By Alan Scherstuhl
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"That is known as the lowest point in my life, because I basically was a human barbell," says Next Stop Wonderland star Hope Davis of her role in the 1995 remake of Kiss of Death, in which she played Nicolas Cage's girlfriend. "Big, big hair and really cheesy clothes," she recalls, shuddering.
I tell the sad-eyed young actress that, at any rate, the marvelously decadent shot of Cage bench-pressing her slender frame is practically the only thing that sticks in my mind from that forgettable film. She's heard that before. "Really? Why do people remember that? Everyone remembers that."
On the climb to her current starring role, Davis appeared in some other high-profile films (Home Alone and Flatliners) and learned to hate "girlfriend" parts, she says. "In Flatliners, I played Billy Baldwin's girlfriend--he's cheated on her, and she comes over and finds he's got all these videotapes of other women, and she dumps him." With surprising bitterness, she adds, "It was stupid. It was definitely the typical girlfriend-victim thing."
Davis wasn't the sort to be content playing generic squeezes to Hollywood stars, simply to be in show business at all costs. She didn't even decide to pursue acting until she left Vassar, where she studied cognitive science. "It's a multidisciplinary study of the mind and how people think--psychology and philosophy and linguistics and artificial intelligence and biology professors all coming together to research the nature of consciousness and intelligence, problem-solving and imagination."
So what's an educated, intelligent, tasteful actress to do if she wants both to be a movie star and to work on interesting projects? "The only way that I'd ever be able to get a lead would be to come up through independent films. It's like a Catch-22--you can't get a lead in Hollywood until you've had a lead in Hollywood."
Fortunately, she landed a plum role in Greg Mottola's much-lauded comedy The Daytrippers. "That was the first time anybody took a chance on me," she says. "It's pretty much the lead role, although it is an ensemble thing. That was the thing that got me all this other work."
Since The Daytrippers, things have improved. Davis has played opposite Kevin Kline on Broadway--in Chekhov's Ivanov--and in such indie films as The Myth of Fingerprints and Stanley Tucci's upcoming shipboard farce The Impostors. "The cast on that movie . . ." she sighs, happily contemplating the latter project. "Listening to Billy Connolly and Alfred Molina try to one-up each other telling dirty limericks was an experience that will not be surpassed in my lifetime."
Next Stop Wonderland, however, is the first film that truly showcases Davis as the star. "It was really nice to be offered something like Next Stop Wonderland. I took it because I wanted the chance to try to carry a film. I wanted to see if I could do it, and I wanted to see what it was like."
Playing Wonderland's dumped, lonely heroine was also, for Davis, a perfect convergence of project and psyche. "The director [Brad Anderson] had seen Daytrippers at Slamdance. Then, when I met him, I had just been through an enormous breakup. I went through a really bad two years. I lost my father and I got divorced. The shit hit the fan in my life. I walked into this cafe where we were supposed to meet, and I was in that state of mind absolutely. Apparently, it was just written all over my face."
Was Wonderland a therapeutic experience, then?
Davis' reply is blunt: "No.
"People say, 'Oh, was it cathartic?' No. I mean, work always helps. You can lie in bed and wait for the phone to ring or you can be lucky enough to have some responsibility and have to get through the day. And it was obviously the perfect movie to shoot in the state of mind I was in. But you cry in the movie and then you're done? No. That's totally false that actors can do that. I mean, something does happen when you're feeling something and you act it out. But it's still pretend.
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