Living away from La-La land has turned 'General's Daughter' actress into an unusually candid movie star
Madeleine Stowe's suite at the San Francisco Ritz Carlton Hotel might as well have been the kitchen of her ranch house in central Texas for as unruffled and at ease as she seems today.
Wearing a light sweater, a tank top, jeans and a warm smile, she exudes no movie star pretension whatsoever. In fact, as she settles in to a chair at the end of her suite's dining room table, she seems like any other working mom. I half expected her to offer me glass of iced tea and start talking about the PTA.
In town to promote "The General's Daughter," her new film with John Travolta, instead of bringing up the PTA she's on a surprisingly on-the-level tact about the movie biz and is genuinely interested in having a conversation rather than a prefabricated Q&A. In fact, our rendezvous starts with a question from Stowe, inquiring about the PowerBook that I whip out to take notes on. She's none too savvy when it comes to computers, she confesses, asking how one moves around on the internet.
Well, you type in a web address or click on a link.
"Click on?" she asks earnestly. "Is that the thing you do with the mouse?"
Stowe may be (completely!) out of touch with computer technology, but she's certainly hasn't lost contact with the kind of honesty that Hollywood usually sucks right out of people. Even when asked a generic question like "what drew you to this film," she fails to go on movie promotion autopilot, giving the kind of a candid reply a coached and career-driven movie star would never utter:
"I had been out of the loop for so long," she says without hesitation. "This was a big studio picture. I realized the importance of being in a picture that has a high profile."
Returning to the loop after a couple years' break for the birth and infancy of her daughter, Stowe is considerably more carefree and chipper than the victim-with-stamina types she often plays ("After you have a kid you're just so happy to be alive," she says), although her asymmetrical, porcelain features betray the same vulnerable yet confident femininity.
Susan Sunhill, the rape investigator she plays in "The General's Daughter," is a variation on this recurring role. A veteran of the army's Criminal Investigation Division who specializes in crimes against women, Stowe's performance suggests indirectly that the character may have a personal history with such crimes that drives her determination to solve the seemingly twisted murder of a beautiful, young captain.
Although this character is trying to put her victimhood behind her, Stowe acknowledges her proclivity toward playing such roles.
"They have a tendency to get beaten up or thrown off a cliff, I know," she admits with an ironic laugh. "Why does that happen with me?"
She decries Hollywood's current preponderance toward choosing murder, mayhem and profit over developing a social conscience and, when prodded, modestly chimes in on the raging children and entertainment violence debate, saying, "When you just dump a kid in front of a TV, hell yes it's going to affect them."
Then comes that unguarded sincerity again. "I don't think I can complain about it because I haven't done a thing to change it," she says frankly. "I feel really weird about this because I've made so many movies with violence in them. (But) if someone offered me $10 zillion to do something violent, I'd probably do it. I don't know about my integrity."
No doubt she was paid considerably less than $10 zillion for "The General's Daughter," which director Simon West ("Con Air") shamefully milks for shock value and mayhem by revisiting the murder and exploiting the murdered girl's violent sexual peccadilloes. But Stowe says, albeit indirectly and diplomatically, that the picture was a different animal when she signed on.
An admirer of the Nelson DeMille novel on which the movie is based, Stowe avows to an altered finale and talks fondly of a complex, ex-lover interplay between the two CID detectives that she and Travolta play, "which made it more interesting for me." But, to her obvious disappointment, most of that subplot was left on the cutting room floor after test audiences had trouble following both the murder investigation and the relationship. (She says it's already been determined to restore those scenes when the movie comes out on DVD.)
While she's open about her reservations concerning "The General's Daughter" and is even willing to, in a roundabout way, hint at a disagreement with the director's style ("Simon tends to leave you alone," she says, then when asked what she likes in a director, she replies "I like to be bossed around."), she's often much harder on herself. Asked about the widely-panned 1994 Western "Bad Girls," the pained look of a TV commercial migraine sufferer crosses her face. "That was just a movie that should never have been made. I was horrible in it. I look at it and think, You stiff! Just die!"
On the other hand, Stowe has nothing but praise for her co-stars, especially James Woods, who plays the murdered girl's commanding officer and a prime suspect.
"I had so much fun with him. We would have huge fights in the makeup trailer every day about Clinton and Lewinski," she laughs, recalling that while they were having fun with the debate, the crew sometimes mistook their heated exchanges for malevolence and thought they might have to separate the two actors. "He hates Bill Clinton. He went on (PBS radio's) Fresh Air and called him a sociopath! Jimmy is the poster boy for bad behavior, but he's also just a total doll."
Another contemporary Stowe adores is her "12 Monkeys" director Terry Gilliam, who has asked her to play a part in "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote," a film he's trying to win financing for now.
If the project gets the green light, we might in a year or 18 months get to find out what Stowe really thinks of possible co-stars Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz and possibly Robin Williams. That is, if her astonishing honesty doesn't beget her a studio babysitter on her next press tour.