Laurie Simmons: We can talk about art and movies, but first we have to talk about your writing. You wrote an extraordinary piece in The New Yorker about shooting King Lear with Jean-Luc Godard. That was riveting.
Molly Ringwald: It means so much to hear you say that. Have you ever seen the film?
Simmons: If I have, it was a long time ago. But I’m definitely going to watch it now. You describe what it was like to work with Godard, this legendary director. Working with him sounded really crazy.
Ringwald: It was, but I’m so glad that I had the foresight to know it would be an interesting experience. So many of the things I’ve done have that quality to them—I somehow know they will be worthwhile down the line. Do you ever get that feeling?
Simmons: I know exactly what you mean. That’s one thing we have in common, this idea of doing things for the experience of it, or saying to ourselves, Even if I don’t grasp the meaning of this right now, I know it’s important. I always followed those instincts. I ended up doing really exciting things that way, and I also got myself into trouble.
Ringwald: Well of course! The two go hand in hand, don’t they?
Simmons: Right. That shared foresight shows that we both saw our lives as something outside of ourselves, in a way, from an early age. This intuition that an experience will be great for the story of our lives. I’m not sure everybody gets that feeling.
Ringwald: I don’t know any other way to be. I have always been my own North Star. As an artist, how do you know when an idea is worth pursuing?
Simmons: I don’t have a narrative in my work, but the story I tell myself about my work is that I look for moments when the experiences I’ve had in my life come up against something that’s happening at a specific time in our culture. I try to pinpoint that. I want to ask you the same question about your experience in film, but I don’t think it really applies.
Ringwald: Not totally, but I do think there’s a similar process of knowing what the right project is when it comes along. How important has mentorship been to you as an artist?
Simmons: I wanted to find mentors, but ultimately never really did. I always wondered why that was. Really, the closest thing to a mentor for me is my husband [Carroll Dunham], who’s been my partner since I was 27, and is an artist himself. His perspective has grown with and influenced my own. We use each other as sounding boards because we run up against the same problems. Have you had mentors?
Ringwald: I have, but not as much as I would have liked. It’s also something that I’ve actively started to seek in later years. I realized I could benefit from the guidance of other writers as well—my husband [Panio Gianopoulos], who’s a writer, is also a sort of mentor for me.
Simmons: I think that largely solitary experience comes from having the conviction from a tender age of who and what you are. Most people come much later in life to their callings—my husband decided he would be an artist in his 20s. When Lena [Dunham, Simmons’s daughter] was little, she wanted to be a ballerina and a pig farmer when she grew up. Those are the kinds of children’s expectations that I think are more common— they want to be astronauts. I knew what I would be in life from the time I was six. On my first day of school, I introduced myself to my first grade class as an artist. I don’t know where I got that from.
Ringwald: When I was three, I told my grandmother I wanted to be an entertainer. That’s a word I probably only knew because of my father, who was an entertainer.
Simmons: That’s definitely not a three-year-old word.
Ringwald: It’s not! My grandmother told me it couldn’t happen.
Simmons: At that time girls wanted to be teachers, nurses. I knew instinctively that I would be an artist during a period when most families were not supportive of those goals, so I really did not grow up with other kids who had the same motivations as me.
Ringwald: I think I only saw acting as a possibility because of my own parents. My father was a jazz musician and my mother was a stay-at-home mom, so a life of performance to me felt doable.
Simmons: Absolutely. Your daughter Mathilda [Gianopoulos] just started her acting career, right?
Ringwald: She did. She’s 19 now, and I very adamantly did not want her to be a child actor. That was a big bone of contention in our family for a long time. I wanted her to develop other creative outlets. I told her, “Even though acting is what feels most exciting to you right now, you need to have other means of expressing yourself along the way.” Life is long, and I do not want her to be waiting for that next role in order to feel fulfilled.
Simmons: I felt the exact same way as you. Because we started so young, it feels important to us now to develop relationships with other mediums—for you writing and translation, for me film. It’s a way of making sure we made the right choices all those years ago, and telling ourselves we didn’t miss out on anything. What was it like to see your daughter enter the film world?
Ringwald: It was a very big moment. All of a sudden, she was in a casting office, reading lines with Anne Hathaway [for the film The Idea of You]. Before that she’d never done anything more than a self-taped audition at home with me.
Simmons: Did you visit her while she was shooting?
Ringwald: She was on location for a month and a half in Georgia. I couldn’t be on set because of Covid, but we talked every day, and she would say things to me like, “Mom, I’m so awkward, I don’t know how to do this and that.” I’d tell her, “Mathilda, that is your power. I didn’t raise you to be a Hollywood kid. You’re your own person.”
Simmons: This goes back to your writing, and your pursuit of creative expression outside the craft of acting. I loved your novel When It Happens to You, and I can’t wait for the next one—
Ringwald: Neither can my agent.
Simmons: And recently you did an incredible translation of My Cousin Maria Schneider, the book about the great French actress. It was so powerful and so moving. There are moments in the book, particularly regarding her interactions with men, that show us how far our society has come. Her experience was unfortunately quite common at that time, and it was treated in a sort of blasé way for so long. When we look back, the normalization of that treatment is just horrific.
Ringwald: So much has changed. That’s not to say that there aren’t still challenges that women face in the entertainment world, but now there is so much more freedom to present yourself on your own terms. Lena, for example, is so daring and sexual and provocative, and she embodies that identity all on her own.
Simmons: But she’s had plenty of experiences with men in Hollywood that just make me, as a mother, want to punch someone in the nose. After periods of great progress, there always seems to be backlash. We still have so far to go.
Ringwald: You’re right. I can’t remember who it was that said it, but the symbol of America shouldn’t be an eagle. It should be a pendulum.