Minnie Driver: ‘I did not have the appetite to be a big movie star’ | Minnie Driver

Minnie Driver first realised the film industry might be a strange place for a woman who didn’t fit its tiny mould when she was standing in some mud. A ditch, in fact, that had been dug for her, on a hill, so that she looked shorter than the actor she was snogging. “I was hock high in a bog, as they say in Ireland,” she says merrily, in an accent that instantly reminds me of that scene in Good Will Hunting where she tells a dirty joke and spits out her drink. This was on a different film, the first but not the last time it happened. She was young, new to the game. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is just bananas – can’t he stand on something? Or why don’t we both sit down and shoot it like that?’” But it had to be her, “in the earth, trying to be romantic and sexy when there’s mud squishing through your lace-ups”.

We are talking over video chat, Driver from her family home in London, to which she has temporarily decamped after decades away in Los Angeles. She apologises for how nice she looks, the sort of apology that can only be made after a year in lockdown. “I’m only dolled up like this because I just did the photoshoot,” she explains. “And my fucking phone, the facial recognition thing wouldn’t recognise me. It was like, ‘Where’s the hag who usually opens the phone? Who’s this person?’ I often feel insulted by my own phone, but that was legendary.”

In Good Will Hunting with Matt Damon in 1997. Photograph: George Kraychyk/Miramax/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

Driver speaks eloquently, confident enough to pause as long as it takes for the right word to come, freely swearing and roaring with laughter otherwise. Her 12-year-old son, Henry, is having an online piano lesson, and their dog is being collected for a walk by a neighbour. “Come on, Douglas, off you go, bing bong bunk,” she says, dispatching the animal, all jolly hockey sticks. Yet at 51, she has worked in Hollywood for so long that she recently decided she had had enough of “taxation without representation” and became an American citizen in a formal ceremony.

“Although they literally ask you to forswear the Queen, and I can’t do that – I couldn’t possibly do that. So I crossed my fingers behind my back. They also ask if you’ve ever been a prostitute. And I said to the person who asked me that, ‘Goodness!’ And then I said, ‘Do you ask men that?’ And without missing a beat he said, ‘Oh yes!’ So that was quite gratifying.”

They don’t ask men to stand in ditches, though. I’m still trying to think of a Hollywood love story with a woman taller than her male love interest, and – there isn’t one?

“I know! This notion of men having to remain powerful and be taller than a woman – why? It’s so obnoxious and stupid. That actor, by the way, was extremely powerful, no matter his height or whether I was taller than him. I’ve had plenty of co-stars who were shorter than me. All you have to do is not obey the rules for a minute and just fucking get on with it, and it will change.”

Yet Driver knows only too well that change can come at a glacial pace, and can isolate those who fight for it. Her own journey through the film and TV industry has been a bumpy, sometimes brilliant, sometimes difficult one. She was always different from others of her generation: hardly an outsider in terms of her background (she was a boarder at the artsy private school Bedales, where she had access to a high standard of theatrical and musical training), but a breath of fresh air compared with the beaming blondes designed to please the male gaze. Driver had bundles of brown curls, freckles, a different shape and a different edge to her personality. She was cool, she was funny, she drew you in rather than pouted at you. She said recently that the producers of Good Will Hunting hadn’t wanted her for the part of Skylar, the Harvard student who falls for Matt Damon’s janitor character, because they didn’t think she was hot. “They were probably right. I had other qualities,” she says, with a calm, crisp pride that I suspect has been a long time in the making.

I ask how you can keep that up, starting your career with such a huge, groundbreaking film and a best supporting actress Oscar nomination.

“You can’t. You can’t. It’s so interesting to me as well. The idea of maintaining, of being a movie star, for decades. I clearly did not have that. I did not have the appetite. Ambition requires you to create really big things that you’re supposed to want, and then they become totems to a person that you actually may not be. But you’re encouraged to worship at those totems because that’s what keeps the engine of Hollywood going.”

She adds: “Someone really dreadful said to me once – wisely, which makes it annoying – ‘Don’t look back. Just don’t look back.’ And it’s so true.”

With Debra Messing and Eric McCormack in Will & Grace.
With Debra Messing and Eric McCormack in Will & Grace. Photograph: NBC/NBC Universal/Getty Images

Before Good Will Hunting, she starred in Circle Of Friends, playing the goofy, adorable lead in the adaptation of Maeve Binchy’s bestselling novel; some years later, she played Carlotta in the Phantom Of The Opera movie, and got into television playing Stanley’s bawdy English girlfriend on Will And Grace. More recently, she has portrayed a drug-addicted traveller, straight out of jail, living a life of crime in the American south in The Riches. And then a middle-class British mother with a wheelchair-user son in the comedy Speechless (there is a very funny episode featuring John Cleese as her dad).

While she says “the 50 films and television shows on my IMDb are literally the 50 yeses, out of thousands of nos,” it must feel good to be allowed to push in so many directions?

“Oh yeah, it does – very much so – and I absolutely love it. People like to… not put you in a box, but know what they are getting with you. And if that is erratic, it can mean that your work is often not consistent, because no one quite knows where to place you. But I would rather have that – I like the paradigms. Also, what is one’s benchmark for success? My God! It might be someone else’s idea of failure that I didn’t stay being a huge movie star. For me, I’m 51, and I’m making a living and I own a home that I love, and I have this partner and this child, and people will still hire me to do something that I love. I can’t possibly call that anything other than the most resounding success.” For the past few years she has been in a relationship with Addison O’Dea, who makes anthropology documentaries (wrongly described in some papers as her fiance, “because I wore a ring on the wrong finger”).

Despite having a house in the Hollywood Hills, Driver spends most of her time in a trailer park on a cliff overlooking the beach in Malibu, where she is the sort of well-known that makes her comfortable. “Known for having the blue house or for being the person who always has extra pasta, or the one whose golf cart always breaks down and blocks all the other golf carts on the way down to the beach.” The family are in the UK now because she finished shooting Cinderella here at the end of August, a new live-action film created by James Corden, starring Camila Cabello in the lead, with Billy Porter as a genderless fairy godmother. Driver plays Queen Beatrice, Prince Charming’s mother.

With her partner, documentary-maker Addison O’Dea.
With her partner, documentary-maker Addison O’Dea. Photograph: FilmMagic

“And then my son went to school in London and he blossomed. He loved it here! So much so that he was like, ‘Can we stay and finish out the school year?’ I said, ‘Yeah, it’ll be brilliant, it’ll be like our sabbatical!’ Then of course it all got locked down again.” She pauses. “When I hear that out loud I’m like, ‘Wow, you selfish cow’,” she muses. “You’re just there [in Malibu] because you love swimming in the sea every day? But it is the thing I love to do probably more than anything else: to go on these incredibly long swims in cold water, with the prospect of there potentially being a shark.”

She has fallen for many of her co-stars in real life, notably Matt Damon (which ended badly when he announced he was single on Oprah’s show) and John Cusack (watch Grosse Pointe Blank to see their chemistry fuel the partlyimprovised script). She called off an engagement to Josh Brolin, has never married and became a single mother to Henry, initially refusing to share his father’s name. A couple of years later, she revealed that he was a writer on The Riches, Timothy J Lea, who was starting to get to know his son.

“Yeah, he came around,” she tells me. “He came around, and they have a really lovely relationship and it had an evolution all of its own. All I ever wanted was – well, you want as much love as possible for your child and his dad is an avenue of love, and that’s their thing. The fact that we don’t do it together – I mean, Henry has never known us do it together. It looks different from a lot of people’s set-ups, but it works for us. You need tolerance and kindness, I think, to have a baby-daddy who’s not necessarily in your life as a friend, per se. I think we have that for each other.”

Like Driver, I had a child on my own, and so I ask her: was her son the first truly committed relationship she had been in? If that doesn’t sound like a strange question, it’s just that…

“No, no, no, you are completely correct! Completely and utterly correct – 100%. Although, particularly with a boy, you have to watch out because it can get a bit Freudian a bit quickly, ha.”

But the thing about kids is that you can’t split up with them just because you’ve had a row.

“Exactly! We have to talk about it. There’s no way that you or I don’t become better people by being confronted with” – she emits a low, guilty chuckle – “this poor little prisoner who can’t leave. He taught me about consistency, and also about being able to put roots down and be together without needing these external things. He changed my life entirely. And obviously, as all those books tell you, the minute you take your eye off the ball and just enjoy this thing, then the other stuff shows up. I have the loveliest boyfriend now. I found him very late in my life, but he was worth waiting for. And it was really fun waiting.”

Minnie Driver with her son, Henry, in 2018.
With her son, Henry, in 2018. Photograph: Getty Images

She giggles. I am reminded of something she said on Jay Rayner’s Out To Lunch podcast, about driving down Sunset Boulevard with her sister, Kate, a film producer, looking up at a film poster of three male film stars and realising that, between them, “we had shagged the whole billboard”.

Not that the first few years of single parenting weren’t tough, though: “I look back now and it’s sort of vertiginous, the feeling. I cannot believe the shit that I did to keep it together.” Her midwife told her that babies bring their own luck, “and I’ve often thought she was absolutely right. It’s not that it’s not hard, but you get given these gifts. Whether it’s a person on a plane, when the baby is crying, who will stop the baby crying – how many strangers there have been who have saved me. In the supermarket, the person who gave me a place to go and breastfeed, who gave me a clean T-shirt because I had leaked through the one I was in.”

Driver carries her laptop to her kitchen, where she must roast a chicken to blend into soup to take to her mother, the interior designer Gaynor Churchward, who has been rushed into hospital and is seriously ill.

This is a shock – should we stop the interview? Is Minnie OK? She is clearly devastated, privately, but determined to honour her work commitments. She says her mother would absolutely insist that the show must go on.

“Before all this happened, I said to her one day, ‘God, I’m so sick of the grind – it’s never come easily, I’ve always had to work for everything. I always feel like, you know, it’s just such a grind keeping all the plates in the air.’ And she was like” – Driver puts on a posh, affronted voice – “‘The grind? But I love the grind! The grind is why I get out of bed in the morning!’ It was honestly like Monty Python. But she is fuelled by the idea that something is impossible. And what the journey is to either investigate its impossibility, or making it possible: I will bend it to my will. That attitude, the way that she sees life, with this curiosity – that is my only ambition now, to somehow be that. And to laugh as much as she does.” When times are hard, her mother has always told her, “‘It’s just weather: wait a minute, it will pass! Don’t jump off the cliff, you fucking idiot. Just wait!’ And she’s always right.”

With her mother, Gaynor Churchward, who died in March.
With her mother, Gaynor Churchward, who died in March. Photograph: Camera Press

Her mother died a week after our interview, and Driver posted a tribute on Instagram: “Impossible that you are gone. How lucky we were to have you. Dearest, and beloved Mum.” She had already lost her father, Ronnie, a financial adviser whose clients included the royal family, and who made a fortune before going bust with business debts of £35m. He never married her mother because he was already married to someone else, keeping two families going amid a degree of secrecy. But somehow a great fondness endured, and when he died in 2009, having always said Minnie was the sort of girl to wear red to a funeral, she wore red to his funeral.

As well as running her own production company – which she called Huge Fan, because that’s what Hollywood phonies always say to her – Driver has been working on a podcast called Minnie Questions, in which she interviews a range of creative figures. Some are her friends: the artist and director Sam Taylor-Johnson, the playwright Jeremy O Harris, the Foo Fighter Dave Grohl. She asks them each the same things (from the Proust questionnaire), “and there are only seven questions, so there’s no tarting around with, what are you promoting or what are your views on X, Y and Z? It’s pretty disciplined, which I like, because there’s not enough discipline these days.”

Not that an interest in discipline rules out a little dabbling in magic – Driver has long been interested in other sorts of power. Her boyfriend admiringly calls her a witch – and “I love being called a witch. I feel proud to be a witch.” She is particularly interested in the power of the crone years. “I’m at this age now, 51, where you can look back over a vast stretch of time and also look forward with so much clarity, in a way. There’s something incredibly powerful about that. Joyful. A weird freedom, even as our bodies start to betray us. We’re so funny about getting older but there is something in my heart that feels glad and excited about what’s coming.”

If she can give me one parting thought, she says, “I’d like for women to hear that. All those girls in their 20s and their 30s and early 40s, I so want to say to them: ‘It’s all right. It’s better than all right.’”

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