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Drew finds her way `Home'

It's like, you know, I'm talking with Drew Barrymore and she is like so drowning me in words, and I'm like so getting it, and I'm thinking like, here is a girl who is like still only 23 years old and has been in like 30 movies and already grown beyond the problems that most people her age still soooo don't know how to handle.

I've always liked her work. I'm like such a defender of movies that opened and closed in a minute, like "Guncrazy" and "Mad Love" and even "Poison Ivy," and it's like she has a throne forever in the movie hall of fame for playing the little girl in "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," but her career is still mostly ahead of her.

And I'm sitting here at the keyboard thinking this story is going to have like, such long paragraphs, because a paragraph can't end until you get to the period, and Drew Barrymore's speech is punctuated only with commas, semicolons and the words like and and. Being in the room with her is like inhaling a shot in one of those oxygen bars.

This is at the Toronto Film Festival, last September. I've just seen her in "Home Fries," a quirky comedy that opens Wednesday. She plays a pregnant fast-food worker who falls in love with the stepson of the louse who got her pregnant, after the stepson (Luke Wilson) and his no-good brother (Jake Busey) have scared the guy to death on instructions from their creepy mother (Catherine O'Hara). It's the kind of movie where Barrymore has dialogue like, "You can't be the father and the brother at the same time. That's the kind of thing that messes kids up."

Last summer, she also starred in "Ever After," an enchanting retelling of the Cinderella story, where we discover all the things the Brothers Grimm left out. It's an elegant period romance and Barrymore glows in it: You see the star quality that made her grandfather, the troubled, legendary John Barrymore, into one of the great actors of the century.

And she's not the weirdo, for a change. Even in "Home Fries," with its twisting plot and dark humor, she's kind of the sane center, the character who looks at events with a level eye and can tell the fools from the villains.

"This girl Sally is just so sweet and unassuming and going through life but not blindly," Barrymore says, "but at the same time, rather than on focusing on everything, she likes watching moths on the wall. Like that to her is a beautiful moment."

That's a sample of the rush of her prose. She continues, "I love that. I love that so much, especially in this crazy, tumultuous world where we get so wrapped up in things that she can sit there and have that kind of Zen appreciation."

It's a change of pace from some of your seductresses and killers. . . .

"All that matters to me is that physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, verbally, you know, accents, dialogue, wardrobe, you know, personalities, backstories, cultures, everything, I want to be different in every movie. And if, you know, you play a couple of characters that have a similar genre, can you depict that they do have differences, no matter what? All that matters to me is that I get to be every different type of person; bad, good, indifferent. Maybe my choices at times have seemed odd, but I read these scripts and knew I had to be these people.

"For a while, you know, when I was like 16 to 20, I like . . . I had like this total wild streak in me and yet I wasn't wild at all but I loved playing these wild characters. I just . . . you know, it's cathartic and you do become these people and it was really fun for me. I love movies more than anything."

I want to get to the stuff about the total wild streak, but not yet. I ask her what she loves most about the movies.

"Ummm. Life. What feels right to you. What kind of message you wanna put out there. It's all in what you respond to. I loved `Used Cars' but I also loved Cocteau's `Beauty and the Beast.' You can't watch those in the same mood."

You liked Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast"? (Not the Disney version, but the famous and eerie fable directed by the French poet and filmmaker in 1946.)

"My favorite."

That's where Spike Lee got that shot.

"Which one?"

You know the shots he uses where the people glide down the sidewalk without walking?

"Exactly, yes. And Cocteau's 'Orpheus.' I mean, when he falls back on that bed and it looks like he's falling into water or when he sits in that car - it's just a shot of a man in a car but the poetry that's spoken through the radio, it's so incredibly beautiful that you get lost in the words. I mean, when he walks down that corridor and the human arms are coming out of the walls holding the candles . . . oh my God!"

You seem to be more into movies than a lot of movie actors. With a lot of people in the business, all that matters is how big the box office was on Friday night.

She nods. "I try to remember, as an actor and now as a producer, that the gross isn't that important. A lot of my favorite films, the films that make a big difference in my life - the ones I go to, you know, medicinally - that I need in my life, and revisit all the time, I have no idea what the numbers were."

But some movies are successful with everyone. I remember the night Steven Spielberg's "E.T." had its world premiere at Cannes, and the audience stood and cheered and cheered. Were you there that night?

"Yes, I was."

Like in the front row of the balcony? With Spielberg?

"Yes, yes."

I've never seen such a response from an audience.

"He made a film for everyone. There are those few films that reach the masses. Which is so cool when you tap into that."

You mentioned you're a producer now.

"My next film. It's called `Never Been Kissed,' and you'll love it - well, at least you'll love that it's like set at the Chicago Sun-Times. My character is one of the head copy editors at the Sun-Times and her dream is to be a reporter but she has no social skills whatsoever and none of the mechanisms that I think a reporter really needs to be a good one. She's the antithesis of that, and she gets an opportunity, because she's the youngest one there, to go back into high school and find out what kids are like today."

She goes back to high school undercover?

"And poses as a student. And what you find out is why she's so lacking in people skills and why she's so smart at such a young age; she had the worst high school experience, like, known to man. Like, just the epitome of how rough and raw and terrifying those years can be and she just relives the whole thing. But she's like, no, this time I can go back. I'm sophisticated; I can do it this time. But no, not at all. She goes back and they hate her again; they just hate her. They're like kids who want nothing to do with her; she cannot like get in there to save her life, and it's like, how do you love yourself with what God gave you? How do you find the beauty within yourself for who you are? It's about the underdog inside of all of us, and I love that because it doesn't skip over the awkwardness. As such a dork I love it. I got to have more fun in this movie - I got to go for it."

Who's in it with you?

"Molly Shannon, who, omigod, she's so good and so real. . . ."

As a high school student?

"No, she works at the Sun-Times with me. She's Anita from classifieds and we're best friends and John C. Reilly, who is just so amazing, is the editor. And then the owner of the paper, this man who just sort of like haphazardly sends people on these assignments, is Garry Marshall, and then David Arquette plays my brother."

I'm noticing that the line of her profile is so much like John Barrymore's. With all this talk about loving movies, I say, you probably love all your grandfather's films.

"Oh, incredibly so. He's the one I feel closest to. I mean, I love the rest of my family so much and yet, he's the one that I know I'm directly plugged into. He's my moon so I see him every night. And when I see films like `A Bill of Divorcement,' it kills me. I can't think straight for like a week when I watch him holding Katharine Hepburn and crying because he has lacked a life with this daughter of his."

When she was a teenager, Drew made the supermarket papers every week with rumors of drinking and drugs. Now it's clear she has passed through that stage. I nudge the topic into the conversation.

"I've had the pleasure of experiencing the ups and downs," she says. "I have a deep appreciation for what I get to do, because I did have it taken away from me for a while due to certain circumstances. And it's like, you can become really freaked out from something like that, but instead it made me realize how lucky I am to be here. And now maybe because of all the hard work I've done, maybe that's why it's coming to me now, so easily. I wanna jump through the fiery hoops and singe my hairs off my body doing it, you know."

If everything had gone smoothly for you, you'd probably be insufferable, I say.

"I'd be just a bore."

You'd think everything was blessed.

"I like it when life makes you work for things and gives you trials and tribulations that you have to overcome. Although it was harsh going through it in public, because then people do think you have a problem - when you're just experimenting like every other kid, you know."

But you're under a magnifying glass.

"The only thing that was hard at the time was when people didn't trust me for work. Because I never messed up at work and when they said I did, that was so painful for me. But you take negatives and turn them into your strengths, so everything that's happened has happened for not only a reason but a great reason."

We have to stop talking. We both have movies to see. I ask her if I could take her picture.

"Take the profile," she says, grinning. "The famous profile."

I take the profile.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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