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Drew Barrymore "terrified" of "Grey Gardens" role

 Actresses Drew Barrymore (L) and Jessica Lange arrive at the premiere of
Actresses Drew Barrymore (L) and Jessica Lange arrive at the premiere of 'Grey Gardens' in New York April 14, 2009. REUTERS/Eric Thayer
— image credit: Reuters

By Bob Tourtellotte

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - She comes from a famous Hollywood family, began acting as a kid and has worked with many top directors, but Drew Barrymore was never as terrified of a role as she was for her latest part in "Grey Gardens."

The television movie, which debuts on HBO on Saturday, stars the 34-year-old Barrymore as Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, the eccentric cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who lived a reclusive life of wealth and extreme poverty before her death in 2002.

To take on the role, Barrymore, who made her name as the child in "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" in 1982, had to age herself with makeup and costumes from a college-age ingenue to an elderly woman, and she had to master the accent of upper-crust New York society. She says she had to campaign for the role, which only added to the stress when it came time to perform.

"This had a challenge in every freakin' corner, it was terrifying," Barrymore told Reuters. "But I just fell in love with her, who she was and who she became."

Beale and her mother Edith "Big Edie" Bouvier Beale, were members of New York City society, but after her father, Phelan Beale, abandoned the family in the early days of the Great Depression, they slowly began to fall on hard times.

Mother and daughter took up residence in their sprawling manor, Grey Gardens, on Long Island, New York and as the years went by they lived on a smaller allowance from Phelan Beale.

The house fell into disrepair, and was overrun by cats and rodents. It became such a nuisances that local officials threatened to raze the mansion until Jackie O stepped-in to aid her cousin and aunt.

Documentary makers Albert and David Maysles ventured out to Long Island in the early 1970s and made a documentary movie about the Beales called "Grey Gardens."

NOTHING LITTLE ABOUT EDIE

Over the years, it developed a cult following and "Little Edie" mushroomed into a heroine of sorts because, despite her odd and reclusive life, she maintained a sense of style that had her singing in nightclubs after her mother died.

"She is a really fascinating person," Barrymore said. "She's tortured. She's on an emotional seesaw all the time -- one minute she's happy and dancing around and entertaining, and the next minute, she's full of sadness and heartache."

Among the challenges, Barrymore said, was adopting the accent of a New York society woman. She worked with a voice coach for one year to perfect the tones and language.

To reach middle-age years and beyond -- make her body look both thin and thick -- Barrymore sat in makeup chairs from four to six hours at a stretch and used 13 prosthetic devices. She said she became a bit of a recluse herself, cutting ties with friends while she wore the face and clothes of "Little Edie."

"I was so fraught with fear," the "Charlie's Angels" star said. "I couldn't eat or function and felt I was totally losing my mind," she said.

But judging by early reviews, her work seems to have paid off. Rolling Stones critic Peter Travers said, "the script hits a few bumps, but Jessica Lange (who plays "Big Edie") and Drew Barrymore are magnificent as the bizarro Beales."

Instead of taking a break after such a challenging role, Barrymore began focusing on one of her life goals, directing. She makes her debut as a filmmaker this fall with the comedy "Whip It!," about the life of a roller derby queen.

"These two pieces were very similar in that they were both about extreme, fanatic discipline. Both projects called for that from me, so I was excited to do new challenges and take on different fears," she said.

(Editing by Jill Serjeant)

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