Any living and breathing, red-blooded American male hasn't forgotten, and will probably never forget, the interrogation scene in the 1992 thriller Basic Instinct. Novelist Catherine Tramell, accused of murdering her boyfriend with an ice pick, is dressed in stark white, with her hair severely pulled back. Sitting in a chair with one arm draped casually across its back, Tramell nonchalantly smokes a cigarette as she faces a phalanx of gritty, perspiring San Francisco police detectives. She uncrosses and recrosses her legs slowly to reveal one of the most infamous shots in American film history.
You might imagine that the actress playing Tramell, Sharon Stone, would regret that defining cinematic moment or at least exhibit a tinge of embarrassment about it. You might think that a serious thespian would wish that a part of her movie legacy didn't revolve around whether or not she knew that her exposed private parts would appear on the big screen, even for a fleeting second or two.
You would be wrong.
"I was spectacularly good in that scene," Stone says, her face alight with salacious laughter. "It's not because people saw up my dress. If they only saw up my dress, they wouldn't remember the character's name. It's been a decade, and everyone remembers her name. In fact, I may do the sequel now!"
It's true. Not only do people remember Catherine Tramell, everyone remembers Sharon Stone. Despite a virtual five-year exile from Hollywood, she has lost none of her magnetism. People approach her table at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel to remind her about when they were introduced at a party. Passersby gawk. The restaurant staff fawns.
But you would also be wrong to think that you are seeing the same Sharon Stone who cut such a wide swath through Hollywood and the male psyche 12 years ago. She's lost some of the hard edge that she became notorious for, and she always has a laugh or a smile at the ready in conversation. As she runs down the litany of traumas that occurred during her hiatus—a marriage gone awry, a near-death experience due to a brain aneurysm, her husband's heart attack, her father's bout with cancer—Stone makes a clear case for why she's come back as a changed woman.
"After you've been through all that stuff, the rest of this is just kid's stuff," Stone says, matter-of-factly. "As Winston Churchill says, when you're going through hell, keep going."
The 46-year-old Stone has survived her trials in fine style, looking and feeling better than ever, and she is ready to reinvent herself for another go-around in the fickle arena of Hollywood, and with any luck, the fame that accompanies it. Like her previous stint, however, success will only be measured on her terms. "A woman has to have many faces, many styles, many inventions. I don't want to be one of those actresses that has a baby doll hairdo when I'm 90. Like, get over it already! I'm done with that. I'm glad you thought I did it well. But you may have noticed I don't look like that anymore. My body is skinny now. And let's gracefully surrender the things of youth, shall we? I just don't abide by that absurd notion that we don't tell how old we are…I'm really excited by my age, my accomplishments and my future."
This summer, Stone returns to the big screen in Catwoman. She portrays Laurel Hedare, who, along with her husband, Georges, played by French actor Lambert Wilson, owns a cosmetics company that is involved in criminal activities. Halle Berry, who has the titular role, is on a mission of revenge and will stop the duo at any cost. The $100 million movie is slated to be one of Warner Bros.' big summer releases and is sure to put Stone back in the limelight, although audiences will feel as if Stone never left it. Watching her—the eyes, the cheekbones, the legs and the easy, gutsy laughter—it will also be easy to fantasize about her having been there all along, or certainly never very far from public view.
Stone's decision to sign on to Catwoman resulted from a simple plan: "I just wanted to have some fun." She selected the role partly to work with French director Pitof, who is best known for doing visual effects for Alien: Resurrection and for directing Vidocq, a 2001 French thriller with Gérard Depardieu in the title role. "I met the director, who is very interesting," Stone says, leaning forward in her cranberry red, deep-necklined dress. "I would say that for me it's always easier working with European directors. They don't need to fit me into an idea that they already have. The school of European directors is more ready to trust the actress, like, 'Let's see what her talent will create.'"
The role marks a departure for Stone. Reading through her filmography, one notices that she played opposite extremely strong, male stars in her most important films. In Total Recall, it was Arnold Schwarzenegger. In Basic Instinct, it was Michael Douglas. In Sliver, it was William Baldwin. Sylvester Stallone and James Woods played opposite her in The Specialist. And, in Casino, it was Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Woods. In Catwoman, she plays opposite Oscar winner Berry. Asked if it was the first time she'd been up against a big female star, she says, "You know, I think you're right. But it's Halle, who is so wonderful."
Stone reflects on her choice of roles. "It's part of living in gratitude and happiness, and not living in fear. I think when I was feeling more afraid, and my energy was more aggressive, you had to put me up against some big tough guy. I needed to be there, too. But now, I have a more mellifluous energy, and I can be with my feminine side more easily."
Woods, one of those tough guys, is glad that Stone is back in the game. A longtime friend, he says it's a pleasure to see her working again. "She's one of the smartest women in show business, one of the most devoted friends and one of the most vivacious forces because she's so in love with the making of movies," Woods says.
There's an encyclopedia of unspoken truths in Stone's comments about her happy state today versus her description of her energy in the past being "aggressive." In that brief genesis of stardom after Basic Instinct, she was transformed from just another pretty face scrambling for her big break, to Hollywood's next, best pretender to the throne of Marilyn Monroe. Her turn in 1992's biggest hit made her Tinseltown's leading lady, a sexy, sultry siren who paralyzed men and silenced rooms whenever she appeared in public. She was the type of actress that Alfred Hitchcock would have loved directing, a blonde ice queen who could burn up the screen with a single look.
Stone did not occupy the femme fatale role with ease, or for that matter, much grace. She was widely described as hard and driven and aggressive, often in very unflattering terms. Her years following Basic Instinct might be described diplomatically as a series of head-butting contests with studio executives, directors and producers. To cast it in a positive light, you could say she fought the inflexible expectations of a movie industry trying to capitalize on her sensual movie persona. She fought for total control over her career with roles that stretched her beyond skin and sex. She succeeded in 1995's Casino, Martin Scorsese's gritty homage to '70s- and '80s-era Las Vegas. But she failed in the western The Quick and The Dead, the remake Diabolique and even in Sliver, the erotic, voyeuristic thriller that followed Basic Instinct, in which she played against type as a bookish editor.
"When I did Casino, it was the hardest thing I ever did. I felt so lucky and grateful to be there, but I didn't know how to act," Stone says. "I didn't know how to even say that I was grateful and lucky to be there, and I didn't know how to go out and get another part like it and keep doing it. I felt like I'd hit some pinnacle, an apex, but I didn't know how to do anything else, to go on. I think it was because I lived in fear. I didn't understand back then it would be OK to say, 'Thanks, Wow. Fantastic. Gee, I'd like to do that again.' That it would be OK to say that."
She admits that many of the characterizations about her were true. "By far, by far. I was very aggressive," she says. But she's also sure of why she's different today.
Sharon Stone was born on March 10, 1958, in Meadville, Pennsylvania, the second of four children. Her father, Joseph, was a tool-and-die maker, her mother, Dorothy, a homemaker. She fell in love with acting at a young age. "My mom says I just started making plays when I was young. But I wasn't the actor. I was always the writer, producer and director. I made my sister, Kelly, be the actor," she says. At 15, she entered Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, guided there by teachers who were impressed with her intelligence (Stone reportedly scored 154 on an IQ test at the age of seven). While still a teenager, she left home for New York to pursue modeling after winning several local beauty pageants.
"It was like I made a landing error when I was born," Stone says. "My interests are so urban and culturally driven; I love the city." After signing with the prestigious Ford modeling agency, Stone was flown to Paris in the late 1970s. "One night, it was my birthday, and I was living in the atelier room of a big hotel there. I received an abundance of flowers in my tiny little room, and I put them all around my bed, and I got in my bed, and put a camera on a tripod and took pictures of myself like I was a corpse," she says, and then starts laughing. "I was so enraptured of the melancholy of Paris that I'd wrap my head in a scarf and put on my raincoat and go walking in the rain. It was so Sylvia Plath, and I thought to myself, I just have to get out of here. I asked myself, What do I want to do? What's this modeling stuff? And, I was a bad model." She returned to New York, where almost immediately, she stood in line to be an extra in a Woody Allen movie. Allen ended up casting her as the beautiful girl seen for a fleeting moment on a train in 1980's Stardust Memories.
It would be nice to say the rest is history, but there is a lot of history between Stardust Memories and what is considered the first role that garnered her any real attention, as Lori, Schwarzenegger's deadly "wife," in Total Recall in 1990. There were minor roles in Deadly Blessing and Irreconcilable Differences, some TV roles in "Bay City Blues" and "The Vegas Strip War," and then a role as Jesse Huston in King Solomon's Mines and Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold, films that may have seemed to be cheap Indiana Jones knockoffs but were actually based on H. Rider Haggard's nineteenth century adventure novels. She also had parts in Action Jackson, Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol and a host of other movies that young actors take to keep working. Even Total Recall didn't jump-start her career as quickly as it might have; she was in a serious auto accident shortly before it finished shooting in 1990 that laid her up for nearly six months. It wasn't long after her recovery, however, that she made Basic Instinct with Michael Douglas, and carved out her place in Hollywood as a star and sex symbol.
In her own judgment, her most successful role was as gold digger Ginger McKenna in Casino. She earned a Best Actress nomination for that part from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in 1996. She has been nominated three other times for Golden Globe awards: for Basic Instinct in 1992, The Mighty in 1998 and The Muse in 1999. "I loved working on The Muse," Stone says. "It was so great being with Albert Brooks. He's so smart and funny and cool." She says that her ex-husband, San Francisco Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein, always told her that her role in The Mighty, as the distraught mother of a physically disabled, yet extremely intelligent boy, "was the part that I've played that is most like me." She also has very kind words for many of those tough-guy actors that she played opposite, such as Stallone. "Sly is just like a brother to me. He's a great guy to be with. And he's a great raconteur and a great cigar smoker."
In the wake of her brain aneurysm in 2001, cigar smoking is no longer part of Stone's life. She says she has cut out most tobacco and alcohol. But she can still get nostalgic about cigars. "Oh, I used to like them now and again in the right environment. I love it when you're in a tropical setting. The more jungle tropic it is, the better," she says, tilting her head back as if she was watching the smoke curl up from a great cigar. "When it's in its natural cultural environment, the more I like it. Then it's marvelous. That's when it makes sense."
Like much of what Stone says, there is a world of implication about just how dramatically her brain aneurysm altered her outlook on life. While she is obligated by a divorce settlement not to discuss matters of her marriage to Bronstein in the media, there is little doubt that it, too, was one of the things she decided to change after she spent 11 days "bleeding into my brain." "Oh, I think I actually died," Stone says, when asked if she had nearly passed away. "But I realized then that, hey, that's not too bad, either, and that has given me a case of the eternal giggles. It's not that I don't get scared anymore, but I just notice things differently, and I notice now that 'oh, you're one of the people it scares,' and there's someone who it doesn't scare. Truth shouldn't be such a scary thing."
Stone says that one of the best outcomes of her illness, and her father's bout with esophageal cancer a year later, was how her family grew closer together. Stone has an older brother, Michael, a younger brother, Patrick, and a younger sister, Kelly, whom she calls one of her best friends. She admits that it had been a very rough time, with her aneurysm and then her father's cancer. "But it totally healed my relationship with my father and my family," Stone says. "We all decided that we each had an assignment when my dad was in the hospital. One person did the doctor's appointments, one did the groceries, one person took care of the housing for everybody…my dad had a three percent chance of survival, and he beat it." Stone says that now when he goes to UCLA for his checkup every four months, the doctors are 100 percent sure they're going to find tumors, and when they don't, they say, "The only explanation is your mother's love," Stone says, breaking down in tears. "I'm really lucky they are my parents. They're both in their 70s. They are really in love…my parents are really having an actual living relationship. They relate. They have fun. They dance in the yard. They're lovers…it's an extraordinary thing. Of all the things in my life that I have received, their relationship is the biggest gift of all."
The rest of the world, especially the Hollywood establishment, may be having a hard time reckoning with the new Sharon Stone. "Sometimes, they think I'm on drugs, or drunk. I've gotten feedback that when I walk down the red carpet at some of these award shows that I'm so happy, I must be drunk," she says, laughing out loud. "I guess it has been so long since they've seen anyone who is genuinely content that they think I must be high." She describes in detail walking into the 2003 Golden Globes where she was presenting the Best Actor award, which was won by her good friend Richard Gere for Chicago. "Somebody said I looked like I was drunk, and that I was too old to be wearing the dress I was wearing, no matter how good I looked in it…." Stone pauses and then says, "Meowww…and then Joan Rivers asks this thing about my mom, 'Who is that prop I brought with me?' Well, I think you just let those things hang out there and stay attached to the sayer. I think they belong to the person who said them. My friend Queen Latifah called me up later and said, 'They're just not used to your bliss. You got to break them into your joy slowly, girlfriend.'"
Stone is not quite ready to dismiss the years she spent under the microscope of the tabloids, part of what still fuels the catty swipes at her in this current phase of her life. "They're still following me around," she says with a sigh. "But I never put that much stock in what the tabloids said or did. They are people that just don't know me." She recalls that more than once she had respectable publications call her with scandalous accusations, saying they were going to print the story, even though she told them she wasn't even there, so it couldn't be true. "Once I had the studio show a publication timed and dated film to prove that I was at work when they said I was somewhere else." Stone says she became so disenchanted with the entire publicity machine that she just stopped doing interviews. "Toward the end, I walked into the interview and said, 'OK, what's the story? I know you've already written the story, so what is it?' I don't want to be that kind of person anymore," she says.
"I look as different as I feel," Stone adds. "I don't want to adorn this look with the old look or the old me. The different me feels more comfortable, since I look skinny and startled. I'm having more fun without a pudge.
"Sometimes I think if we are awake, life traumas are a gift. Those things that shake us up. My illness. I think you come out of it a different person and your life needs to change," Stone says. Speaking generally about life and relationships and the lessons we learn, she adds, "I'm not a conventional thinker. When I look at any relationship, and I've had ones that lasted longer than my marriage, we can look at the good things…but we are an amalgam of those relationships that make us what we are."
When asked about the biggest success in her life, Stone answers without any hesitation: "my son." She and Bronstein adopted Roan in 2000. "It's the best decision I ever made. It was something I wanted to do, and had been trying to do, and hoping to do for a long time. Roan is exactly the boy I dreamed about for probably 15 years. I always knew him. I knew that soul. Roan is familiar to me. I knew what he looked like. It's hard to explain how fantastic it is and how every single day that I see him, it's a surprise all over again. That he is. That he exists. And now, he's getting a really complex personality. My kid is fascinating."
For now, Stone is juggling the demands of motherhood with trying to carve out space in the minds of Hollywood's power structure in the quest for new roles. She has finished a film titled A Different Loyalty, directed by Marek Kanievska and co-starring Rupert Everett, which is still awaiting a release date. Other than that film, she says nothing is in the pipeline.
Of course, Basic Instinct: Part Two is a real possibility. "I've been talking to [people] and we're considering making the sequel. It's interesting to me again, where it wasn't interesting to me for a long time," Stone says. She explained that a deal had been struck for the sequel years ago, but it fell apart and led to a lawsuit. The trial was set to begin in May, but in a recent mediation meeting, the suggestion was made to iron out the problems and make the movie. "I thought that was a delightful concept, and we're talking about that instead. It would be fun for everybody.
"I'm looking at all different kinds of things right now," Stone says. She has started writing lyrics with some musicians who specialize in hit tunes in the hopes of a songwriting career. She had two songwriting sessions the week of this interview. She has made contact again with a book publisher, who had seen some short stories she wrote years ago. "I was looking through a cupboard, and I found—I know this is going to sound impossible—about 50 short stories," she says. "I had no recollection of writing about half of them, and I started reading them and thought, Gee, these are pretty good. I called this publisher today and left a message. I had said, 'No way,' back then, because I wasn't feeling very strong. I was at a point in my life when my confidence was just pummeled. Maybe I do need to believe in myself a little more than I do."
But she's also driven to explore some ideas that she has had about "how to make material in a new way," she says. "There are a couple of people who are supersmart who understand me. And I can go to them and say, I have this idea, and they seem to get me. They listen." She says that years ago she had pushed studios to put Jim Carrey in a movie before he became a star with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. She did the same with Russell Crowe, whom she helped get cast in The Quick and the Dead after seeing him play a neo-Nazi skinhead in the Australian film Romper Stomper.
And she recalls that back in the mid-1990s, she went to a producer and set out a concept for a reality movie filmed in her house, about an actor who wants to film a reality show. "He said, 'Nobody wants to see reality,'" she says. "But there are some people now who don't think I'm crazy, who actually get it that I have some ideas. So I'm going to them.
"I think I'm actually more of an idea person," Stone says. "At least that's what I'm hoping."
She also is committed to charity work. She has been the spokesperson for AMFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, since 1995. While she stepped in years ago as a substitute for Elizabeth Taylor, who was unable to appear for an event in Cannes, Stone has taken the charity to heart. After she took the job, her mentor and acting coach, Roy London, fell ill with AIDS and eventually died. "It wasn't because of him that I did it, but it was because of him that I had the courage to become philanthropic. I think it's just my calling to do this, and somehow, I've learned how to be good at it," Stone says. She also has worked on other charities, including one that helps the homeless in the San Francisco area, a project spearheaded by Francis Ford Coppola. "It's not about AIDS, or breast cancer, or the homeless," Stone says, "It's about asking people to look at the person next to them, and asking them to be kind."
Whether it's a charity, a songwriting session, a new book or a movie project, Stone isn't twisted up in knots about what she should or shouldn't do. "I'm in a real interesting period again. It's a real Zen period of caring and not caring…I don't care, because I don't care if I get there. If I never act again, I don't care. And yet, I'm excited about the next part. That's a terrific place to be," Stone says, once again reflective. "I was not surprised that the studio told me they liked my work in Catwoman. You know, I don't care if they liked me, and yet I care deeply if I did my very best. I have no need to be liked. I have no need to pander. I have nothing to prove, and yet I absolutely would only do my best. So I will probably do my better work."
Every red-blooded male in America hopes she gets that chance.