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Family Secrets

March 04, 2001|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If she were not a mother herself, Elisabeth Shue believes she couldn't have played the parent of a teenage daughter in the drama "Amy and Isabelle," which premieres Sunday on ABC under the "Oprah Winfrey Presents" banner.

"If I hadn't been a mom, I would never have understood how deeply you love your children," says Shue, who has a 3-year-old son, Myles, and is about to give birth to her second child.

"Just even a few years ago, if you would have told me I would be playing a mother, I would have seen her as some cliche, as a mother who is on the sidelines. Yet here is a role where there was so much complexity and depth and rich with possibilities," says Shue. "It really excited me with the idea that there are stories out there about parents and children that are really complicated and beautiful."

Based on the best-selling book by Elizabeth Strout, "Amy and Isabelle" finds Shue playing Isabelle Goodrow, a proper, dowdy, hard-working single mother with a shy but pretty 16-year-old daughter, Amy (Hanna Hall). Though the two seem close, the "perfect" life that Isabelle has constructed for them is just a ruse to cover up her secret past.

The women's dull routine is shattered with the arrival of Amy's new math teacher, Mr. Robertson (Martin Donovan), a charismatic, handsome man who takes a real interest in Amy. When Amy's schoolgirl crush turns into something more, it threatens their close bond.

With her modicum of makeup, shapeless clothes and dark hair tightly wound in a bun, Shue, who received an Oscar nomination for her complex performance as a prostitute in "Leaving Las Vegas," is barely recognizable as Isabelle.

"I was nervous about playing Isabelle and scared," says the actress. "But I have learned over the years it is the only reason to play a character. It means you are going to be pushing yourself beyond the boundaries you know you have. But the wonderful thing about Isabelle I could relate to is I understand her insides."

Shue was intimidated that audiences would not think she was right for the part, a fear she also encountered doing "Leaving Las Vegas." So just as with "Leaving Las Vegas," Shue never went to see any of the daily footage on "Amy and Isabelle."

"I was scared of seeing what I looked like," she acknowledges. "I never went to dailies because it would make me self-conscious-- that I would see something that I didn't believe and then I would get thrown."

"Amy and Isabelle" was adapted and directed by Lloyd Kramer, who previously did the "Oprah Winfrey Presents" dramas "Before Women Had Wings" and "David & Lisa."

Kramer says he decided to pursue Shue after reading a magazine interview in which she was reflecting about her career goals. "She has this quality in her face that has a certain poignancy, so I met with her and, true to Isabelle Goodrow, she showed up at this meeting, and there were 400 Post-it notes sticking out of her script. She was a serious actress and a terrific collaborator."

The director's first choice for daughter Amy was Hall, whom he had seen in the feature "The Virgin Suicides" as the troubled youngest sibling in a family of five girls.

"I really wanted her," Kramer says. "She had just turned 16 and was totally true to the part."

Hall found the characters of Amy and Isabelle "real and very humanistic. I definitely related to something in Amy. I saw a good part of her in a part of me. She was just interesting."

Kramer carefully plan-

ned a pivotal scene between Amy and her teacher that takes place in his car. The camera cuts away early enough to leave what really happened between the two up to viewers' imaginations.

Because the scene dealt with an adult and a minor, Kramer story-boarded it "just to show [the actors] there would be no tricks up my sleeve. We were sensitive to everything."

"The atmosphere they created on the set was very comfortable," echoes Hall. "I wasn't too worried about it."

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"Oprah Winfrey Presents: Amy and Isabelle" airing Sunday at 9 p.m. on ABC. The network has rated it TV-14-DS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with special advisories for suggestive dialogue and sexual situations).

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