In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
Since beginning her career in the 1980s, Carla Gugino has been a constant presence on TV and movie screens. The actor graduated from bit parts on ALF, Doogie Howser, M.D., and The Wonder Years to starring roles in the Spy Kids franchise, Sin City, and the canceled-too-soon Elmore Leonard adaptation Karen Sisco. (As a consolation, she reprised the role of Sisco—with a few concessions to copyright—on the third season of Justified.) This summer, she can be seen participating in two end-of-the-world scenarios (the disaster film San Andreas and HBO’s mutually-assured-destruction satire The Brink) and one out-of-this world TV thriller (Fox’s Wayward Pines). The latter brought Gugino to the ATX Television Festival, where she participated in a screening of the show’s bonkers fifth episode—but not before answering The A.V. Club’s 11 Questions (and providing one of her own).
1. What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
Carla Gugino: I wouldn’t say “worst job,” per se, because I started acting when I was 13, so acting has been, with great fortune, my job since I could get a job. But I would say that in Sin City, [my character] Lucille had the worst job. I played a really bad day at work for her. She’s half-naked, sleeping in the middle of the night. She’s a parole officer. Her parolee comes in—played by Mickey Rourke—and asks her for sedatives. Then she is taken to a farmhouse, her hand is eaten off by a cannibal, and now that she’s left handless, she’s then murdered—riddled with bullets in a shooting.
The A.V. Club: Did you express this to Robert Rodriguez at the time? “Hey man, this is pretty extreme. This isn’t Spy Kids stuff we’re dealing with here.”
CG: I played the mom in Spy Kids when I was, like, 27. So it was ridiculous. I’m the right age right now to play that role. But [Rodriguez] was like, “You know what? If we do our job right, no one will question it.” And nobody did.
What I love about him is that he understands that actors are transformational. It’s a natural instinct to ask people to do what you’ve seen them do before. Until you see someone do something new, you don’t know what they can. So what I loved about Robert was he was just like, “I’d love for you to play this lesbian parole officer in Sin City.” And I read the graphic novel, and I was like, “I’m in,” and I love that I get to go with the same crew [from Spy Kids], everybody I’ve known for three movies, and play this crazy character that’s totally different than I had played before.
2. When did you first feel successful?
CG: I think it would be a movie I did called Troop Beverly Hills with Shelley Long. I was 16. It was the only time I ever lied about my age to get a job: I said I was 14. There’s this sort of iconic picture where we’re in front of the Beverly Hills Courthouse—Shelley Long is in the middle with Jenny Lewis, and it’s all these people that have now gone on to do many things—but it’s the only time I’ll ever be taller than my peers. I was three years older than everybody, but nobody knew.
I got emancipated that year, so I was a legal adult, so I didn’t have to have a chaperone on set, and it was the first time that I made enough money that I could say, “I’m going to fully support myself as an actor.” So that was the moment I really felt like a real actor.
3. If you were a supervillain, what would would your master plan be?
CG: I feel like it’s hard to pick anyone, but being like a shape-shifter like Mystique—by the way, if she were a better planner, she could defeat everybody. Because she can shift into anything. So it’s clearly a lack of planning for any lack of success of that character.
My master plan. It’s interesting, with all sorts of transparency in terms of what’s going on right now in government and in security and all of those things, because if you could be a shape-shifter, you could kind of show up anywhere and know everything. But would you want to know everything? That might be more terrifying.
But I’m also kind of obsessed with magic, so I also love Zatanna. I’d like to add an element of magic into my supervillain fantasy. I’d love to be privy to conversations, more like super cool artistic or philosophical conversations. This would not allow me to go back in time, which would be another temptation as a supervillain…
AVC: What if you built a machine that allowed you to do all of those things?
CG: You’re right. Because my supervillain can do anything. Why limit my supervillain powers? I’ve always thought about people who have created things that never happened before, like we have Elon Musk—I don’t know, I don’t know. This is a very overwhelming question. I know what I want to be, but what is my master plan? I’m not sure.
4. What were you like as a kid?
CG: Super serious. I’m much more of a kid now than I was when I was a kid. I was the kind of kid who was valedictorian, a straight-A student. My mom used to say, “Please stop studying and get outside.” As I started in L.A., I was the person who did academics until the middle of the day, then went on auditions. I think there was a moment later in my life where I was like, “What am I doing? Why am I so serious?” I have a very strong work ethic, and I’m very grateful for that. But I think there was a moment when I realized, “Oh, I can play a little as well.”
So yeah, I was a really, really serious kid. And a really kind of controlling kid. Like I had things that, now, people would say are like—there’s a name for many disorders as we know—but I would say, “If I pick this rubber band, then this will happen.” It was that kind of want to control things, which I think all kids have to some extent. But I do think that’s one of the reasons that acting appealed to me so much: the idea of letting go of control in a controlled environment. Being able to go through the range of intense emotions and jump off the cliff, metaphorically, but in a creative way, and in a way where the structure was really solid. I took this acting class—it was a cold reading class when I was 13—and I literally called my parents that day and said, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” And I realize this year I’ve been doing it for 30 years.
CG: Thank you!
AVC: Do you get a gift for that? Is there a traditional 30th acting anniversary gift, like with wedding anniversaries?
CG: I don’t know. As long as I get to keep playing great roles, working with great people, that’ll be the gift that keeps on giving, right?
5. Who was your celebrity crush when you were younger?
CG: River Phoenix was a big, big crush. He was somebody I always wanted to work with. He seemed spiritual, but was also an amazing actor, and I’m a bit of a crunchy, granola hippie at heart, so he was definitely one of them. It’s interesting how crushes end up being somewhat predictable.
Brad Pitt, when he came out with Thelma & Louise—I was like, “Wow.” And he’s an amazing actor! So yeah, I think those would be two.
AVC: Do you think the River Phoenix crush developed in part because you could see that he was similarly serious about his craft?
CG: Maybe so. I always felt a sense—whether it was completely delusional or not—that we had similar elements to our childhoods: I lived in a tepee with my mom in Paradise, California. And then to see that he was doing this kind of work where he was very much a man but also seemed sort of sensitive. These are the things that are so interesting, being an actor who has had a lot of, gratefully, success in my career: All of us project so much onto people and what they may be like. But yeah, I think it was his application to his craft, and the fact that he just seemed like a cool person.
6. If you had entrance music, what would it be?
CG: I should’ve revisited these questions before, so I could give you really well-prepared answers.
AVC: Off-the-cuff answers are good, too.
CG: Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” would certainly be pretty cool entrance music. And maybe The Pretenders’ “Walk Like A Panther” or something.
AVC: What’s your relationship to those songs?
CG: Nina Simone—there’s just no one like her. She has a voice that transports me, and that song in general just makes me feel so good. There’s this build to the song that I love so much.
And I’m just a massive fan of Chrissie Hynde, and I love The Pretenders, and that song would be good, sexy entrance music. Playful but sexy. I got to meet Chrissie Hynde. We were on a private plane flying back from London to the States and we stopped and had dinner in the middle of the night at her vegan restaurant in Akron, Ohio. So I have a very tangible, visceral memory of my time with her.
7. What have you done so far today?
CG: I went for a walk around Lake Austin, which I love and I know well. But somehow in my excitement I missed one bridge, and if you miss that bridge to cross over, it’s really long, so I ended up going on a two-hour, epic walk that I was not expecting, and I was drenched with sweat because it’s so humid here. And then I got a Jo’s Coffee—I cannot ever skip that here. And, you know, got spruced up for you. That’s pretty much it.
AVC: In addition to Lake Austin and Jo’s, do you have a favorite spot in the city?
CG: Oh my God, so many. I’m kind of giving up trade secrets, but one of my favorite hotels in the whole country is the Saint Cecilia. They make the best margaritas on the planet. I’m a big fan also of The Purest Margarita at Guero’s. [Sarcastically.] Not that I drink margaritas, ever. Alamo Drafthouse warm chocolate chip cookies while watching a movie—it doesn’t get better than that. And I love Elizabeth Street Café for its croissants and coffee. And Barton Springs. A must.
8. Have you ever been mistaken for another celebrity? If so, who?
CG: Rachel Weisz and I will get confused. I think it’s because [we have] pale skin, dark hair, we have big eyes, big lips. We actually have said several times we should play sisters. Earlier on in my career: Jennifer Connelly. There’s no one person that comes up all the time.
And then I’ve gotten random people based on characters I’ve played. I did a movie called The Mighty Macs where I played Cathy Rush, a real woman who was a basketball coach who brought her school’s women’s basketball team to nationals for the first time. I have sort of strawberry blond hair in that, and for some reason when people saw that movie, they said I looked like Julia Roberts. I don’t think we look anything alike.
AVC: Do you think that speaks to a versatility?
CG: Perhaps, perhaps. I also got a young Sally Field for a period of my career, but you know what? All of these people are people that are gorgeous and I am fans of, so I’m like, “It’s a very nice compliment.”
9. If you had to find another line of work, what skills would you put on your résumé?
CG: I’m not very qualified for much else. But it’s funny—I have two nicknames: Mama Gugino and Dr. Gugino. The doctor part is that I’m hugely into alternative medicine, so anybody who is going through any physical thing will call me and be like, “I don’t want to take antibiotics, what else do I do?” So I would say that I’m very well versed in natural medicine, oddly—alternative, more Eastern approaches to that stuff. I’ve been doing yoga also since I was 13 years old so I’ve got a background in that sort of holistic, alternative lifestyle.
And then the Mama Gugino part comes because I’m obsessed with food and great things that make you feel happy in different places. So any city I go to, that I’ve shot in, that a friend is going to go shoot in, they’re like, “Hi, can you give me a list of the best restaurants, the best spas, the best massage, the best hikes?” So I guess I’m sort of like a lifestyle consultant in that way.
AVC: You’re sort of like Hollywood’s private concierge for filming outside of Hollywood.
CG: Exactly. Well put.
10. Do you collect anything? If so, what and why?
CG: I’m a little bit more of an experience collector than a collector of tangible things. But I inherited from my mom the notion of collecting heart-shaped rocks, which I collect mostly from beaches, sometimes from hikes, all around the world. I’m obsessed with dark chocolates from around the world. I collect different kinds of dark chocolate, but then I eat it. So I don’t know if that’s officially a collection. I have hundreds of pairs of shoes, so maybe you could say that I collect high heels. Because I always wanted to be 5 inches taller than I was.
That’s really it. I think maybe because I moved a lot in my childhood, I’m a little bit of a gypsy by nature, so in my life, particularly at this point in my life for some reason, I’m getting rid of shit. Like I’m just about being more footloose and fancy free.
11. What would your last meal be?
CG: That is tough. My last meal would probably be—because I am Italian, after all—a beautiful cacio e pepe pasta, which is with the olive oil, cracked pepper, and parmesan. A glass of Whispering Angel rosé, and a perfect, warm chocolate chip cookie. That would be my last meal.
AVC: From all of the places you’ve traveled to, is there a particular setting in which you’d want to have this meal?
CG: Well, if I’m going to get to do that—I would have to have some caviar and bellinis. That would have to be included in there. Which makes me think Paris, but then if I really could be anywhere, then I would say I would want to be on an island in Bora Bora. So I don’t know what you do with that information.
12. Bonus question from Patrick Rothfuss: What thing have you done that has made you most proud of yourself as a human being?
CG: I do really find this a hard question to answer. But I think one thing I would say is if in any way we can set examples as human beings—which I believe we do, like the 4-minute mile. Until it was broken, nobody thought they could do it, and then people were able to start doing it. So I think that once somebody sees something, or feels it in the consciousness of society, it starts to allow change for other people.
So in a weird way, the fact that I had no intention of acting—I had no idea what I was going to do, but at 13 I made a very clear decision to do this, and really stuck with it, and took a step at something that in any objective way seemed like a terrible career choice. But somehow I really believed I could do it. And I look back on it now and I think, “Wow, I was really courageous to move out at 14 and to get emancipated at 16, and really get out there on my own and make a career for myself.” Not because I didn’t like my parents, but because I was so compelled to do this and I had to be in L.A. to do it. And a lot of young women have come up to me and said, “I was so inspired that you did it, it made me believe that I could actually do it.”
So if I’ve ever opened the doors for anyone else to do what they love, I feel that’s the richest gift that’s ever been given to me: I get to do what I love. And it’s a really brutal business, and no matter how successful you are you hear “No” more than “Yes.” It’s hard not to take things personally—it’s all about you and yet you’re not supposed to take it personally. But the truth is, the gift that I’m given every day by getting to do what I love is something that I never, ever lose gratitude for. So I guess I would say the fact that I heard this sort of inside of me and didn’t let anything outside of me distract me from it, that does make me feel like, “Okay, that’s what I would want for the people that I love.”
AVC: And what would you like to ask the next person?
CG: If you were to get hit by a bus tomorrow, what would you want to spend today doing?
AVC: I think that will probably inspire a very personal answer.
CG: He had me go deep. I was going to do something really silly.
AVC: Some people go silly, some people go deep.
CG: And by the way, by asking that question, this person will not be hit by a bus tomorrow.
AVC: I hope not.