Jeanne Tripplehorn and the Joys of Polygamy

The "Big Love" star says she’s got the best job in town

By Margy Rochlin
Dress: Oscar de la Renta; earrings: Bochic
Photograph: Photo by: Andrew Macpherson

Once Tom Cruise’s plucky onscreen spouse (and Michael Douglas’s sexy shrink), Jeanne Tripplehorn now says she’s got the best job in town: learning all about sharing on HBO’s hit series Big Love.
For the third time in the past hour, Jeanne Tripplehorn opens the oven door in the white-tiled kitchen of her Hollywood Hills home and squints at a tray of browning oats, slivered almonds and sunflower seeds. She’s trying to re-create the taste of the homemade granola that her Earth Shoe–wearing hippie mom, Suzanne, prepared and shipped in vast care-package quantities to Tripplehorn during her four years in the drama division of the Juilliard School. “She used to send me bags, and I just lived on it,” says Tripplehorn, adding that her most recent attempt at making the high-energy cereal culminated in a memorable lesson in the chemistry of sun-dried fruit. “I put in the raisins with everything else at the beginning, and they blew up. They looked like ticks,” she says. Then they exploded and collapsed into shriveled, flattened bits. “Today, I will remember to put them in close to the last.”

Dressed in blue jeans and a striped button-down shirt, her hair pulled back in a hasty ponytail, Tripplehorn, 45, looks a lot like Barb Henrickson, the character she plays on HBO’s acclaimed series Big Love, now in its third season. Except for one thing: She’s alone. Her son, six-year-old August, and her husband of eight years, actor Leland Orser, are out of the house. On Big Love, which offers a glimpse into the hectic days and logistically complicated nights of a family of modern polygamists in Utah, a mealtime scene typically positions Barb at the center of a small crowd, barking out orders as she supervises the feeding of her extended clan: husband Bill (Bill Paxton), her three biological kids, her husband’s younger wives (Chloë Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin) and their ever-growing broods.

For all the comic opportunities afforded by her role as a bossy first spouse, however, Tripplehorn gets the most praise from critics for the subtle gestures, expressions and vocal inflections with which she conveys that this team marriage is not a life Barb ever imagined for herself.

“You can see her brain working things out; you see how conflicted she is in this extraordinary situation,” says TV critic Gillian Flynn, who has written about Big Love for Entertainment Weekly. “For me, the show would not work without her in that role, because she’s the person you need to empathize with. She’s extremely genuine, and she makes it all entirely grounded and believable.”
A Big Problem With Big Love
Having agreed to play Barb, Tripplehorn considered opting out just before production on the pilot began in May 2004 because she didn’t understand why a woman would share her cherished husband with two “sister-wives.” “I mean, honestly! Who does that?” she sputters. “I got cold feet.” She called an orange alert meeting with Big Love’s creators, Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, announcing to them with rising panic: “I hate Barb.”

“We had to talk her off the ledge,” recalls Scheffer, adding that eventually Tripplehorn came to see the character as they did: a sort of have-it-all protofeminist whose sister-wives double as live-in help in raising her family, which allows her enough independence to return to her job as a teacher. After that, Barb came alive.

“I looked at Barb as the greatest control freak,” Tripplehorn says, “and I think one of the lessons she is learning over the series is to let go and focus on herself.” The character’s backstory, she notes, is that “Barb thought she was going to die, so she was handpicking her husband’s next wives. Then she lived. From there, it had to be about the love of family.” (This season a similar dynamic played out, as Barb feared her cancer had returned.)

“There are so many facets to this particular prism,” Tripplehorn continues. “You would think going into it that it’s the ultimate male fantasy, but it’s really the ultimate male nightmare. [It tells men,] ‘You’d better watch what you ask for, because you’re going to get it . . . and get it, and get it.’ ”

Her Tulsa Touchstone
It was in an earlier male fantasy gone awry that Tripplehorn made her big-screen debut: 1992’s controversial Basic Instinct. Supporting Sharon Stone’s vixenish star turn, Tripplehorn commanded attention as the possibly unbalanced, bi-curious Dr. Beth Garner, who engages in rough sex with her detective patient (Michael Douglas). A year later, Tripplehorn established her reputation for a certain whirring, cerebral acting style as the wife of the in-too-deep lawyer played by Tom Cruise in The Firm. But her next big film, the futuristic Waterworld (starring Kevin Costner), became a prerelease laughingstock, not for its performances but for its ballooning budget. “In retrospect, I realize it made me reluctant about films,” Tripplehorn says today of the media scrutiny. “There were things that were so out of my control and a bit overwhelming.”

She dealt with her early bursts of fame and high drama by retreating to her hometown of Tulsa. “I remember
after Basic Instinct, I came home, and for like a month and a half, I mowed the lawn and just lived,” says the actress, who calls the city her touchstone. She owns coffee table books about Tulsa and vintage photos of the former oil boomtown, and she can talk for hours about the closeness of her friends and family there, the Art Deco and Mediterranean-influenced architecture, the laid-back vibe. “I have to be in Los Angeles right now, which is not really my ideal place to live,” says Tripplehorn, who appeases her hometown longings with occasional road trips. Last summer, she loaded up her iPod and she and an L.A. girlfriend flew to Tulsa, emptied a few storage units Tripplehorn had maintained for years and drove her belongings back to L.A. in a U-Haul. “My girlfriend, bless her heart, she was so game,” says Tripplehorn of the 20-hour-plus trek. “We had a blast!”

For all the sentiment that every building and intersection holds for Tripplehorn, Tulsa is also alive with memories of her beloved mother, who died suddenly of an aneurysm in 1992. The actress got the news while she was filming The Firm. “It was very difficult, and I don’t talk about it a lot,” says Tripplehorn, who, grief-stricken,
returned to the set for several more months of shooting. “I had to focus; I had to pull from reserves of concentration, and it was actually a godsend. I know it was scary for Sydney [Pollack, the late director], because I don’t think he knew how strong I was.”                  

From Deejaying to Juilliard
Tripplehorn’s parents divorced when she was a toddler. Her father, who still lives in Tulsa, was a guitarist with the pop group Gary Lewis and the Playboys and “a huge influence on me in choosing a creative path to earn a living,” she says. Her mother, an elementary school teacher, encouraged her only daughter (the actress has a half-brother, an Austin-based musician) to set her sights on a more practical occupation than the arts. “She wanted me to be an orthodontist,” Tripplehorn says. “Her rationale was, ‘You’ll make lots of money and make people look good! It’s the perfect job.’ But she was really supportive of my pursuing a creative life, expressing myself artistically.”

At 14, Tripplehorn made a series of prank phone calls with a friend to a late-night disc jockey at KAKC, playing various characters, and was invited to the station to learn the technical aspects of radio. Many Saturday morning training sessions later, she had morphed into Jeannie Summers, as she called herself, at station KMOD. “I was 16, the youngest female deejay in America,” she says of that part-time gig. After high school graduation, Tripplehorn became a full-on local celebrity, hosting a morning radio show, appearing on TV and acting in plays with Tulsa’s American Theater Company. “I’m surprised I never got fired because I’d oversleep,” she says. “There was one point when I was 18 or 19 where I was literally working 17-hour days.”

Over the years, she also submitted comedy sketches to the folks at Saturday Night Live and in 1985 got a personal rejection note from Al Franken and Tom Davis, saying, “We have no doubt made some terrible mistakes, and perhaps hired some deadbeats less able than you. Forgive us.” For Tripplehorn, it was like “I’d called out in the dark and a voice responded back. They were funny and warm about it.”

It dawned on her that what she needed was a bigger challenge. “I just outgrew [the Tulsa entertainment scene],” says Tripplehorn, who moved to New York and was accepted into Juilliard’s four-year program (her classmates included Laura Linney). “I wanted to be a legitimate actor.”

She’d barely received her diploma when she beat out Marcia Gay Harden for the lead in the Public Theater’s production of John Patrick Shanley’s The Big Funk, a role that required full frontal nudity as well as a nightly smearing with great blobs of lubricant. “She was spectacular, brand new and had such a great presence,” says Shanley today, recalling how on opening night his Hollywood friends (he’d recently won an Oscar for writing Moonstruck) showed up and took note of the lush-lipped, brown-haired unknown. “At the party,” Shanley adds, “Don Henley got all moony-eyed over her.” Another big fan? Danny DeVito. According to Shanley, when he mentioned to DeVito that Tripplehorn was up for Basic Instinct, the actor asked if his pal Michael Douglas had seen the play yet. “I said, ‘Yeah, he has.’ And [imitating DeVito’s conspiratorial chuckle] he said, ‘I think she’s going to get the part!’”  

"Maybe in My Eighties I’ll Do Botox"
It’s 19 years later, and Tripplehorn isn’t an ingénue anymore. But she’s still her mother’s unspoiled Tulsa girl, padding around her house, sans foundation, mascara or lipstick. “I hear her voice every day,” the actress says of her mom. “She’d always say, ‘You look so much better without makeup. You’re just so beautiful the way you are.’ She made me feel very confident.” So far, Tripplehorn has resisted plastic surgery. “Maybe in my eighties, I’ll do Botox,” she says, adding that lately she’s been thinking that enhanced body parts seem like relics from another time. “I can’t pass judgment, but aren’t fake breasts already looking really 1995?”

Instead, she concentrates on keeping things together with a healthy diet and lots of exercise: “I get bored, so I mix it up, do whatever I can to get the blood going—yoga, boot camp, Pilates.” Her motivation stems as much from basic pragmatism as from vanity. “I got married later in life,” says the actress, who had a long on-and-off relationship with actor Ben Stiller. “I had a child later in life. I want more years.”

Love at Second Sight
Back in 2000, just before getting together with her husband, Leland Orser, Tripplehorn had almost given up on finding Mr. Right. “I was at the point that maybe it wasn’t supposed to be, and that I was going to be a single mom,” she says. “I was 37, unmarried, and I was OK with it. Then this came out of nowhere.”

She calls it “love at second sight,” because she and Orser were both with other people when they had their first, electricity-free encounter, on the set of Very Bad Things. A year later, unattached, they met again in Toronto, and the planets had apparently shifted. “He walked into the room, and that was it,” she says. “I saw him; he saw me; we’ve never been apart.”

On her iPhone, Tripplehorn keeps a home movie that she shot, edited and scored herself. In it, Orser jogs alongside their angelic son, August, teaching him how to ride a bike. When Orser lifts his stabilizing hands and her son pedals unassisted, August gazes into the camera and cries out to her in amazement, “I can do it!” And in the background, you can hear Tripplehorn’s laugh, a pealing bell of total happiness. “I look at Leland like, ‘I earned him,’” Tripplehorn says. “I don’t know if I would have dated him when I was younger. He’s such a good person. You’re not interested in that in your twenties. You’re interested in bad boys.”

One thing about the passing years that has surprised her is the quality of the roles that have come her way. “I’m in a really great place,” says Tripplehorn, who plays Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the HBO movie Grey Gardens, airing in April, as well as a mother tending to her traumatized daughter (Dakota Fanning) in the upcoming indie film Winged Creatures. Then, of course, there is “the best job in town, ” Big Love. “I’m in my forties and I’m being written for,” Tripplehorn says. “It’s the greatest role I’ve ever played—beyond three-dimensional. If more gifts like these are coming my way, then I’m looking forward to getting older.”

She is also excited about becoming the spokesperson for the World Monuments Fund, a group that works with governments and communities around the globe to preserve places of great architectural and cultural heritage. “Every two years they come out with a list of 100 endangered sites,” she says. “I’ll be going to Cambodia to look at the Angkor Wat temple. And Route 66, which has fallen into disrepair, has landed on their watch list. I’ve done Route 66 several times, and there’s all this great architecture along the road. It really ties back to Oklahoma.”

The oven timer dings, and as Tripplehorn pulls out the sheet of granola, a sweet, nutty odor fills the kitchen. Once it has cooled, she pours the cereal and some cold milk into two deep soup bowls. She takes a spoonful, and you can see her measuring the taste against the memory of her mother’s version. “Not bad,” she says happily. “I can be proud!”

Margy Rochlin has also profiled Diane Keaton, Jodie Foster and Felicity Huffman for   MORE.

First Published Mon, 2009-05-04 10:29

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