“They tell you I was down here?” asks Ally Sheedy. I’ve found her smoking at a small wood table in the windowless basement of the coffee bar where we’ve agreed to meet. In fact, I’ve wandered downstairs by default, and it’s not certain that anyone would have recognized her in any case: Sheedy, now 36 and lean in a black T-shirt, bears little resemblance to the sweetly awkward teen she played in The Breakfast Club.
For the past seven years, Sheedy has been living in what she describes as a “one-and-a-half-bedroom apartment” on the Upper West Side, one that sounds considerably smaller than the cavernous loft her newly graduated character inhabited in St. Elmo’s Fire. Now married with a 4-year-old child, Sheedy left Los Angeles behind after a succession of forgettable roles following St. Elmo – she co-starred with a robot in Short Circuit and later played John Candy’s love interest in Only the Lonely. “I had to leave,” says Sheedy, lighting up another cigarette, a ritual she’ll repeat approximately every six minutes until she leaves to pick up her daughter at school three blocks away. “The roles I wanted weren’t there.”
Only recently, it seems, has Sheedy found the kind of role she wanted, in the independent film High Art, a sexually charged exploration of the bonds that form around art and addiction. The film won the prestigious Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance, and the performances, including Sheedy’s keen-edged portrayal of a heroin addict, have drawn unanimous critical acclaim.
When Sheedy first read the script, written by the relatively unknown Lisa Cholodenko, she identified so completely with the character that she flew across the country, at her own expense, for her reading. “I have to fight my way into an audition,” she says. “Lisa hadn’t seen any of the Brat Pack films, so she was open-minded.” Not only had Cholodenko managed to make it to the age of 33 without ever having seen The Breakfast Club or St. Elmo’s Fire; at first, she couldn’t even put a face to Sheedy’s name.
Unsettlingly thin, Sheedy established herself as a viable contender merely because she so vividly looked the part. A strong delivery clinched for her the role of Lucy Berliner, a dissolute, once-celebrated photographer living with her junkie girlfriend; she further troubles the already troubled relationship by seducing a young photo editor who wants to revive Lucy’s career.
Sheedy – whose Hollywood phase included rehab at Hazelden to recover from a brief dependency on Halcion – says Berliner “is the closest character I’ve ever played to myself. Lucy’s very slowed down; she was at the tail end of whatever success she had had. She was burning out from the whirlwind that was around her just because of something she could do – photography. She wanted out.”
If Sheedy is now openly disdainful of Hollywood, she’s still nostalgic for her former friends the Brat Pack, a handful of actors who embodied the healthy, wealthy ideal of eighties adolescence. “It was the first time I ever belonged anywhere,” says Sheedy of that brief period of closeness with Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, and Molly Ringwald, among others. Sheedy, who blames the naming of the clique for its demise, considers its ultimate disintegration “heartbreaking”: “It exploded and I felt robbed of my friends. I’m not in touch with those people anymore.”
Demi Moore, a former close friend, continued on her trajectory, with movies like About Last Night and Indecent Proposal; Sheedy says she shied away from the roles up for her consideration. “My only option was to play a sex object. It has not fucking changed,” she says. “I saw what reprehensible choices people made in order to be movie stars. When I got to Hollywood, they told me I couldn’t be a movie star with my body. I decided I didn’t care. I decided I didn’t want to be a movie star or in Hollywood, where I wasn’t wanted anyway.”
Throughout the interview, there isn’t a moment when Sheedy isn’t rubbing her leg, running her hand through her hair, or shifting in her chair. She raises her arms in a pre-dance-class stretch; she pulls at her shirt as she twists her waist. Her movements – oddly mannered, almost snakelike – are mildly hypnotic. If anything, Sheedy has more dramatic appeal than she did in her twenties. “It took a long time,” she says, “for me to look like myself.”
In recent years, Sheedy has spent most of her day-to-day existence puttering around her apartment with her husband, actor David Lansbury (Pride’s Crossing), and her daughter, “reading a bit, cleaning the kitchen, writing a bit, going on the occasional audition, although there haven’t been many of those,” she allows. William Morris “kicked her out” last year, she says, because she wasn’t bringing in enough money. She’s grateful for the consistent work USA Network has offered her in recent years (including Buried Alive II): “They bail me out of debt. My husband and I are like, ‘Thank God.’”
Sheedy’s late-twenties-onset burnout could easily be explained as the inevitable result of an overachieving childhood and adolescence. Perhaps only Brooke Shields’s precocious early résumé has been chronicled so often in print: At 6, Sheedy danced with the American Ballet Theater; by the age of 12, she’d written a best-selling children’s book, She Was Nice to Mice, and before she’d graduated from high school, she’d been published in Ms. and the New York Times. She started acting in commercials with the goal of financial independence. “My mother and my father both grew up in dire poverty and made incredible lives for themselves and were high achievers,” she says. “That was the reality of my family. No one had to say anything. They were living examples.”
Sheedy’s mother, the prominent literary agent Charlotte Sheedy, is a lesbian (her parents divorced in 1971), and much has been made in the tabs of Sheedy’s hinting that the graphic sex scenes in the film do not mark her first involvement with women. Sheedy says she already “knew that world” heading into the shooting. “It’s a lot easier for me to do a sex scene with a woman,” she stresses. “In High Art, I got to be the guy, the one with experience and confidence. In most movies, I’d lie there as an accessory, moaning at a man’s heightened masculine quality. Then there’s the tit shot.”
Sheedy clearly isn’t what you could call coolly detached about the Hollywood scene. “L.A. was disgusting,” she says flatly. “Everyone was wearing designer clothes and kissing asses at parties, where all the people were disgusting.” But she does seem unconflicted about her erratic career path. “I hate bullshit. People are most themselves when they’re honest. And when you don’t want anything,” says Sheedy, “you can be very honest.”