Alicia Silverstone no longer clueless

The actress leaves her early Hollywood bungles behind with an empowering role in American Woman

LOS ANGELES • If you need a clue on how Alicia Silverstone now suddenly seems to be everywhere, consider this.

On a recent morning last month, she leaned out of the upper-floor window of her two-storey house in a woodsy section of Hollywood Hills. Toothpaste spilling from her mouth, she shouted: "Be down soon."

Her bedroom resembled a dorm-room-during-finals state, with bed unmade and clothes everywhere.

She had returned from Montreal, where she had shot a horror film directed by the Austrian team of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala (behind 2014's Goodnight Mummy). Now, she was collecting stuff to take to the Pacific Palisadesbased set of Judy Small, a low-budget comedy.

"Script," she said aloud. "Wallet. Shoes." "When I'm in a rush," she added, "I pack crazy."

The array of rumpled blouses and hastily discarded jackets was a far cry from the computerised closet Silverstone is indelibly associated with, the one that was colour-coded, organised by season and programmed to mix and match outfits.


PHOTO: PARAMOUNT NETWORK

This character was so appealing to me because she goes through so much; she's being knocked down and she gets back up.

ACTRESS ALICIA SILVERSTONE, who stars in American Woman (above) as a mother of two who kicks out her philandering husband and is determined, with no marketable skills, to support her family

Yet, such is the enduring power of her performance as Cher Horowitz in the 1995 coming-of-age teenage comedy Clueless.

Made for a modest US$12 million, the film grossed more than US$56 million domestically. It spun off a wave of teenage girl copycat movies and predictions of superstar status for Silverstone.

What followed instead was an entertainment industry chain reaction: some big paydays, a few box-office failures and a "who-does-she-think-she-is?" backlash.

And even though Silverstone has spent the last two decades maintaining a steady, low-wattage career filled with roles in small films, television and theatre, she is still one of those actors who make people wonder if she is even acting anymore.

Hollywood may be a business reluctant to give women second chances, but Silverstone, now 41, is no longer an afterthought.

Last year alone, she appeared in four movies, including playing a mum in Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul and a desperate mother who sucked Colin Farrell's thumb in psychological horror film The Killing Of A Sacred Deer.

Though not given much dialogue in the recently released Book Club, she still radiated Silverstonian charm as a doting daughter hovering over her widowed mum (Diane Keaton).

Last Thursday, she returned to a starring role when American Woman, her new television series on Paramount Network, debuted.

Set in Beverly Hills circa 1970s, it is loosely based on the early childhood memories of Kyle Richards, a former child star (Little House On The Prairie, 1975 to 1982) and now a second-career reality star on The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills.

Silverstone plays Bonnie Nolan, a mother of two who kicks out her philandering husband and is determined, with no marketable skills, to support her family.

"This character was so appealing to me because she goes through so much; she's being knocked down and she gets back up," said Silverstone. "It's like she's crawling out of a hole. She's a very complicated person."

Unlike Richards, whose recurring television guest spots helped keep the family afloat, Silverstone grew up comfortably in the suburbs of San Francisco. The daughter of immigrants from England, she worked as a model from ages eight to 12.

She used her pay cheques for acting classes and was discovered at a summer acting workshop.

Soon, she had secured an agent, a Domino's Pizza commercial, a guest spot on 1988 to 1993 comedy series The Wonder Years, a failed pilot called Me And Nick and, despite her scant filmography, a central role in The Crush (1993), a psychological thriller in which she played a deranged seductress.

In 1993, Marty Callner was 20 minutes into a multiplex screening of The Crush when he knew he had found a luminous heroine to star in a trio of Aerosmith videos he was directing.

"It wasn't just that she was extremely photogenic, beautiful - she had 'it' - the right sass and body language," he recalled.

The videos would reboot Aerosmith's popularity, transform Silverstone into an MTV video star and inspire Amy Heckerling, director of Clueless, to give Callner a call, asking what Silverstone was like to work with.

Heckerling had been struggling to find an actress who could recite snarky, entitled dialogue but make it sound sweet. But when she met Silverstone, she knew she was sitting across from her perfect Cher.

"We were at a restaurant and when she got her drink, she leaned her head over into her straw, the way a little kid does," said Heckerling. "There's something childlike about her, totally innocent and naive and open."

Film critics, audiences and movie executives fell in love with Silverstone too. Not yet in her 20s, she and her First Kiss Productions company were bequeathed a US$10-million deal to produce two films at Columbia Pictures.

Then the romance soured as quickly as it began. When the only result of her deal was Excess Baggage (1997), a negatively reviewed crime comedy starring Silverstone and Benicio del Toro, she was excoriated in the media.

In 1996, her appearance at the Oscars set off a run of cruel body-shaming. Entertainment Weekly's "She looked more Babe than babe" was one of the more subtle assessments. Babe was the pig in a 1995 movie.

Cast as Batgirl in Batman & Robin (1997), Silverstone found herself serenaded with the TV show's theme song by paparazzi, who replaced "Batman" with "Fatgirl".

"Hollywood eats its young, you know," Heckerling said. "She didn't get the best guidance and wasn't taken care of as well as she should have been."

Today, when asked whose advice she had sought then in the hopes of navigating her way through such unsteady waters, Silverstone wrinkled her expressive brow.

"People I'd talk to? That would be nobody," she said.

But she is no longer clueless.

"Now I talk to everybody about everything - but I was so isolated back then."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 11, 2018, with the headline 'Alicia Silverstone no longer clueless'. Print Edition | Subscribe