TORONTO — She’s been in front of the cameras since she was 14, thanks to a somewhat doe-eyed early screen presence, but now that Heather Graham is over 40, she’s looking to protect and serve the next generation with steely resolve.
It’s not a police state of being, she says. It’s about being in the moment, and simply observing the emotional reality around her — and within her.
An avid practitioner of yoga and meditation, Graham says it’s not always easy maintaining focus in the kaleidoscopic world of entertainment, but whenever she works with kids, she almost feels it’s her duty to inspire through example.
"I remember what it was like to work on my first movie," says Graham, sitting in a wingback chair in one of Toronto’s grand old dames. "And I think it’s really important to be able to preserve the joy of it all, because it’s all a game of let’s pretend, no matter how old you are."
Graham has worked with kids in two of her last outings, Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer, and the truly transcendent The Flying Machine, which features classical piano superstar Lang Lang guiding a winged piano over Europe and is currently unfurling as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.
"It was such a cute project," says the woman who grew up in Milwaukee, the daughter of an FBI employee.
"When they sent me the script, they also included an image of the flying machine. And when I saw this piano with sails and crazy wings, I just loved it. I loved the idea of sitting on a piano that flies over Europe and listening to Lang Lang play these incredibly complex piano pieces. It was truly fun."
Fun is an important word to keep in mind when you work with kids, she says, because there’s a big chunk of show business that’s just plain draining. There can also be pressure from the grown-up world to remain cute.
"I actually think it’s really fun working with kids," she says. "It connects me to feeling like a kid, in a way. And I think I feel a little responsible for the kids. . . . I want to protect them from the stage-motherly manager, because they are out there."
The worst thing that can happen is when you see a kid desperate for attention. "The kids always want to do a good job. But I also want them to have fun with it. I sense a lot of desperation with some kid actors, and you can see it in their performances, because they are trying so hard. Maybe they think it’s the only way they can get love or attention," she says.
"And there could be a part of me that identifies with that."
It’s not easy putting yourself out there, where rejection looms at every single turn.
Graham knows: She’s been doing the acting gig for more than a quarter century, and she’s seen a lot of things over her long and varied career that includes such dramatic classics as Boogie Nights, and comic treasures such as Bowfinger — easily one of the funniest movies about the movie business ever made.
Graham can do comedy and drama with equal aplomb, and she says her roles in new projects alongside the likes of James Franco and Lili Taylor (Cherry), as well as Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron (currently untitled), are the kinds of movies that give everyone lots of room to move and experiment.
"In the James Franco, Lili Taylor movie, Cherry, I play a female porn director. And that was really interesting, because I got to hang out with female porn directors."
Graham dismisses the arched eyebrows of disbelief.
"Oh yeah. There are a lot of female porn directors out there. These ones were hard-core fetish-porn directors. It was pretty intense stuff, stuff I’m not sure I’d be able to watch," says the woman, who rolled around on wheels in Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic take on the blue-movie biz, Boogie Nights.
"Porn is one of those things we still don’t really talk too much about. But it’s ambient. I mean, look at Osama bin Laden. He talked about porn as an evil of the West, but they found porn on his computer."
Graham shrugs her well-toned shoulders. "Maybe it’s just better for everybody if we could just accept what is out there," she says.
Acceptance always sounds easy, but in reality, she acknowledges it’s hard. Things change, and you can’t control the path before you. All you can do is keep walking, and take care of yourself, she says.
Graham says she does a lot of yoga and meditation. "And therapy," she says. "I’m happiest when I can find my way to a trance-like state and really feel one with the universe."
But that’s not always possible in the shallow pool of the entertainment world, where the media is only too happy to dissect you, your personal life and every crevice of your career under the microscope.
The hardest part of all can actually be talking about yourself, she says. "You can start thinking about yourself and your career in an unhealthy way, and that’s no good."
Graham’s eyes widen, soften and suddenly look entirely accepting as she surveys the hubbub from the Victorian balcony.
"I’m happy to be working, and the work lets me take risks," she says. "In the end, I’m just grateful to keep going as long as I have."
The Flying Machine plays the Toronto International Film Festival Sunday.
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