Alicia Silverstone, With a New TV Show, Proves She’s Not Clueless

Since her star-making role in “Clueless” 23 years ago, Alicia Silverstone has maintained a steady, low-wattage career.

LOS ANGELES — Alicia Silverstone leaned out of the upstairs window of her two-story house in a woodsy section of the Hollywood Hills. Toothpaste spilling from her mouth, she shouted cheerfully, “Be down soon. I’m brushing my teeth!”

Judging from the dorm-room-during-finals state of her bedroom — unmade bed, clothes strewn everywhere — her busy schedule demands she be in multitasking mode. She had recently returned from Montreal, where she had shot a horror film directed by the Austrian team of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala (“Goodnight Mommy”), and this May morning she was collecting belongings from the floor that she wanted to bring to the Pacific Palisades-based set of “Judy Small,” a low-budget comedy. “Script,” she said aloud. “Wallet. Shoes.”

“When I’m in a rush,” she added, “I pack crazy.”

The array of rumpled blouses and hastily discarded jackets is a far cry from the computerized closet Ms. Silverstone is indelibly associated with, the one that was color-coded, organized by season and programmed to mix and match outfits. Yet such is the enduring power of her performance as Cher Horowitz in the 1995 coming-of-age teenage comedy, “Clueless.” Made for a modest $12 million, the film grossed more than $56 million domestically (nearly $120 million when adjusted for inflation), and generated a wave of teenage girl copycat movies and predictions of superstar status for Ms. Silverstone. What followed instead was an entertainment industry chain reaction: some big paydays, a few box office failures and a “who-does-she-think-she-is?” backlash. And even though Ms. Silverstone has spent the last two decades maintaining a steady, low-wattage career filled with roles in small films, television and theater, she is still one of those actors who make people wonder if she’s even acting anymore.

Credit...Patrick Wymore/Paramount Network

Hollywood may be a business reluctant to give women second chances, but Ms. Silverstone, now 41, suddenly seems to be everywhere. Last year alone she appeared in four movies, including playing a bespectacled mom in “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul” and a desperate mother who sucked Colin Farrell’s thumb in Yorgos Lanthimos’ psychological horror film, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” Though not given much dialogue in the recently released “Book Club,” she still radiated Silverstonian charm as a doting daughter hovering over her widowed mom (Diane Keaton). And on June 7, she returns to a starring role when “American Woman,” her new television series on Paramount Network, debuts.

Set in Beverly Hills circa 1970s, “American Woman” is loosely based on the early childhood memories of Kyle Richards, a former child star (“Little House on the Prairie”) and now a second-career reality star on Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” Ms. Silverstone plays Bonnie Nolan, a mother of two who kicks out her philandering husband and is determined, with no marketable skills, to support herself and her family.

“This character was so appealing to me because she goes through so much, she’s being knocked down and she gets back up,” said Ms. Silverstone, wearing a crimson T-shirt, bluejeans and a fitted tweed coat. Stretched out on a window seat, she ate her breakfast — corn soup sipped from a mug. “It’s like she’s crawling out of a hole. She’s a very complicated person.”

Unlike Ms. Richards, whose recurring television guest spots helped keep the family afloat, Ms. Silverstone grew up comfortably in the suburbs of San Francisco. The daughter of immigrants from England, Monty Silverstone, a real estate investor, and Didi, a former flight attendant, Ms. Silverstone worked as a model from age 8 to 12. She used her paychecks for acting classes, and was discovered at a Los Angeles-based summer acting workshop. Soon she’d secured an agent, a Domino’s Pizza commercial, a guest spot on “The Wonder Years,” a failed pilot called “Me and Nick,” and, despite her scant filmography, a central role in “The Crush,” a psychological thriller in which she played a deranged teenage seductress.

In 1993, Marty Callner was 20 minutes into a multiplex screening of “The Crush” when he knew he’d found a luminous heroine to star in a trio of Aerosmith videos he was directing. “It wasn’t just that she was extremely photogenic, beautiful — she had ‘It,’ the right sass and body language,” Mr. Callner said.

The videos would reboot Aerosmith’s flagging popularity, transform Ms. Silverstone into an MTV video star and inspire Amy Heckerling, the director of “Clueless,” to give Mr. Callner a call asking what she was like to work with.

Ms. Heckerling had been struggling to find an actress who could recite snarky, entitled dialogue, but make it sound sweet. But when Ms. Heckerling met Ms. Silverstone she knew she was sitting across from her perfect Cher. “We were at a restaurant and when she got her drink, she leaned her head over into her straw, the way a little kid does,” said Ms. Heckerling. “There’s something childlike about her, totally innocent and naïve and open. I found her totally endearing.”

Film critics, audiences and movie executives alike fell in love with Ms. Silverstone, too. Not yet in her 20s, she and her First Kiss Productions company were bequeathed a$10 million development deal to produce two films at Columbia Pictures. Then the romance soured as quickly as it began. When the only result of her deal was “Excess Baggage,” a negatively reviewed crime comedy starring Ms. Silverstone and Benicio Del Toro, she was excoriated in the media. In 1996, her appearance at the Oscars set off a run of cruel body-shaming. (Entertainment Weekly’s “She looked more Babe than babe,” was one of the more subtle assessments.) Cast as Batgirl in “Batman & Robin,” Ms. Silverstone found herself serenaded with the TV show’s theme song by paparazzi, who replaced “Batman” with “Fatgirl.”

“Hollywood eats its young, you know,” Ms. Heckerling said. “She didn’t get the best guidance and wasn’t taken care of as well as she should have been.”

Today, when asked whose advice she sought in the hopes of navigating her way through such unsteady waters, Ms. Silverstone wrinkled her expressive brow. “People I’d talk to? That would be nobody,” Ms. Silverstone said. “Now I talk to everybody about everything — but I was so isolated back then.”

It doesn’t escape Ms. Silverstone that at age 21, just when her life was at its most chaotic, she seized control where she could find it and became a vegan and an animal-rights activist. “It was just so empowering to say no to something,” she said.

Since then, she’s turned an animal-product-free existence into an ancillary career. She is the author of two books — The New York Times best seller “The Kind Diet” as well as a follow-up, “The Kind Mama” — and has created her own line of organic, non-G.M.O. vitamins. Whenever possible, Ms. Silverstone extols the benefits of a vegan diet — she lost weight, and says her acne and allergies vanished. Ms. Silverstone’s lifestyle choices have occasionally generated news, sometimes mocking. In 2012, she posted a video on her lifestyle blog, “The Kind Life,” of her chewing and spitting food in the mouth of Bear, her then 11-month-old son. She said she was surprised when the video went viral. “I was simply savoring my little boy, who was so delicious,” she explained, adding that she wasn’t promoting premastication. “I didn’t even know it was a thing.”

Her personal life can still spur headlines. On the Friday before Memorial Day, Ms. Silverstone filed for divorce from her husband of nearly 13 years, Christopher Jarecki, after an earlier separation. The subject was put to her delicately. “I think that you’re asking why am I so confident and feeling so happy when I’m going through a divorce,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s common or not common, but I’m in an incredible place in my life. I’m a devoted mom. I love the people in my life. My career couldn’t be in a better place.”

Before “American Woman” began shooting, as with all her projects, Ms. Silverstone approached the series costume designer and requested that whenever possible new wardrobe items not be made from wool, silk or leather. “She sounded hesitant for one second, then she spoke to someone who said, ‘We do that all the time! It’s no biggie!’” said Ms. Silverstone, adding that most of her “American Woman” costumes are “old Chanel and Halston.” (Used clothes prevent waste and are thus a vegan loophole.)

Less of a chatty proselytizer, she bends the world with her vegan will. The all-vegan menu at her son’s 7th birthday the next day, for example, was to include the roasting of gelatin-free marshmallows. Downstairs in her cluttered kitchen, a chef was preparing canapés including hearts of palm ceviche, and a mushroom taco for Ms. Silverstone to taste that will be tray-passed along with nonvegan appetizers at the “American Woman” premiere.

She also knows how to serve up some branded nostalgia, when appropriate. Recently, Ms. Silverstone was asked to appear on “Lip Sync Battle,” a reality series involving competing celebrities. Though her episode doesn’t air until June 14, the series has been heavily promoting her appearance. In the clip Ms. Silverstone bursts onstage holding shopping bags aloft, dressed in Cher Horowitz’s canary yellow plaid schoolgirl uniform, and then begins mouthing the lyrics to Australian rapper Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.”

When asked what she felt about this callback to her heyday, Ms. Silverstone offered a correction. “I wasn’t doing Cher, I was Iggy Azalea doing me,” then popped open her laptop and sang along to Ms. Azalea’s “Fancy” video, a spot on “Clueless” tribute. “It was sort of meta.”

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