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The Making of ‘The Blue Iguana’: Interview with Daryl Hannah by Tina Bexson
In a strip club Deep in Los Angeles San Fernando Valley Daryl Hannah defies gravity as she gradually gyrates upside down around a tall pole, her long blonde hair cascading to the ground. A dreamy somewhat stoned smile escapes from her lips as Marianne Faithful’s “Angel” gathers momentum and she flips over onto her transparent platform shoes.
But hang on, what’s happening? Why have we cut to the dressing room? This isn’t sexy in the way we know it. It’s complete chaos. Pandemonium. There’s a saga about a missing g-string; a positive pregnancy test; and a dispute over where Nico, the visiting porn star, should sit.
This is ‘Dancing at the Blue Iguana’, a new film by Michael Radford, the filmmaker who has managed to resist any form of categorisation. And this is no exception. It offers a sharp contrast to the fishing village of ‘Il Postino’, the group of decadent colonialists of ‘White Mischief’, or the Orwellian futuristic vision of ‘1984’.
Conceived entirely by improvisation, with both script and character emerging from the efforts of a cast (including Hannah, Jennifer Tilly and Sandra Oh) who were unafraid to delve into the contradictory darker sides of their psyches, ‘Dancing at the Blue Iguana’ is unique. Even Mike Leigh has never gone this far with his penchant for improvisation. But it offers a further deviation in its portrayal or rather probing of the unsettling world of strip tease for there’s the psychological exposure along with the physical.
“It’s not Striptease, the Demi Moore thing,” insists Hannah, (who plays Angel), as she takes an enormous bite out of a cream scone in the lounge of the Covent Garden Hotel, where I’m interviewing her this morning. “It’s amazing how the nudity becomes the background. That’s what the film was for, to find the people and not focus on the body parts.”
Though in all honesty it’s hard not to focus on them, they are in tiptop form, and this is undoubtedly a very sexy film. But every aspect was meticulously researched during the five months the actresses frequented Hollywood strip clubs to learn the lingo, the routines, the dances, the pole tricks, and the interaction with punters.
“ I had no choice but to do a lot of research because I had no idea what the world of an exotic dancer or stripper was apart from the clichés you get from cheesy movies”, reveals Hannah. So at 3pm everyday, after rehearsals, and when the strip clubs were closed for cleaning, she was taught the routines by the strippers she befriended. Some of them, mainly the stripper Nikki, feature in her documentary, ‘Strip Notes’, that she made during her time in the clubs.
“I was black and blue for two and a half months, I must have looked like I’d been brutally assaulted, but I got into incredible shape,” explains Hannah. You will no doubt recall her lithe athletic mermaid in ‘Splash’ or her acrobatic android in ‘Blade Runner’.
“Doing all those slow motion squats and presses mean you immediately get your thighs toned and it really builds up your upper body strength, your stomach muscles. Those girls don’t need to go to the gym because they’re in the ‘gym’ every night when they are working. The more experienced use it to do these miraculous things that look as though they are floating with no limbs attached, it’s sensuous, and very gymnastic.”
“I learned to do a dozen pole tricks upside down,” she continues, “you feel like a kid swinging around on the jungle gym, I really enjoyed it.” (So did Sheila Kelley, who played Stormy, in fact so much that she had a pole installed in her house after the film.)
Perfecting a suitably slinky, not to mention, stimulating routine is one thing but performing for real in front of a live audience is a real tester. Hannah did a few routines in a bikini bar but the girls in the clubs proper also threw her up on stage at the beginning of the night when the places were only littered with a few customers.
“Then they grabbed the front row seats and lined the stage with dollar bills. Most of my money was from them. All my nerves went because they were cheering me on and laughing with me, they kind of shielded me from knowing that there was anybody else there.”
One of these clubs had quite a high profile clientele: “I’d see a lot of people from my industry there. And even though I was in disguise and got away with it for a while, I didn’t want to push it too much because it was very important that my cover was maintained.” But in her documentary the club owner, Eddie, tells us that a punter told him that his stripper currently on stage “looked just like Daryl Hannah.”
The only time she really stripped in front of a big audience was in front of a bunch of extras in the film. “Here I wanted to show that Angel really knew what she was doing, that she’d been working for quite a long time, but I also wanted her to have a kind of ethereal dance routine, because it fitted in with her character, dreamy and flirty.”
“But I was kind of disappointed with myself. I was trying to emulate Nikki who you saw in the documentary, and who I got a lot of my characteristics and story ideas from. Most dancers have a really practised and studied hypnotic stare. Nikki was just the opposite, she would giggle and wave at people and carry on conversations. She’s silly and light and I really wanted to pull that off on stage as well. But I was so nervous when I was actually dancing that I couldn’t so I made another choice and decided to be the ‘stoned Nikki’ instead and just did my routine with my eyes closed. I wish I had been able to get over my nerves enough to be the way she is. “
Hannah says that she didn’t even think that those kind of characters existed in the world until she’d met some of the girls, and it was in the dressing room that she got an insight into their real desires and motivations, which she would then use later. Here it was mostly “bare naked ladies” who stripped off more than the physical layers as they laughed, swore, argued and occasionally punched.
“I was hearing all these funny stories in there. I’ve been in a lot of comedies (Hannah was in Roxanne with Steve Martin, Grumpy Old Men with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and the romantic comedy Too Much with Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas) but I’ve never got to play a comic role. I’m always the straight man to the comedian, and I thought, this is a chance for me to be funny. Also Jennifer (this is the fourth time Tilly and Hannah have worked together), who usually plays a brazenly comic character, wanted to play someone a little harder, so we decided to switch places.”
Hannah is indeed very funny. Things happen to Angel, who is an endearing and curious mix of vulnerability and jadedness, a child-woman that Hannah naturally tuned into. There’s a great scene with no cuts, when she gets arrested for grass (partly based on one of Nikki’s experiences) whilst asking an officer to take a photograph of her in front of a huge billboard featuring her in an ad for the show. All the dialogue was improvised; created on the spot from the recesses of the casts’ imaginations. The rather confused Angel comes out with absurd lines: “Officer, is this going to be on the news and everything?” and “But I didn’t inhale.”
A Russian hit man taking ‘time out’ visits the club and develops an obsession with Angel, further fuelling her fantasy world. There’s some languid scenes of her outside the club attempting to smoke movie star style, clad in a ludicrous long white fluffy coat whilst he spies down on her from a window above. “When I was doing my research I would see the girls go outside for a smoke and that was their only respite. So even girls who weren’t smokers became smokers, including myself for the time I was making the film, because its your only chance to get some fresh air, and look up at the stars and imagine being somewhere else or someone else.”
Hannah, herself, became so embroiled in the construction of her character that she would often imagine what Angel’s reactions would be for many months after the film was completed. “Where ever I’d be, I’d start giggling to myself, thinking about what Angel would be saying right now, I could hear her takes on things, it cracked me up. You could throw her into any environment, in any country, with anyone, and she would be as funny and sad and as ridiculous as she is. But I’d like to only work like this, to have time to research and be so involved in the character that no matter what situation you’re in, you are the character.”
Radford’s decision to improvise on film was only made after they had started shooting a script taken from the scenes they had improvised in rehearsal (he’d had these transcribed and made into a script). But he missed the freshness and threw the scripts away and got them to re-improvise the scenes with new dialogue. “It was a totally insane idea to take on”, says Hannah, “but he’s so brave and it’s so cool he had enough respect with actors to give them that trust.”
Still, it was a big gamble. There was no guarantee the film would be made so none of the cast would receive any payment. Then they were told they’d be no financing until the financiers had viewed what they had come up with. Not everyone Radford was initially interested in was prepared to take that risk. But he was very happy with who he got in the end and has said that he’d always wanted to work with Sandra Oh and Jennifer Tilly. He has also said that “the biggest surprise was Daryl – she literally forced herself on me. She’s so interesting to watch, so brilliant and profound.”
Hannah certainly has no regrets, apart from not taking more time to understand the male psyche perhaps. “I had so much to learn: getting my character, story, wardrobe, my look, my routine, dancing, that the one thing I really didn’t spend time doing was understanding the customer and the relationship I was supposed to have with them.”
“But I certainly learned how to move sensuously with confidence. I’d always felt kind of awkward and geeky before when I tried to act or move in a sexy way. But you can analyse it and break it down and learn a few little tricks. On the other hand it’s not a job I would ever want. Being in the clubs was fascinating whilst doing research and making a documentary, but it was hard, those environments are hard on the soul.”
So is Hollywood and at least Hannah built up close bonds with the dancers, some of which are still there today. “They really support each other which is something I haven’t experienced in my profession amongst other actresses or movie people,” she adds ruefully.“ But what I found most surprising was their sense of humour and irony. I’d often hear them say (she adopts a drawn out tired voice) ‘I cant believe this, its Friday night, I’m in Hollywood, and I’m crawling around on my hands and knees – I’m a stripper!’”