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Movies

Flockhart in her element:
slap-happy with the Bard

Flockhart

May 13, 1999
Web posted at: 1:26 p.m. EDT (1726 GMT)

By Andy Culpepper
Turner Entertainment Report Senior Correspondent

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- She's sitting in a high-backed chair in a hotel room surrounded by lights, posters, camera people and an assorted publicist or two. It's a day in the life of a movie star on a movie junket. Except that there are movie stars, and then there are actresses.

This one's an actress. And although she's completed no-telling-how-many interviews already on this particular day, actress Calista Flockhart is bright-eyed, alert and smiling as the next reporter walks through the door to be introduced.

And why not? It's show time. Think of it as the curtain going up on a performance. That's the workaday, professional, definitely-no-diva impression Flockhart projects. Some stage-based actors, it appears, bring little attitude to the table. But there's an added bonus.

More than a few media types attending the junket's advance screening were heard to make a rather telling comment after seeing the new film "A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Kevin Kline, Rupert Everett, Stanley Tucci, and Flockhart.

"You can tell who's done Shakespeare and who hasn't," one entertainment writer was heard to say.

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Elizabethan spoken here

In case your 40-pound Collected Works isn't lying right beside you as you read this, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is the one in which Helena (Flockhart) loves Demetrius -- who only has eyes for Hermia. Hermia, in turn, is Lysander's squeeze, not available. When the four mismatched lovers tromp off to the woods to avoid being married off to the wrong people, they wander straight into a vast, dazzling fairy kingdom. Its king and queen, Oberon and Titania, are hardly a happy couple. And Oberon only muddies the waters when he has his servant Puck try to use some magic to make everyone love the right person.

Shakespeare's original is set in a mythic ancient-Greek glade of lush confusion. In this new screen adaptation, writer-director Michael Hoffman has set the show in the Tuscan region of Italy, in the early part of the 20th century.

In whatever era the material is set, Shakespeare is work that's not accessible to all actors.

Flockhart has done Shakespeare. She's done plenty of theater -- in fact, eight years of plays on stages in New York. Then came the call from producer David E. Kelley to come to Los Angeles to star in the FOX television series, "Ally McBeal."

Kelley's sense of the wry is well-documented from his earlier work on his series "Picket Fences." Regular viewers of Flockhart's work on "Ally McBeal" know the type of quirky fun-and-games any episode is guaranteed to deliver. Two years of playing the feisty contradictions of her character McBeal have earned Flockhart a place in the top ranks of Hollywood funny women.

Although Flockhart will likely tell you it's the humor in the show's writing that makes it so funny, there's no denying the contribution the actress makes with more than a few of her own comedic touches.

Flockhart has a knack for making the funny stuff physical. On a recent show, for instance, her character reacts to the appearance of her estranged boyfriend and his curvaceous date by furiously scratching her own neck as if she's breaking out in hives. It's a classic McBeal moment -- the kind Flockhart delivers, it seems, on cue.

Fans of her TV show shouldn't be surprised to know she's pulling no punches in serving up more of the same -- with all respect to the Bard -- in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Comedy-Calista

Where does this funny stuff come from?

"I don't know. Probably somewhere in the deepest, sickest, perverse-est, twisted part of my brain," she confides, a smile slowly spreading over her face as she throws her arms up in a sweeping gesture. "I have no idea."

"I don't plan it, and I don't think about it .... You know ... mostly things emerge out of the text," she says. "You read the text, and you see what you get for nothing, and from the text," her hands continue their animated dance, as if she's fanning smoke from an imaginary fire. "It goes somehow through your body and your mind and things just start coming out."

And how. There's a scene in Hoffman's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in which Flockhart's character, Helena, becomes despondent over the unrequited love she's feeling for Demetrius (Christian Bale of "Metroland" and the upcoming "American Psycho"). In desperation, Flockhart as Helena suddenly slaps herself repeatedly in the face, both hands beating a comic rhythm amid this love's labor lost.

The effect is riotous and evocative of something McBeal might do in a heartbeat. Her attempt to imitate the action causes her now to giggle. She's pleased it made an impression.

But Flockhart has a habit of leaving her mark. Director Michael Hoffman has no trouble remembering the scene in question. "It's just so innovative," he says of Flockhart's improvisation. "That slap thing?"

"It was just something that she came up with in that take, and it was just -- she only did in it in one take ... and it just expressed something really essential about Helena's self-loathing that's really funny at that point." And the director imitates the move himself.

Does he have a budding movie star on his hands? "Without a doubt ... she'll be Audrey Hepburn. ... She's extraordinary. She certainly has an amazing facility with the language. No one handles the language better than Calista."

Speaking the speech

It was that command of the spoken word that helped bring Flockhart notice on Broadway. The Rutgers University graduate was starring opposite William Hurt only a year out of college. She picked up praise for her work in a revival of the Tennessee Williams classic, "The Glass Menagerie." And life as a working actress in theater would have suited her just fine.

As it's turned out, she's spent much of this past season battling rumors of anorexia, the kind of story that makes an actress fodder for tabloid gossip. Flockhart denies the stories, although she's undeniably thin. But in person she hardly appears unhealthy, even without makeup.

Sudden fame has other downsides -- among them, the occasional fan who mistakes her on the street for the character she plays on television.

"It's weird. It's weird when people call you something other than your name," she laughs. "But I understand it, and the people who come up to me are usually so nice, and they're so supportive. And that's where you hear your feedback." Her hand darts to her ear, index finger pointed as if to drive the point home.

"It's just ... I like to talk about what people think of. You work so many hours and you kind of ... you're in a vacuum and you don't really get to talk about it, and you don't get to hear what people think about it. So sometimes it's very interesting and helpful to get feedback."

"Ally McBeal" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" are the kind of high-visibility projects that guarantee feedback from studios and producers. But it's not the kind of thing a stage actress is used to hearing during a performance: an audience lets you know how you're doing. Flockhart misses that live audience. So during this year's break from her series, she's headed back to the boards.

"If you want to do movies, and you're on a TV show, that (stage work) becomes a problem because there's a little tiny window. It's important to develop projects for yourself so you feel passionate and love what you're doing. And during this hiatus, I think I'm going to go back to New York and do a play."

And her eyes grow wide at the word. It's clear what gets this actress excited. You'll forgive her if she's slap-happy doing it.


RELATED STORIES:
Rupert Everett's dream realized -- the 20-year overnight success
May 10, 1999
Flockhart, 'Today' can't overcome weighty issue
April 30, 1999
TV's latest trend: Neurotic women?
October 28, 1998
'Ally McBeal' wins best comedy from grassroots group
August 6, 1998

RELATED SITES:
The Works of the Bard -- Shakespeare texts and search engine
'A Midsummer Night's Dream' official site
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