PIPER PERABO Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
March 22, 2007
Over the past decade, actress Piper Perabo has quietly put together an impressive run of movies, working on over 20 features in that timespan. From fun popcorn flicks like Coyote Ugly and The Cave to family fare like Cheaper by the Dozen, from dramatic thrillers like The Prestige and First Snow to intense character pieces like Lost and Delirious, she has compiled a truly diversified resume.
In this exclusive interview, Piper graciously took the time to speak with us about many of her past projects. She is a remarkably friendly, forthright, and personable storyteller, and has an adorably animated way of speaking, with the tone of her voice constantly changing to fit the mood of her words. She also has an obvious enthusiasm and a refreshing truthfulness in talking about her work. Needless to say, it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to interview her, and we wish her continued success in the coming years.
Piper's latest film, the dramatic thriller First Snow, is now playing in theaters.
RadioFree.com: As a high school student, you were editor of your school's literary magazine. How did you come to that position?
PIPER: Well, my father's a poetry professor, and so I'm really into reading, and poetry especially, which this ended up being a lot of. [laughs] And also, when I was a student, my father would edit my writing. And so from the time I was quite little, after I'd write something, he would edit it, and then I would correct it, and then he would edit it. [laughs] So I had a certain sort of experience from very young of editing of writing. So when it came up, it was kind of a natural step for me. I had been writing for the magazine. It comes to me really easily. I don't know why I don't do that anymore.
I'll put you on the spot for a second: Pretend you're an editor again and pitch me an angle for a Piper Perabo story...
I'm not sure I know what the angle would be. I have a friend who writes for a magazine in New York, and she's an editor now, but when she first started out, she was like an assistant to stylists who would pull clothes. And she would have to pack up all the clothes, and send them out to shoots, and get them back all like, you know, f*cked up. And there was one story that she told me about where this woman that they were shooting--it was some big model--had just started shooting photography herself, and they had ordered all these clothes, and she and her friend had gotten a car and gone off and taken cameras and like driven for days, and just sort of photographed and talked and did this sort of journey. And I thought that would be such a fun way to do a story. You know, it's always so formal when you do interviews. And I think because of the timeframe and the sort of structure that's set up, it's a little hard to kind of get to know someone. And it was funny, because when she told [the story] to me, she hated it, because she had got the clothes back in a box and they were full of burs and dirt, and they were sweat-covered, and like they'd been in the car and all of this stuff. So it was annoying to her. But I think it'd be a fun way to do a story. [jokes] As long as you'd have to clean my clothes afterwards.
Looking back, do you have certain films you're particularly fond of just because of the positive experiences and relationships on set?
Yeah. It's funny, I was talking about this with Guy [Pearce] the other night. We were saying, "People ask you, 'What's your favorite film that you've done?'" And the question is interesting because, he was saying, there's two different things: the end product and the experience you had making the film. And a lot of times--or almost all the time, in my experience--those two things are never the same film. Either because you're working so hard that you weren't social and meeting people, but the result is good...Which was sort of how it was with Lost and Delirious. Although I really like the people that I worked with, I was so focused on the sort of end result of the picture, and I really liked how it came out. Whereas doing a movie like, say, Because I Said So... [laughs] It's sort of funny and sweet and cute, but it's nothing compared to getting to know Diane Keaton. It's insanely interesting. And this is like a complicated, intelligent, neurotic, sexy, beautiful woman. Obviously, films have been trying to capture how incredible she is for her whole life. But I think she's so amazing, no film has yet to capture how fantastic she is. And so in a movie like that, the relationships far exceed anything you could ever show someone in two hours.
Speaking of Lost and Delirious, do you feel that it's unfairly categorized as simply "a gay movie"? It seems to be far more about one character's deep, unrequited love than a commentary on social issues...
Yeah. This is another conversation I was having recently. It's funny how all things are kind of in the same zeitgeist. I think what makes a good movie is not trying to make a "message movie," but sort of following one character's vision of the world, and then you can apply that vision in a sort of larger sense as an audience member. But I think what makes Lost and Delirious a good film is that it's not a "gay movie." We're not trying to talk about gay relationships or lesbian relationships, or what's difficult about being in a lesbian relationship or great about it. We're not trying to give any kind of message. It's like one person's journey through a relationship. And I understand that when you go to the video store, you have the comedies in one section and the dramas in the other, and people feel the need commercially, I think, to label things so that they can sell them. But to me, it's a sort of tragic love story, and the fact the characters are gay sort of just happens to be the case.
If I remember correctly, Mischa Barton's character asks, "Aren't you gay?" and your character acts as though her sexual orientation isn't even remotely the issue...
Yeah, totally! And I think it's such a weird question to ask. I mean, when someone is like, "But wait a minute, aren't you [insert label here]?", the reason you're asking is because you're not sure. And I think it's not so simple, especially when you're young. These characters are all 17 years old, and nothing is simple then...I mean, I think we question who we are for our whole lives, but especially at that time in your life when so much is changing, I think questions like that don't make sense. When you say to a teenager, "Aren't you going to go to college?", most of the time, they look at you like, "You're a f*cking idiot." Like they don't know...They're still processing all this stuff. I've gotten that look a lot of times saying to teenagers, "Well, you want to be a football player, right?" or "Don't you want to be a writer?" And they look at you like you're so dumb. [laughs] Because they're wrestling with it, and they certainly don't have an answer.
Well, Lost and Delirious was our 2001 Editor's Choice pick for best underrated film...
It wasn't seen by as many people in theaters as we would have liked...
You know, it was made by a foreign director, and at the time, maybe you could say that the subject matter was less mainstream. But I liked it.
On a lighter note, it was also nominated for our Best Kiss category...
Thanks! Yeah, she's cute, Jessica Pare.
Was that scene a tough one for you?
Uh...The kiss? No. She's, you know, quite good looking. [jokes] She brushes her teeth.
You've tackled different accents in movies like Slap Her...She's French and Imagine Me and You. You've previously said that certain words give you trouble, but do you find it pretty easy to take on an alternate voice, for the most part?
It's different for different accents. Like I can't do Australian. I don't know why, but I can't. But I can do English with sort of no problem. And I think it has to do with people I've known. Like a lot of times when I'm doing an accent, I'm doing a voice that's already in my head from someone I've known. And maybe I've never heard them say the word that I have problems with. Slap Her...She's French is sort of different, because I was a fake--you know, she's forging her identity.
And it's supposed to be exaggerated...
It's supposed to be exaggerated and she's a phony. And that can be sort of weird, because it can't be too on and it can't be too off. I remember I talked with Ryan Phillippe once about it years later, because he does that sort of phony forgery in Gosford Park. And I was saying, "God, you're one of the only people I know who had to do a serious character with a phony accent." And he's like, "It's such a bitch, right?" Just how messy you get it is important. It's tricky.
You starred in both The Cave and Imagine Me and You with your friend Lena Headey. What was it like making that transition from grueling underwater cave shoots to blissfully happy wedding scenes together?
It's much better to be in a wedding dress in Primrose Hill in London. It's much more comfortable than SCUBA gear and monster shots. You know, we did The Cave first, and it's all boys except for us, and we're in Romania, and it's very grueling, and we're underground, and the guy who plays the monster is like sort of annoying. [laughs] And it was just exhausting. And when you make friends with an actor like that, and then the movie gets to be very grueling, you cling to each other like the buddy system, you know? And so when Imagine Me and You came up and she and I had become friends doing Cave, it was great because we had such an intense friendship built during that movie, and had sort of stayed friends. And this picture came along and it made so much sense for both of us. And talk about being three steps ahead by the time you start. Like I borrow her clothes, you know what I mean? Like we're really, really close. And so you can kind of jump to a much higher level quicker because you have a lot of the groundwork done.
So she's one of the friends you've picked up along the way in this whole wacky business...
I think she has a very cool sense of humor. Have you gotten the chance to see her in 300 yet?
I've only seen pieces of 300. I'm kind of dying to see it. She's so cool. She was just out here doing press for it, and I was sorry that I missed her.
I have a quote about you from another of your co-stars. When we spoke to Mandy Moore for Because I Said So, she talked about the underwear scene with the gals, saying, "Piper was fine. She was the one, I think right off the bat, that was like, 'Yeah, that's all right, I'll be in a thong, I don't care.' And Lauren [Graham] and I were petrified." Were you really that comfortable, or is your brazenness slightly exaggerated?
I'm really comfortable with that. I mean, like, I have a great butt, and I'm totally not afraid of that.
[Editor's note: I love how she can tell it like it is without coming across as conceited.]
I was living in a canyon and running in the morning. And I sort of teased Mandy about this, because I was like, "Babe, you've known we're doing a butt shot for a month!" I mean, she's got a slammingly beautiful body. It's soooo gorgeous. And if you sort of don't like something about yourself, like your butt, you can just like run some stairs...You know what I mean? So I sort of teased her about that. And she does have kind of a great ass. So does Diane. Well, they all do, frankly, but Mandy's is particularly...nice.
[brain freezes, stammers] Sorry. Everyone seemed to have great off-camera chemistry on that film. Was it a lot of just hanging out in the downtime?
There was a lot of hanging out. The three of them live here [in Los Angeles], and I was renting a house here at the time. But the four of us got on really well. For some reason, it was just like that from the start. You know, some people you just click with. And we all sort of idolized Diane, and we all sort of like the same music and the same movies and know a lot of the same people, and those people were coming to visit. And it was all so sort of gabby gabby and gossipy girlie stuff. It just kind of started that way.
With all the traveling you've done over the years, do you have a favorite destination to visit?
Well, really, because I travel so much, my favorite sort of place is being at home in New York. I have done a couple of small things there. We shot some of Coyote there. But mostly I don't get to be there. And my brothers live there, and I live there because it's my favorite city. Everybody else, when they get vacation, they go somewhere. When I get vacation, I go home.
Singing is part of your whole arsenal of skills, and yet all your character's singing in Coyote Ugly was done by LeAnn Rimes. Why didn't they use your own voice?
Well, there's a lot of reasons, but one of the reasons is I'm an alto, and I have sort of a lower voice. My real singing voice is low. And LeAnn has this kind of big, belter, soprano voice. And for a character like this whose sort of like a dreamer who breaks out of her shell and kind of knocks the world sideways, when they finished the film, they felt like my voice isn't really the right type of voice for the character. And so they started going around and looking. And LeAnn has this kind of hopefulness, and a sort of like bright young quality, and very strong voice. And she said she would do it. And it makes more sense in the film, I think.
In that movie, you played a young woman who was following her dream of performing at a time when your own career was taking off. Did you find yourself relating to that character in a big way because of the parallel?
In some ways in that time, I was the character. It's a movie about a girl who moves from New Jersey and cocktail waitresses until she gets her dream. And when I went in to meet [director David McNally] for the first time--I had scenes to do and a song to sing and a guitar--I was like, "Before we start, let me just tell you who I am. I just got here from New Jersey, I cocktail waitressed around Union Square, and I can sing and play the guitar. You ready to go?" You know what I mean? Like it was sort of like I had all the arsenal. I was playing a lot of things that were really familiar.
Having been so busy shooting films for the last few years, have you had any time for stage theatre?
I haven't recently. But I sort of started looking at it again. Because I live in New York, I meet more playwrights and things like that than I meet out here [in Los Angeles]. And I just did a reading of a new play with this playwright that I love, and we're talking about maybe putting that up. But the right thing hasn't sort of come along. Or when it has, then somebody got a movie, or got to write a movie, and had to bugger off.
Is stage something you might pursue more actively now that you've finished shooting your current projects, Ashes and Carriers?
I might...We'll see. You know, as a film actor, if you sort of step on the New York stage and you misstep, they'll crucify you. So you better be sure that you can knock it out of the park. I mean, it's the same in London. I think it's a little easier if you step slightly off the coast a little bit--the Atlantic coast, anyway. But yeah, I'll be real careful before I get on the stage in New York.