By rights, Heather Graham should have been a bona fide Hollywood A-list movie star long ago. She has flirted with the status certainly, but the career momentum so often provided by that elusive amalgam of critical and public acclaim has not to date been her destiny, at least not with any longevity. Mention her name to most men and it is slinky, curvaceous porn star Roller Girl in 1997's Boogie Nights who comes most readily to mind. Or Felicity Shagwell, the first and surely the best of Mike Myers' Austin Powers' terribly British bits of cinematic crumpet. Or again, Jade, the stripper with a heart of gold in that surprisingly successful 2009 comedy starring three ostensibly unknown male leads, The Hangover.
Graham is 43 now and no less alluring on screen or in person than she was more than 16 years ago in Boogie Nights. She is also thrilled to be reprising her role in the allegedly final part of The Hangover franchise. It is not a pivotal role, as hers was in the first film, but Todd Phillips (co-creator, co-writer, director and producer of each film) suggests she was one of the elements missed in the less successful sequel. "Jade represented sunshine in the otherwise bleak world that these guys live in. This time they call on her when they need some help with some information. They figure that she can help and so it allowed us to get her back."
In Los Angeles, ahead of The Hangover Part III's being screened, Graham is indeed all sunshine, though apparently unable or unwilling to shed too much light on a product that relies heavily on the element of surprise. "Everyone was so paranoid they didn't even want to give me the script," she says, practically shrieking, of the Woody Allen-esque secrecy employed during the shoot. Less ballsy actresses might have demurred but Graham is a seasoned pro (incredibly, this is her 61st film) and wouldn't take no for an answer. "I said to them, 'Can't I read the whole story? I really don't understand what's going on!' They said, 'No, it's top secret, we don't want anything getting online.' They finally gave it to me, but it took a lot. It felt like I was in the CIA doing thisinitiative about terrorism."
Graham always had a back story for Jade. "She wanted to be a writer and was going to go to night school. That's not what happens to her but I'm so happy for her. I wanted her life to get better!"
Jade's scene-stealing baby from the Hangover also returns. "It's the same kid," she says, eyes as surprised as she presumably was on first hearing the news. "His mum had a photo of us from the first film. He was a baby. Now he's four. He's so young, I don't think he totally gets it but he's so not a Hollywood kid. He's just a normal little boy."
Mostly she is thrilled to be back. "So many people said to me, 'We wish you'd been in The Hangover II' or 'We wish you and Stu [Ed Helms's dentist character, whom Jade married in the first film] had ended up together.' I ran into Billy Crystal one time and he told me, 'I really wanted your characters to end up together.' I thought how amazing that a really famous comedian had seen the film and felt that way!"
Las Vegas also returns as a "character", one Graham was less inclined to party with. "People really, really love Vegas but I hate it. Recently, I've stopped drinking, and I don't do any drugs, but there were nights in my past there when I thought, 'I shouldn't have drunk that much.' But I haven't had that for a really long time. I'm kind of goofy enough to have fun without drinking. So by the time everyone gets relaxed, I'm like, 'OK, I was already there two hours ago.' I can start dancing by myself. I'm just wacky enough to have fun."
Graham also looks not much different from the way she always has. Perhaps it is her healthy regimen, perhaps it's something more. Either way, she graces the current US cover of Maxim magazine, stunning in a bikini. As the magazine itself touts its cover star: "Roller Girl is one gorgeous woman now". She's still long blonde-haired, huge-eyed and very svelte but not stick-thin, in a black Fifteen-Twenty shirt and bandage-style black, grey and yellow Jenni Kayne miniskirt. The legs are endless, the black stiletto heels toweringly high, but she can walk in them.
Graham looks every bit the California girl but has been based in the Golden State only since she was nine when her family moved from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her mother, Joan, is a children's author and teacher, her father, James, a retired FBI agent. Her younger sister Aimee also acted for some years but apparently not of late. The older Graham discovered acting at school when enthralled with a production of The Wizard of Oz. Her parents were less enthralled with her putative career choice though her mother did drive her to countless auditions. She made a brief uncredited film debut at 14 in Mrs Soffel starring Mel Gibson and Diane Keaton, and got her Screen Actors Guild card – essentially her entrée into the professional business – at 16. "I did a hair commercial. My one line was: 'Hair doesn't feel like hair'." Her first starring film role soon followed, in the teen high jinks comedy License to Drive opposite then US teen heart-throbs, "the two Coreys", Feldman and the late Haim. She subsequently enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles to study English, but left two years later to pursue acting full-time.
What makes her happy outside of work? "I do a lot of yoga, and I sleep a lot. Like really a lot. I meditate, and I just try to be happy. I get massages. I try to pamper myself because life is too short. When I was a kid, I used to think, 'Oh people who get massages are so wasteful. Why are they wasting money on something you don't need?' Now I think, 'You could die tomorrow, you should just spend that money on a massage.' I am getting better at doing nice things for myself."
Judging by her résumé, she may have little time for self-pampering these days because she is invariably on-set. Forthcoming film releases include At Any Price with Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron, as a father and son both romantically involved with her character. "Equal opportunities," she laughs. In Behaving Badly, her co-stars include Selena Gomez, Mary-Louise Parker, and Elisabeth Shue. "I play a questionable lawyer who accidentally takes ecstasy. As an actor, that's a 'get out of jail free' card!"
Graham is most excited about her own project that she is hoping to direct and star in this year. "People kept saying, 'You can't make a movie with a female lead.' So I wrote a script about that. It's about a woman and her friends, their sex lives, and how she's trying to make female-driven movies but she's working for a director who says, 'No one cares about this shit.' I've been offered money by a big movie company and have two famous actresses who want to do it. At first, I was looking for a director but then I thought, 'I'm so inspired by this, why don't I tell this story?' I'll be in it too."
Is it fair to say that this is a very good time to be Heather Graham, if not quite yet her happy ending? "I think it's a great time for women. Without Judd Apatow there would be no female realistic comedy. He greenlit Bridesmaids and Girls. Without him would there be comedies showing women as fully formed human beings? Not that many. Probably none. But yes, it's a really good time for me. I'm so grateful."
'The Hangover Part III' is out now
*This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of Radar magazine