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Beauty and the boards

Linda Hamilton of `Terminator' fame stars as Nurse Ratched in `Cuckoo's Nest' at the Berkshire Theatre Festival.

July 24, 2007|Frank Rizzo | Hartford Courant

STOCKBRIDGE, MASS. — Linda Hamilton throws out her arms as if she suddenly sees an old lost friend and beckons him to her embrace.

Hamilton's giddy enthusiasm, caffeinated energy and self-deprecating humor might surprise fans who remember her gritty Sarah Connor in the first two "Terminator" movies or D.A. Catherine Chandler in the TV series "Beauty and the Beast."

On a sunny morning outside the rehearsal hall of the Berkshire Theatre Festival, she is as loose and lively as a kid at summer camp, albeit one who loves to smoke.

But once rehearsals start, Hamilton is playing another figure of stoic strength, Nurse Ratched in Dale Wasserman's stage adaptation based on Ken Kesey's novel, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." (The play -- which also features Jonathan Epstein as McMurphy and Randy Harrison as Billy Bibbit -- runs through Saturday.)

"Try to make me look good," she tells the photographer, adding, "Good luck with that. I'm pretty disappointing, really." She then impersonates an imagined fan, " 'Wow, we'd thought she'd be -- different.' "

For the record, at 50, Hamilton is tan and fit. An actress who has created two iconic roles -- one based in dewy romance, the other in fierce fortitude -- can find herself being pigeonholed. But the stage has given Hamilton a chance to transform herself and put her in touch with her theatrical beginnings.

Last summer she played Maxine, the lusty innkeeper in Tennessee Williams' "The Night of the Iguana."

"I flew myself to New York to win that part," she says. "Rumor has it I spent more on the audition than I earned doing the role for the entire run. I think they felt sorry about that, so they gave me the part. I didn't even know where the Berkshires were, quite frankly."

The show and actress received glowing reviews.

"I knew [the run] had gone well enough that they might have me back some day," she says, "and I made it clear to [artistic director Kate McGuire] that I would love to come back."

She got the call asking her to play another iconic character: Ratched, the mother-nurse superior who rules her mental ward with pills, electric shocks and lobotomies.

"I pretended that I had to take a moment to consider," she says. " 'Yeah, I'm in' -- though you never really know what else is coming your way. It's hard to commit so far ahead of time if something -- like a real paying job -- came along, I might need to go there."

Hamilton, the mother of two teenagers, spends most of her time in Los Angeles.

"I live the country life in Malibu, but I'm a little done with L.A., quite frankly," she says. "I still have a few more years to put in because I have children."

Although the children have famous parents -- her ex-husbands include director James Cameron ("The Terminator," "Titanic") and actor Bruce Abbott -- they aren't interested in pursuing careers in the entertainment business.

"A lot of children out there think it's easy -- if you have famous parents, then you're famous too. It's something I have a problem with. They really don't have any idea what it took to get there or what it was like to start out in the business, how I lived in New York with rats and robbers and what a tough beginning it was, because they were born into affluence."

Hamilton was hardly on a fast track to success when she left her home in Maryland as a teenager to pursue a career on the New York stage. A fearless move, no?

"The truth? I followed a boyfriend. I was in college, and the boy I was in love with at the time -- who was a townie, not even from college; we had done some community theater together -- came up to New York to study acting. And I was like, 'Me, too!' That's how it all started. Now, I truly loved the theater, but it was all an accident, really. I think it was my naivete that took me to New York as much as anything."

Her role as Nurse Ratched calls for the actress to turn to the dark side -- but in a human way, because the strong-willed character thinks she is doing the right thing.

"She's formidable and, in a way, more challenging than playing Maxine, who was this sensual, liberating force where everything was right out there. [Ratched] is so buttoned up, with a genuine need to impose order. It's a challenge to make that interesting."

It's also a role that Hamilton can relate to in medical terms.

"I have compassion because of my own history," she says, referring to her public stance several years ago involving her own struggle with a bipolar disorder. (She began taking medication in 1996.)

And thoughts about her "Terminator" costar, the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger?

"He's a loyal and steadfast friend," she says, "but I'm a strong Democrat, and when people asked me if I was going to vote for him, I said, 'Noooooo.' But I did -- because he adapted. I respect him so much for his balanced approach, his incredible drive and the fact that he is not in it for himself. I really believe his interests are genuinely for the public good. I also think he's an incredible leader as well as businessman."

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