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The New Age Cleopatra

Television: Leonor Varela brings a '90s sensibility to her portrayal of the ancient Egyptian queen.

May 21, 1999|JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Discreetly but without a hint of apology, Leonor Varela lifts the hem of her gray silk dress at a table in a posh Beverly Hills hotel. High on her left thigh is a 2-inch pencil-line scar. A sword nicked her, she said, during filming of a battle scene in "Cleopatra," a new four-hour Hallmark Entertainment miniseries for ABC that begins Sunday.

There is about this 24-year-old half-French, half-Chilean actress--who portrays the ancient Egyptian queen with a modern, spiritual sensibility--an aura of supreme confidence.

Varela, who had her American film debut in a minor role last year in "The Man in the Iron Mask" opposite Leonardo DiCaprio, also leaves her mark on "Cleopatra." A virtual unknown here, signed two weeks ago by the Endeavor agency, she is one of those dark, smoldering beauties with a luminous face that, well, could launch a thousand ships--or stop them dead in their tracks.

Neither Timothy Dalton's powerful Julius Caesar, with his piercing blue eyes, dimpled chin and face that belongs on a Roman coin, nor Billy Zane's sensual Marc Antony--the two key men in "Cleopatra's" life--eclipses her. Zane, 33, who has morphed from that cad of an aristocratic fiance in "Titanic" into a boyishly appealing leader on "Cleopatra," awaits Varela at a nearby table. Just after the Oscars--two months after filming wrapped--she and Zane became romantically involved.

"You know, I sometimes feel like I wake up with the makeup of Cleopatra on my face because you cannot go through this part without it leaving stains on you," said Varela, who was born in Chile and spent her childhood in Colorado and Germany before moving to Paris. "That scar means a lot to me because it is the embodiment to prove that she went through me. . . .

"It was a big challenge to say, 'What are you going to bring new to the role? What are you going to do now?' " she said, well aware of the Cleopatras who have preceded her on the Shakespearean stage and on screen, including Claudette Colbert, Vivien Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor.

"So after a week of panic where I read as much as I could . . . I just really attacked the work and grabbed the character's body and tried to fit in it. It was a pleasure going through the process of making this woman, this amazing woman, go from a 20-year-old virgin to an accomplished woman, sovereign and a mother. [She] has values to her vision of life, meaning 'I want the world to be a better place.' And I wanted to let her have little failures, humanity."

Director Franc Roddam chose her, she said, after she and Kassandra Voyagis, who plays Cleopatra's sister Arsinoe, read each role. "So there was this built-in rivalry which was very stimulating, and whoever dominated the other in that room got the part. I guess I did my job," she said, laughing.

The lavish $30-million production, of course, is a major player itself. Executive-produced by Robert Halmi Sr. and Robert Halmi Jr., it was filmed in Morocco and at Shepperton Studios outside London. By the time it wrapped, "Cleopatra" had used 1,000 extras, 600 horses, 40-foot-thick walls, a ton of copper, 2,000 costumes, 1,500 pieces of jewelry, 300 wigs and a rebuilt city of Alexandria, measuring a quarter mile from one end to the other.

"The first time I arrived in Morocco," Varela said, "Franc took me by the hand and walked me from [Cleopatra's] boat all the way up to the palace steps, [and said] 'Here, my love, let me show you your palace.' "

So how does Roddam take viewers by the hand and make a nearly 2,100-year-old story resonate today?

"It should be epic--people are expecting that," said Roddam, a British director best known for Halmi Sr.'s "Moby Dick" (1998) on USA Network and the teen cult movie "Quadrophenia" (1979). "But then if it's only epic, [people] won't be able to relate to it totally. So you make it intimate as well. Intimate in its dealing with relationships.

"I see a woman trying to hang onto something that men are trying to take from her. Egypt, in this instance. Whereas it could be a corporation, it could be family. She knows she has to deal with the world of men and work her way through it."

Roddam suggests that each "Cleopatra" reflects the period in which it was made. "Watch the [Richard] Burton-Taylor film. It's all about [fighting] with each other, and like '50s [Las] Vegas colors. [In our production, she] is a female who actually has rights and defends those rights. This is slightly more New Age-y."

From Roddam's perspective, Caesar really did love Cleopatra, and their son, Ptolemy Caesar, is an important part of the story. "In Caesar, you have this powerful father-like figure teaching her; and with Marc Antony, a much more passionate, a little bit more unstable man; and with Octavius [Rupert Graves]"--later known as Augustus, who became the first Roman emperor--"you have the bureaucrat--slightly effete. Somebody who thought pleasure was indecent almost. Bureaucrats do tend to win. . . .

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