The agony and ecstasy of Sean Young
The agony and ecstasy of Sean Young -- Hollywood's edgiest actress can't help going to extremes
The red rock country outside Sedona, Ariz. (pop. 7,720), is an otherworldly place where crimson spires and low buttes cut a jagged silhouette into the cobalt sky. The roads stretch like dusty ribbons around the mountains. Some of them, like this scrappy street headed out of town, finally give up into dirt. The air is still, and for a long time there is nothing to see except brambles and flowering cacti-no cars, no people, no animals. At the road’s end, looking surreally out of place in this rugged desert background, there is Sean Young, waiting on the edge.
Strikingly pale, as thin and wispy as a drinking-straw wrapper, she is dressed in filthy white cotton leggings, a light blue cotton top, and white rubber-soled boots. Her hair has an inch of dark roots and then becomes a tangle of tricolor blond, the result of a movie-related dye job. A green bruise and a small maroon scratch decorate her left forehead, the result of an angry outburst. She is startlingly beautiful in spite of herself. She strides from the front of her seven-room, adobe-style house, which she calls ”the Shonderosa,” and extends a tiny white wrist. ”Hi, I’m Sean Young,” she says, as if my hundreds of phone calls and several broken appointments could possibly have led me to anyone else out here in the middle of nowhere.
Hollywood seems very far away, and so do the days when Sean Young, 32, seemed like the Next Big Thing in movies. But it was only four years ago that she was riding high, after a series of sizzling-yet-vulnerable performances in films like the cult favorite Blade Runner and the surprise hit No Way Out. She had a plum role as Batman’s leading woman, Vicki Vale, in the movie that would become the No. 5 box office sensation of all time. But then she injured herself falling off a horse during the Batman shoot and was replaced by Kim Basinger, and her career has been plagued with missed opportunities and fractious relationships ever since. Cast as Tess Trueheart in another high-visibility project, Dick Tracy, she was ousted after seven days because she and Warren Beatty didn’t get along. Of the movies she has appeared in — The Boost, Cousins, Fire Birds, and A Kiss Before Dying — only Cousins (in which she plays a supporting role) had much critical or commercial success. Her new effort, the low-budget Love Crimes, which opened Jan. 24 to poor notices and box office, is not faring any better. The story of a repressed district attorney (Young) who becomes obsessed with a serial sex offender (Patrick Bergin), it has been advertised heavily and promoted by Young on TV talk shows, but it arrives with a troubled past: Its ending has been written, rewritten, shot, reshot, re-rewritten, and re-reshot.
Meanwhile, Young has developed a much more dramatic reputation off-camera. Her flamboyant campaign last year to become Catwoman in the forthcoming Batman sequel — she prowled around publicly in her own Catwoman getup — was spectacularly unsuccessful. More troubling is the continuing fallout from the harassment lawsuit that James Woods, her costar in The Boost, and Woods’ then-fiancée Sarah Owen, filed against her in 1989, alleging in part that Young left an iodine-splashed, headless baby doll on their doorstep. (Word was that Young had been spurned by Woods, though both stars claimed they never had an affair.) Young denied all charges, and the suit was settled out of court, but the episode still raises questions among those in the film community about her personal soundness.
”When I hired her for Cousins, I got a lot of phone calls from people saying I was crazy,” recalls director Joel Schumacher, but he enjoyed working with her nonetheless. ”Sean is an artist, and she doesn’t know how to monitor herself. She will pour out her emotional road map of the day to you, and it can be quite frightening.” A Hollywood agent puts it bluntly: ”The perception of her is that she is unstable.”
”So you’re not going to ask me about the Woods thing, right?” Sean Young says, clicking on a tape recorder she has been carrying around. The interview — her last in print, she vows — hasn’t even begun. ”Bobbalu! She wants to talk about Woods!” she yells to Robert Lujan, 31, the actor she met on the set of the miniseries Blood and Orchids in 1985 and married in November 1990. Lujan, in sweats and a ponytail, stops tinkering at his computer and leads us into the living room to discuss the inevitable — the fact that, yes, people do still wonder about her and Woods. We are followed by a menagerie of dogs and cats Young collected from various movie sets.
Though it has spectacular views, the Shonderosa is not exactly Robin Leach territory. Filled with a hodgepodge of chewed-up furnishings, strewn with magazines, outdoor furniture catalogs, and scripts, it has a decidedly lived-in quality. As the couple sits on a sofa beneath a vintage Navy advertisement that reads, ”It’s a Woman’s War, Too,” Young talks about the taboo subject — one that, despite her objection, she voluntarily and angrily returns to throughout the day.
”It boils down to two people plotting to set me up and make me look like I was a crazy person, partially because of their own mental illness, partially because of revenge,” she says of the $2 million lawsuit. (”I love and admire Sean and she’s actually half right,” says Woods, who has since married and divorced Owen.) Far more famous than The Boost, the film that brought the stars together to play a codependent couple, were the rumors about their combustible on- and off-camera relationship (including the story that Young Krazy Glued Woods’ penis to his leg while he was asleep, which she denies) and the public brouhaha over the lawsuit. Young likens the experience to Jodie Foster’s ordeal with John Hinckley Jr.
”Jodie’s got very unusual circumstances that are part of what makes her so strong, and the same is true of me,” she says. ”How many actresses do you know whose leading man and leading man’s girlfriend have sued them? And what was Hinckley? What do those two things have in common?” Craziness? ”That’s right. And what do you think that does to a person? You either get it together real fast, or you get eaten up by it.”
And what about the Catwoman escapade? Furious that director Tim Burton didn’t even consider her as a replacement for the pregnant Annette Bening, Young dressed in a catsuit, flew to L.A., and personally lobbied for the role at Warner Bros. headquarters. After pushing her way into the office of Mark Canton, then head of production, she recalls exclaiming, ”I don’t know who got the idea that I wasn’t right for the part, but you know and I know that I’m exceedingly right for the part, and I don’t know what this bullshit is.” When the role went to Michelle Pfeiffer, says Young, it was ”the basic ‘f— you’ symbol and it made me feel very bad.” She made her resentment as public as she could; her brother dropped off a video he shot of her studio assault at Entertainment Tonight and Sean appeared on The Joan Rivers Show in full feline attire.
While Young regards the outing as performance art and outrageously funny, others feel it reinforces her decidedly shaky reputation. ”She’s had some difficult times, and she’s been caught publicly acting out,” says Richard Pierce, who until recently was Young’s personal assistant for three years.
”Sean is not her own best friend,” says director Schumacher. ”There are plenty of channels in Hollywood to get you in to play a part, especially if you are a well-known actress.” James Dearden, who directed Young in 1991’s A Kiss Before Dying, also says her intensity can be alarming. ”The more outlandish aspects of her behavior stand out in stark relief against these dark rumors, and people form a pretty bizarre impression. She’s got a very good heart, and unfortunately, that’s what people who don’t know her don’t see.”
Considering her anarchic spirit and insulated environment, Young would seem to need Hollywood professionals who could plug her into the system more than the average actress would. Yet she has changed agents three times in the past nine months, and her assistant functioned as her manager until recently; now she has no manager. Young plans to control more of her own career — and earnings — in the future. ”Actors say, ‘I need a manager, I need an agent, I need a publicist, I need an accountant.’ That means that they’re making 40 cents on the dollar, which is absurd,” says Young, who also feels such management can isolate actors from their work.
For the time being, though, she had better hang on to her accountant. ”See this?” she asks, pointing to her bruised brow. Trying to master her own bookkeeping, Young was not pleased when she realized the amount of her 1991 taxes. ”It completely bummed me out and I just went through the kitchen, grabbed this pot and threw it at the window,” she explains. ”It bounced on the wood piece right back in my face. I haven’t done that in 10 years.” She shakes her head.
With her newly formed company, Shonderosa Productions, which will operate out of a computer-networked office in her home, Young hopes to further reduce her dependence on what Hollywood has to offer. Though a few serious roles interest her — ”I’d be good as Evita, and I’d like to play Eleanor of Aquitaine” — she wants to concentrate on comedies. ”I’m just into having fun, because I went through some bad years that really depressed me and made me angry,” she says.
In 1988, to get herself together after shooting The Boost, Young joined Alcoholics Anonymous. ”I’m not a classic alcoholic,” she says, ”but doing the 12-step program was a very good support system to gain as much clarity as I could.” She also became committed to yoga, read self-help books, and, at the suggestion of her Rolfer, moved to Arizona two years ago. There, removed from what she calls ”Hollywood’s gossip mecca,” she rather enjoys the shock waves she generates. ”Bette Davis went a long time with an outrageous reputation and behavior to match it,” says Young. ”I don’t even have the behavior, just the reputation that stirs up people’s opinions without really having to work that hard.”
Despite the reputation, and despite her efforts to gain control over her life and career, Young seems neither scary nor particularly focused. Puttering around her house, talking to her pets, she’s more like a kid happily playing hooky. She procrastinates about reading scripts and says, ”I like to take a week and not shower and plant plants.” Even the spiritual course her life has taken requires discipline. On a homespun altar in her foyer, where a Virgin Mary candle and incense burn constantly, she keeps a kitchen timer-so she’ll know exactly when her meditation period has come to an end.
”Lemme drive!” says Young, grabbing the keys to the rented Pontiac Sunbird. Too hungry to keep talking at home, she steers us to the local coffee shop where she’s known as Mary (her real first name — Sean is her middle name), the wife of that nice Bobby Lujan from up the hill. The place is cutesy and pink, like a doll’s house. The locals don’t seem to notice her, although they eye my recorder with great suspicion. She digs into a BLT with avocado, a side of slaw, and potato salad, all swished down with a bottle of beer; she follows that with coconut cake, coffee, and talk about marriage and men.
”I don’t particularly think marriage is a sane thing,” says Young, who grew up in Ohio, raised by journalist parents who now live separately. ”If somebody says to me, ‘Oh, you’re gonna get married and you’ll never be attracted to anybody else again,’ I’m like, right, sure. It’s just not practical to me on an emotional level. Just because I’m married, I’m not dead.”
Young, who has steamed up the screen with such costars as Harrison Ford, Kevin Costner, and Matt Dillon, considers herself ”the expert on this love-scene stuff. Harrison Ford is hot, he’s a man, not a little boy. Making out with Matt (Dillon) was a good time, definitely. It’s always fun when you have people who know what they are doing.
”I find I’m always helping the guys,” she said. ”I ended up helping Kevin Costner out. Kevin helped me by wanting me so much for the role, so if he gets a little nervous during a love scene, that’s okay, I’ll help him.” Her next thrill, she says, is to ”make out” with Jeff Fahey, her costar in The Sketch Artist, a Showtime movie due this spring, and she already has cooked up an excuse for her husband: ”But honey,” she says coquettishly, ”I had to. It’s in the script.”
Attraction is an important part of getting the job done, according to Young. ”You balance the sexual energy with the work,” she explains. ”And if you can’t find a way to be attracted, you find some way of channeling that energy into what you are trying to do, even if it’s getting the catering guy down the hall to stand next to the camera.”
That seems to have been the thinking behind Young’s offer to pay a dolly grip $5,000 to stand in for her Love Crimes costar, Patrick Bergin, when she could not get motivated for a key love scene. The story that filtered back from the set in Atlanta about her unusual proposition was vintage Young: outrageous, provocative, and, apparently, more than a little desperate. ”The thing with the dolly grip was an attempt to put some control over something she felt nervous about,” says Love Crimes director Lizzie Borden, explaining the offer was partially a joke.
”That nightmare night,” recalls Young. ”I didn’t feel like being naked, I didn’t feel like making out, I just didn’t feel like it. In hindsight, I was uncomfortable because I was exposing myself for a movie I didn’t have any confidence in. It’s a much worse experience to be in a movie that’s no good if my body’s plastered all over it.”
Young’s lack of confidence had to do not only with the film’s extensive nude scenes, but also the fact that its ending had been a point of contention throughout the shoot. Borden, who was born Linda but let the high-school nickname Lizzie stick, gave us a feminist look at prostitution in 1987’s Working Girls, and she first wanted Young’s character to take revenge on Bergin’s by sodomizing him. But the actors and the producers talked her out of it. An ending was shot in which Young’s DA character reduces Bergin’s criminal to tears, but Borden never planned to use it; she wrapped her film hoping to find her conclusion in the editing.
When it became clear that this wasn’t going to happen, writer Kit Carson, the troubleshooter on Paris, Texas, was brought in to help Borden straighten out the story. Carson wrote and directed a flashback sequence of Young’s character as an abused child and a more violent final confrontation between the leads. But three weeks before the film’s release, Borden was filming yet another denouement. Though Young is pleased with the changes made in the film, she is surprised that the love scene she found so difficult to shoot didn’t make it into the final cut, and says the whole experience was not an easy one: ”It was a real lesson to me about ever agreeing to do a script where the ending wasn’t totally set down.”
Love Crimes served its purpose, though, as a catharsis for its star. ”One of the reasons I agreed to take the role was to unload a lot of anger I had at being publicly harassed,” Young says. ”It was a great place to do it, too.”
Borden agrees: ”Sean can identify with a woman who goes over the edge and then is attacked by society and culture, even though she feels that she is the one telling the truth.”
It’s late afternoon in Sedona, and the heat is letting up. Young decides it’s time to dance, so she heads to the auditorium of the local school, where she and Lujan had their wedding reception. Pulling off her little green sneakers and lacing up a pair of white tap shoes, she jumps up and immediately starts making happy noises with her feet. Her thigh muscles are flexing in their own furious dance as she goes through the quick, repetitive movements. ”Because of the incredible reputation I have, people find me exciting to watch on film,” she says, her eyes fixed on the back of the darkened room. ”But the unpredictability of how I perform doesn’t mean that I am crazy, or that I am mean, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t have shy moments.” She twirls around.
”I like living in the desert, and now because I don’t show up in Hollywood, people think I am really scary, and it’s hilarious,” she says. ”I hope they continue to say I’m fierce and Catwomanish, you know — how wonderful. Right now I’m trying to think of the next thing I can bubble up into the press, something to keep the paparazzi waiting breathlessly.” With a faraway smile, Sean Young takes flight across the stage.