She still sounds like she spends too much time in a bar. And perhaps only now is her industry realising how much it can do with the small-town girl who “strategically planned” a semi-naked Playboy shoot in order to get “sex symbol”-style roles like that of Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct. That beyond the vixens and the ice queens, Sharon can also do comedy (Susan Walter’s 2017 film A Little Something for Your Birthday), tragedy (Steven Soderbergh’s 2018 TV drama Mosaic), and the sinister mix of the two that she carries off in Ryan Murphy and Evan Romansky’s new Netflix drama Ratched, a prequel to the 1976 Oscar winner for best picture, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Set during the 1940s in a psychiatric hospital in northern California where new and unsettling experiments have begun on the human brain, the show is the making-of-a-monster story of Mildred Ratched (played by Sarah Paulson). Ratched is the nurse who has Jack Nicholson’s character lobotomised in Miloš Forman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel.
Sharon’s character, an eccentric heiress named Lenore Osgood, is just as deranged, and intent on avenging her son. But she looks glorious in her balloon-sleeved silk gowns, a pet monkey perched on her shoulder, and anyone still questioning “what to do” with Sharon in Hollywood will have their answer: anything.
That the actor still says “alarming” things after all these years in the industry makes her a refreshing and substantial interviewee. In Hollywood, “alarming” often means “honest”, and Sharon’s honesty can be searing. She’s a feminist where it matters. Although she refuses to toe the accepted line on more trivial subjects like flirting and wolf-whistling, being too smart to fear open, nuanced discussion, the actor has vehemently supported #MeToo from the outset, having experienced so much toxic masculinity throughout her own career that when a CBS reporter asked in 2018 whether she’d ever been made to feel uncomfortable, Sharon just guffawed.
Since then, she’s shared some of those moments, from finding out that “the term f…able was used to see if you were employable”, and hearing one male actor on the crowded set of the 1984 drama Irreconcilable Differences holler, “Would you get out of the f…ing way? I can’t even see her tits,” to working with a director “who asked me to sit on his lap each day to receive his direction”.
Haven’t things changed now? Sharon winces. “People can still be condescending to women, and do you really let that affect you?” she muses. “I mean, there were times when it used to be more oppressive, but now I think you have to work out what sort of aggression it would require to get back to neutral. Because sometimes it’s just a small thing – a look or a nod – and sometimes you just have to walk away or laugh. And sometimes you really have to put your foot down.”
After a 40-year career, two husbands (Sharon was married to producer Michael Greenburg from 1984 to 1990, and journalist Phil Bronstein from 1998 to 2004), three adopted children (Roan, 20, Laird, 15, and Quinn, 14) and a huge stroke at the age of 43, Sharon has learnt a few things, the main one being that it’s about “fighting the big fights”.
“Any time you’re really a tiger, any time you step out and do something different, you take a lot of heat. But is was worth it.”
“Because listen, I feel like I don’t really need to get into the weeds on all these other things,” she says when I ask whether she minds being called “honey” or “darling”.
“I don’t care if people call me those things. Frankly, I don’t really care if they pat me on the rear. I just feel like all of that stuff is such a small victory. And maybe it’s because I’m 62 and have been through so much that I’m able to sort out what really needs my attention – and what are just things and people that are going to fade away anyway.”
As tired as she is of discussing one of the most paused moments in movie history (Basic Instinct was released in 1992, after all), Sharon has never, like so many actors, belittled the film that made her. “It was a real sociological game-changer,” she says. “And of course it took a lot of heat, as anything that changes the game does. Any time you’re really a tiger,” she narrows her eyes, “any time you step out and do something different, you take a lot of heat. But it was worth it. It made such a difference in terms of the way we view women in film. Even the way women actually get to direct is so different now. I don’t think women had a voice in film before, really.”
Although she and her co-star, Michael Douglas, have remained friends over the years, Ratched – which Douglas executive produced – is the first project the pair have worked on together since Basic Instinct. “I didn’t see him on set, but we’ve seen each other many, many times over the years,” she says. “I mean, Michael changed my life. And he’s always been so ahead of the curve in the things he’s produced, always looking at the most intriguing issues, whether it’s nuclear disasters or political issues or mental illness, as in Ratched.”
Growing up in Meadville, Pennsylvania, the daughter of a factory worker and an accountant, and the second child of four, Sharon flew through school several years ahead of her peers. “Between the ages of 11 and 14 there were these real female trailblazers out there like Gloria Steinem,” she recalls. “Feminism was the topic when I was 11, 12, 13, 14 – those years when you start to question, ‘Who do I want to be when I become a woman?’ So when I saw those trailblazers, I thought, ‘Well that’s it!’?”
Remembering how she would “leave a lot of feminist reading material casually around the house for my mother to find”, Sharon gives a low laugh. “Then my mother would put all her books, like [Erica Jong’s] Fear of Flying, on top of the fridge, because that was the more secret place – that was where the more controversial material went.”
Steinem being a hero of Sharon’s explains why she never felt the need to choose between sexy and serious, winning both the title of Miss Crawford County and a scholarship to Edinboro State University, where she studied creative writing and fine arts.
Having put her degree on hold, however, Sharon was signed by a modelling agency in New York. By 22, she’d ditched the modelling and made her acting debut as an extra in Woody Allen’s 1980 comedy Stardust Memories. Her big break didn’t come until 10 years later, when she got the part of a villainous undercover agent posing as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wife in Total Recall. But even
in the busiest decade of Sharon’s Hollywood career – in which she made Sliver (1993), The Quick and the Dead (1995), Casino (1995), and Sphere (1998), to name a few – one got the sense that this was not enough to sate her.
Sharon soon became an advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness, immersing herself in scientific research. She gave a Hague Talk about peace in 2016. And in the same year – at the age of 58 and inspired by Hillary Clinton – she went back to university to finish her degree. I wonder if Sharon’s desire to recalibrate in her 50s was a delayed reaction to the way Hollywood treated her after the stroke and nine-day brain bleed she suffered in 2001 – a treatment she’s previously described as “brutally unkind”. “You find yourself at the back of the line,” she has said.
Despite the one per cent chance of survival she was given, a seven-hour surgery in which 22 coils were inserted into Sharon’s brain saved her. But in the seven years it took for her to recover fully, she sometimes felt she’d “lost everything”.
“It was like I’d been this very bright and shiny thing, and then I got a ding in my fender and suddenly I just wasn’t bright and shiny any more.”
The stroke had occurred at a particularly vulnerable time in Sharon’s life. She and Bronstein were heading for divorce, and a subsequent custody battle over their son, Roan, only made things more painful. The “damaged goods” stigma Sharon fought to shake off for years after her illness still visibly enrages her. “It was like I’d been this very bright and shiny thing, and then I got a ding in my fender and suddenly I just wasn’t bright and shiny any more.”
Had anyone told Sharon then that this trauma would prove useful in the event of a global pandemic, she wouldn’t have believed them. But because trauma’s all about change, she points out, “I now have a more mellifluous sense of reality. It allows me to understand, ‘Oh, now life is changing again,’ whereas lots of people find change incredibly difficult. But anybody who’s had a heart attack, cancer or a really traumatic divorce, for example, knows that those big moments change you exponentially. And then a new life starts: a rebirth.”
It’s true that there’s a Zen-ness to Sharon’s views on everything from Johnny Depp’s recent court case – “I’ve known Johnny from when he was a kid and he’s a terrific guy: sweet and nice and very warm and generous. So I have a feeling it’s more about this young lady” – to Trump. “Actually, I have empathy for him,” she says, “because it’s heartbreaking to watch. And I think he’s had some childhood trauma. I look at this man and it feels to me like whatever his traumas are, he is torturing himself and hurting himself. And it’s affecting so many people who are coming out in support [of him], with Nazi masks and all that stuff. Those are also people who have a heartbreaking level of internal rage, and that rage comes from feeling so insecure and so hurt.”
Any insecurities Sharon did once suffer from seem to have been banished from this second life of hers. She’s not going to pretend to buy into the “looks don’t matter” narrative. “Because it’s a big, fat, stupid lie,” she says through a burst of laughter, “and by the way, you don’t even realise how much they matter until they start to go.”
In terms of treatments or facials, she’s low-maintenance, she swears, and more comfortable with herself than ever before. “I’m done letting other people tell me how my face and body are, for one thing – ‘This part is not okay’ – and those big cellulite close-ups. All women’s bodies have those kinds of things, but we’ve looked at too many pantyhose pictures where the models were young boys, and seen too many fashion shows featuring 14-year-old Romanian girls.”
She pauses, shakes her head. “You don’t have to stay a beautiful girl forever, and we really have to start dealing with the fact that it’s cool to be a grown-up and intelligent woman. If your partner doesn’t understand that, he’s not an adult and you shouldn’t be with him.”
Finding an intelligent adult male to date hasn’t been easy for Sharon, who aside from her two marriages has been linked to model Martin Mica and actor David DeLuise over the years. She even signed up to the dating app Bumble, which temporarily blocked her account, having assumed
her profile was fake. “But honestly, the whole thing was so dismal that I now want to write a book of short stories about my online dating experiences.” Seriously? “Yes! Dating sites are just not a successful thing. Because real chemistry, that frisson, that happens in the air – not on a site. And people are becoming less socially adept because of those sites. They no longer know how to behave over dinner, be in a relationship or communicate. I don’t want a ‘text relationship’ with someone I’m dating. I find that dismal.”
Sharon’s disgust is genuine, but I doubt the disappointment runs deep. She gets plenty of emotional range from the three sons she’s always been careful to shield from unwanted attention: “I always had someone else drive them to school so that I didn’t create a stalker situation, and I never went to the park much with them because I didn’t want to draw the paparazzi there.” And she gets even more from same friends she’s kept “from the age of 22”. “They knew me when we were still pooling for the pizza, and I’m still just as content to sit on their couches and watch TV.” This jogs a memory, and Sharon smiles. “But if we do go out somewhere and I run upstairs to get dressed and put some make-up on, they’ll always laugh when I walk back into the room: ‘Oh look,’ they’ll say, ‘you went and changed into Sharon Stone.’?”
Ratched is available to stream on Netflix.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale October 11.
The Telegraph Magazine, The Telegraph (UK)