It’s midnight on a soundstage in Downey, and teen star Lindsay Lohan is in her trailer crying. The famously red-headed, freckle-faced heroine of such girl empowerment hits as “Freaky Friday” and “Mean Girls” is almost unrecognizable in smeary blue eye shadow, white pants, a white tank top and a retro-looking white blond fringe. After spending more than 12 hours shooting a video, vamping and breathlessly singing her song “First” to the costar of her upcoming movie -- a white VW bug named Herbie -- she has sprained her ankle.
She’s in pain, but the discomfort isn’t purely physical. She’s also upset over how the celebrity media -- who have turned Lohan’s personal life into a running soap opera -- will interpret this latest mishap.
“The first thing I think of is ‘Somebody is going to say something and it’s going to be some story,’ and it’s the last thing I need,” Lohan says through sniffles. “I’m more afraid of that than anything else. I called my mom and I was bawling.”
Her fears are confirmed less than 48 hours later when an unflattering account of the video shoot hits the Internet, posing questions about Lohan’s professionalism and her latest romantic entanglement.
While the constant tabloid scrutiny has caused Lohan personal stress, it has exacted a separate worry for Walt Disney Studios, which has hitched its summer movie hopes to Lohan’s wagon: She stars in “Herbie: Fully Loaded,” the studio’s seven-years-in-the-making sequel to 1969’s hit “The Love Bug.” Disney has expectations that “Herbie” will be one of the summer’s family blockbusters when it is released June 22 -- especially if Lohan’s tabloid exploits don’t unexpectedly torpedo its prospects.
At 18, Lohan’s not just a movie star, she’s a pop culture brand. Her pop album, “Speak,” has sold 2 million copies. She is an MTV staple and endorses products such as handbags and catsup. Disney is about to rerelease four Lohan DVDs to ride the “Herbie” publicity.
More than ever, teenage girls are big business in Hollywood, where they drive everything from “Titanic” to a flood of horror flicks. Earning $7.5 million per film, Lohan is the highest-paid star of her generation of women.
But as she negotiates the perilous on-screen chasm between teen ingenue and leading lady, she’s also trying to make an equally tough real-life transition from girl to woman -- all in the harsh glare of 24-hours-a-day entertainment news.
Young celebrities, particularly female ones, are fodder for such fare as Star and Us Weekly. In the case of Lohan, the tabloids have seemed particularly fascinated by the prospect of a wholesome Disney protege who suddenly sprouted breasts and unexpectedly turned into a bombshell.
Lohan’s team says that most of what the celebrity press writes about her is false. In her trailer, though, Lohan confesses that Buena Vista Motion Picture Group President Nina Jacobson took her aside for a frank talk before “Herbie” ever started filming -- and asked her to rein in her partying ways.
“At the time, I was going out every night because my friends were and I thought if I wasn’t going out then I was going to miss out on something,” she says. “I’ve a lot of younger fans too, but I didn’t think about that. I was, like, 17, and I was like, ‘Cool, I get to go to a club and hang out with people.’ They sat me down and talked to me about it. I was like, ‘Yeah, I need to make sure that I’m there on time.’
“They have put a lot of money into the movie,” Lohan says of the $50-million “Herbie.” “And they need to make sure that the person is going to get the job done and be there. I’m a young kid and I have a lot of pressure.”
Some in Hollywood wonder if it’s too much pressure. Yet Lohan seems keen to prove herself both as an artist and as an adult. She says she’s scaled back her late-night activities and is looking to play more complicated and varied parts. She has switched talent agents to further that goal.
“I know work is work,” she adds, like a teenager who’s been chastened. “This is business.”
Charm for the long haul
Asked if media scrutiny of Lohan has damaged “Herbie’s” box office prospects, Jacobson pauses for several seconds before answering. “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know if it helps or it hurts.”
Many in the business believe that Lohan -- unlike a number of her screen rivals -- has enough movie star charisma to become a leading lady. Some even say she could be the next Julia Roberts.
“She has a quality that makes you trust her. There’s something honest about her which makes her seem sympathetic,” says Lorne Michaels, who produced Lohan’s 2004 hit “Mean Girls.” The “Saturday Night Live” executive producer has also chosen Lohan to host this season’s finale of the comedy show.
“You can like her and root for her and identify with her,” adds Jacobson, whose studio made Lohan a star by putting the then-11-year-old in the hit “The Parent Trap.” “She has a magnetic quality on screen.”
“Herbie” producer Robert Simonds says that Lohan was the only actress considered for the lead of the “Love Bug” sequel. Her star wattage, he says, makes the nearly 40-year-old franchise feel modern and gives it a sense of “now-ness. A big part of going after her was to give it a sense of contemporary cool.”
Disney’s worries about the tabloid frenzy have been allayed somewhat by early test screenings that show the film -- which also stars Matt Dillon and Michael Keaton -- to be popular with families. Several Disney executives recalled a telling moment in April after a “Herbie” screening for a focus group in Thousand Oaks. Many in the audience praised the car, saying it was the film’s best character, while others extolled Maggie, the aspiring NASCAR racer played by Lohan. Then one mom chimed in with her unsolicited opinion of the 18-year-old. Lohan was “wholesome,” the mom said.
With that, Disney let out its breath.
Back in her trailer, Lohan seems pleased that at least some moms think of her as all-American.
“I always want to be perceived as normal and wholesome, because it’s relatable,” she says. “I hope people think I’m wholesome. It’s hard after what you read in the magazines, that I’m dating every guy who’s like my father’s age. But that’s not me.”
What does seem true is that Lohan is a teenager trying to figure out her identity. With the help of a stylist, she herself designed the saucier look she wears in the video.
Still, the effect is more cute than rawly sexual, like an innocent girl singing Madonna in front of her mirror at home. (And the music is equally Madonna-lite.) Lohan says she is trying to keep even her slightly sexier image within Disney’s family-friendly parameters.
If she wanted to go over the line, “I wouldn’t be wearing a bra under this wife-beater,” she explains, pointing to the black bra peeking out from under her tank-top shirt.
Lohan is a disconcerting mixture of mogul and high-octane teenager. That’s catnip to the tabloids.
Her chaotic personal life has also certainly helped entice the paparazzi, with her estranged parents’ very public -- and very nasty -- feuding; her outspoken, publicity-seeking dad has had several brushes with the law. (Among Michael Lohan’s legal problems: attempted assault, a stock fraud case, felony driving charges.)
As her nightclub-hopping ways are recounted by the media, she’s been romantically linked to a number of celebrities, including Wilmer Valderrama (whom she actually did date), Christian Slater and Bruce Willis.
As Ken Baker, the West Coast executive editor of Us Weekly, explains: “The drama doesn’t get any better ... She’s this girl caught in the crossfire, acting out through various misadventures. She goes out to clubs, appears wasted, loses lots of weight, prompting people to speculate about her well-being. It’s all the hot-button issues.”
The paparazzi were so thick around the “Herbie” production that bodyguards and production assistants were employed to keep them back.
“We were in the eye of the hurricane,” says “Herbie” director Angela Robinson. “There was an incredible [paparazzi] hunger around the set. It always startled me.”
During the filming of “Herbie,” Disney wasn’t the only corporate entity vying for Lohan’s attention. She was also cutting her first album, under the guidance of Casablanca Records’ Tommy Mottola, who’d guided Mariah Carey’s career. Often, when the actress wasn’t on the “Herbie” set, she would repair to her trailer, where she would record songs, sometimes until 2 a.m. Lohan would then have to return to “Herbie” as early as 4:30 a.m.
Working two jobs at once took its toll. “I was going on three hours of sleep at night,” Lohan says. “I can never sleep because I’m always thinking about what I can be working on next, going over ideas, writing stuff down. I push myself, and I don’t want to disappoint people. I just want to give everything I can, and it’s a lot of pressure.”
Mottola sees the recording sessions differently: “It was her only release. It was the only way she could cut away for herself. It was the sweet spot of her day. She’s got enormous potential -- as an actress, as a singer and a songwriter.”
Before filming was completed, Lohan landed in the hospital with an infection, and “Herbie” production was shut down for a week. “I do feel that when she came back, she was rejuvenated,” Robinson says. “It was good not to have to fight being so tired. I know how much pressure she was under, but it never showed on screen. She’d be there on screen talking to Herbie, and it’s magical.”
Still, mishap followed her to her next production, “Just My Luck,” where she first sprained the ankle that she would reinjure on the recent video shoot.
“She had two cameras on her, and just plunged out of the frame,” says “Just My Luck” director Donald Petrie. Initially, everybody assumed it was a pratfall. But she didn’t get up. Production had to be shut down for two weeks.
After shooting “Herbie,” Lohan fired her longtime agents at Endeavor and went to the Creative Artists Agency, where it’s a testament to her allure in Hollywood that CAA’s president, Richard Lovett, is now her personal representative. Lovett did not respond to e-mail questions.
At least two people close to the situation say that she got upset that Endeavor pressured her about reining in her personal life. After extravagantly praising her former agents, Lohan explains that’s not the case at all. In fact, she says, she keeps joking that she needs a break.
“I wanted to go a different route. I don’t think they understood that at the time. I don’t want to work all the time.”
Endeavor said in a statement: “We are very proud of how we represented Lindsay Lohan while she was a client of Endeavor and believe her body of work while at the agency speaks for itself.”
She also wanted to expand her acting range. “I would have liked to have read for ‘Closer,’ ” she points out, noting the film earned another young actress, Natalie Portman, 23, an Oscar nomination. Given that Lohan herself says that she would not be interested in a script that calls for her character to lose her virginity on screen -- so as not to alienate her fan base -- it’s hard to imagine her playing a stripper as Portman did in “Closer.”
But, as Lohan says, she wants to be sent more scripts and be considered for more dramatic parts and ensemble roles. The actress is pleased to point out that she’s next going to make a Robert Altman film of Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” in which she plays Meryl Streep’s daughter. “So I guess something’s going right,” she says. (Disney has no plans to make another Lohan-led family movie.)
Lohan is keenly aware that she doesn’t get as much respect as some of her 20-year-old contemporaries -- Keira Knightley, star of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, and Scarlett Johansson of “Lost in Translation.”
“It’s hard for me to have to watch that,” Lohan says. “I work just as hard as those people and sometimes [the media] make it seem that they’re more mature because their fan base is more mature and my fan base is younger ... so they’re writing about me going out all the time. It’s easy to over-publicize me.”
Indeed, while some wonder if the teen is stretching herself too thin, another group says that work is perhaps her best refuge. It’s the ultimate tonic for the tabloid blues. “On a certain level her professionalism and work is probably some sort of stabilizing thing in a sense,” says “SNL’s” Michaels.
Tina Fey, the “SNL” writer and cast member who penned “Mean Girls,” adds, “Hopefully, if she just keeps working and making movies, that’s the only thing that counteracts [the tabloids]. If you actually have a body of work, that’s the only answer for that stuff.”
Freelancers Chris Lee and Mark Olsen contributed to this story.