The mysteries of marriage figure prominently in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, in which the title character defies expectations by taking up with a younger man (played by Keanu Reeves), while undergoing a darkly comic nervous breakdown. “It’s an extreme example of what women go through at certain times in their lives,” Wright Penn says. The film, written and directed by Rebecca Miller (The Ballad of Jack and Rose) and due out October 23, required Wright Penn to play a woman older than she is. “We started out using prosthetics around the eyes, but it looked weird,” says Miller, who first considered casting a fiftyish actress. “So we ended up deepening lines that she has. Because she has that bone structure, she has the kind of face that’s not going to go anywhere for a while.” It’s a gamble that would be “poison” for most actresses, Miller adds, but not Wright Penn. “She wears her beauty when it’s appropriate to do so, and tries her best to erode it when it’s not. Her attitude is that of the character actor.”
Wright Penn, who donned a pair of crooked teeth for her part in The Pledge, says she’s drawn to character roles because they allow her to disappear into them. Despite having chosen the most public of professions, she is terrified of public speaking, and her friends know not to introduce her to casual acquaintances on the street. Asked why she’s uncomfortable in those situations, Wright Penn replies, “There’s not the protection of playing somebody. But put me in front of a camera and I could masturbate if that was what was required of my character.”
That’s not a typical actress quote—but even as a teenager, Wright Penn was far from typical. Her divorced mother was a Mary Kay cosmetics sales executive who took Robin and her older brother, Richard, an accomplished ballet dancer in his youth, out of school periodically to accompany her on sales trips. She pushed her kids to excel, and Robin was career-oriented from a young age. By high school—the family moved to La Jolla, California, two years before she graduated—Wright Penn had developed her own strong sense of style. “She didn’t look like anybody else,” says her longtime friend Diana Stobo. “La Jolla was big hair and lots of jewels, and she had that thrift store, rocker look and a rebellious way about her.” Wright Penn was nonetheless elected homecoming queen, but even at that age she couldn’t bask in an audience’s approval. “I thought it was going to be like Carrie and they would pour pig’s blood all over me,” she says with a laugh.
On weekends, she would drive to L.A. for modeling gigs. One summer she went to Japan, where her brother was living, to model. She returned with $50,000, but she was not happy with her early career: “It was degrading,” she now says. At five foot six, she was too short for runway work, but she still did other modeling stints in Paris and Milan before turning to acting.
By 19, Robin Wright was appearing regularly on the soap opera Santa Barbara, and she was briefly married to her costar Dane Witherspoon. Her breakthrough came in 1987, when Rob Reiner chose her as the virginal Buttercup in The Princess Bride; her English accent was so convincing that casting agents then had to be persuaded she was American. The film was the hit of the summer, but experiencing fame “made me not want it,” she says. “It wasn’t fear of success; I wasn’t interested in being a celebrity. I’m still not.” She chafed against being cast again for her blonde beauty; once, after a botched hair-coloring job, she grabbed the clippers and shaved her head. “I looked like G.I. Jane. I found the experience incredibly liberating.”