Musicians, Mensches, and Muff-Diving: Ally Sheedy by Amy Sohn

Although she made a career out of playing good girls in films like WarGames and St. Elmo’s Fire, Ally Sheedy has always been the original freak chick. Her portrayal of tic-ridden basketcase Allison Reynolds in The Breakfast Club let depressed, seborrheic girls nationwide know that they were not alone. Now 35 and a mom, Sheedy is hoping for a comeback with a role as an emaciated, heroin-snorting, lesbian photographer in Lisa Cholodenko’s indie feature High Art. Over an iced mocha and an ample supply of Light American Spirits at an Upper West Side cafe, Sheedy gave me the skinny on her new flick, the Brat Pack years, and her tortured relationship with Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora.

Are you Jewish? I want to out you.
Yeah, I totally am. I’ve outed myself. I’m a Jew!

Both of your parents are Jewish?
No, my mother [literary agent Charlotte Sheedy]. So that makes me technically Jewish. It means I can go to Israel and it can be the homeland.

Did your mother raise you to have a very strong Jewish identity?
Yes and no. Her mother lit the candles for the Sabbath and put garlic around her neck when she went to school to keep away the evil spirits, and that kind of thing. My grandmother came here from Odessa and was a very strange figure. She ended up in Philadelphia and opened up a grocery store in the black ghetto there. She was like the only Jew in the middle of the black ghetto, and ran this black market underneath the grocery store, and made a lot of money that way. Her name was Dora. She’s dead now. It’s kind of an amazing success story to me, but my mother cut them all off.
But [my Jewish identity] was important to me, because I grew up with my language peppered with all these Yiddish words, I went to the bar mitzvahs, we sometimes celebrated Passover, we sometimes didn’t. I think my mom’s gotten much more into being a Jew right now, partly because of the Reform movement. It’s not like she goes to temple but –

She’s Reform?
Reform is the one with the women rabbis, and changing? Since I had a kid, I was at her house and she was talking to [my daughter] Rebecca and she said, “We’re celebrating Passover because you’re Jewish. You’re a Jew and you’re Jewish and you should know you’re Jewish,” to her. Suddenly it’s become this important thing. And so we go down there and she has what she calls her faux seder for Passover.

Why faux?
Because she doesn’t do all the things. She does what she wants. This is how she practices Judaism: she has gefilte fish, but she also has macaroni and cheese with hot dogs, and then she opens the door for Elijah.

Kosher hot dogs?
I’m sure not. Maybe. She’s a character.

In a bun or in matzah?
They’re in macaroni and cheese. It’s my daughter’s favorite dish. They’re not pork, though.

Was it a deliberate decision to name your daughter after a matriarch?
Partly that, because that name has such a meaning for me, it’s from the Old Testament. I mean, I didn’t name her Rebecca with two k’s and an h on the end. Also, my closest friend in the world is named Rebecca. What is it when you’re Jewish? You can’t name them after someone who’s alive who’s a relative? But they don’t say anything about friends, right?

I don’t think you’re supposed to name them after anyone who’s alive at all.
Well, I messed up…

In your early days in Hollywood, in the Brat Pack, did you ever feel like a fish out of water, being from New York, not just being Jewish, but coming from a very left-wing background?
Yes. I’ve always felt like a fish out of water and I still feel that way. Absolutely. I am so indoctrinated into the politics of the women’s liberation movement because I was there, with my mom at the beginning, when it was just a few women at Columbia University. And I got brought up with…this belief that no matter what you want to do, you can do it, and you have to fight and you have to stick to your convictions and your morals and your ethics, and that there were certain things that were just not kosher. That you don’t get ahead and sell yourself on what you look like or by taking off your clothes or by basically acting like a hooker. Then I get to Hollywood and that’s the m.o. out there… I felt this incredible pressure about what I looked like and that I wasn’t sexy. This was a big issue, that I had no sex appeal…

This was being said to you while you were working?
Yes. But especially it happened when things started slowing down, and I was kind of stuck with this girl-next-door image, familiar, not pretentious… So the antidote out there was, if you want more interesting parts, become a sex object, because all the interesting parts are going to go to those kinds of women. So look like that because then you can make the transition from being this young starlet into a movie star. And it was anathema to me…

Is that one of the reasons you say you’ve been waiting ten years for a role like the one in High Art?
I haven’t really been waiting. I’ve been actively searching. But the truth is, I couldn’t get an audition for shit… It got to the point where there were almost no casting directors that would call me in on a project, so I wasn’t hearing about any movies or anything because they wouldn’t see me… It was awful. It was really humiliating. That was when I started thinking, “OK, I’m going to have to live somewhere else to play the kind of parts I want to play. Because I’m not going to go get my tits done.”

Like Demi?
Did you get yours done?

No. I said, “Like Demi?” Not “me.”
Oh. I thought you said, “Like me?” I was going to say, “You did? ‘Cause they look really good.” [Amy giggles and quivers] That’s the other thing, is that when I mention Demi, people say, “Don’t talk about Demi. It’s direct competition. You’re jealous of her success.” I’m not jealous of Demi’s success because when I met Demi 20, 15 years ago, I knew that she was a wonderful actress and I loved her. She was my best friend for a long time. I want my best friends to do well…
But the choices that she made were so obvious to me – to go directly down this road which to me was so disgusting in every way – that it created a rift between us. I lost respect for her completely, and then felt like this pariah, because the kinds of choices that she made in her career are the kinds of choices that are corroborated in Hollywood. They’re rewarded with money and fame and more movies and becoming a bigger star.
And the movies that she’s done are all about woman as sexual predator – the Striptease woman, the woman who fucked somebody for a million dollars… It’s all the same thing, this male myth about the power of women’s sexuality, and the bottom line is, politically speaking, you have no currency except for your sexuality. That is what you have that you can trade on that gets you power, only that…
There’s another writer I spoke to, and his take on it was that Demi is considered to be a feminist, as Madonna is. But I don’t have a problem with Madonna. Madonna’s in another category. Demi is considered to be a feminist because she made a lot of money and consolidated her power. Now, where in the women’s liberation movement is there any kind of theory about that?

About money equaling power?
That it doesn’t matter how you get there, but if you make yourself rich, and you consolidate your power base financially somehow, that you’re a liberated woman and an icon to feminists everywhere? No!

How you got there is the important thing?
It is to me. I remember there was this book that my mom loved a lot when I was growing up. The title of it has always stuck with me. It was called From Flat on my Back to Flat on my Ass, about, basically, find another way to go. There is another way to go, and it’s going to be a lot harder, but it’s a lot more worthwhile…

Why do you view Madonna in another category?
Because Madonna to me is a groundbreaking person. There’s a sense of humor about Madonna that you don’t get with a lot of people. She’s like, “Yeah, not only am I a sex object, but I’m going to put big cone-shaped tits on and get on a stage, and make it funny, make it obscene. And I’m not just going to wear them, I’m going to put them on the guys, too, so there’s going to be big cones coming out everywhere,” and it just becomes laughable. She has a really sharp, edgy, dark sense of humor about the whole thing. That to me looks like a person who is in control of her sexual image to the point where she will sell it, she’ll make money off it, she’ll laugh about it, but she’s liberated from it…

You used to have bulimia. How old were you when that started?
I was really young. It was when I was a ballerina, when my body started to change, and it was no longer going to be an option for me to be a dancer. Because there was the Ballanchine ethic, very long, straight body with no curves at all. It’s changed somewhat, because I’ve seen some dancers who don’t have that body form, but it was really black and white…
In LA, I was continually told to lose weight… There was a certain point where I put on a bunch of weight, when I was very depressed, and I put on a whole bunch of weight, like 25 pounds or something. I played one character who was a cop who couldn’t find a boyfriend, in this movie Betsy’s Wedding, and there was a little discussion about the fact that I was chunky, but I thought, “So what? I don’t see that many model-thin cops running around.”
But I did – and this was so typical of the kind of thing that would go on – I did go to a meet a producer whose name is Daniel Melnick for a movie called Air America… The part was this Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand… I did the screen test with Robert Downey, and he was a little chubby back then so they had gotten him this trainer to work him out, and I got a phone call right after the screen test saying, “You’re just too fat. You’re just too fat. You’re perfect for this movie in every way, but you’re too fat for a Peace Corps volunteer.” [laughs] The girl in the movie had to look slim. It was just so ludicrous…

Did it take you a long time to recover from the bulimia?
It did. It took me a long time. I don’t do it any more. I can’t say it’s because I suddenly became much healthier, or conquered something in my mind. What happened was, I had actually managed to lose, slowly, over about 2 or 3 years, most of that 25 pounds, and then I fell in love, so I lost some more weight, [laughs] and got married. And when I got pregnant, I don’t know why this happened, because I was drinking the shakes and taking the vitamins and doing all this stuff, but I only gained 20 pounds when I was pregnant, and my daughter was 10 pounds when she was born. Whatever reserves of fat that were in my body went to her. She came out and I got really skinny…
Maybe I’ve just stopped needing to fill something up with food that I was doing before. Something shifted. It may also be because I was out of Hollywood. I was away from all this pressure about my weight. It wasn’t an issue any more at all…

You met your husband, actor David Lansbury, doing an off-Broadway play. When was the first moment you realized you were attracted to each other?
I knew the minute I saw him I was in love… It was the first read-through. I went in and I thought, “Oh my God. Oh no. I’m in trouble now.”

And then it developed?
It developed for a while because he was actually still in a relationship with someone. So we were platonic until his other relationship ended. I had gone out with someone who cheated on me, and I didn’t want to go through something like that again.

Who was that?
Richie Sambora… He was clueless. Because he was just stoned all the time. He was a raging drug addict. I don’t know if he is any more or not, but he was then…
He once accused me of having left the bathroom window open so that my secret lover could meet me in his New Jersey house. This rampage went on all night about who left the bathroom window open, and who was I meeting in his bathroom? Because he had done so much cocaine that this was a reality to him. And it ended with him taking out a baseball bat and waving it in my face. What a dick.

How old were you when this happened?

Something must have drawn you to him initially.
When I first met him, when he’s not drunk, he’s kind of charming. He’s got this other personality that comes out. But when he starts drinking, his personality changes, so I didn’t get the “privilege” of seeing that dark personality until we had been dating a little while. And then he would get drunk and turn into this monster and not only not remember it the next day, the things he had said, but he would cop to it by telling me that it was my fault, that because I had done this, and I had done that, and I had done the other thing, and so he had to drink to deal with me. And somehow I ended up saying, “Oh I’m so sorry.” I was apologizing…
I went on tour with him, and it was this strange, dreamy, whirlwind kind of thing, where everybody is there because of this band, so if you’re having a problem with someone in the band, you’re the problem. Japan was the lowest point for me. There was another band called Ratt and they were playing first, and then Bon Jovi was playing. And two of the wives of members of Ratt were walking around backstage, and a couple of the guys who were working on the tour started to make comments about them, all sorts of really disgusting statements, sexual innuendo, calling them hookers or something like that. There was some big problem that happened, and they were really angry and talked to their husbands…
And Richie comes slamming into the hotel room completely fucked up, “They shouldn’t have opened their fucking mouths. These guys are on tour with us. We’re the big band. Ratt, their wives should just keep their fucking mouths shut.” And basically that they’re all sluts, and deserve whatever treatment they got, and it’s Bon Jovi’s tour, and they didn’t have a right to complain that they were being treated that way. And I thought, “What am I doing here?” So that, and one other incident, and I got the next plane out…

Fucking musicians, man. But they have an appeal.
Well he did, he had an appeal for 9 months, about as long as a pregnancy.

And then he came out.
Yeah. But I still hate him. I loathe and despise him…

Was your relationship with Woody Harrelson better than that one?
Yeah. I loved him. He was lovely. That was when he was still on Cheers. I met him at some environmental rally and I really liked him… Woody really needs someone who’s going to take care of him, and I was not that person. But I’m fond of him.

Is he a mensch?
He’s a mensch. He really is… He’s big into the hemp movement.

I don’t have much respect for that movement.
I don’t know anything about that movement, not being a pot smoker, but The Body Shop has hemp cream now. I’m so interested. What are the moisturizing properties of hemp? I have to go smell it and see what it smells like.

I guess we should talk about the movie.
I want to tell you one more dishy thing that I would never tell anybody else. I just love dishing with you! This is another “Can you believe this happened to me?” story. “Why did this happen?” When I was going through all that shit about Richie, the person who took me to Al-Anon meetings so I could deal with Richie’s problems was Heather Locklear… She was having problems with her husband at the time, who was Tommy Lee, and he was clean at that point. She took me to these Al-Anon meetings because she recognized how much pain I was going through over Richie…and I cried on her shoulder when he was dating Cher after me… As soon as I was out of the picture, and in rehab, safely locked up in rehab somewhere, he moved right on to Cher…

What were you in rehab for?
[Addiction to] Halcyon. It’s a sleeping pill. I first got it from Richie because he was on them. I very quickly became addicted to them… They had a bad effect on me because they leave your body really fast so you fall asleep really fast but then the next morning, you get very anxious, or at least I did. It wreaked havoc on me. I was on them for 4 months, 4 or 5 months, and I had to go to rehab to get off them. I couldn’t get off them without a doctor. Halcyon’s been banned in Europe. It’s a really dangerous drug. One of my other great legacies from Richie Sambora. Really wonderful. What am I doing in the rehab? Why am I in the rehab?

You needed rehab from Richie Sambora.
That was part of it. I thought, “I’m going to go somewhere where he will never be able to reach me even though he’s too chickenshit to talk to me, and I’ll break myself of this habit of Richie Sambora.” That was what I was in rehab for.
It really is odd, though, to have taken Halcyon for 4 months and end up in Hazelden, and see all these people who do massive amounts of drugs every day, walking around, and having people just supplying them with drugs, and functioning…

Do you have any dishy stories about the Brat Pack years?
During the Brat Pack years, I did not do any drugs, did not drink, was a vegetarian, meditated, went to ashrams, did yoga, was completely in the opposite camp as far as all the partying that was supposedly going on was concerned. Besides, the partying, so called, was a guy thing. The guys went out and the guys did what the guys did, and none of the women were included. The only women that were included were the ones that showed up at the restaurants and climbed up under the tables to get in their laps.

The groupies?
Yeah, the groupies. I wasn’t there, Demi wasn’t there, Molly [Ringwald] wasn’t there… They didn’t invite us…
You’ve said that when you were shooting your sex scene in St. Elmo’s Fire with Andrew McCarthy, the director, Joel Schumacher, was shouting out, “Andrew, just fuck her! Just fuck her!”
I know and I feel bad, because I actually got along with [Schumacher] and I like him. But he just had this moment that was horrifying… He didn’t think Andrew was fucking me the way that Joel wanted it to look. He didn’t want it sweet and tender. He wanted some serious sex. But it just destroyed me. It was all these men standing around the crew and it was horrifying…

How would you compare doing that scene in St. Elmo’s Fire with your sex scene with Patricia Clarkson in High Art in terms of the atmosphere on the set?
It was different. The atmosphere on the set of High Art was the crew was 90% women, and almost all of them were gay. So there was nothing voyeuristic about it. It was just their normal, everyday experience. It wasn’t odd for anybody. The only thing that I really wanted to do was to make it as real as possible, while having respect for what Patti’s particular, what’s the word for it? “Borders”? Is “borders” the word?

Her parameters. She had specific parameters for me, and she told me what they were, and so I worked around them.

And they were?
She did not want me to open her bra because she did not want her breasts hanging out, because the scene goes on for a long time. She didn’t want to be lying there without a top on, so I couldn’t take the bra off, and she didn’t want anything showing beneath the underwear, no genital, no pubic hair, nothing like that. So I just kind of went down there and played around with the underwear a little bit, then went back up… And I was pretty much the guy in both the sex scenes. I got the guy part, which is a much better part than the woman’s part, if you’re doing a sex scene.

What do you mean, “the guy part”?
The guy part is the one who’s the confident, more aggressive, the initiator. Usually, in any movie, the sex scene is about the guy: his sexual prowess, his sexual attractiveness. You are an accessory to him. You get one great shot of your breasts, where they light them really nicely and everybody gets to get titillated for a second, and then they go back to his thrusting movements and his muscles rippling, and oils, and you have to lie there and moan and be an accessory. You’re adding to his sexual mystique. That’s what they all come down to. Even the ones with Sharon Stone on top of Michael Douglas in the bed are all about this hungry, ravenous woman who has to have this guy, it has to be him, she’s going to devour him, always about him. So here I come into these sex scenes and it was like, “Hey, I get to be the guy.” [laughs] It’s so much easier…
With [High Art co-star] Radha [Mitchell]…I did not have the luxury in that scene of being at all insecure about the sex, because I was working with a 23-year-old actress from Australia, who is very much an innocent, and I certainly didn’t want her to have the experience that I had when I was 23 with somebody yelling “Fuck her! Fuck her!” in the background. But nobody was going to do that. It was really gentle and tasteful…

Your mother is a lesbian. How old were you when she came out?
Officially, I was 18 when she came out, but I pretty much knew the lay of the land before that… When I was about 14, I started figuring out that my mom only hung out with women. She didn’t have any boyfriends. And then I started to think, “I wonder if so-and-so is her girlfriend. I wonder if they’re having sex in there.” Just like you would think if it was a man, “Oh, they’re having sex?”…
When she finally came out, it was a relief for me, because I felt like, “Oh finally. There’s been all this unspoken stuff going that I know about and I’m not supposed to know about.” It’s just a pain in the ass, really. There were lots of questions I wanted to ask her like, “How’s so and so? What’s going on in your life? How’s your relationship?” and you can’t ask any of that stuff if you’re not supposed to know that they’re having a relationship.
But at the same time, I felt like this was a really big deal for my mom to sit down and tell me this and I didn’t want to say, “I’ve always known about it” and belittle it in any way. So I just said, “Wow? You are? OK.” And she said, “Does that shock you? Does it upset you?” and quite frankly, it didn’t. First of all, I’d known about it for a long time, and second of all, why would it shock me and upset me? Half to three quarters of all the people I knew when I was growing up were gay, so what would be the big shock? She was coming from a completely different perspective than I was…

Did it affect your views about marriage to grow up as a child of divorce?
I don’t know anything other than divorce… As soon as I got married, I went through this crisis where I thought, “The only thing left to happen in my life is the inevitable divorce. How long until the divorce happens? How long until I’m going to have to pack all my shit up one more time and move somewhere? How long is this going to last?” It took me a while to get over that. I even moved out of our house and into a hotel for a few weeks… And David was David and he just waited it out.

Are you the breadwinner in your family?
No, we alternate with that. He works pretty continuously in the theater in New York here. So most of the time, we’re living on his salary, because I don’t work that much. Once in a while, I will get a television movie, usually from USA Network, which continually has hired me when nobody else would, so I love them, where they will really pay me some money. I just did one in Australia. As soon as I found out that I got it, we said, “Great. We can renew our lease on this apartment. We can pay Rebecca’s tuition.” It’s important because I want to feel like I’m contributing financially to this family…

How has your career changed since this movie?
It hasn’t.

People are waiting till it comes out?
I don’t know. We’ll see. I feel like I was able to really get to do more with this part, so maybe it will be easier for me to get an interview for a movie that’s got an interesting role. For a long time, I felt that the way I look on the outside, and the way I talk, my mannerisms, were sort of childlike in a way. People say Valley Girl but it’s actually not Valley Girl. It’s Upper West Side New York.

Oh, I know, honey. I know.
The Valley Girl thing really annoys me because I did not grow up in the Valley… I talk like an Upper West Side New Yorker, and it’s a very weird kind of accent, but you have it too, so you know what I’m talking about. I don’t know what I was saying.

People say that you’re like a child on the outside.
It was. It was these very banal, superficial, straight-arrow, girl-next-door parts, and I felt like, for some reason, I’m coming across that way, but that’s so far removed from who I really am or how I think about things or what the experiences in my life have been. It felt sort of schizophrenic for a while. I felt like I have to wait, and get older, so my outsides are going to be closer to my insides. And in this movie, I felt like it was perfect, an absolutely perfect melding of everything. I think those are the parts I’m cut out to play. I don’t think I’m cut out for comedy. I’m cut out for darker, more complex roles…

I think you’re coming full circle from your role in The Breakfast Club to this role. I see a lot of similarities between the characters.
There are similarities. The role in The Breakfast Club is pretty much the way I was in high school. And John Hughes let me do all of that stuff.

You were a Goth girl?
Now there’s this term “Goth girl,” but when I was in high school, it was kind of a poetry-reading, cigarette-smoking, pale, black clothes, intellectual sort of character. And you would wear black eyeliner to make yourself look even more tired than you really were. You drank a lot of coffee, read a lot of books.

Turtlenecks, long skirts.
Yeah, like this leftover beat generation thing. There was a really cool wardrobe lady named Marilyn Vance and she got that so well. That whole outfit was just perfect. And John let me do whatever I wanted. I didn’t have to be the pretty girl in that movie so I got to have fun. It’s a lot of work being the pretty girl in the movie. Molly had to do that. I didn’t have to do any of it. It was 5 minutes in there in the morning and they put white on to make me look paler than I am, and gave me some black liner smudged really badly around my eyes, and that’s what they did and that was it. Let’s not even brush the hair. Leave it alone.

Did you really have dandruff?
I’ve had dandruff in my life, and I’ve scratched it out onto the table to look at it. I’ve scratched my head and looked under my fingernails. Of course I have.

Me too.
But they augmented my natural dandruff with stage dandruff so that it would really flow to the paper and you could catch it on film.

At the end, though, when you get that makeover and Emilio Estevez’s character falls in love with you, it’s so –
No. Wrong! Wrong! That was the problem. It was originally written as a makeover, but I asked John Hughes to change it because I didn’t want them to put makeup on me so I suddenly appear like this pretty girl.

It’s totally anti-feminist.
Right. So what I asked them to do was take it off, to be taking off the mask I have on, take off the white stuff, take off the black shit around my eyes. Molly even has a line about taking the stuff off my face. I wanted it to be this unmasking, this revealing of who’s beneath that black wall facade. So I took off the sweater, and got the hair out of the face. I was trying as hard as I could to have it not be an application of makeup and a makeover.

But there’s a shot of her putting eyeliner on you.
I know. I lost that one. I lost one. I got the line about taking the black shit off the eyes…and I won the taking the sweater off as an unveiling thing. I wanted the hair just out of the face, but they put this hairband on.

I didn’t like the hairband. It made you look very girly.
I didn’t like the hairband either, but there you go. I won two and lost two…

I find that makeover scene very homoerotic.
That’s pretty funny. Molly would love that.