Abigail Spencer Is on the Brink of Stardom

Chances are you’ve seen Abigail Spencer in something over the last decade, though you might not know what. Patrons at nearby tables at Newsroom feel this and keep glancing over, trying to place her. Of course, people tend to do that habitually in L.A., especially on a hoity-toity street like Roberston Boulevard, across from The Ivy, where paparazzi post-up like snipers and celebs both pose on the sidewalk and scatter into big black cars, like gazelle. It’s the natural order around these parts. But there’s something different about Spencer’s charm and carefree spirit, especially when it comes to something as arbitrary as Hollywood notoriety. With lead roles in six films over the next two years — beginning with this Valentine’s Day’s This Means War — she’s going to be receiving a lot of it.

“I’m used to being ignored,” Spencer laughs. “I’ve been doing this for more than ten years now. I’d rather be recognized for my work anyway.”

It’d be a cliché to say that Spencer came from humble beginnings, but the truth is she didn’t. Her family was remarkably creative: her father Yancy Spencer was a renowned professional surfer on the East Coast who owned the chain of Innerlight surf shops throughout Florida; her brothers followed in his footsteps, surfing for their own livelihoods. Her mother Lydia was a folk singer who played seven different instruments. So when a 15-year-old Spencer announced she had landed an apprenticeship with Bob Fosse disciple Anne Reinking, her parents weren’t surprised.

“After that summer with her, I knew I wanted to be an actor and a storyteller,” Spencer explains. There is some minor melee down the street now, a couple guys in shorts, hiking boots and long lenses are snapping away at someone. Spencer continues, beautifully oblivious. “I wanted to be on Broadway.”

Auditioning at theater schools in New York City was the obvious next step, and on that daddy-daughter trip, Kathie Lee Gifford forever changed the starry-eyed teenager’s life. Decades before, Gifford and Spencer’s father had met one memorable American summer in Republic Beach, Maryland when they were teenagers — Yancy was the East Coast surfing champ and Kathie Lee was Junior Miss at the time. Kathie Lee always spoke highly of Spencer’s father, even claiming he was her “first love,” she says. Despite their vastly different career paths, Gifford had stayed in touch with the Spencer family, which is how Abigail and her dad ended up sitting in the dark studio audience for a taping of her. When Kathie Lee walked out to warm-up the crowd, Abigail remembers the swell of energy that washed over her, the palpable rush that makes so many instant junkies for show business. Ten minutes into the morning banter with Regis, Kathie Lee announced they had a “very special guest” in the audience and the massive cameras spun around, targeting the young, pretty Spencer in her favorite red shirt and pinstripe pants. Kathie Lee Gifford had broken Spencer’s television cherry.

“Abigail, tell everyone what you are doing in New York!” Gifford demanded and the sweet, young teen from Gulf Breeze rattled off her naïve dreams of acting, directing, dancing, and singing to tens of millions of Americans waking up over their coffee (and probably rolling their eyes). One of those people, however happened to be the casting director for All My Children, and, in storybook Hollywood fashion, the lucky teenager became a series regular on the show a few months later.

“Soap operas are like boot camp for actors,” Spencer explains. The brief commotion outside The Ivy has subsided now. She received the full basic training over three years before entering the steady rotating line of television actors. Then she channel surfed through guest spots on Gilmore Girls, How I Met Your Mother, Bones, Private Practice — even one season of her own crime drama on Lifetime called Angela’s Eyes. It wasn’t until her six-episode turn as the angelic school teacher who runs in the dark of morning and has an affair with Don Draper in the third season of Mad Men that everything finally seemed to have focus. Spencer attributes this, in part, to the birth of her son a year earlier and the self-imposed acting sabbatical that came while she nursed him from infancy.

“When I felt my body working out its true purpose on the planet, it made me a little fearless,” she explains. Major film roles suddenly became a reality, as she was cast in Universal’s Cowboys & Aliens, Fox’s This Means War and Disney’s Wizard of Oz prequel Oz: The Great and the Powerful, due out next summer. Then last February, her father and arguably her biggest fan, came to L.A. to see his grandson, celebrate with his daughter, and surf in Malibu. On Valentine’s Day, he cruised up the coast to County Line in the beautiful California sunshine to surf away the afternoon, telling Spencer to make plans that night for dinner.

“An hour and a half later he called to calmly tell me he was having a heart attack and that he loved me,” Spencer says. Her father had managed to crawl from the ocean as it was happening — he was almost gone when the fire chief got to him, holding his wife’s Valentine’s Day card and staring out at the roiling ocean. Spencer would channel the shock and sadness of her father’s tragic death in a number of different ways over 2011. Six months later she was cast in Curtis Hanson’s Of Men and Mavericks due out later this year — as surfer Frosty Hesson’s wife.

“I didn’t tell anyone in the movie about my history until I showed up on set,” Spencer says. “I wanted it to happen naturally, if it was going to happen.”

A year to the day after her father’s death, This Means War will open, the first of six films you will see Spencer in over the next two years. Outside the restaurant, Robertson Boulevard is still for now, the paparazzi dispersing to new hunting grounds. Unbeknownst to them, to just about everyone right now, Spencer is already riding peacefully along on her next wave.
 

Photo by Jeremy Cowart

Industry Insiders: Alan Linn, Members Only Fellow

Alan Linn created a home for the art world by hand picking every piece inside Norwood, his West Village private members-only club. An artist himself, Linn got his B.A. and M.A. at Royal College of Art in London and started his career working at local bars, but fell in love with New York. Lucky for him, a group of New Yorkers have since fallen in love with Norwood. Once a month, Linn selects random members to sit for dinner and hopes that Norwood’s legacy will be the projects that are inspired there. Everything from movie screenings to band performances occur under Norwood’s roof and spontaneous jam sessions take place regularly. (You might also be surprised to see which rock star comes in to play the piano every now and then). A chat with Linn after the jump.

How did your start in the hospitality business? I got a bar job just to pay bills and carry on being a painter after university. I worked at Andrew Edmonds restaurant in Soho, London, which is a real institution. I also worked at The Groucho Club. In the ‘80s and ‘90s it was a big hangout for artists like Damien Hirst. I worked there for about six months and left to run a members only club called Blacks. Joe Strummer and Kate Winslet would come in there. It was quite wild. I was there for 12 years.

How’d you make it across the pond? I fell in love with a New Yorker. I’m a gay man so I couldn’t come here officially by getting married, so I decided to open a business in New York. Although, it probably seems naïve to think I could just come to New York and open something that would be successful.

Still together? Yes, still together.

Do you have any partners in Norwood? Steve Ruggi is my business partner, and he was a founding member of Blacks. He knew I wanted to do this and his wife is a New Yorker and art critic for Art Forum in London as well. Steve had been a documentary filmmaker and then went into finance. It was a good match all around.

How did the business come together? It was day or two of looking at spaces. It was very important to me to have a house. A house makes people relax, and I love the idea that this is a house for the arts. I wanted to create a place where people actually looked each other in the eye and talked to each other and had a commonality of being creative and being curious. We’re still focused on being interested in people and seeing what we can develop.

How big is the 14th Street space? This house is 9000 square feet and 6 floors.

And you found it on day two of looking? There’s been a lot of serendipity with this project from the start. The outside of the building is landmarked. We preserved the interior, just bringing it to code. It’s one of the best townhouses in America. It has reverse staircases and solid silver handles on the mahogany doors and a marble fireplace.

Who belongs to Norwood? Our demographic is from the ages of 21 to 101. One member is a young writer who comes on his skateboard while others are people at the highest level of their careers. This is a club for New Yorkers. We only just began taking members from outside New York. We wanted to be established as a strong arts club for New York.

Who were the first members? The founding members were cherry picked from many different worlds. It was very important to me to have a good mix. We had the connections. It was two years getting the project together and now we’re two years open. We started with 300 members and are just over a thousand now.

How do you compete with Soho House? It is not about competition. It’s if people like what we offer.

Do you have sister clubs? If you’re a member here, you’re a member of The Ivy and The Groucho Club in London, as well as the Spoke Club in Toronto. Those are our affiliations, and helped in how we branded ourselves.

What was the inspiration for the interior? Simon Costin designed our interiors. We wanted it to seem that when you walk in the door, you’re somewhere else. It was very important to have a fragrance for the club so that if you were away the smell would bring you back. We go to flea markets every weekend looking for things for Norwood.

Plans for 2010? We’ll be opening a new dining room on the second floor. Andrew D’Ambrosi from Top Chef is our chef. We also want to eventually start a foundation to fund various art projects.

Who are your favorite artists? Francis Bacon, Henry Darger and Hiroshi Sugimoto.

What are your go-to places? Diner in Brooklyn, Fatty Crab, Basta Pasta, Boom Boom Room. I love hotel bars like at The Carlyle. Always great service.

Los Angeles: Top 10 Places to Get Devoured by a Cougar

Stone Rose Lounge (West Hollywood) – The East Coast version of this star-lit bar is NY’s reigning cougar palace. This is similar, except the furniture—and the cougars—are a burnt orange. ● The Ivy (Beverly Hills) – Studio bigwigs are more than thrilled to let their bored wives run wild on the company expense account, which means lunch (and dessert) at this Hollywood clubhouse is just a “How you doin’” away. ● Ecco Ultra Lounge (Hollywood) – The only thing that trumps a regular cougar is one that drives a Prius. Savor the ride home from this eco-friendly supper club, because it’s about to get dirty.

Downtown Standard (Downtown) – No one really knows why owner Andre Balazs named his crack den for design junkies The Standard, but we’re pretty sure it’s because every time you hit the rooftop bar, a hungry urban wildcat is waiting to take you into her mod-tastic room for a swift disemboweling. It’s the standard here. ● Sidebar (Beverly Hills) – If you’re wondering what business a slobbering cougar would have in classy establishment such as this, well, none. The cougars here have funds and they’re willing to spend them. Congratulations, you just discovered how to support yourself between auditions. ● Whiskey A Go Go (West Hollywood) – Because cougars are a lot more vicious when they’ve been Motley Cru-ed, Poison-ed, and Bon Jovi-ed. ● Chateau Marmont (West Hollywood) – When Cameron Diaz appeared on SNL as a cougar in early 2009, a new queen was crowned, and this is her court. ● Hal’s Bar & Grill (Venice Beach) – An L.A.-based photographer tells us this where cougars “specifically seek black guys with money.” You know who you are, fellas. ● Mr. Chow (Beverly Hills) – This legendary Asian restaurant, big with Hollywood types and hip-hop royalty, should be renamed Mrs. Chow, if you buy what we’re selling. ● The Dresden Room (Los Feliz) – This hepcat haven (immortalized in the movie Swingers) puts out a distinctly retro vibe. The cougars here just put out. ● Good Luck Bar (Los Feliz) – We appreciate the superstitious name, guys, but the question is: who needs luck when you serve vodka sodas to vaguely single women in their late thirties and early forties? Anyone know the number to a taxi?

NYC Celebs: Where Do You Go Out?

imageAt the opening of Hair on Broadway, March 31:

● ROSIE O’DONNELL: We have just little local ones in our neighborhood that we go to, but we don’t really “hang out,” you know. I mean, we have four kids under the age of 13. You don’t really hang out a lot, when that happens. You know, the local Irish pub in our town, the OBI or the Casa del Sol, the Mexican restaurant. You know, there’s some kid-friendly places that we go — we’re kinda dull.

● TIM ROBBINS: Oh, uh, yeah — I’m tryin’ to think of someone that needs help right now. [laughs] A lot of people are hurtin’ with this economy. I can’t, I can’t — I don’t go out much. No, I don’t go to bars. We like Basta Pasta on 17th Street — great food. It’s an Italian restaurant run by Japanese people. Pasta with the cheese — they put it into a big wheel of cheese, and it’s really yummy.

● GINNIFER GOODWIN: Oh, I’ll give you LA. My favorite restaurant is this little spot called Vegan Glory, in a strip mall on Beverly. They have the most phenomenal tacos. Are you a vegan? I am, and that’s where I get my taco fix. I recommend the faux beef tacos — absolutely!

● TOVAH FELDSHUH: It’s not that extraordinary. I like to go to Orso, ’cause it’s right next to the theater. I love to go to the Harvard Club, where we’re members. I love to go to Daniel. Oh, my god, Bouley — way downtown; it’s brand new; it’s extraordinary. I went there for one lunch. I love little Chez Josephine, when I’m playing 42nd Street — Restaurant Row — I love to do Jean-Claude at Chez Josephine. You know, I go to the places that patronize me, that are good to me, and that are easy on me. Sardi’s always takes care of me — I always have their steamed vegetables and tofu ’cause I’m dieting. I love the bread — the extraordinary, very, very, thin, paper-thin bread, that’s garlic and thyme, at Orso’s. I love the Harvard Club ’cause they know me. I’ve been a member all my life, through my father, my husband, and my son. I love The Ivy restaurant in London. I eat there a lot. And I love The Ivy in Los Angeles, on Melrose. And I love The Wolseley in London. It’s fantastic. It was an old bank, like tonight [Gotham Hall], an old bank.

At the Lymelife premiere, Gen Art Film Festival, April 1:

● JILL HENNESSEY: I love the question. God, there’s so many. There’s a new place that opened up called The Charles — John DeLucie’s the owner. Oh, Tillman’s, one of my favorites. I think Leslie Bernard is the owner. Irving Mill, which my husband and I are partners in — it was rated as having the best burger in New York City, and one of the best new chefs, great bar. But Tillman’s — Leslie Bernard owns another place called Mr. Jones on 14th Street. It’s like this 1960s James Bond world that you suddenly walk into, with the best yakitori, food, and incredible drinks. Very sexy, very hip.

ALEC BALDWIN: I’m not a drinker, but my favorite bar to hang out in is the American Hotel in Sag Harbor, Long Island, ’cause it’s just a great, great, old room. It’s a great space.

London: Top 5 Celeb Hangouts

imageTry not to stare too much.

1. The Gay Hussar (Soho) – The place to see great minds feast on great dumplings. 2. The Ivy (Covent Garden) – London’s highest celeb/square-foot ratio. 3. Boogaloo (North) – North London hipness institution Kate Moss gets spotted in.

4. Locanda Locatelli (Fitzrovia) – On any night, you’re guaranteed at least one Oscar-winning fellow diner. 5. Sketch: The Gallery (Soho) – Favorite of the cosmetically enhanced crowd.