Heather Graham talks religion, getting naked in 'Boogie Nights' and licking Mike Myers in 'Austin Powers'

The actress looks back on her career from "License to Drive" to "On a Wing and a Prayer."

From l to r: Heather Graham in Boogie Nights, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and On a Wing and a Prayer. (Photos: Courtesy Everett Collection)
From l to r: Heather Graham in Boogie Nights, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and On a Wing and a Prayer. (Photos: Courtesy Everett Collection)

You might say that Heather Graham's latest role required a leap of faith. The star of such era-defining favorites as License to Drive and Boogie Nights appears opposite Dennis Quaid in the new faith-based drama, On a Wing and a Prayer. Premiering on Prime Video just in time for Easter weekend, the movie depicts the harrowing true story of Doug and Terri White, a Christian couple from Louisiana who were forced to land the small passenger plane carrying themselves and their two teenage daughters after their pilot suddenly died mid-flight.

As depicted in the movie, Doug was experiencing his own crisis of faith at that point in his life. But bringing the plane safely down to the ground — despite only having a minimum of training with that particular aircraft — reignited his belief in a higher power. "I’m in the good Lord’s hands flying this," White reportedly said while in the cockpit.

On a Wing and a Prayer director Sean McNamara — who previously helmed another faith-based true story, Soul Surfer, about professional surfer, Bethany Hamilton — doesn't shy away from incorporating Christian themes into the film. But Graham feels that the movie will appeal to viewers of all faiths. "I wouldn't consider myself to be very religious, but I do think I'm spiritual," the 53-year-old actress tells Yahoo Entertainment. "The film is about the dark night of the soul, where you feel something terrible is going to happen, and you don't know if you can get through it. Then you find that connection to a higher power — whichever one you believe in."

"I don't think it's trying to exclude anyone from any religion," Graham adds. "It's about having that faith and that connection to a higher power. There's moments in life where you really need to pray whether it's to a Christian god or Muslim, Jewish or Buddhist — whatever. Everyone's looking for a spiritual connection in those moments."

From l to r: Abigail Rhyne, Jessi Case, Graham and Dennis Quaid in On a Wing and a Prayer. (Photo: Boris Martin /© MGM /Courtesy Everett Collection)
Abigail Rhyne, Jessi Case, Heather Graham and Dennis Quaid in On a Wing and a Prayer. (Photo: Boris Martin /© MGM /Courtesy Everett Collection)

It hasn't escaped Hollywood's attention that faith-based audiences have been a reliable moviegoing demographic in recent years, powering Christian-themed releases like Breakthrough and Jesus Revolution to box office success. Graham says that she recently watched On a Wing and a Prayer with a small audience that included both religious and agnostic viewers. "We watched it at [producer] Roma Downey's house, and she's very spiritual. But my manager's boyfriend was also there and he's very familiar with engineering and flying, so he was screaming at the movie because it's so tense! People get very tense when they watch it, even though they feel good at the same time."

Spending the bulk of the movie sitting in the cockpit of a small plane — on a soundstage, not in the sky — generated plenty of tension for Graham. "I am a little bit claustrophobic, and it was a small space," she recalls. "The controls take up most of the room so you can't stand up. We were hitting our heads a lot, because we forgot how small it was! It was also really hot, because we shot the movie in the summer and had to turn off the air conditioning because of the noise. We were all just sweating and freaking out while imagining things that aren't really there. You're actually looking at a wall, but you have to pretend that you're looking at a storm or a runway."

Graham's daughters in the movie are played by Abigail Rhyne and Jessi Case, who are about the same age now as she was when she started acting in the '80s. Asked if she notices a difference between the challenges facing the current generation of young performers and her own, the Hollywood veteran says that the industry as a whole is a little "less sexist" now though far from ideal. And she's also concerned about the impact social media is having on young people, whether they're pursuing an acting career or not. "There are disturbing statistics about young teenage girls committing suicide more because of social media," she notes. "I particularly care about women's issues, so I'm concerned about how [social media] affects women and young girls."

Asked what she tells young women when they seek her out for career advice, Graham says it boils down to three simple words. "The best career advice is just: Believe in yourself. Believe in yourself, be confident and don't listen too much to what other people say. At the Academy Awards this year, all of the Oscar-winning actors basically said 'Believe in yourself!' So that's never bad advice."

Graham has certainly followed that advice across the span of her long career. For our latest Role Recall, the actress reflects on some of her signature cinematic characters, from Drugstore Cowboy's doomed Nadine to Austin Powers's bodacious Felicity Shagwell, and spills details on the long-lost Danny Boyle film that almost nobody has been allowed to see.

License to Drive (1988)

Born in Milwaukee, Graham and her family headed west to the greater Los Angeles area in the late 1970s, and she was quickly bitten by the acting bug. Starting off with small appearances in commercials, game shows and two episodes of Growing Pains, she scored her breakout movie role at 17 in the teen comedy, License to Drive opposite Corey Haim and Corey Feldman — then at the height of their "Two Coreys" fame.

"I felt very cool to be working with them," Graham says now. "Corey Haim was so cute: I probably had a crush on him at the time! He was dating this really groovy girl, Lala Zappa, and they were just the coolest people. Her uncle was Frank Zappa and he was a movie star — I felt like a nerd around these two uber-cool people."

In later years, both Haim and Feldman admitted to indulging in the perks of being an ’80s teen idol in Hollywood — raucous parties, screaming fans and easy access to alcohol and drugs. Graham remembers the latter being around during the shooting of License to Drive. "They were experimenting with drugs and stuff, but I was a super-sheltered suburban," she recalls, adding that the experience was still a positive one. "Overall, it was a great introduction to being in a film. They were both really talented." (Haim died from pneumonia in 2010 after battling drug addiction for most of his life.)

Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

From l to r: Kelly Lynch, Matt Dillon, Graham and James LeGros formed the cast of Gus Van Sant's pioneering independent film Drugstore Cowboy. (Photo: ©Artisan Entertainment/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Kelly Lynch, Matt Dillon, Heather Graham and James LeGros formed the cast of Gus Van Sant's pioneering independent film, Drugstore Cowboy. (Photo: ©Artisan Entertainment/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Graham has a long list of major studio credits, but it's frequently forgotten that she's played an equally big role in the evolution of America's independent film scene — a role that started with her appearance in Gus Van Sant's pioneering 1989 drama, Drugstore Cowboy. Shot in Portland, Ore. on a shoestring budget, the film required Graham to play her first-ever death scene as Nadine, the youngest member of a quartet of pill-popping addicts who get their stash by robbing pharmacies and hospitals.

"I got covered in blue paint, and I had these contacts put in that looked like fuzzy white cataracts," she says of how she prepared to play dead after Nadine's fatal overdose. "There was another scene that got cut out where they put me in a body bag, and then in a grave and started throwing dirt on me. That was a very bizarre moment." (In the theatrical cut, Nadine's body is stashed in an attic.)

Drugstore Cowboy was one of several independent features that made waves in 1989 — a class that included Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies and Videotape and Jonathan Wacks's Powwow Highway — signaling to the industry at large that a sea change was underway. "It was very exciting, because outside of the studio system there were these independent features that would tell all these interesting, creative, unusual stories," Graham says. "I had been pretty sheltered, so I got to meet all these really artistic people who were reading Charles Bukowski and listening to Tom Waits and see that movies aren't only these big commercial films."

Twin Peaks (1991)

Kenneth Welsh and Graham in an episode of Twin Peaks. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Kenneth Welsh and Graham in an episode of Twin Peaks. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Speaking of anti-commercial artists, Graham followed up her collaboration with Van Sant by dropping into the wild, weird world of David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks. By the time she joined the series in its sophomore year, the show's popularity had taken a pronounced dive and it was dispatched to the cancellation graveyard after its Season 2 finale, directed by Lynch. Graham's alter ego, Annie Blackburn, made a brief appearance in the filmmaker's feature-length 1992 prequel, Fire Walk With Me, which was largely savaged by critics upon its release, but is now viewed as an essential part of the full Twin Peaks experience.

While Lynch certainly gets results from his cast, even his closest collaborators — like Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern — admit that his directing style can be inscrutable. Asked about the strangest bit of direction she received from Lynch, Graham recalls what he told her before shooting a scene in the Twin Peaks finale. "I remember him saying: 'Your character is like a Ferrari — it's a finely-tuned instrument, but it can fall apart at any moment,'" she says, laughing. "He has artistic ways of describing things! I remember that I went to his house to meet him once, and he was making some kind of art project where ants were crawling all over turkey meat and he was trying to get pictures of them. It was very bizarre."

While Graham's collaboration with Lynch was relatively brief, it was genuinely life-changing. The director introduced her to Transcendental Meditation, which she continues to practice today. "I was 21 and an insecure young girl, and he started talking to me about it," she says. "I thought, 'Why not try it?' It's definitely made a huge difference in my life. I still do it every day."

Swingers (1996)

Swing dancing isn't a snap to master on a good day, but just try swinging to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy when you've also got a fever. That's what happened to Graham when she filmed her key role in Doug Liman's breakthrough feature, Swingers, as the girl that finally heals Jon Favreau's broken heart. "Jon taught me how to swing dance — we practiced for about a month before we shot the scene," Graham says of her co-star, who also wrote the script for the 1996 favorite. "We would drive over to The Derby and he would teach me the moves. We'd get really sweaty and then he'd drive me home in his convertible."

Graham thinks that combination of sweat and open-air car rides contributed to her catching a cold the day they were supposed to perform their climactic dance for real. "I had this terrible cold, so even though that scene is really fun and romantic, I was super sick! But it was still exciting to be around for the beginning of Jon's career as well as Doug's and Vince Vaughn's."

Swingers did cast Graham in a role she's played numerous times in her career, that of the idealized dream girl. It's a persona that she says didn't come naturally. "When I grew up, I always felt very nerdy, so when I started getting roles as these attractive people, I was like, 'I don't know how this is happening!' A lot of movies [like Swingers] are told from a guy's point of view, and they're seeing women as a certain thing. But I always tried to bring depth and specific character traits to each of those parts."

Boogie Nights (1998)

Graham as Rollergirl in Boogie Nights. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Heather Graham as Rollergirl in Boogie Nights. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Mark Wahlberg may go full frontal at the end of Paul Thomas Anderson's porn epic, but Graham argues that Boogie Nights still isn't exactly equal opportunity in the nudity department. "He's wearing a fake penis so it's not exactly the same," she says, laughing. "That was my first time [doing a nude scene], and I was so nervous about it. But at that point in my career I was also like, 'Beggars can't be choosers.' It was a great script and Paul was an amazing talent. I had a great time making that movie even though it was terrifying doing a nude scene."

It was equally terrifying doing an entire performance on roller skates, although when your character's name is Rollergirl that clearly comes with the territory. "I didn't know how to roller skate when I got that job; I had to take lessons," Graham admits. "It was a little bit terrifying, because there were all these cables around on set and you had to go around stairs and stuff. The girl that was my stand-in bit it a couple of times! But I also felt like this kid just floating along."

Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment in 2014, Wahlberg revealed that the late Burt Reynolds — who plays father figure/porn director Jack Horner — hated the film, even though he received an Oscar nomination for his performance. While Graham doesn't remember the Smokey and the Bandit icon expressing his distaste on set, she does remember him being in discomfort. "He had a lot of sports injuries that he told me he had to take painkillers for," she recalls. "I remember he was sweating a lot during our first read-through, and was drenched by the end of it. I don't know what his struggles were with pain management and things like that."

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)

It's not easy to catch an experienced improviser like Mike Myers off-guard. But Graham successfully surprised the former Saturday Night Live player during their big dance number from the second Austin Powers film. While Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello set the mood with a smooth rendition of "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," Austin and new galpal Felicity Shagwell cut a rug for onlookers. At one point, Felicity's tongue darts out of her mouth and licks the side of Austin's face, and you can see Myers briefly break character with a quick double take.

"I thought that would be funny and did it in the moment," Graham confirms now. "I also remember the part where I balance him on my leg and he lifts his feet up so I'm holding him up. That was fun because I was like, 'I'm strong enough to hold this man up!' He's such a good character actor and has such a great imagination."

Viewers will also be relieved to know that Graham wasn't crushed during a post-coital moment with Myers when the actor was buried beneath pounds of prosthetics to play Scottish assassin Fat Bastard. "He rolled over, but I rolled off the bed or something like that. I survived! Of course, Mike was slightly terrifying, but also amazingly funny as Fat Bastard."

Bowfinger (1999)

Graham and Eddie Murphy in Bowfinger. (Photo: ©MCA/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Heather Graham and Eddie Murphy in Bowfinger. (Photo: ©MCA/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Steve Martin's uproarious Hollywood satire awarded Graham the opportunity to channel two vintage screen sirens: Anne Baxter and Marilyn Monroe. In the movie, Graham gets to play out a version of Baxter's All About Eve arc as Daisy: a fresh-off-the-bus aspiring actress from the Midwest who climbs her way up the industry ladder Eve Harrington style. And in the movie-within-the-movie, Daisy delivers a demented performance that's equal parts Monroe in Gentleman Prefer Blondes and Natasha Fatale in Rocky and Bullwinkle.

"I was thinking about Marilyn Monroe and how she almost became a character when she's acting," Graham says how she invented Daisy's body language when she's in character. "I can't imagine that's her real personality, right? It's like she's making up this character of what she thinks is sexy, and I thought Daisy would also want to seem sexy. So she's trying to seem exotic, but she's trying too hard, basically. It was fun to play an actress trying to act and being kind of bad."

Bowfinger also features Eddie Murphy delivering two very different performances as movie star Kit Ramsey and Kit's mega-dorky lookalike Jiff. "I didn't get to know him that well, but he was super-nice," Graham says, adding that it wasn't too difficult to maintain her composure when acting opposite Murphy in nerd mode. "We did so many takes of our scene together, so the first time it was like, 'Oh my god, this is so funny!' But after you've done it eight times, you stop laughing."

From Hell (2001)

Graham and Johnny Depp in From Hell. (Photo: 20th Century Fox/Courtesy of Everett Collection)
Heather Graham and Johnny Depp in From Hell. (Photo: 20th Century Fox/Courtesy of Everett Collection)

After back-to-back comedies, Graham time traveled back to the mean streets of 19th century London for a version of the Jack the Ripper story told by Menace II Society directors, Albert and Allen Hughes. "We shot the whole movie at night, and it was during the summer so there weren't that many hours of night," Graham recalls. "We would sit around waiting for it to get dark, and then we'd have to shoot everything very quickly because the sun would come back up fast. It was very dark subject matter — but I'm glad my character survived!"

Graham was also glad that the Hughes brothers added a love story to the film that's not present in the Alan Moore graphic novel it's adapted from. She plays Mary Kelly, a prostitute who is one of the Ripper's intended victims and teams up with investigating officer Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp) to find the killer before she joins the body count. "I love romantic stories: I'm never sick of watching romantic comedies either," she says, laughing. "Gimme a good romance — I'm a typical woman."

Alien Love Triangle (2008)

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 07: Danny Boyle attends FX's
Alien Love Triangle director Danny Boyle, attends a screening of Pistol in June 2022 in Los Angeles. (Photo: Phillip Faraone/Getty Images)

Here's a Heather Graham movie you won't be able to stream or buy on Blu-ray. In 1999, the actress was cast opposite Kenneth Branagh and Couteney Cox in a sci-fi comedy from Trainspotting director Danny Boyle backed by Miramax Studios. The 30-minute film was intended to be part of an anthology of three alien-themed half-hour shorts, but the other two titles — Mimic and Imposter — graduated to feature length status. That left Alien Love Triangle an orphan and the movie has been buried in the Miramax vault ever since. To date, the film has only been shown in public twice, most recently in 2008 in Wales.

"Courteney Cox was playing a sexist man in a woman's body," Graham says of the long-lost film's plot. "I'm an alien and I come back to Earth to try and find my husband, and he's now Courteney Cox. She's with Kenneth Branagh and kind of sick of being in a human body, so she can't wait to get out of there. But then Kenneth and I have a love connection. It's this ridiculous story, but Courteney was very funny in it. It's her pretending that she's this obnoxious man, basically."

The actress remembers that it took three hours to transform into her green-skinned alien alter ego. "I was wearing full make-up, so I'd have to go and sit [in the make-up chair] with my whole head covered by a bald cap. I also had these contacts I had to wear. It was great working with Kenneth, Courteney and Danny, who is so cool."

Half Magic (2018)

From l to r: Angela Kinsey, Graham and Stephanie Beatriz in Graham's directorial debut, Half Magic. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Angela Kinsey, Heather Graham and Stephanie Beatriz in Graham's directorial debut, Half Magic. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

After decades of taking direction, Graham got behind the camera to write and direct her own romantic comedy. Half Magic depicts the turbulent love lives of three different women — played by Graham, Angela Kinsey and Stephanie Beatriz — who make a pact to find Mr. Right. "I was trying to tell a story about how the culture is subconsciously sexist, and how it affects women by making us kind of sexist against ourselves in ways we don't even know," she explains. "The movie is about how we deprogram ourselves from that negative mindset that we have about ourselves."

Graham cites offbeat screen romances like Tootsie and Harold & Maude as influences on Half Magic's tone, and also points to a rising generation of young female filmmakers like Greta Gerwig and Sarah Polley as exciting representatives of the industry's future. "I grew up at a time where the business was pretty male-dominated. Maybe a few things snuck through that were by female filmmakers, but it's exciting to think that now people are putting more energy into wanting to tell those stories."

And Graham is already planning to direct again: She hopes to start shooting her sophomore feature, Chosen Family, later this year. The movie stars Julia Stiles as a woman from a dysfunctional upbringing whose efforts to create a new family with her boyfriend are stymied by his rebellious daughter. Graham plays a yoga instructor who helps Stiles on her journey. "It's so much fun directing, even though it's also much more stressful because you have to think of so many more things. But I do feel like I took this drug called 'directing' and now I'm like, 'How do I get that drug back?'"

On a Wing and a Prayer premieres Friday, April 7 on Prime Video.