On the face of it Laraine Newman, 33, would seem to have little in common with the desperately insecure workout addict she plays in Perfect. Five years after leaving New York and Saturday Night Live, she is back in her native Los Angeles, living in a Spanish-style aerie where a scarlet bougainvillea drops blossoms on the white Mercedes parked in the driveway. On a given weekday a messenger is rapping on the door with a script, her erstwhile lover Mark Mothersbaugh (singer-guitarist of Devo) is calling for lunch, and favorable reviews of her Perfect performance are rolling in.
But like Perfect’s Linda Borkin, who believes that life’s spoils go to those who have exorcised their flaws, Laraine has taken arms against her own imperfections. Her psyche is in the hands of a therapist. The prominent nose that gave her face comedic harshness has been filed into submission. The beanpole figure has been redefined with the help of a body trainer. “I identified with Linda totally in thinking that if you’re perfect, you’ll be loved,” she says, “that being beautiful is the answer to any problem, even though I know that mentality is very adolescent. Being ugly is like having to look behind you for falling rocks—I live in constant fear of someone finding out.”
For all of that, Newman has a way of flaunting her own flaws. She isn’t the sort of person who takes a first-time visitor on a mere room-by-room tour of her house; she’s the sort who opens the walk-in closets to display the six-pound body brace she was obliged to wear as a teenager. She will turn herself inside out for an audience of one, and she offers glimpses of her soul as readily as she reveals the contents of her closets. When she talks about depression and self-doubt, it is with the air of someone who has faced the enemy and lived to shmooze about it.
For Newman there have been battles aplenty in the past few years. Unlike much of the original Saturday Night crew, she found the post-SNL pickings slim. “Seeing other people on the show push ahead shook me up,” she says. “I really thought it was over.” Despite an occasional movie role, she went to more auditions than she cares to remember. She says, “I auditioned for St. Elsewhere. I was so depressed about having to audition that I got the part, because it was [playing] someone who was disturbed.”
Newman now seems anything but the self-indulgent depressive. Forthright, funny, engaging, she puts a wry spin on even the most lugubrious part of her saga—the horror that was adolescence. Growing up in the palmier neighborhoods of L.A. (where father Arnold is a businessman and mother Margy a decorator), she had been adrift in a sea of cliques at Beverly Hills High. Having a twin brother, Paul Newman, now a marketing executive, didn’t help. “I worry about him, and who needs somebody else’s pain?” When a case of scoliosis (curvature of the spine) forced her into a body brace at 13, she says, “I really believed I was damaged goods. Not only was my body ruined, but I was unattractive, and it made things terrible for me and boys.”
Inevitably the awkward age passed. “I turned 19, and I was out of my brace, and I put on a little weight, and my skin kind of cleared up because I went on the birth control pill and I had like—a lot of boyfriends.” But when she applied to three British drama schools, she was roundly rejected. Finally Marcel Marceau accepted her as a student, and she lived in Paris for a year and a half while studying mime.
Upon returning to L.A. she attended secretarial school but also plunged into an improv workshop where she was spotted by SNL producer Lorne Michaels. Her interlude on the high-profile series was frenetic. “Laraine was very busy, very alienating.” says brother Paul. “She had a lot of responsibility, and she tried to protect me from the whole scene.” Remembers Laraine, “I was very unhappy. Between wanting so desperately to have more to do on the show and always having to be in offices campaigning for more airtime, I never had an opportunity to meet new people, and I had no private life. I had a couple of long-distance romances, but I wanted to live with someone and that never happened.”
The relationship with Mothersbaugh developed during that period, but “he was living with someone else,” she snorts. “The rat.” For her depression, her doctor prescribed Elavil. She also retreated into isolation, a strategy she still employs on occasion. In her worst times, she says, “I rent a whole bunch of movies and sit in my viewing room like [Sunset Boulevard’s] Norma Desmond—only there’s no William Hold-en.” At the moment Newman has no love interest.
Happily Perfect has provided a professional deus ex machina. There were no painful auditions, no prospective rejections—only a meeting at a party with Jamie Lee Curtis and James Bridges, the movie’s producer-director. “Jamie like followed me around and watched me, and finally she introduced me to Jim and said, ‘Don’t you think she’d be great as Linda?’ So that was it,” Laraine says, and the sigh of relief is still in her voice. When Curtis saw Perfect, “I knew that it was Laraine’s movie. There’s always one performance in every movie that stands out—and it was hers.” Curtis and Newman share a sensibility, she adds. “We’re good at being little girls and adults at the same time,” says Jamie.
These days she scores an occasional victory over her demons. “When I first saw Perfect, I thought, ‘Whatever made me think I was an actress?’ ” Laraine remembers. She saw the movie again recently, and she gave herself a new review. “I liked me in it,” she says. For Laraine Newman, that minor acknowledgment is a major step forward.