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Mastrantonio's acting career no longer hanging in 'Limbo'

Andy Culpepper interviews Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
Windows Media 28K 80K

June 7, 1999
Web posted at: 1:13 p.m. EDT (1713 GMT)

In this story:

'I was singing live'

Clear need for singing actress

Label, actress get second chance at life

Multimedia: Interview with John Sayles

From Mommy Track to playing a mom


By Andy Culpepper
Turner Entertainment Report Senior Correspondent

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- In a screening room at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, California, a publicity showing of "Limbo," filmmaker John Sayles' latest offering, is in progress. The film's opening titles have rolled, and in the moments that follow, the female lead is standing on a makeshift stage, entertaining guests at a wedding reception. A chorus of the country tune "Better Off Without You" wafts incongruously over this scene, played out near the water's edge before a backdrop of snow-capped mountains.

It's a picture-perfect setting borrowed from Juneau, Alaska, a still-rugged outpost existing as if on loan from Mother Nature, far from the nearest studio backlot.

The soundtrack suggests Nashville rather than the frozen North as the camera continues to take in the scenery. When it goes in for a close-up on the source of the music, the singer's face fills the screen and invites the unavoidable scrutiny, but the tell-tale signs of lip-synching are nowhere to be found.

The actress behind the music is Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Her character, Donna De Angelo, is a veteran lounge singer who fronts for a cover band at a Juneau bar. Donna sings in a beautiful, lilting soprano. So, too, it appears, does Mastrantonio.

Flash forward from Culver City to a hotel nearer the Hollywood hub. Mastrantonio has only this afternoon flown in from London to publicize the film in a day of interviews with her young female co-star, Vanessa Martinez, 19, and the film's writer/director, Sayles.

Mastrantonio performed her own singing parts in "Limbo"

'I was singing live'

Fresh from the airport, with barely enough time to have her clothes pressed and makeup touched up, Mastrantonio faces a reporter and television camera and cheerfully answers questions.

The subject of her voice clearly pleases her. "Yeah, I was singing live, I was singing live," she repeats emphatically. "That's really the only way to do it. Otherwise, you get all turned around."

She makes the admission as if to say that any actress would do the same given a similar set of circumstances. And perhaps any actress would, if any actress were capable of pulling it off.

"No, I know," she agrees. "I thought of that on the day ... because John works so fast, and the takes are exceptionally long, really. And I thought, 'Thank God, I am a singer,' because I tell you, if I had the voice of some voice teacher going through my head telling me to lift and breathe -- and with lyrics? I'd probably be a puddle right now." The image makes her soprano voice lurch with laughter.

"But, no. I thought it was great fun," she recalls, smiling. "Great fun. I quite missed it actually."

The "quite" modifying "missed" -- accompanied by a liberal sprinkling of "whilst" for "while" -- serves as one more reminder that Mastrantonio lives on the other side of the Big Water with her director husband, Pat O'Connor, and their two boys, ages 6 and 2.

There's a gleam in her eye, a sort of mischievous mirthful quality that suggests she is enjoying herself in spite of being road-weary and facing the inevitable onslaught of jet lag.

If singing live outdoors on a remote set comes as second nature, it would likely surprise no one familiar with certain long-overlooked aspects of Mastrantonio's resume. The Chicago native studied voice at the University of Illinois and cut her professional teeth performing at the now-defunct Opryland in Nashville. Broadway and the chorus of a revival of "West Side Story" followed.

"Oh, I used to always sing," she says. "When I first moved to New York, I did just loads of musicals, and then eventually stopped because I came up through classical music, and when I realized I wasn't going to do that, I just actually got to work, because it was the easiest thing."

Andy Culpepper interviews John Sayles
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Clear need for singing actress

The acting bug took hold -- Mastrantonio refers to it as "the play of the spoken word" -- and singing was pushed to the sidelines. But that was before she crossed paths with John Sayles.

The two had met at a party. Sayles didn't forget one particularly salient detail of their conversation. "She had mentioned to me...that she had been trained as a classical singer," he remembers. "And it just kind of clicked as I was writing the piece."

Over the course of his career, Sayles has developed a reputation for crafting clearly defined parts for women. Actress Mary McDonnell, who made an impressive screen debut in Sayles' period coal mining story, "Matewan" (1987), earned an Oscar nomination for her role as a disabled soap opera actress in the filmmaker's bayou-flavored feature, "Passion Fish" (1992).

His lounge-singing single mother, Donna, is cut from the same cloth in "Limbo." Willful, independent and determined to follow her bliss no matter the cost, Donna leaves towns -- and assorted men -- behind as she moves on to the next, hopefully, better opportunity.

Recently arrived in Alaska, Donna meets a promising local named Joe, played by Sayles regular David Strathairn. He's an ex-fisherman with a dark past, but he rekindles in Donna the hope for a second chance -- even as they encounter a life-threatening predicament which places them squarely at the mercy of the unforgiving Alaskan wilderness.

Label, actress get second chance at life

The movie and its characters are all about second chances at life, a premise given added irony in that the film serves as the debut release for a Hollywood imprint given its second life. "Limbo" comes from Sony Pictures Entertainment's re-nascent Screen Gems, a label resurrected from the past.

As for the theme embodied in the title? "I was trying to think of a title for it, which is a hard thing," says Sayles. "Limbo is basically a metaphor, anyway ... it's this place where you're neither here nor there ... and so many people live that kind of life."

Mastrantonio may not need retooling, but she is experiencing something of a second chance herself after taking off much of the '90s to have a family. She'd been a presence on the Hollywood fast track in the '80s -- debuting opposite Al Pacino in 1983's "Scarface," then notching an Oscar nomination in "The Color of Money" (1986) before completing a grueling, if critically acclaimed, performance in director James Cameron's sci-fi underwater adventure, "The Abyss" (1989).

Playing Donna in Sayles' "Limbo" gave the actress-turned-mother a shot at another meaty film role, as well as the opportunity to dust off a long-neglected talent.

"It was interesting when John said, 'She's a singer,'" Mastrantonio offers. "I just thought, 'Oh, cool. She must be doing some Rogers and Hart.' And this country person sends me a tape. Country?" The look suggests amazement. "'Why so much country, John?'" Mastrantonio laughs at the memory. "Because that's what you sing when one's doing a tour of Alaska. That's what one sings. That's what they want to hear, so."

As he does for most actors in the majority of his projects, Sayles wrote the part of Donna for Mastrantonio. There's a pluckiness, an ingratiating resilience to the character which the actress found comfortable.

"I just understood John's writing, and the humor. And he does write a bio," she explains with a knowing smile. "He writes bios for all the characters. And not all of it is actable. But there was this bit, just at the end. It says: very self-deprecating humor. And I thought, 'Now, that's actable.' That one can do, you know?"

From Mommy Track to playing a mom

Mastrantonio could play the mother in Donna as well. It's something she's practiced plenty off camera, though she and her on-screen persona approach parenting in two decidedly different manners.

"It speaks very much to the state in which we live because of the way that parents are being questioned about how much time they're spending with their adolescents," the actress observes. "But also, the fact that -- how many times do we have to start over in life? There's a lot up there (on screen) if they work hard -- and they don't really have to look hard."

The film created positive buzz at last month's Cannes Film Festival. Reviews stateside have been positive and -- after being on the Mommy Track for the better part of this decade -- the effect for Mastrantonio may prove to be very positive, if somewhat bittersweet. In Time magazine (June 7), Richard Schickel calls her a "revelation" and writes, "The movie may be called 'Limbo,' but it definitely rescues Mastrantonio from the land of the lost."

The film moves toward what's been called an ambiguous, even shocking, ending by some reviewers. There's nothing ambiguous in it for Mastrantonio. Long after the reviews have been written and the grosses counted, she'll be back in London.

"The world has gotten smaller," she notes. "And we are able to go everywhere and do everything, but there is still -- and I am learning this myself -- there is still a sacrifice. Somebody at some point has to make a sacrifice. If you have children, if you invite children to join you on this journey, it's their journey as well."

"You can't drag them along on yours. And you have to pay attention and listen."

"Limbo" may be the name of the movie. But the philosophy this actress espouses sounds firmly rooted in a place of its own. And Mastrantonio appears to know where to find it.

Review: Artfully hanging in 'Limbo'
June 3, 1999
Few Hollywood films make the cut for Cannes
April 23, 1999

Official 'Limbo' site
Sony Pictures Movies
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