The rising actress switches gears and goes from
by Jane Wollman Rusoff
Brittany Murphy's most well-known role before breaking out as a secretive mental patient in the recent thriller Don't Say a Word was as a suicidal mental patient in Girl, Interrupted. Don't bother assuming anything, though, because Murphy is neither disturbed nor destructive - and she can play more than crazy.
In fact, the curvy, 23-year-old actress, who stands all of 5 feet 3 inches in heels, has given herself something of a makeover, going from brunette to blonde and co-starring in a film, Riding in Cars With Boys, in which she's not psychologically traumatized. Murphy has actually demonstrated a remarkable versatility throughout her career, moving from light comedies like Summer Catch, to Broadway with Arthur Miller's A View From a Bridge, and back to TV with the animated series King of the Hill.
When Mr. Showbiz received a call from Murphy, who lives with her mom in the Hollywood Hills, she was recuperating from oral surgery and, in her words, "still a little loopy." Nonetheless, she was funny, upbeat, and in between bursts of her carefree giggle, talked about karaoke, cutting hair, and the bother of wearing a bra.
You just had your wisdom teeth extracted. How do you feel?
I'm still not back to normal. It's the first day the swelling went down and that I've been able to eat solid food. I had egg salad. But part of my tongue is still numb, so I sound tipsy. I keep biting on it. Sometimes Novocain injections can bruise the nerve on the side of your tongue, and that's what happened.
Well, at least the whole thing is over with.
I was waiting for a break in work. So, I said to the dentist, "I can come in tomorrow or I can wait until February." He told me, "Definitely come in tomorrow. What job do you have that doesn't allow time to get this done? By February, the tooth could explode!" So, now I always keep dental floss in my purse.
In Riding in Cars With Boys, did you wear stomach pads in order to look pregnant?
In one scene, where I'm showing. I took some great pictures of myself doing Fanny Brice ballet movements in a little flesh-colored leotard. It was really comical.
Did you have to wear 60s-style bras for Riding in Cars?
Yes, but one's breast does not naturally fit into that cone, at least mine doesn't. So, you have to put cotton balls in the tips to fill them out. I did that for Girl, Interrupted. For this, it was a kind of "l5-year-old-just-sprouted" pointy bra, so it wasn't terribly pointy. And then the 70s were pretty bra-less.
Bras can be uncomfortable, can't they?
When I walk in the house, one of the first things I do is remove my bra. I'm a 32-C. Somehow God gave me boobies, which is lucky because otherwise I'm tiny all around. I don't have hips or anything else except these boobies. But I do have to wear a bra. I'm grateful for what I have, but if I were a little smaller, I could get away with not wearing one. And I wouldn't, as much as possible.
Did you like working with children in Riding in Cars With Boys?
I love kids, and I'm good with them. I remember pushing one baby on a swing. She looked like an angel, but was very tired. The only thing that got her to look up was if I lifted my skirt and made faces behind the camera. Then I ran back into the scene.
Did you and Drew get friendly off-camera?
Yes. But really our whole life was go to work, get as much sleep as we can, and then go back to work. Especially for Drew. She had no down time whatsoever. Mostly, all my scenes are with her, so we spent lots of time together working.
Isn't it hard to fall asleep just after you've shot something really emotional?
Sometimes, but I get some of the best night's sleep in my life after a really emotional scene because after twelve hours of crying and screaming, you're pretty zonked by the time you get home.
You've played several disturbed women in your career. Where does that ability come from?
I'm a total chucklehead today, so I think that's sort of comical. It's ironic that these are the things I sometimes do. I don't know where it comes from. I know I'm a very sensitive person. Maybe that's it. [Laughs]
Have you had to watch old movies about mentally ill people, like The Snake Pit?
On the set of Girl, Interrupted, we watched Snake Pit together during a lunch break. Generally, if I'm playing [a part] like that, I try and watch happy things or put happy things into my body because I'm being messy all day at work.
Do you do much research for a role?
It depends. For Don't Say A Word, I went to Bellevue [Hospital, in New York City]. I visited the prison ward and talked to the patients. It's just a men's facility now. I was a little surprised at that.
What acting techniques do you use?
I have my own little, specific ways of going about things. Music orchestrates a lot for me and consumes a great part of my life. That's probably my biggest tool. It's been a great propeller of feeling things. I sing the night before I do scenes, and also on the set in the [dressing room trailer] and right before going into the dialogue. I've actually sung in most of the movies I've been in. It's not really noticeable. I could tell you every song that was in my head for every scene I've done in my life. It was the CD or tape I listened to most during that time.
What song was going around in your head while you were doing Riding in Cars?
"Soldier Boy," because I actually get to sing it in character, since my husband is going away to Vietnam.
What about for Don't Say a Word?
"Dream a Little Dream." I had been singing it one night between takes, and they ended up capturing it and incorporating it into the picture as a story point. I had to re-loop it, though, in a broken, fragile voice. I was listening to Mama Cass' version the night before.
You play a crystal meth addict in next year's Spun. How would you know how to do that?
I don't know! It's my job! I've never done crystal meth or any drugs. Nothing like that. I talked to a lot of friends regarding the side effects and how it feels. I basically grilled a bunch of people. I did some investigative reporting.
And used your imagination?
A little bit, but too many people tried [crystal meth] in their lives and know about it. The prop master was the professional advisor to us all. He showed us what the effects were, so we all spoke with each other about it and made sure our reactions to it were the same because most of the [actors] hadn't tried it.
What kind of role would you most like to play?
Something where a song would be involved, anything musical. Actually, I'd love to play Clara Bow. She's one of my ultimate favorites, and had a really amazing life.
You were signed to star as Janis Joplin in her life story. What happened with that project?
They couldn't get the music rights, so it went into turnaround. Pretty crummy. … That's really a dream for me. I'd love it. I was able to be her for a day when I did the screen test, and it was one of the most magical experiences of my whole life.
Tell me about the movie you're rehearsing now, The Untitled Detroit Project.
For a while, it was called Fight Music. I play Eminem's girl. It's a real cool part that was sort of handed to me on a silver platter. She's really practical, not at all disturbed, very normal. She just wants to get out of Detroit.
How is Eminem to work with?
I think he's gonna be a wonderful actor. He's a brilliant guy. I think he should be pretty amazing.
What do you like to do to kick back?
I'm a homebody. I love to stay home and be with loved ones, and sing and dance and paint and cut hair.
Yours or someone else's hair?
Both. But I've been forbidden to cut my hair anymore because I kept getting carried away. There were a few years when I was a little too scissors-happy. So, I leave it to other people who are better trained than I. I've given myself some short, little funky haircuts.
Do you like karaoke?
I love it. But I haven't done it in a while because the last place I went to turned out to be crowded, and someone was kind of rude. It used to be rather private, but it became very popular. So, I can't wait to go and have another one of my good old karaoke experiences.
Do you like the Hollywood scene?
I don't know it too well. I don't go out too much partywise. I like to go out with a purpose, if I'm in the mood to dance or listen to music or go to a performance. But not just for the sake of going out.
What do you look for in a guy?
I love men that have a passion for life, and who are strong and honest and work in the arts and have intelligence and lots of interests. But the most important thing is that he's a genuinely nice person.
I understand that although you live in L.A., you don't drive.
No, I don't have my license because I've been frightened. I took a few lessons, but I feel like I'm driving a big bullet. The first time I actually drove, in Virginia, I turned the wrong way on a one-way street. After that, I don't think I've been back on the road. I love public transportation. That's one of the things I love most about Manhattan. It's just the greatest city on earth. I love it because you can just jump in a subway.
Have you seen your photo in the October Esquire?
That was the first picture I ever saw of myself as a blonde. I was really happy with it, but they did a bit of air brushing with some cleavage, and it's on an angle. Hysterical!
Do you like being a blonde?
It's fun right now. I'm 23! If you can't change your location, change your hair color! But God knows how to pick colors best.
You have naturally brown hair?
Yes, and my skin is slightly olive. I don't go in the sun. I like being pasty and sallow. [Laughs] The olive comes from my being half-Italian. And I'm a quarter Irish and a quarter Eastern Bloc country.
You were born in Atlanta, but grew up in New Jersey?
Yes. I'm a Georgia peach, baby! I was there for only 2½ years, though. I don't remember it because I was so little. But I started talking at about four months. That's kind of weird. My aunt Debra was blowing bubbles with me, and "bubble" was the first thing I said. Kinda wacky.
You must really get along well with your mother because you live with her.
Oh, she's the greatest. It's her and I.
Did she encourage you to act when you were a child?
No. I went to dance classes and put on shows for the family and kids in the neighborhood, or whoever would come watch me perform. I did regional theater when I was nine. But when I was seven, I saw a kid's headshot on the bulletin board and started asking my mother to take me into Manhattan to get a manager so I could be on TV, too. She caved in when I was l2½. I pretty much dragged her.
What were some commercials you did?
I remember getting three jobs in one day: Skittles, Pizza Hut, and Honey Bunches of Oats. And they just kept coming. My manager encouraged me to go to L.A. for pilot season, and I came with a chaperon on January 8, l99l. Then, I asked my mom to move out here for me. I can't believe she believed in me so much to pack up the house, sell everything, and do it.
You did the sitcom Drexel's Class. Wasn't Jason Biggs in that, too? And he's also from New Jersey.
Yes. It was our first [real] television jobs. I remember being in the [tutoring] schoolroom with him when we were little. He was darling. We got along very well.
Were you always tutored during that time?
My senior year was when I did Clueless, so I did completely independent study, since I was working the whole time. But before that, I went to John Burroughs High School in Burbank. I was tutored the first half of the year, and then went into classes the second half.
What's been your most difficult time?
My mom had breast cancer and had to have chemotherapy for a couple of years. Through the grace of God and her strength, she survived. That was definitely the toughest. The day I found out, she was at the doctor's, and I called there. They told me before my mom got a chance to tell me. I was hysterical. I was sixteen, and young for my age. I was working on Clueless. It was the scene where my character is getting a makeover. I remember so vividly.
Another actor might have refused to work on a day like that.
Oh, that's not within my realm of thinking. It was on with the show.
Do you still think you're young for your age?
I've always been a late bloomer, so in some ways, I think I am. And in some ways, I'm very, very old inside, as far as souls are concerned.
Maybe you've lived other lives.
I definitely can't help but believe in that. I know I've lived a lot of lives before this one, but I like this one a whole lot. I'll never get over this life.
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