Growing up, Heather Graham was sure she wanted to be the next Meryl Streep.
"If someone made me cry, I thought that was the ultimate achievement," the 47-year-old actress tells ET, laughing. "I just felt like, 'I want to be in really depressing films that will win an Academy Award.' And then I thought, 'I don't, really -- I just want to laugh and find the humor in things.'"
After starring in 1988's teen adventure film License to Drive and Gus Van Sant's acclaimed crime drama Drugstore Cowboy, released a year later -- "It helped me feel like a legitimate actress," she says -- Graham became a bona fide dude-comedy staple, starring alongside some of the era’s most celebrated comedic actors: Vince Vaughn in 1996's Swingers, Mike Myers in 1999's Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and Zach Galifianakis and Bradley Cooper in two of three Hangover films. She also earned major buzz for her role as porn starlet Rollergirl in 1997's Boogie Nights and, that same year, opened Scream 2 as an actress playing Drew Barrymore's iconic victim, Casey Becker, from the original Scream.
Recently, Graham observed a career overview reel before her appearance at the San Diego International Film Festival on Oct. 5, when she will be awarded the Virtuoso Award for having "enriched our culture through exceptional accomplishments in the film industry."
"I was watching it and was like, 'This is so weird that that's me in all these different times in my life,'" she says. "It's just so strange. In some ways, I feel like I'm the exact same person, and then, in some ways, I feel so different. It's like you're looking at someone else, but you remember all those experiences."
One of the greatest and most influential, she says, was working with Steve Martin on Bowfinger. The 1999 satire swayed her serious-movie interests, because "I just started to respect comedians more than I did when I was a kid."
When she first met Martin on the set of the film, Graham remembers being in awe of the comedic icon, whom she grew up watching onscreen and in his famous musical "King Tut" skit on Saturday Night Live. "I couldn't believe this person was real, and then I'm in a movie with him," she says. "I'd been looking up to him, so to go from this point where you're just an audience member to working with [him was] so exciting."
Influenced by Martin's achievements as a writer and producer (he wrote Bowfinger), Graham is taking a more self-directed approach to her own career. "It's inspiring to see him writing his own stuff," she says. "He's such a good writer. He didn't sit around waiting for someone to give him a job. He wrote books and he wrote scripts, and he controls his own creativity."
These days, partially because "there aren't that many great parts for women, and it can be frustrating," says Graham, she now spends her time behind the camera, too. She wrote, produced and stars in her directorial debut, Half Magic, a Hollywood-inspired sex comedy reflecting her personal feelings about overcoming sex shame instituted by her own Catholic upbringing, as well as "what it's like to be a woman in a business full of macho a**holes."
"I want to do more things I write and direct," Graham says of her career moving forward. "I feel like I'm really smart, but I don't often get those parts, and I think, sometimes, it's because of how I look. But a very smart, strong character is something I want to play more because that's who I am in life and that's not how I'm always seen."
There was, of course, Graham's beloved, sexually empowered role, Felicity Shagwell in Austin Powers, but that was nearly 20 years ago. Now, the actress is portraying Judalon Smyth, the mistress of psychologist Dr. Oziel (Josh Charles) on the NBC miniseries Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders. The role spoke to her "twisted sense of humor" for various reasons, particularly the fact that she actually refers to Oziel in the series as "Dr. Daddy." “It’s really creepy, but also kind of hilarious,” she says.
But what was more appealing was Smyth's brazen decision to report Erik and Lyle Menendez to the authorities despite Oziel's threats. "She really stood up to him," Graham says. "These other women were treated really badly by him, and they went on with their lives. But Judalon really got revenge on him. Then she detached herself and found a way to get her power back, so as a woman I got into that."
Donning a brunette wig for the role, Graham as Judalon looks nothing like her usual self. With big glasses and, again, brown hair, the actress's physical change for this year's indie thriller Last Rampage was also dramatic. "The people who were releasing the movie didn't recognize me in it,” Graham recalls. “They're like, 'Where is Heather Graham in this movie?'"
In addition to her transformative film projects, Graham stars in the upcoming show Bliss, a double-life comedy series written and directed by Arrested Development alum David Cross and executive produced by Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe, Divorce) for the U.K. pay channel Sky.
Forging a new, autonomous path "took a long time," but the change, she reveals, is refreshing. "When you're an actor and you get a job that you actually would want to watch, you're like, 'Ah, thank God,'" Graham says. "I'm doing something that I actually like, that I actually would want to watch."