Mercury News - December 18, 2003

 Mona Lisa Smile ensemble shares lessons learned on the job 

Los Angeles -- "Mona Lisa Smile -- is that the new Julia Roberts movie?" asks the customer in the Hollywood bistro. "Doesn't she play a teacher?"

The answers are technically yes and yes, though that shorthand shortchanges the film's impressive and equally important ensemble cast and a layered story that sends Roberts, as art history teacher Katherine Watson, to prestigious Wellesley College in 1953.

Expecting to find herself challenging students at a female Harvard, Watson instead is branded as subversive for believing her students deserve more than a finishing school for wealthy wives.

"For me, the film is a way to inform women who grew up with feminism that it wasn't always this way," says Roberts of the film which opens Friday. "It was also an opportunity to spend time with an amazing group of women."

Not only does the cast include Oscar winners in Roberts and Marcia Gay Harden, it features three of the most sought-after actors of the next generation.

Julia Stiles and Kirsten Dunst play two of Watson's traditional students, while Maggie Gyllenhaal is the class bohemian. The film also introduces new faces, most notably Ginnifer Goodwin as a student who defines herself by her inability to snag a man -- at the ripe age of 19.

"Making a movie with people like Julia and Marcia and Julie and Maggie gave someone like me an opportunity to see how other people have balanced their careers with their personal lives. It was really educational," says Goodwin.

In that spirit, we talked to three cast members at very different stages of their careers.

The teacher

"It was really fascinating for me to be around all these young women, most of whom take the choices they make for granted," says Harden, who plays Nancy Abbey, Watson's on-campus housemate and the instructor in all things deemed truly relevant, from elocution to homemaking.

Harden majored in drama at the University of Texas and earned her master of fine arts at New York University; she won a Tony nomination for Angels in America, and, in her first movie, she played the female lead in the Coen Brothers' gangster drama Miller's Crossing.

"I got a lot of job offers from that," says Harden, "and I took a lot of them, but I was no ingenue, so I didn't fit any category. But I really wanted to be a character actor, anyway."

Harden played Ava Gardner in the TV miniseries Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine's angry daughter in Used People and doctors in Flubber and The First Wives Club. But when Ed Harris chose her for the role of Lee Krasner in Pollock, she finally felt she had been given the chance to create a "fully dimensional woman on-screen."

It led to a supporting actor Academy Award in 2001, the year Roberts won best actress for Erin Brockovich.

Harden is almost certain to be nominated for another Oscar this year, for her unforgettable portrayal of a frightened wife in Mystic River. She also played a brittle woman attempting to adopt a child in John Sayles' Casa de los Babys. In the can is the Joe Pantoliano-directed Just Like Mona, the upcoming comedy Welcome to Mooseport and a TV movie, She's Too Young.

Harden worried that her Mona Lisa character, chirpy and chintz-obsessed in cat's-eye glasses, would be a caricature, representing a kind of woman that could be easily dismissed as ridiculous.

"The fact is that the skills she taught -- etiquette, grace, communication -- are in short supply in a world that could use them. They're the grease that makes diplomacy possible, and God knows we could use more diplomacy right now. It's not just the women like the one Julia plays that made the sacrifices that mattered. It's women like Nancy, too."

The graduate

"Neither Julia or Marcia ever really assumed the role of mentor while we were making the film," says Julia Stiles, allowing herself a can of Starbucks Espresso with Cream after reading the fat and calorie content on the label. "But I think most of us considered them pretty good role models."

Stiles' character, Joan Brandwyn, is best friend to Kirsten Dunst's upper-crust, hypercritical school newspaper editor, and is expected, like her, to get married before graduation. But Watson encourages her to go to law school, instead, and works to get her accepted at Yale.

"I styled Joan on Grace Kelly," says Stiles, who, like the other younger women in the cast, attended an etiquette boot camp to learn how well-bred women of the early '50s conducted themselves. "Which was pretty rich, because I've always been a real tomboy."

Born in New York, Stiles was appearing in avant-garde theater productions when she was a teenager and had appeared in six theatrical and TV movies by age 17.

Her breakthrough performance was in the teen adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew titled 10 Things I Hate About You, in which she played a moody, independent artist who becomes unexpectedly attracted to Heath Ledger.

"It was a great movie to have my first lead in because not much was expected from it, and I was able to put a lot of who I was at the time in the part. And then it became successful, so I was noticed."

Her affection for Shakespeare led to two more adaptations: Hamlet (she played Ophelia) with Ethan Hawke and O, an updated Othello. Then came the lightweight but enjoyable Save the Last Dance, in which she played a girl who reluctantly starts a new life in Chicago, where she becomes involved with a black boyfriend and hip-hop dancing. At the same time, she could be seen in The Business of Strangers, embroiled in dark female power games with Stockard Channing.

"Mona Lisa Smile is about choices, and it's confirmed my feeling that I've made some pretty good ones so far, though I've obviously been lucky, too," says Stiles.

She has plenty to look forward to: Stiles will be reprising her role opposite Matt Damon in the sequel to The Bourne Identity, taking the lead role in Carolina from Dutch director Marleen Gorris, appearing in a romantic comedy called The Prince and Me and performing in a London theater revival of David Mamet's play Oleanna, as the manipulative student who accuses a professor of sexual harassment.

"When the play was originally produced, it was called misogynist, and the character I play was seen as a villain. But it's much more complex, and I can't wait to get into it."

Most likely to succeed

Ginnifer Goodwin says she knows director Mike Newell auditioned dozens of actors for her role in Mona Lisa Smile, that of a good-hearted but insecure scholarship student whom the snobby Dunst enjoys berating.

"The fact that he chose me, Ginnifer from Memphis, Tenn. -- I just can't believe how lucky I was. ... I know I'm gushing, but I'm just not going to pretend I'm blase."

Goodwin looks different than she appears in the movie, and it's not just because she's wearing a silk blouse and jeans. She's decidedly more svelte, though she says she was offended when a writer asked her how she felt about having to "get fat" to play the lovelorn Connie.

"I didn't think I was fat at all. I think Connie has a perfectly healthy woman's body. I've had insecurity about my body, like all women, but it's a lot worse now than it was in the '50s, before there were all these magazines that promote this stick-thin image of beauty. It's terrible."

"I've lost some weight since I made the movie, but I'm not a dieter. I'm just trying to eat more healthy foods. I got to enjoy junk a little too much."

Like Stiles, Goodwin is a Shakespeare fanatic, and after winning a scholarship to Boston University, she enrolled in a program that allowed her to study at Stratford-upon-Avon's Shakespeare Institute and with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

"When I was just a little girl, I told my mom I wanted to be an actor and a movie star," says Goodwin. "She said, 'Good, go for it.'"

After graduation, Goodwin moved to Los Angeles and made the audition rounds, snagging a recurring role as the bookish Diane on the TV series Ed. In the course of a year, she landed Mona Lisa Smile.

She also snagged a role in the comedy Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!, which opens in January, and will appear in Love Comes to the Executioner, playing the girlfriend of a man on death row.

"I have been spoiled friggin' rotten," says Goodwin. "I mean, all this has happened so fast. Now I just have to do good enough work to justify all the faith people have put in me. Working with all these great women in Mona Lisa helped me feel like I was up to the challenge. If I can be in a scene with these people and not embarrass myself, I've accomplished a lot.

"Think about it: Just 60 years ago, acting for women was considered a disreputable occupation. Now look at us. We rule."

Article by Terry Lawson
Originally published at - Posted on December 18, 2003