In 1985, Susan Seidelman blessed the planet with Desperately Seeking Susan, a screwball East Village fantasia about amnesia, Egyptian artifacts, mob killings, mistaken identities, jacuzzi sales, magic acts, suburban ennui, Nefertiti’s earrings, and an extremely rad jacket. Leora Barish’s script had been lingering in development hell for years, with studios passing on it because, as producer Sarah Pillsbury put it in 2015, “When we circulated the script, only women and gay men liked it.” Fortunately, Orion Pictures producer Barbara Boyle was one of those women; she picked up the film and hired Seidelman based on the singular, punk-rock style of her debut film, Smithereens. And it worked: The New York Times named Desperately Seeking Susan one of the ten best films of 1985, praising leads Rosanna Arquette and Madonna (called an “indolent, trampy goddess” by Pauline Kael) for their kooky but grounded performances. Arquette eventually won a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress for her role.
Thirty-five years later, Desperately Seeking Susan holds up as a bizarre paean to a downtown New York that no longer exists, one where a depressed New Jersey housewife can ditch her prim wardrobe and jacuzzi-salesman husband to spy on a romance she’s sussed out in the city’s personal pages, get bonked on the head, forget her entire life, incidentally impersonate Madonna, get arrested for prostitution in a tutu, and fall in love all in a manner of days. Arquette, who plays said housewife, Roberta, carries the whole thing, all sweet melancholy and Lucille Ball pathos, just as believable running from the mafia while holding a gigantic birdcage as she is swanning sadly around her devastatingly ugly suburban McMansion. Arquette’s nervous innocence plays perfectly off of then-burgeoning Madonna’s aforementioned trampy indolence; in the very few moments they’re together on screen, it’s like somebody got drunk on Champagne and remade Persona.
Arquette has been in the news for another reason lately: She accused Harvey Weinstein of assaulting her in Ronan Farrow’s October New Yorker article, and said she believed Weinstein ultimately blacklisted her for resisting. Just before Arquette and I were scheduled to speak about Desperately Seeking Susan, Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison — and WHO declared a global pandemic (after this interview was conducted, we learned of the tragic death of Mark Blum, who plays Arquette’s husband in the film, from coronavirus). When we hopped on the phone, we had a long-ranging conversation about the film, but also about what it feels like to know Weinstein is behind bars, and how she’s handling our shared new normal.
So are you holed up at home, too?
I’ve been sick. I had a flu and a really bad cough last week and a fever, which has subsided. But I think I’m okay because I don’t have the cough anymore; it’s just a flu. But I’m staying in anyway.
Oh no. Well, I’m glad you’re starting to feel better.
We’re all counting on the internet as this crazy thing is happening, which, along with the election, makes one a little suspicious. I am prone to conspiracy theories. Bill Gates was talking about a pandemic that would kill millions in 2019. Anyway.
Are you by yourself?
I have my husband, and my daughter was here. She’s gone to hang out with her friends, I think. Someone has lived with us for years and I insisted on her going home to be with her family, but she wants to be with us. She helped raise my daughter and she’s wonderful. We’re her family, too.
I live in the East Village and it’s so shocking to watch Desperately Seeking Susan and realize how different the city has become.
Yeah. Both this film and After Hours were filmed in places that no longer exist. It’s so gentrified.
The movie was really groundbreaking even though it’s a comedy — it’s entirely about women, written and directed by women, starring women, produced by women. Did it feel like it was breaking ground in that way at the time?
I’ve been talking about that recently, that Desperately Seeking Susan was totally groundbreaking. And Barbara Boyle brought it in — it was her film. It felt that way then, too. It was cool. I don’t think we understood the impact, but it did feel good. Hollywood wasn’t evolved enough to understand it and get it. Now, it really means something.
I know the script took a long time to get off the ground. At what point did you get involved?
I think I was one of the first people they reached out to. But there were a lot of Susans [thrown around]. They wanted Ellen Barkin at one point; she would’ve been fantastic. I would’ve loved that. Melanie Griffith. Some great actresses that were up for the Susan part. I didn’t audition; it was just an offer. I was with my friend Kenny Ortega, who’s a famous choreographer, and he asked me,”Look, I have a woman who wrote this script, and she’d love you to do it.”
Had Madonna been cast by then?
I was cast first. And then they told me about this pop star that was just blowing up while [the casting] was happening. Suddenly it was like, “Who’s this beautiful girl singing this pop song?” I remember watching her in the “Lucky Star” video and just going, “Oh my god.” It was electric. Everybody at that time fell in love with her. Including me. I remember her cool outfit — I’d just got one too, and I wasn’t wearing it, but the Agnes B. pencil skirt. Her whole look, with the black rubber bracelets — she just had this whole vibe. She was very much like, [affects Madonna voice], “Hi stranger.” Exactly like it was at the end of the movie.
We only had one scene together at the very end, so we weren’t really working together. But there was a scene that was cut. The original ending was that they didn’t go off with the guys — they go off together on an adventure, and you see them on camels in the desert, in the Sahara. Without the guys. I think that ending is such a better ending and I wish they would’ve kept it. Especially nowadays! That’s what Roberta was trying to get away from — the stereotype. It wasn’t happily ever after in the original script. I fell in love with that idea and I was very disappointed when they cut that out.
Did you fight back at all?
Yeah, but they’re not gonna listen to me. Nobody has that kind of power, unless you’re, I don’t know. Who’s the female star that they’ll listen to? It has to be somebody like Charlize Theron, who produces her own movies and controls her own narrative. That’s why we love Charlize. But that ending was disappointing to me. That ending now would be so important.
I agree. Very Thelma and Louise.
Except instead of killing themselves, they go off into the Sahara.
Did you and Madonna get close during filming?
We were very bonded during the movie. Very close during the making of the film. We’ve kept in touch through the years. I have lost touch with her, but a few years ago I went to Madonna’s Oscar party with Laura Dern, and saw her for a minute. The year Guillermo del Toro won. I haven’t seen her since, though. I missed her shows. I wanted to go, but I was out of town.
Did you reminisce at all?
No, no. She was in her party mode. We didn’t get a chance to really talk. I see her from afar, like everyone.
I read that the production wasn’t able to get Kevin Costner or Dennis Quaid to read for Roberta’s love interest Dez [ultimately played by Aidan Quinn] because a lot of actors didn’t want to be “the third fiddle.” Do you remember hearing that those actors felt that way?
That’s hilarious! Really? That’s so funny. But thank God they did. Because Aidan was great.
You’ve also talked about being confused about when Roberta had amnesia during the film, and it turned into you and Susan Seidelman crying on the street. Which scenes were you confused about?
What it was — there were four women in a huddle. The producers, Susan, and me. Because we were shooting so out of sequence, I’d go, “Wait a minute. She already has amnesia here.” But I was being told, “No!” So it became a bit of an argument and all four of us were a little emotional. It’s the stereotype of, “Oh, she’s so hormonal.” But that day we all kind of were, at the same time, having this moment of disagreement that was heightened by hormones, probably. [Laughs]. One was actually breastfeeding at the time. If you went back now and did a movie like that, I think things would be different. People have a different take on creativity and communication.
What do you mean, exactly?
I think it was a low-budget film. Even though it was a studio film, it had the indie film spirit on the set. There was this energy about it. I probably wouldn’t have burst into tears about it [now]. I was so in my character and knew exactly what she was thinking at every moment. It was confusing because some people actually didn’t get what was going on. And I had to be the one doing it!
What was Susan like as a director?
Her thing was really about the look of the film. The shots, the visuals. The great cinematography, the lighting, which was beautiful. There was not a lot of super-intricate direction from her in that way. If she didn’t like something, she’d basically say she didn’t like it. At that age, it would feel insulting and I’d take it personally. But I’ve worked with so many nurturing directors who come in and explain things. When someone says, “That sucks,” you’re like, “Ahh. What does that mean?” Those moments are always difficult. Now, though, somebody could say that to me, and I’d go, “Okay, cool!” There was a lot of pressure on my back then. The film was really on my back.
Something I really like about the movie is how it plays with the idea of how women are seen as “whores” or “madonnas,” pun intended. I think female entertainers often have it worse with that sort of thing — they’re forced into one box or another. Did you ever feel that pressure?
Never! Because all of my characters are very different. Everything I’ve ever done, they’re not alike. I’ve been really fortunate in that way. Everybody I’ve played is a searcher, searching for something and coming out the other side.
Would you call yourself a searcher?
Aren’t we all? I hope so!
What’s a particularly memorable scene for you from Susan?
It’s such a long time ago, it’s ridiculous. It really is. The production design was so gorgeous, by Santo Loquasto, who also did the costumes. We really were immersed in these moments. And the club was actually shot at the Apollo before they redid it — the original, smaller part of it. That’s my memory of it. The magic scenes. Martin Scorsese’s father was in one as an extra, this sweet old man in the audience, while I’m doing the magic show.
Yeah. John Turturro and I loved him. He was wonderful.
What about working with the bird?
What was really scary is that, if you look really carefully [at one point], the bird flies and you see it drop down behind me for a minute. I got so freaked out that something bad happened to that bird, like it got burned or something. But I think it was okay.
Okay, good. I read that you got to keep the incredible jacket that Roberta borrows from Susan. Do you still have it?
I don’t! I’d given it to Peter Gabriel’s daughters for them to share. And they were looking for it recently, trying to find it. There were a couple made, but I heard that the producers or Santo might have one and it might end up in the Hollywood Museum.
But you haven’t heard from Peter Gabriel’s daughters?
Nope. I called them and they can’t find it. Life goes on. They probably said, “What do we need this rag for?” They probably threw it out.
I didn’t think about that then. I should have kept that forever. I have my Pulp Fiction coat and my After Hours jacket. Why didn’t I keep that? It was so original and interesting.
Is there anyone you’d like to swap lives with, à la Roberta and Susan?
Gosh. I’m just trying to stay grateful in my own life. If anything, I think it’s important that we all put ourselves in the shoes of other people who have less than us, which I do anyway. So maybe, if anybody, I’d say Greta Thunberg. I think she’s young, she’s inspiring, she’s brilliant, and she’s changing the world and waking people up with regards to climate change. I think she’s a magnificent human being. If I had one day to swap, I’d be her.
That’s a good one. Susan and Roberta see New York as this place where they can be freer than they are in their real lives. Did it feel that way to you back then?
I think women are taking their power back on every level possible. And it depends on what you mean by free. It’s been shown how unsafe we are all around the world, and that’s kind of terrifying. I think New York is a much scarier place than it used to be.
On every level. Greed. What do you feel?
I don’t feel it’s scary. I feel pretty safe, in a literal way, in New York City. I feel safe walking around by myself, for instance.
I’m glad you feel that and I don’t want to take that away from you. But I do think it’s every woman’s responsibility to learn self-defense.
When you talk about how New York has changed since filming, what specifically do you miss?
The character. Gentrification has taken away the soul. It’s homogenized. I’m an organic girl and I don’t like the homogenization of New York. But some of the things Bloomberg did — the bike path, that’s beautiful. The gardens. He did a good job with that.
How did the film change your career?
I did three things back-to-back: this movie, Executioner’s Song, and Baby It’s You, and they came out around the same time. Those were the top of the A-list days. A lot of things came my way and I made choices, and always had the independent spirit, wanted to stay in that world. I turned down a lot of big movies that would’ve taken me to the next level, but I made those choices that people maybe didn’t want to see, working with interesting actors. I don’t regret the choices. I’ve worked with the best directors. And a lot of women directors. And continue to.
Is there any role specifically you turned down that you think might’ve been cool?
Whenever I read an actor saying, “I could’ve played that!” It gives me a bad taste in my mouth. It’s like, “God, stop.” I don’t want to be that girl. But I can say that quite a lot of films, years ago, would be between Michelle Pfeiffer and me, or Ellen Barkin, or Melanie Griffith. There were many roles that got offered like that over the years. A big Jodie Foster movie. It feels stupid to say that. But there were a lot of opportunities, so looking back, it is like, “That would’ve been good to do!” What a knucklehead I was. But now we’ve learned what Harvey did to so many women, including me. You see the opportunities that were missed. And now I’m certainly not an ingenue. I’m like grandma!
Let’s talk briefly about Harvey Weinstein, if you’re willing to, because a lot happened this week alone. A lot of actresses have said that post-Weinstein, their relationships have become much deeper. That these walls have broken down between actresses previously sort of quietly told to compete against each other. Has that been your experience?
I made a movie called Searching for Debra Winger, which highlights and honors women in this business. I was never, ever, and I think anybody would back me up, a competitive actress. I don’t even have it in my DNA to even think that way. I’ve always championed other women and always believe, Oh, they got that role because it was meant to be theirs. But I do feel excited to see women supporting each other in this time. [The Weinstein accusers] didn’t know each other [until the story came out] — I’d met Ashley Judd, but I didn’t really know Mira Sorvino. I knew Annabella Sciorra well. But the other women were all just names in an article. And then because of the Harvey Weinstein thing, we did all meet and connect and support each other. And of course Rose McGowan. It’s been a bonding thing. And what everyone has learned from this is that to be able to tell your truth, and believe other women, and share with other women in a safe space is really a sacred realm.
How do you feel about 23 years?
It made me cry when I heard it from Rose McGowan, who said to me, “It was 23 years ago that this happened [to me].” It makes me cry right now even saying it. She was the first person to come out, brave enough to tell this story. And we have to all recognize that. I’m happy that she’s got some justice and we all have got justice.
Do you feel a sense of relief?
No, because it’s not over. There are people in Hollywood who are very angry and upset and still protect him and hold us accountable for putting him in jail, and not in a good way. Fortunately, I know who they are and they probably know I know who they are. And I really don’t give a shit.
I’ll continue to make art, be creative, do my thing.. I know there’ll be another trial, but for me, I’m really proud of the contribution to all of this, and joining forces with the other survivors. This is a huge accomplishment in life. I’ve always been an activist and I’ll always be outspoken, but I don’t need to make a career out of this. A lot of people have found their voices through this and that’s great. I’ll always have the backs of survivors. They reach out to me every day.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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