When you think of major 90s movie stars, there's a few names that come to mind. One that most people will mention in Lori Petty, although if you ask them where she is now, the answer will most likely be "huh...I'm not really sure."
Petty seemed like she was unstoppable in the 80s and 90s. She starred in the show Booker in the late 80s, but it wasn't until A League Of Their Own came out in 1992 that Petty grew to fame.
Petty's character of Kit Keller in the iconic baseball movie has long been polarizing. Some people found her endearing and passionate, while others found her annoying and unnecessary. But one thing that's indisputable is Petty's personal journey to fame. In an interview with The AV Club, the actress mentioned that she had been homeless for a period in her life, but learned to use hotels as a way to get access as a bathroom, the pool, and other amenities.
"That’s something that I learned when I was homeless," she said. "Hotels are awesome because they are going to let you in and you can use the bathroom and when you’re young and pretty you can probably use the pool. Somebody might buy you a drink."
Petty hadn't been used to starring with a bunch of women, as she was mainly cast alongside male co-stars, so A League Of Their Own was a new experience for her.
"Then when we get to A League Of Their Own, I have to be Geena Davis’ little sister who wants to be like her and wants everything that she has and is jealous and upset and mad," Petty said. "Well, that was easy. I mean, she has an Academy Award. I think I can be upset about that. She’s 99 feet tall and she’s drop-dead gorgeous and she’s all feminine and pretty. I had to pretend I couldn’t run as fast as her. That was hard."
Petty slowly built up her reputation as a sex symbol and all-around bombshell, but she never really wanted it that way.
I think many actresses want to be famous and want to be the prettiest, and that wasn't my trek," she once said. "I was thinking, 'I gotta get out of here... how do I get out of here?'"
One way to get out of Hollywood is to star in a horrible movie, and unfortunately for Petty that's exactly what happened.
Tank Girl...In More Ways Than One
In 1995, Petty was set to star in the film Tank Girl. The story was derived from a comic book, long before franchises like Marvel were making millions doing the same thing. It was supposed to be an action-thriller, but it turned into a comedy...and not in the good way. Tank Girl was considered an epic fail, not only with critics but also at the box office. The budget for the film was an estimated $25 million, and it grossed just $6.6 million world wide.
The movie was as major flop, and it seriously affected Petty's career. Was it because the movie was bad? Maybe. But Petty has a different theory.
Here’s what I think the problem was. [It was rated] R. There is nothing about that movie that is R. Nothing. Except there’s a woman talking shit. That’s why they rated it R. If they were going to rate it R I should have been butt-naked all the time, running around. Tommy Boy came out that weekend, too, which is a hysterical movie, but it was rated PG-13. Do you know how many people bought Tommy Boy tickets and went to see Tank Girl? A billion. Because I would go to the theaters myself and check and there’d be all these people in there and then they’d say, “We only sold four tickets.” “You know, there’s 75 people in there.” So they were buying PG-13 tickets and going to an R movie.
After Tank Girl, it seemed like Lori Petty had completely disappeared, but that wasn't the case at all. While the former leading lady had taken time off from the main screen, she was still acting in indie films from 1996 to 2007. As for why she wasn't landing the big roles like before, Petty blamed the obvious ageism in the industry.
I was thirty-something and I hadn’t married my agent, married any guy co-stars, or gotten fake titties or Botox. I never wanted to be a bombshell; I wanted to be an actor. I would much prefer to be a woman than a man, but if I was a dude, maybe I’d have Johnny Depp’s island because women in this industry after a certain age definitely don’t get to do Pirates of the Caribbean. Poor Keira (Knightley), they even airbrushed huge tits on her on the poster, and she’s flawless! I was trying to play football with a baseball, and you can’t really do that.
But to the people who said she wasn't doing anything while she wasn't in Hollywood? They couldn't be more wrong.
“I’m not a professional movie star,” she said. “When people say, ‘Where’ve you been?’ I just say I’ve been a painter, a writer, a director. I’ve been doing a lot of things.”
In 1996, Petty wrote a sitcom called Lush Life, which was short-lived. But even though the show didn't last, the actress and writer still loved the feeling.
"When I was in the writers’ room, all these writers were like, 'Ugh, another star that they gave a writing-producing credit to,'" she recalled. "But then within like an hour, they were like, 'You’re really a writer.' 'Yeah, I really am. I’m a writer, and a director, and a producer, and an actor, and a painter, and I do all that stuff.' It was great. I just loved it."
One of those things was writing a movie based off her own life, and it ended up launching the career of a major Academy Award-winning star.
The Poker House (2008)
What a lot of people don't know is that Lori Petty's childhood was extremely troubling. Growing up, Petty grew up in a house riddled with addiction. She and her two sisters lived with their mom who left their abusive father, and eventually turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with being a single mother.
She resorted to prostitution in order support her kids, which meant many strange men in the house around young, impressionable daughters. Petty herself was sexually abused when she was a teenager, but she stayed strong for her sisters.
Petty also made it clear that she doesn't blame her mother for what happened to her.
“What happened to me was not my mother’s fault. And I love my mother a billion percent," Petty said.
Petty had never considered turning her story into a film until during a phone conversation with fellow actor and good friend David Allen Grier she began to tell her story.
"I had to pull my car over, I was like hyperventilating," Grier said, upon hearing about Petty's past. "I'd never heard anything about this aspect of her life, and she kept going on. I said, 'Is this true, is this real, did this really happen?' And she said, 'Yeah, absolutely.' She said she wanted to make a screenplay out of this."
It all came together, and her story made it to the screen in The Poker House. Jennifer Lawrence, who is now of international fame, played Lori's character, and Petty jokingly says she should get more credit for discovering the young actress.
"No s***! You can quote me on that," she joked, when asked about being the one to discover Lawrence. "No s***. I cast her in her first film. Look, she deserves one hundred percent of her success, period. In addition to that, I think I passed along 25 years of experience of being an actress to her. But she’s amazing and the camera loves her, and that’s why I cast her."
As for Lawrence, she said she learned a valuable lesson from Petty as both a director and a person.
"There is my favorite quote that I ever heard from her, and this is the whole moral of the story, I guess," Lawrence said. "‘Things can happen to you but they don’t have to happen to your soul.’ She is never going to lose a minute of sleep at night because everyone knows how she feels about everything. She’s never going to lay in bed, going, ‘Oh, I wish I had told that person that their hair looked bad -‘ or ‘I wish that I had told someone that Madonna didn’t give me this.’ Everyone knows everything and they’re always going to get an honest answer out of her. I’ve learned a lot from her."
Even though she loved being behind the camera and directing, Petty did find herself back on-screen in one of the most popular shows currently airing.
Fans of the show Orange Is The New Black on Netflix will recognize Petty as Lolly, a character who is struggling to stay sane while in prison. Petty's performance is powerful to say the least, making audience members almost uncomfortable as they watch her struggle. Any viewer will tell you the scene where Lolly gets dragged away to the psychiatric ward sent chills down their spine.
"We treated [her mental illness] so seriously," Petty told The Hollywood Reporter. "Even though Lolly is funny and lovable — and half of a murderer (laughs) — she’s very relatable and people see her as a friend. She even says, 'I’m the good friend.' Because she is. I think it grows compassion and empathy and the more people can see it, the more they can get a handle on it."
Petty felt extremely comfortable on set of Orange Is The New Black, and that might have something to do with her friend of 20 years, Jodie Foster, directing the first episode she appeared in.
“She was like Michael Jackson," Petty revealed. "When she’s directing, she runs and jumps and smiles and laughs when she’s giving you notes. And that’s just how I am when I direct. I’m constantly running and moving things. Jodie just glowed. I’m used to doing a lot of things. When I was on ‘House,’ I would move tables, tell extras to lean back – a lot of things. I can’t help it. I see everything as a painter, a writer, a director. I’m too old to be just an actor.”
Petty says that just because she took a break from acting, it doesn't mean she stopped working.
"If you look at my career, it started in ’85 and I’ve never done anything I’m embarrassed by," she said. "There’s a lot of things that are important to me, but it just wasn’t the right time, it wasn’t coming to me. Also, I’m a writer and a painter and a director, so these are other parts of me that needed attention."