Three years ago, when Drew Barrymore turned 31, she decided that it was time to test herself. She had made a string of romantic comedies and launched a successful production company whose seven films had generated nearly $900 million in global ticket sales. But Barrymore felt she had grown a little too comfortable for someone “who likes to be out on a limb,” she says. “I thought, Where’s the fear?”
She found more than she bargained for, with two new forays into uncharted terrain. She directed her first feature, Whip It, “a coming-of-self story,” as she calls it, due out later this year. And she signed on to play “Little Edie” Beale in Grey Gardens, airing in April on HBO. Barrymore’s turn as the eccentric, blueblooded cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is a mighty departure for the star and producer of the Charlie’s Angels franchise and such romantic romps as 50 First Dates (2004), Music and Lyrics (2007) and this year’s He’s Just Not That Into You. Taking on the dramatic role and stepping behind the camera for the first time were among the most difficult things she has ever done, says Barrymore. “It’s been the years of fears—three straight years of discipline and effort.”
The effort has paid off: Barrymore’s knockout performance in Grey Gardens is likely to win her the kind of acting cred that’s long been associated with the Barrymore family name. Costar Jessica Lange is convinced, she says, that “Drew is going to surprise a lot of people. Little Edie is such a huge role, and people are not accustomed to seeing the depth of Drew’s capacity for drama.”
Barrymore had never fought as hard for a part. “I felt I had more inside of me than I’ve been putting out there,” she says on a hot day in the West Hollywood production offices where she’s editing Whip It. Behind her on a wall, a dry-erase board serves as her calendar, color coded to denote work and personal events (“Ellen/Portia bday party, Arcade Fire@Spaceland, yoga”). At 34, she seems a decade younger, which has as much to do with her go-for-it enthusiasm and candor as it does with her pierced tongue and marigold-yellow painted nails. Petite yet sturdy, she wears ripped boyfriend jeans, black Converse sneakers and electric-blue suspenders over a blue T-shirt. Her fine-boned features, highlighted with eyeliner and nude gloss, are framed by shoulder-length hair, today bright blond with dark roots.
Barrymore hadn’t been on writer-director Michael Sucsy’s short list when he began to cast Grey Gardens. “I understood,” she says, sipping a large bottled ice tea and settling into the sofa. “He thought, She talks like a Valley girl and probably doesn’t have what it takes. I had nothing to prove that I could do this.” She had to plead with Sucsy “to take a chance on me,” she says, and showed up to their meeting carrying a binder thick with annotated Edie research, vowing “to shut out my life and live in the monastery of Edie Beale.” Her determination, says close friend Cameron Diaz, shouldn’t be underestimated: “She has that delicate little jaw, you know? But she’s like a pit bull. You can’t shake her loose.”