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An AbFab Impression

'Little Voice' could be the ticket to fame on this side of the pond for chameleon-like British actress Jane Horrocks.

November 08, 1998|AMY WALLACE | Amy Wallace is a Times staff writer

The film that many people believe is going to make Jane Horrocks a big star is called "Little Voice," and at first glance, the title seems to fit.

Horrocks, the 5-foot-2-inch actress best known in America for playing Bubble on the hit British television comedy "Absolutely Fabulous," plays a painfully shy girl--nicknamed "L.V." for her tiny whisper--who privately mourns her late father by listening to his classic record collection. When L.V. begins to sing along, however, impersonating Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Shirley Bassey and Marilyn Monroe with dead-on accuracy, she comes alive. Suddenly, there's nothing little about her.

The same can be said for Horrocks herself. Her nasal Lancashire accent, which she intentionally nurtures despite being told in drama school that its working-class twang would cost her, gives her a big, saucy sound. Her appetite, spurred by the fact she's four months pregnant with her second child, is large and veers toward the spicy. So, too, is the breadth of her opinions, which tumble out of her unchecked.

The actress, 34, doesn't believe in marriage ("I see it as a bit like a sheep being branded"). She thinks most productions of Shakespeare--especially British ones--are boring ("Americans on the whole probably do Shakespeare better than we do. They're more relaxed"). And don't get her started on Hollywood.

"A lot of people who come here go off the rails. They're not used to the attention or the mollycoddling that goes on out here," she said recently, dribbling Tabasco on a shrimp salad at Los Angeles' Four Seasons Hotel. When reminded that fellow Brit Gary Oldman has had great success acting in big studio movies, she responds pointedly, "And is Gary Oldman happy?"

Despite her skepticism, when Miramax releases "Little Voice" on Dec. 4, many expect Horrocks, who is well-known in Britain, to finally get Hollywood's attention. In the film, her character is stifled by an overbearing mother (Brenda Blethyn) and is so bashful that she can barely speak to the timid telephone repairman (Ewan MacGregor) who persistently comes calling. But when a small-time agent (Michael Caine) discovers her hidden singing talent, the stage is set for what could become the most talked-about on-screen club act since "The Full Monty."

Though Horrocks won a 1992 Los Angeles Critics Award for portraying a twitchy, bulimic teenager in Mike Leigh's "Life Is Sweet," and while she has been asked to audition for directors such as Terry Gilliam (for "The Fisher King") and Barry Levinson (for "Toys"), the actress has largely escaped notice on this side of the Atlantic. Mark Herman, the writer-director of "Little Voice," predicts all that is about to change.

"She's a chameleon, really. The roles she's played are so diverse that people don't really know who she is. They've seen her, but they don't know they've seen her," said Herman, who also wrote and directed the Miramax comedy "Brassed Off." "This is a real star-making role. The interesting thing is that Jane doesn't necessarily want that. She's got this enormous talent, but she's perfectly happy to sit at home in [London]."

Horrocks has been said to be a master of transformations, and this film--adapted from the smash London play "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice"--makes the most of that skill. Her ability to change from a frail mouse into a strutting diva is nearly as impressive as her impersonations themselves.

But what is most striking--some moviegoers will even find it unbelievable--is that Horrocks isn't faking. The play was inspired by her real-life talent for mimicry, and the resulting film (much of which was shot live, not re-dubbed, to preserve the immediacy of her performances) is breathtaking just for the sheer athleticism of her vocal cords.

"I was the bane of my parents' lives," Horrocks jokes, recalling how as a child she first discovered that she could get laughs by imitating famous voices. Bassey, British singer Cilla Black and Julie Andrews were early favorites.

While at drama school, she picked up more voices--Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich, for example. But performing them was merely an amusement, not part of her theatrical work.

"I didn't actually use the impersonations, apart from doing them as a party piece, for probably eight years," she said. "When [playwright] Jim Cartwright said he would write a play around them, I said, 'That would be quite nice.' But secretly I hoped he never would. The thought of doing it professionally really scared me."

Horrocks' worst fear, that on opening night of "Rise and Fall" she'd open her mouth and nothing would come out, loomed as she rehearsed the play with director Sam Mendes. During early run-throughs, Mendes had to coax her out from behind a pillar to sing in front of the cast.

There were also times when she worried about getting mixed up.

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