The daughter of famed director John Huston and former long-time lover of Oscar-winning actor Jack Nicholson, Huston has spent the better part of her 51 years attempting to prove herself, winning an Academy Award for her performance in the 1985 film, "Prizzi's Honor," in the process. Who better, then, to cast in "The Royal Tenenbaums" as the mother of a brood of unhappy geniuses trying to compete with each other's, as well as their own, past achievements?
The star of "The Grifters" and "The Addams Family" recently recalled how her dream to become an actress came true when she was 18 and her father hired her to be in his film, "A Walk with Love and Death."
"I think he idealized my participation as my sort of initiation, knowing as he did that I wanted to act," she explained. "Of course, at the same time, Franco Zeffirelli was conducting a school search for 'Romeo and Juliet' that I was passionate about playing [in] and wanted desperately and my father wrote him a letter because Zeffirelli saw me a couple of times and was thinking about casting me. My father wrote him a letter and said, 'Please don't cast her, she's doing this movie with me.' And I wasn't that crazy about the idea of working with my father, simply because he was my father, not for any other legitimate reasons.
"And so we wound up going to Vienna to do this movie I was reluctant about, and I don't think, well, I know it wasn't a very good experience for either of us. We had a hard time on that movie. It was hard for me, he was quite an authoritarian with me, particularly at that age, and he and my mother were separated, so there were a lot of problems in communication," she said.
That experience left such a sour taste in Huston's mouth that she took a break from movies for a while, concentrating on her modeling career for about six years.
Realizing that "I wasn't a California girl by the best of standards," the California native who grew up abroad shelved her modeling career and returned to acting with small parts in the sit-com "Laverne and Shirley" and the movie "Ice Pirates."
"I got little jobs here and there, and I also studied with a fantastic acting teacher called Peggy Feury, who kinda gave me back my confidence," Huston remembered. "And after that, I felt ready. When the prospect of 'Prizzi's Honor' came up, I felt fortified by my work with Peggy and ready for that part. The experience that time was just the reverse. We had a great time, and we were very connected. And my father, I think, was in a much more forgiving, accepting mood than he had been the first time around."
Asked if she thought her romantic relationship with Nicholson, her co-star in "Prizzi's Honor," helped her career, Huston replied: "It was difficult because when I was living with Jack, the phone rang for Jack. And if you are an aspiring actor and you're living with a much more famous one, that can be a bit -- even though I was a woman -- it can still be hard. You can feel a bit defeated by it, but I don't think that it was from any direct instigation by Jack that I shouldn't work. Just the opposite really, although maybe he may have preferred that I not want to be an actress. ... At the same time I think he tried to be helpful to me. He gave me a small part in 'Postman Always Rings Twice.' And he wanted me to test for Mike Nichols' 'The Fortune,' which I refused to do."
Although her relationship with the notoriously difficult Nicholson ended in the late 1980s, Huston said she and he are polite to each other when they meet in social circles.
"It's fine," she said. "We say, 'Hello.' We don't hang out together, but it's fine."
Huston said she decided to take the role of the brilliant, estranged wife of an insufferable genius and mother of a group of former child prodigies (Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson,) because she thought director Wes Anderson was "very attractive, very subtle, and intelligent and amusing in a quiet perceptive way."
"I liked him very much," she recalled. "I loved 'Bottle Rocket' and I loved 'Rushmore.' I thought he would be an interesting person to work with. So that's sort of initially how that happened. And then I got this script, and it was a very minimal script -- a lot going on between the lines, again amusing, but uniquely so, not like anything I recognized before... It was almost like a 'New Yorker' cartoon, I loved that."
Huston admitted that when she first got the script, the part of Etheline wasn't all that big.
"I asked [Anderson] if he might write a little bit extra, and he then wrote the scene with Gene Hackman in the park," Huston said. "That really cinched it. I thought that was a really beautiful scene."
The actress went on to say that she got a chuckle out of playing an academic since her own school career was less than stellar.
"I was good at the things I was good at, but I was sort of semi-retarded when I went to England to school because I'd never really had conventional schooling up until then, because I had home schooling and then I'd gone to an Irish convent where I was sort of a specialized item," she said. "So ... by the time I got to England, I was very much a misfit and having a famous father to boot, and not necessarily being scholastically brilliant was a dichotomy unto itself. 'That's John Huston's daughter and she's retarded,' basically."
"The Royal Tenenbaums" is in theaters now.