How the hell do you even describe Rose McGowan? She’s the girl you want to hang out with, even though you know she’s trouble. She’s mean and moody and almost certainly carrying a concealed weapon of some sort, but when she likes you, she makes you feel like the only other person in the world. “I guess I always thought of my characters as these little tough things who seemed strong, but if you pushed them, they would crack,” she says. This statement, it seems, describes McGowan herself as much as it does her roles.
Her big break came as a troubled teen on an inadvertent killing spree in Gregg Araki’s cult classic, The Doom Generation. Since then, she has suffered death by garage door in Scream, and taught a jock how to go down on a popsicle in Jawbreaker. She was a good witch onCharmed, and an evil queen in Conan The Barbarian. That’s to say nothing of the time she played a stripper with a machine gun leg in the splatter-fest that was Planet Terror.
Ahead of her appearance at the Supanova pop culture convention, we spoke to McGowan about these various iconic roles. We discussed her predilection for playing weirdos and outsiders, and the “trial by fire” that was her first big acting job. Most surprising of all was the revelation that, after two decades in the business, McGowan may be ready to give up acting all together.
Junkee: The characters you play are often dark, and even a little bit evil. What is it that draws you to those sorts of roles?
Rose McGowan: Well, I like things that are funny, actually, and I think I excel at comedy in a lot of ways. When you play evil, you often have the exact same beats as you would play in a comedy. When I’m doing a very over-the-top, evil character, I will often start laughing as soon as the director says ‘cut’, just laughing at myself.
There’s something really joyous about the idea of just being really, really evil.
Sometimes it’s so absurd, it’s hilarious. In Conan The Barbarian, I have these long, claw things, and I’m trying to find a virgin so I can slit her throat or something with these crazy nails. When I hear ‘cut’ in that situation, I just immediately start laughing because it’s ridiculous!
So I was a huge fan of The Doom Generation growing up…
The film is about a group of teens who find themselves on a cross-country killing spree, and it features a lot of gory violence and out-there sexual stuff. When you were making it, did it feel like you were doing something a little bit shocking or dangerous?
Well, the funny thing is that I’d never acted before, so I had no frame of reference for what was normal or abnormal on a movie set, or even what I was supposed to be doing. I based my character on myself when I was 15, which is to say I was very surly and sullen and occasionally snarky. There were so many sexual references in the film, but the truth is that I didn’t understand half of them; I didn’t know what people were talking about! People would always tell me that I’d played a brave role, and I’d say ‘oh, thanks!’ without really understanding why. It wasn’t until about a year ago, when I was doing the DVD commentary with the director Gregg Araki and some of the other actors, that I watched it again, and I was shocked by some of the things I said! All these people had said I was brave, but the truth is, it came out of ignorance and idiocy because I had no idea what was going on.
Gregg Araki is a fascinating figure. What was it like working with him?
It was a trial by fire, because he is very intense on set. I’d never worked with other directors, so I didn’t understand what it was like or that he was different. There was no ad-libbing, so all these crazy dialogue things had to sound completely natural, although I understood that to be my job. He was very demanding, but in the best possible way. He brings an incredible work ethic to everything he does.
Your character in Jawbreaker, Courtney, is one of the popular girls, mainly because everyone’s terrified of her. There’s a great scene in that one where she flips things around on her boyfriend, and makes him go down on a popsicle for her amusement. Was that fun to film?
It totally was, yeah! I didn’t entirely understand what I was doing. I mean, I understood it was subversive. It was fun, though, because the director was very openly gay, and it was fun to be re-enacting his fantasy for him.
That was quite a subversive scene for a high school movie…
I like to inject a bit of subversiveness into everything I do. My character in Conan The Barbarian is obsessed with her father, so I had her develop an Electra complex and try to seduce him the whole time. That’s a little creepy, but you don’t often see that in movies, and I thought it would be hilarious. That’s my sense of humour.
In Planet Terror, you played Cherry Darling, a stripper who ends up with a machine gun leg. Did you have to learn how to move in a whole new way?
Oh, completely, because I wasn’t walking on a flat foot, I was walking on a gun barrel, and at one point, a peg leg. I had a five-pound cast, with LED lights, strapped to me, and my toe was taped up so it was just my heel resting on the ground. I had to always keep in mind that my character was walking on a tiny gun barrel or a table leg. On the other side, I was wearing a four-inch high-heeled boot. It was a challenge; I had to run faster and jump higher than everyone else, and do so while I was wearing this ridiculous, heavy cast and I had no toes.
So is that one of the more bizarre things you’ve had to do as an actress?
I’ve done quite a few bizarre things, but I don’t know how you top having a machine gun for a leg. That can come in handy in so many different ways…
You once said that you fell into acting accidentally. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
I was living in LA off and on, and I lost… I had a boyfriend who died, so I lost the apartment we were living in. I was looking at the possibility of moving back to Seattle, Washington, to live with my father. I did not want to do that, because I don’t like rain, and who wants to live with their father when they’re 18? I was approached to do The Doom Generation, and I kept saying no, but then I realised that if I was to do that it would mean enough money for me to get an apartment, and I wouldn’t have to live with my dad. That’s the only reason I became an actor; I didn’t want to become famous or make my mark!
So did there ever come a point when acting felt like the right choice?
No, in fact, it was pretty much the opposite. I recently had an epiphany that I hated acting and didn’t want to do it anymore.
The power went out in my house about a month ago, and I was just sitting around with no distractions, with no battery left in my phone, and I just thought, wait a second, I never really made a choice to start acting, I just fell into it, and I never once stopped to think if I wanted to do it or if I even liked the acting business. I thought, do I have to keep doing this just because so many other people wish they could be doing it? Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, I do.
Thinking about it that way has freed me up a lot. I filmed Once Upon A Time after that[McGowan had a guest spot in a recent episode of the fairy tale drama - ed], and I was a little worried that I was going to have a hard time and I wouldn’t care, but it was the opposite; it all came back, so that was good. I’m more interested in directing now, to be honest. I just finished my first piece for RSA Black Dog, which is Ridley Scott’s commercial music video company. I directed a 20-minute short with amazing actors. It was a really amazing project to do, and I felt really comfortable doing it, more so than I ever have acting.
Do you have a dream project as a director, a passion project?
My taste is a bit… I don’t want to say ‘twisted’, because that’s such a cliché, but I like things that are tongue-in-cheek, things that don’t go where you expect them to. I’ve found a feature film project that I’d really like to start in the next six to nine months. I’m a huge black-and-white film buff, so I’d love to make something in black-and-white one day, although I don’t want to be in it. There are a lot of actors who direct so they can put themselves in a dream role, and I understand that; they want to create something perfect for themselves. I’m at a point, though, where I don’t really care about acting anymore, so I don’t think I’d want to do that. I’m being really honest right now and I probably shouldn’t be.