Marielle Heller — my friend and neighbor — is the director of such films as Diary of a Teenage Girl, Can You Ever Forgive Me? and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Here, Mari shares how to combat very dry skin, an inspiring way to listen to kids, and what it was like to chop off all her hair…
First off, what are your three favorite movies? I’m always curious to hear people’s choices.
I’d always put Harold and Maude. I love it so much and watch it often. Big is one of my favorites and brings me pleasure, but when Philadelphia came out, it ruined me. I was in high school, and I didn’t realize something so political could make you so invested in the characters. I bought the soundtrack and listened to it all the time in the car. And what else? Another movie I’ve seen the most times in my life — but it’s probably the worst movie ever made — is The Room. My family watches it on holidays; it’s a fun bonding experience.
As an actor and director, your red hair seems like a signature part of your look.
Actually, my real hair color is dirty blonde. I started dyeing it 15 years ago. My dad and my grandfather are both redheads, and as soon as I started dyeing my hair red, people were like, oh yeah, that’s what you’re supposed to be.
What made you dye it in the first place?
I was acting more back then and it was this weird thing: I was labeled as a blonde but I didn’t make sense for roles that were labeled for blondes. I’m more of a ‘quirky best friend’ than a ‘blonde ingenue.’ I wanted to go for the funnier, darker parts, the character roles, and having red hair put me in the right pile for that. That’s a shitty thing about being an actor: having to tailor your look to other people’s biases!
What’s something about your look that you’ve learned to love?
I have really pale skin and when I was younger, I would try to bronze it up. But now I want to look like myself and leave it the way it is. I’ve worn sunscreen every day of my life. I wear hats on the beach.
What skincare products do you swear by?
I use Dr. Hauschka soothing cleansing milk to take my makeup off every day. I break out easily but Dr. Hauschka products don’t break me out. They feel cleansing without being drying and work really well. Also, True Botanicals Nutrient Mist was given to me as a gift, and I fell in love with it. I spray it on and it helps my skin absorb my moisturizer. In my late 30s, my skin totally changed to suddenly be dehydrated. If I don’t use the nutrient mist, my skin gets deeply dry. Plus, I love the smell so much.
What moisturizer do you use?
Aesop Parsley Seed Hydrating Cream has become something I’ll splurge on. Aesop products are such high quality. I love their body scrubs, too. They’re my winter go-to thing. My friend told me about them, and they’re so necessary with the dry weather.
I hear you about dry skin these days.
And lips! Every night, I use Neosporin Overnight Reveal Therapy. Oh my god, I can’t live without this. I get mad because my husband steals it. If you have dry lips, you wake up with soft lips. It’s a life changer and I use it year round.
What about makeup?
I like Queen of the Fill Brow Gel. I embrace my bushier eyebrows. And L’Oréal Voluminous Mascara in brown or black. It’s the best! I’ve tried all the fancy ones when I work with makeup artists, and I’ve never found anything as good. It makes your eyelashes really full but doesn’t separate your lashes into weird anime lashes.
You recently cut your hair off. Were you nervous?
I haven’t had my hair short ever in my life, and it’s fun. I cut it for an acting role and then I cut it even shorter after the role.
How did the actual haircut feel?
It was so freeing and cathartic to chop it all off. I had my kid do my first cut because I’d heard stories of kids being traumatized when their mom comes back and looks different. So, I brought him to the hair salon and they put my hair into four ponytails and he cut the first one off. He was excited. Then I donated all my hair to Children With Hair Loss.
What hair products do you use?
I’ve been trying all my husband’s hair stuff since I cut it off, and Floyd’s Grooming Grip Cream is my favorite. I like it when my hair looks sculptural and sort of messy but not greasy. This product disappears, but it makes your hair stand up in a cool way.
Congratulations on your recent film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Why were you drawn to the Mr. Rogers story?
I knew the writers of the screenplay, and they were taking such a smart approach to the material. It wasn’t going to be a biopic; it was taking something well known and finding a new way into it. I never thought I’d make movies about men, but I thought, oh my god, I need to make this movie, we all need it, this movie needs to exist in the world. Not just for the good and kindness, but also for the grown-up processing of our feelings, of our grief, of our more complex feelings.
What kinds of complex feelings?
It’s easy to write Fred Rogers off as someone who is kind and nice, but the truth is he was revolutionary in how he was willing to go deep with kids about harder subjects. He talked about death, assassination, divorce when it was not talked about… It wasn’t like, put on a happy face and ignore the tough stuff. But instead, let’s find a way to give space for children to feel the things they’re feeling. They might feel afraid of a haircut and that might be as big as a fear of death.
Has it changed how you talk to your own child?
The biggest thing that changed right away was how I listened. Mr. Rogers was an incredibly active listener and so present with whomever he was talking to. Everyone said it was disarming. When he asked how are you? he was really asking. It’s a small change you can make with your own kids. I used to fill in answers for my kid. What do you want for lunch? A quesadilla? A sandwich? How are you feeling? Sad? Upset? But if you give kids space to answer for themselves, you’ll be surprised by what they say. Feeling comfortable with silences can allow for more honest conversations.
What do you hope to teach your child about beauty?
If anything, my kid is teaching me more about beauty than I’m teaching him. He wears what he wants and doesn’t fit into most social norms — which impresses me every day. He loves sequins. For the last day of school last year, his school had a small picnic in his classroom. My kid asked me to wear a sequin gown. He said everyone was going to be fancy (which I knew wasn’t true) and it seemed so important to him. So, I went to work in my jeans with a sequin gown in my bag and changed before I headed to his celebration. He was so happy I showed up for him in that way.
What advice would you give women who want to get into film?
The best thing you can do is make your own work — writing scripts, finding people you want to collaborate with, etc. A mistake people make is that they feel like they have to wait for someone to give them permission to start working. It’s a tricky thing because we have this lure around Hollywood that ‘you’re going to get your big break if you keep your head down and work hard,’ but I don’t think it works that way. When you haven’t proven yourself, you have to do it for yourself. It took me eight years to make my first film and I was involved in raising every dollar, and nothing would have happened if I hadn’t spent every waking hour working to get it made.
Bravo, Mari! Thank you so much.
(Photo of Mari and Melissa McCarthy by Mary Cybulski.)