Interview: Elaine Hendrix Loves Acting and Animals

| February 13, 2011

If you watched Nancy Meyers’s inspired 1998 remake of “The Parent Trap” as many times as my sister and I did, you undoubtedly remember Elaine Hendrix, the gorgeous and wildly inventive actress who brought the character of villainous publicist Meredith Blake to deliciously devilish life. Her exuberant screen presence and gift for physical comedy have distinguished her work in film and television throughout the years. Moviegoers will have the chance to view Hendrix in a slew of new projects this year, from acclaimed indies and hit TV shows to short films on the festival circuit. She constantly balances her acting career with a variety of philanthropic work. Her love of animals led her to co-found the Animal Rescue Corps.
Film Monthly spoke with Hendrix about her busy, busy year—encompassing everything from “90210” and “Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2” to “Dear Lemon Lima” and a short film set to screen at SXSW.
Film Monthly (FM): How did your background in dance influence your approach to acting?
Elaine Hendrix (EH): I think it really does boil down to the physicality of it. As a dancer, you become very in tune with your body. You know how to use it, you know what it needs, and that translates directly into acting. The primary word in [acting] is, “act,” to have movement, to be active, and the more physical a character can be for me, the more I have fun, and I think the better I am at it. And in fact, to that end, that’s why, for me, auditioning has always been the hardest part of acting because there’s no real physicality in the room. You’re not fully doing a scene, and so my brain doesn’t—I’m not a very good auditioner, which is unfortunate [laughs]. But when I can have props to work with or other actors to feed off of and actual scenes to move through, it makes all the difference in the world to me.
FM: Are there any physical comediennes you grew up admiring, such as Carol Burnett?
EH: Well, I definitely grew up watching Carol Burnett. I love her. For me, though, my real affinity lies in the screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s. I would give anything for those to come back fully in vogue and be able to do some of them. “The Thin Man,” “Adam’s Rib,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “My Girl Friday,” “It Happened One Night.” Women just don’t get to move and act like that as much anymore. I hope that’s going to change since comedy is making a comeback right now. I’m attracted to those [films] because women get to be feminine as well as powerful. You can also be quite silly and it’s totally acceptable in that realm.
FM: My sister and I watched “The Parent Trap” obsessively while growing up, and loved your performance as Meredith. Did you have the freedom to build that character from the ground up?
EH: I did. Nancy [Meyers] and Charles [Shyer] started with a great script. Yes it’s a Disney movie, it’s a family movie, but it’s just flat-out a great script, and they developed great characters. So they were already on the page, which makes my job a lot easier. There’s a saying in the acting world that ‘if it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage.’ So that right there was half the battle, and then Nancy really did give me the freedom to bring everything that I could to it. She was very encouraging and would give me little tweaks here and there, but for the most part, I was able to create this full character in Meredith Blake, with all her little nuances. One of my favorite moments in the movie that people may not fully remember is when I’m on the raft and I get woken up, and my leg kicks up in the air. That was something I wanted to do, and it wasn’t written that way, and I don’t know if anybody else would’ve thought of that, but Nancy was like, “I love it, keep doing it.” So she allowed me to do little crazy things like that.
FM: You done a great deal of work in television as well as film. Do you enjoy going between the two mediums?
EH: I do. I must say I prefer film only because I get to change characters that much more often, and I usually get to travel to really cool locations, and be with all different kinds of people, and get to know them for that period of time. But television has its benefits, especially if I become a recurring role or a series regular. It provides some stability and a little longevity to the role, and that’s fun too because you get to develop things and create things as you go along with the character. Then you become a part of the family.
FM: You currently play Renee on “90210.” What are your thoughts on the recent trend of shows about the insular societies of privileged teens?
EH: Well, I don’t know if you could really call these [characters] privileged, but my absolute favorite show is “The Vampire Diaries” right now. [laughs] It’s a show that could’ve started off being really cheesy and I don’t think it did. Especially for a teenage show, it gets pretty hardcore. I was just watching it last night and they have torture scenes and blood and guts and I’m going, “God, this is really intense!” You couldn’t pay me to go back to being a teenager. I think it’s so hard to be a kid in the world these days. There’s some really sophisticated programming out there. And then shows like “90210”—I have no idea how close to reality it is, but it certainly gives kids an opportunity to live vicariously through them.
FM: What makes “90210” stand out from the group of similar shows like “Gossip Girl”?
EH: I think maybe because it’s Hollywood and Beverly Hills, and the fact that it already has an iconic brand, kids are drawn to it. I don’t know about any other part of the world, but here in Hollywood, I do see young kids driving far more expensive cars than I have, and wearing things where I’m like, “Wow, okay…” So I think it’s the style of it, the legendary lure of it. There’s several elements as to why “90210” stands out. I mean, have you seen the kids? They’re gorgeous on the show!
FM: One of your most memorable recurring roles was Ms. Lischak, the Physics teacher on “Joan of Arcadia.”
EH: I loved working on “Joan of Arcadia.” It’s funny—they decided that the “god” element wasn’t really working on the show, and then we ended up getting replaced by “Ghost Whisperer.” So I guess ghosts tested higher than god. [laughs] That’s the only thing I can think of as to why we got replaced because it was such a great show. We were getting ready to go into some darker subject matter, the whole fight between good and evil. It was so smartly written. That was another instance in which the character was written, and I made her very physical. I would get to spin and turn and throw things and dance and they just let me go. I got to improvise, and then little things I did started to be written for me. One thing I would do is call the students pet names like ‘grasshoppers’ or ‘bunnies’ or ‘butterflies,’ and then they started writing things like that. It was a lot of fun, which is what acting should be. It’s about play, it’s about pretend and getting to be kids again.
FM: Speaking of physics, let’s talk a little about “What the Bleep Do We Know.” Had you been interested in quantum physics prior to making this picture?
EH: It was something that I already was interested and involved in, so when I went in for a fifteen minute talk with the director, we ended up being there for an hour. We’re throwing ideas back and forth and talking about different subjects within it, and it just ended up being a good fit all the way around. I’ve seen the movie at least fifteen times now and every time I watch it I see something new. The thing about “What the Bleep” that people have to remember and that it was also criticized for is that it’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a very broad, brushed scope of a science that’s very new and very heady. It’s a very intellectual thing. In talking to the doctors and the scientists, it’s mind-blowing [to consider] what they’re thinking and what they’re doing, and the potential consequences of it all. It’s just astounding, and “What the Bleep” was the launching pad for a whole movement, from “The Secret” to the spiritual entertainment circle to a whole slew of other movies. It was a really special and phenomenal thing to be a part of.
FM: Even moviegoers who don’t buy into the film’s scientific theories would at least find it to be a great conversation starter.
EH: Yeah, absolutely. And we had some really unique audiences. [The film] is huge in Russia, it’s huge in Germany, it was huge in Texas. But then England basically banned it. They wouldn’t allow the distributors to distribute it there. So, places that you wouldn’t expect to be open to a film like that were and other places that you thought would be weren’t. Some people thought it was blasphemy, some people thought it was tied hand in hand with other religions and brought in a great new [perspective]. You’re right, it opened up a big conversation for people.
FM: One of your most recent films was the comedy “Good Intentions,” which looks like a cross between “Waitress” and “Fun With Dick and Jane.” What inspired you to co-produce the film as well?
EH: [laughs] It was a chance to be a great female lead in a quirky comedy. I kind of hate that word ‘quirky,’ I think it’s a little overused. I don’t really know what word to use to replace it. I got to be very physical with [the character], from the robbing to the handling of my kids. I’m from the South and this was the first time that I’ve played a Southern character. There were a lot of things that attracted me to it, and we started getting the rest of the cast onboard, [including] Jon Gries, who I just worked with again—I absolutely adore him—and LeAnn Rymes, who I had been friends with for years. It was her first real theatrical role where she wasn’t playing herself. And then Luke Perry…speaking of “90210”…
FM: Are you attracted to films that capture some essence of small town life?
EH: Yeah, I think so. “Napoleon Dynamite” is one of my favorite films. I like movies that capture a little corner of the world that people wouldn’t otherwise think about or pay attention to. Yes, these are movies, but people like that really do exist out in the world. Where is the line between art and real life? Art imitates it, so you know these things have to be happening somewhere.
FM: You also have a film scheduled to be released in the near future, the acclaimed coming of age film, “Dear Lemon Lima,” where you play the tough-as-nails Coach Roach. When I saw the trailer, I swore for a second that you were Jane Lynch.
EH: So many people are starting to say that now and here’s the thing: we shot that before “Glee” was on the air. Everybody’s had a Coach Roach at some point in their life, everybody’s had a Sue Sylvester at some point in their life. Jane and I are tapping into the collective conscience.
FM: The film also looks beautifully shot…
EH: It’s gorgeous. There are three things that I judge a script by: the story, the character and who’s doing it, and as long as I’m good with those three elements, I’m in. Having Melissa Leo and Beth Grant and some of the youngsters in it—their careers are going to absolutely blow up, they are so talented. The script was great. To me, it was a “Napoleon Dynamite” type of film, a “Bottle Rocket” type of film, one of these small independent films that I knew if it was done right, it would do well, and it is. So I was very excited to do that, and I had never played a character quite like this. “Joan of Arcadia” may be sort of close to it, but not really. And again, I get to do some great physical stuff in this movie. Then it was also about working with all women. We had women producers, virtually every department head was a woman and it was a story written by a woman about a young girl. So every aspect about it was kind of a dream. They’ll be doing a slow roll out of the film in March.
FM: You’ve also been involved in many short films. Can you mention a couple that you particularly hope people will seek out?
EH: I have one that’s playing at SXSW and is also going to air on PBS. SXSW and PBS teamed up for a special program and did ten short films about different aspects of social justice issues. They’ve chosen six out of the ten to play at the festival and one of the ones that I did will be [included]. It’s going to premiere and will air on PBS afterward. It’s called “The Beholder,” and it’s basically a sci-fi look into the LGBT community and the idea that you can vaccinate the gay gene. It’s very smartly written, especially for a short film, and the filmmaker, Nisha Ganatra, is just tremendous. I was excited to be a part of that. I’m part of another project called “Girls Girls Girls,” but the short that I did for it is called “A Hidden Agender.” It’s about a misogynistic woman who doesn’t want anything to do with her own gender and is thinking about giving up her baby because she thinks it’s a girl. I won’t say the rest because I’d spoil it, but it’s actually both funny and poignant, and that’s going to be a part of a whole anthology of women’s films. Jennifer Lynch is involved and Beth Grant and all these other great women. Those are two shorts in particular that I’m excited about. I’m getting ready to do a whole revamp of my website, ElaineHendrix.com, and I’m also going to start having links to the films so people can actually see them.
FM: You also had a recurring role on the online series “Poor Paul,” for which you did a self-deprecating promo where you seemed less than enthusiastic about co-starring in the recently released “Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2.” Was it freeing to work on a microbudget?
EH: Yes. To me, I’m not as concerned about the budget as much as I am about the story and who is involved. They had a lot of groovy people on “Poor Paul.” Nicholas Braun and Kevin Schmidt were a part of it, and of course to play Richard Riehle’s wife was a hoot. That was an ongoing web series, and at one point they were looking to cross over into television as an actual show, and I don’t know where that stands. They did two full seasons. It was very silly and a lot of fun. You brought up the self-deprecating promo—that was my idea and I wasn’t really putting down “Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2.” It wasn’t about that so much as it was about being a part of the sequel, and the idea that sequels never really do as well as the original movie. I was being tongue-in-cheek there.
FM: Both of your new Disney films—“Treasure Buddies” and “Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2”—involve dogs, and I’m wondering if that’s a coincidence…
EH: [laughs] I think at least every Disney movie that I’ve been a part of, which is now like four or five, have had a dog in them. Animals are a big franchise for Disney. But it has a personal meaning for me, in that I’m a huge animal advocate and it gives me a chance to help connect my own personal humane brand to these movies. Kids watch them and families watch them, kind of like you and your sister. You grew up watching “The Parent Trap” and grew up loving the movie and now here we are talking. So if my humane message can then rub on to you and extend to you or to your sister then that’s one of the benefits of doing these types of movies.
FM: As co-founder and Director of Marketing and Public Relations for Animal Rescue Corps, what are some of your future goals for the organization?
EH: Well, the founding team has over forty years of rescue experience, so even though we’re a new organization, nothing about us or what we’re doing is particularly new. We’re very well-versed in our services, which is primarily large-scale rescues, puppy mills, hoarding situations, dog fighting rings, exotic trade—there’s not really any type of animal that we can’t handle. There’s virtually no situation that we can’t handle. We work with government agencies and local law officials so that everything is done by the book. We’re not some rogue, wild group. We can also do shelter services, shelter assessments and training for other rescue groups. We have some rescues in the works, I can’t talk about them yet, but I will say it’s very, very exciting. We’re just starting and once the wheels are rolling, there’s nothing like being there to not only witness but facilitate another being’s freedom. I’ve had the great honor to do that on several occasions, and to me, it’s the best work in the world.
FM: Can you tell me about the experience of caring for rescued animals in your home, and why would you encourage others to do the same?
EH: Great question! I have at the moment three dogs and two cats. I’m also about to rescue a goat, something that I’ve always wanted to have. Let’s just take your local animal shelter, or as some people know it, the pound, as an example. Most people think that you will go there and get some sick or damaged dog, and that’s where all the bad and unwanted animals are sent away to live, but that’s so not true. This country euthanizes about four to six million animals every single year simply because they don’t have a home. The reason they don’t have a home is not necessarily because they are sick or damaged. Way more often, 9.9 times out of 10, it’s because people are breeding their animals when they shouldn’t be breeding them. They are moving and they just want to give it up. They get tired of it, or they don’t realize that the puppy is going to grow up into a full-size dog. All these kinds of reasons, so the thing I would say to people is that you can get pure breeds, you can get very healthy wonderful dogs through rescues, through shelters, through adoption, but the thing is, you have to make sure you’re ready because it’s a lifelong commitment. You don’t want to have that animal until it’s 7, 8, 9 or 10 years old and then send it off to a shelter, because unfortunately, more likely than not, it’s going to be killed.
There’s just something about rescued animals. They know when they’ve been rescued. They know when you have literally gotten them off of death’s door. I’ve traveled the country working on behalf of animals and everywhere I go, people always say the same thing. All of my animals and I have a very unique bond with each other because they have their own sort of instinctual gratitude. It’s not like human gratitude, it’s animal gratitude. I’m not trying to turn them into humans in any way, but animals are smart. They’re very instinctual and I just think they know.

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