Actress-director Anjelica Huston

The model-turned-Oscar winner, who paved her own path in the entertainment business, unpacks the second volume of her memoirs, entitled Watch Me.

When she won an Oscar for her performance in Prizzi’s Honor, Anjelica Huston continued the family legacy, becoming the third generation of her family to win the coveted statuette. It was also evidence that she'd come into her own as an actress. She's had memorable turns in film and on TV, as well as followed in her father’s footsteps as a director. Huston spent most of her childhood in Ireland and England before returning to the United States, where she modeled for several years. Given her unique life experiences, she has many stories to tell, which she does in two volumes of her memoir: A Story Lately Told, that focuses on her childhood and Watch Me, which begins with her life in the public eye.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with Oscar-winner, Anjelica Huston, about her latest tome, “Watch Me: A Memoir,” which takes up where her previous memoir about her childhood, the best seller, “A Story Lately Told,” left off.

“Watch Me: A Memoir” is a very candid look at her career and life in L.A., including her highly-publicized romance with Jack Nicholson and her happy marriage to artist, Robert Graham.

We are glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Oscar-winner, Anjelica Huston, coming up right now.

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Tavis: So just about a year ago, Anjelica Huston was in this very chair talking about her first tome, a memoir of her childhood in Ireland and London titled “A Story Lately Told.” At that time, she let us know that she was writing about her life, more about her life, and I immediately asked her to come back on this program when that book was done.

She agreed and, since then, we’ve hung out in New York City and now she’s back in L.A. to join us tonight for the new book which is called “Watch Me: A Memoir.” And I am honored to have her back on this program. You kept your word, and thank you for doing that.

Anjelica Huston: Thank you, Tavis. My pleasure.

Tavis: There’s so much I want to talk to you about. I’m glad I got a full show, and I could do three or four nights with you, given what you have in this book. I think I want to start our conversation, Anjelica, where your book essentially ends.

I want to begin where you end with this wonderful line. “I am reminded of an Irish phrase, ‘When you are faced with an obstacle on the hunting field, it is said that you must first throw your heart over it before jumping.'” That’s powerful.

Huston: Well, it means that you expect a good result, you know. If you fear the fences, it’s more likely that you’re going to get entangled. So I think optimism, strength, forward motion, that’s the way I like to go.

Tavis: Where did that spirit of forward come from?

Huston: Very much from my father who didn’t really suffer fools. He didn’t suffer cowards, that’s for sure. So I think, in a way, it comes directly from him. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Tavis: You write so lovingly of your father in this book, and I’m not surprised by that. But even more so, to my mind at least, even more so in this text than in the first text. I mean, your father had such a towering presence in this book.

I only raise that because I’m curious as to whether or not there’s something you can put your finger on about how your relationship developed. You know where I’m going?

Huston: Sure.

Tavis: Over the course of your life and over the course of your career because he’s so very present in this text.

Huston: It’s true. Well, when I was little, I was daddy’s little girl. I was his only daughter and I continued to be his only daughter until he adopted my little sister, Allegra, who is my mother’s child when our mother died. I think it was probably our tough moment came when I became a teenager and started to rebel a bit and have my own ideas and my own opinions.

He was one of those fathers, I think, who wanted me to kind of remain where I was and allow him time to catch up with me because he was away a lot. He’d come back from location and I would have grown and have ideas about independence that he wasn’t so crazy about. I wore a lot of makeup in the 60s and I think all of that scared him a bit.

Then we had a moment where we made a movie together. That was difficult, a movie called “A Walk With Love and Death,” that ostensibly he gave to me as a present when I was 16, a starring role in a movie. Great by anyone’s standards, but not by mine. I wasn’t a happy camper for that time and a recalcitrant actress, which is not a good thing [laugh].

Then after that, we had a moment, a sort of lull, for about, I guess, five, maybe eight, years and then he was honored by the AFI one night and I stood up and said, “Give me another chance.” He gave me another chance and that chance was called “Prizzi’s Honor.”

Tavis: Yes, it was.

Huston: And that movie brought me an Oscar, so we…

Tavis: And your dad, when you’re up speaking and accepting, he’s in the audience crying.

Huston: That’s right. And because I was in such shock after receiving the prize, you’re supposed to go backstage with the minders, you know. But because I was delirious, I ran off the front of the stage, back into the audience. If I hadn’t done that, I would never have seen my dad upset like that. Dad didn’t cry easily. I think it was maybe the first time I ever saw him cry.

Tavis: That’s the second project and then you worked together one more time, but he’s rather ill the last time you worked together, which leads me to how you reflect upon what it’s like to watch two people very close to you die, your father and your husband. What can you share with me about watching people close to you do that dance with mortality?

Huston: Here’s the thing. I’m a very strong person and my father was sick for a very long time, sick with emphysema, and it’s a progressive disease. And each time he would go into crisis, his carbon dioxide would go up, his oxygen would go down, he’d get kind of acquiescent and dreamy and then we’d know it was time to bring him into hospital, and the fight would begin.

And I noticed that, if I was present, I could really help him along. He trusted me and, because of my strength and because of my determination, I was often able to help him out, pull him back.

But I believe that God has a destiny and I believe that when he calls your number that it’s time. We can prolong that moment maybe. We can try to stretch it, but when the call comes, you have to learn to let go and learning to let go, that’s the hard thing for people because we think we can control everything.

For me, with dad, you know, there was this constant calling him back from the edge, but each time it became more evident that it was harder on him, that there was less to live for, that his life would be compromised by being pulled back. So in a way, you learn to let go a little bit every time he went into crisis.

With Robert, my husband, his sickness kind of came out of the blue. I didn’t know he was sick or as sick as he was. There were little things, little signs, but I didn’t know what it was or the immensity of his problem. So it was a kind of slow and mysterious descent.

With Bob, I just tried to be there, be there, hold his hand, tell him everything was going to be all right, and that’s another thing. You know, do you tell a dying person that they’re dying or do you tell them everything is going to be all right? I think you have to stay on the side of the living, fight as hard as you can to keep that person with you and on earth.

But ultimately, if their life is going to be compromised like Bob’s life would have been compromised, he’d have had to be in dialysis every other day or every day. Once you have organ failure, it’s not really a question any more. You have to, in a way, take yourself out of it at a certain point and allow that person the dignity of their journey.

Tavis: Speaking of allowing that person the dignity of their journey, Anjelica, I want to move off of this – there’s so much in this book, I can’t do justice to it in a full show. But I want to move off of this notion of morbidity in just a second if you will answer this question first, which is what your takeaway is about your own journey from watching your father and watching your husband – I don’t want to color the question beyond that.

You got a lot of life left in you, thank God. But when that moment comes, what have you learned about your own journey based upon helping the two of them navigate theirs?

Huston: That’s a really good question. I think it’s obviously a journey full of mystery. My feeling is that there’s something beyond it. I mean, there are dreams beyond sleep, so why shouldn’t there be a life or some sort of existence after death?

So for me, I imagine that there is another place, a more elevated place, that we go to, a place that maybe sort of refines who we are, takes the spirit and leaves the body and who knows what the journey of the spirit is?

I think trust has an enormous amount to do with it and I think that sort of the human conundrum is finding that trust and believing that you’re going to be transported to a better place or at least that you’re on a path of evolution.

Tavis: I could have started this conversation, whatever it was, 15 minutes ago with a question about a singular person named Jack. I didn’t because I know that everywhere you go, people want to talk about Jack and I know what it’s like being on a book tour.

As I said, you and I were in New York together when we were both announcing our books coming out and I knew then. I said a prayer for you. I said she’s going to get asked more questions about Jack [laugh].

Huston: I love that you say that, though, because it’s absolutely true. It’s like the book is really about me actually. People think it’s all…

Tavis: About Jack, yeah [laugh].

Huston: About Jack. The fact that we split up 30 years ago is of no consequence, yeah.

Tavis: And that’s precisely why I didn’t want to begin there. So I’m not even going to ask a question about Jack. But since it’s in the text, what do you want to say about Jack? That way, you get to control what you say or don’t want to say about him.

Huston: You’re very funny and that’s wonderful because, actually, I was on a show yesterday and I was asked this question about Jack first. And I found myself kind of getting irritable and then the person said, “Well, it is on the second page.” I go, “Oh, okay.” I guess they have a right to ask about Jack [laugh].

And it’s not that I don’t like talking about Jack. I do like talking about Jack, but he’s not the only thing my life is made up of. He was a big part of it, a very interesting part of it, sometimes a wonderful part of it. I still enjoy him.

I think, you know, bottom line with Jack, he made a movie once called “Ironweed” with Meryl Streep. It was a very, very tough movie and he played a very sad alcoholic. And after the lights went up in that movie, I was bereft. I was so sad and I realized that, you know, a world without Jack was an infinitely duller, sadder place and that’s how I feel about Jack.

He’s one of the lights in my life. He’s not the main light any more, but in the starry sky, he shines bright, and I trust him. You know, maybe not with the little things in the old days, maybe not the most faithful man in the world.

But if the chips were down, and they have been down a few times, I rely on Jack for his strength and for his loyalty. He’s a very loyal and fine friend. Somebody said to me once, you know, “He’ll be a better friend to you than a lover” and, in a way, I think that’s true.

Tavis: Because you were together – even though it’s been over for 30 years now – because you were together a while during a certain heyday, a lot of things happened while the two of you were together, and I was completely blown away by the Roman Polanski story. I did not remember that. I wasn’t living in L.A. at the time, so I was completely – couldn’t believe that – I didn’t recall that it happened in that house.

Huston: Right.

Tavis: I’ll let you tell the story. It happens in the house; they come back the next day, the cops do. They’re checking everything, they check your purse. I’ll let you tell the story.

Huston: Well, what happened initially was Roman called me up and asked me if I wanted to go to the movies. We went to the movies and had a nice night and he dropped me off in the parking lot on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and I watched his taillights go on up the street.

And I thought, “I wonder if it’s true that things go bad in Roman’s life.” And the next evening, I was at Jack’s house. Jack was in Aspen. I was packing up some bags. We were splitting up at the time.

And when I walked into the house, I saw a blue jeans jacket and some cameras and I recognized the jacket as the one Roman had been wearing the night before. I didn’t really think anything of it because Jack’s house was always sort of populated. People came in and out. He had a number of people working for him. People dropped by.

It wasn’t an unusual thing to see an item of clothing, of somebody sitting on the (inaudible). So I paid no attention. I made a phone call and, within minutes, Roman appeared with a young woman. I didn’t think really about how old she might be. She was tall. She asked the sex of the dog and they left.

The next evening, I’m still packing up in the house and I saw a lot of flashlights below the window in the garden. There were some guys in the garden and I went to a window above the main door and looked down. There were about seven big guys there and Roman.

And Roman was ringing the doorbell and I went down and opened the door and he said, “These guys just want to have a look around. It’s nothing. It’s about something last night,” so I was relaxed. I didn’t think much about it. They came into the house. One of them said, “You better show me the drugs.”

I had some cocaine in my bag. I gave him the bag. Next thing I knew, I was going down to Santa Monica police station in the back of a squad car. I knew nothing about what had allegedly happened. I went down – I was sort of in the process of being booked and then, you know, I was allowed to make a phone call.

I made it to Jack’s business manager who came and bailed me out. They kept saying, “He better show. Otherwise, you’re going down to city jail.” It was not a highlight of my life. And eventually, you know, Jack’s business manager showed up and I was sprung and that was really the story.

Tavis: It’s quite a story.

Huston: Yeah.

Tavis: It’s quite a story and, as I’m reading it, I’m imagining you living it. I mean, reading it is one thing, but that had to be beyond frightening.

Huston: It was very frightening and I didn’t know to what extent I would be involved. I didn’t know what was going on. It was not only frightening, it was humiliating. It was very depressing because, when I was asked for the names of my next of kin at the police station, I had to mention my father’s name and my sister’s name. That was pretty brutal.

But I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. The fact that I was in possession of that drug wasn’t very sharp of me and, you know, I learned a big lesson. But I hadn’t hurt anyone and I hadn’t – so it seemed to me a bad twist of fate.

Tavis: There’s more. I’ll stop you there because we don’t want to give the book away. Again, I can’t do justice to all the stuff in here. Let me dramatically shift gears. You get a call from Michael Douglas one day who wants to ask you if you will give a script to Jack. “Anjelica, could you help me out getting this script to Jack?” and the script happens to be…

Huston: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” [laugh].

Tavis: That wasn’t just a script. I mean, that wasn’t just any script.

Huston: No. Actually, I met Michael when I was first in L.A. I had a very good friend from London who is a set designer and, I guess, when he came to L.A. a few years before I did, he had this whole cadre of friends. And Michael Douglas at the time was going out with Brenda Vaccaro and they were part of the group.

So I think Michael was a little bit trepidatious, a little scared to approach Jack directly, so he asked me if I could get the script to him. And, of course, I never read it. I said to Jack, you know, “Michael’s got this script he wants you to read.” Jack was like, “Oh, okay.”

But, of course, it was a script that Michael’s father had wanted to do for years. Kirk had wanted to play this part for, you know, as long as he could remember and finally wasn’t young enough to play it, so had to hand it back to Michael. Yeah, that was pretty good, wasn’t it?

Tavis: Yeah. It was very good. What do you make of the life that you have lived and being in all of these interesting places with these interesting people for all these years?

Huston: Well, I once described myself as this sort of zelig [laugh]…

Tavis: That’s a good word.

Huston: Of the 21st century. I have. I’ve been in a lot of interesting places when interesting things were going down.

Tavis: You’re like a much cuter, much smarter, Forrest Gump. It’s like every time I look up, you’re connected to the story some sort or the other.

Huston: Well, I’ve been connected to some really interesting people and I think it’s true that, where interesting people are, interesting stories develop.

Tavis: That makes sense. I take that. Broadway?

Huston: Broadway next, actually. I’m going to do “Love Letters” on Broadway. I’m really excited, in January.

Tavis: How many years since you were last – this is technically a debut of sorts.

Huston: It’s technically a debut. When I was like 17 years old, I just arrived in New York understudying Francesca Annis in Tony Richardson’s “Hamlet.” So I was – how can I say – an onstage player, but I didn’t have a line. I think I was a Lady in Waiting in the court of Hamlet and I emitted a scream during the fencing scene, but that was about it. This time, I have some lines.

Tavis: Yeah, more than a few. How are you approaching this? Are you excited or scared, a little…

Huston: I’m very excited. When I was in New York just now on my book tour, I went to see Candace Bergen and Alan Alda who are fantastic. And it’s one of those plays that just changes so radically with whoever’s in it or at least I assume it will because it was full of surprises watching both of them work. I’m a huge fan of both of their work, I have to say. So it scares me and it excites me and I can’t wait.

Tavis: I’m coming back to see you. I can’t wait to get there.

Huston: I hope so.

Tavis: Hey, Jonathan, can you do me a favor before we run out of time? Put the first book up, the cover. When you were here for this conversation a year ago, I was just raving about the cover photo on your first book, “A Story Lately Told.” I didn’t think it’d get any better than that. And then the cover of this book, “Watch Me,” it’s such a gorgeous photo.

Huston: Thank you.

Tavis: You had to be happy with, I mean…

Huston: I am. I’m really happy with the way Scribner’s treated my work. I have to say, I’m so lucky to have this publisher, Nan Graham, and I have to also mention my amazing editor, Bill Whitworth. Between them, I feel like I’ve just been with the best. It’s like having two of the best coaches in the world.

Tavis: Tomorrow night – I’ve been crying for the last week or so – Live Talks. Tomorrow night, if you’re here in L.A., tomorrow night – there’s an organization called Live Talks LA. You can look it up online. Live Talks LA, Anjelica, will be in town in conversation tomorrow night for that.

She was kind enough to call me a couple weeks ago and ask me if I’d moderate that conversation. I would love to do nothing more than spend two nights in a row with Anjelica Huston.

Huston: I know, but you’ve got to be in New Orleans.

Tavis: I got to be in New Orleans, so I’ll be traveling later this week. But anyway, if you’re in L.A. tomorrow night, Live Talks LA, if you want to get this book and get it signed and see her in person for those in L.A. For the rest of you, just go to your bookstore or go online.

But if you’re lucky enough to be in Los Angeles tomorrow, Anjelica is in town tomorrow night at Live Talks to sign her second memoir. It’s called “Watch Me” and it is a wonderful book rich with detail and great stories. And that cover photo, I could just fall asleep to every night. But, anyway, Anjelica, I love you. It’s an honor to have you on the program.

Huston: Thank you so much, Tavis. It’s always such a pleasure to be here.

Tavis: Thank you, sweetheart. That’s our show tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: November 20, 2014 at 10:17 pm