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Fenn fatale

Sherilyn Fenn is not your average scrubbed-face, stringy-haired, tofu-munching serious 90s starlet. She´s throwback to old Hollywood, when actresses oozed sex and attitude, when they weren´t aerobicised business women but ambitious girls just off the bus from nowhere. This year Fenn will star in five movies. The first, Ruby, is on release now. Mike Bygrave talks to her on LA´s Sunset Boulevard.

Sherilyn Fenn Sherilyn Fenn  Sherilyn Fenn

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The Mirabelle restaurant on Sunset Boulevard is one block west of Le Dome and right across the street from the box-like shape of Madonna´s favourite haut,  Spago´s, standing on its stilts out from the hillside. Hollywood studio executives conduct their power lunches at Le Dome and the stars come out at night to nibble Wolfgang Puck´s designer pizzas at Spago´s, but The Mirabelle is just a neighbourhood place full of office workers on their lunch breaks, flavoured with a table or two of young, unemployed actors commiserating with each other about their latest failed auditions.

It says a lot about Sherilyn Fenn that she chooses The Mirabelle to do an interview. Now 26 years old, she´s at that halfway stage, where her sympathies and her habits are still with all the other young actors waiting for their big break, passionately discussing the craft they rarely get to practise outside of drama classes. At the same time she´s savvy enough about stardom to do her interviews in public places, to bring her PR along for protection, and to keep the press waiting – and waiting. It´s taken four or five appointments, all cancelled at the last minute, to get this far, and when Fenn appears she´s pleasant, polite but, in the manner of Hollywood stars, doesn´t apologise.

She settles at the table, scans the menu, pouts, says she doesn´t feel hungry and waits to be persuaded she really should eat something. By now every man in the room is ready to persuade her, riveted by her husky voice and her petite, voluptuos figure (she´s five feet three inches tall, and David Lynch, who´s rumoured to have dated Fenn after the demise of his relationship with Isabella Rossellini, once described her as « five feet of heaven in a ponytail »). There´s an air of naughty schoolgirl, a mix of innocence and wicked experience about Fenn, but she´s used to male attention, she can turn it on and off like flicking a switch, and today she isn´t playing that game. She turns her back on her would-be-admirers and leans forward across the table, her face devoid of make-up, her body hidden under a baggy, shapeless sweater, while she confides how « stressed-out » she´s been feeling lately.

« I just went to this homeopathic doctor for the first time. I didn´t know why I was depressed and my adrenalin was down, you know, like I was stressed-out or something, and this guy told me, hey, it´s physical. It was such a relief. And then he hugged me!  It wasn´t the patriachal, professional shit you get from most doctors, which is such a put-down, especially for women. It´s always, like, ‘She´s a neurotic woman.’ But this was great.  This was much more a thing for a woman to get in touch with her real power. »

Just a minute. Who are we dealing with here? Is this Sherilyn Fenn, sex kitten, whose performance as Audrey in Twin Peaks set a new standard for teenage seductresses? Or is this a different, feminist Fenn we didn´t expect? And what happened to the third Sherilyn Fenn, the one I met only a year ago who seemed much younger, almost girlish,  reminiscing about her unusual family and her two older brothers, gushing about the pet dog she´d just bought and describing the spaghetti dinners she cooked for herself when she stayed home on Saturday nights?

As it turns out, the real Fenn is all of the above but, more than anything else, she´s a classic star in the making, a throwback to the old days in Hollywood when female stars were neither trained New York actresses like Meryl Streep nor brainy Yale graduates like Jodie Foster, ambitious girls just off the bus who looked right and did what they had to do to make it. Fenn´s been on her own in LA for ten years now, surviving in the seedy Hollywood underbelly and clawing her way up the ladder with the traditional assets of talent, temperament and good-looks. She did it their way and, now that she´s set to emerge as a fully-fledged movie star, she´s determined to do it her way.

At present this means taking on a clutch  of serious roles in small, independent films. First out of the releasing lottery is Ruby, a fanciful biography of Jack Ruby, the man who shot Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin of President John F. Kennedy. The movie is directed by John MacKenzie, a Brit with whom Fenn was know to clash on set. Why? Because Fenn doesn´t like being told what to do, she likes to be consulted. And she feels her films are more art than commerce, or even just a job.

Fenn plays Candy Cane, a fictional character who strays into Ruby´s shady nightclub and stays on to star in the striptease. Though the producers had to guarantee Fenn there would be no nude scenes before she´d taken the part, Fenn has a platinum-blonde wig, a breathless drawl and a wiggle in her walk. In other words, she gives one of the best imitations to date of the much-imitated Marilyn Monroe.

« I always thought it would be fun to play Monroe, » Fenn confirms. « But who could play her, you know? You can´t do it right out, you can´t do her story without letting yourself for all kinds of criticism. Candy Cane is like a lot of women were in the 60s when Monroe was a star and a role model. She comes from a small town, she´s in a bad relationship, but she´s fighting to get out of it, to change, and she enters this fantasy land. She has the bleached blonde hair like many women had at that time and she thinks it would be fun to be like Monroe. So she follows the fantasy in her own small way and she finds out, guess what, that glamorous life stinks! She sets herself up to be abused and destroyed like Monroe was. »

Fenn sounds as if she knows what she´s talking about. She´d done her share of exploitation films, and has seen the downside of stardom, but she´s determined nobody is going to abuse or destroy her. She´s a sex symbol for the 90s, not the 60s: clean and sober (she doesn´t even drink) but street smart. If there´s any exploiting to be done, Fenn will do it herself – and she did when she first came to town, making around a dozen bargain-basement films with titles like Desire and Hotel at the Sunset Motel and Zombie High – movies which went straight on to video for the Saturday night rent-some-sex-and-violence-crowd. She made one notorious sex film. Two Moon Junction. And she posed for Playboy magazine at the behest of a photographer-boyfriend. (and reputedly banked a handy $250,000).

Fenn doesn´t like to talk about her early work these days. She veers between claiming she « felt dirty » and asserting she isn´t ashamed about « doing what I had to do to pay the rent ». She´s aware of her reputation, of how some agents and casting directors still think of her as « the siren from hell ». She´s even imposed a blanket ban on nudity in her current roles to make people take her seriously. At the same time, her sexy image is what made her name. It´s not easy to find young actresses who can – or are willing to – play convincing vamps in modern Hollywood. It doesn´t seem politically correct. They´ll take their clothes off, by all means, but the batting eyelashes, the seductive whisper, the come-hither smile, the whole armoury of flirtation is beyond them; women just don´t do that stuff any more. But Sherilyn Fenn, like Twin Peaks´ Audrey, is a champion flirt.

« I never understood how people perceived Audrey. They thought she was like a bad girl, a bitch, but to me she was always cool. I love her and respect her. She knew what she wanted and she went after it, and a lot of what she did was playful, you know. She would, like, play with sex and other people´s expectations and fantasies and get where she wanted to go, but her motives were pure. »

One of the keys to understanding Fenn is that when she talks about the characters she plays she´s really talking about herself. And one of the messages she wants put across is that Audrey, and even Candy Cane, were yesterday, they´re history, playtime is over. Sherilyn Fenn is now a serious actress.

« I like strong women – women who aren´t victims but women who don´t try to be like men. The world has certain rules – Hollywood has certain rules – but it doesn´t mean you have to play by them, and I don´t, or I´d be a miserable person. I didn´t set up their stupid roles anyway. But most people think they don´t have a choice. They think they have to follow the rules. We´re bombarded with this stuff, you have to stop and say, no, I don´t have to be this way. I don´t have to be this weak woman and I don´t have to be strong by becoming an awful bitch either. That does´t make me strong.

« But it´s hard, you know. There´s a feeling of helplessness. I know. I´ve felt it. Where does that come from? A child doesn´t feel that way. Children think they can do or be anything; then someone comes along and tell them they can´t and they feel they can´t anymore. »

Fenn can talk like this all day (and will, given half a chance). So can every other young actress in Hollywood. What makes Fenn different from the others is her background, something she´s less keen to talk about. A year ago she was quite open about her upbringing but now that she´s a rising star, some things are better left unsaid.

The young Fenn grew up in a Detroit suburb. Her parents were small-time professional musicians. Her mother played in a female rock group called Fanny which her father managed for a while (it must have been in the genes of the generation; Suzi Quatro is Fenn´s aunt).  Fenn´s parents soon divorced and her cheerfully extrovert mother continued with her music and her boyfriends, « a platinum blonde » who wore « these sexy outfits ». Mrs Fenn has since remarried and Fenn says they have a good relationship. « My mom knows who I am and what I´m going to do in my life so she´s just giggling and waiting for things to progress even further. » Still, it wasn´t an easy childhood. Fenn admits she felt lonely and abandoned at times. She´s now in therapy.

Though she doesn´t say so, there´s clearly some of her mother in Fenn. In fact, her mother sounds very like Fenn´s screen image, the image Fenn is starting to leave behind now she doesn´t need it so much any more. As a teenager Fenn hung out in Detroit nightclubs. She had a brief fling with Prince and says she still counts him as a friend though they rarely speak (« I know he´s there for me. But he´s a busy man »). When she was 17 her mother moved the family to California. Fenn didn´t want to start a new school so she asked her mother if she could go to acting class instead.

Acting has become her career, her education and her mission in life all rolled into one. Fenn is currently going from one film to another with hardly any break in between. In Three Of Hearts she´s a bisexual to Drugstore Cowboy star Kelly Lynch lesbian. Typical though Fenn claims, « It´s not a film about sexuality, it´s about three people caught in a triangle, each of whom has a different concept about what love is ». And although nothing is certain in the world of independent films, where financing can fall apart very quickly, she would follow the aboce with Boxing Helena, another « very bizzare love story » co-starring the floppy-fringed British actor Julian Sands. Last year she was in seventh heaven when she got to co-star in a remake of John Steinbeck´s Of Mice And Men opposite John Malkovich.

Sherilyn Fenn in "Ruby"

Sherilyn Fenn in « Ruby »

« It was a wonderful experience. Horton Foote adapted the novel and he fleshed out my character, and made her much, much more.  She´s the only woman on this ranch, her husband treats her like a possession and keeps her in the house, and she just goes out and talks to the ranch hands for someone to talk to. And they take this in a very chauvinistic way as meaning, ‘Oh, she wants us, she´s always giving us the eye’. The director called her a sad angel, who´s only trying to communicating with people. »

Fenn loved playing a sad angel with a feministic subtext. And she loved the Of Mice And Men production which teamed Malkovich with his old avant-garde buddies from Chicago. It was exactly the kind of serious artistic atmospher that she craves and she found it again in  Hitman, the third of her new films, directed by Fenn´s own acting coach, Roy London, on a miniscule budget. But while her heart may be with such small-scale, experimental productions, her head is firmly attuned to big-time Hollywood stardom. Fenn recently appeared as one of the celebrity models in a big charity fashion show staged by Thierry Mugler to benefit AIDS Project Los Angeles. Those kinds of events, along with charity balls and awars ceremonies, are where the Hollywood élite meet to greet. Being asked to take part is a sure sign you´re hot, that your name is on the list: it´s an entrée to Hollywood´s charmed,  closed circle, a kind of off-screen basic training for aspiring stars.

What a difference a year makes. Fenn is still crazy about her pets: she´s got five cats and dogs and talks about giving her puppy a first birthday party. She still, she says, doesn´t have a regular boyfriend. (Some years ago she was one of several starlets to have a much-publicised romance with teen heart throb Johnny Depp before he met Wynona Ryder.) « The men I meet … obviously they´re not seeing the person in front of them but the sex symbol they´ve seen on the screen. » But now she has a PR, an acting coach, a yoga teacher, a therapist and, as of today, a homeopathic doctor – all de riguer accoutrements of a modern star. And she has the manner to go with them, pausing during the interview to run through a check-list of possible appointments, criticise the photo US Cosmopolitan used of her (« I hate that shot. It´s so ugly. Why didn´t you tell them to use another one? ») and counsel her PR, who´s going through marital problems (« I never thought of you as married. To me, you were never like really married. You should look at this as something you´re doing for you, the real you, you know. ») She switches from girlish to imperious without missing a beat, even throwing in her showbiz philosophy along the way. « As an actress you get to touch people all over the world and to say something. Movies are very very very powerful. I´ve grown from great movies. »

Some people say that Sherilyn Fenn will be a star within the next two years at the outside. I´d say she acts like one already.

Sky magazine, juillet 1992
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