Andie MacDowell Takes Into The Chaos And Darkness Of His Childhood For “Maid”

Actor Andie MacDowell was hoping she would get the chance to work opposite his daughter, Margaret Qualley, so she was pleasantly surprised when Qualley landed the lead role in the Netflix series. Housemaid, and suggested that MacDowell join her in production.

“It’s a really special thing to happen to a parent, to have a kid who trusts them and want them to play in front of them,” MacDowell says.

Freely based on a thesis by Stephanie Terre, Housemaid tells the story of a single mom named Alex who leaves her abusive and alcoholic boyfriend and struggles to make ends meet. MacDowell plays Alex’s mother, Paula, who appears to have an undiagnosed mental health disorder that leaves her in an almost constant state of mania.

MacDowell says she feels especially in tune with her Housemaid character, because his own mother also struggled with mental illness and alcoholism.

“My mom isn’t Paula. But understanding the complexity of mental illness was something I knew,” she says. “I know what darkness is. There was a lot of darkness in my house due to the chaos, depression and alcohol use.”

Interview highlights

On her own mother’s mental health disorder

She was diagnosed with schizophrenia. But I don’t think she was schizophrenic. This is the problem. I think a lot of times people make these diagnoses because they might be having a psychotic event, but at the time – it was 1958 or 1959 – I don’t even know exactly. … It was shortly after I was born, so it could be hormones that were involved. But they gave her shock treatment and she was sent back for about three months to a location in Asheville, North Carolina. But when she came back she became an alcoholic. She wasn’t on medication and had no therapy because they were just doing things like that back then. It was as if they were sending women and they were “healed”. … At the time, it was something you were hiding, especially in a small town. It was just shameful. And she didn’t really drink before the shock treatments, but she became an alcoholic afterwards. And I think that’s how she handled it. She just drank to numb herself, really.

I think she was just super depressed. She didn’t have the mania, so she wouldn’t stay awake all night. I just think she was extremely depressed and couldn’t get over it, she definitely needed something to… help her balance her chemicals.

On his father’s reaction to his mother’s alcoholism and mental illness

My dad was a handsome man, but I saw him hit my mom when I was 4 and made her nose bleed. … He got divorced soon after, I just think he couldn’t live in chaos. He left me in chaos, which I find fascinating. It’s something that I really struggled with because he came out. He got out, he got out, but he left us, which fascinated me.

On the chaos in her home growing up, with four sisters, an alcoholic mother and an absent father

My mom and my other sister, the one who was just older than me, didn’t get along at all. So I was just trying to make things run smoothly in the house, and I was trying to keep my mom away from my sister quite often, which was intense. Even if she had friends, I would kind of keep my mom, just to make sure nothing went wrong. My mother was fuming and delirious and picking on my sister. And it was mutual, so they would fight. So it was intense. My sister was very disappointed with my mother’s behavior and wanted her to be a different person, and she wasn’t, she was who she was. And I was the co-addict who just wanted to keep the peace.

usually [my mother] would drink so much … she would pass out on the floor and I would put a pillow under her head and put a blanket on her. And every night I got up to check that the cigarettes weren’t burning. She would have a cigarette in the ashtray and the ashes would be completely burnt. She never took a whiff of it, and then she had another one burning and another one burning, and there were burnt holes all over the couch and on the linoleum floor there were marks, marks of burns, all on the floor.

Trying to do an intervention for his mother

I did an intervention for my mother when I was in terminal, a failed intervention, unfortunately, but it was an intervention. I called everyone and said, “I can’t leave her like this. We have to do something.” … someone gave her some Valium which I think was a huge mistake because I couldn’t communicate with her when we got there and we just couldn’t get her out of the car. … Then we drove her to the state [mental health] up … and a doctor got down to the car and said, “If you don’t hire her today, she’ll die in five years.” But entrust it to a state institution? I do not know. We just couldn’t do it, so we didn’t. So we drove her home and I remember we got a speeding ticket on the way home. When is it [my sister and I] finally cried. … I said [my mother], I said, “They said you were going to die in five years,” and she stopped drinking alcohol; she just drank wine, which I think made a difference. It’s not like that kind of drunkard who passes out on the floor. She drank lighter. This was the repercussion of this experience.

After being devastated when her voice was completely dubbed in her first film, 1984’s Greystoke

It was horrible. It was my very first film, I was 23 years old. No one ever said, “We don’t like the way you sound.” No one has ever been clear or direct. …. It was all unbeknownst to me, and it was really a hard thing to come out, to go beyond that. It was a decision for me. … I continued to work. I had to. I couldn’t let this be my legacy. I had to do it. I had to do it because I couldn’t leave it like this. It was just too mortifying for it to be me, that this was my story. And I just entered class. I worked very hard. I took lessons. I watched movies. I worked. I spent money, good money, [on] good supervision.

On the way the 1989 Steven soderbergh movie Sex, lies and video changed his life

Before Sex, lies and video, no one took me seriously. I was broken. I was a trash, really. But after Sex, lies and video, I became a famous actress and people saw me as an actress after all, and it made money. So if you do that, then it’s a paradigm. Everything is changing in your life. And I started to have jobs. I didn’t even have to audition. It was unbelievable.

By working with Bill Murray in groundhog day

He’s intense, I have to say. Bill isn’t the easiest person in the world I’ve ever met, but he’s brilliant at what he does. And I felt it was really, really important for me not to dwell on acting. He’s so tall, his comedic nature and his abilities are wide, and they’re perfect and they’re really good, and I just played it really and honestly. I come from her to a very honest and straightforward place and gave Bill all the space to do what Bill is doing, and the story unfolds and you have this amazing trip. I just think it’s a really good movie and it holds up. It’s still a great movie. It’s one of those classic movies.

Go gray and love it

My hair started to turn silver during COVID, and my daughters would stay next to me… so they would see me all the time and they would be like, “You look badass and you have to keep this.” … I fell in love with it and decided to keep it. And I have to say that I have never felt so beautiful. I’m not saying everyone has to do this … but it’s fine with me, and I think it’s been embraced by so many people, and I like it. I like people to be comfortable with me as they get older. I think this is an important message to all of us as we get older and look beautiful.

Lauren Krenzel and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh air.
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