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In Short Order

Alison Elliott can whip up a sultry temptress as easily as she can her plain waitress in 'The Spitfire Grill.' And directors are eating it up.

August 18, 1996|John Clark | John Clark is a frequent contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — When director Steven Soderbergh auditioned Alison Elliott for the role of a temptress in "The Underneath," he says, "We all looked at each other and said the same thing: 'Lauren Bacall.' "

"Alison really smoked," says casting director Ronnie Yeskyl, who was at the session. "She was sultry and smoky, and that's what we were looking for."

Audiences looking for smoke in Elliott's newest film, a low-budget indie called "The Spitfire Grill," are in for a big surprise. According to "Spitfire" director Lee David Zlotoff, her performance as an ex-con who tries to start a new life in small-town New England has some people calling her "the next Jodie Foster" and "the next Holly Hunter."

Jodie Foster, Holly Hunter and Lauren Bacall?

Not surprisingly, the 26-year-old Elliott looks like none of the above: Her most prominent feature is her arresting blue eyes--which, of course, allows her to act like all of the above, and then some. She's just flown in from Venice, Italy, where she's playing what she calls "a high-bred American, 1910," in Iain Softley's "Wings of the Dove," co-starring Helena Bonham Carter, Linus Roache and Elizabeth McGovern.

"It's sort of a love triangle between an American heiress and this English friend and a young English guy," Elliott says of the film, which is an adaptation of a Henry James novel. "She's an orphan and terribly, terribly rich and goes to Europe for an adventure because she's not well."

Does this make Elliott the next Gwyneth Paltrow? Cybill Shepherd? Bette Davis?

Like her character in "Wings of the Dove," Elliott has not been well, although in this case it isn't some sort of Method acting. She's been suffering from kidney stones. It was diagnosed in Italian, which she does not speak, so while she's in New York she'll get a second opinion. So far it's cost her one day of work.

"I had a fever, and I'd already been working with a fever," she says. "I was worried about not being able to finish the film. I can laugh about it now."

She isn't laughing when she says it. She does, however, order an onion and lox omelet, though she leaves it mostly untouched. Instead, she smokes a succession of cigarettes, orders more coffee ("Like I'm not wired enough already," she says) and talks about her ancient Mustang and Oldsmobile. She shows a picture of her dog sitting with her boyfriend, carefully leaving her thumb covering her boyfriend's face. (She won't talk about him; they met on the "Spitfire" set.) She says she lives in the Hollywood "flats," which, she cheerfully admits, is a bit crummy.

"I've always been a little wary of something that's a little too upscale," she says. "I get a rash if I go into Maxfield's."

In short, Elliott's conversation is commonplace and unpretentious. Ironically, despite the Bacall-like impression she made on Soderbergh, it was these everyday qualities that made her attractive to him in the first place.

"She's what I call plausibly attractive," he says. "She looks like somebody you could live near in the place where you grew up. She doesn't have that sort of over-the-top movie good looks that just pull you out of a film."

"One of the things I love about Alison is that her face isn't the same way twice," says Zlotoff, talking about "Spitfire." "In some scenes, she looks pretty and vulnerable. In others, you think this is a tough girl. She could be dangerous."

What's interesting is that this same girl started out modeling, a profession not always noted for its expressive range. She was born in San Francisco and moved to Tokyo with her family when she was 4. They moved back to San Francisco when she was 8, and later she attended an arts high school. She started modeling when she was 14.

"I just did it part time," she says. "When everyone was on summer vacation, I was in New York or Tokyo or Paris. It was a good opportunity for me to make my way and have a little professional experience. I was kind of shy."

After she graduated, she did some more modeling--which she describes as a working vacation, akin to being on location--and then moved to Los Angeles, where she landed a role in the short-lived 1989 television series "Living Dolls." She made her feature debut in "Wyatt Earp" (1993) as "one of the wives," as she puts it. Initially she didn't even know which one it was. (It was Morgan Earp's.)

"I read these pages for one part, but I knew that I was auditioning for a couple of different parts," she says. "I got a call and they said, 'Congratulations, they want you in the film.' I said, 'Great, what part?' Because I had no idea."

She'll be the first to admit that no one remembers her in "Wyatt Earp." However, plenty of people remember her in "The Underneath," in which she played a schemer who is married to a thug (William Fichtner) and is dabbling with her ex-boyfriend (Peter Gallagher) on the side. This might be described as her breakout film, even though it didn't do that well. For this, and for whatever shortcomings there are in Elliott's part, Soderbergh blames himself.

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