I Dream of Gina

Actress Gina Gershon uses drive and dreams to forge her varied and sometimes risqué career.

Gina Gershon has her guard up.

She's sitting in a funky little tea room in Beverly Hills, picking at her sandwich and politely fending off any question she's not sure how to handle. So she won't talk about her private life. She won't talk about Showgirls, the hilariously awful bit of trash that launched her fame. And she won't talk about the man she'll identify only as Sean, the boyfriend and housemate she clearly adores. "I've seen it too many times in Hollywood," the actress explains. "Talking about a relationship in public can jinx it. And if you have your picture taken together, you might as well start packing your bags."

So you sit across the table from Gina Gershon and are left to wonder: What makes this actress tick? Her mode of dress this afternoon offers little clue: she's wearing dark slacks and a turtleneck of a somewhat somber blue. Her face is striking, with all sorts of intriguing facets, but it, too, only gives hints of the woman inside.

Gershon's acting career is multifaceted as well. In Showgirls, she played Cristal Connors, a campy, conniving Las Vegas chorus queen. In the dark Mafia thriller Bound, she played Corky, a hard-edged lesbian just out of jail, and she played the role so convincingly that many viewers came away wondering about Gershon's own sexual inclinations. She's played more traditional female roles with equal conviction and aplomb. She was one of Tom Cruise's girlfriends in Cocktail, she starred in Face/Off opposite John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, and she worked and smoked cigars with Arnold Schwarzenegger on the set of Red Heat. In the coming months, Gershon (she pronounces it ger-SHON) will be appearing opposite Harvey Keitel, Al Pacino and James Garner. Now in her 30s, Gershon's an actress on the verge of major stardom, and now, as you watch her over tea and sandwiches, the question only deepens:

Behind her many professional masks, who is Gina Gershon?

Ah, therein hangs some delightful stories, and the following morning Gershon is ready to kick back and tell them. She's sitting in the dining room at the Four Seasons Hotel, in front of a cappuccino and a huge plate of scrambled eggs and sausages, and she looks for all the world like a changed woman, as if she has gone through some profound transformation during the night. All the edginess and caution are gone from her face. Her hair is mussed, her voice is brimming with unguarded warmth and wit, and she looks relaxed and almost unbearably sexy in a black sweater, black jeans and black scarf with a splash of color. "Gina, you look so different..."

"Yes," she says with a laugh. "For everyone I've ever lived with, it's like the big joke: who's going to come home today? I'm like a split personality. My face changes, my voice changes, my personality changes. If I'm talking about Boston or New York, you'll notice my voice change. It's bad; I have no personality!" Again she laughs. "What's the animal that always changes color? A chameleon. I feel kind of like that. Because if they're nervous or scared or they don't trust someone, they have a different sort of camouflage. But as soon as they warm up to someone, they reveal their true colors."

Being chameleon-like, of course, is akin to being an actress, and Gershon has had a love for acting--and acting out--since she was a little girl. "My first professional job was in a spirit role," Gershon recalls. Her older sister, Tracy, would cover her in Day-Glo, tuck her in a closet and then, in front of the family audience, Tracy would come on stage in swami garb. As Gershon tells it now, Tracy would say, "I feel the spirits coming out. Spirits, do you hear us?" And Gina would knock from the closet and then make her appearance in all that Day-Glo. "My sister charged 50 cents a head, and now that I think about it, she ripped me off; she only paid me a nickel! I'll have to speak with her about that."

As it turns out, Gershon's family was filled with colorful characters. On her father's side, she had a grandmother named Pearl and a great aunt named Ida, and they both loved to gamble. The family was originally from Chicago, but when Gina's father, Stan Gershon, developed some lung problems, the family moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, so Stan could recuperate in the clear mountain air. Ida and Pearl loved to go to Las Vegas to gamble, and Gina says that Pearl lost a good bit of the family money at the gaming tables. In the process, Pearl and Ida earned themselves quite a reputation.

"Ida and Pearl, the two Jewish broads from Cheyenne, that's how they were known," Gershon says. "One of my first memories of my grandmother is of her trying to teach me how to play poker when I couldn't even see the table." Starting when she was 11, Gina would often visit her Aunt Ida in Vegas. "I'd dress up and try to go gambling with the old ladies, and for some reason they'd let me in."

Then there was Laura Nelson, the family housekeeper--and more. "Laura had been around our family forever," Gershon recalls. "She used to run numbers for my grandmother. Laura was a terrible housekeeper but she was a fantastic person. As soon as everyone left the house, she'd teach me to play craps. She always went to this place called Whiskey Pete's, on the way to Vegas, and she would tell me these stories about my grandmother and my aunt. The women in my family were really amazing."

Her father was also a very prominent force in Gershon's life. "My father was a real jock, and when you're little, I think you kind of subconsciously pick up on what your parents want. Because you have to figure out how you're going to get some attention. Because my father was a big jock, I learned at a young age that sports was a way to get his attention. I was a really little kid and I was super skinny. But I actually had a great arm. When I played football, I could really pass. My father used to brag about how far his little girl could throw the ball and occasionally he would even make bets about how far I could throw it. Then we'd split the winnings. It was a kind of a bonding thing," she recalls with a laugh.

Gershon grew up in Woodland Hills, in the San Fernando Valley outside Los Angeles, and she spent a lot of time by herself. Her mother, Mickey, was a busy interior designer. Her father was in the import-export business and was often on the road. Her brother, Dann, and sister, Tracy, were much older; they didn't want Gina tagging along. "Woodland Hills was quite beautiful at that time," the actress recalls. "It used to be one huge orange grove. On the street where we lived, there were only three houses. Across the street from our house was the best fort any kid could imagine, because it had big trees--plum trees, peach trees, apricot trees--and I had my little fort in the back. It was a very sad day when they put up the For Sale sign. I was so angry. So every day, I'd wait until evening and then knock the sign down."

Playing by herself so much, Gershon says, helped her to develop a rich interior life. "I had to. I was the youngest, and my brother and sister really didn't want anything to do with me." Her brother is five years older than she is, and her sister seven years, "and all I wanted to do was hang out with them and they wanted nothing to do with me. So I had my little Spanish village, I acted out a lot, I'd make up plays and all those things. Without realizing I was doing it, I was entertaining myself."

Starting around age 12, she began keeping a private journal and filled it with intimate ramblings about--what else? Boys. "One day after the next I was madly in love with some boy," she recalls with a laugh. "I like having those feelings; they're fun; awful and fun."

In her early teen years, being sensitive and chameleon-like thrust Gershon into a period of turmoil. "I really do, for better or worse, react to the stimuli around me and I just wasn't getting it," she says. "I think I was really bored. The environment was affecting me. I don't think I was stimulated that much by my friends or by my school. I was like a little juvenile delinquent, I'm embarrassed to say. All my friends were getting caught doing drugs, stealing and starting fires, and stupid things like that. I never got caught and I kept my grades up, so I was OK. Then, luckily, I started acting, and that was kind of a saving grace."

Gina did her first play in eighth grade. It was Melody Jones and she played the lead. Then came Bye, Bye Birdie, but this time Gina did not get the role she truly wanted. "All I wanted to do was play Conrad Birdie; I really wanted to be like the Elvis Presley guy, and they ended up giving me the lead, Rosie. At first I thought, 'I don't want to be Rosie; I want to be Conrad.' I was really an Elvis Presley fan."

During this period, Gina was still running with the wrong crowd in the valley. Her parents were so concerned that they decided to yank her out of the public school she was in, even if it meant moving the family. As she recalls, her parents gave her a choice: a girls school or Beverly Hills High School. "Both seemed like death to me," she says. "I was a complete surfer girl at this point; I just wanted to hit the beach. I'd cut school and hitchhike to the beach almost every day. It's amazing that I did as well as I did in school. But my father really insisted on good grades, so that was like the one thing I really had to do. Girls school--I couldn't deal with that. I was so boy crazy at the time that the idea of not having any boys around was really depressing."

So beginning in her sophomore year, Gershon went to the famous Beverly Hills High School, and in many ways it proved to be just what she needed. "There I did tons of plays," she says. "That was the thing about Beverly High, they had this fantastic drama department. I could take voice lessons, I could take musical comedy, I could take straight drama. It's like a minicollege; it's an amazing school. During the three years I was there, I met some really great people, people who were very inspiring to me, so that part was great."

In a way, though, Beverly High was the end of a phase of her youth; she was obliged to let some of the joys of her childhood slip away. "The only problem with Beverly High is that they really make you choose," Gershon says. "I was dancing at the time and I was also playing sports. But the school is so professionally oriented that you can't do everything. I had to narrow it down to one, because you just don't have time to do everything. It certainly prepares you for the 'real world' but it made me sad. I liked playing football. I liked playing softball. The coach wanted me to play on the softball and soccer teams. I was a total tomboy." But she had to let much of that go.

In Gina's last year at Beverly High, her friend Tina Landau wrote a play called Faces on the Wall. Gina was one of the stars, and she caught the eye of some Los Angeles talent agents. Tina went on to Yale University and encouraged Gina to come east, which she did. She went to Emerson College in Boston for a year, to study child psychology and philosophy, but she didn't like it very much. During the summer, she went to San Francisco to take some acting classes at American Conservatory Theater, the highly respected San Francisco resident professional theater. "This was the first time I tasted a really professional learning experience," Gershon says. "It really kind of solidified my need to study and become an actress."

She transferred to New York University, where she combined studies in child psychology with an intense immersion in the craft of acting. At NYU, instead of finding one acting studio and sticking with it, Gershon tried several. She started at Circle in the Square and then worked with writer-director David Mamet. "David kept pooh-poohing The Method [form of acting] and so of course I had to go check out The Method," Gershon says. "NYU expected people to stay in one studio the whole time; I was in four or five of them. I felt I'd get what I needed from one technique and then I'd put that in the back of my head and go somewhere else."

From the earliest stages of her interest in acting, Gershon received an important gift: the unwavering support of her parents. "They instilled trust in me. Even my father was pretty amazing. I remember when I was in college and I came back home once. I had been offered one of my first movie roles, in a sort of Friday the 13th movie. I was totally excited about doing it, but it had a totally exploitive topless scene in it. I asked my dad, kind of expecting him to say, 'There's no way you are going to do this!' I needed someone to say 'No.' But he just said, 'You know what? If you're comfortable with it, I'm comfortable with it. You have to make that choice.' I was only 17 at the time. In the end, I decided not to do it, because I thought it was a stupid part."

Her parents' support had an enduring impact on Gershon. "My father wrote me a note when I went off to college--this was after I had done my first professional show--and he talked about how proud he was of me. And I look back at that and I just think, 'Oh, my God, that was the best gift he could have given me. Because I see so many people who are so talented, but their reason for trying to make it or becoming an actor is just to get that sort of approval from the parents they never got it from. And I feel I have that. I've always had that. That's out of the way. And that's a huge gift they've given me."

Through her father, Gershon also developed a love for the smell of a fine cigar. Her father and his brother, Jack, smoked cigars, and they loved Punches and Montecristo No. 2s in particular. For a time, the family had a beach house in Manhattan Beach and in the evening Gershon's father would sit on the porch with her, smoking a cigar and watching the sun set. As a result, even now a whiff of smoke from a cigar calls up warm memories from her childhood. "Walking down the street, catching a whiff, I really like that. It was a way of knowing my father was home. I would smell his cigar."

Today, Gershon from time to time will light up a fine cigar. "When I smell cigars, I'm always very happy," she says. She prefers to smoke with other people, and like her father, she likes Cohibas, Punches and Montecristo No. 2s. Walking on the beach or being outdoors at a party are some of her favorite moments to light up. One of her best memories is being in Havana a few years back on New Year's Eve. She and a group of friends smoked big Cohibas on a hotel rooftop and stayed around to watch the sunrise.

"I smoke different cigars according to my mood," she says. "I'll try small cigars or torpedos, and I like Especiales; I think they have a sexy shape." Gershon rarely buys cigars; her friends constantly give her enough to keep her well supplied. At home she keeps them stored in an improvised humidor. She often gives cigars and cigar paraphernalia as gifts and she will occasionally go to the Grand Havana Room in Los Angeles. But she prefers to smoke outdoors, during breaks from a tense movie set. She loved smoking with Arnold Schwarzenegger on the set of Red Heat and with Rade Serbedzija, her partner in an upcoming cable movie called Prague Duet.

"When I was growing up, I liked to play softball and football with the guys. It was a bonding thing," she says. "When I first started smoking cigars, not many women did. It was kind of an oddity. But it, too, was a way of communing and bonding with men, in a nonsexual way. And it's fun."

Early in her acting career, Gershon began working with some very talented drama coaches, and two have been working closely with her ever since: Harold Guskin and Sandra Seacat. When Gershon starts a new project, they will help her develop her characters, so that when she steps onto the set she is fully prepared. Guskin works more like a director, Gershon says, but Seacat focuses on ferreting out the emotional truth of a given role.

Seacat works with Gershon in much deeper ways as well. According to Gershon, they do dream work together and Seacat is helping her explore how a given character correlates with parts of her own personality and stage of development, as a woman and as an artist.

"Sandra totally changed my acting," Gershon says. "Instinctively, I was always in love with psychology and my dream life had always been very important to me. Ever since I was 15 years old I had been writing down my dreams. What's really exciting to me about Sandra's work is that it changes your life, almost on a psychic level. Now I'll get parts and in working on them, she'll say, 'Well, let's see how you're developing, as a human being.' Because the parts you're doing, it's no accident. Those parts affect your life and they kind of illustrate the map that your life is following."

The dream work is now a cornerstone of her creative process. "When I'm working on a certain project, before I go to bed I actually ask questions. So you dictate what kind of dream you're going to have. You say, 'I need to find out this.' There's a whole ritual about how to go about it. And then Sandra will work on it with you. Then, in classes with her, you'll actually cast them and act them out, which is unbelievable. You almost change the molecules in your body by doing that. It's really powerful. The first couple of times I did that, I actually got physically sick the rest of the week. It was super-powerful."

One of Gershon's biggest inspirations as an actress is Jessica Lange. "I was really moved by the work of Jessica Lange in films like Frances. I thought, that's the sort of work I want to strive toward. Frances is exactly the sort of part I want. It was really visceral work and it really hit you on some level." Seacat worked with Lange on Frances, Gershon says, and so the fit has been very powerful. "I've worked with Sandra for many years now and she's been a huge influence on my life. She was in the [Actors'] Studio with Brando and those guys, and everyone said that as an actress she was incredible. But I think her true calling in life was to become a teacher."

With this foundation, Gershon began working in New York and Los Angeles. Her film debut was in Pretty in Pink in 1986, then in 1988 came Cocktail and Red Heat, followed by parts in John Sayle's City of Hope in 1991, Robert Altman's The Player in 1992 and a handful of other movies. She also did work on stage, most notably with the New York-based theater company Naked Angels, and she had recurring roles in movies and series made for television. In 1992, she played Nancy Sinatra in the CBS miniseries "Sinatra."

"It was an amazing experience," Gershon says now. "Nancy Sinatra is hands down the nicest woman I've ever met in my life. Without a doubt. She's pure heart. She's an amazing woman. I wasn't sure I could do that part until I met her. Because I didn't understand a lot of it. When I met her I thought she was so terrific, and she explained a lot to me, so I thought, 'OK, this will be a good movie to do.'

"And I got to meet Frank. That was one of my conditions. I said, 'I'll do this, but I've got to hang out with the big guy,'" Gershon continues. "It was so upsetting because the night I was to meet him, I went with Tina Sinatra [his youngest daughter] to Radio City [Music] Hall and he had laryngitis. All the doctors were there and he was so wound up and he wanted to go on and all the doctors were saying, 'Frank, you cannot perform tonight.' And he was genuinely upset. 'All those people out there, they've all come from Jersey and Brooklyn, and they're going to be so disappointed. I gotta go on.'

"I was in Nancy mode and when he was reaching for a cigarette, I found myself almost going, 'Frank, Frank, you shouldn't smoke.' And I'm thinking, 'Gina, don't tell Frank Sinatra he can't smoke.' So I said, 'Would you like some tea?' I was in this maternal mode with him. And he turns to me and says, 'So how's the picture goin'?' 'Oh, the picture. It's goin' great, you know.' I loved him. I just wanted to go out and drink with him."

Then came Showgirls, the 1995 film based on a Joe Eszterhas script with Paul Verhoeven directing. The movie generated almost universal sneers, but most of the barbs and hoots went to the creators and to newcomer Elizabeth Berkley. Gershon got plenty of exposure (literally and figuratively--she played a Las Vegas diva who dances nude in a volcano) and came through unscathed.

If taking on the role of Cristal was a gutsy choice, taking on Corky in the Mafia thriller Bound was even more so. In a different Hollywood era, it would have been a role for Robert Mitchum: a tough ex-con, just out of prison, making a living as a handyman. Sexy woman comes on to Corky and draws her into a scheme involving the Mafia, murder and a few million bucks. In a lovely twist on an old theme, Corky walks off with the money and the girl, in this case played by Jennifer Tilly.

So how does a nice Jewish girl wind up with a role like that? And what does she tell her parents about it?

"I've played so many different sorts of parts," Gershon says. "If there has been any sort of premeditated path, it's that I know I want to play a wide range of roles so I never get pigeonholed. I know that if I play A one time, the next I'll want to do B or maybe Z. I don't want to keep doing A, A, A; I'll get bored and I don't think I'll grow. Certain people might be happy doing A their entire life. But that's not me. I've never gone by strategy. Strategy has always been secondary. Bound I really loved on a gut level. I thought, 'Oh my God, I love this character.' On the other hand, I thought: This is fantastic. It's 180 degrees away from Showgirls; that's great." Bound never found a mainstream audience, but some critics put it on their Top 10 lists for 1997.

Seeing their child play such roles in Showgirls and Bound might have stretched the tolerance of some moms, but Gina's mother, Mickey, took it all in stride.

"My mother's amazing," she says with a laugh. "Can you imagine going home and telling your mother, 'Hi, I'm going to be in a movie called Showgirls'? I said, 'Mom, I got this great part.' She said, 'Oh, let me write it down, so I can tell my friends.' And I said, 'Just so you know, uh, I'm kind of dancing around naked in it.' And she said, 'Oh, you used to do that all the time when you were little.' I said, 'Oh, really? Well, I'm also sort of kissing another woman in it and maybe having sex.' And she said, 'Oh'--you know, trying to be very supportive--and she said, "Well, is she a nice girl?' I said, 'Yes, she's a very nice girl.' And Mom said, 'Oh, that's nice then.' "

Gershon's siblings took her Showgirls role in stride as well. "I think they know how hard I've worked. It's not like this has happened overnight. So I think people who know me are just happy and relieved that I'm actually starting to get the sort of work I've worked so hard to get. To me, I feel I have so much further to go; I've taken one leap and now I need the next leap and the next leap. I'm really close to my brother and sister and I think they're really happy for me."

Last year Gershon costarred in John Woo's Face/Off, and the experience turned out to be a delight, especially working with Nicolas Cage and John Travolta. "John is one of the nicest men I've worked with. Really generous of spirit. His spirit is huge. I don't know if it has anything to do with Scientology or anything, but all I can say is that Tom Cruise and John Travolta both have that real generosity of spirit. They have a very similar sort of energy. I don't know if it's just coincidence, I don't know anything about Scientology, but if that's what it gave them, then I'll give it a point for that."

Gershon is now regularly getting roles with depth and texture. In Legalese, scheduled to air October 4 on TNT, she plays an actress accused of murder. The movie costars James Garner, Kathleen Turner and Mary Louise Parker. Gershon also has finished production on Paul Auster's Lulu on the Bridge, which also stars Harvey Keitel and Mira Sorvino. Over the summer, she was scheduled to shoot a small role in a Michael Mann movie starring Al Pacino.

One of her most challenging projects is Prague Duet, which she stars in opposite Rade Serbedzija, a Serbo-Croatian folk singer and cult hero. Serbedzija plays a dissident writer in the Czech Republic who becomes minister of culture, only to become ensnared in a political scandal generated by his romance with Gershon's Dr. Lauren Graham, an American child psychologist. Gershon gives a quiet, subtle performance of a woman swept up by love and the haunting revelation that her own Czech heritage, via a favorite Jewish grandfather, might not be what she was led to believe. Prague Duet is slated to air on the Romance Classics channel in December.

"I love being incredibly vulnerable on the screen, and in Prague Duet I was allowed to do that," Gershon says. "There's something special in that and I think for me it's a good thing to do. Hopefully you'll touch a nerve in someone's unconscious and that, at the end of the day, is why you're doing it. That's the healthier, altruistic side of why you want to do acting. To touch someone."

One aspect of Gershon's kaleidoscopic talents that has not come forth in recent years is romantic comedy. "That's really who I am," she says. "I want to do a romantic comedy, but a really smart one. Like Woody Allen. Or Albert Brooks. I just have to start finding my own projects. That's why I want to get to the next level, so a studio will say, 'Fine, Gina. We'll buy whatever property you want and we'll make it.'"

With so many high-quality movies coming out in the months ahead, Gershon understandably feels she is on the brink of a major career breakthrough. "I feel that. I feel like in the next year or two it's going to go. I think it's ready to flip. I'm happy with the work I'm doing this year."

She is also very happy with her private life. She lives with her boyfriend, Sean, who designs and owns restaurants and cafés in Los Angeles. Describing his work, she calls him an "environmental producer," a creator of interesting spaces and environments. More importantly, he has just the kind of temperament she needs in a partner: he's warm, supportive and well grounded. The last thing she needs is a man who's an emotional roller coaster.

"I'm enough of a roller coaster," she says with a laugh. "I need someone really solid and stable. Sean's really good about that. I need someone who's like a rock. So when I'm way up there, flying, he can say, 'OK, time to come down again.' And I'm like, 'OK.' Sean lets me go and fly around and do my thing and is secure enough to say 'OK, she's just doing her thing.' I need my own space to do my own thing. And he knows that." In return, she tries to be equally tolerant and supportive. "I think that's what a relationship is. You don't want to squish someone; you just want to support them. And, hopefully, help them to get to reach their potential."

Gershon's dream work does pose its share of problems, though. "When I'm doing certain dream assignments," she says, "I'll now know to warn Sean: 'Listen, I'm doing an assignment tonight.' Because sometimes these dreams are so unbelievable. I've always had really intense dreams," says the actress, "I mean, really intense. They're either like total movies where I can see what's going on or they hit nerves where, literally, I'll wake up screaming and crying, at such a level that, of course, his instinct is to calm me down. But I'll say, 'No, no, no! I'm working! Leave me alone!' Because I want to get to the end of it, I want to keep going! So I have to tell him, 'Don't wake me up tonight.' "

The dream work, coupled with the way she immerses herselfin difficult roles, has made Gina Gershon more accepting and more philosophical about life and what it has to offer. "Life is good that way, even when things are at their worst," she says. "That's the great thing about being an actor especially, or being any sort of artist: a writer, a dancer. Even in the really awful parts of your life, there's a part of you that you feel like you can work with it. This helps you understand life, it helps you evolve as a person and it helps you mature as an artist. And deal with the pain of it all."

Paul Chutkow is the author of Depardieu, a biography of the French actor Gerard Depardieu, and he collaborated with winemaker Robert Mondavi on his autobiography, due out in September from Harcourt Brace.

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