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Less is really more

Actress Hope Davis prefers to make her mark in low-budget enterprises like 'The Secret Lives of Dentists' and 'American Splendor.'

August 10, 2003|Robert Abele | Special to The Times

When "Dentists" director Rudolph met with her in a New York restaurant to play the arty, discontented wife, he took full advantage of the Davis stare. "Every time she looked away for some reason, I would study her face," says Rudolph, who understood that Davis' character must be mysterious yet sympathetic. "I said to her, 'I'd like to really exploit your beauty because you're stunning, so I might take the extra adjustment to make sure we capture it in the most flattering way.' And she said, 'Really? Nobody ever wants me for that. They usually hire me because I look like a Midwest girl.' "

Davis is actually a New York girl by way of Tenafly, N.J. Although the family -- engineer father William, librarian mom Joan, plus an older and younger sister -- lived in the Garden State, weekends were spent soaking up Manhattan culture: art, ballet and theater. The shy kid who kept to herself in the schoolyard felt her worries dissipate on the big-city streets. "I like apartments, being up off the ground and having tons of people sleeping around. I definitely fantasized about moving to the city."

In Streep's footsteps

Not that her artistic dreams didn't exacerbate Davis' admittedly fretful nature. Getting rejected for ballet school left her feeling "washed up" at 15, until a production of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" came along. "It's perfect for teenage girls," Davis says of the adolescent hysteria that makes the Salem witch-trial play a high school drama department standard.

"You keep it together all day and then, man, oh, man, Friday night comes and your whole French class is in the front row and you really let it rip." . , I definitely fell in love with acting then."

It wasn't her major at Vassar College, however, even though she knew it was her calling. "It was a big deal in my family to go to college," Davis explains, "so my parents were very clear that if I wanted to act, I should go to New York, and if I wanted to go to college, I should study something else."

Emboldened by the mandate, Davis opted for a cognitive science degree -- "it's biology, psychology, linguistics, and it was fascinating," she says -- but an itch is an itch. Davis did plays there and found time to rifle the archives for information on her idol: fellow New Jerseyite and Vassar grad Meryl Streep.

"I found this file on 'Miss Julie,' which she had done at Vassar, and there were costume drawings for her," Davis says. "I was shaking as I held the pages."

Upon graduation, Davis headed for the theater mecca of Chicago. Davis recalls her pie-in-the-sky bravado: "You know, it's 'We'll go there, get jobs at Steppenwolf.' Right." Yet when her big break came, it was sizable: landing the female role in the 1989 Chicago premiere of homeboy David Mamet's Hollywood satire "Speed-the-Plow," directed by Joel Schumacher.

"I was so nervous I went through the entire play in my head every night before going on stage," she recalls. Schumacher even flew her to Los Angeles for her film debut, a bit part in his 1990 drama "Flatliners." But for true-blues like Davis, who was a staple on the New York stage in the early '90s, some things never die. "I never did get a job at Steppenwolf," she says, the disappointment lingering.

Davis treasures what she does enough that when asked to divulge some of the camera tricks Jack Nicholson imparted on her, she politely demurs. "It's his secret," she says, as if addressing something mystical. "I'll use them till the day I die."

What she will talk about is how inspired she was by the three-time Academy Award winner. "He's still so passionate about it. It's great when you meet people who are not bored or jaded or bitchy, you know? He still knows this is a great job."

Right now, the "great job" has transported Davis and her actor husband, Jon Patrick Walker, and 1-year-old daughter, Georgia, to South Africa for "Black Stallion" director Carroll Ballard's newest, untitled, travelogue saga, in which she plays a farm widow whose boy befriends a cheetah. Davis has already learned how to plow fields and drive a Range Rover with a wildcat in the passenger seat, filmic tasks on the other end of the spectrum from the adult banter she's grown accustomed to from indies.

"I'm usually in the kind of films my daughter won't enjoy until she's 30," Davis joked recently on the phone from Johannesburg. "So it'll be nice to be in a film that she can see."

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