Heather Graham fights back with Magic

Heather Graham had many sexist things said to her and she used them as fodder for her new film, Half Magic, which she writes for, directs and also stars in. Gong Li (right) stars as a stage actress gathering secret information for the Allied Powers i
Heather Graham had many sexist things said to her and she used them as fodder for her new film, Half Magic, which she writes for, directs and also stars in.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LOS ANGELES • "No one wants to hear women's stories. If you want to make a film, you've got to write about a man."

That is just one of many sexist lines that a frustrated Heather Graham said she heard in real life and used as fodder for her new film, Half Magic, her first as a writer-director, in which she also stars.

The romantic comedy released in the United States last Friday is about women who fight misogyny in Hollywood with witchcraft.

Graham plays a development assistant (aka, "D-girl") named Honey who is fed up with sexism. Her misogynist boyfriend and boss, an action star, is played by Chris D'Elia.

He is given "all the lines people said to me", said Graham, 48, one of the first actresses to share her #MeToo story in the wake of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, published by The New York Times and The New Yorker, in the fall.

D'Elia's character is based on no one in particular, though, she said.

"He's a composite of a guy I dated who's a director and a director I worked with who I didn't date and just entitled male Hollywood action stars I've met," she said.

When asked if another of her boorish on-screen boss' zingers - "Your breasts are too big, they make you look dumb" - was also mined from personal experience, she nodded.

"We get a lot of mixed messages from the culture," she said.

"One message is all that matters is your looks, and you're judged on that - you're supposed to be sexy. On the other hand, your sexuality is judged in a negative way."

Graham knows this double bind intimately, having been cited on increasingly antique-seeming lists such as People's 50 Most Beautiful People and FHM's 100 Sexiest Women in the World.

Her best-known roles, including Rollergirl in Boogie Nights (1997), Felicity Shagwell in Austin Powers (1999) and Jade in The Hangover (2009), are all highly sexualised women.

Like Honey, Graham had to learn to "break out of her sexist world to make her women's movie", she said.

In search of meatier roles, she hired a producing partner to help develop female-driven material. However, she said, "people kept telling me nobody cares about women's stories".

Fed up, she wrote a humorous fictional script, incorporating witchcraft into its plot.

The title, Half Magic, is a nod to a book of the same name by Edward Eager, her favourite as a girl.

Graham, who has been practising meditation since director David Lynch introduced her to it on the set of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) when she was 21, had to take deep breaths when her first backer fell through.

About a year later, she found a champion in Bill Sheinberg, a producer who stepped in to rescue the project.

"There are men who really want to empower women," she said.

"All the men getting fired over the past several months, there's a lot of men making those decisions. The idea that that kind of domineering, sexist guy that used to be so celebrated is now becoming outdated and uncool, I think that's amazing culturally, because that's more powerful than telling someone, 'Don't act like a jerk.'"

And when all else fails, a few amulets and runes?

"As a woman, sometimes I feel disempowered in this society," Graham said, explaining her interest in the occult.

"To be a witch seems to me to be the opposite of that. Witches are powerful and wise and misunderstood.

"I think of femininity that way because femininity is very powerful, but sometimes it's misunderstood and seen as weak. I think we, as women, are much more powerful than we give ourselves credit for. For us to see the power we have is the next step."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 26, 2018, with the headline 'Heather Graham fights back with Magic'. Subscribe