Since it first hit bookstores in 1979, V.C. Andrews’ scandalous page-turner Flowers in the Attic has been tucked under the pillows of millions of teenage girls.
Except Heather Graham’s.
“I never read the book — my hidden book was Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret!!” laughs the Boogie Nights actress, who stars in Lifetime’s film adaptation of the tale of Corrine Dollanganger, a beautiful mother of four who returns to her own troubled childhood home after she’s widowed, unleashing a torrent of family secrets that leave her children imprisoned in their cruel grandmother Olivia’s (Ellen Burstyn) attic.
Eschewing a binge read, Graham instead watched the 1987 feature-film adaptation and relied on her own penchant for psychology to understand why a once-loving mother would abandon her children to unimaginable abuse. “I don’t think you can judge it,” Graham explains. “You just have to go after her motivations. Losing my husband and any means of taking care of my children — my own need to be taken care of became greater than my need to take care of my children.”
Graham says she was wowed by Burstyn’s fearless performance as the brutal Olivia — and her ability to win over the cast’s youngest members despite it.
“Ellen really goes for it, and in one sense, I felt like I bonded with her, because it’s so intimate to play that kind of intense scene,” Graham says. “On the other hand, she really went there, so it was scary! But the little kids were excited to be scared by her. They were like, ‘Now we’re going to do a scene where Ellen kicks me and pulls my hair!’ They enjoyed it!”
Graham was equally impressed with Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka and newcomer Mason Dye as the older Dollanganger siblings Cathy and Chris, whose forced isolation leads them into dangerous emotional and physical territory. “Kiernan is so unique,” Graham says. “She’s so young and she’s already done a lot of really good work. And I remember them talking about casting [Chris] because they didn’t want to make the character creepy and focus on the part where he molested his sister. They chose Mason because he’s such a decent, sweet human being.”
After all, it’s Flowers’ darkly human heart that Graham believes has made the story a worldwide phenomenon.
“It’s about parents telling their children not to have any needs — to just fulfill our needs,” she offers. “Even though this story is very extreme, something about it is very disturbing and powerful, and if you’ve had any experience with anger at a parent or child, you can relate to that kind of darkness. Even for people who have good families, there is still something about this story that is resonant.”
Flowers in the Attic premieres Jan. 18 at 8pm ET/PT on Lifetime.
Ellen Burstyn and Heather Graham in Lifetime’s “Flowers in the Attic”: © 2013 James Dittiger