In 1991, Lori Petty was already a star. She was careening off beach make-outs with Keanu Reeves in Point Break and onto the set of A League of Their Own, where she shared a makeup trailer with Madonna. In her downtime, the then-28-year-old paged the script for Free Willy. She was confident and talented, athletic and in-demand. Her co-stars already included Geena Davis, Robin Williams, and Patrick Swayze. She had very good reasons to believe the scripts would never stop coming her way.
But Hollywood’s demands for its leading ladies turned out to be more superficial than Petty, an admitted hater of hair dryers and tanning, anticipated. It would be three years before she landed her next leading role as the eponymous Tank Girl, the renegade hero of a comic book dystopia; though she continued to act in the decades to come, projects that reached the blockbuster heights of Point Break and A League of Their Own eluded her. More recently, she’s re-emerged on idiosyncratic television series like Orange Is the New Black and Station Eleven in roles that celebrate rather than conceal her quirks. At 58, Petty is gracious about the discrepancy between the reality of her life in the movies and her expectations for it. “I'm very blessed,” she says. “I'm highly blessed and highly favored.”
It’s not just an act. Petty talks openly and cheerfully about the year she once believed would be the model for rest of her career; she walks energetically rather than reluctantly through those memories. In fact, she still lives right next door to them. She recently spoke to me by Zoom from her home in Venice Beach, a strange choice of neighborhood for a pale-skinned, pale-eyed person who hates surfing. But it’s where she moved while filming Point Break, desperate to eliminate the hour-long commute from Hollywood from her day. She might not like the beach, but she’s found community on Venice’s basketball courts and its crowded boardwalk.
Sitting in a sun-drenched spare bedroom surrounded by perilously high piles of books, Petty says she’s an avid reader. She loves biographies of historical figures in particular: Babe Ruth, George Washington Carver, Amelia Earhart. “It just fascinated me like, how do people live? What do they do?” It makes sense that a kid who pulled biographies from the shelves when the bookmobile rolled through her Tennessee trailer park would grow up be an actor, taking everything she’d absorbed about how people work and conjuring brand new characters from the raw material.
Below, Petty talks ‘90s Hollywood, hanging out with a half-dressed Madonna, finding $20K in her duffle bag, and, yes, of course, what it was like to mack on Keanu.
How would you describe yourself at 28?
Girl, that was 30 years ago. I had to IMDb myself and Google myself, which I don't do. And you're correct that 28 was humongous. Point Break came out. I was filming A League of Their Own, then A League of Their Own came out. And then while I was 28, I went to Europe with [A League of Their Own director] Penny Marshall on a private airplane. It was like breakfast in London, lunch in Rome, and dinner in wherever. It was just nuts. We didn't even have to touch the ground. You'd get out of the plane, and there'd be a car. You would just get in the car. And I was like, "No, I want to touch the ground. Come on, lady." But yeah, it was just magic. It was the first time I'd been to Europe.
And I was so thankful. I have some journals that I've read and I'm like, "I'm in the limo and it's raining, I'm listening to The Isley Brothers and I'm so happy. And I'm just so thankful. This is so cool." I didn't take any of that for granted at all.
“The norm for a leading lady is to be this woo-woo person. And I'm more athletic and not a woo-woo person. I can't stand the sound of a hair dryer, it just drives me crazy.”
Do you remember having the thought, “I’ve made it”?
I had the sense. Well, here's the fucked up part. I had done Cadillac Man, Point Break, A League of Their Own, and I just went, "Oh cool. This is my job. That's great. I have a job I really like, and I'm smart and I'm talented and I'm pretty and I'm going to do this." That's just what I thought. And I'm like, "Why not?" If I just keep doing them back to back. And then I get Free Willy next, and so these are four iconic movies. And so it didn't work out that way. And obviously it's because of the way Hollywood is built and structured.
How do you mean?
When I made A League of Their Own, I was 27 playing 17. I was a little kid, and in Point Break, it was [director] Kathryn Bigelow who cast me. And there's nothing wrong with blonde girls with big tits. There's nothing wrong with them. The norm for a leading lady is to be this woo-woo person. And I'm more athletic and not a woo-woo person. I can't stand the sound of a hair dryer, it just drives me crazy. Like, rrrrrrr. So then it was expected that I would become a grown-up of sorts and be like a movie star is supposed to be like, and that didn't happen. So the next movie I made after that was Free Willy, because I was a box office hit, and [the part] was an athletic girl. And then I didn't work until Tank Girl [released in 1995].
Do you wish that at 28 you knew what you came to understand about Hollywood? Or are you glad for this period when you were hopeful and optimistic?
I wasn't hopeful and optimistic. I was confident, talented and happy. And I can do anything you ask me to do. I can do it. So, no, I just didn't know that was going to happen. How would you know?
I was homeless when I got my first job and I did an open call with [casting director] Lynn Stalmaster, who was a giant. It felt like I was in a movie, when the character opens the paper and it's like “OPEN CALL, ACTORS,” and the camera zooms in and you circle it, and you go. And I went, and I auditioned, and I left. They chased me down the street, because I didn't leave any [contact information]. I don't know what I'm supposed to do! They're like, "Oh my God, sit over there. We have to get her an agent." And so that was fun. It's just, as you know, we live in this patriarchal male dominated country, business, world. So they don't all like it when you don't do what they want you to do.
What memories stick out from Point Break?
Come on. Patrick, Keanu, all the Chili Peppers and me? Everybody's just wet and naked and changing clothes and surfing and playing football. It was the funnest. I think it was the Chili Peppers that rented a house at the beach. It was just full of sand and clothes and boys. We had so much fun.
And I'll never forget this. This is true. True story. So we were in Honolulu... not Honolulu. I don't know. Shit. Somewhere in Hawaii. It's this big pink, beautiful castle of a hotel.
The Royal Hawaiian.
They take me to my room. True story. The fucking drapes are flinging through the open windows. I called downstairs, and I said, "I'm in the wrong room." They were like, "No, that's your room." I said, "Well, where does the queen sleep when the queen comes? I can't be in the queen's room." They were like, "Ms. Petty, the queen is not coming and it's your room." I mean, I was just so grateful. I was born in a trailer park in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
I would not be a human being if I didn't ask you what Keanu Reeves was like.
Just sweet as pie. If I'm at a restaurant somewhere and I ask for the check and they'll say, "Oh, you don't have a check, Ms. Petty. It's taken care of." And I said, "Who was it?" They go, "We can't tell you." That's Keanu. You know what I mean? That's that guy. He's the guy. He's just this sweetie pie, honey bunch. And I'll tell you more stories.
“That was fun. That was a fun trick — to just pull Keanu Reeves on top of you several times.”
So there's this scene where we wake up on the beach after we supposedly made love. Keanu goes, "Oh, I'm late. Oh shit, I'm so fucking late,” and then he gets up and leans over the top of me and he gives me a kiss, and then he runs off. And then Kathryn [Bigelow]’s like, "Reset." And she looks at me and I look at her. I'm like, "I got it." Because that was too short. She shared a look. So he gets on top of me again, gives me a kiss. He says, "I'm so late. I've got to go." Well, what you can't see off-frame is I put my fingers in his belt loops. Now watch next time. He tries to get up and I pull him down. But you can't tell I pulled him down. He just laughed.
It looks like he dips back in.
Right. So he laughs and kisses me again. And then I slam him down again, and then he kisses me and again, he's like, "Really got to go." And so then he goes. That was fun. That was a fun trick — to just pull Keanu Reeves on top of you several times. Yes.
Do you still surf?
I did not like surfing even when I was surfing. I mean, I pretended I loved it. Oh, here's a good story. This is fun. Being old is fun — then you can tell all your stories.
I was pale. I don't go in the sun. I don't like it. And Kathryn Bigelow says, "You need to get out in the sun right now." Because I'd sit under an umbrella, I'd sit under a tree. I'd sit under whatever. So she would say, "Get out there." And then I'd go hide somewhere. So the makeup artist said, "Look, Lori, just come in 20 minutes early." And she's like, "I'll just glisten you up." And so we did that the whole movie. I was like, "I am not laying in the sun." I don't like it. So they used to put fake sun tan on me and then Kathryn would say, "Oh, see, you look great."
And then you go to Ohio to make A League of Their Own.
Thirty women playing baseball all day, every day. And with Tom Hanks and David Strathairn and Penny Marshall and Jon Lovitz. Okay, I'll play. You know what I mean? It was just so much fun. I grew up playing sports, so the baseball was nothing to me.
What was set like? Did it feel like you were making one of the best sports movies of all time?
You were so focused. If there were rules to this shit, people would always make hit movies and they wouldn't make flops. There are no rules — it's what touches people's hearts. We're now in the fourth generation of people watching this goddamn movie. Take out “goddamn,” because it's not a “goddamn movie.” This great movie. Because it's literally four generations of people who have watched. I see little two-year-olds dressed up as Kit and Geena for Halloween to this day.
So no, we didn't know that. We just did it, and we loved it. There's nothing, not one negative thing I could say about that movie. It was just fun, fun, fun, fun.
And back then they used to pay you properly. And you'd get per diem, which was cash. But we were just working all the time or sleeping so there was nothing else you could really do. I would take these little envelopes of money and put them in my Nike bag. One day, I had a day off or something, I said, "Let me clean out this goddamn bag." I clean out the bag. There's like $20,000 in these little yellow and blue envelopes. I just freaked out. I was like, "Oh my God. I have to run and open a bank account in Indiana because I have to put this money in the bank." It was really funny. But we just had a gas.
I’ve read you shared a trailer with Madonna. Was that intimidating at 28? In 1992, we’re already post-Blond Ambition Tour.
Okay. It was weird. Since you know that, you probably know what Penny told me. She's like, "You are going to share a makeup trailer with Madonna." I mean, and this is when Madonna was like the height of Madonna. This is Truth or Dare Madonna.
So I said, "Penny, why? I'm not even famous. What are you talking about? Put her with Geena." She's like, "No, you can handle her." I was like, "I can handle Madonna? Okay." And she just meant you're not going to be intimidated. You're not going to be weird. You're not going to be a crazy person. So we were cool.
I said to [Madonna] one day, because it's just me and her. She's sitting there half-naked, getting her makeup done. I'm sitting there, not half-naked, getting my makeup done. And I said, "Did you always know you were going to be Madonna, homie?" And she goes, "No. No. I wished. I prayed. I worked. I hoped. No.”
But the fact that she's arguably the most famous person on the planet, and she was like, "No. I didn't know. Are you kidding me?" And it's true, she didn't. She would run eight miles before work. We would show up to work asleep. She would show up to work, she would already have talked to New York, LA, Paris, London, whatever. She was lovely. She wanted nothing but to be great in the movie. She just wanted to work her butt off.
She never wanted to hang out, though. And I think it was because she was just on the Madonna train. Let me keep it moving.
You sound like you were a very self-assured 28. But would you have any advice or reflections for your 28-year-old self?
I really did enjoy it, every drop of it. I guess the only thing you could tell her is like, see, I didn't go to college. We were poor, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And if I could have a parallel life or a different life, I picture myself going to school and graduate school and writing and reading and being a person of letters. But that's just, like, the other road. I mean, I got great grades and shit, but I knew I could do this. And I knew I wanted to make people happy and I knew I really enjoyed making people happy. And I really enjoyed making people laugh.
I mean, come on. How many jobs do you know where I right now could walk down the street in this bathrobe, in my flip-flops. And I turn the corner and someone just bursts into a big smile and goes, "I love you!" I'm like, "Who doesn't fucking what!? I love you, too! Come here, I'm going to literally hug you!" So I get to love people. My job is to love people and hug people and make them happy and take a selfie with them and talk to their mom on the phone and whatever. To make people happy is the best job in the world.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.