There’s a line in Heather Graham‘s new movie Half Magic, out today, that asks, “We talk about pleasing men, but what about us?” Consider that a mission statement for Graham, who wrote the film after years of feeling like she had to win men’s approval to succeed in Hollywood.
“As an actress, you think, I want to be cast in some great role, and then I’ll feel like my life had meaning,” she tells us. “You might get some good roles, but maybe you never get to say what you really want to say. You realize, Oh, I’ve been waiting around for a man to give me an opportunity. Maybe I should just make my own opportunity and cast myself.”
With Half Magic, that’s exactly what she’s done. As the star, writer, and director, Graham wanted to make a film that focuses on three women fighting—and, more important, winning—against sexism, bad relationships, and low self-esteem. “It’s coming out at a time when people are very receptive to this subject matter,” Graham says. “I feel really lucky and grateful.”
Here, Graham opens up about how a bad breakup pushed her to take action, why she wishes she had never read a fairy tale growing up, and more.
Women are often the objects in a male fantasy, the objects of desire, as opposed to being the protagonist. Instead, it needs to be about what we like and the need to feel good about ourselves. I want to watch a story where women are empowered—not just about women being victimized and one male hero has to save them.
That’s why I think fairy tales in general are so disempowering. I mean, men aren’t told stories that if you wait around someone will rescue you and you’ll live happily ever after. I wish I’d never watched any of those stupid fairy tales because then you expect the guy that you meet to be everything to you. You don’t think, No, I need to make my own life great, and I need to feel good about myself as a person alone. I can’t be relying on Prince Charming.
The same applies to career opportunities. You realize, Oh, I’ve been waiting around for a man to give me an opportunity, but maybe I should just make my own and cast myself. I started developing stuff for myself to act in years ago, but I had a lot of trouble getting them made. That’s where my film Half Magic was born: I wrote this movie as a reaction to 10 years of getting told no.
I was going through a breakup when I started writing the script, and I just wanted to laugh at some of my bad decisions in the past. I wanted to laugh at things my friends had done. I wanted to laugh at being in this sexist business and trying to get movies made about women. I mean, people would say to me, “Nobody cares about women’s stories. If you want to get a movie made, write about a man.” And some of the people telling me that were women! It’s not just the men! It’s the system. It’s just known that a movie is easier to get off the ground with a male protagonist. I finally got so frustrated that I was like, “Fine, I’m just going to write a movie and direct it myself.”
Here’s what I learned, though: You have to have the heart of a baby and the skin of a rhino. You can’t take it personally when people tell you they’re not interested. The truth is, everybody’s afraid to take a risk. They just want to make things that they know, things that have already been made. Why do you think there are so many sequels to superhero movies? That’s why I was so passionate about making this film. Everywhere I went, if someone was in film financing, I would just ask them about it. My managers would always joke with me that I would just ask anyone! Luckily we got a great financier who really cared about the subject, but it took a long time. Once we started making the movie, though, it was really fun, and I felt really blessed.
One of the stories in the film is about sexuality. I grew up in a religious household and was told, “You’re going to hell if you have premarital sex.” So I grew up feeling that sex is scary. That’s why I wanted to include a story about a woman learning to feel good about her sexuality even though she grew up with a sense of fear and shame about it.
The movie is also about making better choices, especially when it comes to whom we choose to be intimate with. Definitely some of the dating decisions I’ve made are not good. But we celebrate the good men in the movie, because there are a lot out there who really care about women’s rights. It’s about choosing a partner who’s loving and kind—and not choosing a jerk.
Another theme that was important to me is finding support from your female friends. It’s about sisterhood. Sometimes women bond through shared misery, which is great, but it’s also great to celebrate each other. I had a group of friends that got together and made wishes, and we would light candles and do rituals. One of my friends wished to get married and have kids, and then she did. I wished to make a movie, and I did. It was just a powerful little energy, because when you get together with your friends and wish for their dreams to come true and vice versa, it’s pretty powerful.
I think we were brought up as women to feel there’s not enough success to go around, that women are our competitors, instead of saying, “We have a sisterhood, and women are there to support each other.” If you look at all the women who have come out about sexual harassment, it was very supportive because a lot of women just wanted to be there for each other. You feel a lot more women supporting each other now more than ever. It’s just having faith and this belief that there’s enough good stuff to go around. It’s about celebrating ourselves and celebrating each other. Women are our allies, not our competition.
Which brings me back to my film: Female stories are the freshest stories out there, and we’ve been denied access to telling them for so long. I like to watch stories about women that I can relate to and what they’re going through. Romantic comedies aren’t relatable most of the time, so it’s time to change that.