"I like weird things": Alicia Silverstone on her career, from "Clueless" to new film "Bad Therapy"

"Jane Austen wasn't a shabby writer," says the actor/activist who also weighs in on dark roles and her vegan pantry

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published April 17, 2020 7:00PM (EDT)

Alicia Silverstone in "Bad Therapy" (Gravitas Ventures)
Alicia Silverstone in "Bad Therapy" (Gravitas Ventures)

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A full 25 years after she starred in the era-defining "Clueless," Alicia Silverstone is still inexorably associated with the sweet shopaholic Cher Horowitz. She's also known as one of the most prominent faces of veganism, authoring the bestselling "The Kind Diet" and building an entire brand around the word "kind." But if you think she's some mild Little Miss Sunshine, I've got two words for you. As if.

The 43-year-old actor and author has been at home on the dark side since her 1993 thriller "The Crush," and she's never fully left it, appearing in unsettling dramas like "The Killing of a Sacred Deer" and giving a small, shocking turn in this year's "The Lodge." Even her 2018 comedy series "American Woman" saw her as a cigarette-smoking, occasionally knife-wielding single mother navigating the '70s swinger era.

"I guess I like weird things," she says. The most recent example? "Bad Therapy," a black comedy in which she plays Susan, a mildly dissatisfied L.A. realtor whose problems get a whole lot worse when her marriage counselor turns out to be unstable. The film, which had been scheduled for a spring theatrical release, joins other movies available to stream in April and is now instead available on demand on iTunes and other platforms.

Salon talked to Silverstone — who will also be appearing in Netflix's "The Baby-Sitter's Club" later this year — about her latest role, the timeless allure of "Clueless" and how she's stocking her vegan pantry to weather the pandemic.

I love seeing a movie that is unlike anything I have seen in a long time, and this certainly certainly fits the bill. I saw it described on one site as a rom com, which would not have been the first thing I thought of. I'm curious how you would articulate what this movie is.

I don't know if I'm going to be able to answer it in one sentence, but I do think that it is definitely a black comedy. That's just the nature of the subject. It's about this married couple, the Howards, played by me and Rob Corddry. We go to see a family therapist. Nothing's really even bad. That's what's kind of funny about the whole thing to begin with, that nothing's really bad in their lives. There's something not quite right. And since my character's friend is going to therapy, she's like, "This is great idea. Let's go check this out." Judy Small — Michaela Watkins — takes them in and they go down the rabbit hole of marital therapy. Quite quickly Judy turns out to be incredibly manipulative and starts messing up their marriage. And all of their trust is challenged.

I guess the rom com part is that they do fall more in love, and they do become closer as a family, as a result of it all. But it's definitely dark and weird and delightful, all those things. I think it's a really fun ride. It's funny; it's super weird in the best way. I think the actors are so good. I love Rob Corddry and Michaela Watkins. Those guys were my friends prior, so it's really lovely. Rob Corddry and I did a movie together called "Butter."

Which is another weird one, another one that's hard to describe.

I guess I like weird things. I loved what Rob and I got to do together in that movie. So we were all very friendly. It was just so much fun to get to work together, and such a joy to see his face every single day and to act with him. And it's a fun role for me.

What drew you to "Bad Therapy"? Was it the opportunity to work with these two other actors who you are fond with and have a history with — and also who are very much known for being in that sweet spot of comedy, but the darkness?

I didn't know that Michaela was going to be involved when I signed on. She came after Rob and I. Rob came on first, then me and Michaela, I didn't know I was going to get to have that amazing pleasure of working with her. She's so talented and such a sweetheart. 

But I would say that the number one draw for me was this project. I met the director about a year before Rob and I started even talking about doing this together. It was really the script. The writing was so good. It was such a juicy script, and the characters were so interesting.The Judy Small part, she's so weird. And then you get to watch this very normal woman, my character, completely lose her mind. Everything is being tested. She thinks her husband's having an affair. She thinks her husband is looking at her daughter the wrong way. She's all messed up. She's losing it. She pulls a knife on her husband. 

She goes from being completely normal to really losing her mind, and you totally understand why. That's such a fun part, so that's what drew me was the part and the script.

You took a big step back several years ago to focus more on your advocacy and entrepreneurship and authorship. It feels like over the last few years you have been extremely discerning in the projects you take on. What is it is specifically about comedy that you keep circling back to?

To be honest, I love drama and I love comedy. I don't have one favorite over the other. I think that people seem to enjoy me in comedy. But for me, I approach both exactly the same way. And I guess that's what's funny, that you are so serious in these circumstances. But you know, "The Lodge" is not funny nor is "The Killing of a Sacred Deer." 

I did a lot of theater over the years and I love being on stage. I love theater. I did a play with Laura Linney that got a Tony nomination for Best Play called "Time Stands Still." That was not a funny play, and yet my part was sort of fun. There was humor in it, but it was definitely not a comedy in any way, shape or form. And then look at David Mamet plays. I did a bunch of David Mamet. Again, those are funny, but they're rooted in real things.

I think I'm just interested in juicy, real, complicated life and characters who are meaty that you can really get inside of and make them make a good dish with. That's what I'm interested in. My attention was not turned on acting for a long time. My attention was turned on activism and making change and writing books and having a family, all those things. I think when I came back at it, I came back at it with just the love, my love of the art and to do whatever and inspired me and excited me. And also doing something like "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," which is just a delight to do because the part was really fun, and working with fun people. I'm just following my heart really, and doing what feels right at the time.

You play a character in "Bad Therapy" who has been a single mother; you are now a single mother. With this and "American Woman" and "The Lodge," there are some recurring patterns in terms of family and parenthood.

I don't know what that is. I guess that's where the juicy, meaty stuff is — families that are falling apart. There's a reason for all of them. Who knows, on a bigger, deeper spiritual level what the connection might be that I'm working out in my own life? 

In terms of "American Woman," I loved that so much. I couldn't even believe when I got to do that part. When they asked me to do that, I just thought, "Pinch me, what is happening right now?" I got to have a different way of speaking. The clothes, the wardrobe. She was a woman trying to survive and dealing with 1975 women's liberation. It was just such a juicy thing, and I loved every moment of it. I'm so grateful I got to do that as an actor. I got to pull a knife on my husband in that one too.

We're coming up on the 25th anniversary of one of your most iconic roles. This year we also had a redo of "Emma." As the conservator of that character and that story, what it is you think it is about "Clueless," and the larger story of "Emma" itself, that keeps us coming back?

You know, Jane Austen was not a shabby writer. She knew what she was doing. She writes so beautifully and those characters are all so rich. I remember when I read Jane Austen, when I read "Emma." I had not read it before I did the movie. And then I read it afterwards, after I did all the press junkets for the film then I realized, oh, this was based on "Emma." I knew that, but I didn't really think it mattered at the time. And it certainly didn't because Amy Heckerling wrote her own beautiful take on the whole thing. But when I went back and read it, it was so fun to see all of those characters in "Emma." So beautifully modernized, and how interesting Amy had turned then and spun them. I think good storytelling will never die, right? You're never going to get sick of some of these amazing stories. I just don't know how you would.

We are now all sheltering in place. We are hamstrung in so many ways. As a vegan and an activist and a cookbook writer, I'm wondering are you finding any unique challenges, or have any advice for our readers who are vegans or aspiring vegans who are having difficulty now shopping and preparing food?

I am so grateful. I'm so lucky. One, my family and I are healthy, and two, that I do have access. I'm going to the farmer's market every Sunday. Although it changes every Sunday, it gets more and more regulated and organized in a safe way for what we're dealing with. I still get all my fruits and veggies there. So I would look into your farmer's market, because I think they're still operating. And they're outdoors, and what a lovely thing. You're getting what's in season. I have not seen a lack, but that's my experience.

When I go to the grocery store, the only thing is I'm having a hard time getting are the beans and the rice and the flour that I want. So I end up ordering it online. And then I wait for it. I'm still waiting for whole wheat pastry flour that's taking forever. But I'm using everything. I already had a pantry of things that were just in my repertoire, like I always had barley and millet and quinoa and all those things. That's just part of my little pantry. I'm so I'm lucky I have those reserves, but I don't feel the need to hoard at all. I buy as I need. And when you eat fruits and vegetables, there's a supply, because the farms aren't shutting down.

'Bad Therapy" is available on demand April 17.


By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

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Alicia Silverstone Bad Therapy Clueless Emma Interview Michaela Watkins Rob Corddry