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She's a muse but also a creator

Natascha McElhone's characters tend to inflame desire, but her passion is to secure her late husband's legacy.

November 23, 2008|Josh Gajewski | Gajewski is a freelance writer.

On television, she plays the steady hand in a show about unsteady people, the muse to David Duchovny's tortured-writer protagonist in Showtime's saucy Sunday night series "Californication."

She's also played apple to the eyes of Anthony Hopkins in "Surviving Picasso," Jim Carrey in "The Truman Show" and George Clooney in "Solaris." But you probably don't know much else, because 36-year-old Natascha McElhone has always kept her two worlds -- the professional and the private -- further apart than most, flying to the U.S. for film and TV projects, then returning to the U.K. to play mom.

And being a mother now is more important than ever. Her 43-year-old husband, a prominent surgeon in London, died of a heart attack in May. His death came just after the couple's 10th wedding anniversary -- a union that had brought them two children and a third on the way.

"I still feel like the luckiest woman alive, even though he's not here," she wrote in a British newspaper four days after his death. "To have been given such a love, to have had ten years of utter bliss waking up next to someone who made my heart flutter, I could never in my wildest dreams have wished for more."

She'd returned briefly to London, then immediately flew back to Los Angeles to resume "Californication's" second season. "They gave me a choice," she said. "But I'd very suddenly become the only provider in our family and I also would never let down a production in that way. I also wanted to complete the summer as I'd planned it for my kids; they were in all these summer camps and various activities. . . . It seemed necessary to keep things on track."

Back in London four months later, McElhone, by telephone, fielded questions about her trying year but never dipped too far into the sentimental. When asked if her husband's death and the imminent arrival of another child had changed her life perspective, she said, "I'm sure it has, but I'm sure these things aren't realized until some time has passed."

When the subject turned to her husband's works, however, her voice strengthened: "That's sort of my crusade now -- to finish his life, to finish his unfinished business."

Her husband, Martin Kelly, was a renowned plastic surgeon who repaired faces damaged by cancer, birth defects or simply age. The couple met when she was 15. At the time, she was dating her future husband's flatmate.

Some 10 years later, her phone rang and it was him. He had become a surgeon and had just returned to Europe after a two-year stint in New York. He'd never forgotten her.

A little more than a year later, they married in a small village in the South of France, in a ceremony that involved a hilltop church and an accordionist who joined them on a stroll through cobbled streets. Then they lived in Paris, in a tiny flat among the rooftops, and later settled in London, where they had two boys.

As her career blossomed, so did Kelly's. In addition to a thriving practice, he co-founded a charity, Facing the World (facingtheworld.net), that brought Third World children with severe facial deformities to London for medical care.

And he developed, along with three other surgeons, a gel for medicine cabinets everywhere, called Heal, a balm for treating scars and burns. His idea, McElhone said, was that profits from the gel could help fund the charity.

"Heal gel had just come out a week or two before he died," she said. "He sort of held something in his hand, something he'd made, and my kids too are very proud of that. I think the children, having something concrete to hold in their hands, has been great. They love the idea that people are using this and their daddy helped create it."

She thinks of the gel as her husband's "poem, his legacy." It comes in a small jar and states its simple purpose on the label: to sooth, repair and soften the appearance of a healing scar.

Two weeks after this interview -- and in the same hospital where Kelly worked -- McElhone gave birth to her third son.

But soon enough, it was back to work. In January, McElhone will play the lead in "Heaven and Earth," a historical drama for the big screen that tells the true story of James Miranda Barry, a woman who in the early 1800s disguised herself as a man to get through medical school. The film, to be directed by Marleen Gorris (of the Oscar-winning foreign film "Antonia's Line"), will be shot in the United Kingdom and South Africa.

"Martin and I actually talked about it a lot," said McElhone. "We were going to make it a joint mission, which would have been great, but I'm intensely inspired by the story either way.

"I also love the fact that I get to investigate his world a bit more thoroughly than I would have if I didn't have a role like this," she added. "I keep wanting to say 'is.' That's the definition of what he's left behind -- the desire of anyone close to him to plow on, realize their dreams and to never procrastinate."

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