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The New Scarlett: Where Shall She Go? How Shall She Act?

November 13, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last we saw of Mrs. Scarlett O'Hara Butler, no one gave a damn about her.

Well, that may not be completely accurate. Probably every person who has watched the ambiguous ending of the movie based on the Margaret Mitchell novel wondered what would happen next to the willful Southern belle who once vowed, as God was her witness, to never go hungry again.

How would such a woman cope after her husband left her--so suddenly and in all that fog--in an Atlanta manse. It would be something sweeping in grand Scarlett style, no doubt.

Author Alexandra Ripley's bold sequel to "Gone With the Wind" filled in the blanks, and it wasn't long before a CBS miniseries was in the making. Here, the two actors picked to play Scarlett and Rhett Butler talk about the expectations and the reality of picking up where movie legends last left off in 1939.

A lot of actresses would be intimidated about following Vivien Leigh's legendary Oscar-winning turn as Scarlett O'Hara in the all-time favorite movie "Gone With the Wind."

Fiddle-dee-dee. Not Joanne Whalley-Kilmer.

The petite, unassuming actress doesn't seem a bit unnerved about playing Margaret Mitchell's infamous, fiery character. "Scarlett," the lavish eight-hour miniseries, based on Alexandra Ripley's best-selling sequel to Mitchell's novel "Gone With the Wind," premieres Sunday on CBS.

Actors, Whalley-Kilmer says, always have played roles that other actors have essayed before. So she really doesn't understand the fuss.

"On one level, it's, 'What are they talking about?' " she says, relaxing in the lounge of the Bel-Air Hotel. "On another level, it's different because you are dealing with 'Gone With the Wind.' On the other hand, we are not remaking 'Gone With the Wind.' But even if we were, why shouldn't we? Why shouldn't we have another go at the role?"

Whalley-Kilmer, 30, has a lot in common with Leigh, who died in 1967. Like Leigh, Whalley-Kilmer is British with a strong stage and movie ("Scandal") background. Leigh was married to actor Laurence Olivier for more than 20 years; Whalley-Kilmer has been married for six years to actor Val Kilmer, the newest Batman, whom she met while they were making "Willow." The couple have a young daughter, Mercedes.

She also happens to adore old movies, especially Leigh's. "I've always been a Vivien Leigh fan," she says softly. "She was extraordinary. Vivien Leigh is so exquisite and wonderful and completely Scarlett O'Hara in the first film. It's a wonderful movie and it has gone beyond a movie. It is people's lives."

And CBS is probably hoping that "Scarlett" will become part of modern culture, too. Adapted by William Hanley and directed by John Erman ("Queen"), the melodrama begins at Melanie Wilkes' funeral and chronicles Scarlett's futile early attempts to win back her husband, the dashing Rhett Butler (Timothy Dalton).

The sprawling story spans six years and follows Scarlett to Ireland, where she becomes involved with her relatives and the wealthy but evil Earl of Fenton (Sean Bean), who becomes her lover. Though Scarlett doesn't have to endure the Civil War and those nasty Yankees, she does survive a boating accident, experiences an horrific birth, receives a concussion after falling off her horse during a fox hunt and is put on trial for murder.

Audiences won't know until the final episode if Rhett, who remarries in the second installment, does give a damn and comes to Scarlett's rescue.

Whalley-Kilmer is in practically every scene of the maxiseries. She says she kept up her energy during the arduous six-month shoot in England, Ireland and Charleston, S.C., because Scarlett had energy to spare.

"We started shooting very early Monday morning and by the time we got through Friday, we would finish very late," she explains. "So Saturday, you were like a moron because you were exhausted. Sundays, I'd go over stuff for the week coming up. Thank God, we had some time in the weekend, so we could take a breath."

The first couple of weeks were chaotic. "I felt like I was spinning," she says, lighting up a cigarette. "I was surrounded and people were pulling at my costumes. It was endless--seven scenes a day and dialogue and period and time changes and event changes. It was a whirlwind. But what happens is that you kind of hit your stride and see what the task is."

Whalley-Kilmer pauses and laughs. "The problem is, now I'm not changing my clothes six times a day. I'm getting confused. I get twitchy. I should be changing."

Having her family with her also helped. Mercedes, she says, "was great. She was kind of a great savior. When I was single and I was doing this stuff by myself, you would go crazy at night. You worry so much about what happened during the day. You just torture yourself. With a 2 1/2-year-old, you get home at night and you are a mom. I just know they both really helped me."

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