Drew Barrymore, pen in hand, is carefully printing a message on the inside of her wrist as we talk. When she finishes, the letters spell the word "breathe". Breathe? "It's to remind me to remember to breathe," she says. "I write it all the time. It's very important to me because the older I get I see that breathing is really the key. It's the bargain basement fundamental to life and to sanity and to being able to conduct yourself in a manner you would be proud of."
She does not want to expand on it and while it may seem a somewhat zany and obvious form of self-help therapy, it is something that clearly works for her. Considering the tragic family legacy she inherited she seems to be as in control and normal as a Hollywood-raised film star can be. After all, her background and early life has become something of a notorious Hollywood legend: America's lovable little sweetheart at seven years old and a scandal-filled childhood, followed by a deeply troubled adolescence that included drug and alcohol addiction, a suicide attempt and several spells in rehab.
But she turned her life around thanks in part to a formerly drug-addicted musician, and during the last decade she has matured into a multi-talented actress, producer and, more recently, director who has shaken off the shadow of her family name to establish herself in her own right as a major force to be reckoned with. "Being a Barrymore didn't help me other than giving me a great sense of pride and a strange spiritual sense that I felt OK about having the passion to act," she says thoughtfully, talking in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. "It made sense because my whole family had done it and it helped rationalise it for me."
We meet to talk about her latest film, Going The Distance, yet another in the genre of romantic comedies in which she specialises, but this one is not for the young girls who usually make up her core audience. Co-starring Justin Long, her real-life on-again, off-again boyfriend, Going The Distance has more edginess, good-natured raunch and four-letter ords than any of her previous films. She and Long portray Erin and Garrett, a couple who meet in New York and enjoy a summer fling. Then, when she returns home to San Francisco, they try to keep the romance burning with the help of texting and late-night telephone calls.
"I liked the story because it had a lot of humour, was sexy but was also surprisingly emotional," she says. "Any story that deals with the complexities of a relationship in a very comical and contemporary way totally interests me. And it was so great to be able to talk the way I do with my friends in real life. I tend to want my films to be for all ages. I think a film about real love and life and what we go through in relationships and with our friends would be impossible to do authentically if it didn't have sex and language, because it wouldn't be realistic.
"I'm excited to do a film that I relate to as a woman and I think is grounded in reality and is also funny, because I want to laugh in life. But I think it deals with some pretty serious stuff. We all travel, we want to maintain a relationship and we want to continue doing the jobs we've put a lot of time and effort into." And then there is the Justin Long factor. They met three years ago when they were cast in He's Just Not That Into You and dated for a year before splitting up and then reuniting early last year. Neither will say if they are still together but from her remarks it is possible to deduce they are not, although they share a long embrace when they meet in the lobby of the hotel on the day of our interview.
"I thought it would be a unique experience to go to work with someone I did have a history with and who I have had emotional times with and who genuinely makes me laugh and who I'm genuinely attracted to," she says. "I knew the chemistry between us would be honest so we would be able to bring a truth to the fact that relationships can be very difficult, and I thought that would be a real benefit. "I think we balanced the line really well and I think we were excited and willing to bare that chemistry and the pain and the joy we had felt in life, and I think anybody who has had a history and are going into a film together have to approach it with a freedom and a lack of self-consciousness and not worry about what people think. If you have an opportunity to have something be that real and natural, then embrace it and just go for it."
She is comfortably dressed in a grey top by Yigal Azrouël and black-and-white slacks from Topshop. She talks confidently, and it is easy to imagine her taking command of a movie set. Not surprising, because at the age of 35, Barrymore has accumulated more knowledge and experience than most filmmakers twice her age. She made her first television commercial when she was 11 months old and by the time her godfather, Steven Spielberg, cast her in ET: The Extra-Terrestrial in 1982 when she was a dimpled and precocious six-year-old, she was already supporting her family with her earnings as a child actress.
Born in Los Angeles, she is the fifth generation of an acting dynasty. She has bizarre memories of her father, John Barrymore Jr, whose off-screen problems obstructed his career. "I liked it when my dad would walk around in bare feet stoned and talk about how the blades of grass on his feet felt and how he could tell which ones were hurting and didn't want to be stepped on and I thought: 'Wow that's my dad. He's really trippy and cool'," she recalls, pausing and then laughing: "Not a very wholesome movie moment, but that's what my dad was."
She became a worldwide star through her role as the wide-eyed Gertie in ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, and her hard-living mother, an inveterate partygoer, began taking her to nightclubs and all-night parties. On the party circuit, the actor Gary Busey dubbed Barrymore "The Badger" because "she was shorter than everyone else, moved faster and darted around close to the ground". She starred in the thriller Firestarter and the comedy-drama Irreconcilable Differences, but while she appeared to be America's lovable scamp, off-screen, Drew's peripatetic lifestyle and unstable home life created an emotionally starved child who turned to drugs and alcohol to escape loneliness and chaos. At 12, she was drinking alcohol and using cocaine and at 13 she was in rehab. Then came a suicide attempt and two more trips to rehab before she moved in with the musician David Crosby, a reformed drinker and drug addict, and his wife, who helped her straighten out her life.
She published her autobiography, Little Girl Lost, at 14, telling of her fractious relationship with her mother, her pre-adolescent clubbing and her booze and cocaine abuse. When she was 15, Drew filed legal papers to become emancipated from her parents. While working as a waitress in a coffee shop to support herself when no one in Hollywood would hire her, she began to get her life and career back in order. At 17 she was cast as a teenage temptress in Poison Ivy. Taking advantage of her fast-living image she had a succession of Lolita-like roles in low-budget thrillers including Guncrazy, Waxwork II: Lost In Time, Doppelganger and No Place To Hide.
Since her mid-20s, Barrymore's career has soared. Her company, Flower Films, has made a dozen movies, including the two Charlie's Angels adventures and the hit romantic comedies Ever After, 50 First Dates, Never Been Kissed, Fever Pitch and Music And Lyrics. She recently made her directing debut with the roller-derby movie Whip It, which she also produced and co-starred in with Ellen Page. She is looking for another directing project.
While a Hollywood A-lister, she has been less successful in her personal life; her two marriages - to Welsh bar owner Jeremy Thomas in March 1994 and comedian Tom Green in July 2001 - lasted less than six months combined and her boyfriends have included the actors Jamie Walters, Val Kilmer, Luke Wilson and Long, and the musicians Alec Pure, Eric Erlandson, Joel Shearer and the Strokes drummer Fabrizio Moretti.
With a laugh, she says she has lost track of the number of times she has cried over broken romances. But, she says: "I keep telling myself I should never go into love the next time thinking that I've been hurt before." Looking back on her life, she is philosophical about her upbringing. "You can't live your life blaming your failures on your parents and what they did or didn't do for you," she says. "You're dealt the cards that you're dealt. I realised it was a waste of time to be angry at my parents and feel sorry for myself. I used to pull a lot of emotion from all the stuff with my family but I have been much more objective about my childhood and my relationship with my mother in these last few years.
"There were several low points in my life and they all helped make up my character so I probably wouldn't want to do away with them because I like being flawed and I like having that help me grow and change and become better and stronger. I've worked really hard and got to do things I've always wanted to do and now I feel things are going really well. I just want to make sure I have a sense of balance between work and life because work is my life and the lines can get really blurry."
Always willing to indulge in a spot of self-analysis, Drew Barrymore believes she is both a realist and a romantic, the epitome of Pisces, her astrological sign. "I'm very schizo Pisces, divided," she says. "I am totally pragmatic but I don't think there is anything better than throwing caution to the wind and just being true to your heart." She laughs but she doesn't seem to be joking.
The 2010 Abu Dhabi Film Festival runs from Thursday to October 23. Going The Distance is showing in cinemas across the UAE.