Arts: The stepmother complex

Anjelica Huston has a thing about playing witches. But can she do more than just scary? John Walsh meets a versatile vamp

She was Top Mafia Babe in Prizzi's Honour, and Top Witch in The Witches, Nicolas Roeg's film of Roald Dahl's celebrated book, and Top Ghoul as Morticia Addams in The Addams Family; she has played Least Appealing Screen Mother in The Grifters (where she ends up killing her son, played by John Cusack, by stabbing him in the throat with a broken glass). And now she's about to burst upon us as Top Evil Stepmother in the new romantic Cinderella-with-attitude movie, Ever After, opening on Friday. If you were Anjelica Huston, you might be forgiven for wondering if you were getting a little typecast.

Except that, as Ms Huston's real fans know, she is capable of far more shades of emotion and drama than the limited palate - of black, dark black, Stygian and noir - suggested by the movies that made her name. Those who saw her in John Huston's heartbreaking version of Joyce's The Dead, or playing Martin Landau's doomed screen mistress in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanours, know how convincingly moving she can be when that majestic body of hers, that spectacular face, are allowed to behave as if attached to a human being rather than a two-dimensional grotesque.

There's a general feeling in film critic circles that Hollywood has rather seriously under-used the striking Ms Huston, as if the Louvre Museum had been utilising the Winged Victory of Samothrace to keep the back door wedged open. Now that Ms Huston is back, in three new movies and after a few years out of the limelight, it's time to ask her what, at 46, she makes of her own talents.

She strides into the Dorchester suite, six-feet-nothing of tough businesswoman, handsome, sleek and a little wary, her Dolce e Gabbana tweed two-piece like a carapace against impertinent interviewers. Ms Huston's enormous head is curtained by her dark-chestnut hair, and her vast hazel eyes blaze beneath their tarantulan lashes. She smokes Marlboro Lights like an enthusiastic laboratory beagle. Her long femme fatale legs end in spiked heels. It's a fantastic package, if an unsettling one: Anjelica Huston, half corporate raider, half professional assassin.

I asked about the Huston dynasty (her father John was the director, actor and screenwriter, his father Walter, the actor who won an Oscar for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). Did she feel it in the blood? "You call us a dynasty? A few years ago, I was in a Japanese theatre and when a certain actor went on stage, the whole audience, and I mean to the rafters, called out `Welcome 28th dynasty Genko!', because this guy's ancestors had all played his role for centuries. That's a dynasty. The Hustons, in terms of America's short history, are a mini-dynasty. But it's nice to be working in the same media for that long. Genes? No, it's more like somebody who's grown up in a shoemaking family. I think it's kind of what you know more than what you don't."

Some publicist on Ever After suggested that the reason Ms Huston had been attracted back to movies was because her co-star, Drew Barrymore, told her they should both pay homage to their distinguished ancestors. The reasons were actually much simpler ("It was fun, it was a nice part, it was a fairy tale, it was a lovely summer, it was the Dordogne, it was very good food, it was an easy job compared to some I've had that are more twisted and soul-searching, it was well paid and nicely rounded-out, it was a big studio. Shall I go on?") but I doubt if their ancestors would be all that impressed. Ever After is a sweet film with a leaden script, some gorgeous photography but prosaic direction, pitched (I'd guess) at bovine American teenagers. It nods at post-feminism (Ms Barrymore, as the Cinders figure, holds Prince Charming Dougray Scott entranced by quoting from More's Utopia, which, her father assures her, "means paradise" (though, of course, in Greek it means "nowhere"), and drags in Leonardo Da Vinci as an avuncular Merlin-figure. Its main raison d'etre is to give dumpy teenage girls hope of finding romance, and its finest moments are those when Anjelica is on screen. She plays Rodmilla, the stepmother, with exquisite, cooing relish, murmurously scheming to marry off her two minxy, non-Utopia-reading daughters, arching her phenomenal eyebrows like a McDonald's logo above a face of frightening angularity, her hair tucked into a Medea- like headdress, her body languorously lain on a bed, a sturdy odalisque dreaming of Christmas in Paris.

I said I thought the evil-stepmother thing was softened down from time- to-time in the modern Hollywood fashion where nobody can be wholly nasty and even Lady Macbeth would be given a "special moment" to describe how she really liked kids. Ms Huston didn't buy it. "There's something about playing an evil role, that, unless your character is generically warped or Hitler-ian, an actor can always ask - what are the underpinnings of the person's life and why are they so dreadful? I think it's a more realistic rendering than the caricature of a woman who mindlessly beats a girl." But surely, I said, that's what a Wicked Stepmother is for. "No," said Ms Huston firmly, "I have many sympathies with the woman. She comes to this marriage with two lovely daughters of marriageable age, the second husband brings her to a farmhouse instead of the glorious palace she was expecting, then dies leaving her with all kinds of monetary problems, and this girl is in the way, with whom she's never had any connection and whom she considers a serious rival to her daughters in the Prince's affection. She's terribly disappointed and thwarted and hasn't made the marriage she wanted, and consequently had invested everything in her daughters..."

Well, gosh. In Anjelica Huston's torrential analysis, the villain of a simple Cinderella tale turns into Jane Austen's Mrs Bennett. She is a formidable talker when in full flow, interspersing real insights with slightly grating cultural-studies jargon. ("I don't think Lady Macbeth sets out to be evil, she has a very serious agenda for her husband and she empowers him to go for things.") Didn't she like playing as black as possible when she got such a role? "I like playing all kinds of stuff, but the shadings are what interest me. The satisfaction lies in pulling off the transitions between moods. To be very black and white, very Kabuki, is one way - but I've done those witches. This is something else".

Ms Huston isn't keen to sit around becoming typecast. Apart from Ever After, she's also currently appearing in Buffalo 66 by the egregiously- talented Vincent Gallo, playing Gallo's mother. And also lurking on the must-see movie shelf is The Mammy, which Ms Huston filmed in Dublin earlier this year. It was her second shot at directing, and is the result of her enthusiasm for the work of Brendan O'Carroll, the Irish author. "Jim Sheridan told me about it. The script is tremendously engaging. It has great curves. Brendan does this rare thing of combining street comedy with very poignant stuff, the rollercoaster between comedy and tragedy happens a lot and it's really intriguing to play." She takes the lead, playing a woman whose husband dies suddenly (like Rodmilla's), leaving her with seven children, a new romance and an obsession with the singer Tom Jones, who has a strut- on part in the movie.

For purposes of research, she hung out in the fruit 'n' veg market in the roughest part of Dublin, listening to the thick accents of the women traders. "The only way you can do that voice," she says, "is to go to Moore Street and work at it. At some point you have to jump in, and that's always a bit terrifying. It's like skiing, you have to fall on your face sometimes, so you might as well do it big time." Upon which she launched into a spectacular Dublin accent ("Par-snups! Toirnups!") which had me in hysterics.

It was a kind of homecoming for the divine Ms Huston, who spent the first 12 years of her life in Co Galway. "I wanted to believe in God, but my parents were both atheists. We had tutors until I was nine or 10, then I went to the Sisters of Mercy convent in Loughrea. I wasn't indoctrinated, but you can't really go to a convent in Ireland and not come out a Catholic. I've never shaken it off. I'd say I still have Catholic leanings."

Looking at this statuesque leading lady, the antithesis of every interchangeable Hollywood bimbo, it's hard to imagine her as a little girl - as the princess before she turned into the queen. "I hated the way I looked when I was young," she says with some heat. "I've always veered between thinking on occasion I was good-looking and on occasion not. I think it's pretty close to the truth - I can be good-looking from some angles, and not from others." Weren't you tall and sweeping and stately when young? "But one isn't tall and stately as a teenager. One is oversized and gangling and awkward, and embarrassed about being bigger or taller than everybody else. And then you go through the stage of putting heels on, because if you're taller than the others, you might as well be twice as tall." Thus, it seems, are movie heroines born.

Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album