It's a typical day around the Hamilton household--kids, cats and assorted neighbors and helpers milling about the cozy Malibu home. It's the kind of peaceful family environment that has typically defined Linda Hamilton on the big screen--before all hell breaks loose.
In "Terminator," "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," "Dante's Peak" and even the TV series "Beauty and the Beast," Hamilton was just an ordinary girl who finds herself caught in extraordinary circumstances.
It's reasonable, then, to feel suspicious of the tranquillity at this sunny cliff-side compound, especially since later in the day Hamilton will step on a stage for her first theatrical opening in 20 years.
And it's not just any role that has lured the 44-year-old actress into the Tiffany Theatre in West Hollywood--it's the title character in "Laura," a classic 1944 film.
"Everyone I mention the project to says, 'Oh my God, Gene Tierney was brilliant in that, she was brilliant!' " says an upbeat Hamilton, her blue eyes expanding nearly as wide as the reflecting pools outside the living room window.
Seated on a couch in her comfortable Spanish colonial home, Hamilton explains why the leap from "Terminator" to the Tiffany isn't, in reality, all that risky.
When she moved from her Maryland hometown to New York to study with Lee Strasberg as a teen, she was preparing herself for Shakespeare, not Schwarzenegger. Indeed, becoming a buffed-up action star, in her mind, is the far bigger surprise.
Translating to Stage the Black-and-White Film
Her action career "was a muddled accident," she says, laughing. But "Laura" is "right up my alley."
The lithe actress, no longer bulked up for battle, has been searching for stage work for a couple of years. Her manager heard about "Laura," a role Hamilton describes as "just what I wanted to do."
"Women were marvelously empowered in the 1940s," she says. "They could be intelligent and funny and sexy and all of those things. It's gotten a little cloudy out there for women since then."
Translating the black-and-white film onto the stage was the brainchild of film buff and acting teacher Lynette McNeill, director of the production. She had seen the film on cable about a year ago and wondered if it had ever been a play. It had.
McNeill, who counts Jim Carrey, Ellen DeGeneres and Adam Sandler among her acting pupils, thought it "would be really fun to do this play as a black-and-white movie on the stage." The sets and costumes are done in black-and-white with shades of gray, to create the look of the 1940s.
But although the movie provided inspiration, the current stage production sticks to the script from the mystery thriller that appeared on Broadway in 1947. (Both the play and the film were based on a novel.)
Unlike the film, the play appears chronologically and takes place in one room--Laura's living room. Film buffs will recognize some elements of the movie, however.
"David Raksin has given us permission to use that wonderful, haunting music that he wrote," McNeill says.
The director, who had no idea that Hamilton had a theatrical background, was pleasantly surprised when the actress approached her about the part of Laura.
"Linda has a combination of a strength, a vulnerability and a sensuality that I though was wonderful for the part," McNeill says.
"This is so wonderfully right for me right now," says Hamilton. "It's hugely melodramatic and glamorous. . . . They moved with elegance and grace, with hands and so much style."
She loves the physicality of acting and credits her ability to be so physical for her success in action films. But she doesn't care to keep rehashing characters she's already done.
In fact, Hamilton recently turned down a part in the third "Terminator" (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Edward Furlong have both signed on).
"I didn't feel there was anywhere we could take the character," Hamilton says, adding that her decision was bittersweet. "I would only be compared to myself 10 years ago."
Playing the Equalizer in a Hollywood Life
She'd rather explore other characters, such as "Laura," and the women she plays in three other projects she has in the can--a feature film, "Skeletons in the Closet," with Treat Williams; "It's a Girl Thing" for Showtime; and "Bailey's Mistake" with Joan Plowright for ABC.
Besides, with two children--Dalton, 11, and Josephine, 7--staying close to home is a priority.
"Basically I've kept them Hollywood-free, or as much as that's possible--I mean [Josephine's] daddy is Jim Cameron," she says. "I have to be the great equalizer--he's buying ranches and helicopters, and I'm like, 'Pick up your clothes and make your bed.' "
The role of soccer mom suits her fine, she says, explaining that she discovered one of her favorite things was going to her son's Little League games.
"I try to keep a balance. I actually believe that children want normal parents, they don't want celebrities or important parents or anything different from all the other parents."
Her work is a hardship for the kids, she says, because they're used to her tucking them into bed every night. But for her the stage work is a delightful challenge as well as a bit of an experiment, after going in a different direction for 20 years.
"Somehow, it is really wonderful to be able to step off and look at how it all came about and say, wow, this is not particularly the way I imagined my career going," she says.
"I love Shakespeare; I always thought of myself as a Shakespearean actress. I was a very serious student in New York, at the Actors Studio. This [play] is a way of me reacquainting myself with who I meant to be, and see if it still holds true."
* "Laura," Tiffany Theatre, 8532 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Dec. 17. $25-$30. (310) 289-2999.