The actress shines as the legendary pin-up queen
Gretchen Mol delivers a star-making performance as fifties pin-up queen Bettie Page. It's the role of a lifetime and she absolutely nails it. She really captures the playfulness and natural beauty that made Bettie Page the sexual icon of her day. It's a brilliant casting decision as Gretchen is a stunning blonde in real life. Credit director Mary Harron with truly finding the right actress for the part.
Do you see Bettie as an early feminist?
Gretchen Mol: She didn't take that on herself. She didn't try to do anything but her job and just happened to have this non-judgmental sprit. People were always able to look at Bettie Page and see what they wanted her to be. She gave them that permission to do so. She was highly evolved in her way of seeing her own sexuality. She didn't see shame or harm in what she was doing. In that way she's a feminist. I don't think she was ever trying to be consciously.
You really capture Bettie's playfulness and spirit. How were you able to channel her?
Gretchen Mol: It was that lack of self-consciousness that she had while she was posing. I thought if I could get 50% of that, I'd be in good shape. I really knew that was the key to her talent in front of the camera; that healthy attitude about her own nakedness and her lack of shame. She had sort of this bubble around her and that was her boundary there. In her own life, maybe she wasn't as successful.
Do you think she was naïve?
Gretchen Mol: I don't she was naïve. I think it was the attitude of the 1950's to pick and choose what you looked at deeply. Nobody was going to force that on her. She didn't really come in contact with the people that were looking and using her photographs. For her it was a job, I don't think she was naïve about it. I think she was doing her job the best she could. And she was non-judgmental about the men...people that were interested in bondage fetish.
Did you get a chance to meet her?
Gretchen Mol: I didn't.
So how did you prepare for this role?
Gretchen Mol: There was a lot of source material for me. There are so many photographs and a couple of interviews where I could hear her voice, which was very important. At a certain point it became about letting go of all the information, compiling it together, doing everything, and stepping into her shoes and trying to let go of that.
She seems like such an enigmatic person. Was it difficult understanding her motivations and choices?
Gretchen Mol: It was because there were a lot of contradictions. There's something that seemed naïve, but there was another part of her that seemed, not calculated at all, but very much aware. Her psychology was very interesting, and the film, because it's so subtle about that, doesn't say A - happened, so B - is this way. It wasn't a typical biopic.
What are the differences between women of the fifties and women today? Would Bettie have been the same woman in modern times?
Gretchen Mol: I really don't think the differences are that great. The time period shapes who you are. She was always a small town girl without a real sense of home, possibly only her relationship with god and religion. Now she would be probably be the same way, but there was a limit to what she was going to do. She could have done stag films, but she didn't. She could have slept with a producer to advance her movie career, but she didn't. It would be interesting to see what she would do today. I think one of the seminal moments in Bettie Page's life was the fact that she didn't get that scholarship. That was a big moment that shaped the trajectory of her life.
Why was Bettie such a star as pin-up, but a failure as an actress?
Gretchen Mol: She was able to tap into something of her true creative self when she was posing for photographs that she wasn't able to do in her acting. She seemed so alive and so comfortable, without any self-consciousness in front of a still camera, but as soon as she had to do the live bits, she couldn't quite break through. A lot of that was the time in the fifties when actors were sort of digging into their psychology and using past traumas in their work. I think she wasn't able to do this.
You wear some extreme S & M outfits throughout the film. What was it like being trussed up wearing a ball gag?
Gretchen Mol: I looked at those photographs and she always had a wink. There's this twinkle behind her eye. It didn't have the darkness that one might think. I've looked at pictures and there certainly is a darkness in that world of S & M, but I didn't feel that this is what they were doing. When you look at those images, there's such a playful innocence, at least the way Bettie did it. It's sort of like, come on in, enjoy, she gave everyone permission.
The film hints that her father molested her. Do you think that might have had something to do with her sexual attitude?
Gretchen Mol: I wanted to be careful in connecting those dots. When you look at women in a sexual trade, often times they've had some abuse. But that would have been simplifying Bettie Page. There's so much more complexity than that. What's interesting to me is that not only did she end up in this world; she excelled in it in such a unique way. It was never full on. She seemed to be getting as much out of it as the audience.
Bettie has achieved a mythic status. Why is she still relevant today?
Gretchen Mol: It's all these things, the dichotomies, the juxtapositions, kind of bumping up against each other. That's what Bettie represents. She's kind of whatever people needed her to be. She had a quality that other models didn't have that's still kind of a mystery to me. That's what I love about the film too. It retains the enigmatic quality of Bettie Page. It let's her still be what they need her to be.
What was it like working with director Mary Harron? Did you do a lot of rehearsals?
Gretchen Mol: We talked about things a bit. But so much of it was the script and the information I was able to find about Bettie. She [Mary Harron] trusted me with the character. I knew very early on that we were on the same page. Just the fact that she cast me at all meant that she wasn't going for just the physical aspects of Bettie Page. She was trying to get a different essence.
Was playing a part like this easier with a female director?
Gretchen Mol: I think it probably was, especially based on Mary's past work. I knew what she was interested in as a director and that's what I was interested in too.
Was there anything about her personally that surprised you that wasn't in the film?
Gretchen Mol: There's a Richard Foster biography of Bettie Page that goes into her later life. She suffered some breakdowns and there's a lot that happened after her modeling hey day. I think it was an interesting choice of Mary's to focus on the 1950's and Bettie almost as a catalyst.
The film does not explore her sexuality. Do you think she was as uninhibited in her own sexual relationships?
Gretchen Mol: I thought about it. I couldn't find a relationship apart from the camera and god that was a true intimate relationship. I don't know.
You're nude in quite a few scenes. Were you nervous at all?
Gretchen Mol: It was so intrical to the character. From day one I knew what I was getting myself involved with. I thought about it and also appreciated Bettie's point of view, her stance on it. It was healthy and okay.
Have you received any calls to pose in Playboy?
Gretchen Mol: I wouldn't. For me it's a personal choice. There were inquiries because of the movie and she was a Playboy pin-up in 1955.
Are you seeing better scripts after this movie?
Gretchen Mol: It's hard to know what's going to happen, but I feel the career ebbs and flows. There's a feeling of more interest than there has been at other times.
What are you working on now?
Gretchen Mol: Right now I'm working on 'Trainwreck: My Life as an Idiot', which is a dark comedy with Sean William Scott. My cousin Todd Harrison Williams is directing it and we're shooting around the city and having a really good time with that.
What do you take away from playing Bettie?
Gretchen Mol: This was a really unique experience. If I could find another character like Bettie Page in the next twenty years, I'd feel pretty good. This is such a unique experience, and I know that, and am very grateful for it.
The Notorious Bettie Page is in theaters in limited theaters in NY, LA and SF today and is rated 'R'.