From between her shapely, spandex-clad legs, Gina Gershon greets me with an upside-down smile. It was her idea to meet at this yoga class in Tribeca, but she arrived late, so our first encounter takes place as we’re both doubled forward in uttanasana. For the next hour, I stand directly behind her as she contorts her body into the bendiest of positions. Each time the instructor tells us that, if we feel the urge, we may try a deeper, more complex pose, Gershon goes for it. Picture her raising her arms overhead with the dramatic pizzazz of the conniving, bisexual Las Vegas dancer she played in 1995’s Showgirls, her most famous role.
The class proves to be the one shot of stress relief in what quickly becomes a very hectic morning. After yoga, we have to grab a cab back to her apartment because she rushed out without her phone. Soon we’re downing eggs at the Greenwich Hotel, where we’re supposed to be discussing her biggest movie part in years, as the trailer-trash target of an assassination plot in the film adaptation of Tracy Letts’s very dark comedy Killer Joe, starring Matthew McConaughey as the sadistic title character. But today is also her deadline to turn in the final corrections on her new book—with perhaps the least subway-reading-friendly title ever—In Search of Cleo: How I Found My Pussy and Lost My Mind. (It’s the true story of the hunt for her runaway cat ten years ago.)
“I’m doing a rewrite in one night. Of course I’m going to make mistakes. And whenever I complain, everyone’s like, ‘Welcome to the book world,’ ” she says, fretting that critics will think she’s a “dumbass” when they see typos in the uncorrected proofs. She and her brother co-wrote a 2007 children’s novel, Camp Creepy Time, about a 13-year-old who discovers his summer camp is run by aliens. But this is her first book for adults, and she’s nervous. “I’m not trying to be Dostoyevsky or pretend I’m this amazing writer. I’m not,” she says. “People are probably going to say ‘Stick to your day job’ anyway. So if it’s going to be in my voice, I really want it to be in my voice. And the grammar should be correct.”
Gershon’s connection with Cleo is so close, she says, that when she got fake blood in her ear while filming a fight scene for Killer Joe in Louisiana, Cleo developed a mysterious ear infection back in Los Angeles. She wrote an album about him—yes, Cleo is a boy—in 2007 (she sings and plays guitar and the Jew’s harp) and a musical revue. “People kept telling me I had to make it a book because no one believed it was a true story,” she says. Especially the part when, on advice from Ellen DeGeneres’s animal psychic, she was crawling through backyards in West Hollywood at six in the morning with a bottle of her own urine, leaving a trail for Cleo to follow home, and a homeowner recognized her as “that lady from Showgirls.”
She seems at peace with being best known for a movie she did seventeen years ago in which she danced naked and hit on Elizabeth Berkley. “I’m definitely a character actress,” says Gershon, who frequently forgets the names of the movies she’s been in, many of which have gone straight to DVD. When I mention that her IMDb bio describes her as “one of the leading icons of American camp,” she says, “That’s nice. I’ll take it.” She gravitates toward outsize characters, but adds, “It’s not like I’m getting offered these big huge romantic comedies that are surefire hits.” Her recent stint as a chic fashion-showroom owner on HBO’s How to Make It in America was the first time she can remember portraying “a cute, normal girl—not crazy or anything,” she says. “I don’t have anything against playing a quote-unquote normal person. I’d like to play the girl next door—who’s secretly schizophrenic.” She laughs. “The characters have to have a little twist, or else they can probably find someone else who’s better at playing them than me.”
Gershon’s other recent work includes comically rough sex with Denis Leary on Rescue Me and the role of Fabia, a cosmetics mogul and plastic-surgery victim, on Ugly Betty. “I loved looking like I’d had this really crazy face-lift. I kept thinking, People are going to think, ‘Oh, wow. She really went there.’ Or, ‘She should get a different doctor,’ ” says Gershon, who, incidentally, does not look like she’s had a face-lift. Cosmetic surgery is a regular concern for actresses in Gershon’s peer group, but she’s not into it, she says. “I don’t want to judge anyone. But it makes me a little sad. We’re living in a Twilight Zone period when you see these 20-year-old girls changing their faces. Ironically it’s making everyone look older.”
Public records say Gershon is 50, which she’ll neither confirm nor deny. “This whole age thing, I don’t buy into it,” she says. “I went to Papua New Guinea and met people who had no concept of their birthday and therefore no concept of age. I believe you can choose your age and that if you concentrate on your number, you can feel whatever age you think you are. If people ask, I say I’m 73. But as an actress I could probably play from 15 to 102. That’s what they have makeup and lighting for.”
Neither makeup nor lighting is on her side in Killer Joe; she’s jarringly unglamorous. “It’s more fun to look super-gnarly than to have the pressure of looking beautiful,” she explains. “I don’t like doing things halfway.” So she gained weight: “My character lives in a trailer and drinks beer and eats all the time. That wasn’t fake—that double chin was mine, babe.”
She was also suffering from undiagnosed poisoning: While gorging on oysters on the shoot in New Orleans, she accidentally ingested a solvent used to disperse the BP oil spill. “My face was blowing up, and I kept thinking, Wow, I must be so Method. It dissipated after three months, but my face had these lumps in it. Luckily I was playing someone who could look like shit.” When she saw herself onscreen for the first time, though, she says, “I was like, ‘Oh my God. I’d better start losing weight immediately. I have to look okay before I do press, because people are going to think, Oh, wow, she really let herself go.’ ”
Killer Joe marks her triumphant return to NC-17 cinema (Showgirls was the first movie with that restrictive rating to get a wide release). In the first scene, Gershon answers the door of her trailer naked from the waist down. “It’s the middle of the night, and she’d been drinking, and she was sleeping, and she went to the door,” she says. “I don’t think pants entered her mind. She’s kind of like a feral animal to me.” But the scene that caused the most controversy when the movie debuted at film festivals last fall was the one in which her character is forced to fellate a fried-chicken drumstick held at McConaughey’s crotch. Gershon cheerily tells me that her only request was that the chicken come from Coop’s, a legendary French Quarter Cajun joint. “I just wanted to make sure it was really good chicken,” she says. “Thank God I’m not a vegetarian.” She turned down the role in the Off Broadway production of Killer Joe in 1998 because she found the act so disturbing. So why do it now? She shrugs. “Part of doing Killer Joe was like, ‘After this movie they won’t ask me about Showgirls anymore.’ ”
As we’re wrapping up, Gershon receives an e-mail from her publisher informing her that her deadline for corrections is noon instead of two. “They’re giving me an anxiety attack,” says Gershon, scribbling on a manuscript. “It just makes me want to cry. They’re fucking stressing the fuck out of me.” When I check in with her by phone a few days later, though, she’s calmed down. She’s preparing for a vacation to Ibiza with her live-in boyfriend, soccer star turned entrepreneur Bobby Dekeyser.
Her next project is Harem, a series she’s developing for Starz and the BBC about the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire. “There was a period of time called the Reign of Women when women were running the country. It’s going to be sexy and fun,” she says. She got the idea for the show while wandering through palaces in Istanbul during the shoot for a movie whose name she can’t remember. “My life goes into weird realms,” she says. “If you’re open to it, magical and strange things will come into your life. And I’m definitely open to it.”
This story appeared in the July 30, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.