When Patty Hearst met John Waters in 1988, she was at the Cannes Film Festival promoting Paul Schrader’s biopic about her. Hearst’s saga was infamous at the time and remains so, though her life is far quieter today. Heir to her media family’s fortune, she had been kidnapped at gunpoint and held captive by a '70s left-wing terrorist cult. With them, Hearst robbed a San Francisco bank and helped to construct makeshift bombs, after which her trial became a national spectacle that still fascinates the public. A big-screen adaptation of Jeffrey Toobin’s 2016 book “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst” was slated to star Elle Fanning, but Fox dropped the project after Hearst criticized Toobin’s account.
John Waters was also infamous in 1988, and Hearst’s ordeal was the sort of curiosity on which the so-called “pope of trash” thrived. Waters ― best known for directing “Hairspray” and “Pink Flamingos” ― had long cast outsiders, has-beens and beatniks, extending as much dignity to them as he did to A-listers. Waters and Hearst’s friendship grew, and she appeared in five of his films: the campy musical “Cry-Baby” (1990), the splendid suburban satire “Serial Mom” (1994), the art-scene parody “Pecker” (1998), the rowdy Hollywood sendup “Cecil B. Demented” (2000) and the lurid sex comedy “A Dirty Shame” (2004), some of which wink at her past. Along the way, Hearst also landed small parts in “Frasier,” “The Adventures of Pete & Pete,” “Veronica Mars” and the Pauly Shore vehicle “Bio-Dome.”
“The probably initial appeal was the incredible notoriety,” Waters said of Hearst in 2001. “But now it’s not that at all. Because if it was that, I would have used her once.”
“Cry-Baby” turned 30 last week, and to mark the anniversary, Hearst called me to discuss her second chapter as a minor movie star. By the time she’d linked up with Waters, his career was more commercial than it had once been, even if the aforementioned titles didn’t do huge business. The two are still close. In fact, Hearst asked for Waters’ blessing before agreeing to our interview. For close to an hour, we talked about those films, her TV cameos, watching O.J. Simpson’s car chase with Waters and meeting Bill Clinton, who pardoned Hearst in one of his final acts as president.
At any point in your life, had you dreamed of becoming an actor?
Maybe in high school — you know, when we would do the school shows and things. I really thought I’d be working in magazines, but in any event, none of it happened. The rest is history. [John and I] had lunch. It was just kind of serendipitous. It was kind of silly, and John couldn’t wait to tell me that he was just so anxious to meet me and that he wanted to put me in a movie. And I went, “Yeah, right.” I just thought he was being crazy. But he was serious. Well, he’s crazy, but crazy in the best possible way.
John once said he was obsessed with you and had been collecting newspaper clippings about your life. When you’re approached by somebody like that, are you a little hesitant to work with him?
No, because I knew who he was, and I just thought it was kind of funny. I wasn’t hesitant or afraid of him. I was more afraid of trying something like acting.
At the time, you said you liked Paul Schrader’s movie, “Patty Hearst.” Do you still feel that way today?
I like the first half of it, and then it kind of gets strange. It looks like they got a new director of photography halfway through or something. I don’t know what happened. And Natasha [Richardson, who portrayed Hearst], that was just so sad when she died. I couldn’t believe it.
Was your next interaction with John when you got the “Cry-Baby” script?
Yeah, that was my next interaction. So then I had to really make a decision. I thought, “Oh, what the heck, OK.” So I auditioned, a very bad audition, I have to say. I couldn’t remember that much of it, but I know John said it was bad. But he hired me anyway. He brought me down to Baltimore to go through some more auditions, and then he just said, “I knew you could do it.” So that was it. It was amazing. I’ve gotten a lot better at auditions.
Did he explain why he was so attracted to the idea of putting you in “Cry-Baby” and why he felt confident moving forward despite the bad audition?
I’m just not sure why. I think he does most of his casting from the National Enquirer, frankly. I’m serious. Who is the most culturally significant at the time? And that doesn’t mean they’re either good or bad. It has nothing to do with that. It just has to do with, “What are people saying? Who are people paying attention to?” Just from tabloids, he picks people he wants to work with, like Kathleen Turner. She was amazing in “Serial Mom.” She was so cool.
I love her. That’s my favorite John Waters movie. She’s incredible in it.
I know. We were on the phone once during the O.J. Simpson thing, and he goes, “Oh my god. They did our slow-speed chase.”
Wait, you and John were on the phone watching O.J.’s Bronco getaway together?
Yeah. We were watching the car chase, where it’s just a low-speed thing going on. And he said, “God, we filmed that months ago.” I said, “I know, I’m watching it and I just can’t believe.” Talk about life imitating art.
John had a coterie of actors inspired by his fixation on Americana and the most scandalous aspects of pop culture. When you agreed to do “Cry-Baby,” did you see it as a way to reclaim your public narrative to some degree?
I don’t think I really thought of it that way at the time. I just thought it sounded like an amazing, fun thing and a great opportunity. I didn’t give it a lot of thought, not that way, anyway. Although later, especially after I did John’s movies, and then I did “The Adventures of Pete & Pete,” I noticed a lot of younger people only knew me from film and television. That was amazing.
That must feel nice, right?
Well, it was kind of strange, but yeah, it was better to be known for that.
One of the best moments in “Serial Mom” is when Kathleen Turner dresses you down for wearing white after Labor Day. Talk a little bit about working with Kathleen and what the atmosphere of that set was like.
The first day that I was on set was the day she kills me, because it’s not shot in sequence. I had rehearsed the day before with the stunt people because it’s not that easy to take a punch and make it look right. After the first couple of takes, she goes, “Thank god, somebody who knows how to take a punch.” I thought, “OK, good.” That was high praise indeed from Ms. Turner because she’s such a pro and she’s such a legend, even then. I had so much respect for her. I was pleased. And the producers were sitting there, so the first day was pretty intense. It was a relief to get that day done and have that be good. I can’t say enough good things about her. She’s wonderful.
On the sets of “Cry-Baby” and “Serial Mom” in particular, were people fascinated by the fact that you were there? Did anyone want to talk about your past?
No, people don’t do that. I mean, [actress] Mink Stole was really funny. She and Susan Tyrrell were putting beer cans in my trailer because they thought it was really funny to have the guys think that I was drinking all day. There was such a big difference between “Cry-Baby” and “Serial Mom” because on “Cry-Baby” we were all staying in the same hotel, and it was a very young group. So we were downstairs every night just partying in the bar and having a good time. We’d take over that room. Troy Donahue and Ricki Lake and Johnny Depp and everybody, we just had the best time. Oh god, it was fun. Then on “Serial Mom,” we were in a different hotel and it was different. You had a more subdued group.
How would you describe a young Johnny Depp?
He was great. He’s such a gentleman. I don’t believe a word of what’s going on with all this divorce business. I mean, there’s no way. He’s the sweetest and kindest. When we were on set, we were shooting outside the high school, and there were all these kids lined up. It was the height of “21 Jump Street.” David Nelson turns and he says, “It kind of reminds me of my brother [Ricky Nelson] when he was a teen idol, all these girls just standing out there waiting to see him and get autographs.”
Along the way, you made a tiny appearance in an episode of “Frasier.” We hear you say one sentence on the phone during Frasier’s radio show. How did that come about?
My agent said they’d asked for me, and I said OK. I forget what I said [in the scene], but I’m sure it was some kind of goofy thing that was vaguely related to the kidnapping.
The line is something to the effect of “I’m having problems with my in-laws.”
Oh, OK, yeah, I don’t know why, then. I guess they just wanted the voice, because that line has nothing to do with anything. I had a bit part in “Boston Common,” too, and that was just so hilarious. It was a Thanksgiving episode, and there were live turkeys. They were very worried about having nobody touch the turkeys because you might get a disease from them. The line was something like, “Well, look, I’ve got to get to the bank.” They thought that was just so hilarious, and nobody got it. Why would they? It’s so lame.
So you never found it annoying or insulting that writers would incorporate aspects of the horrific things that you’d experienced?
Well, that was the only one, and then the other one was kind of an obvious one, which would be “Veronica Mars.” I knew that there was this Hearst University [on the show], and I was laughing because of course there isn’t one. It sort of made sense that I would come into the part. I just thought, “OK, fine.” I’m surprised “Deadwood” didn’t ask. I don’t know what they were doing because certainly my great-grandfather [George Hearst] was a role that was featured on that show.
The “Veronica Mars” episode was somewhat controversial because The CW nixed your character’s lesbian kiss.
We didn’t do it because they knew it would get cut. There was no actual kiss. We had to go in for it and stop. We knew the network was never going to allow that. I mean, maybe today they would, but back then, no. I was kind of surprised. I thought, “Really? OK, well, whatever.”
The other John Waters movies you did are interesting, too. I’m particularly fond of “Cecil B. Demented,” which is clever and underrated. It does read as a commentary on your life, though. You were playing someone whose son has effectively been brainwashed by a cult, if you will.
Yeah, I agree. That one’s much more to the point, I think. If you’re going to point to something and say this was just like your life, yeah, that was a little weird. I felt slightly uncomfortable at first, but then I was like, “No, it’s John. It’ll be fine.”
Is that a conversation that you had with him, like, “Hey, I’m not sure about this one”?
No, he usually brings it up and says, “It’s kind of similar, but don’t worry about it.” And I’m like, “OK, fine. I won’t.” That was another amazing cast. Stephen Dorff was amazing and Melanie Griffith and of course Michael Shannon. It was lots of fun and lots of night shoots. Night shoots are the toughest because you’re so tired.
Were you ever asked to literally play yourself in anything?
I have to think. I know I never did. Has anyone ever asked such a silly question? After it had been 40 years [since the kidnapping], there was this big, “We’d love to interview you about this.” I’d just always say no. Otherwise, that becomes your whole life. There’s a point where you have to move on. You have to say, “If I keep doing this, that’s all anybody’s going to ask about.” In fact, I think that was how John sold me on being in “Cry-Baby.” He said, “It’ll be something else,” because I hadn’t thought of it that way. And he was right. It was a way to move on.
“Cry-Baby” and “Serial Mom” both have courtroom scenes, but “Pecker” seems completely divorced from your life. You play this vampy, liberated, voluptuous art snob.
I had to ask John, “Why does she go to the mirror and adjust her boobs?” He said, “Just because. She’s obsessed with them. She just goes to look at them.” I said, “Oh, all right.” I have a picture of it, too, a still from “Pecker.” I don’t usually ask why I have to do something, but there you go. It was just so funny, and the bar, the dancing on the table. My eldest daughter was in high school, and she said, “God, Mom, the commercial is so embarrassing. Everybody’s laughing.” I said, “Well, they should laugh. That’s the point. It’s meant to be funny. I’m not usually in my underwear dancing on a table.”
What’s your relationship with John like now? I gather you two are still in constant communication.
We are, and for Valentine’s Day, I sent him a pennant that was made up for the Dannemora prison break. He thought it was amazing. He’s watched everything Dannemora and loved it. Then I said, “It’s the 30th anniversary of ‘Cry-Baby.’” And he said, “Well, do the interview.” I wouldn’t want to do it if he said no.
You two have gone to many events together, including Elton John’s Oscar viewing party. Do you enjoy stepping into that glitzy Hollywood world?
I love the Elton John party. I couldn’t go this year because it was the exact same weekend as Westminster Kennel Club, and I have show dogs. I had to be there, and I couldn’t believe it. I was so disappointed. I’m a big supporter of the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
Are there stars you’ve have been especially excited to meet?
Let’s see. Well, of course, Elton. I mean, geez, that music. And Patti LaBelle. God, there’s so many over the years. Robin Williams was incredible. He was just a really nice guy. You know who was really so amazing? Christopher Reeve. I finally just met Bill Clinton a few months ago.
What was that like for you?
Well, it was really funny. My friend goes over, and he said, “Have you ever met Patricia Hearst?” Clinton goes, “No, I really wanted to.” So then he came over, and we said hello and sat down and were talking. Then my friend went over and sat next to Hillary and said, “I’m going to sit here because your husband’s hitting on my girlfriend.” And she goes, “Who’s your girlfriend,” trying to be cool. And then when he said it, Hillary was like, “Oh, OK.” It was just silly. Leave the poor senator alone, you silly man.
John has said he doesn’t plan to make another movie because he can’t get financing for the type of stuff he’s interested in. But many people would love to see another John Waters movie. In all your conversations with him, has he ever floated the idea of someday doing one?
No. He doesn’t really throw around ideas. He’ll just write it. He’s gotten to like the books [he’s written]. I remember after “Cry-Baby” he said, “Well, it wasn’t really a hit.” He said, “Nobody wants to see a musical.” And of course, now everything’s a musical. I think that he could do another, with all these goofy reality shows and “America’s Got Whatever.” I don’t really watch these things, but I’m aware of them from the commercials. There’s something about a masked singer. I’m like, “Who cares?” These shows hold zero appeal to me, but a film, yeah.
Is there a defining John Waters memory we haven’t already talked about?
You can’t sum him up into one memory. When somebody was doing something not the way he wanted, he would act it out for them because he wrote it and he knew exactly what he wanted it to look like. No one was allowed to vary from the script. In fact, that blood running down the shoe in “Serial Mom” took so many takes to get the blood to go the right direction. You have no idea how long I laid there for that. And then he made you wear shoes whether they fit or not. That was really a drag. Polly Bergen said she always has it in her contract that the shoes had to fit properly. My poor feet, they were just trashed. We also shot in the courtroom that John had gone to court in with Mink for some kind of public indecency or something silly like that. He likes that kind of thing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.