Gretchen Mol Turns the ‘Page’

     April 13, 2006

Blame Harvey Weinstein. I think. After all, an up-and-coming starlet without a major acting credit to her name doesn’t just bypass Vanity Fair’s “Vanities” page for the cover without someone calling in a favor (or demanding one), and since that audacious publicity grab was out in front of Miramax’s then forthcoming Rounders and Celebrity… let’s just say I doubt it was advance hype for The Thirteenth Floor.

Though Mol obviously didn’t get the cover on her own, she was pilloried mercilessly for it, especially when her performances in both films turned out to be embarrassingly lacking. In retrospect, it’s not that she was terrible it’s just that she didn’t register at all. Couple that with the roles being horribly underwritten, and, honestly, even if Mol were the Julie Christie of her generation, she never stood a chance.

After another year’s worth of forgettable turns in little-seen movies, Mol essentially disappeared until 2002, when she shocked everyone by earning raves for her work in the Off-Broadway production of Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things. Finally given a role with a little bit of meat on the bone, Mol proved she wasn’t just another vapid blond bimbo unfortunately, this did nothing for her profile in Hollywood. Hopefully, this will change with her joyous performance in the title role of Mary Harron’s The Notorious Bettie Page. Though the fair-haired Mol is obviously a counterintuitive choice to play the brunette pin-up queen of the 1950s, she throws on a wig and instantly wins the audience over with loads of pluck. Considering the infamy of that Vanity Fair cover, maybe going as far away from her previously maligned image was the best way to make a comeback. In any event, it worked Mol’s is definitely one of this year’s best performances to date.

I recently participated in a roundtable interview at, where else?, the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, where Mol came off as a pleasant, but far more guarded than the incredibly extroverted Page. Below, Mol discusses her preparation for the part, how she got around having no contact with Bettie, and whether or not she got to keep any of the… very interesting outfits she’s forced to don throughout the film.

How much weight did you have to gain for this role?

I don’t know. I’ve never really weighed myself. I had just done a stint on Broadway I was dancing every night for a couple of months, so I felt physically strong. If anything, I was worried about being too thin, so I didn’t think about exercise or anything. I just ate whatever I wanted. But I didn’t go overboard because who’s to say [the weight] would’ve gone to the right places?

We look at you now and you look very little like Bettie. What made you connect to her, and, more importantly, made you think you could play this part.

Well, the truth is the script came to me in the old fashioned way. There was sort of a big cattle call, everybody’s going in, and I thought I’d never get the part. But there was something there. I felt connected with the script and Mary’s version of Bettie. And I had always thought of Bettie, too, as a vixen with a whip, a bad girl the truth is, she was so much more. I sort of felt I had nothing to lose, and that may be why it worked out. I don’t know. I just went in and had a good time with the audition, and right away Mary responded to it. Then we had to get everybody else on board, and that took a little more doing.

Was it easy or fun to get all of those Bettie poses?

It was fun. It was like choreography, really. I was looking at those poses. And there were a lot of loops where she was dancing, and she had a very specific style of moving around and dancing that was so Bettie. I did sort of have to figure out her moves.

What elements of her life did you focus on in preparation for this film?

I focused on where she was from, of course. Her voice, her history, her relationship with God, which is probably the strongest relationship she has had. She was never able to maintain close relationships with husbands people came and went in her life. Of course, there were the physical things. The wig. One of the first things I did was go out and buy one of those $15 wigs just so that, while I was working on it, I could get out of myself and be Bettie a little bit, and little by little it all came together. That had a lot to do with the hair and makeup, a good wig and a great costume designer who worked with my body and fitting these clothes.

Did you feel as comfortable and relaxed in front of the camera as Bettie did in the more… intimate scenes, I guess?

I don’t know. I hope so, because that was something that was so important and integral to the character – her lack of self-consciousness in front of the camera. I thought, “If nothing else, I owe this to Bettie”. This is her philosophy, really. She was a true naturist. She just seemed to be at her best and her healthiest and her most beautiful when she was doing nudity, and in particular outside. So when we came to do those scenes, I remember Mary said, “This is sort of like her religion”. And that stuck in my mind. That really made doing those scenes easier.

Mary said that the later events in Bettie’s life could be the basis for two or three other movies. For you as an actress, is it necessary to know where the character goes even beyond when you’re playing her?

Yes, I think so, especially when you’re playing a real human being. Her whole story, and as much as I could get about that story played into what we did, and so I would think of where she was going, the next step afterwards. That was the full journey, and we’re just bookending it here I needed to know all of that. But at the same time, what was interesting is how at the end of the day Bettie is still kind of an enigma. You can never quite nail down who Bettie Page was, and I love that Mary let her retain that mystery. I think that’s such a beautiful way of telling the story. I think so many times with biopics it’s like, “Well, we start here, you see what happened in her childhood, and you move on to see how everything in her childhood affects her life. Then it bumps and ebbs and flows, and then, somehow, she breaks through it and everything works out.” But [Mary] just retains that mystery about Bettie, and I had to be comfortable playing Bettie not knowing all of the answers.

Did you ever try to get into contact with Bettie?

No. What happened was that Mary, when she started work on this, had tried to get in touch with Bettie, and I think it became clear that she didn’t want to have anything to do with the film. Or had sold her life rights to another film production and didn’t feel that she could. But by the time I got involved, it was clear that Bettie wasn’t talking to us, so I had to respect that privacy. This part of her life that we were covering was pretty much in the past for her. And I felt that the script was such an affectionate depiction of her, and kind of a love letter to her.

Was this your first time walking around in eight-inch stiletto heels?

Do I have to answer that? (Laughter) They’re just tough. Those shoes were actually made for me. It’s hard to find those shoes.

Why has Bettie become an icon?

I think when she was in front of the camera, she unleashed this sort of purity, this innocence, and this healthiness of her spirit. She was never playing sexy. She was never playing with any need for a reaction. She was just fully in herself. There’s that line in the movie where she said she wanted to be lifted up or taken to another place, and I always felt that when she was posing she did go to that place. And when I saw the loop where she’s moving around, she’s in her own atmosphere – Betty’s World. And that really allows whoever’s looking at her or admiring her or looking at a photograph… it gives you permission for it to be whatever you need it to be. That’s why I think Bettie’s appeal crosses borders of men and women and generations.

What does “sexy” mean to you, and how did that relate to how you played Bettie?

I don’t know what my definition is. I just know that anytime you’re trying to do it or be it, it’s probably not it. I learned that, actually, from Bettie. She confirmed that for me. When I would look at other pin-up models and you’d see them doing the come hither look, it wasn’t as sexy as when Bettie was flaunting it out there. She had so much confidence and a lack of self-consciousness it’s so infectious.

And subtle.

And subtle. Less is more.

And yet the film makes the point that whenever she’s trying to act as something other than herself on stage she’s very uncomfortable.

We recently did a Q&ampA after a screening, and someone brought up a good point. The method of acting is sort of that you bring your own life experiences, whatever the trauma, into your roles, and you can tap into that for a certain character. And this person said that somehow Bettie wasn’t able to use what happened to her when it came to acting. It’s that time of the 1950s, where you keep everything under the rug. And the whole idea of acting at that time was the discovery of things that have happened to us and how we can bring it into our work. [Bettie] was probably busy putting that behind her and moving on, so she didn’t connect in that way. But I think in front of the camera, because of that kind of lack of judgment, she could go there.

What of your life did you bring into this role?

I actually went a lot to my grandmothers. One of my grandmothers is from North Carolina, so she has this sort of ladylike, 50s, southern woman quality that was very much Bettie. And my other grandmother worked on a dairy farm for most of her life… and that was very much a part of Bettie, too – the country girl. I didn’t realize it at the time as much, but I really did look to them a lot.

You’re seven or eight years past that publicity supernova when you made the cover of Vanity Fair. How do you look back at those times?

I just think I was young, and it’s part of the story. (Laughs) I hope to just find more great roles. I had such a great time being involved in this project, and as much as it feels like, “We’ve got to get the movie out there”, it’s been fun that it’s dragged on as long as it has, frankly. You just want to keep finding things that you can sink your teeth into.

Do you discuss roles with your husband (writer/director Tod Williams)?

We end up talking about things we’ve read.

What did he think about you playing Bettie Page?

Oh, he was really excited about it, because he knew how hard I had worked to get the role. It was such a process, really, from the first day Mary said, “Yeah, I think you can do this”, to actually getting on that set. There was probably a year-and-a-half where the film was going to go and then it didn’t, and then raising the money, and then “Is there anyone else with a bigger name?” I mean, not for Mary. She stood by her original idea of me [as Betty], but she saw me go through that, and she was really excited.

One of the problems Bettie had in her life was that men weren’t secure enough and couldn’t handle her success as a model, or were uncomfortable with the darker stuff. Have you been pretty lucky in your relationships that way?

I’m married now, so yeah. We support each other.

Did you take anything home with you?

I did get to keep my entire wardrobe. There was much of it that was rented, but the things that were built for me I [got to keep].

Lucky Tod Williams. The very worthwhile The Notorious Bettie Page opens Friday, April 14th in limited release.

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