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Tea Time with Carla Gugino
Photograph by Don Flood/Corbis Outline
Which Carla Gugino will I get—the G-rated movie mom or the intimidatingly sexy woman I saw in a YouTube clip called “Carla Gugino in Her Underwear”? This is the question that hovers as I wait for Gugino to open the gate to her Hollywood Hills home, a two-story hacienda that’s concealed by a long stucco wall and a small forest of bamboo and bougainvillea. It’s a hot afternoon, with roofless tourist vans chugging up the road, birds chirping, and the din of traffic from below. I hear Gugino walk across her yard, shush a barking dog, and wiggle the latch on the turquoise gate before opening it. “Thanks for making yourself available on such short notice,” she says, stealing my line.
Dressed in a light green V-neck tee and white linen pants, this is definitely the more family-friendly Gugino who’s starred in Spy Kids and Race to Witch Mountain. Standing five feet seven inches in beaded sandals, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, she leads me and her Yorkie-poodle mix, Luna, into the kitchen, opens a Tupperware container of Moroccan mint tea, and begins preparing two glass mugs. “It’s from Urth Caffé,” she says. “It’s traveled the world with me.”
Even if you don’t know Gugino by name, you recognize her face—the curvy mouth, the ski ramp nose—as soon as you see it. She was a lesbian parole officer in Sin City, an ex-cop in Righteous Kill, with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, and a brainy academic opposite Ben Stiller in Night at the Museum. She may be best known as Amanda Daniels, the agent who’s too much woman for Vincent Chase in HBO’s Entourage.
Gugino appears as Elektra Luxx, a porn star on the cusp of an epiphany, in Women in Trouble, which comes out this month. The film is a dark comedy—and the first in a trilogy—written and directed by Sebastian Gutierrez, who is Gugino’s longtime partner. Gugino stars alongside nine other women whose lives cross paths during one particularly hectic day in L.A. Elektra has to decide how to handle an unexpected pregnancy and spends most of her time onscreen trapped in an elevator, stripped down to her undergarments with a perfect stranger. “The anatomically correct Elektra Luxx Vagina Deluxe retails for 89 bucks and comes in three different colors,” she tells her elevator mate, as a way to convey her popularity in the adult film business. “It is the number-one-selling celebrity vagina on the market.” Race to Witch Mountain this is not.
Rather than hang around some dodgy porn studio in the Valley, Gugino prepared for the role by watching documentaries and sampling “classy porn that was shot on film” in the ’70s. “I don’t find porn very sexy, and I find the porn world so depressing,” she says. “Once I got some insight into the mechanics of the making of porn, I was ready to play Elektra.”
Gutierrez, who wrote Snakes on a Plane, created the role of Elektra Luxx with Gugino in mind. But the two agreed that the film would be ill served by nudity or gratuitous skin-flick realism. “You can’t do that with a movie if you want to keep a certain level of lightness,” she says. The same might be said of their relationship—something Gugino learned when she was filming a steamy scene with Simon Baker in Judas Kiss. Gutierrez was directing, and almost as soon as the camera started rolling, “he yelled, ‘Cut, cut, cut!’” says Gugino. “I was like, ‘But we didn’t finish our lines.’ And Sebastian was like, ‘Yeah, yeah—we’ll make the scene work.’ So now we have a running joke: In any of the things we work on together, I’m either a lesbian or I don’t have sex onscreen.”
We’ve taken a seat at a wrought-iron table in the lush backyard. She and Gutierrez have lived here for the last six years. The place was built in 1927 by the Chandlers, the powerful family who founded the Los Angeles Times and helped shape the city. The house later served as the consulate for a Western European democracy. (Fearing attention from those tourist vans, Gugino asked us not to reveal too much.) “Alfred Hitchcock used to come to parties here,” she says. “We’ve always wanted to host a film noir party, with a fake corpse facedown at the bottom of the pool and everything. It’s such a hidden little piece of L.A. history.”
Gugino was born in Sarasota, Florida, one of three children of an orthodontist father and a homemaker mother. In 1988, at the age of 16, she moved into the L.A. home of her uncle and aunt (Carol Merrill, who was a model on Let’s Make a Deal) and got permission from the courts to work on set without a guardian, usually a requirement for child actors. New in town, with a last name that no one could pronounce (it’s Goo-jeen-o), she considered adopting her mother’s maiden name, Burgess, but “my Italian father would have died if I did that,” she says. The name didn’t deter casting directors, who picked her for TV roles in ALF, Who’s the Boss?, and Falcon Crest, to name a few. In 1993, she landed a starring movie role opposite Pauly Shore in Son in Law. She’s been busy in Hollywood ever since, landing 60-plus roles on TV and in movies, from Spin City and Chicago Hope to her own short-lived drama, Karen Sisco.
Of the many characters she’s portrayed, one of her favorites is Ari Gold’s nemesis in Entourage. “The show’s producers wanted someone smart and complex, not a one-note bitchy thing,” she says. “They wanted someone who is strong and sexy and doesn’t make apologies for herself. As a woman, you rarely get direction like that. Usually you’re asked to soften up or to be cold and take on the worst characteristics of men.” Gugino drew from a few female agents she knows, but, she says, “the role was written well enough that there wasn’t anything I wanted to change. It was spot-on.”
She looks at her phone and realizes she’s late for another meeting. Tomorrow Gugino will be on a plane to Vancouver, where she’s filming her latest project, Sucker Punch, a film by 300 director Zack Snyder. She stars as a psychiatrist in the 1960s—as well as a “Polish dominatrix-slash-choreographer-slash-madam. There’s singing and dancing, too,” she says, admitting that she felt somewhat “schizophrenic” researching the part. But, as Gugino says, in her line of work “you have to mix it up. I want to be able to do this for the rest of my life. I’m aware that there isn’t a big role that would change my career. And that’s fine. As long as it affords me a shot at the best parts.”