Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Carla Gugino

'Spy Kid' at Heart

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Before playing a spy and posing for photographs by Annie Leibovitz, Carla Gugino lived in a tepee and went through a bird-watching phase.

In other words, she's not your average up-and-coming movie star.

Though most people may not know who she his, mention her roles on TV's "Spin City" and in Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes (1998) opposite Nicolas Cage, and recognition sparks. Add to those the Pauly Shore comedy Son-in-Law (1993), Nora Ephron's Michael (1996), and the indie Judas Kiss (1998), and you'll have a fuller picture. Now she's in Robert Rodriguez' fast, fun, and cartoony Spy Kids and can be seen next month in Wayne Wang's adult and scandalous The Center of the World.

In Spy Kids, Gugino plays a retired spy and mother of two. During the course of duty, she fell in love with an enemy spy (Antonio Banderas) and married him. At the beginning of the film, her kids don't know about their parents' secret past, but they love to be told bedtime stories about the romantically entangled spies. During the story, Gugino wears several wigs, starting with a blonde one, briefly echoing her similar blonde wig from Snake Eyes.

"They wanted me to have these very different looks going on," Gugino says. "We started putting blonde wigs on, and of course I was reminded of Snake Eyes, and I thought, 'well I have to do something different.' 'Cause in Snake Eyes I had a bit of a Marilyn thing, so we went a little bit longer."

"It's interesting how you're perceived so differently depending on the color of your hair, as a woman. It's amazing. My natural hair color's brown. People might take a glance, and then take a second glance, and go, 'ohÉ you're kind of attractive.' With red hair, like I had in Spy Kids, it was really fun. I think redheads have it best, really, because they have a bit of a spicy factor going on. People definitely notice you and you're not necessarily assumed to be dumb. Whereas blonde hair, people will break their necks to look at you but you will absolutely never have an interesting conversation with them. Because there's this sort of assumption that there are very few brain cells in there. So it's interesting. I find them all to be fascinating as an actress."

Director Rodriguez is perhaps most famous for his first feature film, El Mariachi (1993), a Mexican action film shot for an astonishing $7000. Gugino insists that Rodriguez still carries a sense of frugality. "This is a movie that looks like it cost a lot more than it did. Certainly it was his biggest budget. And still, there was a strong feeling that we were making our own little movie in Austin. It didn't feel like a big Hollywood movie. Robert sits behind the camera and plays his guitar on set. And a lot of his crew members have worked with him since way back when, so there's a great sense of family there."

Though Gugino doesn't have any kids, she says Spy Kids was a kid-friendly environment, starting with Rodriguez' three kids, Rebel, Racer, and Rocket. "They're very, very cool kids. There was a world premiere at Disney Adventureland. But the Austin premiere was this weekend. It was so cute! The three kids all came in black turtlenecks, in black jeans, and spy glasses. And they were so cute! So I think there may be a spy kid craze in terms of kids wanting to look like spies."

"My sister's daughter went to school and [told her friends] that I was in Spy Kids. And she called me and said, "Carla, they don't believe me. I think you may have to come and be my Show and Tell." That may be the sweetest request I've ever gotten to go anywhere!"

Spy Kids is an unusual kids film in that it seems to have found the roots of what kids want to see in a movie, rather than what marketing people want to see. "I'm usually the expert at, once the movie starts, I'll go to get the popcorn, I think I have to go to the bathroom, check the watch, make a phone call. But with a movie like this, I think the fun thing is to go with kids and see it through their eyes. I think that was really important to Robert was to get in touch with that 'everything is possible.' He loves kids and he has a great generosity of heart and spirit. He shot it a lot like a Bond movie, in an adult kind of way, but without the violence."

Gugino is perhaps a good person to ask when it comes to seeing through kids' eyes. In a sense, she lived two different childhoods. "My parents split up when I was really young and I lived with my mom for a period of time just outside of Paradise in a tepee, and I lived in a van in Big Sur, and I was bathed in the river and jumped off of rocks ran in the hills and was very much a tomboy. My mom used to make oatmeal on a propane stove. It was an amazing time. It sort of feels like a dream."

"And then I also lived with my father in a house in Florida with a swimming pool and traveled to Europe in the Summers and went to a private school and had a completely different existence. So I love glamour and I love dressing up and that's probably one of the reasons I wanted to become an actress."

But with her bird-watching, Gugino managed to combine the best of both worlds. "I had the binoculars and the little khaki pants. I had to do the fashion for bird-watching. I had the bird-watching outfit. The attire is very important. I had the little book. 'Cause there are amazing birds down in Florida, so that's how I got into it. Strange."

March 26, 2001

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