The house in 1932 © HBO

In 1973, film-makers Albert and David Maysles entered the strange world of ‘Big Edie’ and ‘Little Edie’ Bouvier Beale, two charming eccentrics, living in squalor, who were relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. The documentary Grey Gardens catapulted the two women from virtual obscurity to cult status. HBO’s movie, which has just been released on DVD (July 14th, 2009), offers a behind-the-scenes look at the Beales, their mother-daughter relationship, and spanning forty years, the circumstances behind their riches-to-rags story.

In one of the most challenging roles in her career, Drew Barrymore takes on the persona of ‘Little Edie,’ starring opposite Jessica Lange as ‘Big Edie.’

How nervous were you to play the role of ‘Little Edie’?

The house in 1936 © HBO
The house in 1936 © HBO

I was scared and was sick to my stomach all the time. I thought I was going to die, I really did, because I felt such a responsibility to the people that loved the documentary and hold ‘Little Edie’ in such regard. I just felt an intense responsibility to imitate her perfectly, and also to try to figure out what she sounded like at 17. I charted it out very, very thoroughly with my dialect coach and Michael (Sucsy, the director) and Jessica, and we made sure we were all on the same page the whole time. I read Edie’s journals day and night, and I thought for people who loved the documentary how fascinating it would be for them to understand how these women because who they were, what their journey was. And then weirdly my journals started to look exactly like ‘Little Edie’s’ journals. I went completely off the deep end. It was awesome.

1936 - Stars Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange &copy HBO
1936 - stars Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange © HBO

‘Little Edie’ always said, ‘I wouldn’t want somebody playing me in a movie except for Leslie Caron,’ because she thought Gigi was marvelous. (In the documentary) they asked her, ‘Who would you like to play your mother?’ and she said, ‘Ethel Barrymore.’ And I thought, ‘Oh good. On one hand, I’m hearing Edie say she doesn’t want anyone to play her, and on the other hand, I’m hearing my family’s name. This has gotta be meant to be.’

How grueling was the make-up process for you?

1952 - stars Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore
1952 - stars Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore © HBO
1936 - stars Jessica Lange and Malcolm Gets © HBO
1936 - stars Jessica Lange and Malcolm Gets © HBO

It was a big bonding (experience) for Jessica and me to sit in the makeup chairs for four to six hours, I’ve never been through a process like that day in and day out. And then you go into a 12 to 14 hours workday after that. It’s incredibly intense, and we wanted so badly to look just like them. We were so precise and anal about how to get everything right. It was just revelatory that these women lived in these conditions. There was no acting at a certain point, when we’re in this makeup and we have fake teeth, fake eyes, fake everything.

Is this the most challenging role of your career?

I’ve never had this kind of dramatic role, where I would go from 18 to 58. You have to embody another Human being that has been well-documented and beloved by many people. You have to sing and dance, you have to do intense vocal training. Let’s face it, I’m a 30-something-year-old who is obviously from the Valley. I’m sure Michael Sucsy wanted to jump off a building when he heard that I was desperate for a meeting. He was kind enough to take the meeting, and then he saw all the work I had put into it and explained to him passionately what I was willing to do, I’ve never worked so hard for anything in my life. And all I can say at the end of the day is that I got to work with Jessica. And Michael gave me a chance that I’ve never had before, so I didn’t want to let him down.


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.