Minnie Driver experienced one of the most cruel turnarounds in television, when she was nominated for an Emmy and Golden Globe for The Riches only to see the show canceled before its second season. But the English actress is bouncing back, with a sharp turn as the law-student wingman of a woman (Hilary Swank) determined to prove the innocence of her brother (Sam Rockwell) in Conviction, opening October 15. She also told Vulture about her new film Barney’s Version (and why she’s disappointed that her part got cut down), and a new album on which she’ll be covering Def Leppard and, of course, Stevie Wonder.
In addition to Conviction, you’re also in Barney’s Version, with Paul Giamatti, which got a lot of great buzz at the Toronto Film Festival.
It’s based on a really famous Canadian novel [by Mordecai Richler], and it’s basically about a really grumpy, slightly misanthropic central character, Barney, played by Paul Giamatti, and the three women who he’s been married to. I’m the second wife. The book is about three female characters, but they’ve really pared it down. I got cut a lot. They focused on the love story with Miriam, played by Rosamund Pike. It’s a cool, interesting film but it’s different than the one I made: I mean, Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman, they’re like made for each other …
So your part got chopped?
It was cool, a very interesting film to make, but it’s always a drag when they refashion it in post so that it’s unrecognizable to me … I played a very difficult character, kind of shrill, a Jewish-Canadian princess, and she loves this guy. She’s very funny, and kind of tragic and really sad, but I guess they had to cut the emotional stuff that gave it weight, because audiences weren’t buying that he got away with being so mean to her. They had to rebalance the film. It’s a bummer, but your experience of making a film is always different than the film itself.
Well, at least it didn’t get canceled altogether like The Riches.
It’s awful. That was hard, the roughest — one of the roughest moments in my career. Because it’s rare that I feel that complete and utter injustice. It was a show that was so good and just required support from the network and studio and didn’t get it. All timing and lack of faith. Eddie [Izzard] was and is a genius. I still feel bummed about it, and I don’t feel bummed about too much. I love my life and career, but that one stung.
I was sad to see that show go.
I can’t watch Hung, as a result, that dirty mistress to our show. It’s on with the same creators and … and … I feel utterly betrayed.
It must have been so hard, right after you scored those awards nominations.
I mean, I was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden globe, the year the Golden Globes were canceled. Everyone was only watching reality television when there were no shows on because it was the only thing you could count to be on, because of the [writer’s] strike. So when we came back, FX didn’t run the first season again, and we couldn’t get an answer out of people as to why they didn’t want to renew it. I feel like if we’d been given a [full] second season, we would have had a shot. Every show suffered after the strike. All viewers knew was that Dancing With the Stars hadn’t been canceled … So they watched that. But I’d much rather have a noble failure than a crappy show that just got canceled.
From The Riches to Conviction to your cameos on shows like Modern Family, every part seems different. Is going so far away from yourself part of the appeal?
It definitely is … I started out playing a kind of version of me in Circle of Friends and that was kind of my jumping-off point in a way. Everything has been a massive stretch since. And you can only get there as an actor when you are asked to step out of the box frequently. As an English actress constantly playing Americans, you already had to step way out of your box in that way. I just love acting, with a passion that still kind of surprises me. I just finished another film, Hunky Dory, that was hands down the best experience I’ve ever had working. As long as you’ve got that, you’ve got something to offer. Your passion makes you relevant.
What’s Hunky Dory?
It’s an independent British film, about the Langley School Project in the seventies — an irreverent teacher who believes that she can galvanize these kids in this very rough school. It’s getting Glee comparisons, but it’s so hard-core. Sixteen-year-olds playing crazy, amazingly rearranged versions of ELO …
And in Conviction, you’re working with Hilary Swank for the first time, right?
Yes, and we were talking about how you so rarely get to act opposite women. It just doesn’t happen. You’re always the squeeze or the nurse or the wife or the mother, acting opposite a dude, mostly. That’s cool, but it was absolutely phenomenal to work with Juliette [Lewis, who plays an unhinged, drug-addled witness who explodes with a messy torrent of profanity when Driver and Swank solicit her testimony] in that one insane scene she has, that I think she’s going to get nominated with. It’s just crazy, crazy, crazy good, properly special, and every word she says comes from the real transcript of the crazy woman she’s playing, verbatim. With Hillary, well, I throw mud at the wall and trust the director to see what sticks. I have no method other than commitment. But Hilary is so precise, she’s like a surgeon.
So, what are you up to today?
I’m in transit — in California. I’m just about to start another record, actually. We’re going through the music — me and my band and my producer, trying to figure out what to do with the new album.
What kind of record?
It’s a covers record, so we’re just going through all the songs: There are so many songs that I love and that have meaning, so it’s about figuring out twelve when you’ve got 30 that you want to do.
Can you give me a taste? What are you definitely doing?
We’re definitely doing “Master Blaster” by Stevie Wonder — a really sweet, weird, dark version of the song, played with two twelve-strings, strange and kind of cool. And I’m definitely going to do some Bowie: “Life on Mars.” There are those songs I sing along with in the car, but I need to actually play them with my band to see if they make sense.
It seems like so many actors — you, Zooey Deschanel, Scarlett Johansson, Ryan Gosling — are all putting out albums now. Does it feel like there’s less push back on artists who do other things now?
I guess. I’ve never really had much time for the resistance, maybe because the bar is always set pretty low for actors? But if you’re an artist, you’re going to create art in more than one form. Maybe that’s the difference between being an artist and just wanting to be a celebrity: Like, James Franco has done a lot of things. Zooey has always played music. I think what you’re seeing is that people are embracing their role as an artist instead of being just an actor. I’m really glad to be an actor, but that’s not all.