Daredevil, sex symbol, and survivor, the actress reclaims her leading-lady status with a new series and more grit than ever | By Christopher Bagley
t’s one thing for an actress to grapple with lesser roles while she’s attempting to launch her career. It’s another thing to do it as a 52-year-old former superstar. Just ask Sharon Stone, now 57, who found herself struggling through a limited guest run on the 11th season of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 2010, 15 years after earning a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her work in Martin Scor sese’s Casino. To add insult to injury, Stone kept forgetting her lines.
“That was humiliating,” the actress recalls. “Having worked with the finest people in the industry, I was like, ‘Wow, I’m really at the back of the line here. I’m wearing L’eggs panty hose, and in makeup they start out by putting this white primer on my face.’ I’m like, ‘This is so bad. What did I do to deserve this?’ “
The situation had to do in part with an aneurysm that Stone suffered in 2001 and a subsequent cerebral haemorrhage that lasted nine days. She emerged from the hospital stuttering, limping, and unable to read. Over the next few years, her marriage to journalist Phil Bronstein fell apart, and she lost custody of their adopted son, Roan, then eight. But as bleak as things looked as she suited up to play an assistant district attorney on Law & Order, Stone says, she realized what she had to do.
“I thought, ‘You know what? I got thrown off the bullet train, and now I’m going to have to crawl up a hill of broken glass, get back on the train that’s going a million miles an hour, and work my way from the cattle car up. That’s just the way it is, so I’d better get humble and shut the fuck up and do the job. Because if I can’t do this job, I’m certainly not going to be able to do anything else.’ “
This fall, Stone will star in and executive-produce a new series on TNT, Agent X, in which she plays the vice president of the United States. As she sits in a makeup chair, wearing a terry-cloth robe while being prepped for her Bazaar photo shoot, it’s clear that Stone has regained the seductive, sassy verve that has been her trademark since she fled her hometown in Pennsylvania at age 19 and signed with Ford Models in New York. Although she didn’t say a word in her 1980 film debut (she was the blonde who blew a kiss to Woody Allen in Stardust Memories), Stone rose to megastardom after 1992’s Basic Instinct, proving that she knew how to capitalize on her brains as well as her bone structure. Today she still radiates the kind of natural, timeless beauty that commands a room. She will be posing fully nude for this story, but she doesn’t seem particularly anxious, having just eaten a brownie from the catering table.
Only recently has Stone begun to talk openly about the brain hemorrhage and its crushing impact on her life. As she recalls it, she felt unwell for three days before she went to the emergency room. It turned out she’d had a stroke, and she lost consciousness soon after being admitted. “When I came to, the doctor was leaning over me. I said, ‘Am I dying?’ And he said, ‘You’re bleeding into your brain,’ ” she remembers. “I said, ‘I should call my mom,’ and he said, ‘You’re right. You could lose the ability to speak soon.’ ” Stone’s mother flew in from Pennsylvania so quickly that she arrived at her daughter’s bedside still in her gardening shorts.
“If I believed that sexy was trying to be who I was when I did Basic Instinct, then we’d all be having a hard day today.” —Sharon Stone
Several days and two angiograms later, Stone was finally diagnosed with a ruptured vertebral artery. She says that at one point she woke up to find herself being wheeled into surgery and got into a screaming match with a doctor about alternative treatments. “I was hemorrhaging so much that my brain had been pushed into the front of my face,” she says. Surgeons ultimately repaired the artery with 22 platinum coils.
The stroke and its aftermath transformed Stone in ways she’s still discovering. “It took two years for my body just to absorb all the internal bleeding I had,” she says. “It almost feels like my entire DNA changed. My brain isn’t sitting where it used to, my body type changed, and even my food allergies are different.” It took months for her to regain feeling in her left leg and years for her vision to return to normal; she also fought to eliminate a persistent stutter. On the plus side, “I became more emotionally intelligent. I chose to work very hard to open up other parts of my mind. Now I’m stronger. And I can be abrasively direct. That scares people, but I think that’s not my problem.” She laughs. “It’s like, I have brain damage; you’ll just have to deal with it.”
Of course, Stone has never been one to base her behavior on other people’s expectations. Over the years she has cultivated multiple contradictory personae: bold seductress, nutty bookworm, serene Buddhist, skilled fund-raiser, and occasional loose cannon. (Cinemas in China threatened to boycott her films after she publicly speculated that the devastating May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan might have been karmic retribution for the country’s treatment of Tibet. She later apologized.) She also maintains a frank approach to her sex appeal, having done her first nude photo series in 1990, for Playboy, to galvanize her career. According to Stone, people in the industry then regarded her as the bookish, baggy clothes–wearing nerd she really is, and the shoot was a calculated attempt to recast her image. “Everybody said I wasn’t sexy and I couldn’t get jobs because of it,” she says. The gambit worked: Shortly after the Playboy issue came out, director Paul Verhoeven cast her as the bisexual, crotch-flashing serial killer Catherine Trammel in the international hit Basic Instinct.
Well aware that perfection is an illusion at any age, Stone declares that today’s nude shoot is actually easier for her to face than the Playboy series. “I’m aware that my ass looks like a bag of flapjacks,” she jokes. “But I’m not trying to be the best-looking broad in the world. At a certain point you start asking yourself, ‘What really is sexy?’ It’s not just the elevation of your boobs. It’s being present and having fun and liking yourself enough to like the person that’s with you. If I believed that sexy was trying to be who I was when I did Basic Instinct, then we’d all be having a hard day today.”
Still, Stone’s looks have sometimes distracted audiences from her remarkable acting chops, according to Scorsese. “It’s the old story: She’s too beautiful to be a great actress,” he says. “The cliché blinds you to the reality. I can tell you that there wasn’t one day on the shoot of Casinothat Sharon didn’t surprise me. And that was a long shoot! What you’re looking for, always, is not for someone to give you exactly what you envision but to surpass it, to use their own intelligence and instincts and imagination and talent to bring the character to life—actually, to get to a place where they’re surprising themselves. That’s the way it was with Sharon. She stunned me.”
In Agent X, Stone plays the newly elected vice president Natalie Maccabee, who upon taking office discovers that she is in charge of a covert government agent (played by Jeff Hephner), a sort of digital-era James Bond who fights baddies around the globe. “I liked the idea of creating a show that made it cool to be a patriot,” she says. Given that Agent X is an action series full of spies and stunts, “keeping the integrity of the show at a certain place is always an effort. Everybody pushes for the things they want. I’m always on the side of a little less killing and a little more intelligence.” Stone also made sure the series would be shot in Los Angeles so that she could maximize the time with her children.
Over the past two decades, Stone has cultivated a deep interest in Buddhism, sparked when she met the Dalai Lama through Richard Gere, her costar in 1994’s Intersection. (She says that back then, she really didn’t know who the Dalai Lama was, but when they met she was “overcome” by his energy and launched into a 20-minute laughing fit. “All my sadness was blowing out in laughter,” she says.) At home her sons (she adopted Laird, now 10, in 2005 and Quinn, now nine, in 2006; Roan, 15, visits often) use traditional Himalayan singing bowls at the dinner table and are instructed to meditate during their time-outs.
“I’ve been getting more brazen with flirting, but I don’t think men realize that I’m flirting. They just think, Oh, she’s fun!” —Sharon Stone
Not that anyone would ever mistake Stone for a monk. Among her new endeavors is a gig as spokesperson for the dermal filler Restylane. Though you might not expect a card-carrying Buddhist to be endorsing hyaluronic acid gels, Stone—who used the fillers after her face was damaged by the stroke—says she favors them because they’re far subtler than surgical procedures. “It’s so common now for people to use fillers, it’s almost like a beauty treatment,” she explains. “It’s like you have mascara and a filler. And it’s a far better alternative than having your face cut apart and ending up looking like you got sucked into a wind tunnel.”
One of Stone’s lesser-known pursuits is songwriting. In 2005, she co-wrote the single “Come Together Now” to raise funds for Hurricane Katrina relief, and she recently started collaborating with composer Andrea Morricone, son of film-score legend Ennio Morricone, on a few pieces they hope to record in the coming months. Morricone says that Stone’s natural way with words has been enhanced by her years of exploring the nuances of dialogue as an actress. “The songs she writes are really meant to be sung, which is the art of a real lyricist,” he says.
If there’s one area of Stone’s life where she still sees lots of room for improvement, it’s her love life. “I never get asked out,” she laments. “It’s so stupid. I don’t know what to do.” Lately, she says, “I’ve been getting more brazen with flirting, but I don’t think men realize that I’m flirting. They just think, Oh, she’s fun!” She turns to her longtime assistant and asks, “Do you think people even realize I’m straight? I think they have questions about it because I have so many lesbian friends right now.”
As we wrap up the interview and she prepares to slip out of her bathrobe, Stone smiles slyly, picks up my tape recorder, and holds it to her mouth, enunciating slowly into the microphone. “If there’s anybody out there who’s an adult and who would like to ask me out,” she says, “please call Harper’s Bazaar.”
BY | M A R I E J O L I E & HARPER’SBAZAAR