Catching Up with the Amazing Aimee Mullins
"My passion is curiosity," said Aimee Mullins, the 2008 Tribeca/ESPN Film Festival Sports Ambassador. "You think you're being led down a path, and what you learn in one discipline prepares you for another. In DaVinci's day, you could just be a well-rounded person."
So far, Mullins has lived a fascinating life, a life that, in its numerous accomplishments, is a strong argument for the return of the Renaissance woman. Born with missing fibular bones, Mullins had both of her legs amputated below the knee when she was an infant. Despite that handicap, Mullins competed for Georgetown as a runner (against able-bodied athletes), in 1996, she was a record-breaking, award-winning Paralympian, she worked as a Pentagon intern, she modeled for Alexander McQueen opening his show, and she’s acted on stage and in film, debuting as The Cheetah Woman (and several other characters) in Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle, a work destined for a long life in art museums.
With that range of interests and activities, it goes without saying that Mullins is terrifically fun to have a drink with. We meet at Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar in the East Village, a place where she knows the staff and greets them cheerily. "See her?" she says, pointing out the hostess, "She's a Broadway dancer. You can tell by her feet."
Sweeping into the restaurant, she apologizes, hilariously, for "looking like an extra from Dallas." The lookand it was diva Joan Collinswas shoulder-padded and fabulous (for an 80s themed party later that night) and Mullins pulls it off. She has a disarming, gregarious presence; perhaps it can be chalked up to her Irish heritage. Growing up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, her family split their time between the states and County Clare. "There's an energy there [in Ireland] that almost surges up from the ground. The talent of bullshit is respected there."
An avowed foodie, she adores Jack’s, and the sous chef, Betsy, brings over some treatsoysters and appetizersthat she declares "gorgeous."
As the chef walks away, Mullins asks: "Betsy, What's your favorite sports film?"
"Rookie of the Year," she replies, mentioning the 1993 baseball film about a kid playing for the Chicago Cubs after a freak accident gives him a crazy fastball.
"For me, it's a toss up between Rocky and The Natural," said Mullins. The Natural is a tearjerker, but Rocky hits her Pennsylvania-native heart. That interaction was ample proof that Mullins is a perfect representative for sports films. “Sport is kind of isolated from music and film,” she says, rightfully, and she mentions that when people talk about films that move them, often it’s sports films, which have “memories of shared experiences.”
Sports and culture are intertwined for Mullins, and she cites the original purpose of the Olympics, “it was mind, body, and spirit, enlightening the whole body." While she misses the active pursuit of sport, she quotes her friend, female sprinter Evelyn Ashford: “Don’t ever put ‘former’ in front of Olympian. It’s a club for life.”
The skills required of an athlete gave Mullins a strong base as an actress. Her film career started audaciously with Cremaster. "After the McQueen show [where she opened, modeling a pair of beautiful brown boots, an experience that was "fantastical and liberating"] I had a lot of queries. Matthew had written me a few letters. I was protective of the kind of image I wanted to create."
Recalling their first phone call, she said to the artist, "I'm not going to work with you if you're an asshole." The shoot took two years, and she found Barney to be a wonderful collaborator. "Family. He's family. I was really thrilled with someone who was going to push the envelope." They filmed at the Guggenheim for one week at thirty-three hour stretches apiece. "Nobody would admit defeat!" Mullins remembers. "One pair of legs took thirteen hours to be glued on me. Every time we'd wrap with a character, I'd get a call from Matthew, 'Listen, do you want to be another character?' It was my first independent film. No other shoot has been as guerrilla." Ultimately, Cremaster was a wild ride: "Risque things in my life have been captured on film and shown in perpetuity."
When she isn't acting, Mullins has a strong relationship with the MIT Media Lab up in Cambridge. "That place is a playground. I walk around squealing with delight." She was recently up there for the h2.0 symposium, and is knowledgeable about their groundbreaking work on gadgets and creative innovations; in particular, she's intrigued by their project involving "a powered robotic ankle, which I fully plan on having." Mullins' still communicates with the nerve endings in her legs, and if a replacement robot limb could follow those directions coming from her brain, it would be mind-blowing.
Along those lines of thought, Mullins cites the TV show that affected her deeply: "The Bionic Woman, my heart was going to explode when they said, 'We can rebuild her.'" For Mullins, the Media Lab is coming from a place that is working on "the next frontier of being human," a place analogous to this TV show, and a place where innovation comes from a very pure, beautiful, childlike perspective.
To explain the lab's creativity, she talks about a doing a presentation for children, carrying a big bag of legs, and asking them "what kind of legs would you build me, if you wanted me to jump over a house?" They had loads of replies, and Mullins recalls one child suggesting that she get kangaroo legs, and another child asking, "Why wouldn't you want to fly?" MIT has "adults who think like that," she said. "I like collaborating with people who don't see boundaries, who are bringing the magic into everyday life. I never grew up thinking of myself as disabled. I'm the bionic woman!"