Drew Barrymore: 'I want to find my adult side'

She was a has-been at 14. Now Drew Barrymore is a leading actress, but the journey isn't over, she tells Lesley O'Toole
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The Independent Culture

Drew Barrymore, still so strongly identified as ET's little friend Gertie, is 31 now, and has proved herself as both an actress and producer. Yet the industry and public perception of Barrymore is, oddly, that she is not quite a grown woman.

Curtis Hanson, the writer/director of LA Confidential, insists that he and she are about to change that with the second of her two new films, Lucky You. "I really wanted to give her the opportunity to play what would be perceived as a more womanly character than she has played before." That character is Billy, a wannabe singer who moves to Las Vegas to follow her dreams.

Yet Barrymore seems unperturbed about the industry's perception of her. "I do want to avoid being repetitive and I know I have been. I love romantic comedies. I love happy endings. But I know now that it is time to get in touch with a different side of myself - the one that is mature, adult and dramatic. I do want to be a 'woman' woman rather than a young woman."

Perhaps she had another perception to challenge first. Popular Hollywood opinion has long held that Drew Barrymore cannot sing. It is an assessment that she has done nothing to alter. "I have been told my whole life that I have positively the worst voice that any human being ever had bestowed upon them," she says with good humour, nursing a glass of champagne at Las Vegas's Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.

Who exactly has told her such a thing? "The list is long. Everyone from loving and supportive friends to other people I have worked with. I have been notoriously dubbed in every film I've had to sing in. And I was completely honest with Curtis - who was the very first person who didn't hit me with a wall of negativity. He told me, 'I know if you work hard enough you can do this'." And work she did, "...for months and months, just so I could become a passable singer, and that was climbing Mount Everest for me".

It's late on a steaming hot Vegas night in September and the always amusing Barrymore is casual in cuffed jeans and striped T-shirt, her outfit given a slick of after-hours glamour with gold flip-flops and jewellery. She tells me how supportive her boyfriend, the Strokes' drummer Fabrizio Moretti, was. Something, though, was not right. When we meet again in New York, just after the Golden Globes, Barrymore has split from him (after almost five years) and is, evidently, trying hard to put a brave face on having to promote her new romantic comedy, timed for prime Valentine's Day business. She is pale, wearing a jumper, jeans, and Ugg boots, and wearing not a scrap of makeup. I cannot recall the last time I saw a famous actress appear for an interview wearing none (Dakota Fanning and so on excluded). "I can't handle actors who are guarded," she says, as if to reinforce the notion that she is the opposite. "It's a tragedy when people are self-protective and angry about it."

Barrymore sings in this movie, too, though she leaves the bulk of the vocalising to her co-star Hugh Grant. "I love love and laughter. They're the two most important things in life and Hubert [as she calls Grant] is an ace and a king and a master of what he does. I love his films."

Grant is just as effusive. "She is incapable of not being charming, and has a strange, childlike, ability. It's that thing where you can't really hate a child. And she comes full of laughter and fun and hippy frivolity with candles and music and people everywhere." But, while Grant paints himself as a curmudgeon with no apparent excuse for such grumpiness, she has every reason in the world not to boast the sunny disposition that she has. Her semi-autobiography, Little Girl Lost, published when she was 14, chronicled her almost childhood.

She became a movie star at seven, thanks to ET, and says that she remembers that time well. "Surprisingly I just remember stepping right into the role. I don't remember having a freak-out. I just thought, 'Okay, this is what happens. This is just my interesting life, my destiny.' I didn't want to stop it happening and I'm glad now that it happened at a young age. I can't imagine that level of familiarity happening to you in the middle of your life. It must be terrifying."

Her interesting life quickly spiralled out of control. By nine she was drinking and smoking, by 10 smoking pot and by 12 snorting cocaine. She likes to say that by 14 she was a has-been. "I really couldn't get a job to save my life." That period of her life informs much of her upbeat attitude today. "I am so grateful now for all and any jobs I get. And so grateful that I went through that in my life. I honestly truly never take anything for granted."

She does deserve most of the credit for masterminding a comeback which started with a series of bad girls (1992's Poison Ivy, 1993's real-life schoolgirl shooter Amy Fisher, and one in a film actually titled Bad Girls). She earned a slew of good reviews ("Barrymore's a knockout," exclaimed a surprised Rolling Stone reviewer of Poison Ivy) and a huge injection of confidence, perhaps subsequently misdirected. In 1995 she flashed her breasts as a birthday surprise for David Letterman on his show, and the same year posed naked for Playboy. Steven Spielberg sent her a quilt with a note attached reading, 'Cover yourself up'.

"Yes, he doesn't like it when I take my clothes off," she told me once, biting her lip like a naughty child reprimanded. Spielberg was also, presumably, less than ecstatic when she married the Welsh LA bar-owner Jeremy Thomas in 1994 (the marriage lasted five weeks).

In 1996, she was offered the lead role in Scream that was later given to Neve Campbell, but opted instead for a smaller role that she thought would be "more fun". Two years later she had her biggest hit since ET, The Wedding Singer, opposite Adam Sandler (who she rejoined for 2004's equally successful 50 First Dates). But success at an age when she is better able to appreciate it has not lessened her free-spirited tendencies. "I'll drive in Ireland and park my car and run out into the field, rip all my clothes off and just run in the wheat fields naked."

In business, she says that one of her greatest risks was the 1998 forming of her production company Flower Films with Nancy Juvonen. Her biggest successes to date as a producer have been the two Charlie's Angels films, in 2000 and 2003.

Barrymore's grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents, on her father's side, were all successful actors. She was estranged from her mother, Jaid, for many years, but made up with her after playing a mother for the first time in 2001's Riding in Cars with Boys. "You realise at a certain point that your love and your family does not come in the package that you hoped for or expected, or that it looks different from what you thought it would," she explains. "So after that film I was able to start a relationship with her again. She's totally kooky and eccentric and we're still profoundly different, but I don't look down on her for her differences any more. She is a good person."

Her father was never a parent to her in any real sense, yet she says she learnt some valuable lessons from him before he died of cancer in November 2004. "My dad once said to me: 'Don't carry around that stinky bag of shit. Just kick it. Get rid of it. It stinks. Drop the bag, baby.' I thought at the time, 'Well, that's a lovely metaphor,' but he was right. I got rid of the bag and I smell better."

'Music and Lyrics' opens on February 9. 'Lucky You' opens on April 23