Minnie Driver’s house in west London is tall and elegant, stuccoed, an Audi parked in the designated space by the front door. Through the large window I can see her moving around inside, tall and willowy, cup of tea in hand. Her trademark tight curls are pulled in loosely at the neck, unlike the long, swishing, silky pony she wore as an Academy guest at this year’s notorious Oscars, with a dress slashed to the waist and a sharp shoulder.
It’s been 25 years since she was nominated for best supporting actress for her role in the 1997 Gus Van Sant film Good Will Hunting, opposite her former boyfriend Matt Damon, their romance’s beginning and end played out in headlines worldwide.
In the years since, the filmmaking has never stopped, although mostly of the more low-key, independent kind, as well as television roles. It is perhaps a less star-studded path than first intended, but Driver took it partly out of necessity and partly, she will explain, to be a good single mother to her son, now 12.
A dog barks when I ring the bell. She opens the door and is friendly, not at all guarded – admirable given how often she has been stitched up on the page over the years, particularly in the early days. She particularly hates what she calls “truth as invective”: “She is tall and thin and eats very little for lunch”; “Her teeth are always bared when she smiles”; “None of her relationships has lasted more than a year.”
The reason I’m on the doorstep of her London rental is that she’s written an extremely good – and funny – memoir, Managing Expectations. It’s part of a new phase in her professional life, one in which she has finally taken control of her creative destiny – and her own story. This includes: a podcast, Minnie Questions, where she turns interviewer; making more music (she was first in a band all those years ago); writing scripts for herself, creating good roles with good dialogue; and also working towards a desire to direct.
“I love acting more than anything, truthfully, but if the stuff you want to do is not showing up at the moment, that can’t stop you from being creative. Write the f…ing book. Do the podcast. Make the record. Play the music. If you find an audience, then great, and you can keep paying the mortgage and put food on the table. It doesn’t get any easier. One of the last things my mum said to me before she died [last year] was, ‘I love the grind.’ I remember that when I wake up and go, ‘F…, where’s the acting job? Where’s the money going to come from to keep all the plates in the air?’ ”
Driver swears a lot. Because she is so articulate, it is actually very appealing. There are some things about her that are quite American (she’s had American citizenship for five years) – the odd inflection and choice of word, like “dude”. But actually, her accent is still very English and the swearing does place her as a member, still, of the bohemian upper middle class: “Stop swearing, it’s so lazy,” her mother tells her in the book when, at the 1998 Oscars ceremony, simultaneously humiliated by Matt Damon’s breaking up with her live on Oprah (where he announced he was single) and now seeing him attend the ceremony with Winona Ryder, she asks, “How can it be punitive? This moment that should be ecstatic, this rare f…ing moment, is being robbed of all its joy because of a boy.”
Physically, Minnie Driver is virtually unchanged from how she looked more than two decades ago, when she was at peak starlet. She is casual today, in loose tee and trousers with a side stripe. She does not look anywhere near the 52 years she is. In the book, she explains that for years she was in the shadow of her willowy older blonde sister, Kate (whom she adores), who inherited the looks of their mother, the model and designer Gaynor Churchward. By contrast, Driver had her famous brown curls and an unusual face, with full cheeks and an incredible jawline, a face and hairdo at school that earned her nicknames such as 50p Face, Slash (from Guns N’ Roses), Animal (from the Muppets) and T.Rex (Marc Bolan).
Recently, as a result of the pandemic, she has scaled down her life big-time, she says, selling her house in Beachwood, Los Angeles, and basing herself full-time (when not in London) at her trailer in Malibu, overlooking the ocean where she swims daily and surfs. The decision came when her son, Henry, decided he would like to attend Bedales, the progressive Hampshire boarding school his mother went to.
Henry was conceived during a short affair with a writer from The Riches, in which she starred opposite Eddie Izzard (the father’s identity once again prompted fevered speculation in the press). There was no mystery. Their affair was brief and he was in the process of wrapping his head around becoming a father. Now it all works very well; it just took a while. “I thank
him every day for [making me a mother],” she says of her co-parent, Timothy J. Lea.
There has been another significant development too. After a very long history of unsuccessful romantic relationships over the years (truth but not delivered as invective), some high-profile (Josh Brolin, Harrison Ford and the late Taylor Hawkins, drummer in Foo Fighters) and some not, she found romantic and “as near to unconditional love as possible” when she least expected it. Since 2018, her partner has been Addison O’Dea, an American filmmaker. They first met at a party, but properly when he agreed to help her navigate a boat towards the shore during the Malibu fires that threatened to engulf her trailer.
“I’m [now] with a person who is just so anti-marriage I can’t tell you. But I know I will be with him forever.”
Living in London was never on the cards, but she has a more fluid approach to life now. “All I ever wanted was marriage, was [that feeling] that you had been chosen and you had chosen this other person. When I met him, I was so done with all relationships. I had been really happy with someone I had known from the age of 17 who ended up being such a god-awful shit.
“I’m [now] with a person who is just so anti-marriage I can’t tell you,” she says. “But I know I will be with him forever. I know that we have this kind of love that is different from any relationship I’ve ever been in. It’s because both of us came into the relationship with no expectation of it being anything other than a great friendly connection. We grew with no expectation of the other.”
On the jacket of the book, above a childhood picture of her, peak Marc Bolan, there is the line, “How things not working out actually worked out in the end.” Because for a while it looked as if things might not be working out for Driver – the hustle of the career, the lovers who didn’t work out, what she calls “the f…ing grind”. This seemed all the more harsh because it followed on from a very exciting but unreal period of life, the appearance that it really was working out by a definition of success that she realised only much later on was an illusion.
We meet three days before the first anniversary of her mother’s death from liver cancer, a sudden, brutally swift period in lockdown London during which Driver spent a lot of time lying on the floor of her mother’s hospital room. The diagnosis came when her mother saw her eyes were yellow while putting on her mascara. The disease was swift. Grief is barely below the surface.
When I bring up Gaynor Churchward, Driver begins to cry. “I cried all day yesterday,” she says. “It’s terrible. But you know what, I’ve ceased to be ashamed or frightened by grief because it doesn’t let up. It takes a different form. Your life grows around it. That grief and incapacitation I felt over Mum dying, it forced me to look at what I wanted to pursue in my life, and that is being creative and only working with people I love and not pursuing relationships or stuff that don’t bear fruit.”
Her childhood in London, then Hampshire, with visits to Barbados, was complicated. Her father, Ronnie Driver, once a wealthy businessman but who eventually went bankrupt, had a separate family running simultaneously with his relationship with Driver’s mother. Her mother finally left him and, constrained by a stipulation of the family court judge that she could only have custody of her children if married (shocking as it is to contemplate), quickly wed a man the young Minnie did not like. She agreed to go to boarding school to escape, but immediately regretted it. “One of the three big regrets of my life,” she says. “The others are leaving my British and American agents for Matt’s agent, and also a string of men.”
She tells a story about her stepfather slapping her around the face and her using a marker pen to draw an outline around the mark on her cheek, as a visible reminder. It is an early indication of how she would not take unfairness lightly. She went on to speak up on movie sets about indignities and in the process earned herself a reputation for being “difficult”.
She recalls when she was 11 giving one of his new young girlfriends a hard time at his house in Barbados and being sent away, put on a plane, on her own, to Miami.
Years later, her mother split up from him. Driver found out about her father’s existing married status around the age of 12, when her mother sought to justify to her the reasons for her decision to leave him. Her late father had a separate glamorous lifestyle in Barbados, but one not suited to young children. She recalls when she was 11 giving one of his new young girlfriends a hard time at his house in Barbados and being sent away, put on a plane, on her own, to Miami, where she checked in alone at the Fontainebleau, like a real-life version of Eloise, the storybook child who lives alone in the Plaza Hotel (“Okay, honey, listen, lock the door after I leave and I’ll be on the front desk at nine o’clock tomorrow morning if you need me,” the shocked woman on the Fontainebleau reception told Driver).
It is difficult to think how her childhood could not have informed in some way her constant yearning to find love, a sort of desperate search for something out of reach, something which encompassed acting but was not confined to it.
That first very public breakup with Matt Damon seemed to set her on a course, at the very least in the tabloid press. Her mother had told her to love Damon “with loose hands”, but actually she had held on with a vice-like grip, totally in love, intoxicated by the seeming coming together of all parts of her life – fame, success at something she loved, recognition, romantic love – as it was for him, too. “It was unsustainable. You can’t have two people doing the same thing on the same trajectory at the same moment. It’s not possible for that ball to continue at the same velocity. Something is going to crack. I wonder if I would have responded differently to the break-up if I’d been more …” she trails off.
Secure? “From where I am at 52, I now think of 26 as being a baby. I think it would have been a lot for anyone. And the emotional chaos of my childhood, whenever I think about that … It made being famous more difficult, being emotionally slightly untethered and not grounded, but it also created the journey where I had to figure out how to ground myself, and never expect that an external force was going to do that for me. I would not trade that now. When I remember my mum and my dad, there was as much hilarity as there was this emotional chaos and I’m not sure that I would trade it [either].”
As she was dying, Driver’s mother apologised to her for being a bad parent. It was an unnecessary apology by then. “Mum and I had worked through all the
painful stuff. It took a lifetime to do that, but it was so beautiful. Yeah, she could be defensive, absolutely, like any human, but we had an evolving relationship. She was not the same person she was when I was a little child as when I had Henry. There were aspects of her that were the same, but she had evolved. I know Mum always felt sorry for certain aspects, but I don’t think you can reach the end of your life and not feel regretful about choices you have made.”
Before she died, Driver’s mother read the parts of Managing Expectations dealing with childhood. She loved them. She also read “You’re It”, the chapter Driver dedicates to examining her fame, her move to America, and the fallout from the breakup.
She says she chose to write about Damon (as opposed to, say, Josh Brolin, to whom she was briefly engaged) because it was a self-contained story about the industry, too. “It was a game. We were kids, these little kids playing with this huge beast [fame]. None of us understood what it meant. It’s a f…ing good story,” she says. “You accidently move to New York [to see agents there] and your mum knows you are not coming back and it ends with you being nominated for an Academy Award like a few years later. That’s a f…ing good story. That’s why it’s included. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, I have to re-examine my love [for Matt].’ F… that! We had a great time. I loved, loved Matt. We had a great time. It was really messy and really public and really dramatic and that is a really good f…ing story.”
If you look at anybody’s life, she says, you never know what is going on. “Nobody has it good the whole time. Shit doesn’t work out, repeatedly, in all our lives. Painful things happen. People die, people leave you, people cheat. They are part of the vicissitudes of life.
“You careen along and if you are lucky you crash and burn and then you come up. I’m not a drug addict. I don’t have an eating disorder. I haven’t been married 100 times. I’m not penniless. I survived this whole.” She laughs.
After we meet, it is announced that one of those high-profile exes, Foo Fighters’ drummer Taylor Hawkins, has been found dead in a hotel room in Colombia with many drugs in his system. Her words about survival feel even more relevant. “We laughed, a lot. And everybody loved you. That’s it. Sending love to your family,” she posted on Instagram with a sweet picture.
The Damon affair led to a series of poor decisions. Driver ditched the brilliant-sounding (and revered) British agent who had taken her on after she left drama school. “It is one of my biggest regrets,” she tells me, “and she has never forgiven me.” And she ditched her American agent, too, another example of a pattern of what she calls in the book “shedding parts of myself”.
The British media did not like it one bit: “Too American, too ambitious.” She jumped ship to join Matt Damon’s and Ben Affleck’s agent. Her father had warned her that the switch was a huge mistake. He was right. “I thought I was being inducted into a club and it’s a f…ing lie,” she says. “You are not. You are adjacent to and subordinate to that boys’ club, and the myth of so many young women is believing that you have to fill the shape of the cookie cutter that is shaped like a dude as opposed to creating one that is shaped like a woman and being that.”
“The myth of so many young women is believing that you have to fill the shape of the cookie cutter that is shaped like a dude.”
When I call her outspoken, she looks puzzled. “Outspoken? Isn’t it just spoken?”
On the 1998 movie Hard Rain, for example, she argued for better conditions after spending too long in a tank of freezing water, “and they wouldn’t give
me a wetsuit because you couldn’t see my nipples through the T-shirt. That followed me for a really long time, that whole idea of me being difficult. If you stood up and said, ‘This is unacceptable,’ which I routinely did, you were vilified.”
She was an early voice of protest, but Hollywood was not then ready to hear it. She tells me that recently she was on set with an intimacy coordinator. It blew her mind because it was so far removed from anything she had experienced before.
“I will always be a champion on set. I’d be like a lioness about anything that was happening, to a male or female. If you see that somebody is mistreating somebody else, you have to say something. You will almost certainly be punished for it on some level, but I don’t think that is a reason not to speak up.”
She had her own run-in with Harvey Weinstein. He had wanted her off Good Will Hunting. “Nobody would want to f… her,” he told the casting director. Damon, also the writer, and the producers insisted.
“But I remember feeling so devastated until I realised, ‘Hold on, just consider the source for a minute. That is an unutterable pig – why on earth are you worried about this f… saying that you are not sexy?’ But there are ramifications of that: that maybe I am not going to be hired because people don’t think I have the sexual quality that is required. How awful to think that I was one of the lucky ones [who escaped him] because he didn’t think I was f…able. And how amazing and wonderful that it has turned around, and young men and women in my industry are not going to experience that.”
The pivotal moment in Driver’s life – an important distinction from her career – came when she was the most terrified: pregnant, alone, nearing 40, constantly worrying about getting work. (“There have been moments in my career when I have been really pretty skint and then moments when I made more money. It’s really feast or famine.” )
Motherhood reset the dial. “Once I had Henry, it was, ‘Okay, all that churning and yearning and seeking for something externally to make me feel better? That’s done.’ So now it’s, ‘Do your own work.’ ” And she did. She was so terrified of how to make it work alone as an actress in LA that during her pregnancy she placed a chair in her garden so that she had somewhere to sit when 3am anxiety set in.
“At first I didn’t know how I was going to do it. How was I going to take care of this baby, be a good parent, and also work and be in movies that require you to look a certain way? How was it all going to work?”
Somehow she did make it work, maybe by lowering her expectations – managing them, as she says. When Henry reached school age, she did network TV so she wouldn’t be away on location. “My actor friends said, ‘Really?’ And I was, ‘You bet I am. You f…ing bet.’ There is no dude who is co-financing this life. The studio was 10 minutes from my house. My agents had a joke: ‘The show Minnie wants to be in is called Shoots in LA.’
“And Henry is what I’m proudest of. I have done a good job. He’s very tolerant of the fact that I want to hang out with him all the time. And Addison adores him. Having him was the greatest, the kindest, the sweetest experience of my life. From the moment he was born, I just knew this was the greatest thing.
“I never thought I’d leave Los Angeles. I never thought I’d move back here partially, but I cannot sit back on my laurels. I am constantly keeping the
plates in the air, but I try not to plan too far ahead now. I know there is no arrival point [any more]. There is no ‘there’ there.”
This is an edited version of a story that first appeared in The Times Magazine, London.
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