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THE PERFORMANCE

Marley Shelton is driven

The actress says her gallerist character in '(Untitled)' is determined to be a success but also cares passionately about art. Watch for the tears.

October 22, 2009|Michael Ordona

Marley Shelton's Madeleine, the young gallerist in "(Untitled)" who comes between two brothers in the contemporary arts and music scene of New York, is full of surprises.

Madeleine appears a tightly wrapped package: She's a sexy femme fatale with reined-back hair ("Hitchcock blond," Shelton says) and black vinyl, a shark swimming through artist-infested waters. She's obsessed with appearances, with her bizarre haute couture and fashion-only glasses, but sees deeply into the work. She champions way-out-there paintings, sculptures and music but sells schlock on the side. Is she good, bad or a mixed palette?

"There's a purity to her. As driven as she is to find the 'get,' the next hot commodity, she also has a pure passion for art," says Shelton, taking a moment to chat at Lamill, an appropriately upscale "coffee boutique" in Silver Lake. "There really is not one character in the film who's a villain. Each one is totally justified in their plight."

Adrian (Adam Goldberg) is an unpopular avant-garde composer, as uncompromising as he is unpleasant, who says, "Harmony is a capitalist plot to sell pianos." His brother Josh (Eion Bailey) is a commercially successful hack whose paintings are akin to visual Muzak. But Madeleine may be the smartest person in a very smart satire, the only one who understands and accepts the balance between art and commerce.

"I think the quintessential moment for her, when she's completely revealed, is when she's alone in her studio" after she has had to hang art she doesn't believe in, says Shelton, "and she breaks down in genuine tears. It's her most authentic moment on screen, I think, and, of course, she has to cover it up immediately because her buyer's there."

Adrian's dour performances of his atonal opuses are a comedic highlight. Without spoiling anything, let's just say there are buckets of leitmotifs in his work.

"The music was a riot. Adam had a huge hand in creating that. It was nonstop, the amusement factor. And these guys were really flying by the seat of their pants. . . . We did ruin many takes, laughing," she confesses.

"Adam has this ability to make me laugh at any time. I was like, 'I wish I had a Pocket Adam that I could bring out at will and talk to, and say, "Make me laugh," and put him away when goes on too long on a tirade.' So I nicknamed him 'Pocket Adam.' But he's so brilliant and so funny."

"(Untitled)," directed and co-written by Jonathan Parker, appeals on many levels, but those in the know may enjoy in-jokes as broad as ludicrous Damien Hirst-inspired art and as specific as red Christian Louboutin heels on a gallerist. Other subtle touches include a secret-identity moment with a Sarah Lawrence sweat shirt and Madeleine's wardrobe being both seen and heard, occasionally adding an absurd soundtrack to heated moments.

"I got into a friendly tiff with our director and sound designer over the final cut because usually you work so hard so you can't hear shoes over dialogue. You're putting foam on your heels. I couldn't believe they actually laid in sound. 'You guys are unbelievable! It's so distracting!' 'No, it's funny!' But it does go with the whole theme of the movie, from Adrian's point of view, what he's hearing. His POV of me is just this crazy cacophony of noise. She oozes sound, for the better and worse. But I was afraid she'd become grating, that the sound would annoy people."

And then there's the challenge of parodying the art world. "How do you parody something that is changing every second?" Shelton says.

Perhaps she needn't worry about a satire of perception-chasers being dated; as in Hollywood, to which she acknowledges clear parallels in the film, the emperor will always be looking for new clothes at the next hot runway show. Still, the "Angeleno to the core" (born and raised in Eagle Rock, which she calls "a balanced picture of Los Angeles") had to go to a kind of East Coast art school to prepare for the part. Through friends in the New York art scene, she was able to interview gallerists.

"At first they were really forthcoming, and halfway through they would realize, 'Hey, wait a second . . . this is a comedy!' And all of a sudden they'd clam up. So it was a little dicey," says the actress, wincing a little. She also shadowed a relative in the fashion business and watched films with similarly ambitious characters.

"Tim Robbins in 'The Player,' I don't think he had a conscience, and I don't think Madeleine has a conscience about what she's doing because she thinks she's right."

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Where you've seen her

With 19 years in the business, Marley Shelton has played a wide range of roles, especially lately: "In the last couple of years, I was a lesbian anesthesiologist who is attacked by zombies [in both 'Grindhouse' movies], a basketball coach/nun [the upcoming 'Our Lady of Victory'], a hard-nosed FBI agent [TV's 'Eleventh Hour'] and a vagabond hiker/possible murderer ['A Perfect Getaway']." She calls her two films with Robert Rodriguez ("Sin City" and "Grindhouse" installment "Planet Terror") particularly inspirational to her. "I've learned so much from him. He's such a limitless artist. He writes, directs, shoots, edits, designs props. When your leader does that, it's like, 'Well then, why should I limit myself?' He instills a feeling of 'Why not?' "

-- Michael Ordona

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