“I love people,” Drew Barrymore says. “I care about them, and I have their backs, and I want to do this for them. This is not for me."
“I love people,” Drew Barrymore says. “I care about them, and I have their backs, and I want to do this for them. This is not for me." (Calla Kessler for The Washington Post)

Drew Barrymore finally found her perfect role: Herself

With ‘The Drew Barrymore Show,’ the former child star gets to shape her own narrative

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NEW YORK — It’s Drew Barrymore’s birthday, which means it’s everybody’s birthday.

Moments after bursting into her Midtown talk show studio on a late February morning and announcing she is “tripping” over the palindromic date — 2-22-22, which makes her 47 years old — Barrymore wishes a happy birthday to each crew member who says it to her. “I have to say it back,” she explains. “ ‘Thank you’ is really exhausting.” They accept the explanation. Why wouldn’t they? It’s classic, silly Drew.

A few hours later, the milestone appears to have a more sobering effect on her. Seated across from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Barrymore asks her guest, also a former child actor, how he learned to develop boundaries in such an intense, high-profile industry. It took her decades to start doing so, she says, describing it as “an honor to be in my 40s and fall in love with a notion I should have known as a child, but didn’t.”

In its two seasons, “The Drew Barrymore Show” has proved to be a chaotic mishmash of daytime television antics and unexpectedly moving moments. A nail-painting session with musician and beauty entrepreneur Machine Gun Kelly turned into a frank discussion of parenting and vulnerability in the public eye. In another episode, Barrymore began to cry while chatting with “Queer Eye” personality Bobby Berk ahead of a first date, worried she didn’t know how to handle dating as a divorced, single mother.

“She is just unapologetically fearless and spontaneous,” said Elaine Bauer Brooks, executive vice president of development and multiplatform content at CBS. “She will share it all, show it all, reveal it all.”

Barrymore’s birthday marks yet another year of navigating life in the spotlight, a journey she began as an infant. The actress-turned-host often references her turbulent childhood in a winkwink sort of way but adopts a more sincere tone when discussing how it has informed her approach to adult life. While the show stretches her creatively, it was the steady schedule that attracted her most. She wanted to make it home for dinner, to provide her two young daughters with the sense of stability she rarely experienced.

Recently renewed for its third season, “The Drew Barrymore Show” launched mere months into the coronavirus pandemic, when studio productions were still scrambling to figure it all out. But for Barrymore, who speaks to The Washington Post while folded up on a couch in her CBS Broadcast Center dressing room, the timing couldn’t have been better.

“I was ironically making changes in my own personal life that were really helping me believe that people can change. I wasn’t as much of a prisoner to my own demons,” she says. “I was so happy to be free of that for a change and feel like, whatever comes my way, I’m going to figure out how to handle it rather than feel under threat. I mean, that’s a good time for something like this, right?”

Barrymore’s show is designed to be an extension of her persona: bubbly and welcoming with a hint of self-awareness. In the realm of daytime television, she’s far from an Oprah Winfrey, more likely to seek advice from guests than to dole it out herself. She invites on plenty of celebrity friends but doesn’t veer toward an Ellen DeGeneres prank vibe, either, prioritizing the guests’ comfort over all else. She says she is “going to die the day I step in it and do something wrong and offend someone or, you know, take a misstep.”

“I love people,” she adds. “I care about them, and I have their backs, and I want to do this for them. This is not for me. And I swear to God, if you’re not selfless in a job like this.”

After Machine Gun Kelly expressed that he was having a “really weird day,” Barrymore switched gears and recounted her own mental health struggles. He opened up. But she knows when to cede the floor; when interviewing Dylan Farrow about her childhood sexual assault allegations against her father, Woody Allen, Barrymore granted Farrow the time to unravel her thoughts and the space for them to breathe.

Comedian Jimmy Fallon — Barrymore’s friend and former co-star who is married to her producing partner, Nancy Juvonen — said in an email that the “smart and well-read” star can “have a conversation about basically anything.” A talk-show host himself, he added that she “knows how to put on a good show and make sure everyone is welcome at the party.”

Barrymore, speaking to Gordon-Levitt about growing up on sets, says she considers the camera her “friend.” She naturally approached the studio as a safe space and wants her guests to feel that way, too.

But the camera hasn’t always been a kind friend to Barrymore. Born into an industry family and famous after starring in “E.T.” at age 6, she began to use drugs and alcohol and entered rehab at 13. The next year, she was emancipated from a mother who used to take her to Studio 54. As a young teenager, Barrymore gave a detailed account of the circumstances surrounding her substance abuse to People magazine, a move the Los Angeles Times described at the time as “a preemptive strike against the tabloid press.”

The magazine reporter, Todd Gold, told the Times that the push for Barrymore to do the 1989 cover story came from therapists who thought it to be a positive way for her to handle all the attention. “From now on she can say, ‘Yes, I have a problem, I’ve talked about it’ … and put it behind her,” Gold said.

More than 30 years later, Barrymore still has no trouble doing interviews. She enjoys them, in fact. When a CBS publicist knocks on the dressing room door to signal that time is almost up, Barrymore brushes it off. (When it really matters, she says, they barge right in.) She embraces speaking to the press as a chance to test her boundaries. “What does feel good? What doesn’t feel good? It’s trial by fire, and that’s life,” she continues. “So why hide behind shame? I’ve never had the luxury of it. Not since I was 13.”

And yet, having written more than one memoir — the first, 1991′s “Little Girl Lost,” alongside Gold and another, 2015′s “Wildflower,” on her own — Barrymore recognizes the power in telling your own story. During the “Drew’s News” segment of her birthday taping, in which she and her guests run through headlines and read aloud from selected clippings, Barrymore responds to the news of embattled pop star Britney Spears landing a book deal with a knowing expression: “This is smart,” she says.

“The Drew Barrymore Show” offers her an opportunity to control the narrative, which she accomplishes by sharing enough about herself to stomp out whatever speculation remains. She doesn’t hesitate to divulge aspects of her personal life, even twice inviting on her second ex-husband, comedian Tom Green.

Speaking to Gayle King on-air last year, Barrymore referred to her 2016 split from her children’s father, businessman Will Kopelman, as “the most devastating thing I’ve ever gone through in my life.” She waited years to start dating again, and her experiences back in the game make for some of the more candid moments on her show. In February, Barrymore told King, a frequent guest, about working up the courage to approach a handsome stranger in Central Park. (Turned out he was 28, too young for her liking.)

Barrymore has also been open about deciding to quit drinking shortly before the pandemic. “I was just like, this thing in your life does not work for you, and you [are] fooling yourself thinking, ‘You’ve got this’ or ‘You will master this one day,’ ” she says. She talked about it on television because, as the journalist Gold made note of years ago, acknowledging a problem in public seems to help her move forward.

“This stuff is so important and fascinating that I can’t imagine trying to say it without saying it,” she adds. “I don’t have a family … that sweeps s--- under the rug. It doesn’t have to be out there in a TMI way, but we cannot fool ourselves or pretend or tread lightly. That’s not the way the world works.”

There is one line she draws: “I am a g--d--- Doberman when it comes to my kids.” She has turned away opportunities for them to appear in commercials — or even on her show — and admits she struggles with figuring out how to bring them along on her unpredictable Hollywood journey. She expects Olive, 9, and Frankie, 7, to become frustrated with their overprotective mother, but has made peace with the inevitability. “All the grays that happened in my life are so severely black and white with them,” she says.

Motherhood changed the former wild child’s approach to work-life balance. Until wrapping production in 2018, Barrymore starred for three seasons with Timothy Olyphant in the Netflix series “Santa Clarita Diet” as married real estate agents whose lives turn upside down when the wife becomes a zombie. According to Barrymore, her friends believe that character, Sheila, to be most like her in real life. Series creator Victor Fresco said there’s a fierceness to Sheila when it comes to protecting her family that he can sense in Barrymore, too.

Fresco recalled a time on set when Barrymore got injured doing a stunt. She fell back and hit her head but turned out to be okay, more upset than hurt. She said she wanted to be with her children.

“Which I just thought was interesting,” Fresco said. “That was touching to me. Her children were in New York and she was in L.A., but that was her first thought. To me, that’s Drew.”

‘The Drew Barrymore Show” contributes a level of absurdity to daytime television, which can otherwise be quite formulaic. Asked what about the show speaks to Barrymore’s strengths as a host and executive producer, the CBS executive Bauer Brooks and showrunner Jason Kurtz each pointed to “Drew Stans for Stains,” a recurring segment inspired by her passion for removing stains from different fabrics.

A frenetic energy coursed through the Halloween-themed “Stans for Stains,” shot when the show still lacked a live studio audience. Shortly before doing a Dracula impression to introduce a call-in viewer, Barrymore exclaimed that she was “completely obsessed” with stain removal, her voice strained with excitement.

The lightheartedness extends to the mood on set. While the crew prepares for the first of two tapings on Barrymore’s birthday, she yells for the sound guy to blast “that Post Malone song” and later requests a new single by Sabrina Carpenter, an upcoming guest. He obliges, though neither track is particularly good. Barrymore is constantly studying up for interviews, which she says helps her avoid feeling “naked and like a fraud.” As Carpenter’s voice floods the studio, Barrymore tells another executive producer, Chris Miller, about how quickly she made her way through several episodes of Gordon-Levitt’s new series.

Until he left last month to run “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” Miller and Barrymore were attached at the hip. He joined her production company, Flower Films, in 1999 — just four years after she co-founded it with Juvonen — and quickly rose through the ranks, from executive assistant to company president. He said of his longtime boss, “She’s got longevity all around her.” Part of that, Fallon wrote, is because working with Barrymore is “like golfing with Tiger Woods — even if you suck, you still play the best you’ve ever played.”

Barrymore works to keep people happy. Actor Michael Vartan starred alongside her in 1999′s “Never Been Kissed,” the first project she produced under the Flower Films banner, and years later told the reporter on the phone with him to enjoy all the great stories she would inevitably hear about Barrymore, whom he called “the antithesis of a pretentious person.” He recalled an ease to acting opposite her in a romantic comedy, adding that he would “challenge a bag of potatoes not to have chemistry with Drew.”

Melanie Lynskey, who starred in 1998′s “Ever After” as the reimagined Cinderella story’s kinder stepsister, noticed her co-star’s ability to run the show even before she officially became a producer. Lynskey remembered Barrymore making a concerted effort to foster community among the cast, gifting each member a musical instrument because “we’re all a band, and we’re creating music.” Lynskey received a bongo drum, as Barrymore considered her character “the drum beat of the movie.”

“She has something about her that is truly magic,” Lynskey said. “She feels like your best friend.”

According to Fresco, the “Santa Clarita Diet” creator, Barrymore just wants people to be proud of her. “I think we’re all informed by what our childhoods were like,” he said. “Drew wants to be loved, and is loved.” The warmth she radiates is the main reason Bauer Brooks approached her to host.

As “The Drew Barrymore Show” continues to evolve, it might stray a bit from its sunny reputation. While noting there “was definitely a ‘stay away from politics’ mandate for me,” Barrymore suggests she is interested in dipping her toes into murkier waters. But she does so carefully, framing her desire as a way to invite onto the show “more people from more walks of life, be it someone of immense power [or] someone you didn’t know about until this day.”

When it comes to her own experiences, Barrymore has successfully avoided sugarcoating (or, as she refers to it, any sort of “Vaseline veneer”). At one point during the taping, she comments on how irritating it can be to encounter egomaniacs throughout the industry: “Thank you, you’ve taught me exactly what not to do,” she says. She tells Gordon-Levitt that it was her godfather, director Steven Spielberg, who took it upon himself to give her “how the world should function” lessons, including to never speak down to anyone.

She considers people her equal — which makes it a fair match when she and Gordon-Levitt play a game requiring them to scribble portraits of one another in under a minute. After his implied victory, as they stand next to each other and say goodbye to the audience, he pauses and turns toward her.

“You know, I’ve done a lot of these shows,” he says. “You’re quite good.”