She is often typecast as a sex kitten or a prostitute, but don't try to pigeonhole Heather Graham. James Mottram meets a star who, as she turns 40, is broadening her horizons while staying in control
• Heather Graham in Boogie Nights
IF YOU happened to be in Las Vegas near the beginning of the year, you might have caught Heather Graham hitting new heights. The actress was seen performing on stage with acrobatic dance troop Cirque du Soleil at the MGM Grand Hotel.
It wasn't in preparation for a sequel to The Hangover, her runaway hit comedy from last year about a Vegas bachelor party gone awry. Rather, thanks to a surprise from her filmmaker boyfriend, Yaniv Raz, Graham was celebrating her 40th birthday.
Nothing shocking about that, you might think. Except when you realise that Graham, an actress so fresh-faced you'd think she'd just started out, has now been in the business for over two decades. To put it into context, she was around when Corey Feldman and the recently deceased Corey Haim were at the height of their powers, starring with both in 1988's Licence To Drive.
She was there at the outset of Gus Van Sant's career, starring as the luckless junkie Nadine in 1989's Drugstore Cowboy. And she even featured in David Lynch's touchstone TV series Twin Peaks, also reprising her role as Annie Blackburn for the 1992 spin-off film Fire Walk With Me.
Today, with her long blonde hair and blue eyes, her petite frame clad in a full-length halter-neck purple dress, she still appears every bit the ingnue – something that perhaps can be put down to her daily diet of yoga and transcendental meditation. Yet she denies her looks are solely responsible for her longevity.
"It's a mixture of talent and luck," Graham says. "I have a lot of persistence and determination. It's just a feeling that this is what I'm supposed to be doing. I just feel like I have a desire to do this, and it feels like it's beyond my control, so I have to keep doing it."
While she has survived, in some ways Graham has had a lean period lately. A recurring role in TV show Scrubs and a brief part in Emilio Estevez's Kennedy drama Bobby aside, most of her recent films have not made it to these shores – unsurprising when you consider she's played leads in lame pregnancy comedies with titles such as Miss Conception and Baby On Board.
"It's probably difficult for everyone," she says. "But certainly there were times when I was struggling." Fortunately, The Hangover has revived her Hollywood stock. "It definitely helps to be in movie that makes a lot of money, for sure."
If Graham has clung on to her career in a business that usually jettisons women when they hit 40, it's arguably because she's accepted the sex kitten shackles that Hollywood has locked her into. Most famous for playing a porn star in Boogie Nights, she played a prostitute in both The Hangover and the Jack the Ripper tale From Hell.
She's also been a PR girl who becomes embroiled in an S&M relationship (Killing Me Softly) and one third of a menage trois (Two Girls And A Guy). Little wonder Mike Myers cast her as Felicity Shagwell in his spoof spy comedy Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.
These roles, though, could also be seen as a reaction to her Catholic upbringing. Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she moved home regularly with her schoolteacher mother and sister Aimee (also an actress), because of her father's job with the FBI. As a child, she wasn't allowed to watch The Love Boat because it promoted pre-marital sex. "I didn't really understand how it (Catholicism] was squashing my spirit, until I was a little older," she reflects, noting that she was frequently told not to masturbate as a child. "I actually never did because I thought it was so wrong."
At school she was a straight-A student who spent her days reading Dostoyevsky, and was voted Most Talented by her high school senior class – which may be why her strict parents let her act. When she was six, she appeared in wholesome show The Swiss Family Robinson on television. But as she got older, tensions began to grow. Her parents said no to her appearing in the cult black comedy Heathers – and, as soon as she graduated from high school, she left home and moved to Los Angeles to start auditioning.
So are all these roles a way of rebelling against her parents? "No. I don't feel that," she says. "I don't think its rebellion. Look at all movies. Look at being a woman. How many parts are there where you aren't having some kind of sex scene? Can you think of any? At the same time, you do make choices, but in another way I feel like it's your fate and your destiny, what happens to you.
"It's beyond you in a way. You make choices but you're just being creative. It's not a completely conscious thing. I didn't go: 'Oh I have to play a porn star twice.' It's just the opportunities and people that come up at that moment."
Her latest work, Boogie Woogie, yet again sees her using sex as a weapon. She plays Beth Freemantle, "an ambitious social climber" in the London art scene. Employed by Danny Huston's ruthless art dealer, with dreams of opening her own gallery, she's secretly sleeping with Stellan Skarsgrd's wealthy (and married) collector. Admittedly, she's not the only one: from Jaime Winstone's provocative lesbian video artist to Gillian Anderson's middle-aged lady-who-lunches, just about everyone is getting down to some illicit nookie.
While the film is scattergun in its satire (it may model itself on Robert Altman's Hollywood insider effort The Player, but fails to make the same impact), it did provide Graham with an opportunity to step into a world she knew little about. "I learned a lot," she says. "The guy who is the director (Duncan Ward] is really good friends with Damien Hirst, so we shot some of our scenes in his studio. We got to use some of his art, and there's a scene where we are in the art gallery, at an opening, and we used a lot of his new work."
Graham's devotion to the movie-making world extends to her romantic life. She's dated actors – Kyle MacLachlan, James Woods and Heath Ledger included – as well as men behind the camera; there was a romance with her Lost In Space director Stephen Hopkins, followed by a two-year relationship with actor-director Ed Burns (who cast her in his film Sidewalks Of New York) and a brief fling with About A Boy's Chris Weitz. Her current partner Yaniv Raz is, however, a virtual unknown in the film world.
Graham recently completed Son Of Morning, a film Raz wrote about "a guy who gets mistaken for a modern day Messiah" in which she co-stars with Danny Glover. "I play a very manipulative and conniving journalist," she says. There's also a role in Kevin Spacey's new film, Father Of Invention. "I play a lesbian," she says, "that is confused and possibly a love interest for Kevin Spacey."
Graham harbours long-term ambitions to produce, and has been developing a script for years on the landmark 1911 Triangle Factory Fire in New York. All in all, she gives the impression that turning 40 has not put her in a tailspin.
"I definitely like not working sometimes," she says. "It's so fun. I just love sleeping in. In America, everyone is driven to succeed and wake up and do something. But I don't care. I want to sleep in. I want to relax. I don't want to have to get up everyday.
"It's funny. The longer I have been in the business, the more I realised how important it is to have other things in my life. Have normal, healthy people around me, not focusing on the business all the time, not always going to see every movie… just being really happy. I've been evaluating how much I value happiness in my life. To be too driven takes away your happiness."
Boogie Woogie is released on 16 April
• This article was first published in The Scotland On Sunday on April 04, 2010