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Elizabeth Perkins Builds on 'Big' Role

SHOOTING STARS: First in a series on promising new faces in the summer's movies.

July 25, 1988|STEVE WEINSTEIN

Elizabeth Perkins has plenty of time for lunch. Though she is Tom Hanks' co-star in one of the summer's Big gest hits and she will star opposite Don Johnson and Jeff Daniels in the upcoming "Sweet Hearts Dance," Perkins hasn't worked since last October.

"Yeah, that's a long time, but I don't have tremendous anxiety over it," Perkins said over lunch at a Beverly Hills restaurant favored by Hollywood actors, writers and agents. "I'm at the point where it's not a quantity thing to me. I can't just go from film to film to film like some actors do. A film is something I work on longer than the shooting process."

Perkins, 27, has the rap and demeanor of a deadly serious actress--one who is disinterested in the Hollywood image game. She's made some noise with her highly praised performances as Demi Moore's surly friend in ". . . About Last Night" and as Tom Hanks' corporate girlfriend with the heart of gold in "Big." But she's yet to find a film role of real substance and risk.

So she waits and, like many young actresses these days, tries to generate her own work. But even with her favorable notices to date, Perkins is plagued by three inbred obstacles: She's picky, she's a woman and she's not a bombshell beauty.

"I don't want to contribute to all the junk that is out there, but compared to the number of parts for men my age, there aren't a lot of challenging roles for women," Perkins said. "The studios are willing to take a chance on actors. They'll make a film around Andrew McCarthy or Judd Nelson. They won't make a film around someone like me. In many ways, Hollywood just likes to dress us up and make us little dolls."

Perkins hopes that newer actresses such as Holly Hunter and Meg Ryan will demand more and continue to prove that their more mature colleagues--the Meryl Streeps, Jessica Langes and Sissy Spaceks--are not the only women who can portray strong female characters.

Still, there is the "problem" of her brown hair. Perkins is about as far from ugly as a summer sunset at the Malibu pier, yet she said she has lost several roles simply because the film makers wanted somebody blond.

"I've been turned down for more roles because they say I'm just not pretty enough," Perkins complained. "Nobody says, 'I'm sorry Dustin Hoffman, you can't do this role, you're just not attractive enough.' You do deal with a lot of narrow minds, but you can't let it get to you. You just have to keep plugging away."

Perkins has been plugging away since she was 16. She grew up on a 600-acre farm in Vermont and dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. But when she couldn't get through high school chemistry, dreams of college biology labs segued into monologues on stage at Chicago's Goodman School of Drama.

"I always had an infatuation with behavior," Perkins said. "The way people behave, the way animals behave. I still stare at people. And when I did my first play, it was like I was studying behavior. I got to create a mind that didn't exist and that was fascinating because I had been creating minds that didn't exist simply by watching some old lady at the HoJo eating a roll."

Perkins then took her people-watching to New York, where she auditioned and won roles in various plays, including the Broadway production of Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs." Hollywood came calling a few years later with the juicy role of the smart-aleck best friend in ". . . About Last Night," and while many critics stood in line to pan the film and its brat-pack stars, most raved about the brash newcomer's aggressive performance.

Next, Perkins prettied herself up for a part as Judd Nelson's attorney girlfriend in an utterly forgettable movie, "From the Hip."

Perkins said she was attracted to "Big" because her character--the repressed, yuppie career woman who discovers the little kid inside herself as she seduces Tom Hanks' boy-man--does a bit more than stand on the sidelines and cheer Hanks on. And if it wasn't Lady Macbeth, Perkins said she nevertheless embraced her role in "Big" because the character was a lot like her.

"I just look at it as an egg with a runny yolk on the inside and a hard shell on the outside," Perkins said. "That's exactly who I am."

A walking dichotomy, she can be a young woman railing against U.S. foreign policy in Central America one moment and then play contentedly on the floor with her cats the next. Exactly the kind of woman Perkins is begging to portray on screen.

"I want to play the photographer Diane Arbus, Vivien Leigh, Judy Garland, Clara Bow. I want to play somebody who's got a black hole right here," Perkins said, cupping her hands on her gut after daintily sucking down a bowl of corn chowder. "I'm attracted to the Jekyll and Hydes of this world, you know. Women who are eggs."

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