Drew Barrymore and I are sitting in a windowless room, deep in the bowels of the ITV studios in London. It’s just the two of us (she’s not the kind to insist on a publicist tagging along) grabbing some time to talk about her new book, Wildflower, before she films a television interview.
Suddenly a frantic man bursts through the door.
“Sorry Miss Barrymore,” the stranger pants, “given that you are Ethel Barrymore’s relo; Lionel was in your great-uncle, he was in a chair by the side of the pool, when he passed away. My great-aunt was Maureen O’Hara. So with that in mind, would you like your hair doing?” It’s unclear whether this man is a hairdresser. It’s unclear who this man is. But Drew Barrymore is kind, polite, generous. “No, thank you,” she says. “But thank you very much for offering. It was so nice to meet you. I love you too.”
At this point, the mysterious stranger curtsies extravagantly. “Ms Barrymore, I am so sorry to interrupt – but you are Hollywood royalty after all.” He exits the room, satisfied with her genial response.
The weirdness lingers in the air for a moment.
Woah, your life is nuts, I tell her, bemused.
“It’s an interesting one,” she says, “but I have nothing to compare it to, I guess…”
“Nuts” is a euphemism, really. Drew Barrymore’s life has been messed up, tragic, glorious, dramatic, messy, triumphant. “Nuts” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
I can’t even really stay depressed or feel overly sorry about things or feel really dark or moody. It just doesn’t last with me
Born in Hollywood in 1975, she was earning a crust acting in advertisements by the time she was a year old. Her father, John Drew Barrymore (like the interrupting stranger says, he hails from the Barrymore acting dynasty), struggled with addiction and mental health issues; in Wildflower, Drew describes him as “part unicorn, part violent storm”. Her mother, Ildiko Jaid (she later went by the name Jaid Barrymore), was an aspiring actress who raised Drew as a single mom, after the marriage ended while she was still pregnant.
In 1982, Drew became world-famous, capturing the hearts of moviegoers everywhere as Gertie in E.T. She began hanging out at the notorious nightclub Studio 54. She was seven years old. She started smoking, drinking, doing drugs. By the time she was 12, she was a drug addict. By the time she was 13, she had attempted suicide. Aged 14, she was legally emancipated from her mother.
In Wildflower – a series of autobiographical essays, flitting from fun tales of sky-diving with Cameron Diaz to explorations of motherhood and grief – Drew writes: “It’s no secret that I had to part ways from my mother because we had driven our relationship into the ground. She had lost credibility as a mother by taking me to Studio 54 (so wrong but so fun) instead of school. And I was out of control from working since I was 11 months old and what that had done to my childhood, which made me grow up too fast. Work was a very positive thing in my life, and sadly it was being taken away because my mother also put me into an institution because she felt helpless … When I turned 14 … I wanted to do things on my own terms.”
After the addiction and the institution and the emancipation, Drew forged her own path, sometimes flailing (the erratic public appearances; the nude photoshoots; the hasty – failed – marriages) but ultimately triumphant. Today, aged 40, she’s an accomplished actor and producer.
I look at her, tiny and pretty in a vintage maxi dress, smiling sunnily; I listen to her upbeat chat (her voice so distinctive, those Valley Girl vowels twisty and endearing); I read her book, noting her blithe cheery tone as she recalls situations that would ruin others. I wonder how she has stayed so positive. “Happiness is a choice,” she says simply. “I’m someone who believes in that choice. I make it for myself. I like people who make that choice; I’ve always followed people who make that choice.”
She sometimes fantasises about being a darker, more tortured person, she admits, laughing, but it’s just not who she is. “I can’t even really stay depressed or feel overly sorry about things or feel really dark or moody. It just doesn’t last with me. I would love to be this person who can’t get out of bed, and my friends have to show up and rescue me. But I’ve never gotten there, I’m just not that person. I’ll haul myself out of bed within an hour and I’ll be busying myself with something. Even on the worst days, I don’t really wallow in it.”
I wanted to be a good person, I wanted to find love, I wanted girls to kick ass as much as boys did
If Drew weren’t possessed of that sense of purpose and positivity, it’s easy to imagine that she may have ended up as cautionary tabloid fodder, used as a prompt for schadenfreude and nostalgia in those where-are-they-now features. But in 1997 she co-founded Flower Films, a production company, with her best friend Nancy Juvonen. They quickly had success with Never Been Kissed and Charlie’s Angels. “I definitely wasn’t somebody whose phone was ringing off the hook with acting opportunities, so in a certain sense I had to create them for myself,” she explains. “And I wanted to be a good person, I wanted to find love, I wanted girls to kick ass as much as boys did. All those things were important to me and you don’t find those roles out there very often. So create it!”
I ask her if she has encountered sexism in Hollywood, and she is adamant that she hasn’t. She has had so much support, she says. “I’ve had an amazing array of opportunities, and no matter how much I had to create them for myself, someone was allowing me. So, no I don’t feel that [sexism] myself.”
Today, she combines her acting, producing and writing career with raising her two daughters, and she writes about being a working mother in Wildflower: “Being a mother is about sacrifice. Putting someone else before you. And that includes one’s schedule and work load and play mode and sleep mode and creative-juices mode. Inspiration was really hard to get back after I had my babies because: all my thoughts were of them.”
Parenthood has of course made her think of her own parents; her father died in 2004, and she is estranged from her mother. She describes the moment when she realised Frankie, her second daughter, looks like her mother: how she had to confront those memories, those traumas. Has she told her mother that she looks like Frankie, I ask her. She clams up, still polite, but there's suddenly a slight frost. “Um, no, I haven’t. But, you know, we all look like my mom – me and Olive and Frankie. And, you know, I see my husband in Frankie. We are all a mixed bag of each other. But that moment did trigger something.”
This week, the gossip magazines crowed that Drew’s three-year marriage to Will Kopelman was over, with various “insiders” quoted as saying the coupe are filing for divorce. Those (perhaps unfounded) rumours came after our meeting, but when we chat, she explains how she’s grown out of being a romantic.
“I was a romantic. I was. I’m not a hopeless romantic any more,” she says. “I don’t mean to sound cynical but I guess in your twenties or thirties, it’s like Charlotte in Sex and the City, you know. WHERE IS HE? But I don’t feel that anymore. It’s all about my children’s wellbeing or family or things to do in my life. I’m no longer a kid or a young woman going ‘I HAVE to find HIM.’”
Drew Barrymore is a survivor. She can survive rumours. She can survive break-ups. She can survive anything, really. And not only survive but, like she says herself, kick ass.
Photo: Getty Images