Drew Barrymore opens up about a 'cripplingly difficult' year and how she triumphed: 'I've slayed more dragons'

Drew Barrymore opens up about a 'cripplingly difficult' year and how she triumphed: 'I've slayed more dragons'

December 27, 2022

Landon McMahon/@landonmcmahon

The hardest people to interview are those who have done a lot of interviews — and Drew Barrymore now interviews people for a living on The Drew Barrymore Show, where she breezily transitions from chats with celebs like George Clooney to extolling the virtues of air fryers. So as I step onto the elevator of her New York City apartment building, I’m mentally reviewing what to ask for her new PEOPLE cover story — about her dating life (a topic she’s gone viral for more than once), her movie career (please can we have Charlie’s Angels 3?), her legendary family, and how she got her show on such a hot streak.

I arrive on her floor, and the front door is open. No one is in the living room. “Hello?” I holler, looking at the neon sign on the wall that reads “timing is everything.” It is 8:30 in the morning. “Oh hi!” Barrymore pops out, hugs me and invites me to follow her. “I’m just washing my face,” she says. Suddenly I’m in her bedroom watching as she cleanses and moisturizes; she dabs on some lip balm with her finger, then absentmindedly rubs the remnants across the tattoo on her left forearm that says “BREATHE.”

Her kids are gone, out the door to school on time. “If I nail that part of the day or if something’s about to drop and I catch it, I’m like, ‘It’s going to be a good day,’ ” she says..

We move to the living room, where books line the walls — not just one wall, but wrapping around every corner. (Barrymore, 47, has read them all, she confirms later.) As I settle into one of the comfy couches, she mists one of her plants, disappears and comes back with a candle from her Beautiful line that she gifts me. She has taken care of her kids, the plant, me. Only then does she relax, sitting cross-legged in her bare feet on the couch.

Landon McMahon/@landonmcmahon

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From the outside, every day looks like a good day in Barrymore’s world. She’s the contented single mom of two girls (Olive, 10, and Frankie, 8) and The Drew BarrymoreShow is now the fastest-growing daytime show. But she actually wasn’t a shoo-in for the job. Elaine Bauer Brooks, executive vice president of development and multiplatform content at CBS, called in 2019 and asked her to do a sales tape. “I’m like, ‘Let’s make no mistake, this is an audition,’ ” Barrymore recalls.

As someone who has spent her life in the business — with her first job at 11 months old in a puppy food commercial and her star turn in E.T. at age 7 — Barrymore could have been offended, but she wasn’t. “I’m happy to prove to myself I can do this, let alone anyone else,” she says.

She did have one condition: The show couldn’t be all celebrity. “I said, ‘I don’t want to do a show where all I do is talk insider baseball. That isn’t the growth I’m looking for. But if you would be willing to do a balance [of celebrity and other stories], I would really want to do the show.’ ” Brooks was on board and says with Barrymore, the approach “makes for a very special combination.”

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The show launched in September 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, and struggled to find its footing. (Variety called it “soft and unthreatening . . . [with] untapped potential.”) “I did go really hard on comedy,” Barrymore says, owning that her original vision wasn’t right for daytime. And COVID lockdowns didn’t play to her strengths. “I was talking in a room by myself,” she says of doing the show without a studio audience. “I was writing monologues at night alone.”

Focus groups were commissioned. “A lot of people don’t even listen to those notes,” says executive producer and showrunner Jason Kurtz. “Drew took the notes.” They reformatted the show, debuting a faster-paced 30-minute format this fall, and ratings shot up 70 percent.

The Drew Barrymore Show/Ash Bean

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This is the side of Barrymore that most of the world doesn’t see: the executive behind the camera. “Since I was 19, I’ve had to listen to criticism and studio heads and executives. I’ve always been at the table hearing all the hard stuff,” she explains. “I’ve built an ability to be objective and listen to it. There’s just an amount that you’re allowed to boohoo and take personally.” And you can’t bend to every piece of feedback, she adds: “If you really love something, fight for it.”

What Barrymore has fought hardest for is her family. Emancipated at age 14 from her actor parent — John, who was rarely around, and Jaid, who took 9-year-old Drew to places like Studio 54 — she feels a constant “umbilical” pull to her family and their craft. (Her grandfather, great-grandparents and great-uncle and -aunt were all renowned actors.) In her kitchen, a small TV is always tuned to Turner Classic Movies. “It’s a portal,” she says. “I will be walking into the kitchen and there will be Lionel or John or Ethel or my dad, and I literally gasp.”

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She never felt pressured to be in the family business, but it was inevitable. “Something in being a part of my dad’s family has been such a cosmic, spiritual, magnetic pull,” she says. “I feel so compelled to do what they do.” The Barrymore clan didn’t just act; they navigated show business from theater into radio, then silent movies, talkies and television. “That’s where their story kind of ends,” she says.

It’s where her part of the Barrymore legacy begins. Like her family, she’s navigated every new medium as it comes. At 20, she started her production company Flower Films. By 34, she directed her first feature film (roller derby drama Whip It). Four years later she launched Flower Beauty. In 2022 she was named one of TikTok’s breakthrough content creators.

“To make the transition from actor to director and producer is tough, especially [when] we’re talking about 15, 20 years ago,” Mindy Kaling, herself a writer and producer, said recently of Barrymore. “Seeing things like that . . . gives people like me courage that I can do the same thing.”

Jennifer Livingston/Trunk

Barrymore’s talk show may be her latest incarnation, but it’s also been a lifeline. It came after her divorce from art advisor Will Kopelman in 2016; their daughters were 2 and 3 years old at the time. “There was no scandal. Nothing went wrong, which is cleaner, but makes it harder and more confusing because there isn’t The Thing to point to,” she says. “We tried so hard to make it work. [A friend] said to me, ‘Divorce is the death of a dream.’ That’s exactly what it feels like, something so final you can’t get it back.”

Since she didn’t grow up with a family, she vowed her kids would. “I know what that feels like,” she says. “If I haven’t learned from that, then what was it all for?” She laid down the terms: ” ‘This is a family, so nobody’s going anywhere.’ I was determined to make it work because we all loved each other so much.”

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It was far from easy; in fact, Barrymore calls the years following her divorce “cripplingly difficult.” She left California for New York to be closer to Kopelman’s family, and the first winter brought dark days. “It just took me down. There are times where you can look at someone you think is a strong person and see them so broken and go, ‘How the f— did they get there?’ And I was that person. I broke.”

She coped by drinking. “It was just trying to numb the pain and feel good—and alcohol totally did that for me,” she says. After beating addiction in her youth, she saw the warning signs. “The drinking thing for me was a constant, like, ‘You cannot change. You are weak and incapable of doing what’s best for you. You keep thinking you will master this thing, and it’s getting the better of you.’ “

Suddenly, the little girl lost — as she titled her first memoir, in 1990 — was lost all over again. “After the life I planned for my kids didn’t work out — I almost think that was harder than the stuff [I went through] as a kid. It felt a lot more real because it wasn’t just me. It was about these kids that I cared so much about. And then I probably cared so much that I was only giving to them and not taking care of myself. It was a messy, painful, excruciating walk through the fire and come back to life kind of trajectory.”

She spent time in therapy and quit drinking. “It was my kids that made me feel like it’s game time,” she says. And developing the show “gave me something to focus on and pour myself into. It gave us something to believe in.”

Jennifer Livingston/Trunk

With the show now in season 3, Barrymore makes it look effortless to shift from producer to on-air talent to entrepreneur (her Flower Home and Flower Beauty lines are available at Walmart), but the juggle leaves precious few free hours. Most nights, “I just want to be home with the kids,” she says. Balance is an art she hasn’t mastered. “I’ve never had balance,” she says. “I’m like a wrecking ball of a pendulum. Agony, ecstasy. Heavier, thinner. Happier, totally depressed. Working my ass off, completely lost and broken, not knowing what I’m doing. Balance is an elusive bitch that haunts me. I would love to find that in my 50s.”

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She dates a little. “I’m such a mom and I’m so under the workload, and I love being with my friends and I love being alone, where does dating fit in?” she says. “Every once in a while, I’ll go on a date because it’s a very human, natural thing to do.” And she faces the same dating pitfalls as anyone else. “I’ve gone on dates where I’m like, ‘Oh my God, why did I say yes to dinner? Because we haven’t ordered yet, and I don’t want to be here.'”

Her unique blended family also means she feels no pressure to date. “Will has his side of the street so beautifully buttoned up with our gorgeous stepmother,” she says of Kopelman’s wife, Alexandra Michler, a Vogue fashion director, whom he married in August 2021. “We’ve got an awesome family dynamic that proves that life goes on. Allie is my favorite person. I love her. I love us all being together. These kids have an example of one of the parents moving on and rebuilding another life for themselves. I’m like, ‘Oh, I don’t have to do that now? Perfect.’ “

That family dream she always had? “The cool thing is all these years later, we do have the dream. It’s just different than the one I swore would be the case.”

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And so as she nears 50, Barrymore is finally starting to put herself first. Self-care — a word she hates — is still a slippery thing, and she’s making a resolution to be more patient. But she can check off some of her big goals: Her girls are happy and on their own paths (“Frankie has some serious showmanship, and Olive could run the whole thing”). She has a job she loves that feeds her curiosity and brings her fulfillment. “This has been the best decade of my life, without question,” she says. “It wasn’t just the most awesome, it was the one where I feel like I’ve slayed more dragons than I ever have in my whole life.”

She’s remained true to herself — cheerful and optimistic and admittedly clumsy — but grounded. “As a kid and even in my 20s and 30s, happiness seemed like this very giddy, excited optimism,” she says. She now accepts that happiness isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. “It is a choice. You have to work for that. It is hard to get to some days. And so when you’ve harnessed it, that feels like such a better victory.” And once you have it? “You hold on tight.”

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