So, can Jewel act?
Web posted on: Wednesday, November 24, 1999 3:15:05 PM EST
By Jamie Allen
(CNN) -- No one can accuse Jewel of shying away from her dreams.
The folk singer who has sold more than 14 million albums added "author" to her resumé in 1998 with the publication of her book of highly personal poetry, "A Night Without Armor." And now, Jewel has another job title: actress.
In her feature-film introduction -- one of the most conspicuous acting debuts in recent years -- Jewel stars opposite Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich and Jeffrey Wright in director Ang Lee's U.S. Civil War epic "Ride With the Devil." It's based on the Daniel Woodrell novel "Woe To Live On" and goes into limited release over the Thanksgiving weekend.
"I was aware that I was going to be open to a lot of criticism. I was aware that ... I would look bad at some point in my career. And knowing that, I went ahead and did it."
Jewel plays Sue Lee Shelley, a widow who provides feminine balance and allure to a band of bushwhackers fighting for the Confederacy in the Kansas-Missouri border wars. The film, a sort of anti-"Gone With the Wind," deals with a montage of themes -- slavery and loyalty, growing up and dying, murder and revenge.
In her supporting role, under Lee's direction, Jewel comes of age, moving from young object of desire to mother, to wife. As she does when singing on MTV and VH1, Jewel the actress receives the camera well. Her Nordic countenance -- prominent cheekbones and silky hair -- augments her character's 19th-century provincial manner.
So, can she act? Lee, the acclaimed director of "Sense and Sensibility" (1995) and "The Ice Storm (1997), may be the best person to ask.
"She's just very right for the part," says Lee, who hadn't heard of Jewel prior to a suggestion from his casting director, Avy Kaufman. "I didn't know her (as a singer)," Lee says, but she was right for the part, with her personality, intelligence -- because this is the only female part among the boys. You need that center of attention, that feminine dominance and sexuality and intelligence and she had all that.
"I spent about three months observing, participating in her acting lessons, then we did a screen test," says Lee. "After meeting with all the others actors, I said, 'She's the risk I want to take.'
"She was quite good and she was very devoted to her part," says Lee.
The transformation of singer to actress wasn't effortless. Lee took Jewel under his wing, teaching her drama-school basics like the meaning of "hitting her mark," while resorting to unconventional methods of bringing out the actor within. For instance, Lee taught Jewel the art of tai chi, a physical and spiritual regimen of slow-motion movements that originated in China.
"My character had to be really earthy, really grounded, feminine and strong and confident," Jewel says. "She had to be so confident and womanly that she made these strong, murderous men feel like children. And that isn't acting, that's getting a person that's real grounded. I wasn't real grounded at that time in my life. I grew up that way, but all of a sudden I was famous, I had a stalker at the time, and I was working with the best director.
"I was really intimidated. I was really timid. And so a lot of what Ang did with me was trying to get me grounded and I think that's why he had me do tai chi, just trying to get me settled."
While she was seeking help from Lee, Jewel was getting little advice from the actors on the set -- at least, not at first.
"We bumped her around the first couple of weeks," says Maguire. "But she was there to work and she was serious, so she earned her stripes."
"She was pretty raw and technically she didn't know what was going on and that's understandable," says Ulrich. "So we sat back and laughed. We had all been there, we had all been the ones who didn't know what to do. I remember my first film was terrifying, so it was nice to sit back like I was Jack Lemmon or something."
Even at this interview at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this year, Jewel still seemed a little out of place. Wearing sweats, a faded blue T-shirt and a jeans jacket, she looked over at Ulrich, standing nearby wearing a hip brown dress shirt and black pants, and said, "I didn't know we were supposed to dress up."
It turns out that Jewel has similarities to her character. Lee says that's one reason he took his chances with her. Raised in Alaska by a family that centered its activities on performance, Jewel -- full name Jewel Kilcher -- thrived on singing, songwriting and local theater. Music became her main outlet as her parents split and she spent time living with her mother, then her father.
She eventually made her way to California, living in a Volkswagen bus in San Diego before being discovered at a local coffeehouse playing the tunes that would later be heard on her first album, "Pieces of You" (1995).
This young blonde had snidely remarked in her hit single "Who Will Save Your Soul," from that album: "People living their lives for you on TV / They say they're better than you and you agree." Soon Jewel was on TV, herself, her music rising up the charts. "Pieces" has sold over 10 million copies to date.
Her much-anticipated follow-up, "Spirit" (1998), has sold 4 million copies. The same year it was released, "A Night Without Armor" spent weeks on best-seller lists. But Jewel describes herself as "really ambitious" -- and she says it as if she's making an excuse for wanting to accomplish more. Her next mountain was acting.
The trouble with fame
"I was horrified," Jewel, 25, says now of her "Ride With the Devil" experience. While she says she always had plans to act, Jewel believes her fame in the music industry worked against her plans to fulfill that goal.
"Fame is an odd creature," she says. "It has a life of its own and it has an influence on you, which is a force to be reckoned with. Things change when you're famous. My own person has always been most concerned with growing, above anything else, with no fear of failure. Failure is secondary to growth. You're going to fail, you're going to look bad sometimes if you're pushing beyond what you're comfortable with. To have that kind of courage pre-fame is real easy because if you fall on your ass, who cares?
"When you're famous, it's in front of the whole world and the world does not value growth over perfection," she says. "The world values perfection and product over growth and they're very unforgiving. That can really override the creative process. It causes self-censorship. It makes you go, 'I've got to be safe. I'm going to stick with what I know.'
"So I was aware of that when I went into the book-writing and when I went into film. I was aware that I was going to be open to a lot of criticism. I was aware that I was going to be starting two professions that I didn't have completely wired and that I would look bad at some point in my career. And knowing that, I went ahead and did it, because otherwise you die creatively and to die at that young age would be really torturous."
Her attitude earned the respect of her acting peers.
"I thought it was really courageous that she chose to do this thing in the first place," says Maguire, "especially with her high profile and the idea that people would be watching her, and their expectations of her."
Ultimately, Ulrich says Jewel was perfect for the part of Sue Lee, perhaps more than she realized at first. Her roots in rural Alaska provided the foundation.
"I think she was much closer to the character than she thought," says Ulrich. "I think it was a relief to her to realize that there was a reason Ang cast her and it wasn't a fluke and there wasn't some other thing behind it. It was that she could do it, so it was good to see her really relax.
"The thing that impresses me is that she doesn't stand apart from the film," says Ulrich. "It all works as a whole."
Despite the praise, Jewel says she has no plans to stop making music. She has a song, "What's Simple Is True," on the "Ride With the Devil" soundtrack, and her third album, a Christmas-themed CD -- "Joy: a Holiday Collection" -- was released November 2.
Music is the art form she remains true to. But she says she'll never stop chasing new dreams -- and failures.
"I like jumping into the deep end of the pool," she says. "This movie, to pick such a hard dramatic role for your first role was horrifying. It took years off my life.
"But at the same time, I loved doing it. I don't know if it's a perversity. There's a lot at stake and if you pull it off it's good and if you don't, you're screwed. You don't gain a lot by not risking a lot."
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