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Honing Her Craft


If you were a teenager in the '90s, it wasn't vampires you were obsessed with but witches. And your obsession was due to the movie The Craft and its star Robin Tunney. In the film four girls form a modern-day coven, complete with talk of boys, clothes shopping, and sleepovers -- until one of them takes it a little too far and goes to the dark side. Tunney has had dozens of roles since then but will always be remembered as the girl who uses magic for good to defend her school. All grown up now, Tunney stars as the take-no-prisoners cop opposite Simon Baker in the hit series The Mentalist. But with the Blu-ray release of The Craft this month, we decided to chat with the actress about her witchy past, why she has always been a lesbian icon, and why she never got around to hooking up with a woman.

Tunney: I am so sorry I was late for our call. I was on a photo shoot that went over. How was it?
It was good. I mean, they basically made me look like a really expensive hooker.

What were you shooting?
It was for Allure, and it was Michael Thompson so it was one of those, they really want to make you look different, so it was lots of hair and makeup. It was fun.

The last time I saw you, we were sharing adjoining rooms at Sundance when you were there promoting The Secret Lives of Dentists.

Yes, I remember. That was so much fun. I love [director] Alan Rudolph. He is such a good guy.

I didn't realize you had made another movie with him, Investigating Sex, a pretty racy film where you play a sexually charged stenographer.
That is because they never come out [laughs]. I have done two. I would love to do more. I would work with him any day. He is such a gentle soul and he loves actors, and at times he gives you enough rope to hang yourself with but you just love him for it. He is old-school and he likes the process of making movies. He has that Altman thing where he is not obsessed with making movies that are going to work for everyone. He is so '70s. I wish I was around in the '70s.

Well, while not from the '70s, The Craft is out on Blu-ray this month. I don't know if you are over The Craft at this point...
The director of it [Andrew Fleming] has become like a brother to me. I spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with him and his boyfriend and they are like family to me. So I love The Craft.

It is inescapable for you. On Wikipedia the first line in the entry about you says that you are best known for The Craft. And funny enough, on there is a list of "Must-have lesbian movies" with The Craft at number 11.
[Laughs] Really?

Yes. It is above Boys Don't Cry!

That is so awesome. It was one of those movies that was obviously directed by a gay man because he was totally comfortable making a movie where girls were empowered and it wasn't about the conquest with boys, and he hired four girls that now would never get hired. He wasn't obsessed with the aesthetics and how big the girls' boobs were. So I think that is why lesbians like it [laughs]. I think generally people in Hollywood don't like to make three-dimensional women. I don't think they are comfortable with it.

Why do you think that is?
Look, I mean, to be totally frank, for the most part a lot of the guys who write and direct the stuff didn't get the girl in high school and they are angry at her about it. They are scared of powerful women. It was a fantasy in all those old Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn movies and audiences and Hollywood were more comfortable with it. And there were more gay male directors than there are now [laughs]. And then the women's movement came along and it just became too real. I think they like to keep women in a fantasy way. I was saying the other day at work that this idea of physical perfection that 20-year-olds have in Hollywood today coming out of the Disney factory is so different than when I came along in the early '90s. When I started acting I wanted to be Juliette Lewis. I feel bad that now the 18-year-olds out there don't have anyone to embrace, and that being left of center and not having big boobs and not using your sexuality as a weapon or as your trump card, there is no one who embraces that. Making a sex tape is your best foot in. When I came along it was Juliette Lewis and Winona Ryder and these women who embodied a more quirky and I think more authentic form of sexuality.

Do you think someone like you would have a shot of making it today.

You know, I think my attitude would have stopped me a little bit. I always had a stance like, you know, fuck Maxim. You know, I was supposed to be on the cover and my publicist set up the shoot behind my back and I was like, "There is no fucking way I am wearing my underpants on the cover of a magazine; they can go fuck themselves." Sexuality in that way and women using it has been around for forever, but it seems now with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, it seems that now in order to be successful you need to look like you want to have sex with every guy. I don't get it.

Did you find in your work that not going there has hurt your career in any way?

I can't say anything hurt my career because I am pretty psyched to be where I am at. There are movies I did that didn't pan out, but I had a ball making them. I have had a really kick-ass interesting life. I have traveled everywhere and managed to get to 35 without having to work terribly hard. Now I work hard. I don't regret things. I think that the attitude that you wanted to do indies and that you wanted to be down and dirty has become sort of antiquated. It's what every young actor wanted to be then, and the idea then that you didn't play up your looks and you go to auditions wearing your pajamas was cool. That doesn't seem to exist now and I think that is sad.

The grunge vibe?
Yeah, and the idea that it was narcissistic or against your craft to care too much about your looks. When you look at the idea of what's sexy -- I mean, the 1970s was a period when Barbra Streisand and Elliott Gould were both the sexiest people on earth. And I don't think that would happen now. There is room for fine actors to a certain degree. We have Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but we don't have female versions. And if you go to a mall or Middle America, the people there aren't being represented on television or in movies and I think it makes them feel bad about the way they look.

You were never all that concerned about your looks. In the film that sort of put you on the radar, Empire Records, you shaved your head, and had to wear a wig when you shot The Craft. Was that hard to do?
Are you kidding? I was thrilled to do it. I was a child model and my mom would never let me do anything I wanted like cut my hair or get my ears pierced or any of those phases. I was 21 and for the first time I did something I was dying to do. I had always wanted to do something aberrant like that. I loved having it for a while, but by the end everyone saying "Excuse me, sir" was kind of annoying. I wasn't thinking about it in terms of some sort of feminist stance. I thought that if you were going to do it, the opportunity of doing it on film was also pretty cool.

I think your Empire Records character and then your role in The Craft really did make you a bit of a lesbian icon even early in you career.
[Laughs] And now I'm playing an ass-kicking cop. Look, I was never very interested in playing the ingenue, and the times I got muscled into doing it I was pretty bad at it. I don't think that as an actor you have to play someone who has the same personality that you have, but you have to be interested in them, and I have never been interested in those types of characters. My character in Hollywoodland was a horrible person, but I was really interested in playing her. But again she was a ballsy, ass-kicking woman.

And that character has a lesbian past as well right?
Well, the woman she was based on in real life was supposedly a lesbian. She had had lots of affairs with women. By the way, my cousin is a gay icon.

Who is your cousin?

His name is Tom Tunney and he's the first openly gay elected official in Chicago. He's started a gay and lesbian nursing home there and done so many things for the gay community. The biggest thing that happened for him in my career was when I went on Ellen recently, and he was really pissed-off that I didn't talk about him.

Well, there is always next year.
I remember my family used to call him the bachelor and [said] that he was just really picky, and I think they were only able to embrace his sexuality because he was so groundbreaking and successful. I think he did have a lot to prove coming from where he came from. He is the first guy who ever kissed me on the lips. He was older than me and I wiped my lips and he said, "One day you're really going to like that."

You got your first lesbian on-screen kiss in Naked City, right?

I did a little lesbian kiss in that and I have a little lesbian kiss with Hope Davis in The Secret Lives of Dentists.

Well, the cliche question then is, was it at all difficult or different?

Not at all. I mean, maybe it has to do with the fact that I am a woman. I would much rather have to kiss a woman at work than a guy. Inevitably it is uncomfortable. I don't know anyone who says "I had this sex scene at work today; it was amazing." It's fraught with anxieties and brings out everyone's insecurities about the way they look and the way they taste. With a woman the boundaries are more clear and you can have a better time. It's like, "Hey, I'm straight. If I go for it, it doesn't mean I want to have sex with you after work." And with a guy it is always ambiguous and weird. Sort of by virtue of doing your job well you worry, Am I leading this person down a long road? And women are softer. It doesn't screw up your makeup as much either. There are a whole bunch of advantages.

Did you ever enjoy any of those advantages in your off-screen life?

Well, it's weird. Two of my closest girlfriends were a couple when I met them and I have always gone to gay bars and always felt comfortable. But it has never really been my thing. I have also always been in a relationship and I didn't go to Smith or Bard -- I didn't go to college. I got married really young, and so during the younger, more experimental phase I was always involved with someone. C'est la vie.

You missed your window.
Yeah, but the boundaries that people draw in the sand about sexuality seem really preposterous to me. I mean, if you're lucky you spend 26 minutes a week doing it -- out of how many hours, you know? I understand that it can be necessary as an identity since society makes it so difficult on some people, and I wish [gays] were allowed to get married, and their relationships should be equally as legal and all that. Because there isn't that equality, people need to band together and make a difference. But when I think about my great friends who are gay it's not the first personality trait that pops up.

You also apparently are a celebrity poker champion?

I gotta tell you, I like to play the cards. I don't have any time anymore like I used to. When I was unemployed sometimes I would be at the casino in the middle of the day. One of my favorite moments on the The Mentalist was when we did an episode we shot at a casino in Los Angeles. The [assistant director] came up to me and said, "Wait till you see the people in there. Total degenerate gamblers. It's terrifying." And I went to sit and play some hands at lunch and I knew like five people [laughs]. It's fun. You have to be completely engaged. But it's an incredibly chauvinist game. I played in it and didn't think about the implications at the time, but they separate the men and the women at the [World Series of Poker]. They have a separate event for "ladies," like there is a difference. It's so 1950s.

On The Mentalist you are playing another tough, ass-kicking woman. How did you end up in that role?
The creator made a show called Rome that I thought was really fun. And in The Mentalist there is this modern dynamic where my character is the brawn and Simon Baker's character is the brains. He gets scared and cowers in corners and I make fun of him. It really does have that dynamic of sexual role reversal, which I think is important for our culture. She's the boss, which is pretty cool -- and has the highest body count on the show, FYI. And I must say, for the first time in my life I like the stability of working on TV and that it is a family. I don't think when I was in my 20s I could have been disciplined enough to shoot nine pages a day. I would have been hungover or crying about boyfriends. You have to be a full-grown adult to do television. Thank god, I think it's good. It would be hard to walk around and 18 million people watched you on television every week and you thought it was terrible. That would be hard.

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