The more challenging the role the better

Connelly chooses characters with meat on their bones

December 31, 2003|By Terry Lawson | Terry Lawson,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Every time you think things could not possibly get worse for Kathy, the abandoned wife and recovering alcoholic in House of Sand and Fog, they do.

In the course of the two-hour adaptation of Andre Dubus III's novel, Kathy loses her home, her sobriety, her lawyer, a lot of blood and any self-respect she might have left. By the merciful end, we feel almost as sorry for the actor who plays her as we do the defeated victim herself.

Surely, this must have been a harrowing experience.

"Quite the contrary," chirped Jennifer Connelly. "I loved going to work every day. I couldn't wait to get on the set, because I knew I was getting a rare chance to do what I love to do so much - immerse myself in a real character and practice my craft."

The practice pays off in House of Sand and Fog, which represents Connelly's finest, toughest screen work yet.

That is no faint praise for the woman who has regularly suffered for her art. She played a mistreated mistress in Pollock, a junkie who is sexually humiliated in Requiem for a Dream, the murdered mistress of a corrupt cop in Mulholland Falls, and she won an Oscar playing a brilliant math student reduced to nursing an abusive schizophrenic in A Beautiful Mind.

She's even suffered the indignity of playing Don Johnson's dupe - and doing a gratuitous nude scene - for director Dennis Hopper's leering camera in his unapologetically trashy The Hot Spot.

"I wouldn't say I enjoy being slapped around, but I like to be challenged by the parts I choose, because if I'm not, I become bored, and if I become bored, I'm not so good. So I tend to choose to play people like Kathy, whose life is cursed with conflict," Connelly said.

Connelly made her impressive movie debut at age 14, playing the object of infatuation for a little hoodlum who would grow up to be Robert De Niro in Sergio Leone's stylized fairy tale of a gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America. Her first lead role came as a young girl lost in a fairy tale (of her own making?) in Jim Henson's dark children's fantasy Labyrinth, cast opposite David Bowie.

"I was never that interested in a conventional kind of movie career," said Connelly, "perhaps because I started making fairly serious movies right away as opposed to commercial or teen movies. In fact, when I got older and those sort of roles were all I was offered, I just dropped out for a while."

Connelly went to school, attending Yale and Stanford before deciding to return to acting with Mulholland Falls. Since then, she said, she has taken only roles that consume her.

"I can't say I particularly enjoy digging into those dark, emotional places, but being able to go there for a few hours a day for a few weeks and come home and be a mom, that's a pretty good deal."

Connelly has a 6-year-old son, Kai, with photographer David Dugan, but their relationship had begun to fray by the time she made A Beautiful Mind and met British actor Paul Bettany. She said their relationship remained just friends for more than a year, until "we realized the friendship was developing into something more." They married this year and their son, Stellan, was born in August.

"I think having a stable family life really affords you a kind of emotional freedom for your acting," said Connelly. "Paul and I were just crazy in love when I was making House of Sand and Fog, and he was making Master and Commander, and that made it easier to let go of the pain. But even on the set, no one was immersed in misery when we weren't playing our scenes."

She then asked, "Have you met Sir Ben?" referring to her co-star Ben Kingsley. "He's just a wonderful man to be around, full of life and energy and ideas. It wasn't depressing at all. It was more invigorating than anything else."

Though Kingsley's assistants and publicists are told to inform everyone to refer to him as Sir Ben, Connelly said she was issued no such edict and simply calls him that out of respect.

Nor would she admit to being aware of any alleged strife on the House set that was rumored to be the result of the dramatics of first-time director Vadim Perelman.

"Any time you put a lot of creative people with strong opinions on the set of a movie they truly care about, there will be tension and argument, and most of the time it's for the good of the picture," she said. "Whatever happened on this movie obviously worked for it. I think it's a beautiful film. I'm very, very proud of it."

Though Connelly claimed not to be concerned about being nominated for a best actress Oscar, she does allow that it would be "a lot of fun" if both she and Bettany, who plays Russell Crowe's best friend and ship's doctor in Master and Commander, attended the ceremonies as fellow nominees.

"We would probably just rib each other endlessly," said Connelly. "We spend a lot of time laughing together. It's good for a relationship, I think, not to take yourself so seriously."

Connelly said with her son 4 months old, she's looking forward to going back to work - to, yes, another walk on the dark side, a thriller called Dark Water, directed by Walter Salles (Central Station), in which she plays a single mother who is haunted. But when she's finished, Connelly said, she figures she'll finally be ready to lighten up.

"I've resisted romantic comedy almost subconsciously up to this point," she said, "and I've been thinking it could be because I was scared of it. So I figure that's the best reason to give it a try."

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