What Mimi Rogers' carefully nuanced performance in "The Rapture" will do for her career remains to be seen, but there's no denying the film takes her into previously uncharted territory: Her character, Sharon, a directory assistance operator in Los Angeles, participates in group sex, experiences religious ecstasy, commits murder and tells God to take a hike.
"Mimi knew she had to do something electric to jump-start her career because it was kind of stuck," says first-time director Michael Tolkin of Rogers, the star of his provocative debut film, which opened in L.A., New York and Atlanta on Friday. "She didn't want to keep playing rich women and agreeable girlfriends and she realized she'd been typecast as a stoic object, a caged rich bird. In a way, being married to Tom Cruise for three years must've been sort of a real-life version of that, and she was ready to take a chance and break out. This film gave her an opportunity to do that, and she really delivered. I think people are going to be surprised."
Rogers' performance is just one of the surprising things in Tolkin's controversial film, which has been the talk of the film community since it began screening in August. Not since Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" has a film dealt so explicitly--some say blasphemously--with issues of faith, sin and retribution. Aptly described by critic David Ansen as "a theological film noir," this modestly budgeted movie (it was made for $3 million) is structured in such a way that it's open to wildly divergent interpretation, and test-audience response to the film has been decidedly split. Some Fundamentalist groups hail the film as right on, others lambaste it as anti-religious; some non-Christian audiences dismiss it as pro-Christian propaganda, others read it as a conservative, AIDS-era treatise on sexuality.
"Whether they agree or disagree with the politics of the film, most of the people who've seen it appreciate the fact that it deals with things that seem to have become taboo in movies," Rogers observes. "It gives people a way to talk about religious issues, and we're discovering this is something people want to talk about very much."
With Rogers appearing in all but one of the film's 102 scenes, she describes the six-week L.A. shoot as simultaneously "exhilarating and terrifying, because I knew if my performance didn't work, then the movie wouldn't work."
The film chronicles the spiritual journey of Sharon as she attempts to fill the excruciating loneliness of her life with casual sexual encounters. Finally, in complete despair, she finds God, who proceeds to lead her down a path fraught with such suffering and trauma that she ultimately rejects Him. Sharon no longer doubts the existence of God--there's ample proof that He exists. However, she concludes that any God who inflicts such torment on those who place their faith in Him as unworthy of her love. Tolkin sees Sharon's defiance of God as an act of heroism and interprets the film as a metaphor for the conflict between the individual and the authority of the collective. Rogers agrees with Tolkin--sort of.
"I see the film as a warning against blind lack of self-awareness and self-determination because my character is equally blind before and after she experiences her conversion," Rogers explains. "If you interpret the film that way, then Sharon's final decision is a moment of triumph because as dark as the choice she makes is, it's the only point in the whole story where she says, 'This is what I believe and I won't violate this belief.'
"At the same time, I don't see this story as anti-religious, nor was it our intention to present my character as a 'born-again' Christian," she says emphatically. "We tried to make it clear that the story is not an indictment of any specific denomination, but rather, is an inquiry into the issues of faith, God, obedience and morality."
Catching Rogers for a conversation about the film proves to be something of a challenge, and we're meeting at a conference room at LAX, where she has a two-hour stop between flights. En route from Sun Valley, Ida. where she just completed shooting "Dark Horse" for director David Hemmings, to Santa Fe, N.M., to complete shooting with co-star Willem Dafoe on the Roger Donaldson film "White Sands," Rogers looks remarkably healthy and rested considering that she can't remember the last time she had a day off. "It's always feast or famine with me," she says with a sigh, "but I'm not complaining because I'm thrilled with what's happening with my career." Rogers will begin shooting her next film with co-star Jeff Goldblum in November.