Rose McGowan: From ‘Charmed’ Life to ‘Grindhouse’ Deity
By George Gurley
“Seven lonely days make one lonely week. Seven lonely nights make one lonely me…”
It’s early January and Rose McGowan is delighting her audience inside the Pink Room at the West Village’s Beatrice Inn bar with some Patsy Cline crooning, to be followed by sultry versions of “Summertime,” “Where the Boys Are,” and “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” After a sweet, rousing “You Are My Sunshine,” she threatens to belt out some gospel.
McGowan is not onstage, though, just hanging out, tucked away in a private corner. Aside from the sounds of ice being scooped up behind the bar and vintage alternative wafting down from the mini-dance floor in the back bar, the place is quiet, and McGowan’s impressive vocals and presence are casting a spell. She fits right into this former Prohibition-era speakeasy, and even though her outfit is up-to-date—red Dolce and Gabbana sweater, Calvin Klein bra, very short black Stella McCartney hot pants, black Wolford tights, slouchy Stella pirate boots—she’s got a 1930s movie star thing going.
“In some ways I think I would have fit in with the studio system a lot better then than today,” she confirms. “I’m not saying I wouldn’t have been suspended numerous times…like Bette Davis was, for refusing to do the crappy movies she was contracted to do.”
In the first decade of peddling her wares in Hollywood, McGowan made a name for herself playing sassy bad girls, evil vixens, and ice princesses, stealing scenes in hits like Scream and Jawbreaker, and acquitting herself gamely in more than a few duds no one in film history could fully, well, redeem (see Bio-Dome, Lewis and Clark and George, and Phantoms, but do not see the wrestling “comedy” Ready to Rumble). However, to some she was best known for wearing that see-through, chain-mail dress over a leopard skin g-string at the 1999 MTV Video Awards…and for being really hot. For a while there, she appeared to be stuck in career purgatory, always one movie away from “the big breakthrough.” Sick of it all, she informally quit the business, got engaged to boyfriend Marilyn Manson, and joined his rock ’n’ roll circus.
By 2001 she’d had enough of that too. Worried about the looming actor’s strike, she jumped at the offer to replace Shannen Doherty in the WB Network series “Charmed.” Soon, ratings jumped by 60 percent, and now, thanks to the series (the longest running female show ever, beating even “Laverne & Shirley”), McGowan is world famous. She’s way big in France, Italy, Australia, and if she ever went to Bangladesh or Yemen, she’d be chased down the street. While vacationing in Hawaii recently, she says she was getting her nails done by a 65-year-old Vietnamese guy who recognized her and began recounting all the plots of “Charmed” she’d long forgotten.
To avoid similar situations during the rest of her trip, McGowan recalls: “I put on a Southern accent and picked the most banal name I could think of, ’Stacy,’ and said I was from Texas. I was saying, Wow! That sounds real kewl!” Unfortunately, everyone at the hotel she was staying at started calling her Stacy: “I wish I picked a better name because it was actually demoralizing for me to have this sort of populist name. I should have picked ‘Grace.’”
Then there was the flight attendant who looked like “Mary Ann” on “Gilligan’s Island” who handed her a note after the plane landed. “I read it and I was bugged out of my head,” McGowan says. “It was basically, ’Dear Rose, I know you didn’t have anything to do with the writing of the show, but I just wanted to thank you and the writers and everyone involved for not making fun of my religion and taking Wicca seriously.’ I was like, Whoa! Knock me over with a feather. Things like this happen a lot.”
They’re about to happen a lot more. Rose McGowan is now ready for her real close-up, on the big screen, with the release this month of the double-feature Grindhouse. The trailer alone could transform her from talented B-list-curiosity status into icon stature. In Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, she plays the down-on-her-luck go-go dancer “Cherry Darling,” who loses a leg then fights off infected zombie-like citizens and evil governmental agents with a machine gun attached to her right stump. In Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof she’s simply “Pam,” and it’s up to Pam to save the world.
McGowan, who has top billing in a cast that includes Kurt Russell and Rosario Dawson (as well as Tarantino), is a bad-ass heroine in both movies, but a softer, more vulnerable side emerges too—a side that’s a lot truer to who she is in real life than any of her previous roles have suggested.
A waitress enters the Pink Room to dim the lights, thereby preventing me from deciphering a long list of questions. “He needs to read something, he loves me,” McGowan says. “He’s reading me an ode that he’s written just for me. I understand that feeling; it happens to many people.”
Nervous and slightly overwhelmed, I order another whiskey.
“People in New York sure drink a lot,” she says. “I think in L.A. you would all be committed to AA.” On this night, she isn’t drinking. When she does imbibe, McGowan might have a glass of rose champagne (“I find that’s the only one that doesn’t put me to sleep”), or a nice cabernet (“but I do have to go to sleep right afterwards”). She avoids nightclubs where paparazzi loiter by the entrance. “I’ve never been to any of those kind of places,” she says. “I don’t do well in places where I feel incredibly self-conscious.”
McGowan prefers gay bars, where the music’s better and no one’s going to hit on her—or lesbian clubs (“I’ve never been pegged as a lesbian, which I find funny, because I go to a lot of them”). She also likes Orchid, a karaoke joint in L.A.’s Koreatown. There she might perform “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” “Wanted Dead or Alive,” “Crimson and Clover.” But “9 To 5” is her showstopper.
Overall she prefers Los Angeles to New York City—although she loved living on Charles Street in the West Village, while dating Men’s Health editor-in-chief Dave Zinczenko. She isn’t a fan of the cold weather—or all the snobs: “I just hate it, I can’t bear it. I find it to be as small-minded as any other small-minded town. I don’t really understand it, but I do love it here, and I love walking. But, at the same time, I love my car and driving really fast.” She gets up to 120mph on the freeway in her BMW M5. And she admits to following ambulances, but she’s never been ticketed for speeding. “I’m good friends with the police chief,” she says. “I met him at Elaine’s.
McGowan continues: “What I love about L.A. is that people do their own damn thing. If someone looks like a total weirdo, and he’s on the corner with a little umbrella on his head, dancing on his roller skates every day, more power to him. Fantastic. I may not like your style, but I think it’s fantastic that you’re rocking it.” However, she does feel some contempt for the “faux depth” of a certain breed in Hollywood: “There are people I can peg a hundred yards away: ’I’m an ac-tor!’ And I think, No. You’re terrifying. You’re reading Bukowski. You drive a Jeep. You live in Beechwood—shut up!
The female version of McGowan’s L.A. composite favors Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories. ’It was so seminal,’” she says, imitating one of “them.” “Shut up, idiot, shut up! These people must not have had any true trouble or heartbreak in their life—or some form of misery. So they latch onto a character that has very mundane and self-involved problems. Is J.D. Salinger the only person you can latch on to? It’s such a cliché. It’s like, You’re also wearing boots with chunky soles to not look as short as you really are.”
More drinks for me, while more random facts ramble out of McGowan.
Her diet is “hideous, horrible.” She eats a lot of candy (“anything guaranteed to pull out fillings”), and tapioca pudding daily, with a little spoon that says “Ramones” on it. She refuses to eat lamb, pork, rabbit, or fish, but is an “excellent” baker who makes “the best” red velvet cake. She has a very specific Taco Bell order: two beef burritos, sour cream, no onions.
During her trip to Hawaii, she swam with some dolphins, even though she’s terrified of water and doesn’t know how to swim: “So that was cool. I do not like the idea of a fish touching me—dolphins are different—but I was more afraid of the small fish. My dad used to sit on me, and try to shove salmon down my mouth, and I refused to eat it. That was no way to get me to eat it.”
The only thing worse than fish? Having a baby. “I’d love to hire out,” she says. She goes to strange places by herself, like a small island off Turkey swarming with Russian mobsters, and a weird, isolated mountain town in the middle of Mexico: “It’s a very dangerous place to go, but my thought process, my security, was to go get a really dark, fake tan—that way I would blend in, not look like a white chick wandering around and have to have a security guard with me.”
She knows a fair amount about Jeffrey Dahmer and other serial killers, but not in a macabre, obsessed way. What gave her nightmares was the fact that the only thing the Great Lakes cannibal kept in his fridge were condiments. “For some reason, that detail stuck in my head. I’m thinking Gulden’s mustard and relish? You want Miracle Whip on your tongue sandwich?” Fun fact: For her 12th birthday, an uncle gave her a hardcover copy of The Man Who Killed Boys: The John Wayne Gacy Story.
McGowan loathes the words “romantic” and “lover.” She likes “oh my goodness” and “for corn’s sake,” and her favorite curse word is “cocksucker.” If someone comes by and tells her to “Smile!,” she might apologize, explain that she has brain cancer, then walk off. McGowan has a bit of a melancholy streak, and a guilty conscience, which she chalks up to her Irish heritage. A friend of hers calls her a “two leaf” because she’s had very little good luck. “It looks like I do,” she says. “I take one step of luck forward, but I pay for it in three little steps of bad luck backwards. I have to keep soldiering on.”
She lives with two Boston terriers, Bug and Fester (who have cost her $175,000 in vet bills) in a “fantastic” house she decorated in Deco Moderne. Before she goes to bed, she watches “Cold Case Files” or “City Confidential,” and during the day, it’s Dr. Phil (“I’m not kidding, I love me some Dr. Phil. He cracks me up”). But for the most part, it’s old movies.
Preston Sturges films always work for her. And Barbara Stanwyck is at the top of her actress list. “Heavily underappreciated,” she says. “The fact that she didn’t win an Oscar is ridiculous.”
Among the living actors she likes are Jessica Lange, Reese Witherspoon, Toni Collette, Julianne Moore, Clive Owen, Will Ferrell, Kevin Spacey (“very, very sexy”), and Tom Cruise (“I don’t think he’s gay”). In general, she gets on with older actors, with the exception of Joan Collins. “I worship her, and she was a total bitch to me, and I was quite hurt at first. I met her at Elaine’s, and she just gave me this withering look. It was kind of horrifying, and then later I thought I really wouldn’t have it any other way. Why would I want the ultimate vixen bitch to be nice to me? No, she had to continue in her Alexis ways. That’s OK.”
McGowan has always had a boyfriend since sixth grade, but is single now, although it’s been rumored that she’s seeing Robert Rodriguez (not true, she says). Her relationships average about three and half years: “I’m wondering if I can surpass that; I’m kind of nervous. It’s not really an issue with me. Everything changes and people change. I tend to outgrow the other person. And when I was younger, I was going out with kind of older men.”
If she could make a perfect boyfriend in a laboratory she’d whip up a mixture of Cary Grant, Robert Mitchum, and Napoleon, the latter of whom she was obsessed with while growing up. Same with Robert E. Lee.
She dislikes hippies (“Even when I was only knee high I knew that women with hairy legs was not a good thing”), hippie music, and croc clogs, “those plastic things with holes in them that cooks wear, but now, so do all these hideous people with wide flat feet.” They’re “disgusting” and so are Birkenstocks. Recently her father spent the night at her house and came clomping down the stairs wearing some.
She also hates the purposeful misspelling of names—rappers being the guiltiest party—and can’t stand people who take their children to midnight movie screenings, which makes her irate enough to call Social Services. She can do without clinging, emotionally needy people (as well as cats), and is skilled at rooting out “energy vampires” from her life.
She once met Paris Hilton, thought she was “really nice” but liked Vincent Price more: “I just kind of stared at him with bug eyes and a slack jaw. He was just so tall and elegant and his wife was incredibly gorgeous. Both of them together looked like they were…straight out of a movie.”
The time she met Hunter S. Thompson at the Viper Room was pretty solid, too. The two of them were sitting on a bench inside a room the size of a broom closet, which featured a two-way mirror that looked out into the infamous club. The writer pulled out his drug kit. McGowan noted how organized it was. She did not partake. She has never smoked a cigarette, has taken only one puff of marijuana, didn’t get high, and, no matter what she told The Face magazine in 1998, she has never tripped on acid. (“That’s a myth,” she says).
She doesn’t dwell in the past and tries not to think about the future because once she does she gets so crippled by fear she can’t move. “In general, I’m kind of scared. I hate it, it’s my one number one issue in life, fear,” she says. “It infuriates me. I’m terrified of the ocean, so I go swimming with dolphins. I’m terrified of heights, so I jumped out of a plane. I’m still scared of the ocean I’m still scared of heights.” Another fear is small planes: “I have a theory that well-known people and small aircrafts don’t mix. I think the odds are not there.”
The name of one of her companies—yes, she has companies—is Iron Eggshell Entertainment, a personal joke that describes her condition: She’s got her armor on but it can easily crack. When she’s very sad she likes to play Pat Benatar’s cover of Kate Bush’s song “Wuthering Heights.” Repeatedly. Then Journey, over and over. She loves Gone With The Wind (the book), and identifies with Scarlett. She reads The Fountainhead annually.
McGowan is a big fan of old yachts and 1930s design. She recently invented a chic “purse caddy” that hangs on the edge of tables and the like while dining. Its base is a miniature glass porthole. She sells them online, but hasn’t fully launched the product yet. She’s also into circles, and the number 5. She likes the curves of it, and she was born on September 5. When she was five, she says, “My dad made this big headdress with the number five on it. We lived in Italy, and I led this little bunch of kids on this procession up these rocky hills and unpaved roads. Everyone was singing. My hair was still blonde and cute. It was idyllic.”
She was born with the assistance of a midwife in a barn in Florence where her father ran a chapter of the religious hippie cult Children of God. It was a few years before the child-abuse sex scandals, and the practice of “flirty fishing” (in which female members would get men drunk and lure them into the cult) was instituted. Still, it was pretty creepy, she says.
When the grownups were all running around naked and having sex with one another, McGowan was singing on the streets to promote the cult, and modeling for Vogue Bambini, and other fashion magazines. She learned how to throw up at age 9, was home-schooled, and encouraged to read a lot. Not long after cult members cooked her pet lamb “Lambie” for dinner, her mother decided she’d had enough, and moved back to the states to join the Oregon chapter. But after that group’s leader decreed that he’d be having sex with underage members, the McGowans left the cult for good. They moved to Eugene.
Desperate times were ahead, as was lots of moving around the country. McGowan recalls going into churches to get free bags of food, lots of cheddar cheese, and powdered milk (“that was atrocious”). But then all of a sudden her father, a commercial artist and photographer, would have money, and they’d spend a grand on “fantastic” food. Live it up. Feast or famine.
After her father had an affair with a nanny, her parents divorced; her French mother, a writer, put herself through school full time, and ended up working for Microsoft. McGowan remembers, “When I was 12, I thought ‘Well, I’ll need a lot of therapy probably around the time I’m 19. And after that, I’ll be just fine.’ That’s exactly what happened.”
She was the second of six children, and helped raise the younger ones. Even though they were all a bunch of “crazy-ass kids.” She was embarrassed by her family’s means of transportation (a VW bug and VW Van), and hid in the library where she escaped into Edgar Allan Poe, Alexandre Dumas, and Lewis Carroll. She began working at age 13, and the best job she ever had was as an usherette at a movie theater. That same year, her mother became convinced that Rose was on drugs—not true—and sent her to rehab.
She escaped, and lived on the streets, did odd jobs, begged, and listened to a lot of The Cure, Bauhaus, and Joy Division. She’d stay up all night in gay nightclubs in Portland, then crash out in a “lovely” cemetery that was very clean and empty (except for the plot where Bruce Lee was buried). She tried sleeping under a church, but it rained really hard one night and mud got in her ear. That led to a “horrid infection.” Once she fell into a trash can writhing with maggots.
The young McGowan was a magnet for weirdos, and was often harassed by hicks driving jacked-up trucks with gun racks. They’d throw stuff at her like a jar of chewing tobacco spit, and tell her that she was the ugliest thing they’d ever seen. “Later I realized that they all looked like Tonya Harding. But I didn’t have that cultural reference at that point,” she recalls. “I knew they were wrong.” There were some friendly encounters, though. In line for a 25-cent coffee one day (she never had any money for food) a dowdy businesswoman turned around to her and said, “If I could come back looking like anybody in my next lifetime I would like it to be you.”
Finally, some drag queens took her in. “I was like a little pet, so to speak, I was always treated very well,” she says. “It wasn’t ’no home to speak of.’ I do sadly remember being very cold and very hungry one Christmas in Oregon, so I crawled through the dog flap of my mother’s house, and I took a bunch of presents I knew were meant for me and sold them at the pawn shop, so I could get some food. I possibly took some of my brother’s and sisters’, which I’ve always felt bad about.”
To this day she loathes Oregon, particularly the little town of Noti. “I would drive through there to go to the sand dunes on the coast,” she recalls. “Noti, population 60, had a sign on its only bar that read: “No Nigers [sic] Allowed.” “One ’g,’” says McGowan, “which I always thought captured the place. I’m sure they know by now how to spell it.”
At age 15, while attending an art school in Seattle, McGowan legally emancipated herself from her parents, and lived part-time with her glamorous aunt, who ran a hair salon. She’s close to her family these days, and her siblings are all extremely accomplished (an aeronautical engineer, a biochemical engineer, a fighter pilot). “It was sink or swim for us,” she explains. When comparing herself to her siblings, she says she calls herself “the dumb actress. That’s the hardest thing for me to deal with, that I do nothing that uses my brain.”
The day she arrived in Los Angeles, at age 19, she learned that her boyfriend, who had just moved there, had been murdered. She immersed herself in work, getting her first jobs as an actress by appearing in a Fox series called “True Colors” in 1990, then a small part in Encino Man. A survivor, she attended beauty school as a back up while taking some classes at UCLA. She was cast as the lead in The Doom Generation, a violent, white-trash road picture. By 1999, she has a dozen more roles accounted for. She took a sabbatical, and got engaged to Marilyn Manson. You know about that if you read the tabloids. In 2001, she broke off the engagement, having had enough of Manson’s druggy lifestyle, and the death threats he received rather regularly. She now claims it wasn’t as wild as everyone imagined: “The reality was I was ordering jadite glassware off of Martha Stewart online, and painting, and this person was doing watercolors.”
Then she was cast in “Charmed,” as the witch “Paige Matthews.” She had a two-year contract, but it kept getting renewed, and every year it did she would cry. Two years ago, she met the Mexican-descent director Rodriguez (Sin City) at a party in L.A. and ended up talking to him for hours about, among other things, how she doesn’t enjoy watching action movies with women for whom you feel no emotional attachment. Then she pointed out a double standard: If Halle Berry goes for a role written for a white person, why can’t a role that’s been written for a man be transposed into a girl?
“At the end of the night I said, It’s been so lovely talking to you, and he said, ’It’s so lovely being talked to.’” She laughs merrily. “I was so embarrassed because he doesn’t really talk very much.” Later, Rodriguez called her and said, “I’m going to put you in my movie. I am going to change things for you.”
Six months later, she auditioned for Planet Terror with a pimple on her chin. The studio, Dimension Films, wasn’t sure about letting her be in Tarantino’s Death Proof as well, but she lobbied hard, auditioned several times, and landed the role. Among other things, it was agreed upon that the talk-show potential was amazing.
“This is going to be a big change,” McGowan says of the effect Grindhouse will have on her life and career. “I’m not a glass half-full, half-empty kind of girl. I don’t mean to be a sob story, but I do have a bit of a history.”
So how are things now? “I am happy. Ha-ha-ha-HA!”
The Beatrice Inn is starting to fill up, and patrons are stopping by the Pink Room to get a peek at her. “I pretend I’m the horses in Central Park, and I have blinders on,” she says, blocking out the attention. “I don’t like being looked at, not in that way.” Or written about, particularly by celebrity tabloids and blogs that cover fashion. “All they do is just trash people all day long. I just think it’s disgusting.”
Three nights later, wearing big black Oliver Peoples sunglasses, a black turtleneck, tight green corduroy pants, and pirate boots, she strides into the restaurant at the Four Seasons hotel to meet with me again. We go upstairs to her spacious suite and sit around a table covered with Mentos, Jujufruits, and Sour Patch Kids. McGowan’s been ordering a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches, while doing crossword puzzles and watching “Forensic Files” and “Jeopardy!”
She kicks off her pirate boots, and shows off the socks on her dainty little feet. They are cherry-colored with monkey prints all over them. She looks about 15 years old. McGowan orders me a bucket of ice for the whiskey in my flask. “People here do drink an extraordinary amount,” she says. “I feel like I’m a part of the temperance movement over here.”
I ask her about her friendship with Johnny Ramone, who died of cancer in 2004. “He’s one of the loves of my life,” she says. “Johnny’s very funny, a major Republican, so we would go at loggerheads about that one. He had the best, most beautiful hair, even in his early 50s. Not colored. Gorgeous. Thick, rich chestnut, beautiful hair, and a fantastic laugh. There’s some great pictures of us opening presents on Christmas Day.”
Now she is crying, but tries to lighten things up. “Now, see? You’ve made my eyes all watery. Good job, man! Look at what you made me do? You made me cry. Are you proud of yourself?”
If she were a tree, she says, she’d be a weeping willow: “I always say I want to be buried on a hill facing the sun, under a tree—weeping willow, gotta have some shade—and I want nobody else around me. I want to be all alone. When I was little, I used to imagine what kind of house I’d be in when I grew up. And the husband I’d have. And I’d always imagine the house would be in the South, probably Georgia or Charleston. Wraparound, screened-in porch, rocking chairs. But I was always alone.”
We talk about Shirley Temple. McGowan sings a few lines from “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” Then she tells me she has an original poster from the movie. Johnny Ramone gave it to her. Time to go. On this evening, she’s going to watch Talledega Nights for the fourth time. “I’m a pretty swell gal,” she says, walking me to the door. “I don’t mean any harm to anybody. Generally speaking, for a melancholy person, I’m pretty happy.”
Photography by Matthew Rolston Styling by Elizabeth Sulcer