SHE MADE a name for herself in the '90s with movies like "A League of Their Own" and "Tank Girl," but Lori Petty likes to say she was an accidental movie star. Moving to New York at age 18, she worked as a waitress in between auditions and slept on friends' couches, at the YMCA, or, on occasion, in Central Park. "It was so comfortable it was like home," Petty recalls as she sits at a deck cafe overlooking the Santa Monica beach, her big blue eyes and cropped hair rendering her immediately recognizable to "Point Break" fans sitting nearby.
But it's her life prior to the big city that gave her material for her new movie. The story of her small-town childhood and the abuse she suffered serves as the basis for her directorial debut, "The Poker House," which premieres Friday at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Petty, who was born in Tennessee and raised in Iowa, grew up with her two sisters in a home where neglect was the least of the troubles. Their mother, single after leaving a husband who beat her, became addicted to drugs and alcohol and resorted to prostitution to make ends meet. As a young teen, Petty was sexually abused at the hands of someone she trusted. The film, which stars Selma Blair ("Legally Blonde"), spares nothing, including the moments of love and humor shared by the sisters while doing their best to survive.
The idea for "Poker House" came from a phone conversation. A few years ago, she was talking with her friend, actor and comedian David Alan Grier, and Petty found herself discussing her traumatic childhood experiences. "I had to pull my car over, I was like hyperventilating," says Grier, who also has a small role in the film. "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."
With his prompting, the two wrote together, shaping the material into a workable script. "My movie would have still been a painting without him," says Petty, who's also an accomplished artist. (She was recently invited to the 2009 Florence Biennale.)
When it came to find financing for the project, the first person Petty met with was veteran television producer Stephen J. Cannell, who had moved into movies. She had worked for him decades earlier on his TV show "Booker," a spinoff of "21 Jump Street." "They killed me," she says of her character, "but they liked me so much that they made me a twin of my own self, so I got to come back." Cannell liked the idea and gave her the greenlight.
The film, set in Iowa, was shot outside of Chicago in 2007, with a budget of about $1 million. "We had 20 days, three lead actresses that could only work eight hours a day, 44 people in my cast," Petty says, shaking her head. "I swear to God I never did a third take. It was like, 'Is it in focus? We're moving on.' "
Petty insists that all of her creative endeavors -- acting, writing, painting, directing -- come from the same source. But directing is her favorite, "because I'm in charge of everything. On the movie, I am an actor, I am a painter, I am a writer, all these things." She elicits heartbreaking performances from her three young actresses, and Blair is unrecognizable as her wreck of a mother. "It was a breeze to step into such a difficult woman's shoes," says Blair, who calls it her favorite role yet. "Lori's the most inspiring and inspired director that I've ever worked with."
One can't help but wonder how Petty managed to direct the scene of her own abuse. "I did actually have an out-of-body experience," she says. "I guess it's something I had to do to get rid of it. I mean, I never consciously thought I was holding on to this and had to get rid of it, but now that it's done and I look at it, I go, 'What in the hell did you do, you crazy person?' " She laughs. "I just have to say, because I think it can help people, and I think it's a beautiful story, that [bad] things happen to good people, and then they keep stepping, and they turn art out of it, and they make it into beauty."
Petty says innumerable women have come up to her, on the set and after screenings, with their own stories of abuse. She considers the response a great byproduct of the film, "that women are talking about it and getting it off their chests or off their minds or out of their hearts, out of their mouths. But that's not why I made it. I really made it to show you how the human heart and how little children and how all of us can really overcome anything." She says that her family is now close, her mother and sisters are all thriving, and they completely support the film.
As an accidental movie star, she had what she considers a good 10-year run, given that "I'm a 44-year-old woman with no Botox, no celebrity ex-husbands and no fake [breasts]," she remarks. In 1996 she created her dream job -- writing, producing and starring in her own Fox television show, "Lush Life," with friend Karyn Parsons. Then Fox axed the show during the first season, but she was one of the last to find out. She showed up for work, wondering where everyone was and why people were dismantling one of her sets. "And the guard at the gate was like, 'Y'all were canceled. You didn't know? You're gonna have to move your car. They gave your parking place away to someone else,' " says Petty.
Since then, the roles for film and television got smaller and less frequent, but she's still happy to take them. In the meantime, Petty's writing a new script, tailored for friend and dancer-actor-choreographer Savion Glover; she describes it as "The Way We Were" with tap dancing. But the plucky actress is always on the lookout for the next acting gig.
"I was so stupid when I wrote and directed and produced my own film that I didn't put myself in it," she says. "I didn't make any money in SAG last year. Zero dollars. So yes, I would like a little arc on, you know, 'Two and a Half Men' right now, to get my damn health insurance back."
She smiles broadly. "Really. Tell Charlie Sheen."