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Elisabeth Shue – Just Being Herself

Updated: Dec 8, 2022

Elisabeth Shue at the NY press day for "Hamlet 2."

Elisabeth Shue at the NY press day for “Hamlet 2.”

Elisabeth Shue

Just Being Herself

by Jay S. Jacobs

We all feel like we grew up with Elisabeth Shue – ever since she first appeared on movie screens as Ralph Macchio’s cute girlfriend in The Karate Kid.

Nearly 25 years later, Shue has put together a long and impressive body of work, starring in comedies like Adventures in Babysitting, Heart and Souls, Cocktail and Soapdish.  Shue has also done action films like Back to the Future 2 and 3, The Saint and Hollow Man.  However, she has gained most respect as a dramatic actress – with acclaimed roles in Cousin Bette, Dreamer, Molly, Tuck Everlasting and her Oscar-nominated turn as a down-on-her-luck prostitute who tries to save an alcoholic (Nicolas Cage) in Leaving Las Vegas.

Last year, she played a role based on her mother in Gracie – a labor of love film which her family created loosely based on her childhood.  Her brother Andrew Shue (Melrose Place) also played a role in the film and it was directed by her husband Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth).

To follow it up she has come even closer to home – sort of – becoming one of the rare actors who get to play a bizarro-world version of herself – in the comedy Hamlet 2.  This variation of Elisabeth Shue became so disenchanted with show business that she left to become a nurse in a Tucson, Arizona fertility clinic.  She feels that her work is vital and important – but misses filmmaking, particularly getting the chance to make out with her leading men.  The passion to act is finally reawakened in her when she meets her biggest fan (played by British comedian Steve Coogan) – the incredibly enthusiastic but dubiously talented writer/director of a new kooky sequel to one of the great tragedies in history.

A few weeks before Hamlet 2 hit the multiplexes, Shue sat down with us at the Regency Hotel in New York to tell us how much fun it was to have a little laugh at her image.

How did they come to you with the idea to play yourself?

Well, I think they offered it to a lot of different actresses before.  I heard through the grapevine that possibly some of them were slightly offended when they got the offer.  (laughs)  I think they were acquiring about someone else at my management firm.  My manager, not knowing what the script was but knowing that he really liked the people said, “Oh, you should send it to Elisabeth.”  He sent it to me before he had even read it, which is so great, because I worry that if he had read it, maybe he would have thought that I might respond the same way and not send it to me.  He called the next morning like feeling me out.  Was it something I’d do?  It’s four trips to Albuquerque.  Oh, I’ve got to do this movie!  It’s the funniest movie I’ve read in so long.  It’s just perfect.  Perfect for me.  (laughs again)  I loved it.

Elisabeth Shue in Hamlet 2.

Elisabeth Shue in Hamlet 2.

Other than Dana, what is the weirdest reaction you’ve gotten from fans who meet you in real life? 

I would love it if people recognized me the way he recognizes me in the movie.  It’s so entertaining and over-the-top.  You feel so much love and appreciation.  Gosh, don’t think I’ve ever experienced quite the hysteria that he provides.  Mostly, people think they recognize me form somewhere.  Did they go to school with you?  You feel really embarrassed, saying: No, actually I’m an actress.  But it’s always nice.  It’s really nice.  I’m not hounded the way some people are – and I could see how that would be hard – but for me it happens every once in a while and when it does I really appreciate it.  I enjoy the human contact.

Why weren’t you offended by the nature of the role?  A lot of actors and actresses would be… 

I don’t know.  Maybe after being around for so long (laughs) going sort of up and down and up and down – I’ve been so used to it that I have a great sense of humor, finally, about the absurdity about this business we’re in.  I’ve been able to laugh and realize that where I am right now, even though it’s slightly more obscure, has worked for my life in such an amazing way.  Probably five years before I was much more in fear.  Like every actor thinks: (dramatically) It’s going to end!  What would I do?  I need to keep working with the best people I can.  What will I do?  Now, I just really enjoy the work that I do.  I find things.  Every year, I seem to find one movie.  Even if it doesn’t see the light of day, I still find a film that challenges me as an actress.  I still work with people I really respect.  As long as I can do that, that’s really the point.  Sometimes your ego suffers when you go through the ups and downs, but I’m actually happier now than I’ve ever been.  So, I think I was probably in a very confident spot in reality to say how great to make fun of my insecurity.  (laughs) 

How interesting was it to play a fictionalized version of yourself?

That was definitely the key.  I had to find a side of myself to be.  I don’t think it’s possible to play yourself.  I don’t really know who I am as a character – and really don’t want to.  (laughs)  So I tried to find the part of myself that could become a nurse.  At the same time, what I loved about her was that she was a nurse and she was proud of being a nurse, yet you could sense that she really, really wanted to get back up there and be an actress.  While she was a nurse she was going to make sure she looked great and she found just the right outfit and made sure it was tight enough and short enough so that people would still appreciate the fact that she was a sexy nurse.  I just like that sort of insecurity and need for attention that I felt like she had.  Just the part of the business that I talk about that I would miss if I stopped acting.  It was the truth, but it was also that side of myself that I wanted to express.

Steve Coogan and Elisabeth Shue in Hamlet 2.

Steve Coogan and Elisabeth Shue in Hamlet 2.

I read that [director/co-screenwriter] Andrew [Fleming] said that you insisted that the students not know who you were when Dana brought you to speak at the class. 

He said he wanted to possibly change the script to make them so they know who I was – out of respect, which I think is so sweet.  But, I told him immediately that I thought that they should not know who I am.  That’s part of the joke.  That happens all the time, you know?  That people don’t know who you are.  That’s funny.  (laughs heartily)  I like that.  Yeah, at the end of the movie where I call my agent and he doesn’t know who I am – I definitely tried to contribute that piece of art.  I thought that would work well.  It was fun to be included in the creativity.  I enjoyed that part of it.  Andy was so open to my ideas.  That was special.

Was there any moment where you asked yourself if you were in this position, what other occupation would I have done?

Yeah, totally.  I thought a lot about being a teacher over the years.  I went so far as to get a catalogue from Columbia once.  I thought maybe I’ll get my masters, because of course I’d like to go back to college.  I thought it would be really stimulating – another moment in my life where I could reconnect to knowledge which I’ve always appreciated.  I’d stop acting for a while – the kids are getting a little bit older.  Then maybe I’d become a professor or I’d write.  I just didn’t know.  So that part – that I’d quit the business and become a nurse – I just thought that was perfect because I actually almost did.  (laughs)

Conversely from the fans reacting to you, were you ever in a situation – either in this business or before – where you were starstruck by someone?

Hmm…  I wish.  That would have been so fun.  Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I didn’t really have any way to interact with any famous people.

Steve Coogan, Elisabeth Shue and Amy Poehler in Hamlet 2.

Steve Coogan, Elisabeth Shue and Amy Poehler in Hamlet 2.

Is there anyone out there that would make you…

That I would feel that way?  Hmm… I think rock stars still make me get all weird.  I’m a Jersey girl, so I got to meet Bruce once and I was very flustered.  Tennis players… I haven’t met many, but I think if I met great tennis players – something I care a lot about – I’d probably get flustered.  Actors… you get used to meeting a lot of actors because you work with them so much.  When I met DeNiro – I got to work with him – I was very flustered.  (laughs)  So, yeah, I’m lucky to meet a lot of people that I look up to and feel blessed to be around that.  I think what’s great about the movie – how hysterical he is.  I think that’s what’s so wonderful, that he felt like he had met Julia Roberts.  Or Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in one person.  It was just so exciting to him, I thought, oh my God, what if you had ever met somebody really famous and become that hysterical?  They would probably love it.  We all think we have to be quiet around them and not talk to them.  Don’t look at them.  In fact, maybe they would love it to hear that kind of appreciation.

I’m a huge Steve Coogan fan, and I have never gotten to interview him, so…

Oh, really?  You don’t get to meet him today?  Oh, that’s terrible!  He’s so great.

Were you a fan? Did you watch Alan Partridge or anything like that?

No, I’d never watched it.  I love to give him shit that I had no idea who he was.  (laughs)  But I looked him up on the internet and thought he was really cute.  I thought, oh, okay.  I did know that he was a great actor.  I did know that.  I knew he was a brilliant comedian, but I didn’t know of his work.  I do remember him from A Night at the Museum, just because my kids have watched it over and over again.  I thought he was hilarious in that.  It’s amazing when an actor is that brilliant, you can put them in the teeniest, tiniest little part and they shine.  It’s a great moment for him.  So happy that… we’re so lucky to have him in our culture now – have a great comedian to watch.

Steve Coogan and Elisabeth Shue in Hamlet 2.

Steve Coogan and Elisabeth Shue in Hamlet 2.

Early on in your career you did a lot of lighter and comic roles – like Adventures in Babysitting and the Back to the Future movies.  This is the first comedy you’ve done in a while.  Was it fun to get back into comedy?  Would you like to do more of it?

Yeah.  It was so much fun.  It definitely, definitely reignited that desire for sure.  The next movie I’m going to do is sort of a dark comedy.  It’s with Thomas Haden Church, who I think is a similar actor in that he’s very smart and very funny in a kind of different way.  I’m really excited to work with him – starting in two weeks.

Have you ever had parts offered to you that ­– in the guise of Hamlet 2 ­– just were awful?

(laughs)  No.  Gosh, if they were that bad, they’d probably be good.  I’d probably like them.  (chuckles)  Nothing that creative and out there.  It is funny, Steve and I were talking that sometimes things can be so bad that they become good.  In some way, I really do believe that if you put Hamlet 2 on Broadway and committed to the absurdity of it – really committed – that it would turn into something that would be ironic and funny and much better than you think.

This film was made as an independent – a labor of love. You recently did one as a producer yourself with Gracie, so you know what it’s like.  How was that different than doing the bigger films you’ve done, like Leaving Las Vegas or the Back to the Future movies?

Well, I think a story is a story and if you can find a big movie that has a great story then I think it all feels very similar.  But it feels like more and more today you have to search for those great stories in independent films – just because the bigger budget movies seem to stick to the same story over and over again.  Although, now it seems kind of exciting that Iron Man and The Dark Knight are genres that we’ve seen before, however, they’ve been created in a much more artistic manner, with great actors in the roles.  So it seems to be evolving – these genres that we see over and over again.  So maybe I’d be more interested in doing a bigger budget film down the line that was in a similar vein.

Steve Coogan and Elisabeth Shue in Hamlet 2.

Steve Coogan and Elisabeth Shue in Hamlet 2.

I guess you’d call this movie a “comedy of mortification,” which is poplar now with The Office…

Yes, a comedy of humiliation… (laughs)

Have you been a fan of this sort of genre of comedy? 

Definitely.  I just think we all need to learn to laugh at ourselves a little more.  As human beings, we’re all very, very insecure.  We’ve all had these humiliating moments – all through our lives.  Yet, we’re so scared of them.  Think about it – we protect ourselves against them and pray that they never happen.  I think that it sometimes stops up your freedom of expression – just as a human being, forget as an artist.  Just to be who you are.  When you’re a mom, you’re constantly saying I just want my kids to be who they are.  I want them to be able to stand up and raise their hand and feel that what they have to say matters and nothing stands in their way.  That’s what I think is wonderful about laughter and especially this kind of comedy.  It just allows people to just be.  The funny parts of themselves that are vulnerable or humiliating – that’s great.  We don’t have to hide them or be afraid of them.  It’s good for our society to laugh at ourselves.

Are your kids taking an interest in acting?

In acting?  Not really.  I think they like to perform.  I think what they have is the performance nature in them.  But they’d never say, “Oh, I’d love to be in a movie.”  That would be tough.

Copyright ©2008  All rights reserved. Posted: August 21, 2008.

Photo Credits:#1 © 2008 Jay S. Jacobs. All rights reserved.#2 © 2008 Cathy Kanavy. Courtesy of Focus Features.  All rights reserved.#3 © 2008 Cathy Kanavy. Courtesy of Focus Features.  All rights reserved.#4 © 2008 Cathy Kanavy. Courtesy of Focus Features.  All rights reserved.#5 © 2008 Cathy Kanavy. Courtesy of Focus Features.  All rights reserved.#6 © 2008 Cathy Kanavy. Courtesy of Focus Features.  All rights reserved.

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