Town & Country (2017)
Billie Lourd's New Life
After a devastating year, the actress sits down with her friend and Horror Story co-star Sarah Paulson to talk about the loss of her mother Carrie Fisher and her grandmother Debbie Reynolds.
It’s been quite a year for Billie Lourd. The 25-year-old actress has hit her stride in Hollywood: She appeared in the series Scream Queens and is starring in the latest installment of American Horror Story (which premieres this month on the FX network), and she’ll grace the big screen in the upcoming films Billionaire Boys Club and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
But she has also faced huge personal tragedies. Last December her mother Carrie Fisher and grandmother Debbie Reynolds—who were both stars in their own right but also beloved as a charming, squabbling duo whose unique relationship was the subject of a recent HBO documentary—died within days of each other. Here, in a wide-ranging conversation with her friend and Horror Story co-star Sarah Paulson, Lourd opens up about her life with and without her mother and grandmother, and going into the family business against the wishes of her mom and dad (the talent agent Bryan Lourd). She also explains how following some of her mother’s famously frank advice has helped her navigate her more difficult moments.
Sarah Paulson: I met you in 2002. How old were you in 2002?
Billie Lourd: I was 10. What is that story?
SP: What happened was I met your mother at a dinner party. It was me, David Spade and his wife, the executive of a show I was on, your mother, and just a few other people. We bonded because I had finished an episode of Touched by an Angel with your grandmother a few weeks prior. When we were leaving the party, we drove down Coldwater Canyon, and I was going to drive one way and your mom was going the other way, and she leaned out the window and said, “Do you want to come to a party?” I was like, “What?” And she said, “Do you want to come to Gore Vidal’s makeout party?”
BL: Oh, I remember Gore Vidal’s makeout party!
SP: I said, “Yeah, I guess so.” She said to take down her e-mail. I didn’t have a computer. I didn’t have e-mail at this point. I bought a computer so I could have an e-mail correspondence with your mother.
BL: No way!
SP: So then we started an e-mail correspondence, and she had me come to this party at her house, and I basically didn’t leave. Your mom did that thing that your mom does where she was like—
BL: “Move in with me.”
SP: I did. I stayed. I was never really living there. I would spend the night, but I never had a toothbrush. You were the coolest 10-year-old that ever existed.
BL: What was I doing?
SP: You were very funny and seemed to be completely comfortable around grown-ups.
BL: Too comfortable.
SP: I didn’t see you for a while because I moved to New York. I remember running into your dad, and I asked, “How is Billie?” And he said, “Oh my god…” You had gone to Paris.
BL: To a debutante ball! It was society girls, and I’m so not society girl. It was so bizarre. I guess I just said yes because I was like, “Oh, a free trip to Paris! Let’s go. They’re going to put me in a nice dress, and I can learn how to waltz. This sounds great.”
SP: Sometimes I feel that if you have an unconventional childhood you lean toward wanting to create things in your life where you have real structure. Living at your mom’s house, to me, was living in treehouse, a fairyland. Your dad’s world had a lot more structure.
BL: I had hilarious balance.
SP: You would come to your dad’s and it’s, like, dinner at five.
BL: He gets home at the same time every day, and we eat dinner together, we do homework together, we watch Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and cry, and then go to sleep. At Mom’s it was like, “Let’s put Christmas lights in the palm trees at 2 a.m.” Do you remember when Sharper Image was 24 hours?
SP: Sure do.
BL: We went there all the time, 1 a.m. or 3 a.m., just picking up little trinkets as if that was what you do!
SP: When you moved out, you moved to New York to go to NYU?
BL: I was at Wesleyan first. I was there for a semester because I wanted that traditional college vibe. But when I got there people would do normal college things, and I was like, “I can’t be here. This is a nightmare.” After having the childhood that I did, it was like going backward 10 years. I was driving to New York every weekend anyway, so I ended up transferring.
SP: You created your own major?
BL: Art and Business as Religion.
SP: [Laughing] Can you explain this to me?
BL: I wasn’t raised religious at all, but they allowed me to, like, dip into each religion. One weekend I wanted to be Buddhist, so Mom brought me to a temple and showed me the Siddhartha movie. And then I wanted to be Jewish, we went to shabbat, we went to bat mitzvahs.
SP: Basically, anything you were curious about was permissible.
BL: Absolutely. Which was incredible.
SP: But you hid your curiosity about becoming an actor?
BL: I think in a normal family they would have looked at me and been like, “Hey, this kid’s a performer.” But I was so scared. I was embarrassed, honestly. Because they were like, “This is going to be a really shitty lifestyle, and everyone’s going to be scrutinizing you deeply and constantly.” My mom wrote five books and a one-woman show; they didn’t want more things for people to be able to Google about me.
SP: How did you feel about her sharing those things?
BL: I had a hard time with it in the beginning. I was very protective of my dad and would stop her and be like, “Can you take out that thing where you say, ‘I turned him gay.’ Can we not have that on Broadway?”
SP: Did she listen to you?
BL: She did. Debbie did it to her, so anytime I came up to her and said, “Please tone this down,” she would, because she went through it with Debbie and knew how hard it was. Now, looking back and watching her interviews, I try to model what I do after her. She was so good at it. She would get so annoyed with me if I ever did a fake interview. She’d say, “Tell the real story.”
SP: So what did you do when you decided you wanted to be an actor?
BL: My mom actually pointed me toward it. The first thing I did was Star Wars: The Force Awakens. J.J. Abrams called and said they couldn’t find anybody for this one part and would I come in and read for it. I didn’t get the part, but I got another extra part with three lines. The thing is, I was bizarrely comfortable on set. My mother would pull me aside and be like, “It’s weird that you’re so comfortable here. This is the most uncomfortable environment in the world. If you’re comfortable here, you should do this.”
SP: I went back and looked at all these e-mails I have from your mother. I was really lucky, because I was new to town, I didn’t know anybody, I was having a little bit of success in the sense that I was working, but I didn’t have a family or any kind of structure until I was at your house all the time. I wrote to her with some actress lament, and she wrote back saying, “We’re going to have to find something else for you to do if you take this gig personally. Did you ever notice that ‘actor’ is spelled ‘act, or’?”
BL: That’s awesome. I never heard her say that. That’s why she did so many other things. She wanted me to go to school and do other things, because of that or.
SP: You can also sing. Like, really sing. I’ve heard rumors about an album that you made—or ultimately will make at some point?
BL: At some point, when I develop the balls to do that. My goal is to do it before I’m 30.
SP: Did your mom want you to sing?
BL: She did. Debbie too.
SP: Did you ever look at other people’s childhoods and wish for something more conventional?
BL: I always wanted siblings. I was bummed that I didn’t have any—even just to be a witness. Sometimes when crazy things were happening, I wanted to ask, “Is this just me?” My mom tried to adopt a kid. You know when you ask for a puppy? I asked for a sister. One year I was like, “Hey, Mom, I want a sister.” We tried to adopt—like, we did a whole thing, and, no, the home study was not strong. But now I have a little sister. My dad got married a year ago and I have a nine-year-old little sister who’s absolutely awesome. She’s kind of like my daughter, too.
SP: With American Horror Story you’re going to be in your second Ryan Murphy series. How did you two meet?
BL: We were at my godfather’s birthday dinner. I was not going to go, because it was in Silver Lake, and I was like, “I’m not driving to the East Side.”
SP: Everyone feels that way if they don’t live on the East Side. I’m with you.
BL: I know. I don’t like it. And I don’t like their expensive coffee.
SP: I don’t like the coffee, either. I hate it! “Take your handlebar mustache and get out of here!”
BL: It’s like Brooklyn. Okay, so I went to Silver Lake for this birthday dinner and ended up sitting next to Ryan. He was like, “What the hell are you doing with your life?” And I said, “I’ve started acting. I’ve gone on 10 auditions and I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m going to try.” And he said, “You need to be on my show Scream Queens.”
SP: And now you’re on American Horror Story, which you changed your look for.
BL: Big-time. I went to fittings. I had this blond hair I’d had my whole life, and I texted Ryan and said, “What are we doing with my hair? I want to do something iconic.” He wrote back and said, “What about gray?” And I was like, “Let’s do it.”
SP: Did you get any advice from your family about this business?
BL: Debbie was still encouraging me to put an act together. Literally three days before she died, she was like, “What numbers are you going to put in your act? Who are you going to impersonate?” I said, “I don’t think people do acts as much anymore.” And she came back, “That’s why if you do one you’ll be more successful than anyone else. The act is a dying art, and someone needs to revive it.”
SP: I remember standing in the Red Room off the bar in the house and your mom saying to me, “You’ve got to find the funny, Paulson. If you don’t find the funny, you’re doomed.”
BL: Oh, it’s so important. If life’s not funny, then it’s just true—and that would be unacceptable. Even when she died, that was what got me through that whole thing. When Debbie died the next day, I could just picture her saying, “Well, she’s upstaging me once again, of course—she had to.”
SP: Did your mom ever get scared that you were going to get sucked up into something that was going to take you in the wrong direction?
BL: Absolutely. I remember a time when I was nine years old. I got in trouble in school for stealing something out of someone’s backpack, and she picked me up and she sat me down in the car. And she turned to me and said, “Are you going to grow up to be an asshole?” And I started crying. She talked to me like an adult my whole life. I always think that now: I don’t want to grow up to be an asshole!
SP: What kind of things would you and your grandmother do together?
BL: We watched Turner Classic Movies. We all would sit together in bed; their place was the bed. And my grandma was really into E! and Access Hollywood. It was so bizarre. She knew all the gossip about everything. And she loved bowling, so we would do that—until it got scary being in the car with her. She would say, “I’ve been driving for 60 years,” and I was like, “I think that’s the problem.”
SP: What were your favorite roles of your grandmother’s? And your mother’s?
BL: For my grandmother, The Unsinkable Molly Brown. She is unreal in that. And then Behind the Candelabra, the Liberace movie. It’s so underrated. What was great is that they would do roles that they thought I would like. She did Halloweentown so that I could see her in something. She did an episode of Rugrats, too. As far as my mom’s roles, it would be Hannah and Her Sisters.
SP: I agree. That’s my favorite.
BL: She’s also great in When Harry Met Sally. And she played nuns a lot, which I thought was hysterical.
SP: Did she?
BL: She played a nun in Charlie’s Angels, and then in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. She also played a therapist in Austin Powers, and I loved that.
SP: Your mom was well known for one particular role: Princess Leia. How did that affect her?
BL: That was hard for her. It’s tough, when you play an iconic character, to break away from it. You have to make sure you have a lot of variety, and make sure you choose roles that aren’t similar to others, or else you get pigeonholed as one thing. I don’t know if I would play a woman in space in a bikini. You also have to be careful about getting oversexualized, and that was hard for her.
SP: How has your life changed since your mother and grandmother passed?
BL: I’ve always kind of lived in their shadows, and now is the first time in my life when I get to own my life and stand on my own. I love being my mother’s daughter, and it’s something I always will be, but now I get to be just Billie.
SP: Is it scary?
BL: It is. It’s a lot of pressure, because she had such an incredible legacy, and now I have to uphold that and make it evolve in my own way. And a lot of people have had experiences like mine, too. Tons of people grow up with mentally ill parents who have drug problems. I read this incredible book, Adult Children of Alcoholics—it’s not a great narrative, but it’s a fun psych book.
SP: I’m sure every page you read you were like, “That happened to me.”
BL: “Check, check, check!” And it’s such a common thing, and people really don’t talk about it. She talked about being mentally ill and having issues with drugs, and a lot of people don’t talk about what it was like growing up with that.
SP: You recently released a statement, which I thought was very powerful and honest, that honored the way she lived her life. You said, “My mom battled drug addiction and mental illness her entire life. She ultimately died of it. She was purposefully open in all of her work about the social stigmas surrounding these diseases.” She never hid any of it, and she knew that there was strength in being honest about it.
BL: And it ultimately helped so many more people, and that’s why I made that statement.
SP: She would have been very proud. Was she ever tough on you?
BL: Oh, she would call me out. The last time I saw her in person, this episode of Scream Queens was on, and it was a big episode for me. I had tons of scenes, and I was so hard on myself about it—I hated how I looked, hated my performance. I was really frustrated. She told me, “Come over right now. I want to watch this with you.” And she made me sit down and watch it, and she forced me to see the good parts. She was incredible like that. But she was really hard on me, saying, “Shut up, you’re great in this. Have faith in yourself. Be more confident.”
SP: She did that for so many people. Do you ever feel a responsibility to do that for your own friends?
BL: Absolutely. I’m such a caretaker. I always do that. I’m actually keeping her house.
SP: I didn’t want to tell you, but I wanted you to keep it.
BL: I decided… I went back and forth on it, but it’s so magical. It’s such a special place. And I’m having a couple of friends move in with me, like an old-style commune.
SP: That’s so wonderful! Oh, that makes me so happy. Was there ever anything about your parents that you saw as a cautionary tale, or something you didn’t want to repeat?
BL: Absolutely. From my mom, maybe living too out in the open. It’s good to a certain extent. It’s good to be authentic, to help other people, but if it’s not helping other people, then don’t do it. There were a couple incidents I wish she could have kept to herself. But, you know, that was the beauty of her.
Photographs by Victor Demarchelier, Styled by Nicoletta Santoro, Hair by Teddy Charles for Dove Haircare, Makeup by Fiona Stiles using Fiona Stiles Beauty at Starworks Artists, Nails by Emi Kudo using Dior Vernis at Opus Beauty, Tailoring by Hasmik Kourinian at Susie’s Custom Designs Inc. Produced by 360 PM.
This story appears in the September 2017 issue of Town & Country.