In Alicia Silverstone’s 1995 Rolling Stone profile, the writer Rich Cohen described the 18-year-old as “kittenish”, “the prettiest girl in town”, “dreamy-eyed”, having “the brand-new look of a still-wet painting” and, most creepily, referring to her as a movie star “whom lots of men want to sleep with”. It’s a jarring read 25 years on, indicative of both a strange, leery, still-existing form of interview-writing that views female actors as horny objects and also of how a young Silverstone was treated and objectified at the time.
It was the year she broke out big with Clueless, Amy Heckerling’s sparkling teen comedy that transported the loose plot of Jane Austen’s Emma to Beverly Hills and rocketed her into a position of global stardom that no one at that age would feel equipped to deal with. “I was so overwhelmed by being famous because I was such a young girl and it was never really my intention,” she tells me over the phone from her house in Los Angeles, just a few miles away from where her character Cher lived on screen.
But the self-described “theatre nerd” had suddenly become one of the cool kids, inundated with offers and attention, not all of it welcomed. She tells me she doesn’t remember the wording of the profile in question (“But I remember the pictures!” she adds) but does remember how she was seen by men at the time and also how she would respond. “I felt empowered to be like ‘oh no you don’t!’” she tells me when faced with inappropriate behaviour.
Silverstone, now 43, might live in the same city as she did back then (and literally in the same house as she bought in 1996) but her star is of a different kind now. She still acts, on screen and on stage, but also devotes her time to parenting, activism and writing (she published a vegan cookbook in 2011). Veganism and animal rights have become something of a crusade for her (she’s bared all for a number of Peta ads and uses her Instagram page to regularly remind her followers of the cruelty involved with the meat industry) but while she’s keen to discuss the importance of a plant-based diet at length (“We’re just killing people left and right with animal agriculture,” she tells me with vigour), we’re here to talk about movies.
Specifically, her role in a scrappy new comedy called Bad Therapy, an indie about a couple experiencing problems in their relationship who seek help from a manipulative therapist. It’s mildly diverting at best but touches upon some interesting observations, such as one scene where Silverstone’s character bemoans having to be the person always taking care of her partner while not being taken care of herself. I told her I could relate. Can she? There’s a pause.
“In so many ways and in such deep ways that I could never talk about right here,” she says, laughing. “I mean if you and I were having a beer we sure could but not for an interview.”
It’s the sort of small film she’s now become associated with, a far cry from her period skirting the top of the A-list, but one that reflects a concerted effort to stay away from the spotlight. Her first role came in 1993, playing a 14-year-old who develops an obsessive, almost fatal, attraction to an older man in The Crush, a fun, schlocky thriller that saw her named best villain at the MTV movie awards.
“I felt so connected to the material for some reason,” she tells me, said material casting her as a violent and unhinged teen, before laughing. “I don’t know what that says about my state of mind at the time!”
Silverstone was 15 when production started (she turned 16 on set) and for the entirety of the shoot she was living alone in an apartment in Vancouver, legally emancipating herself in order to dodge working restrictions for someone of her age.
“I think I probably missed some emotional steps that needed to happen in a normal situation of development,” she admits. “But I also jumped light years ahead in other ways. It’s sort of a combo platter. You gain some and you lose some.”
It led to Clueless in 1995, the film that jolted her into the stratosphere, a hit both critically and commercially, with Silverstone showcasing an instinctive knack for comedy playing a spoilt but well-intentioned socialite who plays matchmaker with those around her. But at 18, it was a huge lifestyle change and one that started to sour her experience of Hollywood.
She was “extremely isolated” in her younger years and didn’t have “a ton of friends in the industry” (in the aforementioned Rolling Stone interview at the time, she noted: “They say there’s a young Hollywood out there, but I’m not part of it”) yet, professionally, was now at the top of every director’s casting wishlist. At the height of her fame, she was handed a rare multimillion-dollar, three-year first look deal by Columbia with her production company attached, an opportunity that theoretically gave her more power than any other teen in Hollywood at the time. But at such a young age, how hard was it, I wondered, to get her voice heard and respected in such a male-dominated scene?
“Unfortunately or fortunately, I do not know, I’ve never had that problem with my work,” she says. “I have had it in my personal life, learning to have a voice in my real life has been harder than having a voice in my work life. Maybe it’s because I had success at a young age and sometimes maybe to my detriment, when I should have been wrangled. I probably behaved not as well as I could have at times. Maybe I was too young to even notice. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t mean they always listened and doesn’t mean they aren’t laughing behind your back. I just stupidly didn’t have a very political point of view on it. I would sort of just light the house on fire by accident and not be aware of the consequences until it was over and be like, ‘Oops maybe I shouldn’t have said that.’”
I ask if she can remember any particular examples.
“Oh for sure but nothing I want to share,” she laughs.
Her biggest role came next, as Batgirl in Joel Schumacher’s critically reviled misfire Batman & Robin (“That definitely wasn’t my favourite film-making experience,” she confesses), a film that brought her less positive attention than the last, from a Razzie award to a depressing new focus on her weight (at the time tabloids would cruelly refer to her as Fatgirl, with some paparazzi chanting it as they chased her for pics). “They would make fun of my body when I was younger,” she says. “It was hurtful but I knew they were wrong. I wasn’t confused. I knew that it was not right to make fun of someone’s body shape, that doesn’t seem like the right thing to be doing to a human.”
She tells me that her clear idea of right and wrong (a lowpoint being a journalist asking for her bra size during an interview) meant that even when things around her grew toxic, she tried to learn from it.
“There were working circumstances that were less than favourable in terms of how things went down,” she says. “And no, I didn’t say ‘fuck you’ and come out like a warrior but I would just walk away and go, OK I know what that is and I’m done, I’m not going near that again.” She admits, though, that in her personal life, her strategy for dealing with male creepiness “was a lot more muddy” but her confidence professionally meant that she started to veer away from doing what a young actor should do and instead focus on what she wanted to do.
“I stopped loving acting for a very long time,” she says, adding that it was a role in a David Mamet play that reinvigorated her. “My body was just like, this is what I’m meant to do, I love it so much, I need to find a way to do both, to be able to be an actress and be an activist at the same time so that’s what I did.”
There was a big shift when she turned 30 as a new agent told her to only say yes if she loved something, an “earth-shaking” development in her life. Since then she’s worked with Yorgos Lanthimos on The Killing of a Sacred Deer (“I would just die to work with him again”) and recently took on a small but horribly effective role in the icy horror The Lodge from the directors of Goodnight Mommy. “I really love those weird movies,” she says.
As with any interview at this surreal time, talk turns to the pandemic and Silverstone has been focused on “everything” she can do. Rather than sing her part in a star-studded Imagine cover, she’s been donating and calling attention to initiatives to help provide frontline responders with PPE and those on the breadline with food. “I’m an activist so I’m kind of used to suffering in terms of what is going in with the world with the climate and looking at the abuse that’s going on,” she says. “This is very surreal and different but at the same time, I’ve been dealing with this for 25 years.”
She’s convinced that it’s an awareness of the bigger picture that’s led her to take the day-to-day name-calling or situations of disrespect in her stride (“I always go to: there are bigger things in the world, there’s bigger tragedies,” she says earnestly). The two films she was supposed to be working on right now can wait, she’s happy to spend time at home with her son, aware of the privilege that’s allowed her to do so. We end our call with more impassioned talk of veganism (she’s perhaps understandably ecstatic that her eight-year-old son’s favourite food is kale) and it remains a topic that seems to spark more passion from her than film. But she’s been acting now for almost 30 years. I ask her if the thrill does remain, if she wants to be doing this for another 30 years.
“I think I do really love acting still,” she says, pausing for thought. “I mean … I know I do!” Any excitement for a Clueless reunion – would Cher be a lawyer or a politician or a publicist by now? – would best be parked, though. “I hope to be doing theatre until I’m dead.”
Bad Therapy is out now to stream in the US with a UK date yet to be announced