Anjelica Huston: “Change is very painful”

How moving to New York and taking a role in hit US drama Smash helped the actress recover from the death of her husband

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Anjelica Huston’s character in musical drama Smash has a trademark dramatic gesture. Almost every time she comes into contact with her sneaky, combative, soon-to-be ex-husband she ends the conversation by throwing a Manhattan cocktail in his face.

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Huston, 61, has since taken to throwing drinks on talk shows and when she walks in the streets of New York, women come up to her and ask, “Please, will you throw one for me?”

“I have this terrible fantasy that all over the country we will be spraying the menfolk. Which, let’s face it, they deserve after all these years,” she purrs and then giggles.

Smash

The gesture is one of triumph. One of a woman who will not be passed over and put down. And although the gesture comes from her latest character, vampish producer Eileen Rand, who wants to show her former business and marital partner that she’s perfectly capable of succeeding on her own, it comes from the core of Huston. And it’s a pleasure to see her once again smiling and triumphant.

Smash has been described as Glee for grown-ups. There’s a mini-musical in each episode with original songs that are breathtakingly good and an addictive plot centring on who will get to play the part of Marilyn in Marilyn the Musical and whether the show will ever go on. It’s clever, funny and filled with show tunes.

“It is fantastic to be involved with something so classy. Without sounding too corny, this is the nicest, closest group of people I’ve ever worked with. We look forward to our scripts every week because we are happy to be doing this thing of quality and fun.”

Quality and fun had been pretty much absent from Huston’s life for several years before Smash. Moving to New York from California last autumn was a dramatic change, but it’s clearly been one for the good.

Bereavement

When we met in Santa Monica just before her move, there was a palpable sadness. Her husband, sculptor Robert Graham, died of a rare blood disease at the end of 2008. She had thrown herself into the role of caregiver for the last few months of his life. As she always throws herself entirely into things, she took a step back from her career for that period.

Her first movie after her break was 50/50, a comedy about life and death and cancer. It was “extremely cathartic. Every day I could legally cry, which was important to me. I was living it the way I lived it. My work has always reflected my life.”

But for a long time her grief was consuming. “People treat you differently as a widow,” she says. “You think people would be comforting. They are not.”

Hers and Graham’s was a real and balanced marriage and they loved each other profoundly. It was a calm and warm kind of love that came to her quite late in life. They were married in 1992, when she was 40. Before that she’d been involved in a high-octane relationship with Jack Nicholson. For 17 years it was on and off but mostly on.

Marriage

In the 1970s Anjelica and Jack were the cool Hollywood couple. She with her trademark long dark bob, which she still sports today. And Nicholson at his peak, when he liked to be known as catnip for women.

Their relationship finally ended when Huston saw a photo spread of Nicholson with actress/model Rebecca Broussard announcing she was pregnant with his baby. This was after Huston herself had been trying to get pregnant.

Robert Graham was different. “I finally met someone who said what they were going to do and did it. He was single-minded in his pursuit of me and a genius in his own right.”

She will never forget him or how he changed her and how he loved her in every moment, but she can now move on and not be completely defined by the grieving process.

She was scared of making the move to New York. “But I’m so glad I took the risk. It’s amazing to be in front of the public every week and to feel the enthusiasm of New York behind me. The city is welcoming. People on the street say, ‘We love your show!’ It’s a good feeling. And oddly enough I haven’t felt overpowered by the city, I’ve felt invigorated.”

Past

Huston is on great form, a form that has melted years away from her. She has always lived in a man shadow in some way. Nicholson cast a huge shadow, as did her father, film director and general hell-raiser John Huston. She says that every time she reads a biography of him, a new woman who was involved with him appears.

She grew up in Galway. Her father loved Ireland because it was the antidote to American McCarthyism. He loved to hunt, which seems to sum him up. Huston and her mother lived in the guesthouse when her parents, inevitably, split up. Her mother died in a car crash when Huston was only 17.

She is now, perhaps for the first time, living in the moment. She says that her new character, Eileen Rand, “is close to me but an exaggerated version. She is more openly mean than I would allow myself to be,” and then laughs as if somehow she might be starting to allow herself to be more forthright. Her eyes gleam at the prospect.

Change

Leaving Los Angeles\tand finding Eileen seems to have been essential liberation. “It takes me away from the pain I was going through in the last few years, with death and being in a house that I knew at some point I would have to move away from.

“Change is sometimes very painful. A new person emerges from the chrysalis of who you were and you go from feeling vulnerable to feeling that something brilliant has changed your life for the better. You think, here is a new chapter.

“I am a crustacean [her star sign is Cancer]. I live in my shell and sometimes I think there is no way out of it. But you have to take a risk and when you do, life can be transformative.”

Risk

She told me before that she had got wary of taking risks. She used to ride motorbikes and dangerous horses. Before Smash she said that she was no longer a great risk-taker. And now?

“Before I left California I was determined to ride all of my horses in order of difficulty. Start with the easiest and go to the hardest. When I got to the sixth and hardest horse I had a big fall. Somehow I knew it was coming and I was lying on my back staring up. It was humiliating.

“It’s nothing to do with how good a rider you are, but it’s almost as if you have to learn how to become good at taking a fall. You have knowledge of it before it happens. It’s a peculiar thing, but it’s about risk-taking. You are probably going to fall but you do it anyway.”

Smash might have been a risk, but it has had amazing reviews. Not a fall in sight.

Romance

“When I took the part I asked the writer if she would write two things in for me, since my life always imitates art. One was to give me a lovely boyfriend, the other was to give me the money I needed to put on the show. And she has done both.

“In the show I have a handsome boyfriend and we get to have a lovely romance and I get to kiss him.” It’s been a while since she’s kissed someone. “Tell me about it!” she coos.

How about kissing in real life? “I can do it with impunity in front of 200 technicians and two million viewers. Personal kissing? One is tempted. It’s part of my slow emergence. It may take a little while for the elements to catch up with me, but I hope so.”

This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 17 April 2012.

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Smash starts tonight at 10pm on Sky Atlantic