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For decades we’ve watched her stand out on screens big and small, opposite everyone from Pauly Shore to Antonio Banderas. Equal parts docile and badass Carla Gugino’s no-nonsense willfulness is a trait that has likely allowed her to thrive and carve out exactly the type of eclectic career path she always wanted. This summer, Gugino will be all up in your face in the big-screen blockbuster San Andreas, Fox’s Wayward Pines and HBO’s The Brink. And just when she thought she had a moment to breathe, Paste caught up with her for a chat.
Paste Magazine: Rumor has it that you actually moved out from your parent’s home when you were sixteen. Is that true?
Carla Gugino: That is a true story. It wasn’t like I ran away from my family, but I actually ended up moving in with my aunt and uncle in Malibu during the summer when I was 13. My mom had come out with me to New York, where I actually was going to try modeling. I very quickly decided that it wasn’t for me—but I was and still am—a big fan of fashion and photography.
My aunt was Carol Merrill, and she used to be the host of Let’s Make a Deal. She was sort of the original Vanna White. She’d been incredibly encouraging of me being an actor and she said “Hey, why don’t you just come here and be with us for a little bit, and try this acting class?” I started studying that summer and fell in love with it immediately. I was a very academic student and my family was really surprised that that was the way that I went.
I got a lot of support, but I was ultimately living on my own and renting from friends and things like that probably from about 15. I actually got emancipated at 16, which I did mostly because I was working at that time professionally as an actress, so it was required. If you’re under 18, you have to have adult supervision onset and I didn’t really need that, so I just got emancipated so I could go on set and not have to bug one of the adults in my life to come sit and watch for 16 hours.
Paste: Do you think that being on your own, and managing your life and career from that time gave you a toughness that helped you succeed, especially as compared with kids that have showbiz parents?
Gugino: I think anytime you embark out on your own like that in any field—and just in life—you end up being what my friends and I call a “scrapper.” Somebody who says “Okay, let’s see what I can do. How can I make this happen?” It certainly helps you in life just in terms of survival skills and thinking on your toes. I think it would be different if I had a family that was not supportive, but they were there and I certainly talked to them.
It definitely saved me from being the kind of teenage actor casualty—getting into drugs or alcohol or that kind of stuff early on—because I was like “I have to work really hard if I’m going to do this and I’m determined to do this.” I’m probably more of a kid now than I was then. I was really, really, really serious about it. I do think it helped me with my work ethic. I was also one of those annoying kids where my mom would have to tell me to stop studying now… run outside and play. I was kind of diligent by nature I think.
Paste: You started working in your teens and you’re incredibly busy now. What do you think would be a key factor to this longevity, which is such a hard thing to achieve in your line of work? I have my own theory, but what do you think?
Gugino: What is your theory though? I’m super curious. It won’t affect my answer. Maybe a little, but in a good way.
Paste: Looking at all the roles you’ve had, I think it’s easy to fall into that trap of constantly playing the girlfriend or the wife, or another clichéd position that might not allow you to stand out. I see you avoiding a lot of that and playing really strong, unique characters over the years.
Gugino: I really appreciate that. It’s interesting because I think it wasn’t an intellectual decision as much as it was influenced by what excited me, and interested me and going by what kind of actors I gravitate towards watching—which are really transformational actors. I never wanted to be known just for one thing. I never wanted to be defined by my personality. I always strived to be able to disappear into roles.
I’ve certainly been attracted to complex women, which often times does mean “strong.” I do think that what made me not become famous earlier on, is hopefully what has helped with my longevity and will continue to—which is that I just love to act and I love to play different kinds of roles.
Having done this now for thirty years, which is bananas, I think in the last five or ten years, people are recognizing my body of work, which I’m really appreciative of. It is very hard to have longevity as an actress in this business. I think it’s tenacity, I think it’s patience. No matter how successful you are in this business, you get more nos than yeses, except for rare moments in ones’ career. Therefore, it’s just about keeping your focus on what matters to you, which for me is the work and getting to work with people that inspire me.
Paste: We’ve heard again and again about the challenges that women face in Hollywood finding quality roles as they get older. Do you think that in going this route—choosing quality roles instead clichéd roles—you’ve sort of found a way around that?
Gugino: I think so. I’ve played the wife and I’ve played the mother. I played those. I think what I gravitate towards is an interesting take that I can find within those roles, because wives and mothers are very interesting people in the real world. It’s just often, as you said, they are clichéd in movies or television.
Right now, if you’re in your early or mid 20s, as a woman you have fantastic opportunities for roles. At that age I just felt like, “Boy, I just can’t wait until I get older so I can play some interesting women.”
It’s definitely a different time. For me, I always felt like I was going to grow into my own a little bit later and that the outside and the inside would sort of come to a point where they sort of matched, which I do think is a bit the experience I’m having. It doesn’t mean that I don’t wish that were more great roles for women in general, but especially for women over 35.
Gugino: I also do a lot of Broadway. I do theater. It’s a big part of my life and I love it so much. It’s a huge part of my creative life and one of the reasons I moved to New York full time. I’ve gotten to play some extraordinary roles on stage, and there are so many great roles that I’m still a little too young for. That’s such a refreshing change from the cliché of Hollywood ageism.
Paste: Let’s talk about San Andreas, which came out earlier this summer. It’s got to be a uniquely large-scale cinematic experience on your resume. Was it a goal of yours to break into that summer blockbuster vein?
Gugino: It wasn’t my specific goal, although I love a great edge-of-your-seat thriller, adventure. You are absolutely right about the fact that I’ve never done something this big. I think the word “epic” has been thrown out a few times, and that’s a word that’s been overused, but it is actually quite appropriate for this movie. It is absolutely edge-of-your-seat. Visually, it’s spectacular. It’s an amazing experience for audiences.
Beyond all of that, I think what made me gravitate to it is that it’s also about how a scared, very resourceful family maneuvers through a worst-case scenario. It really is a family under attack by Mother Nature. Not only are they are in geographically different places, they are a broken family because of things that they’ve gone through or tragedy. This is them reconnecting through this experience and kind of having to be their best selves. I don’t know if they would have come together if it weren’t for this experience. I was in New York during 9/11 and I feel like we can look at any of these huge crises in the world, and how they do oddly and amazingly bring out the best in human nature. I really love that this movie has a huge amount heart and it isn’t about superheroes, or a dinosaur, or a monster, or a serial killer. It’s Mother Nature and you’re not going to beat her. You’ll hopefully survive. So it’s about actual human beings coming together to help each other.
Also our director, Brad Peyton, had me do more stunts than I’ve ever done in my life and that was what was key. He wanted to do as much on camera as possible. I did every stunt they would let me do. I think you feel that. It’s very stripped down. It’s incredible relatable.
Paste: And you’re also in Wayward Pines, which is currently airing on Fox. What appealed to you about returning to TV for this project?
Gugino: It was the story—I thought it was fascinating. At the time that they came to me with this, Matt Dillon was attached and that was it at that point. Once I heard where they wanted to go with this, I was really intrigued by it. I like that it feels like a throwback, in the sense that it does allude to moments from Twin Peaks or Twilight Zone Twilight Zone was always one of my favorite shows.
What I really like about the structure of this show is that you kind of have to sit with it as an audience, but you do understand the world you’re in about half way through the ten episodes. I just love a good mystery, so for me those elements of paranoia that the show had were really interesting to me. The Shining is one of my favorite movies. I love the idea of being in an isolated town where things are terribly wrong and we don’t understand quite why, but we know something is not right.
Paste: It’s crazy that all of these projects you’ve been working on are all hitting this summer. Tell us about HBO’s The Brink.
Gugino: It premieres on June 21st and stars Tim Robbins, Jack Black and Pablo Shreiber. Jay Roach directed the first episode and produced it. The Brink is really interesting because it’s a black comedy set in present-day about those responsible—or irresponsible—in their bringing us to possibility of World War 3. It’s a comedy that deals with terrorism and Washington. It’s funny and it’s smart and I play a very high-powered lawyer in Washington who is married to the Secretary of State, played by Tim Robbins. That’s interesting as well.
I would say that these three projects probably represent what matters to me, which is that they’re all incredibly different characters. They’re totally different genres, but they all have a really strong clear vision of what they are. That’s what interests me as an actor.