’s Wife”
AVC: Abel Ferrara is such a famous New York character. What was your experience making a film with him like? You actually did a couple of them.
GM: I was such a New York actress, and he was a fixture. Going from Spike Lee to Abel was pretty cool. I think I remember he was auditioning actresses, and I went to his loft, and there were all these people there, and he was letting me read all the different parts. From the get-go, it was such a creative environment. A whirlwind. But also very chaotic. “Hey, you, step in there and play that role. Now play that role. All right.” You just had to kind of roll with it. It was so fun to be in that world.
I remember at the time, too, I think he had me auditioning for a part—not a big part, I think it was a girl who got raped. I was like, “No, I’m not going to…” I don’t know where I got these big ideas of mine, but, no, I’m not going to do that part. I’d rather not be in the film than play the girl that’s doing that, so no. Then, lo and behold—I can’t remember which actress fell out, but there were three wives. It was Vincent Gallo and Chris Penn and Christopher Walken. And then there were the wives, and it was Isabella Rossellini and Annabella Sciorra—and I think they had Lili Taylor, and for some reason she didn’t end up doing it. And then he threw me in there. That was another great moment. I remember going to the read-through with all those actors and, again, being so excited just to be in the room.
It was all night shoots. My feeling of it was like being with vampires. It was a wild scene. I don’t know if it was just my interpretation because of youth at the time, but I feel like they don’t make movies like that anymore. These sets where you can smell the pot wafting through the trailers. Everybody was grabbing sleep where they could, and we could start shooting a scene at, like, three in the morning. Abel’s energy was very… “chaotic” is not the right word. That sounds too negative. It was this European sense of grabbing things where you could. It had this fluidity to it that was pretty cool that I’ve never encountered on any other set.
AVC: From all the stories, Ferrara seems like a pretty distinctive guy in terms of running his films.
GM: And emotions run high, but they’re all valid. There’s infighting and people getting upset and all that, but it’s all the blood, sweat, and tears. It was certainly great to be around and great to experience for me.
AVC: Would you say this is your biggest brush with a kind of big-budget action movie?
GM: You can probably see on my résumé I haven’t been a part of that many big-budget situations or big Hollywood movies. 3:10 To Yuma felt—and yet it probably wasn’t, by Russell Crowe’s standards, I’m sure it was an indie movie where he took a big pay cut. For me, it was so cool to be on that with James Mangold and such, such great actors. That was my experience, too, sitting across from Russell Crowe and doing that scene with him. I remember thinking, “Aha! It’s a movie star.” That’s the feeling you get when you’re acting with someone who’s not only a phenomenal, amazing actor, but has that other quality.
AVC: Especially in that movie, he’s presumably amping up the iconic thing due to his role.
GM: As an actor, he’s extremely talented and great, but he did have that extra thing there that you could feel in the room. You could feel the camera moving toward him as opposed to him moving toward the camera. Very interesting to see.
AVC: Between Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, was there sort of a masculine vibe on that set?
GM: [Laughs.] I was going to add that. Everybody was getting their cowboy on. You find yourself in these situations as an actress more often than not, unfortunately, which—I mean, I still love to be around them, and that’s fantastic. But it’s lots of male energy.
I think Vinessa Shaw was the other actress and, of course, we didn’t cross paths, which is usually the case. They keep the actresses away from each other. Not, like, on purpose, you know. I’m being facetious.
AVC: Speaking of iconic.
GM: Yeah, and mysterious, too. That was great. In my career that was one of the standouts, for sure. Those are always the hard ones to find jobs to work afterwards. After an experience like that, it’s really hard to go back to work, because it’s the great opportunity to carry it and have it all on your shoulders, and I just enjoyed it so much. I loved Mary Harron. It was so great to work with her. The whole process of even getting any studio to finance it with me attached—she was awesome. I think she did that with Christian Bale, too, I remember, with American Psycho. She’s the kind of person who finds her actor, and then she doesn’t see it any other way.
I remember there was a moment where that movie was going to be Leonardo [DiCaprio] and Oliver Stone—or, you know, I don’t know, I just know that she wanted him [Bale, for American Psycho], and I think she did a similar thing with me, and I remember saying, “Wow, thanks. Thanks for sticking by me through this.” And she’s like, “I’m not doing it to be nice.” It’s just because she’s very much a visionary filmmaker. I think she’s committed to her vision in a way, and just because you can get a bigger star doesn’t mean they’re the right one. She’s rare in that regard.
AVC: You’re listed on IMDB as appearing uncredited in the 1998 Godzilla movie as a reporter. That’s not right, is it?
GM: It’s totally wrong! I was not in Godzilla.
AVC: I don’t remember you from that movie.
GM: I don’t remember me either. But maybe I was? [Laughs.] No, I was not. As far as I know. Well, Roland Emmerich—yeah, that was Roland Emmerich, right? He did produce a movie that I did called The Thirteenth Floor. That’s that connection. But that was it. I was not in Godzilla.
AVC: The Thirteenth Floor is one of the weirder big-Hollywood genre films of that era. Did it feel that way while you were all making it?
GM: When you look back, it’s like, “Oh, yeah.” There was The Matrix. There was another one I remember with Rufus Sewell [Dark City —Ed.]. There were a couple of these sort of sci-fi movies happening. It’s that zeitgeist thing. Thirteenth Floor was lost in the shuffle of it a little bit. I remember when I read the script, I was like, “What the hell is happening?” It was hard to get the full journey. It was fun. I loved it because there was this doppelgänger, the dual character—the one character was almost like that straight-up femme fatale thing. I was so psyched for the Natasha Molinaro character because I had all these big ideas for her as this cashier with crazy makeup. It’s just more fun. I was always drawn to the character parts a little bit more. Somewhere where I could be in disguise is exciting.
AVC: Surely a half decade of working with Steve Buscemi and Bobby Cannavale leaves you with some fairly entertaining memories from that period.
GM: Absolutely. There’s no—again, that and Bettie, it’s hard to work after that. I feel bad, I’m not giving you juicy, funny stories. I don’t even think like that when I’m working. I get so excited by the actual work and being around that kind of talent and having that kind of writing. Everything from the costumes was just perfection in terms of the production values. I felt like it was almost like working in the old studio days, whatever that might have been. You feel like you have the wind beneath your wings. Everything is supporting it. It allows everybody to do their best work and really shine. It was such a great experience that way. And I loved the character. I really miss Gillian. After five years, you really come to love the person and get shocked by everything that they do, but you do it anyway. You find a way to justify it and understand it. She was such a challenge and such a tough person. A survivor. And you walk away from a character like that more empowered, I think, because you had to do the things that she did and believe in them.
AVC: You had so many intense scenes. Are there any particular moments that stand out for you when you look back on shooting that show?
GM: I remember—slapping the Commodore? I don’t know. You mean, like, “Woohoo, it’s the…?” [Laughs.] Sure, there were some fun times! The good news is, when you’re on a job like that, you know the crew so well and you just—you live there. Friday night, if you’re there, you’re having fun. You’re not just working, working. You get that comfort level with everyone. Nothing too crazy. Five years… probably the day I had to slap poor Dabney Coleman, who was bedridden. There were so many things. The day I had to drown the guy in the bathtub, feed him with heroin. Bobby Cannavale, when I had to shoot him up with heroin. There were a lot of crazy things. Throwing water in Steve Buscemi’s face.
AVC: At the time, you and your co-stars Edward Norton and Matt Damon were some of the more heavily scrutinized actors in the world. Did it feel like it while you were shooting that?
GM: Oh boy, well, I didn’t feel that way, but I remember Matt Damon was getting all the nominations at that time for Good Will Hunting while we were shooting. I remember thinking, “I don’t think I’ve seen the movie.” It was that transition period where people were seeing it. He was definitely—he had his head on his shoulders. That’s what I remember thinking about him. He’s a smart guy. You can see why he has the success that he has. I didn’t feel that way at all about myself. I wasn’t really worried. That was one of my first jobs where, I think, people were starting to pay attention because it was by default—you’re in the movie with Matt Damon.
AVC: But that was also right around the time that you were dealing with the whole “it girl” thing, right? When Vanity Fair put you on the cover and proclaimed you the “It Girl Of The ’90s.”
GM: It was pre-that. That was the job, that and around that time, I was still just having my little career off to the side, and publicity has changed so much, and the media and all the outlets. At the time, I was doing photo shoots here and there. I was doing things like that. I think even the Vanity Fair cover came out of that movie, when it was going to come out, so when we were shooting, there was really none of that. I was just another young actress making her way, you know? Again, I always lived in New York, I always seem to get my good work out of New York. I didn’t do the L.A. thing, really. I never bought into any of that.
AVC: Living in New York probably helps that.
GM: It does. And also, just, why you’re doing it depends on what you want out of it. All that other stuff just happens around—it has its own other snowball. It’s its own ride that always struck me as having so little to do with who I really was. It’s always an abbreviated version or someone else’s take on you that can never fully capture anything, really. It’s all with a grain of salt, but it is all part of the world that we’re in.
AVC: You got to have sex with Jesus in that one!
GM: You know, I can laugh about that because that was the one comedy on the list. I mean, it really was fun. I don’t often get cast in comedies, and that was a full-on—I had worked with Paul Rudd, we did The Shape Of Things with Neil LaBute, and he told David Wain, “You should hire Gretchen.” He did, and we went to Mexico and shot that stuff where Justin Theroux was walking on the water as “Jesús.” It was so much fun. It was great to be around that sense of humor and everything was—it was just all funny.
It was hard to keep a straight face on that set. Like, farm animals—we were shooting scenes with farm animals. We’re supposed to be shooting a love scene, and there’s farm animals in the room with us. It was silly.
The Shape Of Things (2003)—“Jenny”
AVC: Is there lightheartedness on a Neil LaBute set? Especially on The Shape Of Things.
GM: Yes. Neil is such a smart guy and a great writer, prolific, but he’s such a warm person, and we started off in London doing the play of that. It’s a four-character thing where the four actors and Neil, we had this rehearsal period, so we knew each other really well and intimately and went through the opening-night jitters and the whole thing. Then we took it to New York, so it’s kind of this traveling troupe by the end.
By the time we got to shooting the film, which I think we shot in 18 days, it was a really close group and we shared dressing rooms. It was a long journey, and it was cool that he kept all the actors. He didn’t try to recast—but he was always jokingly telling me he was thinking about Michelle Williams for my part. [Laughs.] I remember at the time feeling like—it was one of those lulls in your career, where you’re ebbing and flowing, and I was kind of in an ebb when I got the call to do that, and I remember talking to him on the phone. I can remember the experience reigniting, again what I was talking about before, the kind of the “why” you do it, just to get excited about working again and working on something that I really liked and respected. It was fun.