Gina Gershon got her start as an actress in the ’80s, popping up in places where you might not have realized at the time that you were seeing her…like, say, the video for The Cars’ “Hello Again” or Pretty in Pink. Since then, she’s pulled off a relatively remarkable feat in Hollywood: she’s never stopped working, having managed to successfully build a diverse, unpredictable filmography where a famous flop like Showgirls sits comfortably alongside such critically acclaimed films as The Player and Bound as well as a big-budget action flick like Face/Off.
Currently, Gershon can be seen co-starring with Wallace Shawn in Woody Allen’s latest effort, Rifkin’s Festival, which was released in Spain back in 2020 but is only just now being released in the United States. While some may view the choice to appear in one of Allen’s films as a controversial decision… Well, that’s their right, certainly, just as it’s Gershon’s right to be ecstatic about having had the opportunity to be directed by someone whose work she’s admired for decades.
DECIDER: I’ll just start by saying how grateful I am that I was able to watch the film ahead of time.
GINA GERSHON: Oh, you were able to see it?
I was, yeah. I’m sure it must’ve been cathartic for you to play a publicist and talk about the horrible and/or ridiculous questions that journalists ask sometimes.
You know, I’m just happy that this movie is coming out! [Laughs.] And that people can see it! I mean, with this whole COVID thing, it’s still tricky to ask people to go to the theater, so I’m glad that it’s streaming at the same time. But I know Woody always wanted it to be in a big theater first. Not just because he’s old school, because obviously he is, but [cinematographer] Vittorio Storaro shot this. It’s so beautiful on a big screen. I watched a little bit of it on a smaller screen, but when I saw it on the big screen, I was, like, “Oh, wow!” You know, you can’t take away the power of being in a movie theater. Hopefully soon we’ll all be able to go to the movies without having anxiety attacks!
Yeah, I was able to see a few films during that window where it seemed like, “Oh, we’re vaccinated, so it’s safe,” but then with the Omicron variant, suddenly we had to backpedal.
So even on a small screen, what did you think about the movie? Because I haven’t been able to talk about it to anyone, so I’m excited!
Well, I’m glad to be an exception! I thought it was great. I’m a fan of Woody’s work anyway, but I also enjoyed the homages to classic films. And starting out with the homage to Citizen Kane… Well, as a journalist, that was certainly my personal favorite.
Wasn’t that funny? It’s those classic films – which, of course, I’m a huge fan of as well – but with the Woody twist. When I read that for the first time… I mean, [Ingmar] Bergman is my absolute favorite, Persona is one of my favorite films, and to be able to act it out in a Woody-esque way… I mean, come on: that’s, like, the dream. [Laughs.]
I ask everybody who’s ever worked with Woody what their experience was like in regards to getting their role in the film. I know he’s not really one for traditional auditions.
Yes, it definitely wasn’t a traditional audition. On any level. I mean, I’ve been hounding people I know that I feel like I should’ve worked with Woody forever ago. He’s just one of my favorite filmmakers, and he has been for a long time. As an actress, it’s kind of the dream. I grew up watching his films and… Well, I keep saying it, but it’s living the dream! It’s a bucket-list thing to work with him and to star in a film for him. So when it came up, a friend of mine who knows him as well and has worked with him, he just said, “Listen, there’s this teeny, tiny part, and I think Woody’s scared to ask you to do it because it’s too small.” But I’ve been saying for years, “I really want to work with him, I should work with him, I feel like we’d work really well together.” So I’m, like, “I’ll do it.” [Laughs.] Because I knew that once we actually talked about something, eventually I’d be starring in his next film. I just had an instinct, a feeling that we would work well together.
But you do that weird two-minute meeting that he’s sort of famous for, and everyone’s, like, “Listen, he’s very shy, you don’t have to say anything, he’s just basically making sure you’re not an alien.” [Laughs.] I don’t know what he does. He just kind of looks at you and says, “Is everything okay?” And he was very nice. He was kind of like, “Oh, do you want to keep your hair that color? What do you think?” I said, “Great!” He says, “Okay, see you there!” But then he was, like, “Do you have any questions?” And.. I had read just one page. I hadn’t read the movie, I just got the scenes for this little part. But it had mentioned one of the films, Last Year at Marienbad, which I’d never seen, and I thought, “I should watch this before I meet him.” It was just an instinct. And I watched it.
So when he said, “Do you have any questions?” Meaning, “Okay, you can go now.” I said, “Yeah, what is that movie about?” And I went on this diatribe of what I thought the movie was about. And eventually he started laughing, and he said, “Okay, thank you.” But by the next week… I mean, I’d told my manager, “I’m going in for this meeting because I’m going to end up with the lead,” and she called and said, “They just offered you the lead. He thinks you’re perfect for it!” Not knowing that the lead was a publicist who talks about films, I just went with instinct, and it worked! It’s not very orthodox, but I was very pleased and…I really loved working with him! I thought it was quite freeing.
The interesting thing is, I talked to a lot of my friends who had worked with him, and everyone’s experience is really just a reflection on how they were around him, because everyone has a different answer. But I thought he was hysterical. Listen, I’d go to the set every day and I’d be, like, “Oh, there’s Woody Allen! Oh, there’s Vittorio Storaro! Ooh, look, it’s Wally Shawn!” And we were in San Sebastian. You know what I mean? It was the most wonderful summer. I was really thrilled.
I know you didn’t have any scenes with him, but were you able to reunite with your former Red Oaks co-star Richard Kind on the set?
Yes! Richard and I go way back…and I can’t believe he’s never been in a Woody Allen movie before. He’s perfect! I love him, and I’m so happy he was there. We were both like kids in a candy store. “Can you believe it, that we’re here? This is fun!”
I wanted to ask you about some other stuff you’ve done over the years, including one that – no matter how many times I watch it – I’m still surprised to see you turn up: Pretty in Pink.
I was still basically in college when I was doing that…or straight out! [Laughs.] I know, I know… I look at my face, and I still had all of my baby fat. You know, I had such a round little face, and I don’t even think I’d plucked my eyebrows yet!
And yet it’s still distinctively you. Even the first time I saw it after being familiar with you as an actress, I was, like, “That’s Gina Gershon!”
Yeah! That movie was so funny, because I think by the time I went in… I was, like, “Why aren’t I going in on this movie?” I was so gung ho to start working, but I hadn’t really worked yet, and I think everything had been cast. But like most of my career, I just kind of pushed my way in at some point, and I think they just gave me that little part.
As far as pushing your way into projects, was that how you ended up in the video for the Cars’ “Hello Again”?
No, the Cars video was so weird… I was on my way to an Existentialism final at NYU, it was a snowy day, and my friend was representing the Cars at the time. He was managing them, I guess? Or working with them, anyway. But I had, like, two hours to kill, it was snowy, and they were close to NYU, which was where I was going to be, and he said, “Oh, just stop by!” And I said, “Oh, okay!” I’m, like, “Oh, the Cars! Cool!”
I had no idea Andy Warhol was directing it. I was kind of, “Whoa!” And then all of a sudden I notice people going whisper, whisper…and some guy comes over and says, “Uh, Andy would like you to be in the video.” And I was just, like, “Oh, uh, okay, well, I have two hours to kill. But I have to leave in two hours.” And they’re, like, “Oh, okay!” And the next thing I know, I’m in a Stephen Sprouse dress, with people yelling at me. Not Andy, because he’d always whisper to his assistant director, and then they’d say, “Look mean and sexy!” And I’m like, “Mean and sexy?” I thought, “Oh, my God…”
And then the next thing I know, they’re saying, “Who has a long tongue?” And I was, like, “Well, I kind of do!” [Quickly flashes her tongue, thereby confirming her claim.] And they wrote the “hello” across my tongue. And it was horrible, because I was, like, “Oh, my God, I get to be in a scene with Andy Warhol! This is so cool!” But when he came over, I was supposed to show the “hello” with my tongue, and the first time I did it, all this drool came out, and I was mortified! But then when it was all over, I was, like, “Okay, gotta go! Gotta go take my test!” And I left and went to take my Existentialism test. It was a weird day. [Laughs.]
Yes, but not a lot of people can say that they actually got 15 minutes of fame from Andy Warhol personally.
I don’t know if I got 15 minutes of fame out of that…
Maybe two seconds. For the “hello” thing. [Laughs.]
When I mentioned on social media that I was going to be talking to you, I had countless requests for projects to ask you about, but probably first and foremost – perhaps inevitably – was Showgirls.
Oh, my God. [Laughs.] I’m in a Woody Allen movie, and you want to ask me about Showgirls?
I would like to run the gamut, please, if I could. Plus, c’mon, by asking you about the Cars video, I’ve already proven that I’m not just about the obvious stuff.
I should make you wait until the book comes out. I’m writing my memoirs. It’s so funny, though. I’ll say this, because – like all of these things – I could talk for about five hours about it, but the thing that is very interesting that I’ve learned over the years, especially with the press and journalists… As you know, when Showgirls came out, it was obliterated. I came out of it pretty lucky. They were fairly kind to me. But still, I’m dealing with the most intense press, with people actually saying, “We hate this movie!” and everything. And yet everyone still wants to talk about it.
It’s become a cult classic, certainly.
Right? I mean, 26 years later, it’s, like, “You hated it so much then, why do you love it so much now?” So it was kind of an interesting lesson, just to not really believe the press or what’s written, just to go by your own instincts and not listen to anyone. Because everyone changes their mind anyway. I mean, I’m not really articulating this well..
No, I get what you’re saying.
Yeah, but I really need to be articulating it better, because I’m being quoted! [Laughs.] I’ve got to get it together!
I try to make everyone sound good. I promise to do the same for you.
Okay, cool. [Laughs.]
On the flip side in regards to critical acclaim, I wanted to ask you about Bound. I can still remember renting that on VHS and being astounded by the intensity of the film. Also, that’s one of the first films where Joe Pantoliano really stood out to me.
You’re welcome. Because who was responsible for getting Joey Pants that job?
I’m getting the impression that it was you, and since I don’t know this story, I’d love to hear it.
They had cast someone – or had been interested in casting someone, anyway – and I remember seeing Joey Pants, and he was, like, “Oh, my God, I’m perfect for this, blah blah blah blah blah…” And he was perfect for it! So I just said, “Listen, you should see this guy Joey Pants. He’s a friend. I know you’re making final decisions, but you really need to see him.” And, of course, they saw him, and the rest is history. I keep saying, “Where’s my 10% from the Matrix films?” [Laughs.] Oh, well. No, I love him. We had a really fun time.
But, you know, that’s an interesting movie, too, as far as the fact that I was told straight down the line not to do that film, how it would ruin my career, how I would never work again. I had to leave my agents, because they were having a hard time representing me. I said, “You know what? I believe in this film, it’s my career, I’m going to do it. So thank you and goodbye.” I literally had to leave. And I’m really proud of doing that film. Not only is it an amazing film, but I was just proud of standing up for what I believed it, because the idea of not doing a film because it was about lesbians seemed ridiculous to me, and the idea of doing it with these two first-time filmmakers… I don’t know, I just instinctively knew. I thought, “These filmmakers are incredible. I’m doing this movie.” So that was another lesson of just how, as an artist, you just have to listen to yourself. No one can tell you what to do or what not to do. I’ve always run into trouble with that. So I’m happy I didn’t listen to all the advice given to me on that one.
What do you remember about the experience of working on Face/Off? Talk about your cult films…
Is that a cult film?
Oh, yes. And the cult is growing all the time.
What makes a cult film a cult film? I thought that made a lot of money!
Well, it did, but not every film that makes a lot of money maintains a rabid fanbase after the fact. But that one definitely continues to have one even now.
So you have to have a rabid fanbase in order to be a cult film? Isn’t John Woo a commercial guy?
[Uncertainly.] Ostensibly? I’m just a critic. I don’t really know these things for sure.
I’m not criticizing, I’m just interested! I mean, it’s an interesting question: “What makes a cult film a cult film?”
You’re right, because there are films that are successful and become all-time classics, then there are films that are complete failures that find cult fandom, and then there are successful films that fall off people’s radar and then find their way back into the zeitgeist for some reason and start to build up a new cult of appreciation around them.
So you think Face/Off is a cult film?
Absolutely I do. I think Nicolas Cage’s performance helps it a lot on that front, because he’s kind of a cult actor in a lot of respects.
I think that Nic is so great in the movie. And John Woo… Oh, my God, I just loved working with him! I mean, he’s really an artist. I kept saying, “John, you have to do a musical!” And he should do a musical, because the way he choreographs those big shoot-out scenes, which are done in one take… [Shakes head.] The only time I ever had to rehearse a scene for a day and a half before shooting it was in The Player, but with that we could do take after take after take. But with John Woo, that shoot-up scene… One take, and the set was ruined. It was all live as we were doing it, so it was really choreographed like a dance.
You know, you mentioned The Player, and it begs a question: is there any director that you’ve yet to work with that you’d still like to work with? Because you’ve worked with a laundry list of legends.
Oh, my God, so many directors. I’m dying to work with Wong Kar-wai. I love him and always have. And Bong [Joon-ho], of course. I just love calling him by his first name. [Laughs.] The Coen brothers I’m dying to work with. Paul Thomas Anderson I’m still dying to work with. There are a lot of directors. But I’ve gotten to work with some really great ones, so I’m happy.
So how was Robert Altman to work with?
[Snorts.] Uh, amazing? That’s another job where… I didn’t have a job. I kind of bullied my way into it. It was already all cast, and I just kept saying, “I want to meet him, and I know he’ll put me in his film.” But since it was all cast, I was meeting with his producer, and…I happened to be wearing jodhpurs – you know, like those riding pants? I guess they were in fashion then – and he walked by. I’d only really done one movie that I thought was a really good film, and that was John Sayles’ movie City of Hope. So he walked by the office, which was open, and he kind of looked in, and then he kind of backtracked, and he said, “Do you ride horses?” And I said, “No, but I play ’em.” Not realizing that he was a big horse track guy.
So he came in, and we talked about jockeys and horse racing and all sorts of things, and then finally he said, “Who are you? What are you doing here?” [Laughs.] “Well, I’m actually an actress, and I want to be in your film, but I know this one’s all cast.” And he said, “Have you ever done anything?” I said, “Well, I just did this movie City of Hope.” He said, “Can you improvise?” I said, “Yeah!” He said, “Great! Why don’t you take two weeks, and these are the weeks you’re going to work…” I said, “Wait, wait, wait… Who am I gonna play?” He said, “I dunno. We’ll just make it up!” So we made it up together. It was so fun. I loved working with him. It was really wonderful.
I know you and Denis Leary have worked together more than once, but how did you and he first cross paths?
Denis and I became really good friends because of Ted Demme. The late, great Ted Demme. You know, he was very close with Ted, and when Ted died, I was very close with Ted and [his wife] Amanda, and we really bonded during that time. He’s a wonderful guy. I love working with him. It’s been too long. We need to work together again, and soon.
Your Rescue Me arc was particularly enjoyable.
[Laughs.] I mean, I think with Denis… You know, he’s working all the time, and I guess I was working more then, so it was, like, “How do we see each other?” And he was, like, “Come and do the show!” So we would do the scene, and then in between scenes we’d just… [Mimes talking a mile a minute.] And then it was, like, “Yeah, yeah, we’ll get to the scene…” And then we’d do the next scene, and then we’d come back and just start right back up talking again. It was the only way to see him and to hang out: to work together! But he’s fantastic, a really great human being.
Recently you’ve been doing a lot of TV work, mostly recently New Amsterdam…
Wait, why aren’t we talking more about the Woody Allen movie?
We can absolutely talk more about that. I’m sorry, I have a history of bouncing around a lot and delving into people’s back catalogs.
I mean, it’s nice that you want to talk about all this stuff, but… [Waves her hands.] Okay, you lead the interview. I won’t dictate. I’m sorry.
I’ll happily jump back to talking about the movie, because I’m certainly not trying to ignore the movie. As I said, I really enjoyed it! And I did want to ask you about the experience of working with Wallace Shawn, because I know that was the first time you’d worked with him, too.
I mean, you just want to hug him and kiss him all the time. [Laughs.] He’s just so adorable, you know? And he’s such a lovely, insightful, considerate human being. And I think he just kept thinking, “What am I doing here?” He doesn’t see himself as an actor, really, which makes him all the more charming. He’s just adorable. I loved watching him in the makeup chair. That was how we’d start our days, and it was really fun. He’s just a lovely human being. I mean, what’s not to like? Everyone loves him. How can you not love him?
Yeah, I interviewed him a few years ago, when he was doing a guest arc on Young Sheldon, and for all the work he does on TV, it turns out that he’s never actually owned a TV!
I believe that. He just likes to work, and yet he’s always amazed when he’s working. He’s so humble, and… I don’t know, every time I see him, I find that I’m smiling before I realize it, without even thinking about it.
He’s definitely humble. He seems bemused that people recognize him for things like Clueless or whatever.
I think he’s surprised that he’s working as an actor at all! He really sees himself as a writer, “but they keep hiring me!” [Laughs.] He doesn’t quite get how great he is. Which is part of his charm and why he’s as wonderful as he is. And it’s not an act of humility. I think he really is thinking, “What am I doing here?”
So I was saying a moment ago about how you’ve worked on New Amsterdam recently, but you’ve also been on Riverdale, and you even got to channel your inner Melania Trump on The Good Fight.
Yeah, I’ve been doing Melania for a bit, thanks to Adam McKay, who we all know and love. I remember when Sarah Palin was first on the scene, he was, like, “Let’s start doing some Sarah Palin for Funny or Die!” So we did a bunch of those together, and then when I started clocking Melania, I called him and said, “Dude, we should be doing Melania now. We should start now, before it blows up.” So I did a bunch with him, and I did her with Jimmy Fallon and some other things, and I was supposed to be doing it on a production which got canceled, sadly enough, during COVID.
But, you know, it was interesting and fun to do her because it was so ridiculous, until all of a sudden it wasn’t ridiculous anymore, and it was getting kind of scary, and it started getting me really depressed and sad. And all of a sudden I was, like, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I think when the reality of everything hit everyone, I was, like, “Wow…” I don’t know, it took a turn in my head, and it wasn’t fun. I even had a Melania Instagram account for awhile: Melania Speaks, where I would just make up stuff. It was interesting and funny, but after awhile it started bumming me out. When it became all too real.
Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
Oh, my God, so many. Which ones? [Laughs.] You know, I did a movie I really loved a long time ago called Prey for Rock ‘n’ Roll. It was based on a true story of a punk rock singer who – upon approaching 40 – hadn’t quite made it yet. She was also a tattoo artist. And I just thought, universally, what do you do if you’re a writer or an actor or an artist in any sort of way and you haven’t “made it”? It’s an interest moment. Do you just keep working because you love what you do? Or at what point do you stop doing it and become an adult or something?
I don’t know, I just loved it. And I’d just started singing again, because I was doing Cabaret on Broadway. I used to be a song and dance girl, and then Sam Mendes asked me to do Cabaret, and he said, “Don’t worry, you don’t have to really be able to sing, and I know you can dance, we can deconstruct that…” And once I started singing, I realized that’s all I used to do. And from that, [director] Alex Steyermark said, “I know you can sing, I think you should play this part.” And what he didn’t know was that I used to play guitar, too. So I started playing that again, too. And Joan Jett taught me how to play electric guitar, and…I’m sure this is a very honorable publication, so I can’t say exactly what she said to me…
No, please say exactly what she said. They’ll allow it. I promise you.
[Laughs.] No, no, I can’t! But doing that movie… It just reignited my love of music, playing and writing and performing. It all came from that. But I also think it’s a really sweet, cool film that the distributors… They didn’t distribute it. That’s what happens to a lot of amazing independent films: they just never get seen. And that one… I don’t know why it’s not on iTunes. I was trying to find it the other day, and I’m not even sure where to find it. I really love it!
You know, some of my projects that I love aren’t available. For instance, I just did a performance at the Carlyle Hotel which obviously isn’t on TV or film, but I really loved that. When I did In Search of Cleo and did that album and then I did that performance, which led to my book, How I Found My Pussy and Lost My Mind… That was from that performance. And the Carlyle Hotel, I did Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues, which… You know, you can’t see these because they’re theater pieces. But film-wise, I’d definitely say Prey for Rock ‘n’ Roll. I just wish it wasn’t so hard to find.
Regrettably, Gina is correct: the movie isn’t currently streaming anywhere. That said, someone did upload the entire soundtrack to YouTube, so you can at least enjoy the music! – Ed.
Last question, and only because I did an oral history of the series, but…what do you remember about the experience of working on Cop Rock?
[Long pause.] Well, I remember I kept going, “Why aren’t I singing in this?” [Laughs.] I just really wanted to be singing! And I remember that Steven Bochco was such a wonderful writer, but it was the first time I encountered a situation where you had to do every…single…word. Like, if it says, “It is,” and I say, “It’s,” they’re, like, “It’s got to be ‘it is.’” I was, like, “Oh, interesting!” So it was the first time I’d encountered that, which I really thought was pretty cool. Mostly I was just annoyed that I wasn’t singing. But it was fun. I guess. Did I get killed off in that? I can’t remember.
You know, it’s been awhile since I watched it myself. But it was called “The Cocaine Mutiny,” so…maybe? I’ll have to confirm.
Yeah, I just can’t remember. But I was happy to be there. I’m always happy to be working in interesting pieces. But when it comes to music and musicals, I’m always super excited. I just want to sing and have a good time.
And play Jew’s harp?
Well, I convinced the Wachowskis to let me do one… [Imitates the twanging of a Jew’s harp.] …when I was in jail in Bound. But other than that, I’ve never played it for any character. Believe me, I’m always pushing. “Don’t you think she should be playing Jew’s harp here?” [Laughs.]
Well, I’ve seen your Discogs page, so I know you’ve got some legit credits for playing it.
I seriously have some really impressive credits for playing Jew’s harp!
Yes, you do! Rufus Wainwright, Scissor Sisters, Herbie Hancock…
Herbie Hancock! Can you imagine? I mean, that was really with Paul Simon. Herbie was just producing it. But Christian McBride I get to play with a lot, who’s… I mean, hello! And I got to be the first Jew’s harp soloist in Carnegie Hall when Sting asked me to play with this big orchestra for the Rainforest Fund Concert.
That ain’t bad.
I mean, finally, getting a little respect for my Jew’s harp! [Laughs.] Everyone was very seriously asking in all the interviews, “So what is that instrument you’re playing?” It was hysterical. But that was fun. And it would be really fun to find a character where I could really play my Jew’s harp, but…it’s a kind of a specific thing! [Laughs.]
Rifkin’s Festival is being released in theaters and on VOD on Friday, January 28, 2002.
Will Harris (@NonStopPop) has a longstanding history of doing long-form interviews with random pop culture figures for the A.V. Club, Vulture, and a variety of other outlets, including Variety. He’s currently working on a book with David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker. (And don’t call him Shirley.)