Heather Graham takes on an unforgettable role in Ramin Bahrani’s drama, At Any Price, as Meredith Crown, the town beauty who never managed to get out of town. Set in the American heartland amidst the competitive world of modern agriculture, the film chronicles the complexity and corruption of the American Dream and what happens when ambitious Iowa farmer Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) and his rebellious son Dean (Zac Efron) face an unexpected crisis that threatens the family’s entire livelihood.
At the film’s recent press day, Graham talked about preparing for the role, her thoughts on the moral ambiguity of the characters, the directing process with Bahrani, working with Efron and why she admired his relationship with his fans, what she learned about GMOs and how it may have turned her into a vegetarian, and why she enjoyed shooting on location in Indiana. She also discussed reuniting with the guys on The Hangover Part III, her new screenplay, Half Magic, which she hopes to direct, and her upcoming role on Season 7 of Showtime’s Californication playing a woman from Hank’s past who comes back to haunt him. Hit the jump to read more:
Heather Graham: I could. I grew up more in suburbia, but I can understand that feeling of being in a place where you don’t have a lot of options and maybe you don’t feel understood.
How did you prepare for the role and how much were you aware of the agricultural world before you came into the movie?
Graham: I work at a grain elevator in the movie, so I did go to a grain elevator and I met these two cool women that worked there. I talked to them and hung out and tried to understand what exactly you do when you work at a grain elevator. It’s pretty sophisticated, because you’re deciding when to sell the corn, for how much at what price, and huge sums of money are at stake. Even though you might not be directly involved, for example, with this genetically modified seed plot that Dennis’ character is in, I think you’re in that world so you understand it.
Meredith’s moral sense, like some of the other characters, seems surprisingly elastic. What were your thoughts on her and where she was coming from?
Graham: When you’re playing a character, I think it’s always better not to judge that character. I would ask the question, if my character was a man who did this, would you judge me in the same way. I feel that it’s a much harsher judgment on a woman doing this. If it was a man, you’d be like, “Oh, of course he had sex with a hot mom and a hot daughter. Wasn’t that cool?” But, with me, it’s horrible. I mean, most women would go, “You go, girl! That sounds fun.” But I agree that the characters are definitely… For sure, Dennis and Zac’s characters are engaging in [questionable behavior]. To be honest, the women are less morally bankrupt than the men. Obviously, Kim (Dickens) condones the whole thing, but there are really dark things going on.
How was it working with Ramin Bahrani and how is he different from the other directors you’ve worked with?
Graham: He’s super well prepared. I mean, he went and lived in the place before we shot it. He’s super thoughtful. I loved his other films so I was really excited to work with him. I feel that all the actors respected him. At night, we’d get together and everyone loved him. He can be tough. He’s got a high standard of what he wants, and when you’re working, he’ll try to get what he wants. He’s incredibly hard working. He’s not like, “Oh, let’s go out at night and have fun. Let’s go to a bar and hang out.” He’s home working. He shot the whole movie on his iPhone before we did the film. He had every shot thought out.
Meredith doesn’t have a lot of backstory. How did he present your character to you?
Graham: I got the script and I read it, and then I watched his films, and then I met him, and I asked him a lot of questions about the character and how he saw it. I immediately liked him and liked his other films. To a certain extent, when you don’t have all your backstory worked out as an actor, you just make it up.
Do you have any fun stories about filming with Zac Efron on set?
Graham: First of all, he’s a really good actor who’s hard working and smart. He has the craziest fans. I’ve never worked with anyone that’s had such crazy fans. His female fans are at that age where they have no inhibitions about acting crazy, so they’re screaming. You feel like this is the best day of their life that they saw him. When we did the raceway speedway scene, the movie didn’t have a huge budget, so a lot of those extras were unpaid people that wanted to watch Zac. At the end of the day, there were hundreds of girls so excited to talk to him. He stayed after for two hours to take individual pictures with every single girl. I thought this guy could be President of the United States. I mean, most actors would leave. They’d take ten pictures and leave, but this guy stayed and took pictures with everyone. That’s above and beyond.
What was it like shooting the scene with Zac in the grain bin? Did it ever feel dangerous?
How was it shooting on location and what were the local people like?
Graham: We were in DeKalb, Indiana. We did shoot one scene in Iowa. That was the racing scene, but I wasn’t in that. They were really cool. Some of the people that I got to know the best were these two women that worked at the grain elevator. They were very warm and excited to be on a movie set. It was a very relaxed way of life where everyone went to school together. They know each other. It’s really different from how I grew up.
Why do you think American indie movies are focused now on exploring the roots of America deep in the heartland where the people are less familiar to us?
Graham: I think it’s fully focused on this, because even though you’re focusing on a small town, it’s a huge issue of how does the world of American farming run? It’s crazy when you learn about it. I watched this documentary called Food, Inc., and basically, we mostly grow corn and we subsidize this corn. But, in reality, we’re not even eating all this corn. We’re shipping it off to other countries. We’re feeding animals with it that aren’t really meant to eat it. We’re turning it into ethanol. It’s very weirdly run. These corn farmers are being subsidized to grow something we don’t even need. It’s a system that deserves to be blown open and people need to think about it more. It’s pretty corrupt. The big companies are calling all the shots.
Has the movie affected your choice of food? Would you buy GMO, foods that are genetically modified?
Graham: I did go on to the Food Inc. website and I subscribed. I get all their emails. They talk about all the food. It’s so interesting. And then, a friend of mine made this documentary about the bees that were all dying because they were using these genetically modified seeds. They used this repellent that was killing all the bees, and then the pollination wasn’t happening. It’s great as an actor to learn about these things. Now that I know about it, I feel that it’s bad and we should not do it. I voted for the option to label GMO. I don’t want to buy foods that are [genetically modified]. I also think that the way that they raise chickens and cows, and the way that they’re made to eat corn when they’re not supposed to eat corn, and the chickens aren’t allowed to walk around, when I see that, it’s so disturbing. I also just watched this movie, Samsara. The director, Ron Fricke, is the same guy that did Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi. There is a scene in it about chicken.
How much is meat part of your diet now?
Graham: I will sometimes still eat it if I go out to a fancy restaurant and I want to try something. But, on a daily basis, I try either not to, or I would want to buy grass fed beef or free range chicken, because when you watch it, it’s so disturbing. Now that I know more about it, I definitely want to buy free range chicken. To be honest, maybe I want to be a vegetarian.
What are your thoughts on what is happening?
Graham: It’s really dark. There’s a part in Food, Inc. where somebody actually dies because they eat bad beef, but the beef industry has such a strong lobby that the mother is not allowed to talk about it. She’s not allowed to say anything negative about it, even though the kid died from the beef that he ate. There was a whole thing with Oprah Winfrey where she said, “Oh, I’m not going to have a hamburger now.” And then, they sued her. They lost because she’s rich. But if she’d been a regular person, they would have completely walked all over her. They do go after regular people. They sell these genetically modified seeds that this company, Monsanto, makes and a lot of people are buying them. Maybe there’s one holdout farmer, and this farmer goes, “I don’t want to buy the Monsanto seeds.”
Then, one day, the wind is blowing and some of the Monsanto seeds blow into this farmer’s fields. Then, they say, “You have our seeds and you wouldn’t pay us.” They take this guy to court. This guy is not Oprah Winfrey and he can’t really afford it, so at a certain point, he’s like, “Okay, I’ll just buy Monsanto seeds because otherwise they’re going to keep suing me.” They screw over the small farmer. I got all riled up about this Food, Inc. documentary. This is so disturbing. Why does this happen in America and we’re paying to grow this crop of corn that we’re not even using and why don’t we try growing other crops. It doesn’t seem to make sense. I hope that the movie makes people think about that a little bit.
It seems like the competitive world of modern agriculture is hurting traditional family farming, and we see it in terms of what happens to these characters and how it influences the choices they make?
Graham: It’s big business in general. You can look at it in many different industries. If all you care about is the bottom line and the numbers and being number one, then you would screw over a lot of people and potentially be really corrupt. There is an actor from Food, Inc. in the film. The guy who had the seeds blow into his field actually acts in the film. Ramin is good friends with him.
Can you tell us about Hangover 3? Was it fun to reunite with the guys?
Graham: It was fun to reunite with them. It was great to see them. On one hand, you’re thinking so much time has gone by. Are they different? It’s very much the same except they’re all making more money. And Zach (Galifianakis) is really a health nut.
Have you ever been invited to Between Two Ferns?
How satisfied are you with how your career is shaping up? Is it easier to get the roles you want nowadays?
Graham: I feel grateful to be an actress and to still be working. I’ve worked my whole adult life. I’m so lucky. I feel super grateful that I get to do something I love and to be an actress at all. It’s so hard to do that.
What are you working on now?
I just wrote a script that I want to direct. It’s called Half Magic. I thought it’d be fun to put something out there that was something that was my voice. I’m talking to a few financiers about it, so hopefully I’ll get to do that.
What’s it about?
Graham: It’s a comedy about these female friends and sexuality and about people having a sense of shame about sexuality and learning how to have a healthier attitude about it. But it’s a comedy, so it’s very light. It also deals with male/female relationships and sexism.
Who would you like to cast in your movie?
Graham: To be honest, I already have two people that are potentially interested, but their deals aren’t worked out yet. They actually do want to do it, but I haven’t worked out a deal with their agents yet.
Do we know them?
Graham: Yes, they’re famous.
How prepared are you for directing?
Graham: It’s interesting, because obviously Ramin spent his whole life studying to be a director. This is really new for me. But, at the same time, I worked on so many movies. If I think about it, a lot of the movies I work on I’ve probably worked on more movies than most of the people on the movie. So, I want to feel that I’m really experienced and I want the movie to be fun. I think I’ll be good at hopefully making it fun.
Do you feel like you’re looking for something that will challenge you now at this point in your career?
Graham: To be honest, I feel like everything is challenging. Even the simple thing is really challenging. I was talking to Bradley (Cooper), and he was saying that people were saying, “Oh wow, you’ve finally been challenged because you did Silver Linings Playbook.” Don’t they know that it’s hard for you to do Hangover? It’s really hard to do any job. It’s not that easy to act at all. It’s hard. But, of course, I want to do new things that I haven’t done, for sure.
Graham: Yeah, exactly.
Acting-wise, what are you working on next?
Graham: I’m going to be on Californication. David Duchovny has this child he doesn’t know about. Basically, I have his child. This child wants to reconnect with him out of the blue, and we never told him that he had a child.
That sounds like something that he’d get himself into.
Graham: It’s amazing that that does happen. I have a friend and that just happened to her.
What’s your secret for staying young, beautiful and in good shape?
Graham: To be honest, when I grew up, I was pretty nerdy. I always thought I was pretending to be this pretty, sexy character. It was something that I wanted to be, but I didn’t feel that I was as a kid. So I feel like it’s this other alter ego that I got to live out.
Robert Downey, Jr. said in an interview recently that it’s inevitable he’s going to get an Academy Award no matter what.
Graham: He’s so confident. I like it.
He was talking about the obsession of actors with it. How much do you think is real? What do you think about actors who say they don’t care about it?
Graham: I think it’s something that’s a childish part of you. When you first want to be an actor, maybe you’re watching. First, you watch a movie, and you want to be an actor. And then, you watch the Academy Awards. I’m sure every actor has probably had a fantasy about it at one point.
At Any Price opens in N.Y. and L.A. this week.