Alicia Silverstone: Ballad of a Teenage Queen

The girl from the Aerosmith video grows up

Alicia Silverstone on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Peggy Sirota
Alicia Silverstone on the cover of Rolling Stone.
By |

Alicia Silverstone is a kittenish 18-year-old movie star whom lots of men want to sleep with. "That part's not me," Silverstone says. "What people think about me, of doing with me – it can be gross." Along with many other celebrities, has-beens, will-be's and wanna-be's, Silverstone lives in the Hollywood Hills, in California, where she pads around the house in gym socks, doing nothing more exciting than her laundry. Meanwhile she tries to balance the inaudible pangs of adolescence (Let's get crazy) with the audible pangs of agents (You can't get crazy, you have a photo shoot) and saves her good looks and enthusiasm for a party that has never been thrown. Can you believe it? Alicia Silverstone, the prettiest girl in town, the next big thing, the star of nine movies in the past two years (including The Crush, in which she played a young woman who kisses and then tries to kill an older man, a movie that fixed her in the minds of many as a lustful, murderous, wildcat teen), an actress who with her appearance in Aerosmith's recent videos helped revive the band, the star of three upcoming films (The Babysitter, True Crime and Le Nouveau Monde) and the summer smash Clueless, and she's stranded on a hill – a knocked-out, dreamy-eyed little Rapunzel waiting for some spectacle grand enough to allow her to let her hair down. "If this is the life of a star-let," she says, sighing, "it's a yawn."

Silverstone grew up at the track. When she was in grade school, a book came out: Monty's Betting Tips. Monty is her father, and he was always taking her along on research outings, afternoons at the races where he led her, horse by horse, through the betting form, teaching her how to spot the sure thing. "Dad always did know horses," Silverstone says. There must be some connection between Monty's success with ponies and Monty's success with his daughter – something about conditions, breeding, handling and how they all amount to winning – but Silverstone has no idea what that connection is: "He was interested in encouraging me. That's all I know."

The Best and Worst Movies of 1995

Monty Silverstone has a stable, conservative, full-time career (financial consulting, real estate), but he also had a more speculative venture: Alicia. By the time she could walk, he was running her as you would a fine horse. While she was in third grade, he took pictures of her, one of which she still keeps tucked behind a couch in her living room. "I look at it sometimes," Alicia Silverstone says, crossing the room and pulling up a black-and-white poster-size photo: a 6-year-old bikini-clad Alicia on all fours on a white shag rug. "I look just the same as I do today," she says, gazing at a photo that brings to mind underground rings and police sting operations. "We went to a modeling agency with these photos, and they started sending me out on shoots. That's how I was introduced to the working world – as the flower girl in all these phony weddings."

Silverstone drops the photo behind the sofa and looks across the room. Here and there, paintings lean against walk "Laura Dern painted this one," she says, touching it with her foot. "I call it Laura With a Purple Hat." Crossing the room, she adds, "And Jeff Goldblum painted these." The pieces bear a striking resemblance to the down paintings of John Wayne Gacy. "You can tell Jeff did them." She tilts her head. "There's so much of him in there."

This is Silverstone's first home away from home. She grew up in suburban San Francisco, and the walls of her house are crammed with the kind of collages peculiar to freshman dorms: Silverstone and her big brother, David, as naked toddlers; Silverstone on Halloween (over the years, her costumes included ballerina, pumpkin, Playboy bunny, Debbie Gibson); the Silverstones on vacation looking determined to have fun; Silverstone and Sammy Nodowitz on a bright spring day. "When I was 10, Sammy and I were married in a mock ceremony at Sunday school," Silverstone says. Nodowitz wore a yarmulke and tails. A document was signed before the ceremony, so Silverstone fears that she and Sammy are legally married – that she is Mrs. Nodowitz! That one day there will be a knock, and it will be Sammy asking, "What's for dinner?" "He's the wild card," she says, falling onto the couch. "I'm always wondering, 'What's Sammy think of all this?'"

Silverstone is wearing jeans, a T-shirt, moccasins. Her jeans are unbuttoned. She's a pretty girl, but she's the kind of pretty girl who feels she must apologize for being pretty by calling herself short, fat, dumpy, homely, ugly, awkward, whatever. The kind of girl, that is, who tries to paint herself as a regular girl and in the process alienates a lot of girls who next to her really do seem sort of regular. "If Alicia Silverstone is homely," they must wonder, "then what does that make me?" "I'm just some whacked-out, freaky little tomboy," she says. "There's half a million girls who could blow me away."

Silverstone has straight blond hair that falls around her shoulders, wide eyes and a mouth that people describe in ways that she finds inappropriate. They liken it to a slice of tangerine or call it wedge shaped or say she has bee-stung lips. Well, if your lips were stung by a bee, do you have any idea how much that would hurt? "Like hell," she says. Silverstone's lips have not been stung by a bee. Nor does she have the vague, abstract, off-putting beauty of a supermodel like Linda Evangelista or Stephanie Seymour. Silverstone is a girl you could conceivably date, a girl you did date, even, raised to the highest power. She has the brand-new look of a still-wet painting – touch her and she'll smudge.

As Silverstone talks, she bends to kiss her dog on the lips. "Are you the best-looking thing in the whole world?" she asks. "The most adorable? Yes, you are!" While she was filming True Crime, a dog limped onto the set, fresh from a car wreck. Silverstone took him in, patched him up and named him Samson. There's a reason for the name, but it's not that interesting. Samson has a dark face, tan eyebrows, a long dog nose and mournful dog eyes. "You just want to run, don't you?" she asks, flipping back his ear. "You're crazy happy!"

Samson is a big dog; Silverstone is a big-dog girl. There's a difference between girls who like big dogs and girls who like small dogs. While a girl who names her dog Snowball and says things like "Look, Snowball fits in my purse" is fragile, a girl who lets a Rottweiler (Samson is part Rottweiler) drag her all around town is a girl who seems ready for anything. "When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was work, have fun, talk, be noticed and talk, but even then I had too much personality to be good as a child model," she says, petting Samson. "When you're a kid model, they just want you to stand still and shut up. But it was a great way to make money, and even at 81 was a business lady and knew I needed money for the future."

As the assignments rolled in, and her picture appeared in ad campaigns, the young Silverstone was leading this other, very humdrum life. Her mother was a flight attendant with Pan Am, so every now and then the family flew off to London, where Silverstone's parents are from. Otherwise she was just another kid passing time in the playgrounds and back yards of suburbia, facing down the usual preteen dilemmas: Why don't boys like me? Who should I invite to my bat mitzvah? Why is everyone so mean? Why do boys like me? Why did I marry Sammy Nodowitz? What's the most spectacular way to almost break my neck? "Alicia was nothing like the roles she's played," says Brian Beauchart, who met her while in the second grade. "She certainly wasn't clueless and had no psychological problems. She was a cheerleader, had a boyfriend and was just as normal as they come."

By the time she entered high school, though, Silverstone had begun to look enough like the girl in the Aerosmith video to realize things might be changing. "when I was a freshman, I was big into being a freshman," she says, folding her legs beneath her. "The first week of high school, these cool senior guys called me over. I was a little moron and had no idea what this was about. They invited me to this big senior party. I brought two friends, and we didn't drink, smoke, nothing. We were anti-everything. We lectured people. We were the only freshmen there, and when we came to school the next day, the rumor was, 'Alicia got drunk and had sex with some of the guys.'"

While this experience taught Silverstone how the hint of sex spreads faster than the fact of respectability, it also taught her about image and how easily you can lose control of who people think you are. "So I derided to control just what I could, and that was my dream," she says. "I always wanted to be an actress. Look at Samson." She kisses him. "He's so cute. He looks just like a grandpa, a big, farty grandpa. So when I was in eighth grade, I started taking acting classes with Judi O'Neill, a teacher who came up from L.A. to San Francisco once a month and held workshops."

After just a few classes, O'Neill took Silverstone to Los Angeles on a scouting trip, where she appeared, along with other young actors, in a series of showcases. "I attended one of those shows and saw Alicia do a scene," says Carolyn Kessler, Silverstone's agent, who speaks of that initial encounter as if it were a trip to the mountaintop. "She had this amazing energy that came right out at me – an energy full of truth and wisdom and honesty, a magnetic force that made me want to work with her."

Within a year of signing with Kessler, Silverstone was cast in The Crush, and her role would later win her MTV Movie Awards for Best Breakthrough Performance and Best Villain (Ralph Fiennes, nominated for Schindler's List, lost out). "I was looking for Gloria Swanson from Sunset Boulevard in a 14-year-old body mixed with Sue Lyon from Lolita," says Alan Shapiro, who directed the film. "It was a lot to ask of someone who had never really done it before. Whereas some actors are concerned with looking cool, Alicia threw herself into it with abandon. She's completely willing to make an idiot out of herself, which any real artist has to be willing to do. She's a very intense girl."

Although Silverstone has an aversion to appearing naked onscreen ("I don't think it's necessary"), and a body double was used in those scenes in The Crush when her character does disrobe, the movie made her – like it or not – an object of sexual fantasy. "I can't speculate on how people see me," she says. "But I do wonder how they can see me as a sex symbol. I can't see anything about me that equals sex. It's strange to think of what other people might be thinking of me.

"And it's not nice to get written about," Silverstone says. "When you're written about, it's like being dragged out. All of a sudden, people are fixating on you. It's sad. Not long ago some person was going around the Internet claiming they were me, saying lewd things in my name. 'Come and get me' and other stuff I don't want to repeat. I don't want people to know who Alicia is. I want to be an actress. I want to create other people. I don't want other people to create me."

You sometimes hear former kid actors (Gary Coleman, Danny Bonaduce) bitch about having missed out on childhood. Well, Alicia Silverstone is not some-one who missed out on childhood. She's missing out on it right now. When she was 15, in order to skirt child-labor laws, she was told by the producers of The Crush to go ahead and get emancipated – that is, made legally independent of her parents. "If you're emancipated, it means you're legally 18 and can work crazy hours," Silverstone says, walking to the kitchen to microwave a quesadilla. (I am offered a bowl of bran.)

"It's too hard to get emancipated in L.A., so my dad tracked down a place in Oakland [Calif.]," Silverstone says, returning with the quesadilla. "I had to stand before a judge and tell him I was living on my own, which was not true, and also tell him I was self-supporting, which was true. And then after sophomore year, I quit high school." Like many prison inmates, however, Silverstone went on to receive her GED.

To most middle-class parents, such an ordeal – in which the beloved daughter tells a robed official her parents are no longer needed – must seem an oddly public forum for what should be a family struggle, with the mood set by Freud and the resolution reached in therapy.

"I didn't want her to be emancipated," says Monty Silverstone. "But her agent kept telling me if she wasn't emancipated, she wouldn't get The Crush. So I weakened and sat Alicia down and said, 'Listen, you're emancipated, but you've got to promise you're always going to be my little girl. I don't want anything to change. It's got to be exactly as it is now.'"

"My parents were a bit concerned," says Silverstone, waving her quesadilla. (Sometimes a quesadilla is just a quesadilla.) "They were afraid I would hold it under their nose and say, 'You can't tell me what to do, I'm emancipated.' But nothing really changed."

In some ways, of course, everything changed: Never again would she be just the little girl at home. "T'll never forget the feeling the day she went off to do The Crush," says more Didi Silverstone. "This feeling of loss like I lost her. From that day on, it was never quite the same."

While other kids on her block were gearing up for the SAT, Alicia Silverstone was packing for Los Angeles. "I don't care that I've missed out on all that," she says, looking across the room. "That's not who I want to be. I went to Lutheran University, in Thousand Oaks [Calif.], where my friend goes. I went up to the dorm, and there were like six guys there when I walked in. They had posters of naked girls on the walls, and they have that at every college I visit. Disgusting. It tells me, 'God, they have so many years to go.'

"Going back to college, I would have a hard time with the people," Silverstone says. "What I've learned in the past two years you can't learn from school, you can't learn from books. You only learn from experience: being alone, unsheltered, available to anyone who wants to bash you. I'm an open wound – anyone wants to take a shot, here I am."

Like many actors who strike while young, Silverstone is no longer subject to the forces and fears that are shaping her nonacting contemporaries. She is instead bring raised by the moods and whims of Hollywood. As a result, she will bring to later life little of the experience that will create the personalities of her time – personalities she may be called on to play. At 15, Silverstone was snatched away from her suburban home and raised by wolves – the producers and directors of Hollywood. "I was never worried about Alicia," says her dad. "She's a Silverstone, and we're fighting sons of a gun. We've got a fighting-gut spirit and never let go."

Soon after the premiere of The Crush, Silverstone was spotted by Marty Callner, a director looking for a woman to co-star with Stephen Dorff in "Cryin'," the new Aerosmith video. "He liked what he saw in the movie," says Silverstone. "And what he saw was a good actress, not a pretty girl. It's about what you have inside."

In the video, Silverstone feigns suicide by bungee-jumping off a bridge, teaching her boyfriend a valuable lesson. "After watching all these other videos, it's cool to see that one, to see a video with a real person," she says. "I'm never posing, never doing this supersexy stuff. I'm just being."

Samson, who has been faking sleep, suddenly lunges for the quesadilla. He had the whole thing lined up like a pool shot, and Silverstone barely snatches her hand away. "Look at you!" she says, slapping his nose. "Aren't you the smartest dog in the world?"

"He's hungry," Silverstone says, looking at me. "Give him your bran." For the next few minutes, her words are backed by the comical, bone-dry sound of a dog chewing bran.

"Aerosmith made a hell of a lot of money off that video," Silverstone says, returning to her quesadilla. "Their sales tripled or something. They would have been crazy not to ask me back."

Aerosmith went on to cast Silverstone in two more videos, including "Crazy," in which she plays opposite Steven Tyler's daughter, Liv. For millions of MTV viewers, those videos have linked Silverstone with a certain style, a 70s sound and a summer mood that on the best evenings ends in the woods with grass stains, torn clothes and a brand-new girlfriend. "Alicia has a seductive quality that goes way beyond her years," says Paul Rudd, her co-star in Clueless. "Off-camera she's this silly 18-year-old, but that other thing is always there."

Silverstone fears her work with Aerosmith has been too successful. "I'd like to correct the idea that the videos came first," she says, folding her arms. "That's absurd. I'm not a video star turned actress. I'm a serious actress who spent a few days making videos. I've done a lot more than videos, you know."

In the last two years, in fact, Silverstone has been involved in so many projects that even she has trouble keeping track. Running through the titles, she sounds like someone ticking items off a grocery list: "I did The Crush," she says, "then a movie called Torch Song, then Scattered Dreams, then my first Aerosmith video. Then a movie called The Cool and the Crazy. Another Aerosmith video. A movie called The Babysitter. Then Hideaway, with Jeff Goldblum. Another video. True Crime. Le Nouveau Monde. Then Clueless."

With Clueless, Silverstone may have at last emerged from the tunnel of work – a tunnel composed of movies that came and went like road signs – onto a sunlit upland. For one thing, she got to work with director Amy Heckerling ("Amy just let me go," Silverstone says), who more than a decade ago launched about a dozen careers (Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Forest Whitaker, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Eric Stoltz and Anthony Edwards) with Fast Times at Ridgemont High. "Here's how I found Alicia," says Heckerling. "I was minding my own business on my treadmill watching MTV when I saw 'Cryin' ' and just went cuckoo bananas. She's funny and beautiful – anyone who shows even a glimmer of that mix becomes a major star. I'm thinking of people like Sally Field and Goldie Hawn."

In Clueless, which is based on Jane Austen's Emma (a novel about a young control freak, 1816 style), Silverstone plays Cher Hamilton, a self-consumed, materialistic, thoughtless teen who with the help of plot twists and sight gags becomes a self-consumed, materialistic, thoughtful teen. "I'm not like Cher," Silverstone says. "I don't care about clothes, I don't dress up, I look like crap all the time. But the quality we do share is wanting to please everyone. I'm just now learning you have to separate your life from the life of your family, that your needs are different. Everyone goes through that." She signals Samson, who bounds across the room. "Some people just go through it later than others. Kids in college go through it but slowly. They evolve. But since I'm out in the working world, I've had lessons most people don't get until their 30s. So I feel ready to confront the big things."

In the next few years such confrontations will likely be restricted to movie screens. Silverstone hopes to work with directors like Martin Scorsese and Bernardo Bertolucci and with such actors as Al Pacino and Christopher Walken. She spent June in Massachusetts at a Shakespeare camp where she did nothing but contemplate the Bard. "It was the most amazing experience of my life," says Silverstone, who recently auditioned for the lead in a film remake of Romeo and Juliet. "Nine movies in two years is a grind, but Shakespeare's lighting me up. Once again I know I love acting."

A film star in ascendancy gathers debris as does any celestial object – satellites and planets that remain fixed in orbit until the star implodes or is eaten away. As Silverstone is only now gaining the critical mass that equals gravity, she is being circled by only a few satellites. These include her publicist, Elizabeth Much. "Can you believe she's Jewish?" Much asks, looking approvingly at Silverstone. "Such shiksa beauty!"

For the most part, the people who surround Silverstone are a select few regulars who shuffle in and out of her life like characters on a sitcom. For the last several months, she had been sharing her house, in a chaste way, with Jennifer Rubin, who acted with Silverstone in The Crush. (Rubin's other titles include A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and A Woman, Her Men and Her Futon). And although Silverstone still keeps in touch with people from high school, she fears fame gets in the way. "I have no problem with it," she says, shrugging. "But it can get weird on the phone."

Boyfriends? "I had a boyfriend when I was in junior high," Silverstone says. "He was a Mexican named Willie. My next boyfriend was Chinese."

"She's always had unusual boyfriends," says Monty Silverstone. "Multinational fellows. To me, they're all nice fellows, but they couldn't make the films, any of them. She's a bit like Marilyn Monroe, I guess. She just likes the plainer type guy."

Until recently, that was the extent of Silverstone's romantic life. Just now, however, she is coming off her third relationship, a romance afflicted with Mission Creep – you go in wanting a little fun (movie, dinner) and wind up talking china patterns. "I used to have dreams that this guy would betray me," Silverstone says, frowning. "There was always a girl in these dreams, a waitress, and she would flirt with him and then hold his hand.

"A few nights ago, I dreamed I beat the crap out of another, completely different guy," Silverstone rambles on, eyes glazed. "I beat him badly. I'm no meany, but I dreamed I beat the shit out of him. His head became a punching bag, and my feet were up in the air like a cartoon. But I have no boyfriend now." She snaps out of her reverie. "I'm all alone and am fine with that."

Of course, if you are someone like Alicia Silverstone, people will talk. They will talk of seeing you in places that you have never been. They will involve you in fanciful love affairs that would never happen. They will involve you in other love affairs that might happen but haven't happened yet. Sometimes, by luck alone, they will be right. Other times, they will be wrong, Of late, such talk has linked Silverstone with Jeremy Sisto, her costar in both Hideaway and Clueless. She says they are just friends.

Silverstone likes being alone. "Sometimes when I'm alone," she says, standing, "I make a whole moment of it." A lot of these moments involve Cat Stevens and some involve laundry. A lot of people are not allowed in such moments. I'm not allowed in such moments, and neither are you. The real Cat Stevens? Even he would not be allowed in such moments. Samson is allowed in such moments.

In such moments, Silverstone follows every thought, most of which end in sleepy confusion. "I have realizations," she says, entering a dreamy place most reach only with the help of drugs or an injury. "Like that life's bigger than us. People forget that, but I'm always aware of it. Like when I'm in the bathroom looking at my toilet paper, I'm like 'Wow! That's toilet paper?' I don't know if we appreciate how much we have. I just want a few things I can treasure. So the things I do have, I'll appreciate – like toilet paper. Just the other day, I stud to Jennifer, 'Hey Jennifer, maybe we should stop using toilet paper.' We decided to thank the toilet paper instead, so that's what I do when I leave the bathroom. Thank the toilet paper."

"I wish I had more time to come up with stuff like that," Silverstone says, looking out the window: hills, sky, clouds. "But most of the time, I'm going from one meeting to the next. You should see my average day."

Silverstone's average day: carrot juice, morning auditions, people she meets, recollections of her early life, calls to and from her mom, TV news, the distant rumble of the barrio, her Bronco and contemplating its ride above the road, traffic, smoke rising from the city, being recognized, conversations with her agent, the glances of strangers, books she has not read, books she has read, friends, Samson straining at the leash, trees, the road getting narrow as it leaves the city, health food, compliments, agents, come-ons, fan mail, publicists, critics, reporters, quesadillas, change clanging in the dryer. "Oh, God!" She says, jumping up. "My pants must be on fire by now. Let's go to the dryer."

Late in the afternoon, Silverstone follows a brick path that starts at her back door and climbs past the tree line and out onto a plateau from which she can look back at her house and across the hills to the valley below. The hills are studded with houses set at ever higher elevations like a staircase leading nowhere. Silverstone rents the guest house of a Tudor mansion. Looking down through the trees she can see a basketball court, a tennis court and a man-made waterfall that empties into a pool, around which servants in tuxedos prepare for a party, their white gloves catching the sun. "Not invited," she says, folding her arms.

Silverstone follows the path up to a stone bench where she once came upon two groping teens. "I've lived up here a year, and that's the most exciting thing I've seen," she says. "They say there's a young Hollywood out there, but I'm not part of it. Guess I don't mix well."

Some people criticize Silverstone, saying she has done nothing worthy of fame – oddly, in long articles accompanied by glossy photos that only make her more famous – but they're wrong. She has done something worthy of fame: She has been in nine movies, and every time she has been hard not to watch. Just being appealing onscreen makes her of interest. It's not that people who are not in movies seem unreal; it's just that people who are in movies seem more real. People who are in movies, no one knows why, are touched with a heightened sense of reality, a presence that swirls around them like a fog.

"My interest is in becoming a good actress," Silverstone says. "I'm not interested in the celebrity of it all. Outsiders say, 'God, she's so successful!' And I'm like 'No, I'll tell you when I'm successful.'"

What most people think of as success (fan mail, box office) has a way of changing things. "My father used to say, 'Marry someone Jewish, and I'll buy you a house,'" Silverstone says, smiling. "Now I tell him, 'If I don't marry someone Jewish, I'll buy you a house.'"

This story is from the September 7th, 1995 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 716: September 7, 1995