Welcome to the house, doll! In an exclusive interview, Heather Matarazzo traces her path from Welcome to the Dollhouse to costarring in The Princess Diaries, coming out in the Daily News, and winning the right to marry the love of her life
A word of advice: Never, ever bet against Heather Matarazzo. Professionally, the 21-year-old Long Island native is already making her mark as one of the most distinctive character actors of her generation. She stunned critics with her stoic star turn as junior high outcast Dawn Wiener in the indie hit Welcome to the Dollhouse (filmed when she was 11 and released a few years later), a performance that would win her a 1997 Independent Spirit Award. More recently she’s been holding her own in the biggest of big-screen enterprises with Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews in Disney’s Princess Diaries movies. In between, Matarazzo has worked like crazy, snagging roles in some 20 movies–including this year’s Christian-high-school comedy Saved!–and logging hundreds of hours of television on series such as Roseanne and the short-lived but critically acclaimed Now and Again.
Matarazzo’s got just as much moxie when it comes to her life. This summer, when the New York Daily News asked that personal question so many closeted actors fear, Matarazzo stepped right up and told them she was “crazy madly in love” with a woman. Not just truthful but joyously truthful–how fabulous can one young actor be?
On a sunny afternoon at Los Angeles’s Crescent Hotel, sitting down with The Advocate for her first gay-press interview, Matarazzo turns out to be fabulous indeed–petite, with a dancer’s carriage, a graceful mane of hair, and a fresh intelligence leavened with a fizzy sense of humor. And she’s offering no apologies, thank you. “I’ve always liked women,” she says with a smile. “That’s the way God made me. That’s how I am.”
Had you planned to give that big beautiful gay quote to the Daily News?
No, it just came out. I’m in love! And I’m not going to lie. I’m not going to be like, Crop, I have a girlfriend; I’m not going to say anything.
I hope she bought you flowers afterward!
[Laughs] We had talked about it for a while, whether people were ever going to know about her and me. My stipulation was, I didn’t watt go be known as a lesbian that happens to be an actress; I wanted to be known as an actress that happens to be with a woman. OK! Move on. Next subject. I’m not going to throw a big ticker-tape parade, like, I’m here, I’m queer, whatever. It’s a part of who I ran, I embrace it, and it’s not something I have to have a brain freeze over.
How did you meet your partner?
God has a funny way of doing things. I met her coincidentally, through a friend that I had known in high school. And we hadn’t talked to each other in two years. I called her randomly, out of the blue, and it turned out she was living two blocks away from me.
This is in New York City, right?
Yeah. And I’m like, “Let’s go get coffee.” She said, “I’m going to bring my friend along.” So I see the pair of them walking down the street. I remember the exact time–it was 7:54. And here conies the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my whole entire life. She stuck out her hand to say hi, and I was like, forget the handshake, give me a hug.
Good for you.
The first night we met, we were sitting at the diner, and I said to her, “We’re soul mates.” And it hasn’t stopped from there.
How long ago was that?
It’ll be two years in April. And [strains for words] she is the most beautiful person I’ve ever met. The most kind, compassionate, giving soul. She really brought me out of my shell and made me so comfortable in my own skin.
Would you tell us her name?
[Shakes her head] I’m lucky enough that I’m never going to be one of those actors where I have paparazzi outside my apartment. The only thing that I truly have that’s my own is my personal life. Some of the media feel as though if you open up a little bit of your book, they’re entitled to know everything, and that’s not true. My life is not going to become a piece of tabloid banter. I’m an actor and not a celebrity. There’s a difference. Britney Spears is a celebrity. Paris Hilton is a celebrity. You don’t see people pestering Kathy Bates or Patricia Clarkson. And that’s who I want to be like.
You’re from Long Island. How did it feel growing up there?
I never really quite enjoyed Long Island. I wasn’t a typical suburbanite kid. I had a different set of values, and I wasn’t really content with going to the Friday night kegger. I was working a lot, so I was never really home anyway.
Did you know you were interested in girls when you were little?
Oh, yeah! Totally.
Were you out to your friends and family?
I tried to come out to my morn when I was younger, but it didn’t work out so well, because denial is a powerful thing.
She thought it was a phase?
Yeah. But everyone’s got to go through their own journey. I went through mine. I went through that self-hatred. A lot of people have to go through a period of self-hatred before embracing who they really are.
What about your dad?
I don’t know. I don’t talk to him that much. My dad’s on a different journey than me. He’s going through his own thing. I don’t know if I’d call him a brick wall, but he’s definitely wet cement.
So can we hear one teen dating adventure?
My first girlfriend–I was, like, 16 or 17, and it was the first time I ever really had a girlfriend. We dated for, like, two years, and her parents were disgusted and hated me. [Laughs] I had to jump out of a window when her room came home early one day. They lived in a one-story house, but it still had some height. She pushed me off the sill and whispered, “Call me later!”
How are things with you and your partner and your family now?
I haven’t really talked about it with my extended family. But my morn is a 65-year-old Roman Catholic Italian that grew up with very traditional values. And it’s been hard for her. When she saw the Daily News article, it was really hard for her. ‘Cause she’s one of those women that’s about “Keep it in the family.”
I bet she’s thrilled with your success, though.
My room is very, very supportive. She’ll say to you, she’s proud of my success, but she’s proud that I’m her daughter first.
You started working really young.
Seven. I was a dancer when I was younger.
Younger than 7?
Yeah, I started dancing when I was, like, 3 or 4.
There’s a great story about how you got your acting break.
Yeah! I was in this benefit for children with AIDS. We were doing a dress rehearsal, and nobody was paying attention–they were all bickering and moaning–so I grabbed the microphone and told everyone off. A woman that had heard came up to me and was like, “Do you want to be an actor?” And I was like, “Yeah, are you kidding? Totally.” So she gave me the card of this woman who was a manager in Manhattan. I was with [that manager] for 10 years.
This ambition was in your mind at 7? What put it there?
Even when I was younger, I used to perform in my kitchen to Madonna and dance. You know how in the doctor’s office they used to give you those snow-cone cups to fill with water? I used to steal those and put them under my shirt and perform. It was right after the Blond Ambition tour, and I taped it, and my morn would tape over the bad parts that she didn’t want me to see.
That is the best thing I’ve ever heard.
But Judy Garland was it for me when I was younger. I grew up on musicals. Are you kidding me? That feeling they gave me, that swelling of emotion that brings tears to your eyes. It’s unlike any feeling you can describe, and I just wanted to give that feeling to other people.
Some younger gays think they shouldn’t like musicals, because that’s just old “show-tune queen” stuff. It’s a shame.
Most of my inner circle consists of gay men, and I think that there is somewhat of a generation gap–some younger gay men axe more interested hi the party aspect and going out and dancing, [while] the older generation of gay males, who had a bigger struggle, identified more with people like Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland–true underdogs, tree outsiders. There’s nobody out there today that young gay men or women really identify, with.
When I was a kid, for women anyway, it was all about Julie Andrews.
[Dreamily] Julie Andrews? Julie Andrews is Victor/Victoria, Mary Poppins–The Sound of Music. That swelling that I was talking about earlier, “The hills are “alive” and that big pan out and this zoom and her twirling around in that landscape of green and that freedom! Oh, wow, man, that just set my heart aflutter.
After all that, what was it like to work with Julie Andrews?
I was so scared and nervous, when I was doing the first Princess Diaries, Mandy Moore and I went up to her to get our Sound of Music CDs signed. But I was so intimidated, I didn’t really talk to her until the second Princess Diaries that we just did. I mean, here we are, four or five years later, and I was like, OK, Heather, just relax.
You didn’t talk to her in the first one?
I didn’t! It’s like, what are you going to say to Julie Andrews? And I didn’t have a scene with her at all in the first one. So being able to actually work with her and have lines with her in the second one, however, was amazing.
Actually, you had a scene alone with her, where you’re hiding under the covers pretending to be Anne Hathaway, who’s actually staying out all night with her boyfriend, and Julie wakes you up.
It was absolutely incredible. She was so welcoming and down-to-earth. To have Julie Andrews, like, rubbing your back. It’s like, OK, I could get used to this.
You and Anne Hathaway do great comedy together. That woman can really take a pratfall.
It’s really funny also to see someone as beautiful as she is allowing herself to be that vulnerable, to look like an ass [laughs] and to do it so gracefully.
And you actually come out of the closet in Princess Diaries 2–Anne Hathaway’s character opens the closet door in her new castle suite, and there you are!
Isn’t that so ironic? It was a joke on the set. And that was even before I knew that I would be [breathy whisper] coming out of the closet. There should be a better expression, like coming out of your shell.
Let’s talk about Welcome to the Dollhouse. That was so brave! How did you even do it?
[Shrugs, smiles] I don’t know. I just did it. People ask me that all the time, and when I was younger I used to give these answers of “blah, blah, blah” to try to explain it, because I really had no idea. It just comes to me. It’s like breathing.
Almost the first line of dialogue is this platoon of mean cheerleaders coming up at you, asking–
“Are you a lesbian?” [Mimicking herself] “No.”
What was it like to be 11 years old and do dialogue like that on the screen? Did that movie wind up damaging you emotionally?
It’s not me! I’m playing a character. I had to say “cunt” in that movie, and I didn’t even know what “cunt” meant. I had to ask my grandma.
We’re in the midst of a heated political season, and gays and lesbians are right on the griddle.
It’s insanity! But you know what? I look at it this way: Out of every situation that seems horrible, God’s going to make it good. If Bush is in the White House for four more years, the nation’s going to become more polarized than it already is, and especially among the gay community the social issue of gay marriage is going to become even more [pressing], and we’re going to get to the nitty nitty-gritty. I think we’re about two layers down right now, but people are going to start speaking more, and it’s just going to get simpler.
You’re talking about the community presenting a united front?
Yes! Because if you look at how far the gay community has come from Stonewall–and even before that, from the ’50s, when you couldn’t even be seen–I think people have forgotten the significance of gay pride. It’s not about the parties and the floats and the crazy drag queens. I think it needs to become more somber in a sense. [It’s so sad] that there should be dissension in the gay community–we need to get back to basics. And I think a large part of the gay community is silent, which is really a shame. It’s like, How can you give up now when we’ve come so far?
Is the right to marry important to you?
It’s incredibly important to me. God forbid, if anything ever happened to my wife–I’ll call her my wife; we’re spiritually married already–and I wasn’t allowed to stay with her in intensive care … I think about that.
Why is the idea of marriage such a problem for people?
It all comes down to religion. The people that are claiming to be Christians aren’t Christians at all. Christian means “like Christ,” and I know for a fact that if Jesus was here today, he’d be like, “Come! You’re welcome! I’m embracing you. I love you.”
Let’s get back to love for a minute. If you could have the perfect romantic evening, what would you do?
Oh, man. It’s going to sound so stupid. But every single night that I spend with my wife is the most perfect, beautiful, romantic evening. No joke. Even drawing her a bath. Just being able to go to Central Park with our puppy and have a picnic. You fall more in love with a person every single day. It makes me want to cry, because I’ve never been so happy.
I know it’s not possible. But what if it were to end?
Um … [Quietly] If it were to end, I’d deal with it at that time. Like I said before, any tragedy that may befall you, there’s always going to be a reason for good [in] it. Even if you can’t see it right there in front of you, you’ll be able to see it in hindsight.
You’ve obviously thought a lot about being spiritual and being gay. Do you take strength from your beliefs?
Dude, let me tell you something. If it weren’t for the grace of God and my truly finally realizing that I’m still loved and I’m going to go to heaven, I would not be talking to you right now. To anybody that’s reading this, you’re going to go to heaven if you’re gay as long as you’re a good person and you love yourself and you love your neighbor and you love God. Ignorance, in the end, will not prevail.
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