October 1996
By Chris Smith
Photo Editor Jennifer Crandall

The offbeat character actress tunes up to become leader of the pack in a movie ode to girl groups.

Illeana Douglas is a little... off. Maybe it began at birth, when her mother mistakenly added an extra to her first name. Somehow, Douglas, 31, grew up to be the kind of woman who can innocently wear mismatched shoes on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. Smart and sly, she refreshingly mentions ‑ in one breath ‑ that she's a feminist and she's boy crazy. After years of obscurity despite a modest, scene‑stealing turn in To Die For, Douglas has a plum part in next spring's Picture Perfect opposite It girl Jennifer Aniston, but frets that her part is too... large.

And Douglas is certain she's walking around in the wrong decade. "Absolutely‑ I know I was born too late," she says with an inviting, asymmetrical smile. "So many of my dreams are about being in the '30s ‑I think I would have flourished in the old studio system."

No wonder Douglas is terrific as the out‑of‑place star of Grace of My Heart, playing a singer‑songwriter from blue‑blooded suburban Philadelphia who finds herself writing teen anthems for ghetto girl groups. "The women I cast have to embody all sorts of contradictions," says Allison Anders, writer and director of Grace (and of Gas Food Lodging and Mi Vida Loca). "I have to find the right woman to speak to other women. And Illeana just does, naturally. It's kind of wild because she goes across all class and all race ‑ black chicks and Puerto Rican chicks are really into her. And she's from Connecticut, you know!"

Friends struggle to describe Douglas. Says her pal Cynthia Rowley, the fashion designer who created many of the 61 candy‑colored costumes Douglas wears in Grace: "I like her in skinny capri pants and a sleeveless shell or sweater. Illeana is kind of a '5Os'-6Os beatnik‑slash‑ingenue. Does that make sense?"

Not exactly. But everything about Douglas is deliciously askew. At lunch, she sits with her face tilted to the left. Perhaps this is to spare her inquisitor the full force of her eyes, which are oval and pale green and so huge that to gaze at them straight on is to fall completely, helplessly into them. Maybe it's just that she can't stop looking around the lobby of New York's Paramount Hotel, where she once worked.

"I was a terrible employee," she says. "I had a job here after getting fired from Morgans [hotel] for playing a practical joke on a guest: I pre­tended I was pregnant and having a baby in the elevator. Steve Rubell [the co‑owner] wasn't too happy. He said, 'Go do acting! You shouldn't be in a business environment!"

Which has been clear to Douglas since, oh, the third grade, when she created and staged elaborate multimedia anti‑pollution shows in the Old Saybrook, Conn., school auditorium ‑though no one had ever asked her to. But then, acting ran in the family; grandpa Melvyn Douglas told her stories about hanging out with Marlene Dietrich.

Still, her father, a painter, and her mother, a schoolteacher, weren't wild about Illeana's auditioning for a theater company ‑while still in high school. "I was sitting in the back seat of our car trying to go over my song while they had a huge argument," she says. "They were completely unaware of something that meant so much to me. They're yelling about their life, and I'm trying to harmonize." Douglas got into the theater company. Her parents got divorced.

In Grace of My Heart, Douglas is Edna Buxton, a woman who is adept at writing teen‑angst lyrics but is short on self‑esteem. The story borrows liberally from the lives of Carole King, Ronnie Spector and the Beach Boys as it follows Edna from the pop‑music hive of the late‑'50s Brill Building to the surf and psychedelics of '70s California. While Edna crafts hit songs about boys and broken hearts,‑she keeps losing herself in love (Eric Stoltz, Bruce Davison and Matt Dillon play the objects of her affection).

"I worry sometimes that it's going to make women mad," says Douglas, "because women don't want to think Edna would let a guy interrupt her career. But that's the big secret: Women always think that being loved is much more important than being talented."

Surely Douglas, inde­pendent '90s gal, doesn't suffer from such a weakness? "I wish that were true," she sighs. The relationship between Douglas' career and her man is tangled indeed. She's been dating the director Martin Scorsese on and off for five years. "You can say we are currently an item," Douglas says. "But if someone better comes along..." She laughs, a throaty, sexy chuckle. "No, no one better will come along. Everyone I'm crazy about is dead." (She cracks that her ideal man is the one played by Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt, because he was "totally weak.") Admittedly, one brutal scene in Scorsese's Cape Fear made Douglas a recognizable face, and Grace of My Heart wouldn't have gotten major-studio backing without Scorsese as executive producer. Yet, as Douglas notes, "I think I got much more work out of To Die For than I did out of Cape Fear." Indeed, as Matt Dillon's ice-skating sister in To Die For, she delivered acid asides with the soft touch of a veteran comedian. '

Instead of lamenting the lack of opportunity for women in Hollywood, Douglas has done something about it between films, writing and directing a documentary and two comic shorts (including The Perfect Woman, a satire about what men really want from women). But escaping the narrow strictures of mainstream showbiz remains tricky. After an advance screening of Grace, an editor of a fashion magazine was overheard saying that "Douglas does not look like the kind of person I want to see in a movie."

When told, the actress seethes. "It's an outrageous statement for one woman to make about another," she says. "Especially a woman at a beauty magazine. Beauty magazines always make such a point of denying that they cause girls to be anorexic and to hate their bodies. But a lot of young girls‑ and I certainly felt this ‑ get a message from looking at a beauty magazine: 'Oh, my God, I don't look the way I'm supposed to look!' What sort of idealized image of a person does she want to see in a movie?"

In the first scene of Grace, Douglas' character wants to wear a slinky black silk dress for a singing contest. Her mother, who's paying for the gown, insists on a poofy taffeta confection though the dress is wrong for Douglas' curvy frame. "The dress suits the occasion," her mother says icily. "It's you that doesn't fit." Ouch.

"When I saw that line," Douglas remembers, "I said, 'I know this character.' Finding a way to express yourself in a world where they don't really care ‑ that's me.'

Ah, a perfect fit.

Chris Smith, a contributing editor at 'New York,' wrote about Lisa Loeb for the November 1995 issue of 'US.'