Anna Nicole Smith (Agnes Bruckner) was a single mother from Texas who became one of the biggest supermodels in the world, but her sudden catapult to fame came with a price as drugs, alcohol and reckless behavior led her down a tragic path. Now in the new biopic drama Anna Nicole, you get to see the whole story as Anna's sexual desires, crippling addictions and her overwhelming need to be famous lead her from incredible fame and fortune to her unfortunate descent.
Anna Nicole is available on DVD this week. To help usher in the release, we caught up with acclaimed filmmaker Mary Harron for a look at how the cast and story came together. This isn't another caricature of the former Playboy model meant to illicit laughs. This is a hard knock look at a once beautiful life gone wrong.
Here is our conversation.
Before I start asking questions, I'd like to note that I did work at E! during Anna Nicole's heyday on the channel. As a board op, I was forced to sit through every single episode of her show multiple times. I don't want to come off as some kind of obsessed fan. But this movie is a very different look at her world than what we saw on that show. She almost seemed to be playing a caricature, even though it was labeled a 'reality series'. It was quite removed from what she actually was. For you, how did you dig in and burrow through the real history and story in finding what you wanted to show, and who you wanted to represent on screen? Especially since so many people know her as this 'crazy dingbat' from what essential was a slapstick sitcom.
Mary Harron: I thought the reality show did reveal aspects of her, but it was a performance. It was being fused, and scripted in that kind of shape. At that point in her life, she was famous for falling from her perch. She knew what would get her back on camera was this extreme behavior. There was a lot more drug use near the end, and drinking, than throughout the whole of her life. I always thought it was very important to know where she came from. I always found her biography very interesting. This bleak childhood, and how she made something of herself. It is a complicated story.
I always hear comparisons between her and Dorothy Stratten. And I've always been fascinated by the movie Star 80. Did you take a look at that before embarking on this particular journey?
Mary Harron: That is one of my favorite movies. And I thought about Star 80 a lot while I was making this. This was different. I thought, what was interesting was this creation of a sex symbol. What was different was this sort of naivety in the girl, this disconnect between the real woman and her public image. In that case, with Star 80, it had such an incredible male protagonist. I can't think of his name, but the guy that Eric Roberts played. Her husband...It's a different story. Dorothy Stratten is such a different person. She is like a deer. She is this little deer. The thing about Anna Nicole Smith that made it a different film...She was more involved in the creation of her own persona. She wasn't being manipulated by a Svengali figure. She was super ambitious. I admired that in her. She isn't just a victim, she is creating this. I remember a scene where she is arguing with Howard K. Stern, and she is arguing with her son, and she is saying, "I want this!" I love Star 80, but that is more of a story about an abused woman. I think.
Its interesting to compare the Eric Roberts' character, Paul Snider, to Howard K. Stern, though. What they both represent. Especially if you go back and watch this documentary Addicted to Fame, about Anna Nicole's last movie, where you can see the two interacted for real, and how Howard acted at the time of her death...
Mary Harron: Oh, right, right, right...I know what movie you are talking about. I have not seen it, but I read about it. Did you watch it? Is it good?
Its really good. It's fascinating to watch what happened, and it gives a lot of insight leading up to these final days. It kind of paints Howard as a villain. He is seen as an enabler. He's not an entirely bad man, but they don't make you like him...
Mary Harron: He was an enabler. At the same time, I think he was addicted to the fame. Just as much as she was. There was this element of them being partners in crime. They were partners in creating her persona on the reality show. To me, I think I blame Howard K. Stern for...I should be careful legally what I say...But I think the thing he is clearly...Where he caused the greatest damage is that he got Danny to be on the reality show. My feelings, in terms of the story I was telling, was that I wanted to focus on this relationship between her and her son, which always fascinated me. Even when the reality show was going on. I think it was torture for Danny to be on that show. It kind of ruined his life. I think ultimately, all the depression and the mental problems that Danny had, started with that show. And the public humiliation of that as a teenager. My feeling is that, if Danny hadn't died, Anna Nicole Smith would be going today, and she would be on Dancing with the Stars. She would be on the cover of the National Inquirer. You couldn't put her down, not until she lost Danny.
I think a lot of other celebrity types look to this story in terms of keeping their kids out of the spotlight, even in just being photographed by the paparazzi.
Mary Harron: I think so too. Whatever Anna Nicole Smith did...And she had a bad childhood herself, she was a victim of that...But the decisions she made as an adult, if she was going to humiliate herself, or do crazy things on the reality show, she chose that. She was willing to take the consequences of that. Danny didn't choose that.
With Agnes Bruckner, how did you work alongside her in approaching how you wanted this performance to play in the movie? After watching the reality series, it seems like it would be very easy to fall into that caricature of who Anna Nicole pretended to be.
Mary Harron: Agnes Bruckner was very determined not to do a caricature. She was very concerned about that, and only took this on when she heard it wasn't going to be like that. Agnes is very good with children, I noticed on set. She related very well to the kids playing Danny. And it was great to add that surprising strength to the story that people weren't necessary familiar with. This love between Danny and Anna, and how well she related to him when he was a child. That was an important part of the story.
You have put together such a stellar cast, and they all capture these people so well. How did you go through Anna's life, and decide who should be a part of that ensemble on screen?
Mary Harron: Yes, it was Martin Landau...You wouldn't normally think of him as this Texas billionaire, but he is such an astounding actor. I didn't think he would take this on, but he did! He loved it! He did a lot of research, and he read everything he could about Howard. He knew this was a complicated man, someone that served as an advisor to president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He had brought in a very complex portrait, and he liked the challenge of that, of what a complicated man he was. All of these actors, I was delighted...Virginia Madsen is a very beautiful woman. How can we, you know...Anna Nicole Smith's mother does not look like Virginia Madsen, but we had a long conversation before she came on, about how she wanted to change her appearance. She wanted to do, I want to be careful how I say this...A character part. What was also good with her...The mother was a controversial person, she played a very important role in Anna Nicole Smith's life. Virginia Madsen really went for it in this tough moment. You wouldn't normally think of her playing this type of character, because she is playing against type. I think actors like that opportunity. All of these characters are complicated people. Actors like that, because it allows them to show their range. Then, with Howard K. Stern, that was the most complex piece of the cast. How do you do Howard K. Stern? When Adam Goldberg arrived on set, he had watched every episode of the reality show in three days. His eyes were bugging out. He had totally absorbed Howard K. Stern's patterns and body language. He is such a funny actor. And he is a really good improviser. He brought a sense of humor to it.
Its eerie watching him in the movie. I've seen so much backstage footage of Howard K. Stern, I felt like I was watching the man here. It's a phenomenal acting job. He gets lost in that character, I don't see Adam Goldberg...
Mary Harron: While we were prepping and rehearsing, I watched him study and capture that body language. One of the other things, especially with Howard K. Stern and Anna Nicole Smith, there was just so much footage to look at. It's the rare opportunity for an actor to immerse themselves in this real person, and try and do their version of that real person.
Last question. What is it with Dairy Queen?
Mary Harron: (Laughs) Dairy Queen?
Yes, it's the one really strong connection between Anna and Dorothy. They were both discovered at Dairy Queen, and it serves as a really important part of their backstory. And it always resonates when you hear how another girl was discovered there. Its like Playmate deathwatch when you know a girl was found serving Dilly Bars and Mister Misty Kisses...
Mary Harron: (Laughs) I don't know. I guess it's that combination of ice cream and sex. Maybe it's some subconscious association.