Jennifer Grey on ‘Dirty Dancing’ sequel, abortion rights

Actor Jennifer Grey released a memoir, “Out of the Corner,” in May.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Jennifer Grey wasn’t sure she wanted to keep our appointment. A few hours before, the news alerts had begun flooding in: The Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, eliminating a constitutional right to abortion that had existed for nearly 50 years. And there’s no handbook that explains how to promote a memoir the day such a seismic ruling comes down.

“I feel so emotional,” Grey says. “Even though I’ve seen it coming, even though we’ve been hearing what’s coming, it doesn’t feel real.”

Movie viewers already know Grey as the star of “Dirty Dancing,” the 1987 film best remembered for that famous lift and Grey’s steamy chemistry with co-star Patrick Swayze. But the film — set in 1963, a decade before Roe vs. Wade — features a powerful pro-choice message within its foes-to-lovers coming-of-age story. Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), a dancer at the resort where Frances “Baby” Houseman (Grey) and her family are staying, is faced with an unplanned pregnancy. To help fund Penny’s (illegal) abortion, Baby borrows money from her unsuspecting father; Baby’s father, a doctor, later helps Penny recover from the botched procedure.

“We saw someone who was hemorrhaging,” Grey says. “We saw what happens to people without means — the haves and the have nots. I love that part of the storyline because it was really a feminist movie in a rom-com. It was a perfect use of history.”

Before she was known in the popular imagination for “Dirty Dancing,” Grey had her own experience with abortion, as she alludes to in her memoir, “Out of the Corner,” which details her hard-partying, rebellious years as a teenager and young adult. “When I try to imagine my own daughter at 16, playing house, essentially living with a grown-ass man, doing tons of blow, popping Quaaludes, and going to Studio [54] — not to mention being lied to, cheated on, then gifted with various and sundry STDs and unwanted pregnancies, it makes me feel physically ill,” she writes. “No teenager should be swimming in waters that dark … .”

A woman in a white shirt and jeans sits on the ledge of a garden bed

Grey will join the L.A. Times Book Club on July 27 to discuss “Out of the Corner.”

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Grey says she felt empowered by her sexual freedom at a young age and was careful about using birth control. But even as someone with the access and means to abortion, the choice to end a pregnancy can take its toll: “It’s such a grave decision. And it stays with you.

“I wouldn’t have my life. I wouldn’t have had the career I had, I wouldn’t have had anything,” Grey says. “And it wasn’t for lack of taking it seriously. I’d always wanted a child. I just didn’t want a child as a teenager. I didn’t want a child where I was [at] in my life.”

At 41, Grey gave birth to her daughter, Stella Gregg, now 20, with then-husband Clark Gregg.

“This is just so fundamentally wrong,” Grey adds of the Supreme Court’s ruling, “and it is sounding a bell for all women to rise up and use their voice now because we have assumed, since 1973, that our choice was safe and that it was never going to be overturned.”

Though Grey says she is “heartbroken,” the conversation eventually turns to other personal topics she explores in her memoir. She writes about her childhood experiences as the daughter of Broadway and film legend Joel Grey and actor Jo Wilder; the wild, sometimes reckless tales of her youth; and how trying to conform to Hollywood’s standards of beauty affected her career. She’ll join the L.A. Times Book Club at the Montalbán Theatre on July 27 to discuss “Out of the Corner.”

Most recently, Grey starred in Amazon’s “Red Oaks” from 2014 to 2017 and has made guest appearances on “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The Conners” and “Dollface.”

Talking over breakfast at Little Beach House Malibu — not far from where she lives now and spent part of her childhood years — Grey spoke further about looking back on her life, reconciling her youth as an adult, and that “Dirty Dancing” sequel. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Book cover pictures a woman looking over her left shoulder

With some hindsight now, what did you get out of the process of reflection in unpacking your life in this way? I can’t imagine going through old journals of mine …

I have a chest of them. And I never looked at them until I wrote the book. I never opened them from the moment I wrote them — no one sits around reading their old journals. But it’s like getting a bird’s-eye view into your brain from another moment. And what I found, because I’ve never written anything before, but the same way, Baby is not a perfect dancer, sometimes it’s better to not be perfect. That’s not to say the struggle isn’t real for all of the virtuosos out there, but there’s something about the challenge that brings different energy. The difficulty is kind of like the secret sauce.

I was writing a letter to my daughter — sometimes we write to each other. And I was saying that it was just weird that the book coming out and the book getting so much praise and love and just incredible response is nice, it’s really gratifying, it means a lot to me, but it’s not as satisfying as the struggle of writing it. When I was writing, I was like, “This is never gonna get done. I can’t do this. This is impossible.” And it’s weird, but then it’s gone and you miss it. Like, when I wrote in the book about how celebrity is like clouds — when you get up into it, there’s like nothing there. People are like, “How does it feel? You must be so happy on the bestsellers for three weeks.” I was like, “It didn’t feel that different when I fell off the list.” The actual making of it and the fight that it takes within yourself is so much more satisfying because we don’t see the whole story in ourselves.

You dedicated the book to your daughter and this line struck me: “Your story is more up to you than you realize and is always evolving.” I imagine that notion took some time to become clear for you in your life?

Do you know how long that dedication took me [to write]? Five minutes. I didn’t have to rewrite it. I didn’t have to change a word. It just flew out of me. Because my aim is true: I know what it is I want to impart and I know what’s most important to me.

black-and-white photo of a child leaning against railing in front of an ocean

As a child, Jennifer Grey, seen here, says, “You’re a sponge, you’re just absorbing every energy, even the unspoken stuff, especially the unspoken stuff.”

(Jennifer Grey)

I don’t know if she’ll ever read it again, but I know that if you don’t say it, it doesn’t happen. And if you write it, it has a better chance of existing. And I don’t even know if she will consciously make mental notes, but I hope that what people see is what it is to be a human and try your best and have enormous adversity, enormous great fortune, enormous poor choices, enormous missteps and to feel like you’re gonna die — feel like you’re gonna die many times — especially when you’re young and really dramatic, and to see that there is redemption, there’s resilience, see that you can right your ship. That is all we’re doing, is constantly course-correcting. And so it takes away the perfectionism. What is it to be that honest about all of your missteps and to be able to tell it. And you just feel the resistance. It feels literally like you’re pushing a boulder up.

The thing about memoirs is that often, in telling your story, you’re telling the story of other people in your orbit — in your case, sometimes well-known people. Was it a challenge for you to be honest in telling your story?

Extremely. I grapple with my ability to tell the truth in a way that might hurt anybody. Because it is so, so deeply part of my DNA, to not want to hurt people because I want to wish no harm. And to not care what other people think of me, or that I’m disliked or people are angry at me is very painful for me, but it’s almost like the exposure I need to expose myself. Before I die, I want to be able to not look to other people for my worth or for my opinion of myself, to not have it be so up for grabs. And so writing the book was real, right in the middle of that struggle of how can I tell my truth and my story, my story, because everyone has a right to telling their story. And my intention was always, if I could avoid telling this part, or naming this person or telling this part of the story, I would avoid it at all cost. I would ask my editor, “Can I take this out? Can I do this?” Because it was so challenging for me. And then I realized, “OK, if I know that I’m a good person, which I do, then why is it always up for grabs? Based on other people’s opinions?” Do you know what I mean by that? And to be able to withstand people’s rage, anger, accuracy, whatever the thing is, like, when I hold firm, can I hate and can I hold my shape? And that’s what I want to teach my daughter. But to actually do it is very different from talking about it and also knowing that all I’m doing is trying to inhabit the body that experienced it, and what it felt like in my body to experience it, because I could theorize and explain to you how everyone is doing their best and I was doing my best, but the truth is that’s telling and not showing. The one note I kept getting from editors was show, don’t tell; scenes, not theory. When I started showing myself on page, I got to watch as I morphed.

Black-and-white photo of a young woman with an '80s haircut

Jennifer Grey

(Photo by Klaus Lucka for Interview)

How about as it relates to your parents?

I have so much empathy as an adult looking at them because when you’re a kid, you think your parents know everything, they’re so together, and when you’re an adult, you realize that everyone is struggling and everyone’s scared, everyone’s lost and everybody’s hopeless and everyone’s trying to right the ship. My main intention was granting everybody the most generous version, and just talk about how I felt in it. I can’t speak to their story, that’s for them to tell. And if I could have avoided any of it, I would have — if you know me at all, if you knew me from my life, you would know that that would be anathema to me. It was: How do I tell my story and own it without ever blaming anyone? Because I don’t blame anyone.

Something that felt familiar was the way your mother maybe unintentionally conditioned you to think about your looks, your nose especially. Maybe it’s projection or protection, but the good intentions don’t make it any more easier for one’s self-confidence.

They know the world. They want you to have a better life. And they think: If I could just tell you the truth, you could do better because I know the ways of the world, I know the ways of showbiz, I know what a woman needs to do in order to do this, so let me clue you in. It’s all under the guise of helping and also projecting.

But as a child, that’s not how it’s received.

You’re a sponge, you’re just absorbing every energy, even the unspoken stuff, especially the unspoken stuff. They could tell you a million things about how beautiful you are, how great you are, and all you need to do is feel their truth. My mom worked with [feminist and political activist] Gloria Steinem, yet she had given up herself and was so torn up about it and tortured and sad and depressed and confused how this happened to her, because this was not going to happen to her because she saw it happen to her mother. She works like hell to be different from her mother and there she is. And then I’m like, “I’m not going to do that, I’m not going to ever do that. I’m going to pursue my career, I am not going to let this happen,” and then I find a guy who doesn’t want me to be successful, not so dissimilar from my dad. And not consciously; he’s not a bad guy. Why am I attracted to that person of all the people in the world? And why am I letting it affect me? Why am I staying? Why does that feel OK? To me, that’s what the book is about. It’s about the unconscious wiring that puts us in situations where we’re actually re-creating parts of our history, parts of our lives, almost in spite of everything we know — and how much of that is nature versus nurture. What we saw, and what was modeled for us, is so much more powerful than what we’re told.

A man lifts a woman with another man behind spotting

“There is no going back, there is no having that again. That was its own creature,” says Jennifer Grey about making “Dirty Dancing” with Patrick Swayze.

(Lions Gate Films)

For those who haven’t read the book yet, the relationship you’re referencing is with Matthew Broderick, whom you dated for several years in the mid-’80s. What you describe in the book is being in a relationship with someone who was a rising star and maybe too immature to handle you becoming one.

To me, it’s love, it felt like love. It was like a like an imprinting. Some part of me was addicted to that dynamic of being with somebody who didn’t feel comfortable with me blowing up and getting to where I was going. And some part of me felt that I deserved it. And that’s what I’m trying to get out in the book. Not that he was bad because he wasn’t. It was me. I could have been with anybody, and that’s what I picked. I could have left but I stayed because I agreed with it. I colluded with that because it actually felt like home.

Has there ever been an opportunity to discuss that with Matthew?

[shakes head no.] I really get so nervous doing this because I’m so curious if readers, or your editor, or someone’s gonna want to talk about that, but the truth is it’s not about dragging somebody in the mud. I don’t want it to be the meat. Because the truth is I wish I could have changed everyone’s names, but the fact is there’ll be too much Googling, it’d be too much confusion pulling you out of the story. And then it’s just weird. It’s not exploitive, it’s literally like: How can I just say: “This is my experience”? I don’t think anybody has the same reflection of moments in their lives. We’re talking about 30 years ago. We’re talking about ancient history.

I want to circle back to the comments from your mother about your appearance because you didn’t dislike your nose — you write: “I’d taken a certain pride in being an original, not looking like every other actress.”

I was fine, but I was not perfectly fine. I always wondered about it and I had insecurity about it. Everyone has something about themselves that they think, “This makes me less lovable, if only I could change this thing about myself.” And the truth is my mom was right about Hollywood. I’m not going to talk about other people’s plastic surgery. Let’s just say it is more normal to have a nose job than to not in Hollywood and there was no one who looked like me that had a major career.

And so she was right. She was like the voice of my darkness, of my own self-attack, so she became the person that held that for me until I did it. And I was so resentful that my own mother was actually telling me the truth which is: It’s hard to cast you; if you want to be in movies and television and get a lot of parts, make it easier for them. And I was so stuck. I was like, “That would mean that I’m capitulating, that means they win.” I was like, “Meryl Streep, dammit!”

A woman rests on a man's chest in bed

Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze in “Dirty Dancing.”

(Lions Gate Films)

How do you think that shaped how you talk to your daughter about things she may be insecure about? Or how you make sure you’re maybe not?

There’s nothing about her that I would ever want her to change. The culture is very heavily focused on perfectionism and whatever the culture decides is the body to go for now is the face to go for now — there’s so much input coming at these young people about this ideal. When I was growing up, it was Twiggy. And now it’s the Kardashians. In between, it was Farrah Fawcett and before that it was Marilyn Monroe. But what I see is these young people and influencers who are doing a lot to themselves — lot of surgical intervention, very young. It’s become almost commonplace to change, or surgically change, anything about yourself. I hope someday, there will be a kind of backlash to all of the artificial manipulation of a face or filters — how long have people been struggling to love themselves? How many people really talk nicely about their bodies, about their aging, about their faces? About what they look like when they wake up?

You had cosmetic surgery that didn’t go as planned. What did “Schnozzageddon,” as you call it, tell you about Hollywood?

I couldn’t get over it, I just had to get with it. I had to have a deep surrender and I had to just say, “Oh, I guess I made a choice. I did something. I didn’t want this. I’m not a victim. But it happened to me. And it was not my plan.” I felt very alone because I didn’t know anyone else who’d ever had that experience. Nobody — which seemed unfair considering it’s showbusiness and there’s plenty of plastic surgery, you’d think that you’d find someone who went through something similar. There’s nobody. It was like a do-over. I just had to start from scratch and figure it out. That’s why it was the best thing that happened to me. Because it freed me. For so long, I couldn’t please other people, I couldn’t make a shift, so I was felt very stuck and I couldn’t make a living. It was kind of like a come-to-Jesus moment. It didn’t happen overnight. It was like, “OK, who am I and what am I here for?” It was very, very painful, but it’s like a rebirth.

A woman in a white shirt and blue jeans leans against a wall

Grey will join the L.A. Times Book Club on July 27 to discuss “Out of the Corner.”

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

I know the “Dirty Dancing” sequel is in the works. You’re an executive producer, and you’re coming back as Baby. How are you feeling about coming back to it at this time in your life?

I’m excited by the challenge of looking at it from the point of view of what happens when it’s 30 years later and it’s the ‘90s. What happens with the person that had that experience — what happened to her and what is now relevant about the original story at a different moment; looking at it through a different lens. I think it’s, hopefully, really going to satisfy without ever feeling like it’s — look, I have no desire to remake the first one or to compete with the first one or to make it better than the first one or as good. It’s more about: What’s a fresh story to be told?

Questions of a sequel have plagued, or followed, rather, your whole career. You’ve always said you weren’t interested unless it was as good as or better than the first one. So what made you feel like: “OK, I like the script enough now, this is the time to do it”?

You say “plagued” as if it’s a bad thing, but the truth is it’s because of the love of the movie that people wanting more and wanting to know maybe there’s more there.

It’s about not waiting for anything to be perfect. You just leap and it just seemed like really good people. Jonathan Levine (“Warm Bodies,” “Long Shot”) is a good director and good writer. I just thought “These are good people and they seem to get it.”

Where are you at in the process? Has it been a process trying to capture, or even evoke, the magic without Patrick?

There is no going back, there is no having that again. That was its own creature. There’s a new creature, and what is that new creature? And what is the way in which — we still need to have the next iteration of ourselves be born, and who is going to help bear that out? What is the need? Where’s the place where you need to be catapulted into a different dimension?

We don’t start until next spring and it comes out the following Valentine’s [Day]. We’re in the getting-the-script phase.

Leave a Comment