There’s some tough flint beneath the shimmer of the lovely Andie MacDowell.
Once billed as a jeans model, she has run the gauntlet in the precarious world of modelling, and at 48 years old as still a beautiful international face, beautiful beyond debate.
She has also walked the crossover line into acting, some not bad at all. And now, the Four Weddings and Funeral star, is about to marry for the third time, bringing her that much closer to life imitating art.
MacDowell is unassuming, easy to like, unfazed when she discovers that buttons of her silk blouse have slipped revealingly open - “whoops, my shirt is undone!”. Dressed in slinky cream and sling-backs, she is a far cry from inhibited and retiring.
“Me? Inhibited? OK, some days I may wake up feeling like a Laura Ashley dress, all floral and puritanical, but on others – man, believe me! Noisy, flirty, loud, even dancing on tables.” She shakes her brunette ringlets which eclipse any passing blonde.
“Nowadays I feel so good about ageing and spreading my wings to do things I never had time to do when I was younger. Ageing doesn’t bother me. I look at girls in their twenties and appreciate their beauty, but they are so self-absorbed at that age. When I look at 60-year-olds I think they look great. I have an aunt who is 86, and she has two guys fighting over her.”
She laughs huskily. In the early Eighties she became the face of L’Oréal, signing one of the largest exclusive contracts - $500,000 for 12 days’ work a year. Their relationship continues to flourish and MacDowell has had the extra pleasure of knowing she has helped to pave the way for other “mature” actresses, such as Melanie Griffith and Jane Fonda, to follow suit.
Related: Read our interview with Jane Fonda
“Hollywood and the beauty industry have always been geared to the cult of youth,” she comments. “I think you Europeans are less hung up about ageing than the Americans are and I feel lucky that I am not exactly good Hollywood material. I don’t walk the Hollywood walk. I don’t need a glamorous life to make me happy. I need to be rural and away from the buzz.
“I think you can have a normal life in Los Angeles but for me I wouldn’t even attempt to try it. I have a feeling of claustrophobia in cities. There are just too many people. I lived in New York for 13 or 14 years and my first two children were born there, and the only thing that saved me was living near Central Park, otherwise I felt hemmed in and somehow repressed.
“I just prefer the country. I like that feeling of space. I have an old house in North Carolina with two acres, my dog and my horses. I live down the road from my sister and have a gang of wonderful girlfriends.” She seems to be genuinely ageing comfortably in the country, making sorties to work, most recently to London for her new film, Funny Farm.
“I’ve always loved working in Britain, on Four Weddings and other films like Crush and now, Funny Farm. It is so refreshing because no one has an attitude, no one is a “star” and it is really great to be challenged by people who show up and really know their stuff. And British humour is so quick and smart. I love it. I could definitely live in England and who knows, I would like to try and work on the stage. I haven’t been able to contemplate that sort of work before because of domestic arrangements but because I only have one child at home now, it is possible.”
Funny Farm is Andie MacDowell's 29th film, co-starring Charles Dance, Kerry Fox, Rupert Graves and Bill Patterson. She made it after doing a stint voicing Etta the hen in an animated film called Barnyard, about farm animals with attitude that decide there’s more to life than spending time in the pasture.
“Funny Farm is the patients’ name for one of the many fashionable ‘rehab’ clinics springing up like geysers in the Arizona desert,” she says with a giggle. “There was no real script; a lot of it was improvisation. Rupert Graves plays an ex-porn star who goes into drug rehab and I am one of two therapists who work at this chic centre. Some of it was shot in London and then the rest was in Santa Fe. I thought it was awesome.”
At times you can still see the small town girl with stamina who ran away at 18 to New York to be a model. She was born Rosalie Anderson MacDowell, one of three sisters, in the small South Carolina town of Gaffney. After her parents split up she spent much of her childhood keeping her alcoholic mother, who died in 1981 aged 53, from self-destruction.
“Without going into detail, I grew up with three sisters and it was complete chaos. Each of my sisters had their own set of neuroses,” she says.
She was always interested in acting but grew up in a family in which women were told they should have something to fall back on. Her grandfather was a minister and her father wanted her to be a nun.
Everyone else told her she should be a model so she studied for a degree in Special Education just to be safe. Aged 20, she dropped out and left Hicksville, destination The Big Apple. New York agencies loved her. Soon her exquisite features glowed from a million magazine covers and TV ads.
“I wasn’t beautiful, but I was different. I was tall - 5ft 8in - and very thin” (she still is) “and definitely not a bimbo. It is difficult when they believe you can’t think and that there can only be a dumb, sometimes sleazy side to modelling. But it takes a very strong character to model and to use it for the right reasons. There were few bimbos around. I often laughed when people were surprised that I was not somebody sweet and demure with no depth.”
She then went abroad for 18 months and found an influential boyfriend in champagne heir Olivier Chandon, with whom she travelled to Europe’s ritzy hot spots. Returning to the States, she knew she wanted to pursue a serious acting career.
“When I first started out, so many of my contemporaries would have to work as waitresses or bartenders to keep the money going. I was the lucky one to have a lucrative job that allowed me to save and study with the best teachers. I was 23 when I stopped modelling because I had L’Oréal. I could stay in New York and study and be there when work came in, although my first film job was hardly a great coup.”
The film was Hugh Hudson’s 1984 Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, playing Tarzan’s girlfriend, in which her treacly Southern accent was dubbed out by Glenn Close. It was only when Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape won several prizes at Cannes in 1989 that she was recognised as an actor rather than a cosmetics model.
“It changed my life, but what if I had not gotten that role? Before that I could barely get in to see anybody. After that I could see anybody I wanted. It was overnight: hello great films like Green Card.
“I always felt enormous guilt being away from my kids and still do" says Andie MacDowell. "For any woman who has a career it is difficult, especially with the travel and the working away. I used to think about quitting.
"Now that my older two children feel much more independent, I reckon it’s OK. My son Justin is in college and he is 20 this year. My eldest daughter Rainey is 17 and she is going to skip the 12th grade and go to college early. And that means I am only going to have one at home – Sarah Margaret, who is 11.
“Next year is going to be really interesting – from three down to one, and me with my domestic role cut back to the bone. One child to deal with is easy and simple, and it has been a long time since I have had that. And Sarah Margaret is like a mini-adult.
One child and, let’s not forget, a new husband.
Her first husband was model-turned-contractor Paul Qualley. They met on a Gap shoot and their marriage was a fairly hippy affair on the side of a mountain overlooking Lake Tahoe with a Jimi Hendrix song playing and an Apache prayer read. They were married for 13 years and lived on a ranch in Montana before divorcing in 1999.
In 2001 she married her high school sweetheart, Rhett Hartzog, an Atlanta businessman her own age, back home in a Methodist Church in North Carolina. They divorced after three years and in January this year she announced her engagement to a businessman, Kevin Geagan, 40, who owns a used car dealership and has three daughters from his previous marriages.
“I’ve had many foolish experiences on the dating scene,” she admits. “I hate embarrassing my children as I am really not very good at dating. I was never comfortable dating even when I was 20, even though I feel more liberal now. I need to work to get away from this funny thing called fame. In life, most people don’t have to try to be normal. Normalcy is the regular thing. But when people recognise you, you have to start kind of negotiating normalcy.
“And then there’s normalcy and normalcy. Once Denzel Washington and I were presenting awards and I was billed as Andie MacDowell, actress and mother. But Denzel, who has four kids, was just billed as ‘actor’. You tell me, is that normal or what?
“It’s a funny old business this one. You cannot predict anything, least of all success, in it. It blows my mind how I got here. Obviously I must have some talent, but so do a lot of other people. I’ve been darned lucky. Look at the life. When I am working there is someone always doing your hair and make-up and I am dressed to kill and jewellers throw pieces of jewellery at me. It is fun and it is wildly glamorous. Can’t call it a bad job. Not exactly like working on the coalface, is it?”
This article was first published in the August 2006 issue of Saga Magazine. For great articles like this, subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition today.