Penelope Ann Miller seeks depth in her characters

November 21, 1993|By Pat Wechsler | Pat Wechsler,Newsday

She's not even 30 years old. Few people know her name, and even fewer would know her face. But she has already starred in movies with Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Danny DeVito.

"I like to say I've done the 'o' actors," Penelope Ann Miller chirps. "Now, it's on to other letters."

But then again, she's also "done" Arnold Schwarzenegger, Matthew Broderick (twice), Don Johnson and even Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman).

Currently, she's shooting "The Shadow" with Alec Baldwin.

Ms. Miller is one of those fresh-faced, peaches-and-cream actresses who has been able to take all that wide-eyed innocence and still play the sexy love interest in roles that even required on-screen nudity. Her technique? Unlike so many of the pretty faces populating the big screen these days, Ms. Miller says she concentrates on the acting and not the celebrity.

"I look for characters with complexity, with a story of their own," she said in a recent interview in New York. "I am not interested in playing any sex object to a male character."

That's why Ms. Miller looked twice -- even three times -- at her most recent role in "Carlito's Way" as Gail, the aspiring dancer who is relegated to performing in topless clubs. In the Edwin Torres book upon which the film is based, Gail was a school teacher. But Mr. DePalma thought the audience wouldn't buy a relationship between such a nice girl and reformed heroin dealer Carlito.

"I was turned off to the part," she says. But it was an opportunity to audition and possibly star with this year's Oscar winner, and that was too good to turn down.

"I figured I could meet with Pacino at least, and he could see my work," she says. "I could establish a relationship with him and Brian DePalma. But I realized that this was a great, meaty role and that the stripping was such a very small part of it."

Even so, she almost rejected it a second time when DePalma asked her to come to New York and do some dance numbers in a bikini. "He saw my acting. I didn't want to be judged for my body," Ms. Miller says, still showing some irritation. "After all, if anyone could get a body double, it's Brian."

But Mr. DePalma had to be sure that Ms. Miller could pull off the look of a classically trained dancer doing striptease. "And he also wanted to know that I could be comfortable enough with my body to do that kind of dancing with very, very little on," she says.

But let's not paint too much of a goody-two-shoes image for the lovely Ms. Miller. Despite her bubbly personality, she confesses to being a chronic and unashamed sleeper: "Oh yes, I love to sleep until noon whenever I can," she says.

More interestingly, her name is very often linked with the leading man du jour. During her filming of "Dead-Bang," the gossip columns were filled with talk of a sizzling affair between her and Don Johnson. She did, in fact, date Mr. Broderick, with whom she made two films. And most recently, there was titillating chatter on a possible fling with Mr. Pacino.

"Yes, we got very close," Ms. Miller says.

"You work with people so closely in these things. It doesn't happen with everyone. But I think it's better to let people go ahead and speculate all they want. I know what the relationship is all about."

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