Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Vinessa Shaw

Flawless Shaw

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Vinessa Shaw Movies

Vinessa Shaw, 32, was born in Los Angeles to an actress mother, Susan Damante-Shaw. She worked as a child actress and a model, but when she grew up she decided to go to college to find out what she wanted to do in with her life. But while in college, she landed a job on Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, playing "Domino," the prostitute visited by Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise). During her two months working on that film, something happened that encouraged her to keep acting. And in the ten years since, Shaw has racked up an impressive list of intelligent, uncompromising (and very often, underrated) films. She's gorgeous enough to earn a slot on Stuff magazine's list of the "102 Sexiest Women In The World," but earthy and honest enough to rise above that kind of nonsense. I had the good fortune to speak with her about her role in the acclaimed new film Two Lovers.

Combustible Celluloid: I was wondering, in reading the script for Two Lovers, the screwed-up character of Michelle (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) must have seemed more interesting, as an actress, than your role Sandra. Did you have that reaction?

Vinessa Shaw: Michelle's character is very complex and volatile, and that is attractive of course, but I really appreciate the sincerity and simplicity that was so apparent in Sandra's character; I just fell in love with her. She was just the cutest, sweetest thing ever. All the lines I spoke in the movie, all that was on the page. Your heart just leaps for her. She doesn't have any manipulation. She doesn't have any complex baggage. I'm sure Sandra's been set up with many men who were of the professional type, the good doctor or lawyer. I think she finds Leonard funny and he makes her laugh. He's kind of offbeat, but she can kind of take that part of him. If we have to be honest about Sandra, she has her own projections of what she sees in Leonard, imagining him to be the perfect person and looking at his potential. Women have a different tendency, which is an inability to see who was right there in front of them. Maybe one day he'll grow out of this painful part of his life.

CC: Did you and James work on all that character background? Was it in the script?

VS: It wasn't in the script; it was stuff I came up with myself. James did give me a little bit of thought -- to look and see what she's suffered from in the past. For a while we played with the idea that she had some illness that she had to recover from and that's why she has compassion for him. We didn't use that in the script. I really hung onto the idea that he's different and he kind of brings out the excitement for her. I think that helped a little bit; what is it that she's suffering from?

CC: I once interviewed Joaquin Phoenix, and he seemed very closed-off, hard to get to. What is he like in a professional capacity?

VS: He's 100% in the character. Acting with him was literally acting with Leonard. It can be unpredictable and sort of messy and not very straightforward in terms of how we play the scene. That was helpful for me to play in the moment. Some actors may feel that that's unsafe because it's not predictable and the lines don't follow. And it is unwieldy but once you realize how he moves through a scene, it's great. To be able to walk the line -- no pun intended there -- of being someone who's being completely vulnerable and in pain and someone who you are repulsed by and disgusted by his behavior. He can easily do that. That's how great it was to work with him.

CC: I have perhaps a strange question. You have this very earthy, organic quality onscreen, and I was wondering if you were a tomboy growing up?

VS: No. I was very... My sister was the tomboy. I loved dressing up with the long dresses. I was a ballerina as a child. I would just wear dresses all around the house. We grew up in Topanga. And I would be freezing in a dress. I quickly became a tomboy, because I had to wear pants. Part of it is where I grew up. I grew up Buddhist. That's a very grounding practice to have. You're very much in your own self and in your own body. My parents practiced, so I started chanting at around 9. It was my own choice. My sister started at age 21. My parents never forced it upon us.

CC: I'm a fan of Two Lovers, but have an ulterior motive for speaking with you; I just finished my thesis on Eyes Wide Shut, so I wanted to ask you about that. Firstly, everyone accused Kubrick of being cold and distant. Did you perceive that in him?

VS: For some reason I didn't experience that with him. Stanley was very influential in my life. At the time I got the part I was still in college and I was going to school to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I had been a child actor and I thought it was time to grow up. I didn't really believe you could act for a living. Being in that film I realized how much you could do as an actor. As a child actor you just have to stand there and say the lines. But now I was doing take after take, I just felt like, in the zone. Like I'm uncovering something right now. I'm in a moment and I didn't even know what that was. I was completely freed from any other preconceived notions of acting being something fun after school. He brought out what acting could be for me. He always gave me these sidelong glances --- because I'm always myself -- he would just smile at me. I had a very sassy nature especially when I was younger. I was quipping about something and he was trying to give direction, and then he said, 'yes that's exactly what I meant!' He had a very salty sense of humor. I really loved playing with him in this sort of banter. He was very sarcastic. I enjoyed that. I didn't even pay attention to the fact that he was cold. He was the first person who said to me that I should continue to act. He couldn't wait to see what happened to me and if I ever needed a recommendation. I never had anybody say that so directly.

CC: What did you think of the film?

VS: I saw it three times. I had to get out of my head from the way that I usually look at films. You're so used to first act, second act, it doesn't have any of that. It's just not done that way. I had to just go OK. It's a blank canvas. I had to just watch it for what it is.

CC: We've run out of time. I wish I could talk to you about some of your other films that I love. You've made so many good ones. Stanley would be proud.

VS: I wish I could share with him. His daughter lives in L.A. and I met his wife and his daughter. Whenever I see them I feel like I know them and they're family. We worked on that movie for so long. His daughter said, 'my father just loved you.' He had a great impact on me.

Partial Vinessa Shaw Filmography:
Ladybugs (1992)
Hocus Pocus (1993)
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
The Weight of Water (2000)
Corky Romano (2001)
40 Days and 40 Nights (2002)
Melinda and Melinda (2005)
The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Garden Party (2008)
Two Lovers (2008)
Stag Night (2009)

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