Byline: Peter Braunstein
NEW YORK — Heather Graham rarely gives the thumbs-down to a sexed-up role, but her latest bad-girl venture might propel her teenybopper Austin Powers fan base into a tailspin.
In “From Hell,” opening Friday, she plays one of five prostitutes terrorized by Jack the Ripper in 1888 London. While this isn’t Graham’s first red-light role, those expecting a Victorian-era Rollergirl are bound for disappointment. The Hughes brothers, who directed the film, have simply transposed their preoccupation with urban squalor and crime (“Menace 2 Society”; “Dead Presidents”) to another era. Their latest dark drama centers around an opium-addicted detective, played by Johnny Depp, in pursuit of the prototypical serial killer.
“I like my character in the movie — she’s fiery and defiant,” says Graham, munching on an apple during a phone interview with WWD. “It reflects the confidence I feel in my life right now.” Consistent with the Hughes brothers’ obsession with Dickensian realism, her character hardly ever bathes or changes clothing the entire film. “That’s the way it was for those prostitutes,” Graham says. “We’re skanky, really.”
Shooting on location in the Czech republic, Graham and Depp rarely intersected off the set. Graham had just broken up with boyfriend Ed Burns, while Depp was deeply immersed in family life. “I was like the only American actor there, and I had a lot of free time, so I traveled,” says Graham. “I went to Budapest, to Russia, and went clubbing in Prague. Johnny was the opposite. His wife just had a kid, so he would race home [to Paris] any time he had a free moment.”
Graham did have the opportunity to befriend costume designer Kym Barrett, whose credits include “Romeo + Juliet” and “The Matrix.” Barrett spoke to WWD by phone from Sydney, Australia, where she’s working on the two Matrix sequels being shot back-to-back. “I found Heather’s character in the movie to be very compelling — she was down on her luck, but not beaten into the ground yet,” says Barrett. “Heather was sad at the time because of her breakup with Ed, but I think that actually worked in her favor in terms of the role.”
Barrett also explained why Victorian Age prostitutes might not seem particularly alluring compared to Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” — or, for that matter, Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie.” “This was a very repressed society where they covered up the legs of their furniture out of a sense of propriety,” she says. “So prostitutes would show the ankles, the neck, and some cleavage, or maybe they’d stand outside without hats or shawls, but it’s not what we’re used to today.”
Graham, for her part, has a busy calendar for the rest of the year. First, she’s settling into a new apartment in Manhattan. “The first night I was going to spend in my new place in the Village was Sept. 11, believe it or not,” Graham says. “So I chilled out on Long Island for a while, but you can’t live in fear.” As it turns out, the disaster also affects one of her films this year, “Sidewalks of New York,” directed by former beau Burns. It contains a brief shot of the Twin Towers, and the studio had to decide whether to digitally delete them or not (in “Zoolander,” the Towers were deleted in one cityscape shot, but test audiences generally have indicated a preference for keeping them.) “Sidewalks of New York” opted not to delete the WTC. “They should keep it in,” says Graham. “I mean, we can’t just pretend they were never there.”
Maybe digitally editing Ed Burns from the film would be a better idea, thereby saving emotionally fragile New Yorkers from another one of Burns’s pseudo-intellectual meditations on city living. “Oh please, Ed is obsessed with New York,” says Graham, her voice growing somewhat shrill. “He’s one of those people who thinks that if you don’t live in New York, you’re nobody.”