Molly Ringwald (Kevin Carlin)

Molly Ringwald sits down with Salon: "I have a voice and I feel like I’ve earned it"

The former '80s teen queen opens up about playing unlikeable adults, John Hughes and culture in the age of #MeToo


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Gary M. Kramer
April 27, 2018 10:59PM (UTC)

"Sixteen Candles," "Pretty in Pink," "The Breakfast Club." These are some of the most iconic films of the 1980s, and they all star Molly Ringwald, who is currently starring in "All These Small Moments," making its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.

In this film, Ringwald plays the mom of two teenage boys. Her character, Carla, is trying to keep the peace at home while dealing with trouble in her marriage to her husband, Tom, played by Brian d'Arcy James.

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Ringwald recently appeared on an episode of "Salon Talks" to discuss the art of playing a "massively flawed" woman, #MeToo and her New Yorker essay about John Hughes. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

I was really taken by the fact that you’re playing the mother of teenagers in this, because you’re so well-known for being a screen teenager. What can you say or what observations do you have about your career as an onscreen mom?

Well, I feel like I’ve played a few moms now. I’m playing a mom currently on "Riverdale," I’m playing Archie’s mom. I’ve played Shailene Woodley’s mother in "The Secret Life of the American Teenager."

It’s happened a few times. And I’m a mother in real life. I feel like I have a lot of experience. I certainly feel more well-equipped to play a mother than I do a teenager now. But I really liked this particular mother because I felt like she was really multilayered and she felt like a real person. Sometimes, I think, particularly when it’s a project that’s from the point of view of a teenager, the parents are very one-dimensional. They come in and say, “You’ll figure it out, honey,” and then they go.

Carla, she’s in a crisis. She’s at this moment in her life where she doesn’t know if she’s in love with her husband anymore and what’s going to happen with the kids and why did I make all of these choices in my life. She clearly loves her kids, but she’s not the nicest person all the time.

She sort of has this nonchalance about how the family unit is run because she’s so preoccupied, and everybody in the film is preoccupied with something. But your performance is really expressive because of your body language and your expressions, and that’s what makes your character have depth. You're not just the mom, you’re really a part of the story because of what happens between Carla and her husband, Tom, but also with her kids.

That’s right. Yes, she’s a real person and she makes a lot of mistakes and she is massively flawed.

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Did you like playing it?

Yes. For an actress, it’s a lot more interesting to play someone who is not perfect and find the humanity in them and find moments to make them sympathetic in a way, even with all of the mass and distractions. Yes.

Well, are you a perfect mom? I mean, would your kids say that?

I’m absolutely perfect. We should probably say that to my daughter. My 14-year-old is sitting off camera at the moment, rolling her eyes at me.

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I can hear them.

I know. You can actually hear the eyes rolling back into her head. No. I’m definitely not perfect. I freely pretty much [have] given up on the idea of perfection. I think it’s just, I’m good enough. Every day, I have big plans about what I’m going to do that day. You know what, it inevitably does not work out the way that I hope or wish, but I think I have my moments.

What I like about Carla is that she’s perpetually angry, and her discomfort is really visible and palpable. We learn later in the film why this is the case, but I like that your performance conveys that before we put all the pieces together. I think your approach to her character is really interesting. Can you talk about that?

Well, I don’t know how much I should say in terms of, I don’t know if I want to give away exactly why she’s angry. But yes, she is. She is really angry, and I feel like she is practically humming with it the whole time. Every time you see her, I feel like you can feel how angry she is, and unhappy, too. I feel like it’s just all in my body language. It’s in my face.

There is this one shot where it’s a super, super closeup, and I feel like I look the unhappiest I think I’ve ever looked, in this closeup. I feel like it’s very relatable. I feel like people are going to watch this movie — I mean, already, when I’ve been doing interviews, I’ve talked to two people already who said that it made them want to call their mother, which I was so touched by because I pretty much gave up on being a likeable character and I was OK with that. In fact, I like that Melissa [Miller, the director] did not try to make me more likeable, like so many people do. It was more important to her that it was an honest portrayal.

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Yes. I think it comes across beautifully in the film. Now, there’s one scene in the film where Carla knits to keep busy because she needs to find a new project. She gets her son weights to help him with self-esteem. How do you improve your self-worth when you feel low? I know you like to sing, for example, and you’ve done cabaret as well as the show "Cabaret." I know you are really into books. Can we talk about what you do to sort of unwind or decompress?

I drink a lot of wine.

What kind?

Pinot noir, Côtes du Rhône. I’m not picky, just no chardonnay. [Laughs.]

I think what I try to do is reach out to friends, which is something that I didn’t do when I was younger. I come from this sort of Protestant stiff upper lip kind of family, and you tend to suffer in silence. That’s, I think, what I did for the first part of my life and at some point I thought, you know, that doesn’t really work. It doesn’t really help.

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What helps me is to talk to people and to sort of get out of myself and also to help other people. I don’t know. I help people whenever I can. I feel like that also gets me out of my mind. But I’ve also sort of accepted the fact that there’s a time for everything, and there’s a time to feel great and there’s a time to feel terrible. There’s a time to wallow. There’s a time to celebrate. It’s like just all part of life.

I want to know what you like to read.

What do I like to read? I like to read just about anything. I mean, I’ve been reading, I think, for years. I’m not as much in a reading phase at the moment just because I’ve been writing a lot and it’s really hard for me to do both. I kind of go through phases where I read a lot and then I take a break and then I write a lot. Most of what I’m reading right now is poetry.

I love Mary Oliver. I’ve been reading a lot of Rilke.

I try to keep up on the news, as maddening as it is. I’ve been reading a lot of essays, and I read a lot of The New York Times and Salon.

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[Former Salon editor in chief and current contributor David Daley is] a good friend, an old friend. He's been my friend since, gosh, the early '90s.

Speaking of your writing, you did a piece in The New Yorker recently about John Hughes’s films and the #MeToo movement and some of the [movies'] moments of rape and sexism and racism. I’m curious about your speaking out and how empowered you feel now. It’s so many years after this intense time in your life. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Sure. I always knew that I was going to write about that time in my life. I didn’t know that I would necessarily write about it in a context that I did, but I felt like a certain responsibility, in a way, to write about it, because the films that I’ve made with John Hughes are still incredibly popular. They’re still watched a lot. They’re even taught in schools. I also love the movies, too. I don’t want to make anyone think — and I think I’m pretty clear about that in the piece — I’m not renouncing the films. I’m discussing what feels problematic for me as a woman and as a mother.

But I feel like it’s a conversation, and I feel like the films still also have a great deal of value. That’s really, I think, why I decided to write the piece and also why it was as long as it was.

Also, it’s very important now because of the #MeToo movement that we have to look back, 35 years [later], at these projects to say, “Well, this was the culture then. This is what it is now. This is how it’s evolved or changed or how it hasn’t.” How have you evolved and changed from 16 to 50? 

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Well, I feel like when I was 16 years old, I feel like I knew everything. Then I sort of went through the stage—

This is the Mark Twain quote . . . 

— where I felt like I didn’t know anything, and now I’m sort of getting to where I feel like I’m starting to know a little something, like life experience has — I don’t know the actual Mark Twain quote.

It says, “When I was 16, I felt my parents knew nothing. When I was 18, I was amazed with how much they learned in two years.”

Yes. Exactly. I feel like over the years I was asked or expected to be an authority at a very young age, which was when I was a teenager, because any time you become famous or when you become . . . I was considered a role model for people my age. Naturally, people want to put you in that position where you’re telling people what to do. I felt incredibly uncomfortable with that, just because I was figuring things out for myself. I mean, I had opinions, certainly, and I was maybe a little on the bossy side with my friends and felt very free to share those opinions with my friends. But in terms of telling anybody else, it was not really . . . I just didn’t feel comfortable with it.

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Now, I just feel like I have a voice and I feel like I’ve earned it. I’ve also worked on my writing a lot over the years, so I feel like I’m able to express what I want and how I want to express it. That does feel empowering. I mean, everybody has a voice. Not everybody always feels comfortable using it and not everybody is taken as seriously as they ought to be, but I feel like women are feeling a lot more empowered now.

We saw you grow up on screen and [then] reinventing yourself for "For Keeps" or even "Fresh Horses," which are films that I saw because I wanted to see you do something different. I appreciate these films and the chances you took at the time. Do you look back at your career at that time saying, “Well, these were the kinds of roles I had to take because I needed to reinvent”?

When I was younger, I don’t really feel like I thought things through that much. Everything was very instinctive for me. I took projects based on something that spoke to me. I turned down projects because they didn’t. I move to Paris because I wanted to. I tried to listen to that voice inside of me and also to drown out a little bit what everybody else is saying because everybody has an opinion. I think opinions matter, but I feel like, for each individual, the one that matters the most is their own.

Right. I think that’s what your piece in The New Yorker does; it asks you to think critically and says, “Look at this not just for what it is but for what it could it be or how it can be perceived and how other people can perceive it. Even though I had one vision of it or view at the time, it’s changed over the years because I’ve become more mature, or the world has changed.” I mean, there’s a lot of value to it.

Yes. It’s evolved and we’re constantly evolving. I think it’s important. I’m very much not in the school of thought that we should erase history. That makes me really uncomfortable. I would rather that these films exist, that we still watch them, and that we learn from them, and we sort of take what’s good, and that we continue to evolve and make movies.

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Everybody’s always trying to make a John Hughes movie. They can’t. He’s not here anymore. That was definitely his voice, and I feel like he was masterful in sort of recreating his world. Now I feel like we can go forward and make John Hughes-esque movies, but for today.


Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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