Film: The leaver of the pack

Ally Sheedy did the child-star thing; played the misfit; got the sack from her own agent. Now she's back on our screens and her mum, for one, is delighted.
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The Independent Culture
Ally Sheedy was never a happy bratpacker. She may have been in some seminal Hollywood teen films of the mid-Eighties - as Sean Penn's girlfriend in Bad Boys (1983), as a basketcase in The Breakfast Club (1985) and part of a steamy love-triangle in St Elmo's Fire (1985) - but she largely spurned any association with the snotty but determined partying of the bratpack mob.

Within a few years she had sunk without trace. As Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe and especially Demi Moore went on to bigger things, Ally Sheedy couldn't even get an audition. There followed stories of depression, sarky comments about her peer group, addiction to prescription painkillers, a book of poetry... That's how bad it was.

Now she's back from a career coma with a clutch of awards for her role in Lisa Cholodenko's hugely praised, stylish debut feature High Art, which opens the London Lesbian and Gay Festival next week, and for which she has won an "Indy Oscar" - the Independent Spirit Award for Best actress. Who would have thought that the daft freckly kid from The Breakfast Club - who in one famous scene scatters her dandruff over a schoolbook page so it looks like snow - would find the ultra-chic role she was born for as a moody, thirtysomething lesbian photographer?

Of course, she's an old hand at this game: Sheedy is about to become famous for the third time in as many decades. She was born in 1962, and became something of a child star. By the age of six she was dancing at the Lincoln Center with the American Ballet Theatre, and by 12 had written a set of cute best-selling children's books called She Was Nice to Mice. Just into her teens she was writing features for The New York Times and Village Voice. Then, on completing high school, she moved to LA to become an actress. After only two years at the University of California's drama department she started landing feature castings. One of her most memorable was as Matthew Broderick's girlfriend in War Games.

"It's a fallacy about the bratpack lifestyle," Sheedy told me on a visit to London a few months ago. "It never existed - it was the idea of some journalist, and it was a collusion staged only with the boys."

So those nasty stories of Ally being something of a wallflower were unfounded? Not really. She didn't drink, for starters and, as the daughter of New York intellectuals, was repulsed by the laddish atmosphere when Penn, Estevez and their ilk got together. Even though she was romantically linked to Rob Lowe, she scorned nights out with the boys. "Did I go?" she exclaims, tersely but expertly dragging an inch of ash off her cigarette at the very thought."Who'd wanna go!"

Her career crashed in 1987 with a string of duds; she managed to eke out a living with dozens of soul-destroying TV movies while at the same time getting in a worse and worse psychological fix. The bratpackers stopped returning her phone calls, and she grew anorexic and addicted to prescription medication. Insensitive publicity surrounding her eating disorders pushed her further into her shell.

"I was very depressed by 1991," she tells me. Even now she's thin and nervy as a whippet. She never quite relaxes, despite occasional nervous releases of laughter. The amazing trademark mouth with its edges turned down is mesmerising. "I felt like a pariah and couldn't even get an audition, not even the chance to read," she recalls, without self-pity. "This went on for years and I'd do workshops and keep myself occupied, but often I just thought I should go back to school and become a vet."

She found solace in an unusual place. "This sounds corny and weird but I had this framed motto in my bathroom and I just kept reading it," she says. "It said: 'Half the battle is being able to take the punishment.' I thought, 'I had some very early success and now I'm taking the punishment.'"

Small things got her through. One of them was an audience with Robert Altman after she had seen his movie Vincent and Theo and somehow homed in on his survivor vibes. A mutual friend contacted the venerable old rebel and he called her up and invited her over. He wasn't quite sure who this narrow-hipped, miserable actress was but he entirely sympathised with her feeling of being crushed, overlooked and unappreciated. "I told him I was so depressed about work - and he replied that it was like this for everybody, and that I had to get out of LA to preserve my sanity." She did. She went back to New York and got married and had a daughter.

Her flight from Hollywood didn't quite bottom out till she was finally sacked by her own agent. From this absolute and unassailable low point came redemption: a year later she was called out of the blue by Rhada Mitchell's agent, who started telling her about a film being developed by a young director, Lisa Cholodenko. It was called High Art and the script had the force of a revelation. "I had waited 10 years for a part like that to come along," Ally recalls. She knew she could act the role of Lucy Berliner, a melancholy arthouse photographer who is coaxed from reclusive status by the ambitions of a pretty, sexually ambivalent journalist, played by Rhada.

"Lucy's entire emotional life makes sense to me," says Ally. "It fits like a glove."

Despite growing up in the Valley during the Eighties, Lisa Cholodenko had not seen any of Sheedy's teen films. Yet she cast Ally immediately after her audition was over. The actress had no problems with the lesbian role mainly because her mother, the 63-year-old literary agent Charlotte Sheedy, is an "out" lesbian herself. "Mom didn't sit me down and tell me she was a lesbian until I was 18," says Ally. "But the fact of the matter is, being who I am, I knew about it way, way before. I grew up in Upper East Side Manhattan in the Seventies and it would never have occurred to me to judge people in terms of sexual orientation. I never discovered that there were restrictive ways of seeing the world until I was 20 and started giving interviews to people from Iowa."

"I've checked it out," is what Sheedy teasingly told Out magazine on the subject of lesbianism, but otherwise she is happily straight. So what does her mother make of High Art? "She's seen it four times," Sheedy says, "and she's never seen anything I've done four times."

Sheedy has three more movies in post-production (she admits to extraordinary energy levels) and has recently finished a novel that is a heartfelt sliver of biography disguised as charming allegory. "It's been rejected by one publisher but I'm used to rejection. It's about a dog called Betty who becomes an actress in Hollywood, but doesn't want to play just dog roles." Touche.