Message from the past: `You can do anything'

In film, actress Elisabeth Shue revisits her childhood soccer years, recalls loss of beloved brother


June 03, 2007|By Gina Piccalo | Gina Piccalo,Los Angeles Times

Elisabeth Shue took a deep breath. It was still early in the media push for her new film Gracie, an indie drama based on her own soccer-obsessed youth, and she clearly was still grappling with what she called the "sacredness" of her past, the "nerve-racking" aspect of making it public.

The film, which opened Friday, tells the story of a feisty 15-year-old girl (played by Carly Schroeder) growing up in a middle-class home in late-1970s New Jersey. She's the only daughter in a family of three sons, and after her eldest brother dies, she competes on a boys' soccer team to win her father's approval.

This -- with a few tweaks -- is Shue's story. But it was only at the insistence of her middle brother, Andrew Shue -- who co-wrote the original script, then co-produced and co-starred in the film -- that she agreed to support the project and open up about her childhood.

Telling her tale has had profound repercussions. For one, the film inspired Shue to rekindle her athletic drive and take up tennis -- professionally. After months of intense training, the 43-year-old aspires to be ranked by fall.

Just as significant, though, is the impact the movie has had on her close-knit family. Her father, James Shue, the inspiration for Dermot Mulroney's character in the film, welled up as he watched it. For him, actor Jesse Lee Soffer revived the spirit of his son William, who was just 26 when he died in 1988 from injuries he suffered after falling from a tree.

After Shue's mother, Anne Harms, saw the film, she toasted her ex-husband -- an extraordinary family milestone as their long-ago divorce had remained acrimonious.

For Andrew, the premiere of Gracie ends a decade-long commitment to honor William and the family's passion for soccer. He persuaded Shue's husband, Oscar-winning documentarian Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth), to direct it and wrangled financing from Gatorade, the state of New Jersey and a hedge fund.

One of his greatest hurdles was persuading Shue to play a character inspired by their mother and reassuring her that the film would honor, not exploit, her childhood. In fact, Shue didn't fully embrace the project until months after the film wrapped, said Guggenheim.

"There was always this hand-wringing that perhaps telling a story based on her life and also telling the story of her brother was something cheap or exploitative," he said. "And the feeling of maybe, `How dare she think that her story is so special?'"

From ages 9 to 13, Shue was the only girl on an all-boys soccer team. But like Gracie in the film, her athletic abilities and fierce determination went relatively unnoticed by her family.

"There is no footage of me playing soccer as the only girl," she said. "For four years. None. In some ways, I could judge and say I can't believe! ... But on the other hand, it was also an acceptance that that was not that extraordinary. I had been playing soccer with my brothers on the side yard my whole life."

Hopes to inspire girls

Unlike the girl in the script, who triumphs over stereotypes to compete with the boys, Shue quit when she hit puberty. She was worried that her tomboy ways would alienate her from her peers. It was something she later regretted. Gracie, she said, has helped her reclaim some of that old fire. And if the film inspires girls to fight for their goals, Shue said, then "it's worth putting my life out there."

Gracie is set in South Orange, N.J., where the Shue children grew up. The family in the script struggles financially, as the Shues did. James Shue was a public defender and the captain of his college soccer team. He was a good coach to his kids, drilling them constantly, telling them: "You can do anything," a line that became a mantra in the film.

"Our dad wasn't the Great Santini, but we did play sports nonstop," Shue said. "All day. Every day."

After the divorce, though, their father wasn't around much -- Shue remembers her father's absence from most of her soccer games. Money was tight, too. Their mother took a job as a low-level bank executive, and the four kids were often left to manage alone. (The youngest, John, now lives in Massachusetts and works in finance at Harvard University.)

William became the heart of the family and, in many ways, a surrogate parent. He was captain of the high school soccer team and an Eagle Scout. He once rescued a baby hawk and nurtured it back to health. Andrew said he remembers being 5 and crawling into bed with him, scared after watching The Wizard of Oz.

"He was our protector," said Andrew. "He was a gentle soul."

There are lots of moments in the film to immortalize William and the Shues' childhoods. Gracie releases a baby hawk back into the wild. And Andrew made sure William's Eagle Scout uniform hung on the set in the bedroom of Soffer's character, serving as a memento and a talisman.

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