Return to Me, written and directed by Bonnie Hunt in 2000, treads what has now — 20 years later — become vaguely familiar territory: Two people fall in love after one of them receives a heart transplant, only later realizing that the donated organ was once connected (often literally) to a key person in the story’s plot. In this case, the heart in question first belongs to Elizabeth (Joely Richardson), a beatific zoologist who gets into a car accident with her husband Bob (David Duchovny) and perishes offscreen within the first five minutes of the movie. The recipient of her heart is Grace (Minnie Driver), a plucky waitress at an Irish-Italian restaurant in Chicago with a lifelong cardiac problem who’s on the brink of death before Elizabeth unknowingly rescues her. Grace meets Bob when he’s dragged into her quirky establishment on a shitty double date, and the two embark on a refreshing little midwestern courtship involving watering flowers and riding bikes until — via a series of lightly absurd events — Grace realizes she has his dead wife’s heart, but can’t quite bring herself to tell him.
On paper, this sort of thing shouldn’t work, or rather, it puts a heavy strain on the imagination. Roger Ebert wrote that the film feels straight out of 1955, “so innocent, so naive, so sweet and sincere, that you must leave your cynicism at the door or choose another movie.” But Return to Me does work, if you let it, in part due to Hunt’s winning combination of earnestness and wry humor: a grounding, funny B plot stars Hunt as an exhausted mother of one thousand children with a gently obsessive interest in Grace’s love life; a series of cheerful old drunk men (including Carroll O’Connor in his last performance) live with and look after Grace, playing poker and watching joyfully as her previously paused life unfolds before them. The soundtrack is all sweet nostalgia — Dean Martin, Pavarotti — and the vibe is intensely ’90s, with plenty of mismatched skirt-and-top outfits and jobs that only exists in romantic comedies (architect, zoologist, waitress at an Irish-Italian restaurant with her own attached apartment).
But most of the film rests on the capable shoulders of Driver, who pulls you in with her perfectly enormous hair and filthy laugh and apparent lack of ego. Watching her flirt with Duchovny wearing a massive shower cap and pajamas in a moonlit garden, you think, “Yes … perhaps my heart does have free will.”
In our current global crisis, I only want to watch movies that already felt fantastical in The Before. Return to Me is far enough removed from any sort of reality to fit that bill. So I reached out to Driver to talk about her memories of the film, and we ended up having a long, hilarious conversation about how poorly celebrities are handling quarantine, getting “pantsdrunk” on Instagram, and the origins of her infamously raunchy Good Will Hunting joke.
How are you doing? Where are you?
I’m in California, in Los Angeles, with my boyfriend and my son, and we’re hunkered down. It’s really interesting what [quarantine] reveals about everybody — where the stressors are, how you create space when there’s no space. It comforts me knowing that everyone is going through the same thing. Whenever I feel overwhelmed by the isolation, I FaceTime my mom or a friend and we’re going through the same thing.
But celebrities have been really coming in for it. [Laughs.] I’ve been keeping really fucking quiet, but I’ve been watching [other celebrities] like, oh, no, don’t do that. Just put up another awesome video of, you know, somebody doing something funny that will make people smile. That’s the extent of our duties right now. Don’t say anything about what you’re doing, because, oh my God. It’s bad right now.
That’s extremely self-aware! I loved your Instagram about being “pantsdrunk.”
That’s the kind of content that I want, myself, and that’s the kind of content I feel comfortable sharing. Anything that’s like, “You know, I’m just doing laps in my pool” — nobody wants to hear that! Don’t say that you feel like you’re in jail. Don’t say anything. Just open a bottle of wine and wander around in your underwear like everybody else.
Somebody asked me to jump on their Instagram Live, like, “Let’s just have some wine,” and I was like, “Absolutely not!” And they were so annoyed. They were like, “Why not? People need content!” And I was like, “They do not need to see me getting drunk and saying inappropriate things on Instagram.” For God’s sake!
I mean, I would enjoy that specific content.
It may yet happen. We’re only in April. But if I’m gonna do that, I’m gonna do it by myself with a bottle of wine with a straw, after my son goes to bed.
“Getting Drunk With Minnie Driver” is what the world needs.
“I will be getting drunk from 10 p.m. to midnight, tomorrow. Please join me on Instagram Live.” I’m just there with my bar cart and a bunch of vodka.
I can’t wait. To get to Return to Me: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think back on this time in your life?
Oh my God. Chicago in the summer! Which I know, if anyone who lives there, it’s super-intense and so insanely hot. But for essentially a tourist, I had a bike, and I’d ride all over the city. I made more friends shooting that movie — people who were my neighbors, people in the park, at the zoo. Which I’d visit every day because I fell in love with the apes. I’d go hang out on my days off. I swear to God, in the great ape house, the keeper there would let me go in and hang out. The great apes would spit water on me and the chimpanzees would scream at me. I loved it.
But that movie is Chicago to me. That beautiful city, being by the lake. I was so happy. I’d ride my bike to set, and we had these amazing thunderstorms. I remember just sitting by Carroll O’Connor and Robert Loggia and asking questions about their lives and movies and the theater. I’d just sit and listen at their feet. It was epic. God, we had such a laugh.
I’m actually from Chicago — the movie was filmed down the street from my apartment in Old Town, and the restaurant you filmed in, I believe, was Twin Anchors. That neighborhood is so beautiful. Did you live around there while filming?
Are you?! I lived in this apartment right by Cabrini Green. The crew were horrified that I would ride my bike directly through Cabrini Green. I got to know all of the dudes there by name, like, “Hey, Joey!” I have a very positive memory of Chicago. It’s like the back lot of a movie studio, that neighborhood. It’s so divine. I remember this one night, we knew there was a thunderstorm coming and — you know how it gets, the heat so intense. We were night shooting, and it felt like it suddenly went up 10 degrees and it was so humid. We were all at this breaking point. Suddenly, there was the biggest crack of thunder and smash of lightning, and the heavens opened. I remember all of us just standing outside, getting drenched, because we were so hot.
It’s so funny. I have such intense memories from that movie because it was such an incredibly happy time. It was so unusual to have a female filmmaker, who wrote and directed it, in 2000. We’re a long ways away from that being kind of the norm. David Duchovny is one of the smartest — he’s exactly as you would imagine. He’s as funny and smart as he is handsome and charming. And he’d just had his little baby, West, and Tea [Leoni] brought the baby to the set, and they hung out. He’s just the great best friend you’d want to hang out with on a set, to shoot the breeze with.
I was going to ask about Bonnie — how many female directors had you had the chance to work with at that point? What was different about the shoot for you?
Sandra Goldbacher on The Governess, and literally maybe one in TV before I made Circle of Friends. I’d barely worked with any women in that capacity. It was completely different, and it was amazing. Bonnie is the triple threat: a great actress, a great writer, a great director. Plus, she’s an epic improviser; anything that wasn’t working, if you didn’t have an idea that worked, she’d have one. And she’s from Chicago. There was so much ease about what I imagine was a very pressured situation for her. It was literally her baby. A big movie, ish, at the time — MGM — and it was a big deal. I loved watching her enjoy it. Even though I know she got very stressed at times like all directors do, she knew what the film was that she wanted to make.
What stressed her out making this film?
I’ll tell you what. There was a moment in Italy, when we went to shoot the ending at the Hassler, this very famous hotel at the top of the Spanish Steps in Rome. Absolutely epic to be shooting in Rome in the summer. And everything’s been sorted out, and we get there, and the manager just decides that he doesn’t want a film crew traipsing through this hotel. He’s refusing to open the freight elevator to let us onto the rooftop. I remember everyone in the foyer of this hotel, and I heard Bonnie behind me, virtually in tears if not in tears. This is nightmarish. And Dave comes over to me, and he’s like [adopts gruff American accent], “Oh man, what are we gonna do?” And he goes, “Hey. We’re in Italy. Take your hair out of your ponytail, and go tell the story of the movie to the manager.” I was like, “What do you mean?! I don’t speak good Italian.” And he was like, “Just speak the language of like, a pretty girl.” So I went up to the guy and I started in the little tiny bit of Italian I know, and just gesticulating to David, and to my heart. I managed to tell the guy the whole story. I tell the whole story like I was at The Moth. And I’m not joking, by the end of the story, he’s in tears, and he’s like, “Amore!” And he literally takes a big key chain out and goes and unlocks the elevator, and we go and shoot the movie.
I love that he knew that your hair would be a draw, because it is quite mythical.
It was so funny. Everyone was stumped, and David was like, “Just go be a signorina.” He was like, “Use your superpower!”
What’s the secret to your hair, now that we’re on the topic?
I got to tell you, this friend of mine told me about coconut oil. I rub it into the roots of my hair instead of putting it on the end. And it’s a magical elixir. The likes of which I’ve never come across in any other hair product.
What was going on in your life outside of the film at this point?
I was engaged to Josh Brolin. I was basically drafting on the back of Good Will Hunting and having become overwhelmingly well-known. I know people don’t want to hear how difficult it is becoming famous, because you get loads of perks and money, but it can be a very overwhelming experience as a human. I was just kind of freewheeling, taking projects I really liked and living in L.A. I bought a house, I was 29 years old and it was an amazing time. I felt super-free and like I was enjoying my life. I was young and in a business that I loved. They were pretty halcyon days.
Return to Me is the sort of story that could very easily not work. What made you believe in its quality?
I had breakfast with Bonnie. I’ll never forget it. At the Four Seasons, which is so fancy. In England, breakfast is literally tea and toast. You don’t go out. Even though I’d lived in America for four or five years at that point, it was so exotic to me. And Bonnie is just the most disarming, wonderful mixture of so hilariously funny and so articulate. She had the clearest vision of the story. She was like, “I know that this is a very far-fetched element, but let me tell you how the humor, and with all the heart in the world, we’re going to shoot this for real. It won’t be a maudlin melodrama. We’ll shoot this as if it really did happen.” And I just believed her. And all you have as an actor is your instinct about people.
And oh my God, this is the greatest story: We’re sitting there at this meeting and I’m falling in love with Bonnie, and Paul Sorvino is also having breakfast at the Four Seasons. He’s a big actor, and [his daughter] Mira Sorvino is a big actor. He makes his way across the restaurant, and I’m quite overwhelmed that Paul Sorvino is now leaning on the table. He looks at me and he goes, “No offense, honey. I mean no offense by this.” And he turns to Bonnie and he says, “You should really cast my daughter in this movie.”
Oh my God. What did you say?
I was like, “I’m a really big fan of hers, but I really like this film!” And he was like, “I’m just saying. I wouldn’t be the father that I am if I didn’t come over here and say to you, Bonnie, that you should cast my daughter in this movie. No offense, Minnie, I think you’re wonderful.” It was the most bizarre — we thought it was about the funniest thing that ever happened. She was like, “This town is insane.” But we also both went, “Wow, what a great dad.”
This is like, the third great story you’ve told me in 20 minutes. It reminds me of the scene in Good Will Hunting where you tell the blow-job joke, and it works so well because you paint such a scene.
That was my dad! I called my dad in the middle of the night. Matt [Damon] and Ben [Affleck] said, “I need you to tell a joke.” And I was like, “I don’t have a joke!” And they were like, “Well, find a joke, we’re shooting the scene in a couple of hours.” So the only person I knew who had the best jokes ever in my whole life was my dad. It must have been 4 a.m., and he picks up, and I go, “Dad, dad, you gotta give me a joke.” And he goes, “Hold on, hold on. Does it have to be clean?” And I said, “No, it can be filthy! Just tell me a joke.” And that was the joke my father told me at 4 o’clock in the morning. And it ended up in the movie. And by the way, in the airplane version of the movie, I tell a clean joke, and that was also my father’s joke.
What was the airplane joke?
Oh my God. It’s such a great joke. You know how they have to do an airplane-rated version? So we recorded it at the time. The joke is: John is walking along the cliff of Dover, in England, and he’s on a lovely walk, and he trips and falls. And he’s clinging on the side of the cliff. And it’s 100 feet below him, and he’s gonna fall to his death. And he calls out, “Oh my God, help, is there anybody there?” And the clouds part, and God, on a burning chariot, pulled by unicorns and angels, comes out of the clouds. And he’s hovering over John, who’s clinging to the cliff. And he goes, “John, let go! And fall! And all will be well!” And John looks over his shoulder at God and goes, “Is there anybody else?” [Laughs loudly.]
I love how well you remember that.
I remember all of my dad’s jokes. He’s gone now. He and my mother were both great storytellers. I never watch that movie, really, but if I ever catch it on the telly … I wonder if people think that about actors — that they sit around watching their own films, enjoying it.
How often do people bring that joke up with you?
It gets referenced a lot. A lot, actually. Particularly in Ireland. My dad spent a lot of time in Ireland and I think he picked that up while he was over there. Which is why I did it with an Irish accent. I mean, it was all just so weird.
Which of your movies has your son seen?
Tarzan and Princess Mononoke, which he literally just watched at the weekend. And he loved Speechless. He loved it. And he loved About a Boy. But most of my movies aren’t very kid-friendly. He’s totally on track for loving Grosse Pointe Blank. He loves that humor. He’d think there’s too much kissing in Return to Me.
In the early scenes of Return to Me, you’re playing a woman on the verge of death. At one point your eyes are taped shut for surgery and you’re in a coma. What was that like to film?
I remember just being really hungry, and everyone was making jokes that I was going to be the healthiest-looking corpse ever. To be honest, I’d spoken to so many people at that point who’d really been at death’s door requiring an organ transplant, and it was quite — we did [the scene] very early on, and it might have even been the first stuff that we shot, which was good, to get it out of the way. Because the film is so full of life. But we wanted the stakes to be high, so that you didn’t feel so incredibly bad about Joely Richardson’s [death] that you didn’t enjoy the rest of the movie. It was a really tricky line that Bonnie walked with that.
I really love your server scenes, too, where you’re sort of cheekily going off on these bad customers. Have you ever worked as a server?
Oh, yeah. I was fired from so many waitressing jobs. Oh, boy. Mostly because I complained about handsy fucking customers. Having your bottom patted or your boobs talked about. And I’d answer back. I look back and I’m really glad that every single person’s hand was slapped away. They’re lucky they didn’t get spaghetti in their lap.
How do you see this film fitting into the long arc of your career?
For me, it’s the most straight-up romantic lead that I’ve ever played. I’ve realized, particularly as I got older, that the lead characters I’ve played were really character parts in leading persons’ bodies. That was the only straight-up romantic comedy. I think it’s lovely, and I think that movie caught me at the moment I was able to do that. But there are people who do that a lot better than me. I think I’m a little more off-center, perhaps. I think the characters I play are a little more unhinged.
Why do you think that is? Are you a little off-center?
I wouldn’t describe myself as unhinged. I don’t think I could survive as long as I’ve survived in this business — not having five marriages, any form of addiction — and just sort of be a reasonable human being. I think I’m just drawn to characters with more angst in them than lovely Grace does; characters who have a harder time resolving what’s going on inside of them. She was this beautiful, straightforward, loving, loved person. She’s a version of a life that I would have loved to have lived, if I’d done something other than been an actress. I’d love to be a sweet, lovely girl who inherited a restaurant from her grandfather and lived happily ever after in a suburb of Chicago. That’s my Sliding Doors life.
How do you feel about where you are now?
Well, golly. I’m still here, is what I have on my T-shirt. [Laughs.] It’s no mean feat to navigate a career as an actress — and I specifically say actress, because women in general are still fighting for their equality. It’s not a patient business for women getting older. I’m a creative being. I made a life here. I have a production company now, and we have projects set. I have a deal with 20th Century television, and it’s been so amazing to pour creativity into that after Speechless. The next thing I do as an actor, I’ll be a producer on, and I’ll star in it. That’s my next chapter.
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