I’ve made so many mistakes. But it is my feeling that you learn from failures, so I welcome them as often as I can.
My favourite mistake occurred when I was 17. I was running for the elevator at my high school when the door shut on my arm. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in the hospital. I had fainted, fallen on my face, and knocked out my two front teeth, so I spent a week in the hospital getting tests on my heart and brain. Everything appeared normal.
While I was in the hospital, the only teacher who visited me was my Latin teacher, who was named Mr Rogers, of all names. I always thought he didn’t like me, but he came and sat by my hospital bed. He told me: “You know, you don’t have to come back to school so soon.” But I was captain of the basketball team and we were mid-season. I didn’t know what he was talking about and wanted to get back as fast as I could.
Then about 10 years later when I was just starting out as an actor, I wasn’t working. One movie I remember wanting really badly and not getting was White Men Can’t Jump, which I auditioned for by playing basketball. I felt like I blew it by walking away from academia and that I should still be doing that instead of going on all these auditions and not getting them.
I couldn’t process what was happening and at one point just fell to my knees and realised that I was overworking myself. I needed to take a step back and breathe a little. Part of being an actor is letting things come about organically, as opposed to forcing them.
The incident with Mr Rogers has always remained an odd moment in my life where I went “Aha!” and just stopped trying to work myself so hard. There’s a great Latin motto, Festina lente, which means “Make haste slowly.” That was the motto he was trying to impart to me. By the time I learned that, Mr Rogers had died from AIDS and I didn’t have a chance to say: “Hey, I finally get it.” That lesson became the kernel of my directorial debut, House of D, which is about getting advice before you can process it. You want to return once it ripens and thank the person who gave it to you, but by then it’s too late.
When I say I understand Mr Rogers’ advice, it doesn’t always mean I heed it. One way I think I’ve incorporated those words in my work is the sense of relaxation I have. Every day I try to do breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga. These things sound awfully cliché, but they help me slow down and try to point to a truth.
If you’ve experienced moments of letting go, mistakes happen, but in this business there’s a fine line between trying hard and letting go. My favourite parts of work as an actor and a director are those unplanned mistakes that do happen, because it’s like catching lightning in a bottle.
My story is about learning to give all of yourself to one thing and to not spread yourself too thin.
It was 1995, and I was on Broadway playing Laertes in the hit production of Hamlet. Ralph Fiennes, who was playing Hamlet, was at sort of the height of his fame. All of us young British actors lived two lives in New York. Our public face was hardworking British thespians performing Shakespeare on stage by day, and at night we availed ourselves of all the pleasures New York has to offer. It became our playground. Sometimes I wouldn’t get to bed until 6 in the morning, and then wake up at 12 and stagger to midtown for a matinee.
Early on in Hamlet, Laertes is sent away to Paris by his father, Polonious, and sometimes I was so exhausted from running around all night with my pals that I would sleep for an hour in the middle of the show in a little bed, which I had erected underneath the costume rail. These thick tunics smelling of old theatrical wardrobes would brush my nose as I went into a deep slumber. Someone would nudge me five minutes before I had to go back, and then I would leap out of my cot, splash water on my face, and run on stage and yell to Ophelia, “The king, the king’s to blame!” Looking back, I can’t believe I did it. I was young and foolish.
As the production went on, I was enjoying myself in New York far too much. It was like a rite of passage for a 25-year-old Englishman. Halfway through the run of the play, it was clear that New York was winning over Hamlet, and I was getting more and more tired. In this play we had the famous duel between Hamlet and Laertes, and ours had been choreographed by the legendary Bill Hobbs, who had staged the great fights for The Three Musketeers and for The Duellists, among others. One night the duel, which we were doing with these big sabers, was going particularly fast, and after Ralph went to thrust, I had to parry. I didn’t parry with enough resistance, and the pommel rebounded onto my eye. As the sword hit me, I knew instantly that something bad had happened, but I couldn’t see anything. My eye and cheek felt wet. Poor old Ralph turned back toward me and saw blood rushing down my face. The audience started to talk: “Oh, my God, how did they do that, what an effect, how extraordinary!” Meanwhile, Ralph is still finishing his speech, looking at me with those wild, staring eyes of his. He comes up close and whispers, “Are you OK?” I look at him and say, “I have no f—king idea. You tell me!” We decide not to stop the show, and at the end, I am whisked off to the hospital, where I get five stitches on my eyebrow.
This goes back to my first novel, A Time to Kill. It was published in 1989. Of course, I was unknown then. My publisher was unknown, a small house in New York that went bankrupt the following year. When A Time to Kill was published, they printed 5,000 hardback copies and I bought 1,000 of those. At the time, there was not a good bookstore in my small hometown. My idea was, I’d buy 1,000 books, have a big book party at the local library, and all my friends would come. I’d sell all these books and it’d be easy. I could buy the books at wholesale, sell them at retail, and make a few bucks. That was my grand plan. One day, in front of my tiny law office, a tractor-trailer pulled up and they unloaded the books. The publisher had sent me not 1,000 but 1,500 copies of A Time to Kill. There was no room to store them, so we stacked them in the reception area, around my secretary’s desk, in the hallways, in my office. We couldn’t move but for all of the copies of A Time to Kill. I called the publisher and said, “Look, you screwed up. I only wanted 1,000; I’m only going to pay you for 1,000.” We went back and forth and then I shipped back 500.
Then I took all the books down to the local library and we had a big book party. When the party was over, I still owned 882 copies of A Time to Kill. I had this invoice that was due to pay for them wholesale, so I started giving books away. We took them back to my office and packed them in the reception area. The boxes were everywhere, and I would just give them away. If one of my clients wanted a book, I’d try to sell it. If not, I’d give it away. I’d sell them for 10 bucks, five bucks. I used them for doorstops. I couldn’t get rid of these books.
Several months went on, and after I went to some libraries and book signings, I finally got rid of them. The book didn’t sell when it came out, and there were never any more copies printed. These 5,000 books were the only first editions of A Time to Kill. That book today is worth about $4,000. I had 1,500 of them in my law office at one time. So that’s my big mistake that’s about $6m.
Doubleday, my longtime publisher, went back and bought the rights to A Time to Kill from this small company and reissued the book in 1991, and it’s sold more than 20m copies since then.
We had no way of knowing then, but I sure wish I had some of those books back. I blew it.
In 1978 I was doing a show on Broadway called The Crucifer of Blood. It was early in my career, the show was successful, and I wasn’t terribly well known. The publicist of the show had this bright idea — I could be queen of the New York car show that year!
It’s not something I leapt to do, because I’m basically shy, but I would have done anything for our play. I said: “What does one wear to be queen of the car show?” She said just wear your street clothes, as if I had something appropriate in my closet for the occasion. I remember exactly what I wore —it’s burned into my brain: A rust-coloured jersey skirt with a floral chiffon blouse. I don’t even think I had my hair and makeup done.
I met the publicist at the door, and she handed me a tiara that looked like it came from a party store. It was metal, but it could have come out of a cereal box. The Coliseum in New York...was like you’re walking into a great palace. We got to the top of the escalator, and here is what I saw: A bright room with a big revolving platform full of cars, and women in bikinis. It was opening day, and the press were slowly circling around these women. Dread mounted in my throat when I realised how excruciatingly inappropriate I looked!
There I was, in my street clothes and my pathetic tiara, with this publicist trying to convince everybody I was queen of the car show. Nobody even took a picture of me. How could I compete with big breasts and bikinis?
It was the most devastating moment. I think I was numb. I was so mortified, I couldn’t even cry. In kindergarten I was the kid too shy to play the drums. I had to play the triangle, because that little ping was OK and not as forward as banging on the drums.
The mistake certainly affected me. I was clueless. I was naive. I’d been compromised and made to look ridiculous.
What would the lesson be? Don’t wear street clothes if you’re meant to be a queen.
When I first ventured into menswear, it was fall 1991. My very first show was at Grand Central Terminal in New York, which is not exactly a private venue. At the time, whenever I had to wear a shirt, or anything that I wanted to tuck in, I would always tuck it into my underwear. I thought, maybe we can combine classic men’s briefs with shirts, sweatshirts, T-shirts. And I ended up with the unfortunate idea of bodysuits for men.
From a distance, it would look like a guy was wearing briefs and a shirt, when in fact it was a little onesie with snaps under the crotch. You have to think, with the male anatomy, are snaps at the crotch the most comfortable thing? I had never worn one of these bodysuits or thought about how, when a man sends his dress shirts to the dry cleaner, he would send his underwear attached. I had never thought about the discomfort of the snaps, the oddity of getting undressed in front of anyone, or going to the bathroom.
I was nervous at the idea of a men’s-only show. I thought it had to have sex appeal and impact. The show opened with five or six guys walking out with no pants. One of the guys, to put it bluntly, had very heavy body hair. It looked insane.
Soon after, I was at a store in Chicago, and there was a 60-year-old man with his 20-year-old boyfriend. He started picking all my bodysuits off the rack, and saying: “You should get this!” The next thing I knew, this young guy was coming out of the dressing room modelling them. “Oh, no!” I thought. “This is turning into trashy lingerie for men.”
I got back to New York and decided that I had to test-run them myself. I lasted about half an hour. The tugging, the digging, the snaps, the discomfort. They didn’t sell at all, and I realised that as a designer, even if you can’t wear something, you have to want to wear it. It was a clarifying moment that regardless of what I make — a woman’s shoe, a man’s jacket, a handbag, an evening dress — I have to be empathetic to the people who are buying it. Can you put yourself in their shoes?
Soon after that, I took a break from menswear for nine years. Whenever I am tempted to do something that’s totally insane for men, I decide that I’m going to try it on myself. And then I say: “Just remember the bodysuits.”
I learned a lot from doing the film Tristan & Isolde. It was a big mistake. I was an overzealous young actor and wanted to make great movies. I read the script and wasn’t sure about it, but my acting teacher said it was a role that a young Brando or Olivier would do. I thought: “OK…I guess.”
I signed on to the project nine months in advance, and spent every day sword-fighting in the backyard of my girlfriend at the time, Marla Sokoloff. I had martial arts trainers and we’d make sword-fighting videos back there, and then I’d go over to Griffith Park and ride these Andalusian movie horses through the hills.
When I got out to Ireland to shoot, they said they had a new version of the script and all the Braveheart-style battle scenes were changed to stealthy murders. All the training I did was useless.
Midway through the shoot I was doing a scene and all of a sudden it felt like someone hit me on the side of my knee with a baseball bat. We just taped it up, but when they took the bandages off at the end of the day, my knee was three times its normal size.
At that point we were shooting in Prague, so they took me to this hospital there that looked like a subway station. I didn’t trust it. The doctor looked at it and said, “We need to operate immediately! It’s your ACL.” I was like: “Whoa, I need a second opinion.” We had three weeks left of filming and they drained my knee every other day, which was hell. Every morning, I’d go to this physical-therapy place and this woman would massage my leg, and I don’t know why, but she’d be playing the soundtrack to Twin Peaks over and over. We had to shut down production. I flew back to the States and got an orthoscopic operation —it was my patella, not the ACL like the Prague doctor said — and did physical therapy every day for two months. Six months after the main shooting had finished, a physical therapist ended up stitching up my knee, and I finally got through the action scenes.
The movie was produced by Ridley Scott, and he always said: “Kevin Reynolds is a visual director, the script is good, and he’ll deliver the movie.” But I think our personalities just didn’t jibe. [Kevin] had the idea that my character would be more jovial, and I thought he was tragic. He was like: “James, I need you to smile in this scene.” And I said: “No. My character has no reason to be happy.” He said: “James, you can’t keep playing James Dean,” and I replied, “Kevin, you can’t keep making Robin Hood.” That kind of summed up our troubles. Plus, Ridley was off shooting Kingdom of Heaven, so he didn’t help much.
The lesson was that I will never do a movie again that I don’t have a special feeling for. I know now that you feel it somewhere in your gut when you believe in a movie, and that’s why you should do it. Don’t do a movie you wouldn’t see or don’t believe in, because movies can be hell to make.
Within the first year of launching my company, Spanx, I decided to go over to England and cold-call Harrods, Harvey Nichols, and Selfridges the same way I had cold-called Neiman Marcus, Saks, Nordstrom, and Bloomingdale’s in the US. It still was a very small company with one product, my footless pantyhose, which was a brand new concept back then. I was trying to explain to people not only why they needed this product, but also what it could do for them. I called around and got some interest with local newspapers, magazines, radio, and the BBC agreed to interview me. It was a live interview that would reach more than a million people, and I was very nervous. The interviewer asked: “So Sara, tell us what Spanx can do for the women in the UK,” and I smiled really big and said: “Well, it’s all about the fanny. It smooths your fanny, it lifts it, and it firms your fanny.” I knew instantly I had done something seriously wrong because the interviewer had lost all the colour in his face. He stopped me and said: “I think you mean bum.” I said, “Yes, right, bum.”
When I got off the air, I found out that fanny means vagina in England. It was a pretty funny marketing mistake. But what was so funny was I was trying to be British — I’m not someone who says fanny, but it sounded like such a British word to me. Apparently it is, I just had the wrong definition. This was in 2001, before YouTube, but I’m sure it would have gone on there if it had been around. I had to call back to all the people at Spanx, which at that time was two people in my apartment, and tell them our international expansion was off to a great start.
It’s important to be willing to make mistakes. The worst thing that can happen is you become memorable. I grew up in a house where my father encouraged my brother and me to fail. I specifically remember coming home and saying Dad, Dad, I tried out for this or that and I was horrible, and he would high-five me and say, Way to go. He re-framed my definition of failure from an early age. Failure to me became not trying, instead of the outcome.
I think very early on in life we all learn what we’re good at and what we’re not good at, and we stay where it’s safe. To have someone encourage me to actually go out and embrace not being great at something taught me over and over again that what will happen is you have a story to tell, or you meet someone new and that takes you on a different path.
The BBC interview ended up opening more doors for me because I was willing to laugh at myself. I feel like I’ve had that approach with my business through the messaging and marketing — it’s a very honest and real and “oops!” mentality. There’s always a gift in something, even if it first feels like a failure.
I was going out with a woman, as I often did, and maybe I seemed stressed out, but she decided to spoil me with a massage at a spa. Massages are things that I wouldn’t ever think to get. I think I’ve only had five in my whole life. I told her: “I don’t want to do this, I feel very uncomfortable; this is not relaxing to me.” She said: “Listen, I love for you to be happy. Whatever happens today, just go with it.”
So I go into the spa, there’s very peaceful music, you see people walk by you in robes, and they look blissed out. I thought: “Oh God, this is just not right.” I meet a woman who works there, and she tells me to put on a robe and to follow her into the massage chamber. I’m so tense during the massage, my knees are sweating. Did you know that kneecaps can sweat? Because I didn’t. All of a sudden she says: “You’re done!” I’m so happy. It was like a roller coaster — once you’ve done it, you want to do it again.
Then she says: “Your girlfriend bought you a whole spa package, and next is a sea-salt scrub.” I make some terrible joke because I was super-cocky and really relaxed: “Well, I hope it’s not too much salt, because I’m on a low-sodium diet.” She ushers me into another room and standing there is a woman who says: “Hi, I’m Magna. Put these on, and I’ll come back in,” and she hands me a weird, very light ball of fabric.
She leaves and I go to put on this underwear, but they’re a G-string, so I figure this can’t be right. I take them off, and rotate them one click to the left. Now they are a G-string that’s not covering much at all. So I get panicked and turn them over, and now it’s a weird bathing suit that’s covering part of my upper thigh. They’re just not working. I go through every possible variation and finally I arrive at the idea that these just are a G-string, at which point, the echo of my girlfriend’s voice comes into my head, saying: “Whatever happens, just go with it.” So I put the blanket over me, and I said, “OK, I’m ready!” in a sing-songy voice. When she’s about to begin coating me, I hear her start shaking with laughter.
She says, “I think you might have these on incorrectly. These aren’t supposed to be a G-string.” It’s very embarrassing, when you’re lying face-down in a massage parlour with a G-string on that’s not really supposed to be one. I try to pretend like I did it on purpose, do a little wiggle with my waist, and say: “I know it’s not a G-string. I just did it for youuuu.” Then I closed my eyes, cursed myself silently, and kept saying to myself it’s OK because I’m never going to see her again.
As I’m finishing the massage, she puts a piece of paper in front of me, and says: “My daughter is your biggest fan. She has a very big online presence and the whole community is going to be so excited after I tell her that I massaged you today. Can you please sign this?” Of course, this is the last thing I want people to know, but I sign, “Dear Becky, it’s not a G-string. Love, Jason.” And that’s my story for you, for the world, forever.
To this day, I don’t know how it’s supposed to be worn. I guess I just missed some kind of hole. It still keeps me up at night. And I never saw my girlfriend again. We broke up. I know in the scale of massage stories, this one is on the tamer side, but that’s just how some of us live our lives.
I’ve made so many mistakes that have been helpful in my life. I make them all the time in trying to do everything. It’s impossible not to. I’m not perfect at all — as a wife, as a mother, as an actress.
When I made Crazy Heart in 2008, that was the first time I really went back to work after having my first child, and that movie was so intense that I lost touch with some motherly stuff and was just in the world of the movie. Even trying to figure out what was for dinner was tough. My husband, Peter, was going to work in London a lot of the time, and Crazy Heart was the type of movie that you’d shoot in three weeks and be out drinking tequila with the director and Jeff Bridges till three in the morning. We had to make a real relationship together in order for that one to work. Peter said to me: “You go and do whatever you need to do.” But my daughter wasn’t cool with that: She was still going to wake up at 6.30am.
Within the same year, I made Nanny McPhee in London. I went and rehearsed for a week, got married, went on a two-day honeymoon, and we started shooting. It was a long, four-month shoot. I had a two-year-old, too. But I was and am in love with Emma Thompson, who wrote and starred in the film. I wanted to please her and be friends.
One day, we went over to her house for brunch, and afterwards I was going to see Ornette Coleman, who’s a big jazz musician. I wasn’t that into Coleman, but he’s one of my husband’s favourites. Emma was so shocked that I was going out that night on a date with my husband, but Peter really wanted to go. The concert was awesome, and I hadn’t been out that late.
I went to work the next day, and it was a huge day: Acting with children, animals, tons of props, and a long scene with lots of talking. I thought it went fine. But at the end of the day, the producer came up to me and said: “Would you like me to get someone to help you with your lines?” I said, “No, I’m OK,” and then went into the makeup trailer and burst into tears. I couldn’t stop crying.
Emma comes in and says: “What’s the matter?” I told her what happened. She said to me, “You’re a new wife; you have a two-year-old; you’ve been shooting this movie for four months. You’re going to f—k up! It’s OK. And you didn’t know your lines that well today.” That was the first time that I realised that being good at everything at the same time isn’t possible. Hearing Emma, someone who is so incredibly talented and wise, say that really stuck with me. I can’t break down and get horribly defensive when someone is telling me I need a little help.
But now that we had another child in April, I don’t know how I’m going to do it. Peter turned to me the other day and said: “How are either of us going to work now?” I have no idea.