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Keeping the Faith

Elfman may test 'Faith' on hiatus

Jenna Elfman

Source of Photo: The Jenna Elfman Site

'Dharma' star may join Norton-helmed Spyglass pic

By CHRIS PETRIKIN, MICHAEL FLEMING, Daily Variety February 19, 1999

Dharma & Greg star Jenna Elfman is negotiating for the female lead role in Keeping the Faith, the Spyglass Entertainment film on which Edward Norton will make his directorial debut and produce with Howard "Hawk" Koch Jr. and Stuart Blumberg, who wrote the script.

Elfman, who recently won the Golden Globe for her work in the hit ABC comedy, has been courted for several film offers during her hiatus. Itís possible she might try to squeeze in two roles, as she was said to be top choice to play the female lead alongside Tom Cruise in Minority Report, the drama that Steven Spielberg will direct in a co-production between Fox and DreamWorks. That film begins shooting late this summer.

Itís looking likely, though, that she might first play the woman who makes Norton and Ben Stiller question their faith in Keeping the Faith, which will shoot in May. Norton will play a priest and Stiller a rabbi who as children formed a friendly trio with a girl the same age who moved away when they were 12.

The guys remained friends as they pursued their separate callings. All of that changes when the girl comes back into their lives in their late 20s. Both fall in love with her, but neither can act on it; the priest must be celibate, and while the rabbi can marry, the woman is not Jewish.

The project became the first new one for Spyglass, the partnership between Roger Birnbaum and Gary Barber, whoíll distribute domestically under the Touchstone banner.

Elfman is repped by More-Medavoy, which did not return phone calls.

So Focused, It Scares Her

Jenna Elfman, the free spirit of Dharma & Greg, works with a vengeance to be taken seriously. Will her roles on stage and the big screen take her where she wants to go?

By BETSY SHARKEY

Los Angeles Times Calendar Section 3/14/99

There is a scene early on in the second act of Visions and Lovers: Variations on a Theme in which a barely clad Jenna Elfman grabs Miguel Ferrer's face and pulls it close. They are lovers--he's a writer, she's a model--and we've caught them early on in the dance. "Look at me," she says. It is half demand, half plea. "Look . . . at . . . me," she says again. Now the words are torn from somewhere deep inside. Her eyes are rimmed with tears, every muscle in her body is taut. The glittering smiles, the bubbling laughter that have come to define the actress most know from her hit ABC comedy, Dharma & Greg, have been banished.

In this two-act play, broken in half with Elfman and Ferrer's love flayed onstage only in the second act, writer-director Milton Katselas exposes love as a tortured mix of misunderstanding, violence, betrayal, obsession and discontent, tempered--very hotly--by lust. In the beginning and in the end, it is a tragedy.

Sixty-eight-year-old Mildred has driven in from Woodland Hills to the Skylight Theater, an out-of-the-way theater tucked into an alleyway in Los Feliz, with two of her friends--all three widows who claim to have never missed an episode of "Dharma"--to see "that sweet girl."

But "that sweet girl" is nowhere to be found on the stage--or at least the slab of black linoleum that passes for one.

As Elfman and Ferrer tease, play, make love and slowly tear at each other leaving a trail of emotional carnage, what emerges is a sense that serious acting is underway. Ferrer has gone from "not being able to pick Jenna out of a crowd of two" when they began rehearsals on the play last June to describing Elfman's performance as breathtaking. And while critics haven't completely embraced the play, virtually all note Elfman's performance, with Philip Brandes writing in The Times that "the sheer physicality is impressive, especially from Elfman," while Julio Martinez of Daily Variety says that "Elfman offers a tour de force."

"Milton [Katselas] took this to a very deep place, very personal and very intimate," Ferrer says. "It has meant taking some huge leaps, and she has. We've both grown enormously with this piece, and her talent is just monstrous. No one's paid much attention to her--that won't happen anymore."

Edward Norton, nominated for an Oscar for his performance in American History X, was in the audience one night not long ago. Relegated to one of the 92 aging theater seats bolted down in the arena-styled audience section, the already much-respected young actor has come to see Elfman. He returns another night bringing actor-writer Ben Stiller with him. A few weeks later, the two have convinced Elfman to star in Keeping the Faith, a romantic comedy that will star Stiller and Norton as boyhood friends who fall in love with the same woman.

Norton's project has arrived at a critical juncture in Elfman's relatively short career. In the course of the next year, the 27-year-old will either emerge as an actress to be taken seriously or remain the flighty, if entertaining, TV sitcom star that she has quickly become. At the moment, her future hangs in the balance with a series of films yet to be released and a growing stack of offers waiting for a yes or a no.

Getting Elfman to sign on to do Keeping the Faith was not a frivolous decision for Norton, as the film will be his directing debut. It was not a frivolous choice for Elfman either, who had nixed all the other romantic comedies being thrown her way in recent months. Managed by the well-respected More/Medavoy Management Co. and with independent Michael Slessinger as her agent, the actress was in search of a role with substance; only Norton's passion, she says, and the promise that this role will have depth convinced her.

There is also word that Elfman is being looked at for kingmaker Steven Spielberg's next movie, Minority Report, for a role that would put her opposite Tom Cruise. In the fall, she will be seen in the film Town & Country alongside Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn and Andie MacDowell. But it is EDtv, the latest Ron Howard film, a black comedy in which she co-stars with Matthew McConaughey opening nationwide later this month, that will provide something of a coming-out party for Elfman, the film actress. The Hollywood buzz on the film, and Elfman's performance in particular, is good and getting louder.

Though Elfman's role in EDtv--as a UPS delivery person named Shari who eventually becomes Ed's girlfriend--is not the star turn she eventually wants, it does take Elfman a step beyond the broad comic sensibilities of Dharma. Shari is the girl next door--and what is perhaps the most striking aspect of Elfman's performance is her ability to play everyday ordinary. She spends half of the film with eyes swollen from crying, a red, runny nose and hair pulled back in a ponytail. It is a quiet, poignantly plain Elfman that still captivates McConaughey's Ed.

Howard said he knew he had what he wanted as soon as Elfman read for the role of Shari, who ultimately becomes the emotional ballast for and conscience of the biting satire. It was a part sought by many of Hollywood's elite young actresses, but after Elfman read, Howard stopped looking.

"It's not that often that somebody is that sexually alluring and genuinely funny," Howard says. "[Jenna is] inventive and physical and trusts her body and knows how to use it to express her feelings, and we knew as soon as we cast her that we had somebody with real comedy chops, so we began to explore her character. Then she and Matthew were so good together that the romantic element of the story began to move a little more to the center."

The decision to do EDtv was relatively easy. "I thought, 'It's Ron Howard,' " says Elfman, of the former TV-child-actor-turned-director whose film credits include a range of successful dramas and comedies, from Ransom and Apollo 13 to Splash.

The risk was in taking the role in Visions and Lovers, albeit a highly calculated one. It may well go down as one of the more important choices of her career, since Norton and Stiller are but a few of the Hollywood actors and directors who have made their way to the Skylight to catch the play. "Visions," which began previews last month, routinely sells out its four weekend performances, designed to work around the TV and film production schedules of Elfman and Ferrer (Lateline), as well as Suzzanne Douglas (The Parent Hood and How Stella Got Her Groove Back) and Richard Lawson (also in "Stella"), who anchor the first act of the play.

"If I had done this before I was 'famous,' I probably wouldn't have been as scared," Elfman says. "Turning [the Dharma image] upside down wasn't the scary part, that was the good part. It was wondering if people will let me."

The notion that people--and that includes both filmmakers and the American public--may not let her do anything nags at her. "People really lock in, like put you in a box so they can hold you there," she says. "But you're not there. It's just tough." Elfman has every intention of fighting the stereotypes. Yet while appearing in this play looks like the opening round, what few know is that she has been fighting all along.

* * *

In the two years since Elfman emerged as a breakout star on television--the centerpiece of a comedy about opposites who fall in love with Elfman playing the ditsy Dharma Finklestein, a child raised by still-love-bead-and-Birkenstock-wearing hippie parents, to Thomas Gibson's uptight, Ivy League-educated Greg--she has been compared to everyone from Lucille Ball to Goldie Hawn. As much as Elfman professes the greatest respect and appreciation for the work of both, Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn are more the archetypes she has in mind.

"There are times now I feel like I'm ready to explode--explode into the next level of my life, my career, wanting to, but I can't yet," says Elfman, just minutes after a recent performance of "Visions" has brought the packed house to its feet. "You know how it is when you're there, you know what you can do, you've done it. But EDtv hasn't come out, and a lot of people haven't seen this [play] and they don't know. They're not there yet. And you have to wait for them to get there. That makes this time very difficult for me."

Elfman is years away from letting Dharma go anyway; it's just that she doesn't want to be confused with the sitcom character, for which she just won a Golden Globe. It is a hazard for all television stars: the greater the fame, the harder it is to get beyond it. Despite a chilling performance in Ordinary People, Mary Tyler Moore never really has. It took Alan Alda years to shed MASH. And when Shelley Long tried to trade up and out of television, leaving Cheers at its height, she ended up in a career free-fall from which she has been largely unable to recover. Helen Hunt has proven a recent exception, the Mad About You star taking home an Oscar last year for her performance in the film As Good as It Gets.

"As I've changed, I've become less and less like Dharma," says Elfman, who rarely escapes the comparison. "Now Dharma has become a character in my hip pocket, but [the show] is the source of my strength and power and inspiration, such an amazing supportive group." The entire troupe turned up for one of her performances, half filling the theater. "And one of the wise things [the producers have] done, they're letting Dharma evolve, they made her a chameleon, she can be anything she wants and I can play her any way I want . . . well, almost."

"[Elfman] can do anything. She can do a deeply dramatic scene or fall down a flight of stairs, and everything in between," says Chuck Lorre, co-creator and executive producer of Dharma & Greg. He first spotted her in the short-lived comedy Townies, where she played a gal pal of star Molly Ringwald, and snapped her up for her own show. "She takes on this material with 100% commitment," he adds, clearly a big fan. But then Lorre, who was a creator-producer on other top shows built around a female lead--Grace Under Fire with Brett Butler and Cybill starring Cybill Shepherd--and has the scars to prove it, says he has found in Elfman someone who is as much fun as she is talented--a relief after a world of sitcom diva nightmares.

* * *

As much as anything, Elfman fears allowing success to make her feel "comfy," and just doing "Dharma" meant that. Time, in Elfman's life, is to be filled. Last Sunday before her matinee performance, Elfman found time to take a ballet lesson, get a massage, some lunch and spend an hour practicing the drums--a Christmas gift. With a personal style that manages to make you feel like you've stumbled upon a carelessly capped bottle of nitroglycerin, Elfman moves fast, talks fast and thinks faster. She likes the fact that her second performance will end late tonight and she'll be back on the set of Dharma & Greg the next morning. A few days later, she'll be on her way to New York to work out some of the details of her various projects.

At the moment, she's changed out of the spaghetti-strap slip of a dress she wears and eventually dispenses with onstage in "Visions," in favor of black jeans and a burgundy spandex shirt. Her bare feet are propped up on the chipped and scarred desk that nearly engulfs the small office backstage. There are no dressing rooms to speak of. She leans back in her chair. Yet there is nothing languid in the pose. She has about two hours between the matinee that just finished and the last performance of the weekend. Still wired by the emotions she's just raced through onstage, Elfman's green eyes are suddenly filled with tears.

"I know that girl. I . . . know . . . her," Elfman says of the character, simply labeled "she" by Katselas, unconsciously reconstructing the cadence of the language of the play, as if she had sliced it right out of her performance. "There are times, in my life, that I find myself using lines from it. That's how much I am her. That's how much she is my life."

For all the play has done to expose another side of Elfman to Hollywood's players and influence peddlers, the inside circle who can help change the course of her career, it has done worlds more for her confidence in her own abilities. The play unfolds on a bare stage broken only by two boxes and two actors. There is no costume change, just a dress for Elfman and a shirt and slacks for Ferrer. The backdrop is the brick wall of the theater. There is no curtain, and the stage flows into the first row of chairs. Sometimes there are only inches between the actors and the audience; you can see the sweat, feel the heat.

"This play has focused and centered me as an actor," Elfman says. "If I can do this, with no props and put it all there, truly create something from nothing and take people on this journey too, it makes me so. . . ." Elfman searches for a word. "Proud," she finally says. "Give me props, a set and actors and, hey, no problem."

It is fitting that Katselas would give her this role, written in a way that it almost fits Elfman like a second skin. He was her first real acting coach, the man Bodhi Elfman--composer Danny Elfman's nephew, then her boyfriend and now her husband of four years--introduced her to in 1991, along with Scientology. Jenna Elfman came within one stormy, depressed moment of quitting acting, of finding something else to do with her life; Katselas wouldn't let her.

"She was this beautiful, talented woman who immediately showed that she had this courage to be free and sexual and funny, all at the same time," Katselas says. Now there is some interest in a film version of the play, which Katselas has continued to rewrite and refine all along with new pages coming to the actors as recently as two weeks ago.

* * *

As often as not, Elfman's genetics work against her. With her exotic face, blond spiky hair, a steel-straight spine (the legacy of her years of classical ballet training) and 5-foot-10 of fat-free footage in bare feet that she tends to slip into 4-inch stilettos, Elfman easily dominates a room. It's hard to get around the image of the blond bombshell with the killer smile. It's equally hard to get beyond it, to know if there is something behind Door No. 3.

"I've got this huge sense of humor, goofy, I'm the only one laughing in a theater when no one else is because I've found something funny, and I think that because I like to have fun and because I happen to be blond, people don't take me seriously," says Elfman. "People don't get how smart I am--street-smart, people-smart--they don't grant me that ability." And in the next breath, she adds, "People can take me however they want, I really could give a [expletive]. If I worried about what people think, I couldn't take one step forward."

While what people think may not slow Elfman down, it does seem to matter. There is a kind of fierceness and anger and resentment at not being taken seriously that emerges as she talks about her career. If she had to isolate its source, it would likely be the fifth-grade teacher in the San Fernando Valley (where Elfman was raised) who taped her mouth shut during class one day. The incident and the humiliation it brought stays with her, and is one of the few early traumas she admits to in what otherwise sounds like a fairly idyllic childhood. It was, as she describes it, a Leave It to Beaver life where Mom stayed home, Dad was an engineer, and Elfman was the much-loved youngest of three (she has an older sister and brother) in a family with which she remains very close.

The Scotch tape came off, but soon braces went on and a growth spurt made her a high school giant. It wasn't until her senior year, when, as she describes it, she finally grew breasts and grew out her hair, that guys began to take notice. Her first kiss came that year. The guys haven't stopped looking since. She's become one of the "it" girls of magazine spreads, a recent one featuring her thin frame in a shimmering bikini and a Groucho Marx-mustache of pink cotton candy.

Though it has never been anything but hard work, Elfman's trajectory has been nothing but up. A torn ligament growing up functionally ended her dreams of becoming a ballerina. Though the prestigious Pacific Northwest Ballet did accept her, the pain outweighed the potential, and she passed on the chance.

At 19 she was bagging groceries in the Valley, dropping in and out of college and smoking, by her account, way too much pot. She met Bodhi at 20 just as she began getting work in commercials, fell in love, stopped smoking pot, became a Scientologist, which she says has made her "less of a pain in the ass to others," and started seriously building a career.

By 23, she was in demand for TV ad spots but quickly began replacing those gigs with guest spots on TV series--from Murder One and The Monroes to Roseanne and NYPD Blue. At 24, Elfman became a series regular on Townies. Dharma & Greg and a minor role in the film Grosse Point Blank came a year later.

Last year, Dharma & Greg turned into the surprise hit of prime-time television; she landed a co-starring role opposite Richard Dreyfuss in the largely forgettable movie Krippendorf's Tribe; turned up in a cameo playing a stripper in Can't Hardly Wait; and was the voice of the owl in Dr. Dolittle. This year--well, it's a long way from over.

* * *

There is something of a split personality constantly at work within Elfman. One minute she's telling a joke, the next she's explaining the spreadsheets that cover her desk at the 20th Century Fox lot where Dharma & Greg is produced. She routinely tracks the show's ratings week to week.

"I can see, OK, I promoted here and the ratings spiked, this worked, this didn't," Elfman says. "I never want to make decisions based on just business--then where's your passion for the artistic gone?--but I look, I listen, and nothing gets by me. If you see, then you have to be responsible for what you see and what you perceive, and deal with it and I am totally into dealing with it."

Often exactly what "it" is remains undefined by the actress, at least out loud, but some of the "it" she deals with sounds a lot like Elfman and her life. Just how the Church of Scientology--whose membership includes other high-profile celebrities like Kirstie Alley and John Travolta--fits into her life isn't clear. She does worry that the intensity, and the rawness of her desire to make it, will scare people.

"There is so much drive and determination in me that sometimes I think I'm going to hurt someone with it," says Elfman, who almost didn't make it into this life after a complicated pregnancy put both her and her mother at risk. "It's so strong in me and there's so much intention, like you can't cross me--sometimes I feel like a man, there's so much force."

That force is at its most exposed during "Visions," but it is only when she is at her most vulnerable, Elfman says, that she finally feels safe.

"This [play] is very personal to me, and I thought it would be great to live that out on stage--something I know very, very well," she says. "And on that stage, it's like the perfect, safe place to be, to let it all out."

Elfman shakes her head--the clouds clear, the door slams shut and her face breaks into a killer smile.*

- - -

Betsy Sharkey Is Calendar's Television Editor. Freelance Writer Saul Rubin Also Contributed to This Story


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