The actress, producer and mother relates hard-won wisdom
in her most recent memoir, Wildflower.
By Allan Richter
Few Hollywood stars have endured as many changes at such a young age, and so publicly, as Drew Barrymore. Descended from Hollywood royalty, she quickly stepped into the family business, most memorably in Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” at age six, before embarking on a notoriously rebellious and reckless youth. Today she is an actress, producer, beauty-products entrepreneur and, the role she relishes most, mother.
Such rapidly changing incarnations could leave anyone feeling lost. Barrymore spent her youth never really knowing what it was like to be a child, seeking in her teens and twenties to recapture that lost childhood by living with abandon. Turning a lens on herself in her memoir, Wildflower (Dutton), the actress writes with wisdom about how she navigated those turbulent times and finally, at age 40, found her comfort zone.
Just as there is much more to Barrymore than the surface Valley Girl—an image wrought by the accent she picked up living in Sherman Oaks, California—there is more depth to the title of Barrymore’s book. Flowers held a prominent place in her formative years and are a fitting metaphor. Living with her mother on Poinsettia Place in West Hollywood, Barrymore marveled at the contrast between the neighborhood’s crime and X-rated theaters on one hand and, on the other, the beauty of an avocado tree in the yard, a wall of bougainvilleas out front and birds of paradise along the driveway.
Among her earliest memories, those flowers were on Barrymore’s mind as she experienced the culture shock of success that came frighteningly fast. She talks about the first seven years of her life in that house as “the happy years, the most stable years I’ve ever had.”
But when she turned seven, after “E.T.” premiered and she was fielding other film offers, she couldn’t understand the rapid changes in her life. Suddenly her mother’s beat-up Volkswagen was replaced with a BMW; the bougainvilleas were cut down, the birds of paradise decapitated, with only green stalks left. “I couldn’t understand,” she writes. “What was happening? Change felt scary.”
Barrymore writes about when her grandfather, the actor John Barrymore, would spend time with W.C. Fields, who the young Barrymore observes was “obsessed” with his rose garden. Fields had a large chalkboard behind his desk; one day it said, “Bloom you bastards! Bloom!”
“A man after my own heart,” Barrymore writes. “I love flowers. If I see a commercial for a spray that kills dandelions, I’m like ‘Why?’ I am on the first line of defense of flowers.”
Actually, surviving her tumultuous youth helped make Barrymore more of a resilient oak than a delicate rose. Her parents had separated by the time she was born, a bumpy arrival into the world that would foreshadow her relationship with them. She never lived with her father, John, and never had dinner with both parents together. John lived as a hippie, suffering from multiple myeloma before he died. Her mother Jaid, an aspiring actress, “lost credibility as a mother by taking me to Studio 54 (so wrong but so fun) instead of school,” she says. Details such as where her parents met (she thinks at the LA clubs the Comedy Store or the Troubadour) and her mother’s age (she thinks her mother gave birth to her in her twenties) remain elusive.
When Barrymore was fourteen, the courts deemed her an adult; she went out to live on her own.
Barrymore is empathetic, even grateful, but never angry about the relationship with her parents. She observes that she was born to “a single mother who was doing her best while still being young herself.”
She continues, “I am grateful to this woman for bringing me into this world…It is not who I am to harbor any anger for the fact that our life together was so incredibly unorthodox. I want only to say thank you to her, because I love my life and it takes every step to get to where you are, and if you are happy, then God bless the hard times it took you to get there…No life is without [hard times], so what are yours, and what did you do with the lessons?”
Barrymore says her parents provided a “great blueprint” for parenting with lessons on what not to do. That paved the way for her current family life: dinners together, and school and a bedtime for her kids.
Barrymore learned to surround herself with strong, caring and stable people. She compensated for her erratic childhood by filling the vacuum with solid friendships, business partners and mentors on whom she continues to rely. Just as she does when ruminating on her children, she shows wisdom beyond her years when reflecting on these relationships.
“Nothing is taken away without it being replaced,” Barrymore says, introducing the “love of my life,” friend Nancy Juvonen, whom she met when she was 19. Juvonen is at once a sister, friend and business partner in Barrymore’s Flower Films, formed in 1994.
Juvonen is “the replacement for the absence of family,” Barrymore writes. Juvonen appeared to provide Barrymore with the discipline—calling out her friend for being late or selfish—she never received while growing up. It was Juvonen who encouraged Barrymore to write when she “felt lost.”
Barrymore says her other Flower Films partner, Chris Miller, is like a brother. She credits both with giving her perspective and teaching her how to react to challenges. “By creating it,” she says of Flower Films, “I was also building a family. It was also about learning that you do absolutely nothing on your own. By yourself, you are just a solo daydreamer. But with a partner or team, you are unstoppable.”
Flower Films has produced “Charlie’s Angels,” “Donnie Darko” and “50 First Dates,” among other films. Barrymore underscored the strength in sisterhood to Cameron Diaz to draw her to the “Charlie’s Angels” cast: “Girls want to do what the boys do without losing the idea that they want love at the end of the day! They also love each other as women and they are stronger together.” The two became great friends, embarking on adventures like skydiving.
She writes lovingly of “E.T.” director Steven Spielberg, who taught her one of what she says are the two most important acting lessons she learned: Don’t act the part; be the part.
The other lesson—make it personal—came from Barrymore’s early exposure to the late acting coach Lee Strasberg, who developed Method Acting, and his wife, Anna. It was gleaned from watching an unnamed actress cry and scream, night after night, for a Strasberg Institute play called “Playing for Time,” set in a concentration camp. “As I look back,” Barrymore says, “that crying woman taught me how to approach everything in life. Acting or otherwise. Be authentic. Be yourself. And most important of all…make it personal.”
Before she was seven, Barrymore spent time in the Strasberg home, a “stimulating” environment and safe haven where there were always interesting conversations and people watching movies. The house, Barrymore says, “glowed with love and whimsy and acceptance. A sense of family. This home formed me, but not until many years later would I try to replicate it. Now I have a beautiful welcoming haven myself. Anna taught me this.”
Barrymore learned to pursue endeavors beyond stage and screen. Five years ago, for example, she started Flower Beauty, a company that creates innovations for color cosmetics, as well as fragrance and eyewear. Barrymore handles advertising, marketing and publicity. “I come from a storytelling background and I learned so much about marketing as a producer,” she says. She hopes her daughters will run the company someday.
Given her parents’ hippie background, she is puzzled by the source of her strong work ethic. “I am trained to work. I don’t know life without it…You have to put all of yourself into something with your heart and your gut instinct, your personal taste and your belief, or it will not get done right.”
Barrymore is an avid photographer, a pursuit evident in her 2014 book of photographs of heart shapes, Find it in Everything: Photographs by Drew Barrymore (Little, Brown). Hearts are a source of happiness for Barrymore, and she sees their shapes in a tear in a T-shirt, her dog’s fur and a reflection on a friend’s watch. In Find it in Everything Barrymore wonders if the source of her fascination with heart shapes came from the set of “E.T.,” where the alien creature’s heart would glow whenever he felt happiness.
A memoir has more credibility coming from, say, an octogenarian who has many years of insight to impart. But Barrymore was thrown into adulthood before most, and her story has earned not only the pages of Wildflower but those of Find it in Everything and Little Girl Lost (Pocket), her 1990 telling of her addictions and emergence from them.
Barrymore wonders whether those birds of paradise at her childhood home ever grew their heads back. “The ghosts of them bloom fresh in my memory all the time,” she says. “They, like all of us in this neighborhood, were wild. Let us all be like them and defy tradition, and yet create our own traditions at the same time. Let us all be wildflowers!”
Barrymore is happy with the seemingly routine place she’s arrived at: a mother whose simple, happy domestic life is symbolized by her ownership of a cheeseboard. Though hers is a Hollywood story filled with boldface names and glamour, Wildflower is ultimately a story for anyone who has endured growing pains—and that’s all of us. It is affirmation that we can not only survive, but thrive.