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Andie MacDowell draws from the chaos and darkness of her childhood for 'Maid'

Andie MacDowell says her experience with her own mother's mental illness informs her portrayal of Paula in the Netflix series <em>Maid.</em>
Andie MacDowell says her experience with her own mother's mental illness informs her portrayal of Paula in the Netflix series <em>Maid.</em>

Actor Andie MacDowell was hoping that she would get a chance to work opposite her daughter, Margaret Qualley, so she was pleasantly surprised when Qualley landed the starring role in the Netflix series Maid and suggested MacDowell join her in the production.

"That's a really special thing to happen to a parent, to have a child trust them and to want them to play opposite them," MacDowell says.

Loosely based on a memoir by Stephanie Land, Maid tells the story of a single mother named Alex who leaves her abusive, alcoholic boyfriend and struggles to make ends meet. MacDowell plays Alex's mother, Paula, who appears to have an undiagnosed mental health disorder that leaves her in a near-constant state of mania.

MacDowell says she feels particularly attuned to her Maid character because her own mother also struggled with mental illness and alcoholism.

"My mother is not Paula. But understanding the complexity of mental illness was something that I'm versed in," she says. "I know what darkness is. There was a lot of darkness in my house due to the chaos and the depression and the drinking."


Interview highlights

On her own mother's mental health disorder

She was diagnosed with schizophrenia. But I don't think she was schizophrenic. That's the problem. I think a lot of times people do these diagnoses because maybe they're having a psychotic event, but back then — this was in 1958 or '59 — I don't even know exactly. ... It was shortly after I was born, so it could have been hormones involved. But they gave her shock treatments, and she was sent away for about three months to a place in Asheville, N.C. But when she came back ... she became an alcoholic. She wasn't on medication and she didn't get any therapy because they just did things like that back then. It was like they would send women off and they were "cured." ... Back then, it was something that you hid, especially in a small town. It was just shameful. And she didn't really drink before she had the shock treatments, but she became an alcoholic afterwards. And I think that's how that's how she dealt with it. She just drank to numb herself, really.

I think she was just superdepressed. She didn't have the mania, so she wouldn't stay up all night. I just think she was extremely depressed and couldn't get out of it, she definitely needed something to ... help her balance out her chemicals.

On her father's reaction to her mother's alcoholism and mental illness

My father was a beautiful man, but I saw him hit my mother when I was 4 and give her a bloody nose. ... He divorced shortly after. I just think he couldn't live in the chaos. He left me in the chaos, which I find fascinating. That's something I've really struggled with because he got out. He took himself out, he got himself out, but he left us, which was fascinating to me.

On the chaos in her house growing up, with four sisters, a mother addicted to alcohol and an absent father

My mother and my other sister, the one that was just older than me, did not get along at all. So I was just trying to make things OK in the house and quite often trying to keep my mother away from my sister, which was intense. Even if she had friends over, I would kind of babysit my mother, just to make sure that nothing would go wrong. My mother would rant and rave and go off on my sister. And it was mutual, so they would fight. So it was intense. My sister was very disappointed in my mother's behavior and wanted her to be another person, and she wasn't, she was what she was. And I was the codependent just wanting to keep the peace.

Usually [my mother] would drink so much ... she would pass out on the floor and I would put a pillow under her head and put a blanket on her. And every night, I would get up to go and check that the cigarettes were not burning. She would have a cigarette in the ashtray and the ashes would just be completely burnt. She never took a puff off of it, and then she'd have another one burning and another one burning, and there were burnt holes all in the couch and on the linoleum floor, there were marks, burn marks, all on the floor.

On trying to do an intervention for her mother

I did an intervention for my mother when I was in the 12th grade, a failed intervention, unfortunately, but it was an intervention. I called everybody and said, "I can't leave her like this. We've got to do something." ... Someone gave her a little bit of Valium, which I think was a huge mistake because I couldn't communicate with her when we got to the place and we just couldn't get her out of the car. ... Then we drove her to the state [mental health] place ... and a doctor came down to the car and told us, "If you do not commit her today, she'll be dead in five years." But to commit her to a state institution? I don't know. We just couldn't do it, so we didn't do it. So we drove her home and I remember we got a speeding ticket on the way home. That's when [my sister and I] finally cried. ... I told [my mother], I said, "They said you're going to be dead in five years," and she quit drinking alcohol; she just drank wine, which I think it did make a difference. It's not like that pass-out-on-the-floor kind of drunk. She drank lighter. That was the repercussion of that experience.

On being devastated when her voice was completely dubbed in her first film, 1984's Greystoke

That was horrible. It was my very first movie, I was 23. No one ever said, "We don't like the way you sound." No one was ever clear or straightforward. .... It was all unbeknownst to me, and it was really a hard thing to get out of, to move beyond that. It was a decision for myself. ... I kept working. I had to. I could not let that be my legacy. I had to make it. I had to make it because I couldn't leave it like that. It was just too mortifying for that to be me, that that was my story. And I just got into class. I worked really hard. I took classes. I watched movies. I worked. I spent money, good money, [on] good coaching.

On how the 1989 Steven Soderbergh film Sex, Lies, and Videotape changed her life

Before Sex, Lies, and Videotape, nobody took me seriously. I was broken. I was trash, really. But after Sex, Lies, and Videotape, I became a well-known actress and people perceived me as an actress, finally, and it made money. So if you do that, then it's a paradigm. Everything changes in your life. And I started being given jobs. I didn't even have to audition. It was amazing.

On working with Bill Murray in Groundhog Day

He's intense, I have to say. Bill's not the easiest person in the world I've ever met, but he's brilliant at what he does. And I felt it was really, really important for me not to lay on the comedy. He's so big, his comic nature and abilities are broad, and they're perfect and they're really good, and I just played her real and real honest. I just came from her in a very honest, straightforward place and gave Bill all the space to do what Bill does, and the story unfolds and you take this amazing trip. I just think it's really a great movie and it holds up. It's still a great movie. It's one of those classic films.

On going gray and loving it

My hair started going silver during COVID, and my daughters were staying next door to me ... so they saw me all the time and they would say to me, "You look badass and you've got to keep this." ... I fell in love with it and I decided to keep it. And I have to say, I've never felt more beautiful. I'm not saying that everybody has to go do this ... but it suits me, and I think it's been embraced by so many people, and I like that. I like that people are comfortable with me getting older. I think that's an important message for all of us that we get older and we are beautiful.

Lauren Krenzel and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the Web.

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