The more you learn about Brooke Shields’s life, the more you marvel at how well-adjusted she must be to have got through it all in one piece. Born in 1965, Shields began modelling during infancy, and she has lived in the public eye—as a totem of American girlhood, as a paragon of beauty, as a lightning rod—ever since. Her first big movie role, filmed when she was eleven, was in Louis Malle’s “Pretty Baby,” from 1978, about a child prostitute in early-twentieth-century New Orleans. Shields was immediately called on to defend her nude scenes, all while navigating the alcoholism of her mother and manager, Teri Shields. Two years later, she starred in “The Blue Lagoon,” in which two young people, shipwrecked on a desert island, stumble into sexuality. (As Pauline Kael put it, “All we have to look forward to is: When are these two going to discover fornication?”) The film, released in the summer of 1980, turned Shields into a provocative sex symbol, once again putting her on a pedestal that felt more like a witness stand. She was fifteen.
As she matured, very much under the world’s glare, more controversies followed. There were the Calvin Klein jeans commercials that were deemed too sexual. (“You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.”) There was her collegiate advice book, “On Your Own,” which came out while she was attending Princeton University and revealed that she was a virgin, a fact that transformed her from a symbol of libertinism into one of Reagan-era chastity. She befriended Michael Jackson (they bonded over their professionalized childhoods) but was bewildered when he told Oprah Winfrey that they were dating. She had a tumultuous two-year marriage to Andre Agassi. Later, she married and had children with the writer and director Chris Henchy, and she spoke publicly about her struggle with postpartum depression—prompting Tom Cruise, adhering to the Church of Scientology’s condemnation of psychiatry, to denounce her use of antidepressants.
Whatever Shields did, it seemed as if her voice and her agency were getting swiped from her. A weaker soul might have self-destructed or retreated. And yet Shields, at fifty-seven, still has more to expose. A two-part documentary, “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields,” directed by Lana Wilson, premières on Hulu next week, taking stock of the adversities she has overcome, in public and in private. (She reveals, for the first time, that a Hollywood executive raped her in her twenties.) The film follows the path of “Framing Britney Spears,” “Pamela, a Love Story,” and other reconsiderations of women whose lives became fodder for misogynistic scrutiny. But Shields resists playing the role of victim, especially when it comes to the early screen appearances that made her famous. I met her one recent afternoon, at a hotel in Los Angeles, where she ordered a beer from the lobby bar and sat in a private conference room. She wore tinted glasses and a cream-colored sweater covered in paillettes, which clattered as she recounted her eventful life. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
I’ve watched the documentary, and I didn’t realize the extent to which you lived your entire life in the public eye. What was your first gig?
Ivory soap. Eleven months old.
So, before you had conscious memories.
I didn’t have anything. But what is so interesting about memory is that the story had been recounted so many times that there’s something in my psyche that is convinced that I remember, you know, a room full of people and tons of soap. It occurred to me one day: I’m not so sure I actually remember this. But, as the story goes, they interviewed hundreds of babies and the client didn’t like any. I don’t know how that’s possible.
Not clean enough?
Something. So then [the photographer Francesco] Scavullo, who was very close with my mom, called and said, “Hey, Teri, bring the baby down! We need a baby who looks the part.” It’s a baby in a diaper—how could you not look the part? I had already had my nap, so I was in a good mood, whereas all the other kids were crying and angry and sad and tired, so I got the part. That’s where it all began.
I can’t imagine how that messes with your sense of reality. Do you have memories of coming to realize that your life was unusual?
I never knew anything different. I’ve seen actors go from anonymity to fame overnight, and the shock to their system is what undoes them—whereas I only knew working, and I only knew school and jobs. I went to school in Manhattan, and I only worked from three o’clock on. Even if they said, “Oh, there’s a ten-o’clock appointment for her,” my mom would be, like, “See you at three.” I always had these two concurrent existences and compartmentalized brilliantly.
I feel like compartmentalization is going to be a running theme.
It’s how I survived.
Chronologically, what I want to talk about next is very complicated, which is your breakout role, in the Louis Malle film “Pretty Baby.” I watched it recently for the first time and loved it, but I also do not know what to think about it at all.
See, I think it’s the most beautiful movie I’ve ever made. It’s the only real quality film I’ve ever been in. I value that movie in such a different way and wrote my thesis on it. I’m fascinated with that journey of innocence to experience, and who owns it. Do they become a victim to it? Or do they not? It’s very interesting to me, that movie. You couldn’t make it today, obviously.
It’s about a girl who lives in a brothel in 1917 New Orleans—in a way, as you were saying about yourself, not knowing that this isn’t anything but normal—and then following her mother’s footsteps and becoming a sex worker. How were the character and the plot described to you, and who described it?
It wasn’t an audition; it was a meeting. My mom brought me to this studio. I went in and talked with [the screenwriter] Polly Platt and Louis Malle. He just asked me questions, like, “Are you aware of what prostitution is?” And I was, like, “Yeah, I see the girls on Forty-second Street, standing on the corner. I’m always worried that they’re cold.” Growing up in Manhattan, I saw New York in the seventies in a very raw way. And he said, “We’re telling a true story. It’s about a young girl. And it’s a love story.” He wouldn’t have said “coming of age” at that point, because I don’t think I would have understood it, but he was talking about the mother and the daughter. And I talked about my hobbies. I liked riding horses. It wasn’t about a Lolita. It was about an innocent, and how that innocence gets taken—and her choice to not be a victim.
Much as your character is grappling with a very adult situation, on the actual set, you were doing that, too, with your mother’s alcoholism, and almost having to parent her.
I’d been parenting her, in a way, from the time I was a little girl. When you grow up in an alcoholic household, you learn to navigate it at a very young age, and I was an only child. I just wanted to keep her safe. And she could walk on water—she was my everything. The irony is that film sets were such a place of safety for me, because I was always accounted for. I had schooling. I had a call sheet every day. There was such order, and people cared about me. And there was laughter. But people didn’t want that to be the truth. They wanted me to be a train wreck, because I was an actress.
How was working with Susan Sarandon, who played your mother?
I wanted so much approval from her—as a woman, as an actress, as a mom. She was a maternal figure for me in the film, and she was very serious. I never felt like I got approval from her. I was a golden-retriever puppy. That was me off camera. On camera, [my character,] Violet[,] has this very stoic reaction to her mother. During the slapping scene, I remember that’s when I switched the way that I reacted toward her. I thought, O.K., you’re just going to sit here and take this, and you’re going to not flinch. It was all internal. I just sat there as I repeatedly got slapped in the face. And I felt, at the end of it, like I had won, because I was unfazed.
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