Judging by the ferocity with which she beats herself up, you’d have to be a fool to pick a fight with Robin Wright. Over breakfast in the back of a ramshackle beachside roadhouse in Santa Monica, the actress is delivering a fierce critique of herself. The issue: her lackluster acceptance speech at the previous night’s Elle‘s Women in Hollywood awards ceremony, where she was honored alongside Julianne Moore and Renée Zellweger. ”I drove home and drank myself into a stupor out of shame,” says the actress, sporting a navy tank top, jeans, and an angelic glow not normally associated with sleepless nights. ”I’m going to tell you right now, I sucked the big one,” she insists, taking a bite of a greasy omelet. ”Big groups just ain’t my bag, baby. Everybody had a great story about why they’re in the business, and their stories were all different and wonderful. I was like ‘Okay, I’m 43 f—ing years old, and I’m not stepping up and being the best I can be.’ I was shy and basically inert.”
Well, not anymore. In recent months, the actress has overhauled just about every aspect of her life. In August, she filed for divorce from Sean Penn, shedding his last name and putting an end to a turbulent 20-year relationship, during which they broke up and reconciled at least three times. Shortly thereafter, she moved back to L.A. (with kids Dylan, 18, and Hopper, 16) after 12 years of raising a family in Marin County, near San Francisco. Her new home, in Santa Monica, happens to be on the exact same eucalyptus-shaded street where she lived 25 years ago while shooting her breakthrough role, in 1987’s The Princess Bride.
The notoriously selective star has also thrown herself back into work. After stealing scenes from Russell Crowe in the political thriller State of Play earlier this year, she won a chorus of critical shout-outs playing a chain-smoking flirt in last month’s New York, I Love You. Now she’s about to do double duty in Robert Zemeckis’ 3-D animated holiday extravaganza Disney’s A Christmas Carol as both a 9-year-old moppet and Scrooge’s neglected fiancée, Belle. Then comes her substantial and potentially career-changing role as the title character in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, out Nov. 27. In writer-director Rebecca Miller’s drama, she plays the people-pleasing trophy wife of a publishing magnate (Alan Arkin) who sparks a friendship with a drifter (Keanu Reeves) and begins to question whether she wants the life she’s built. The character’s transformation from duty-bound spouse to empowered free spirit offered Wright the opportunity to explore deep (and familiar) emotional terrain. ”I read the script, and I was like, ‘I’ll give my left tit to play this role,’ and that’s huge for me because I don’t have any tits,” she says. ”Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and the Kates have all gotten great roles, and were so good in them, and now I got one,” she smiles. ”I finally got one.”
Wright has always been one of Hollywood’s most elusive actresses. At age 14, she was recruited by a modeling scout and then segued into small acting roles. The moment she got the faintest whiff of fame, after scoring a major role on the TV soap Santa Barbara in 1984, she knew she wasn’t ready. ”People were like, ‘We can make you a star,’ and I was like, ‘Whoa, back the f— off,”’ recalls Wright. ”I was so young and I could have been in Kristen Stewart’s shoes. But that is so not who I am. I didn’t want to be in the light.”
The light found her anyway. First came her breakout performance as Princess Buttercup, the beguiling, feisty damsel in distress in The Princess Bride. Then a starring role in 1994’s $330 million hit Forrest Gump hoisted her onto the A list. But even before that film won the Oscar for Best Picture, she had begun gravitating toward less commercial projects and rejecting parts in such high-profile blockbusters as Jurassic Park, Born on the Fourth of July, Batman Forever, and The Firm. Instead of the ingenue or the plucky heroine, she’d play angry outsiders and icy, mistreated wives in dramas such as She’s So Lovely (1997), White Oleander (2002), and Breaking and Entering (2006). ”She’s very picky about what she does,” says Zemeckis. ”Even on Gump, when the casting people said, ‘Robin wants to meet with you,’ I was like, ‘Great!’ Because word was it was tough to get her in a movie.” Jodie Foster, who knows a thing or two about being selective, told EW last year that she particularly admires Wright’s performances. ”She’s so good in everything she does. I always say that if she had really wanted to, she would have been the most successful real actress of our generation. But she wanted to do what she wanted to do.”
One of those things was to marry and start a family with Penn. The two became a couple on the set of the 1990 thriller State of Grace, and soon decided to put about 400 miles between them and Hollywood to avoid becoming chum for the paparazzi. ”I didn’t want to raise my kids in this weird, sycophantic society. If you have celebrity parents, it’s not a good recipe for the kids, or anyone at any age,” she says. ”Look at what Brad and Angelina go through.”
Keeping their distance from L.A., however, didn’t bring peace to their relationship, or keep their troubles secret. After five years together, they broke up in 1995, but reunited and married in 1996. Then, after 11 years of marriage, Penn filed for divorce in 2007. Four months later, the couple reconciled until April of this year, when Penn submitted another petition for a legal separation. A month later, Penn reversed his decision, saying he’d made ”an arrogant mistake” and was taking time off from acting, reportedly to work on his marriage. But by August, it was Wright who ended things. Permanently, she says.
Wright’s face darkens when asked about the split. ”I don’t want to talk about it in great detail because it will all be reflected back to him, and I’m not interested in sharing that with people,” she says. ”I have no regrets. I have two wonderful kids, and when I’m asked ‘Why did you leave?’ I guess, it was just ‘I’m going over here now.”’ She takes a breather to gaze out at the Pacific and adds her last two words on the subject: ”New book.”
Wright seems exhilarated about starting over, both personally and professionally. Public speaking aside, she exudes a preternatural calm. These days, she feels like she’s just reaching her peak, and she’s hoping to broaden her big-screen persona. ”I want to do something else, other than the internal, stoic, depressed wife where the husband’s f—ing around on her and she wants to kill herself,” says Wright, leaning her head against the wall as she contemplates her next step. ”I want to do comedy, like a contemporary Annie Hall, with Robert Downey.” Suddenly, hopes and dreams are pouring out of her. ”I want to work. I want to direct. I want to live. I want to be known.” Pause. ”By me.” Pause. ”Finally.”
Robin Wright’s greatest roles on film
The Princess Bride (1987)
Heroines don’t get more wholesome than plucky Princess Buttercup, who drives men to commit deeds both dastardly and heroic in her honor.
Forrest Gump (1994)
Wright packs many layers into Jenny Curran, Forrest’s sweet but troubled childhood crush who forever remains his romantic raison d’être.
She’s So Lovely (1997)
After surviving a tortuous relationship with a barfly (Sean Penn), she credibly transforms from a feral floozy into a subservient suburban mom.
Wright brings quiet desperation to the role of a melancholy housewife trapped in a marriage to a superpowered husband (Bruce Willis).
White Oleander (2002)
Good intentions go horribly awry for Wright’s character, a slutty, religious foster mom who shelters the daughter (Alison Lohman) of a felon.