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On View : Challenging the System : PARENTING RIGHTS FOR A MENTALLY DISABLED MOTHER ARE AT STAKE IN 'YARN PRINCESS'

March 27, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jean Smart is shooting a pivotal scene for her new ABC movie "The Yarn Princess" inside the stuffy Don Carlos Studios in downtown Los Angeles. Sitting in the witness stand on the crowded courtroom set, Smart cries her eyes out explaining to the judge that she's a good mother. The actress is so touching that the other actors and crew, oblivious to the lights and the camera, begin sobbing.

Someone yells, "Cut!" Smart dries her eyes and gets ready to shoot the scene again.

"The Yarn Princess" chronicles the true, four-hankie story of Margaret (Smart), a developmentally slow woman who still manages to marry and raise a family. When her husband Jake (Robert Pastorelli) is diagnosed as schizophrenic and can no longer work, Margaret goes to court to prove she is competent to retain custody of her six sons, ages 2 through 17.

"This is a grand love story unlike any other love story," says Pastorelli of the movie whose title comes from a fairy tale that Margaret tells her children at bedtime. Pastrorelli's portrayal of factory worker Jake is 180 degrees removed from his sitcom role as the funky housepainter/nanny Eldin on "Murphy Brown."

"Two people who are normal and fall in love and have a family--that can be hard enough," explains Pastorelli, relaxing between scenes in his trailer. "Maintaining love is hard enough in itself. But for these two people, the love is very special. It's a bond. Their souls are intertwined. They are soul mates. Then outside forces come in and start to pull them apart."

Pastorelli says he and Smart clicked as soon as they met. "We are really close, especially as far as the work. We both work very much in the moment, not playing the scene, but letting the scene play us. It's like when two people just finish one another's thoughts. We just bonded like that."

Smart and director Tom McLoughlin visited various homes for people who are developmentally disabled. "I met a couple of women who were in this woman's position, who had lost their children and were trying to get them back," Smart says via phone, months after production is completed. Smart wouldn't do any on-set interviews during the arduous filming.

One woman Smart spent most of her time with didn't have a husband, but had seven children, who, at different stages, had been taken away from her by the state. "I spoke to her attorney who was doing whatever he could for her. Some people are not capable of taking care of their children. The thing is, it's not necessarily because their IQ falls below a line that has been drawn that is considered normal. It's for a variety of reasons, mostly poverty or inability to get work or keep work. God knows, we have seen evidence of people who have normal and more-than-normal intelligence who could never be parents."

Pastorelli also spent a lot of time researching schizophrenia. "I thought it was sort of like split personalties," he acknowledges. "But it's not. It's a brain disease. Different things happen, and you have to be able to play that. I mean, can you imagine having people shouting at you? Voices in your head? People speaking to you?"

The actor won't discuss why he thinks Jake would marry a woman with the mentality of a 13-year-old. "That gets real touchy," he says. "I was asking myself those questions and I came up with the answers, but I think the answers to that are possibly something that I really can't share."

But Smart will. "He's a nice working-class Joe. Here is a woman who, first of all, adores him. She will never leave him and she is very, very sweet and very, very trusting. You know he probably met a lot of women more jaded than her and it didn't appeal to him."

After Jake's illness, she says, Margaret "did need a little extra help, but she had the ability to learn and wanted to learn because the only thing she lived for was being a mother. She just wasn't prepared for all the details and responsibilities she was going to take on when he became ill."

Though Smart says that she never cried so much in one film, the emotional aspect of playing Margaret wasn't difficult. "It was finding a quality, a physical and vocal quality for her that I was happy with and the director was happy with," she says. "That terrified me because if people can't buy this right away, then it will be difficult to take them through this story."

Smart also worked hard to create a specific look for Margaret. "Sometimes when you look different than yourself, it helps you to keep the image of the character in your head," she says. So, she darkened her blond hair and wore outfits that "were things that she would have gotten at a thrift shop. Things that would appeal to her were things that she wore when she was little. And I had to wear ankle socks. It's comfortable to have socks on."

"The Yarn Princess" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on ABC.

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