Shut up and Listen to HEATHER MATARAZZO
Performers seeking authentic advice should search no further than the honest guidance of Heather Matarazzo. The New York raised actress has remained in the spotlight ever since her lead role in the coming of age film, Welcome to the Dollhouse. This breakout 90's hit propelled Matarazzo into a successful career thats spanned over twenty years so far. For instance, she's had notable roles in The Princess Diaries films, Hostel Part II, and many other projects, but she's certainly not finished yet.
Heather has been called "outspoken", "unattractive", and "unfuckable" (whatever that means), but when she answered my phone call I found her to be nothing but open and incredibly genuine. In the course of 30 minutes, Matarazzo spoke to me about her journey in show business, her role in the highly anticipated Tina Fey and Amy Poehler film Sisters, succeeding as a woman in the entertainment, and how gummy bears helped her nail an audition. Read these highlights and the rest of our insightful conversation below:
RP: Do you remember the moment you knew you wanted to be an actress?
HM: It wasn’t even a want…. It was I always knew I was going to be an actress.
RP: What is it that you love about acting the most?
HM: You know, it’s as I continue to get older that answer continues to evolve and change. For me, I look at cinema and television as one of the greatest mediums to bring people together. And even though I might not necessarily be able to identify being a 12 year-old boy on a foreign planet fighting aliens… what I do identify with is the feeling of terror, the feeling of loneliness, the feeling of regret…. And I feel that it’s one of the only art forms that can do that. That can have people sit in a theatre and identify with the feelings.
RP: What inspires you as a performer?
HM: A great story. That’s the only thing that inspires me. And other people’s passion. When people are just as passionate, if not more passionate about a project, that gets me pumped. And the most important thing though is, does the story have any weight, any depth.
RP: I know you're a writer as well. I recently heard an interview with Chris Martin of Coldplay, where he said bursts of inspiration will come to him randomly and no matter what he's doing he has to go and quickly write down the idea or song lyrics. Do you experience anything like that?
HM: All the time. So I’m very grateful that as an artist I also have the capability of getting to write. I find more and more the things that I desire to see are not being made, so I might as well create them myself.
RP: I think a lot of our readers could learn from you, as most double as writers. When you have so many projects going on, how do you find all time and motivation to get things done?
HM: Well, I am a very big procrastinator. I will sit on something for months, until I get to the point of “okay, this just has to get written down” and then I excessively write until it’s done. People have been telling me to write for years and then finally I put it out on Twitter saying that it’s going to be out by the end of the week. And, you know, I’m not going to be thought of as a liar so I was like “okay” I have now until the end of the week to have this out. And then I did it. And it was out! And the response was incredible and quite shocking. That has now motivated me more.
The burst of inspiration that comes can be very intense, but they can also be very short lived. I feel like, especially, as a performer when you are continually out there and expending your energy, at least for someone like me, I also need a lot of down time to just rejuvenate.
RP: What would you say has been your favorite role to play?
HM: Um… I’m not sure. The roles that I can say that I’m the most proud of are:
I played this girl in this movie called Our Guys: Outrage in Glen Ridge which is based off a true story about this mentally challenged high school girl that got brutally ganged raped. That I was proud of for a multitude of reasons.
I just did this very sweet film called Girl Flu with Katee Sackoff that was directed and written by Dorie Barton that I feel has a very strong voice and the chemistry between us was indescribable. I’m excited about that and that woman was fun to play.
RP: We’re excited too. Of course, a lot of people recognize you as Lilly in The Princess Diaries, Looking back, what did you learn from that whole experience?
HM: To enjoy the opportunities that you’re given. To have fun. And if at all possible, especially when doing a comedy, don’t be afraid of props.
RP: Why do you say that?
HM: Garry Marshall was very, very keen on having me use different kinds of props and things to get my hands on. And he said that “props make everything funnier”. Even if it’s something small, obviously not something ostentatious that’s going to distract from the scene. I found that, especially with a character like Lily that is very high energy, getting to have a prop allowed that energy to dampen just enough, which I found very helpful.
RP: I wish “Shut up and Listen” were a real show.
HM: Yeah, so do I! Especially with everything that’s going on today. I’ve tweeted that quite a few times. (Laughs)
RP: We have available studio space here - just saying! We can make it happen.
RP: Speaking of laughs, you’re in the upcoming film Sisters with Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. I imagine that was a fun experience…
HM: No, it was horrible…. No, of course it was fun! Who would not give their right eye to work with the likes of Amy Poehler and Tina Fey? They are geniuses! And I don’t use that word lightly. They’re very funny, they’re very smart and they know comedy. Just to be able to witness that unfold for eighteen hours a day for three weeks was incredible. I was very, very fortunate to be apart of that. Maya Rudolph, and Ike Barinholtz, and Bobby Moynihan, and Kate McKinnon… You know the list goes on and on… Diane Wiest… It was brilliant to watch and be apart of it!
RP: What did you learn from working with a cast of that acclaim? Did it help you grow in any way as an actress?
HM: I‘ve had the fortune of working with topnotch people my entire career. With this experience, what I learned was patience. We were shooting a lot of stuff that took a lot of time and we were dealing with a lot of extras. The amount of patience and professionalism and just keeping everything light. I’m definitely sure there are some actors who would have been less jovial and less sweet and less kind. Amy and Tina especially were very jovial and very light.
RP: Can you tell me a bit about your part?
HM: I played one of Maya Rudolph’s best friends.
RP: That must have been fun!
HM: Yeah! They (the producers) had called my reps up and said, “We really want Heather to be in this movie we really, really love her! They’ve created this part for her. Would she want to do it?” And so I said, “Yeah let me think about… like, yes! Of course! I would love to!”.
RP: I'm most excited for the blooper reel I think. Can you recall anything funny or wild that happened on the set?
HM: I don’t, and if I did I don’t even think I’d be at liberty to say!
RP: A lot of aspiring actors here in NYC get started by doing background work. Do you think this is a worthwhile experience?
HM: I have never had the experience of being an extra. I feel that each person’s path is their own. I’ve often read a lot of stories where extras have made it “big”. But if you really, really, really want to be an actor and you’re lucky enough to work with incredibly talented people and then if you also are ballsy enough to engage and say “listen this is something I really, really wanna do, do you have any suggestions?” I say go for it! I don’t think this business is for everyone. It’s not for everyone. I feel as though more and more I find that people who say they want to be actors don’t want to be actors they just want to be famous. If you want to have a job being famous then go out and make a sex tape.
"If you want to have a job being famous then go out and make a sex tape."
If you really want to be an actor and you’re willing to go to any lengths and you’re willing to be persistent and you’re willing to have chutzpah and you’re willing to take risks and break rules and do what you want to do then, great! Go for it!
RP: We did some Twitter stalking. I read one of your tweets the other week that said "Every actor should know what angles suit them, what lights suit them and not be afraid to say it". Why do you think that’s so important?
HM: At the end of the day it’s your face that’s on there, it’s your brand. I definitely learned from experience, that certain angles of a camera do not look appealing on film. They just don’t! And getting to know that and getting to say, “what angle is this being shot at?” and what not and know this is not gonna to look good. Especially, if you’re working with a first time DP [Director of Photography]. I’ve done a lot of independent films where it’s the DP’s first time around. Also, in terms of lighting, it’s a really good idea to see if you can get a key light in the hair and makeup trailer or whatever the area so that the makeup artist actually knows how to put makeup on your face. A lot of times it’s very off lighting and then it doesn’t look good. You need to know what frames are going to work for you. I’m not saying it’s for every single film. Sometimes, “ugly” or “unattractive” is necessary. I know for me some of those frames can be distracting.
RP: It makes sense that actors should defend their views. So, when you’re on set and you've already mapped out this character in your head, how important do you think it is to fight for them/ who they are? I know a lot of Directors can already have a very specific vision.
HM: Well, here’s the difference, right? So I just had this experience with Barton – who I think is one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with - she was open and she was warm. She had put her heart and her sole into this project and done a lot of research. She gave us free reign – Katee and I – to ad lib and to play and to make it as organic as possible. The questions I had we were able to talk through. Sometimes it can take an actor a minute. I know for me it can sometimes take a minute. I don’t quite get it and then once I get it, I GET it - Great, awesome let’s go! And then there are those directors that I don’t think are really directors – I think they’re ego maniacs that really have problems with control and just want to tell people what to do. They’re not thinking about the story, they’re not thinking about the characters, they’re not looking at it as a collaboration.
There was a producer I worked with once who quoted Alfred Hitchcock’s line about how actors are basically "cattle". I had another Producer, not Director, say, “stand on your mark, and just say your line”. That’s when you essentially become a seller of soap and Coca-Cola. They’re not really caring about the story. They’re not really caring about the development of character. They’re not caring about any of those things. Especially, if they don’t have the answers… they don’t want to take the time. They don’t care. I’m, grateful that I have only had three instances like that in my entire life. I hope to never have it again. The truth is, especially as a women in this industry, the minute that you question, you’re going to be deemed a "bitch" and you’re going to be deemed "difficult to work with". But I’ve seen many of my male costars do the same thing and they’re given a lot of time. The truth is, I don’t really fucking care. Yes, I will spend twenty, twenty-five minutes to be able to get it because at the end of the day they’re not going to blame the director, they’re not going to blame the writer, they're going to blame the actor. I care that much about the characters that I play because I care that much about the story. You know, if I’m going to invest three months of my time, I want it to be as amazing as possible. Especially when people are paying fifteen dollars of their hard earned money to go see a movie that I just happen to be in.
RP: What’s your advice for actors trying to break their "type"?
HM: Geez Louise! It’s a double-edged sword. It’s what comes first… the chicken or the egg. Do the views that you have of yourself originate from you or do they come from someone else. Again, I can only speak from my experience.
When I was nineteen years old, I had been attached to do this movie for two years, I was really, really excited about it. I was playing this woman who was very sexy and very brash and very sarcastic, but, you know, had a ton of vulnerability underneath. Two weeks before we were about to begin filming, the director said to me, after much prodding on my part, “Heather, we’re going another way with casting. The producers don’t think you’re fuckable… But we have another role for you that I’m going to make bigger because I really, really want you in this movie.” I said, “Yes! Okay!”. Here’s the truth: Before I did Dollhouse I didn’t really know about pretty or ugly. It didn’t really resonate in my consciousness.
I don’t know if it was because I was a teenager or reading reviews or everything that came out, but all of a sudden I had reporters asking, “What does it feel like to play the ugly girl?” All I heard was “What does it feel like to be so unattractive?”. That became a part of who I was… Ugly. Ugly. Ugly. Disgusting. It wasn’t until I got to really truly look at myself, and this wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties, I was like you know what, I’m actually fucking stunning. I’m not like the classic, you know, “beauty”, but I’m stunning. Like Isabella Rosellini.
"Like, I’m fucking stunning."
And as soon as I was able to really truly see that within myself the roles that I started to get called in for changed - Strong women. Women that had an immense amount of power – either internally or externally. Women that were much more complex. And I really do feel at the end of the day it had to do with how I viewed myself.
Once the views of myself changed, the views of others changed. So in terms of “typecasting”, I went through a period of time in my mid-twenties when I didn’t work, essentially, for like seven years, I didn’t do a major studio film. Every time the phone rang it was for parts that I didn’t wanna play and half the time I would say no and half the time I would say yes. I was like well, “I really don’t like this, I think the script is really bad, but, you know, whatever, fine, I’ll go in I’ll say, because maybe if I say yes the universe will see that like yes I’m willing, And I still wouldn’t get the part and I would still feel really down and out about myself. And now, today, I had to go through this breakthrough of why I became an actor in the first place. What is was that I really, really, really, really loved about it. Which is playing really, really, interesting, complex roles. Loosing myself in a role for two to three months. Not doing “surface fluff” for a paycheck. And, again, as soon as I recommitted to the origins of why I started everything started to change. At the end of the day too, you know, we have to pay bills. We sometimes have to do projects that we don’t necessarily want to do because it’s a paycheck. In order to then do those projects that we really do love. I don’t have all the answers, I only have my experience. I’ve worked really, really, really hard to build a resume that is reflected of who I am as an individual. So, of course, there’s going to be some deviance - deviations off the path - which was really when I was in my late teens, early twenties. Um… I don’t know if that answers your question… but….
RP: It was great - you did! Now, just one more question. In your experience, I’m wondering what you would say is the best piece of advice for aspiring actors?
HM: Be bold. Be fearless. Don’t go in there doing what you think they want. Be very, very bold in your choices. I remember I got a script once for a show, and I read it and when I read scripts I hear the character – I hear her – and to me this character had an accent. Didn’t call for it in the script! But, I did it anyway. You know, I didn’t get it, but then on the other hand, I went in for something else recently and I was reading the script and looking at these pages and there was something missing. And I didn’t know what it was. There was something missing. And then it came to me… She needs to be eating something…. She needs to be eating something while she’s talking to this person. It was a very fast paced scene. And I went in. And I did it. And I bought these fucking gummy bears. And I did the scene while I was eating these gummy bears.
RP: That sounds delicious!
HM: Yeah! It didn’t call for it in the script, but it was something that I intuitively felt – this is it. This is what makes her, her and it’s such a small thing, but what it said to me about who she was is that she doesn’t give a shit. She is in such a position of power that she’s just gonna sit here having this serious meeting eating fucking gummy bears which makes it that much funnier. The response I got was: “we love Heather, we thought that was such an incredible, brilliant choice. We definitely wanna find something for her.” So that’s what I mean… being bold and being fearless in the choices that you make. Not in regards to – let me stand out and like be a ham! Not doing it for that sake, but if you have an intuitive thought about a character and it’s not necessarily on the page, it doesn’t mean then that you shouldn’t do it. And also the same goes for lines. I get 100% off book, but if I substitute a word to two, that’ fine. It’s not so much about the letter of the law, it’s the spirit of the law.
RP: What should we be watching out for?
HM: I have Girl Flu coming up, I’m getting ready to have something else come out that I directed and I'm getting ready to put out my next blog piece. Also, getting ready to work with a writer on developing a feature!
RP: We’ll definitely be on the lookout for all of your upcoming awesome stuff! Thank you, Heather!
HM: Thank you so much, dude!
RP: I’m going to go eat gummy bears, because now I’m craving them.
HM: Awesome! Have a blast.
Keep up with Heather's new blog here! Also, be sure to follow her on Twitter for some great acting advice, among other things. - @heathermatarazz.