Jennifer Grey became a household name in 1987 with the release of “Dirty Dancing,” playing a character named Baby who does some important growing up during a summer vacation to the Catskills. “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” is the famous line from the movie, so it’s fitting that the title of Grey’s new memoir is a play on that. It’s called “Out of the Corner.”
In writing the book, Grey said she became something of a detective unraveling a mystery. “I had very sketchy childhood memories and I thought, how am I going to write a memoir if I have no memories before ninth grade or whatever? So I started with what I did remember. There are snapshots. There are sensorial memories — of a sense, a texture of a dress — and as I started to write, it started to open up for me. And because it was a slow process, I think it allowed my unconscious to reveal more to me.”
Grey’s career on screen kicked off in the 1980s with “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” among others, and her credits in the years since include roles on “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The Conners” and various characters on “Phineas and Ferb.” She’s also set to star in a forthcoming “Dirty Dancing” sequel.
She also had a career on stage, from which she ultimately walked away. She tells that story for My Worst Moment. “I did not write it in my book, because there was already too much hard stuff and I thought, nobody can take this much darkness,” she said with a rueful laugh.
My worst moment …
“I am very much a good-girl perfectionist. And I’m also an extremely anxious person. But I didn’t know these things about myself. I didn’t know any other way to be. But hindsight being 20/20, I can tell you I’ve legit had an anxiety disorder my whole life, and it was untreated and undiagnosed. I always felt that I had to be perfect and there was enormous inner pressure to be perfect. So when it came to rehearsing or studying or preparing for anything, I overprepared.
“After I had done ‘Dirty Dancing,’ I was very known. And then I had the nose debacle (Grey had plastic surgery on her nose, which changed her appearance) — schnozageddon, as I call it — and I had been kicked out of Hollywood, for lack of a better term. I just lost any ability to make a living or do anything (laughs). It was like, I’m in purgatory! And then (in 1993) I got offered to do a play that had been a hit at the Pasadena Playhouse and it was moving to Broadway and they asked me if I would play a lead. It was called ‘Twilight of the Golds’ and we did a pre-Broadway tour first.
“So we do the tour and then we open on Broadway. And I think it was better reviewed out of town than it was in New York. I don’t really read reviews, but it’s one of those things where you can kind of read everyone’s face and energy if the reviews aren’t good. That might have been what triggered all of this.
“The play starts with me entering the stage, and I would come in and fluff the cushions on the couch and straighten up the magazines that are on a little ottoman. And a couple days into the run, right as I’m about to make my entrance, the stage manager whispers to me, ‘Oh God, I forgot to preset the magazines.’ And I said, ‘No problem.’ Because I know how to improvise and do whatever, right? Fine, no big deal.
“So I go out there, I’m fluffing the pillows. And suddenly something doesn’t feel right. And it looks like the lighting has changed. And I start thinking: Oh, what’s my next line? I don’t know what my next line is. And then when it comes to the moment when I was supposed to say it, it just pops out. I say it. And I’m thinking, that was weird. But what is my next line? And then the line would just come out, as if somebody else was saying it. I never missed a line.
“But I realized everyone on stage with me looked weird. Like they had a flashlight under their chin. Scary, scary lighting. I felt like I was tripping on bad drugs. I think I might have murmured under my breath to one of the other people in the play, ‘Help me. Help me. Something’s wrong.’ I was like, what is happening to me — am I having a stroke?
“I had a very long monologue in this play. And I thought, oh no, I have to tell the stage manager when I get offstage to put my understudy on, because I’m not going to be able to do this monologue. And I went offstage, and the next thing I know I’m back on stage, doing the monologue and I’m thinking: I’m going to collapse. And then I started seeing headlines that I had collapsed on stage. I was fantasizing about this. It was like being Alice in ‘Through the Looking-Glass.’ All of sudden, things are distorted.
“And what I learned was, it was a panic attack. I didn’t recognize it as a panic attack though, I recognized it as: I was dying on stage and I was going to be humiliated and everybody would see. I was not in my body. My body was just a robot saying the lines.
“At intermission, I told the stage manager that I couldn’t go back on stage. And he said, ‘Do you want me to give you a Valium?’ And I was sober by this point, so I said, ‘No, I can’t take Valium, I don’t take any drugs. I don’t drink, I don’t take anything.’ And I felt like I was going to die. But I finished the show.
“The next morning I woke up and I would have done anything to not go back on stage. It was almost impossible, is how it felt. If a hole in the ground had opened up, I would have joyfully jumped into it and taken on an alien ship to another planet. That’s all I wanted, was out. Any trapped feeling triggers it. It’s a really big part of anxiety.
“And then the show closed a few days later — not because of my anxiety attack, but because it wasn’t selling. The show was a bomb. And I was so goddamn happy! It was the best thing that could ever happen to me. It was better than winning the Academy Award. For me, it was like a Get Out of Jail Free card. Get me the (hell) out of here!
“But what happened was, I never wanted to do live theater again.
“Talking about it almost makes me feel sick to my stomach, because it’s sooooo heavy. Because I thought, well, I just don’t want to act anymore. Once you’ve tasted that, the fear of the fear is so debilitating. It was one of the hardest things I’ve dealt with and I had to really decide to not be paralyzed by it, because it was so much bigger than my brain. Once I had that feeling of free-falling and feeling terrified, I couldn’t even talk about it without feeling like it was going to happen.
“Panic attacks are no joke, man.”
“I know that’s not a funny story. But it gave me so much empathy for mental health issues.”
Why does Grey think an understudy didn’t take over that night?
“I don’t know. I would have had to actually faint. I don’t think they can just all of a sudden put someone else on because you’re having a panic attack. If I could have gone to a hospital instead of finishing the run that week, I would have. Because I felt like I wasn’t myself. The terror had nothing to do with my prefrontal cortex, it’s something that came and got me from the dark recesses of my unconscious — and the pressure to be perfect and not let anyone see what was happening.
“There’s so much more discussion in the zeitgeist now about mental health and about the shame of anxiety. I didn’t know you could treat it. All I knew was I couldn’t take a Valium or a Xanax because they’re highly addictive. And because I valued my recovery, I wasn’t going to risk it. So I thought, well, maybe I’ll just stop acting. Because performance anxiety, you can’t talk your way out of it. It’s like a wire got tripped. It made me feel so alone.
“But there are ways to deal with it. I did so much work and research on how to manage it. It’s not for the faint of heart. There’s systematic exposure therapy, which is what I did when I did ‘Dancing With the Stars’ (in 2010). I didn’t want to do it — why would I put myself on a reality show where I would not be able to remember the steps and it’s live and 23 million people are watching? And I write in the book that it was because I was a mom. I had stopped acting — the anxiety and what I had gone through in my career had made me feel like it just wasn’t worth it anymore — and then when I had my kid, I realized I was telling her that she should do things that are scary and not be afraid to be human, that you’re not always great in the beginning. Allow yourself to do something you love even if it scares you. And I realized it was so hypocritical, what I was saying to her, because I love dance and I kept getting offered ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ and I kept saying no because of my anxiety. So I ended up facing my own fear in a very big, public way. Which I guess was my path.”
The takeaway …
“I can still be a good person and a talented actress and have anxiety. I can forget my lines and my value is still inherent. And that, for me, is the biggest lesson I got from all of it. Perfect is the enemy. I’m allowed to be a human being who has issues and has complexity and pressure — and I can relieve the pressure and be gentler and more compassionate to myself and others. It’s a messy thing, this life. And nobody’s got it perfect.
“The idea that there’s something to be attained in the realm of perfection is the lie. All of my little cracks, as Leonard Cohen says, is where the light gets in.”