Andie MacDowell Climbed The Hollywood Ladder. Then She Decided She'd Rather Be 'Normal.'

Nearing age 60, MacDowell returns with one of the best roles of her career. But why isn't she as famous as Nicole Kidman?
Illustration: Gabriela Landazuri/HuffPost Photos: Getty Images

Andie MacDowell’s imperial phase lasted an all-too-brief seven years, spanning “Sex, Lies and Videotape” (1989), “Green Card” (1990), “The Object of Beauty” (1991), “Groundhog Day” (1993), “Short Cuts” (1993), “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (1994), and “Michael” (1996).

It was long enough to make her a household name, and short enough to leave folks wondering, “What ever happened to that Andie MacDowell? I love her!” (To which someone should respond, “She was in ‘Magic Mike XXL,’ duh.”)

It’s an awkward question to ask: How does it feel to have lost your popularity? But MacDowell is a realist. Being around pesky Hollywood types ― even though she didn’t move to Los Angeles until 2013 ― has kept her self-aware. She knows she could have had Nicole Kidman’s career, but she opted to focus on motherhood instead of chasing after the industry’s brightest projects. (MacDowell has three children with former model Paul Qualley.) Now, days away from turning 60, the new drama “Love After Love” provides one of the finest roles of her life. And who doesn’t love a good comeback story?

MacDowell plays a theater teacher who observes her husband’s painful death and then grieves alongside her unsettled adult sons (portrayed by Chris O’Dowd and James Adomian) and their extended family. Intimate and elliptical, the film ― directed and co-written by Russell Harbaugh ― lets MacDowell do what she has always done best: look. She is a remarkable conversationalist onscreen, her expressions superseding the words that glide from her mouth, as if her eyes have their own dialogue.

We first saw that wisdom in “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” when she chuckled naively and covered her face while discussing masturbation. And again in “Groundhog Day,” when she leaned forward in the diner to describe her ideal man to Bill Murray. Or in “Michael,” when she winked at William Hurt while singing that silly ditty about pie. But in “Love After Love,” MacDowell’s looks are sadder, more inquisitive, reflective of a weathered existence. She wanders alone into a crowded dance party, and into the jittery arms of new relationships, and into the turmoil of domestic infighting. Watching her is like witnessing an actress reborn. How did we ever let that Andie MacDowell slip away?

In person, MacDowell’s face contains the same multitudes. She is so engaged that her Southern inflections are almost secondary to her attentive brown eyes. When I met MacDowell at her Manhattan hotel last week, the Golden Globe-nominated actress relished the richness of “Love After Love,” hailed the Me Too groundswell and detailed the peace she’s made with the career she didn’t fight to maintain.

Andie MacDowell in "Love After Love."
Andie MacDowell in "Love After Love."
IFC Films

How does “Love After Love” compare to the projects offered to you in recent years?

It’s so much better than anything I’ve been offered. It’s really hard to find something like that. And you also have to think, “Oh, if there is material like that out there, there’s a lot of people out there that it could have gone to before it came to me.” When I read it, I was like, I cannot believe I’m going to get to do this. I was so excited about it and so thankful that even during the process I couldn’t believe it was happening sometimes.

It was really fulfilling to have that creative vehicle. And [Harbaugh is] totally different than any director I have ever worked with. More sensitive. He’s probably the most sensitive man that I’ve ever worked with. That was amazing. Not afraid of it, either. No fear of his sensitivity. How unusual is that! It’s not that he’s feminine, though sensitivity —

It’s attributed to feminine sensibilities, unfortunately.

It is! Yeah. Maybe that’s going to change. Maybe it’s going to be a human trait, not a female trait. I feel sorry for men being told not to cry. What a horrible thing to tell someone, because it’s not natural. He cried one day, because so much of this script is personal for him. I mean, right in front of everybody! I was kind of blown away. It’s about the loss of his father, and he went through all of that. I was blown away. And he had watched a list of beautiful movies. We watched some of them together, and I watched all of them.

What were they?

″À Nos Amours” and “Loulou,” which are directed by Maurice Pialat. If you haven’t seen them, watch them. “The Godfather.” Bergman movies, “A Scene from a Marriage.” Cassavetes. I’m telling you, it was a long list. And I was excited about that. I think this is not uncommon with new directors, and it’s a wonderful thing that they’re doing. That was exciting because it was like going back to school. I’d done all that in my 20s — I had watched all those movies, and it was nice to do that again and get the feeling of what he wanted to do.

We set up scenes really slowly. There was no push. Say we’re sitting down at the table. He would want us, in character, to have regular conversations and then get into the scene. And then whoever had the first line would just naturally find the space to get up and go into it. At the end of it, we could keep going. Most of the movie is really just his words, but I think starting and stopping in that way made it real. Nothing was forced, and it was fine to go on top of each other. And there was improv. The whole first scene was improvised. When Chris asks me about what makes you happy, that’s all improvised.

And then it became the opening scene. That’s impressive.

Yes! It’s the opening scene! I think there’s a levity to it. There’s a brightness to it that’s really important, because the movie does have such a heavy heart. And it takes a while to become bright again. You see people struggling. It’s watching people grieve, and how crazy they grieve.

I understand relationships now really well, especially parenting. And though my issues are not the same as the issues in the movie, I understand how you do that — the boundaries you break with your children, and how you get in their stuff and how they get in your stuff. I loved that because most movies don’t allow you to show psychological issues with such care. And also, to expect people to understand what’s going on, you have to be smart enough to say, “Look at what they’re doing to each other.”

Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell in "Groundhog Day."
Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell in "Groundhog Day."
Archive Photos via Getty Images

Knowing what you do now about relationships, do you look back at old performances and think how different they might be had you known more then?

Oh yeah. Sure. But I also think that there is something beautiful to being young and innocent. At the time that I played other characters, they were young and innocent. So I would guess that’s why it’s interesting to be where I am right now. I’m not that innocent anymore. I have to say, I know too much. It’s not like that means I’m a bad person; it’s just that I comprehend a lot more about humanity and the potential of people. I’m not naive.

So Rita, for instance, in “Groundhog Day,” would need to be innocent because she believed the world was beautiful. She wouldn’t need to know all that stuff that I know now. “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” the same thing. I would not have been as naive, and she had to be naive. But that’s what makes characters now, and the work that I can play now, interesting. It’s also what I think makes mature women sexy, just like it’s what makes a mature man sexy. It’s this knowledge.

It’s gravity.

Yes, and experience.

Since you singled out how sensitive this director was, have you encountered a lot of insensitive men over the years in your career?

It’s not just my career. I think it’s life in general. But yeah, this year has made us all think a lot. Before, if we were to complain, we were just seen as complainers or whiners expecting something we don’t deserve. I don’t think the shift is going to happen fast. I think there is so much psychological abuse that men are unconscious of that we have had to tolerate.

I’ve been saying — and it’s the truth — when I was in the process of Jungian therapy, one of my therapists understood how I felt as an independent woman struggling so much just to live in a society that kept putting on me things that I couldn’t understand. Because I was an independent woman, they always wanted me to play this person that I could no longer play. One of the things [my therapist] said was, “Don’t get upset when you read the chapter where Jung was basically saying women were insane to work outside of the house.”

So that’s the format which we have been playing with for such a long time. Change is not going to be easy, but at least we’re going to have change. I think we’re going to finally get it. In the end, I think we will all feel better. Men need to be able to cry, but we also need to be seen as equals, and not as housekeepers. I do think there’s still a layer in there, though men would say, “We’re not like that anymore.” It’s in there! I’m sorry! We are less than. And the fact that we haven’t had a woman president in this country really shows how slow progress is.

What do you make of this political moment?

You know what’s so interesting to me? Before the whole Me Too thing came out, I think there was something in the air. As soon as women put [President Donald] Trump in that box, a lot of stuff started coming up. Before Rose McGowan and all that happened, I confessed to a friend of mine something that happened to me — stuff that started bubbling up for me. And then that happened, and I was like, “I can’t believe this is happening.” There’s a whole feeling within women right now. It’s all coming up and coming out. We’re tired. We just can’t do it anymore. That’s the whole Time’s Up thing. We cannot pretend, we cannot wear this mask any longer. The mask no longer fits, and I cannot pretend to be submissive. Think about that word. Isn’t that an interesting word? Subservient. Submissive.

Less than.

Less than! Less than. To serve you. That has been our role. That’s the same thing I’m talking about that I was struggling with. I had made all the money, yet I would go into meetings with men and I would feel more comfortable if I could take a husband or a man, because I felt like they never really gave me credit.

You mean rooms with studio executives?

No, even just with business people, to go in and talk about my money I had made.

Oh, just to square away your personal finances.

Yes! And just at every level of my life, they’ve looked at me like an incapable woman. It’s insane. And how many people still say a woman is incapable of being president? You feel it — it sinks in.

Andie MacDowell at the 2015 premiere of "Magic Mike XXL."
Andie MacDowell at the 2015 premiere of "Magic Mike XXL."
Tommaso Boddi via Getty Images

Thankfully, the Me Too fallout seems to have hit such a fever pitch that we won’t regress back to where we were.

I don’t think so. There’s no way it’s going to disappear. We’re done. Time is up. And we can’t go back. We’ve got too far to go. It’s not going to happen overnight. We still have a lot of work to do to quit having to play that role.

I tell you, people say this to me all the time. They want me to be in a relationship. My daughters [actresses Margaret Qualley and Rainey Qualley] want me to be in a relationship. I will say to them, “I can’t do it again.” It’s going to take a really special man because I can’t play that role anymore. I just can’t do it. I can’t go back into a role with a man if he expects me to do that.

So you’re not dating?

I’m not dating. I wouldn’t mind it, but I don’t want to play that role anymore. I’ve done it before. You get in with a man, and they start expecting that. I can’t do it.

Have you thought about going public with the incident that happened to you?

What happened to me, I want to do some research about. I was young, and it’s a really big deal. I don’t want to go public with it. It was before I was in the business. I’ve thought about writing about it. I went to a friend of mine who’s a writer and said, “I would really love to do a Southern piece, and I would like to put this element in this woman’s history.” I would like to develop it.

As a fictional concept?

Yes, because I still have this idea of developing a TV show. I would love to do an ensemble piece sort of like the characters in “Love After Love” — that complex, but for a TV series. I went in to pitch this idea to her, and I told her what had happened to me and said I would love this to be a mature woman my age and for this to be part of her history. I had never told anybody this except for my daughters. And then the #MeToo happened and Rose came out.

That’s what I’m talking about: It had bubbled up to the point where I finally told someone. It was after the Trump thing, and I think psychologically it had something to do with it because I felt like, with what happened to me, these guys felt it was OK. The behavior that we’re talking about, men have been told that it’s OK. And they’ve supported each other. It is OK because they’re supported each other in treating women like that. It’s been all right.

Do you think you have more of a leg to stand on in terms of getting that project developed?

I think if I focused really hard on it I could make it happen. I just need to really set my mind to it. It’s like anything in life.

I look at other people, like Nicole Kidman and all these people, and look back and think, “At one point, I was a contender along with these people.” I feel like I lost my juice somewhere along the line.

Do you know when that happened?

I think it was important to me to have a normal life. I don’t know that you can have a normal life. It was a sweet idea, and I tried super hard. I lived in North Carolina and Montana, and I did not focus very hard on my career. I focused really hard on my children, and I had this concept that I wanted to give them something normal. I don’t know that people ever really allowed us to be normal. I think it’s super hard for people to allow someone in my position to be normal, because they like to see you as that. It’s more fun.

They want you on a pedestal.

Yeah, it’s interesting, right?

You become a figurehead for aspiration.

It’s part of the fantasy of the world.

“I know I won’t have her life, but there she is, so I can at least imagine it.”

Yes, that! They want you to be that. The good thing is, at the same time, I think I’m super ambitious. In getting out of that whole world, I did focus on my children, so there was a positive. They didn’t really know that much about what I did. It was not a part of our dialogue, and it did help me to just be a mom. But at the same time, it made me lose the inspiration, in a sense, to be more creative in my work. And it’s just a matter of finding that kind of levity and energy and making it happen when you haven’t been in the loop.

You’re right, though. Through a lot of the ’90s, you were one of the it-girls, so to speak.

I was in the mix. That would be the word.

You could have had Julia Roberts’ career if you’d wanted it.

I could have done a lot more. I could have started a production company and made more happen. But also, at the same time, there was one year right away when my success really took off and I did three movies. And I felt like I just didn’t see my children, and I didn’t like that.

I had read an article written by a man who was about my age, 60, and he had written about regrets. He said, “You’ll never regret not working. You will regret not spending time with your family.” I listened! I made sure that was my priority. But now they’re gone, so I do have the time, if I can just focus and connect.

I’ve never lived in Los Angeles, so I’m starting to make connections. I’m trying to reach out to younger people and keep my mind open. Maybe I can make it happen.

Andie MacDowell and Gerard Depardieu in "Green Card."
Andie MacDowell and Gerard Depardieu in "Green Card."
Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

You sound fairly zen about the whole thing. Was there ever a moment when you were more resentful about how that panned out?

Hmm, I’m trying to think of what I said to a friend of mine. Not resentful. That’s not how I feel. I almost felt like, what did I do wrong? What could I have done more? That kind of thing. How did I not end up more connected? I’ll look at people who are making it happen and they’ve got it all going on, with the production companies, and think, where was the disconnect for me? And I think it was living in North Carolina and focusing on my kids. But I’m glad I did.

I know it’s kind of late in the day to spark that energy, but …

People love a comeback story.

It still could happen.

After all, you were the talk of “Magic Mike XXL.”

Well, that was another case. When you disappear like that and you feel so disconnected, like you’re just completely nobody, you’re excited for an opportunity. It didn’t matter how small it was. I just wanted to be in the movie, please, and work on a movie with [“Sex, Lies and Videotape” director Steven Soderbergh] and be with all these wonderful people.

And watch some hot men dance.

And watch some hot men dance! It was a lot of fun. Being in the room with those guys was hysterical. And I think they were happy to have me there. It was only three nights. Talk about changing time zones. I worked really hard to get into that time zone because we were working nights.

When you look back, do you think about doors that could have opened had you taken different roles?

Yeah, I think everybody thinks that, I’m sure. There’s a lot of things I could have done differently.

Were you offered “The Silence of the Lambs,” or is that just a rumor?

No, I wasn’t offered “Silence of the Lambs.” That’s a mistake. And it’s not only what you were offered, but I’ll look back at opportunities and say, “If I hadn’t been consumed with my personal life at that moment, I would have gotten that.” There are a lot of cases like that, and I’m not going to say which movies. But you’ve got to have a personal life, right? That is the hard thing to balance. It’s not an easy process. And I also had my kids young. A lot of people wait. I had my kids in the height of my career, so I had a lot going on.

At this point, how many scripts are you reading in any given year?

Not enough. [Laughs] And I would also be open to taking smaller roles, like “Magic Mike.” Sometimes I think, why am I not more connected with all these people that they would remember me and I could play quirky roles? What did I do wrong? I maybe didn’t befriend people enough or get close enough to people. How do I get in there and just play these offbeat characters? I’d be willing to do that.

Right as you were dipping out of the limelight, it seemed like people were starting to whisper more about the lack of roles for women of a certain age, which has since become a pressing topic in Hollywood.

Yeah, and they weren’t even whispering. They felt very comfortable asking that question: “How does it feel to know you’re not going to work anymore?” Isn’t that amazing? They’re not going to feel comfortable asking it anymore, you would think. They’ll look stupid. But everybody asked it. It was a normal question to ask.

You were asked that question specifically?

Oh, so many times! That’s what I’m talking about: It’s been so normal to treat us like that. It’s the same thing as thinking that women don’t age well. That’s a concept that women believe, too. I keep saying to them, “It’s not true, you guys. They age, too — they’ve just tricked us.” Think about it!

I told this to another guy the other day, and it’s true: If you put a man with a woman who’s 25 years younger on the screen, automatically he looks sexy. The concept keeps happening — it’s happened for so long that we project that energy onto him because we’ve been taught it. Men look alluring, they look sexy. If you did that with women, we, too, would look alluring and sexy.

And when women get to be older than their love interests, it’s treated as a punchline, like “Harold and Maude.” That’s an extreme example of an age difference, but it speaks to what you’re saying.

Right, and I’m just talking about a 10-year age difference. We would look like our power was sexy. “I’m a rich, powerful woman. Why can’t I be just like a rich, powerful man?” And it’s not so much that I even want it.

You want the opportunity.

I want women to be seen as as sexy as men, and I don’t want women to feel bad about themselves. That’s what has happened to us. We’ve been taught that we age out. Men become sexier, and we become trash. It’s not a good way to live. From 40 to 60, we could have such better lives. And mine’s gone! I’m turning 60, so I’m fighting for all those other people. I want my daughters to feel good about themselves.

This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for length.