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Poker Face

Heather Graham, Justin Stephens

Heather Graham, who reprises her role as Jade the stripper in this month’s The Hangover Part III, doesn’t need a deck of cards to play the game.


Photographs for Delta Sky by Justin Stephens.

Heather Graham cannot mask her feelings for the arugula salad with avocados, walnuts and grapefruit. “Mmmmmmm,” she says. “Ohmigod. Isn’t this good?” I nod as I chew my own arugula salad with avocados, walnuts and grapefruit. (I had been nervous earlier, clutching my menu across from Heather Graham like it was a pair of fours, and had ordered the exact same salad.) “It’s so good!”

We are sitting in the Beachwood Café, a restaurant close to where Graham lives in the Hollywood Hills, about a mile beneath the Hollywood sign, a regular hangout for conducting interviews when she’s promoting one of her movies—in this case, The Hangover Part III.

       
On Graham: Beaded blouse by L'Agence. Short suit by Rachel Zoe. Shoes by Brian Atwood. Snake Bracelet by Amrapali. Bangles by Effy. Ring by Dove's.

       

I have read quite a few Beachwood Café interviews with Heather Graham to prepare for my Beachwood Café interview with Heather Graham. In some of them, she talks about how much she likes to play cards. This seems like fertile ground if we’re going to discuss the reprisal of her Hangover character Jade, a Las Vegas stripper/escort.

“To be honest,” she starts, “I used to really like playing cards.” (Nothing on the flop. Here comes the river?) She explains that yes, she really was into it. In fact, she started getting really good at it. She started to really enjoy winning, until her competitive side emerged in full force and she discovered she didn’t really like her competitive side. “So I was like, I gotta stop playing cards.”

Now she does yoga.

Maybe we can talk about performance. I ask her which role has been her best over the years—Rollergirl? Or maybe her turn as Robert Downey Jr.’s girlfriend in the underrated Two Girls and a Guy?

“To be honest, I just love working,” she says. “Like, I love it. Even if the movie doesn’t turn out good, I still had a great time.” She laughs, and I can’t tell if it’s about her pseudo answer or just because she really does love working. She tries to throw me a bone: “Obviously, when you work with certain directors who are really talented, it’s really fun. But I love acting, I have fun with everything. Unless people are mean to me, I’m having fun.”

I bought a new deck of cards at the hotel, hoping that I could play poker with Heather Graham. They are out on the table next to my tape recorder. We are not going to be playing cards, but we are definitely in the middle of another game of chance.

I knew the game, but we were on her turf and playing by her rules. I wasn’t feeling that great about my luck.
 

       
Oh Graham: Dress by Pucci. Shoes by Brian Atwood. Bangles by LeVian. Ring by DeMarco.        

At 43 years old, Heather Graham is only five years older than me, but she’s been a sex symbol for my entire life as a dude. When I was 12, she was Corey Haim’s (and Corey Feldman’s) crush in License to Drive; when I was in high school, I wasn’t cool enough (yet—that would have to wait for Netflix) to watch her in David Lynch’s masterpiece Twin Peaks and its prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me; in college, she was the iconic Rollergirl in Boogie Nights. She’s worked steadily since—in a slew of indie movies and in television—but it wasn’t until 2009’s The Hangover that I was reminded how great she is. She always plays sexy women, and even when she’s playing a deviant in From Hell or Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, it feels like nothing can drag her down. She just sort of sparkles for the camera.

As Jade in The Hangover, Graham plays a stripper living in a low-rent motel with her infant son, and within 60 seconds you’re made to understand that Ed Helms has cheated on his girlfriend to be with her the night before. And not only do you get it, you’re instantly on her side. Because it’s Heather Graham.

I speak to Todd Phillips, the director of the franchise, and he says he cast Graham for exactly that reason. “She’s a ray of sunshine,” he says. “She’s a beacon. And as soon as she comes on the screen, she’s so comforting and so sunny.”

       
On Graham: Sequin dress by Parker available at REVOLVEclothing.com. Ring by DeMarco. Bangles and ring by Effy.        

Phillips spent quite a lot of time with Graham when they shot the first movie. “We went to the Spearmint Rhino [a “gentlemen’s club” in Las Vegas] and hung out with—I mean talked to—some of the girls there,” he says. They also went to the Beatles LOVE Cirque du Soleil show. “And I pretended, of course, that I was on a date with Heather Graham,” he laughs nervously. “She had no knowledge of that.”


Back at the Beachwood Café, Graham is also a beacon of sunshine, “mmmm”-ing her way through her arugula salad. I know I’m not on a date with Heather Graham, but I’m definitely in the middle of a celebrity interview with her, and because my card game bluff was called so early, it feels like I’m struggling. If she doesn’t like cards, what does she like? She doesn’t drink or do drugs. And I don’t want to talk about yoga or eating breakfast everyday, so we talk about the script that she’s writing and hoping to direct. She says she writes in bed, lying down. Hey, at least there’s some ergonomic risk.

What is her script about?

“It’s kind of like a female empowerment-y sex comedy about these three women who are friends,” she says.

What’s with you and sex, I ask?

“To me, it seems normal, but then people are like . . . .” She trails off.

       
On Graham: Beaded blouse by L'Agence. Short suit by Rachel Zoe. Shoes by Brian Atwood. Snake Bracelet by Amrapali. Bangles by Effy. Ring by Dove's.        

Normal or not, whether you’re Lena Dunham or Heather Graham, I note, women who are drawn to expressing feminine sexuality are going to be at least partially defined by that.

“My script is a little bit about that,” she says. “It’s kind of about being a woman in this society and all these mixed messages that you get from culture and religion and things that are ingrained in your head as a kid. And how can you feel good about your own sexuality despite people who either want to judge it or want you to be more sexual? It’s weird.”

So, what does sex mean to her?

“I kind of feel like it’s a spiritual connection to the universe and the person you’re with.” But she can’t hold a straight face. She cracks up.

Graham picked up transcendental meditation from David Lynch in the early 1990s. Since then, she hasn’t set it down—she’s incredibly disciplined, meditating for 20 minutes twice a day. I wish I had her kind of discipline, I say, I would be much better at cards. I explain that I always go in on hands that I probably shouldn’t.

“But that can be good sometimes,” she says. “Because you can freak people out by making them think that you have a better hand.” She tells me that all this talk about cards is making her want to play cards now.

I wonder about the difference between meditation and being intimate with someone—how much do you think about yourself when you’re doing each?

“Oh, you’re not supposed to be thinking at all,” she says. She explains that transcendental meditation involves emptying your mind of thoughts, trying to connect to the universe through feeling the pleasure of being alive and internal peace. “You know when you have a day off, and you’re just like, I don’t have to do anything today, so I’ll just sit in this chair, and I don’t need to rush anywhere, and you’re sitting there doing nothing, and you’re like, This feels so good to do nothing.” Like THAT, she says. “But maybe guys aren’t as much into that, because guys like doing things, right?” I tell her that I kind of like sitting down.


Heather answers each one of my questions. She even takes the deck of cards that I brought and shuffles them a couple of times, makes a couple of pretty good bridges. “These are such great cards!”

She’s well practiced at keeping things on a light, positive note. Not that I’m trying to drag it anywhere negative—but I know that her parents are strict Catholics, and that they didn’t really approve of her career at first, and that she doesn’t really talk to them anymore. I know that she broke up with Jason Silva about a year ago, a guy whom I had happened to interview a few weeks before, for another article in this magazine. I don't want to dwell on any of this stuff, but I am looking for a hook. She knows the game.

Graham tells me that growing up, her dad was an FBI agent and they moved from Milwaukee to Virginia to Southern California, and she liked Virginia best. She was the kid who got to pick the games that she and the neighborhood kids would play.

       
On Graham: Dress by Pucci. Shoes by Brian Atwood. Bangles by LeVian. Ring by DeMarco.        

“Oh, this is a Dracula story and you’re going to be this person and you’re going to be that person,” she remembers, in her first role as director. She had tomboy sympathies, and the first play she ever saw starred Sandy Duncan as Peter Pan, and afterward she was obsessed with Peter Pan.

“I used to dress as Peter Pan and my sister would be Tinker Bell,” she says. “Yeah, so I would kind of make up the games, and maybe I was kind of bossy. But people liked it.”

I tell her that I’m having a good time, but it’s clear that she’s in control today, too.

“You think so?” She smiles, and her poker face kind of cracks. “Well, I’ve done a lot of interviews. Like, if I was new I might be blurting out more and more things. But now it’s like, If you say this, where’s it going to go? So you kinda know. Sometimes people go, Well, what other problems do you encounter? And then the whole article is about problems I encounter. I don’t want to read that about myself. How depressing.”

She explains that she’s not this cagey in life, and that if this weren’t an interview and we were just hanging out, she would ask way more questions. That acting is really just asking a bunch of questions.

“You look at the part [and then ask]: Why is this person doing this? And then you try to backtrack it: Oh this person was acting this way because he was feeling this. And then you just make it up.” //  

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