For Sally Kirkland, ‘Anna’ Fulfills an Old Prophecy

Times Arts Editor

The way Sally Kirkland tells it, she was young but already determined to be an actress and was dating a stepson of David O. Selznick. The legendary producer of “Gone With the Wind” liked and admired her. “David said, ‘You’re going to be a major star, but not before you’re in your late 30s or 40s.’ ”

It is an easy prophecy to remember; it’s the ones that don’t work out that you forget. Kirkland, who is 43, stars in the title role of “Anna,” which opens Friday in Los Angeles and which has been winning her the kind of where-have-you-been-all-my-life? reviews that hint of major stardom and certainly of major reputation.

She plays a Czech film star in exile in New York, drowning in alcohol and despair but clinging to the shards of a career. It is one of those incandescent parts which, as has been observed, actors will mortgage their souls to get.

“David,” Kirkland goes on, “said there was no studio system anymore and therefore no one who would bring me along. He said I was too tall, too bright and too individual and eccentric to make it either as an ingenue or as a leading lady. That left character.


“He was telling me all this and I was 17!” Kirkland says. Her conversation tends to be a long and wondrous series of exclamation points. “But his advice was terrific. He said I should keep working, do everything , rack up as many credits as I can. ‘Get 300 women under your belt. It’ll all pay off,’ he said. Was he psychic? Did he program my mind? I’ve never stopped acting.”

She has in fact done 26 films, 150 plays and 40 guest roles in movies for television. She had roles, ranged upward from minuscule, in such films as “Blue,” “The Way We Were,” “Cinderella Liberty” and “Big Bad Mama.” She was in “Bite the Bullet” but Richard Brooks cut four of her scenes, telling her in a kindly way that she was “too interesting” in a small role.

Her most conspicuous film appearance until now may have been in the ads for a prototypically late-'60s independent effort called “Futz,” in which she was seen riding the mammoth pig of the title, both she and it bareback. The acting life is not easy. She suffered frostbite shooting the film in Stockton.

Within the industry (stage and screen alike), Kirkland has won a reputation as a serious actress who is also fearless and unconventional. She has removed her clothes in the name of art and in social protest. Three of her films--"Futz,” “Brand X” and “Comin’ Apart"--have been artfully intended but also X-ratable.

Kirkland admits she was not the first choice for “Anna.” The other names in consideration were a good deal more luminous. But she had no doubt that it could be the breakout role vaguely foreshadowed in Selznick’s prophecy, and she went for it with a terrier’s tenacity.

She got hold of the script by Agnieszka Holland (who had won an Oscar for her documentary “Angry Harvest”). She spent two months learning to speak Polish and Czech, not quite the same as learning the written languages but still difficult. The elevator man in her building turned out to be an exile who had been a theatrical director in Eastern Europe and who helped her with her accents. She met another man who had been a director in Warsaw and was now a house painter in New York.

From high school, Kirkland had gone to study with Lee Strasberg. Now, script in hand, she went to Actors Studio for what she calls moderation critiques with her friends Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.

They were “sharply critical,” she says. “Too much accent; not relaxed enough to make it sound natural. Typically, American actors are so intent on getting the accent right they overdo it. You have to let it go and know it’s your own.”

The author and the director, another Polish exile named Yurek Bogayevicz, kept calling her back for auditions and finally asked her to read with Paulina Porizkova, the fashion model who was set to play the young refugee actress Anna befriends.

“I wore a black suit that Anna was going to wear in the film, and I had $300 worth of makeup done,” Kirkland says. The idea was to make her look like an older woman trying to look younger.

The women were asked to forget the script and improvise some scenes (a technique later used with fine farcical effect in the film).

“He told us to read each other’s palms. She said, ‘I see nothing but success.’ I said, ‘You’re Aries with Scorpio rising; I’m Scorpio with Aries rising. We’ll get on wonderfully.’ ”

The director also asked Kirkland to convey what it feels like to be growing older.

“I didn’t have to act to convey that,” she says.

There were more vacillations, finally a dinner with the director at which, in tears, she demanded to know whether she had the part. He promised an early answer. She went home and meditated for six hours, willing the part to be hers. Eventually, it was, and the director told her not to work on the script, it was being rewritten to fit her.

“I said, ‘I still won’t believe it until you’ve talked to my agent.’ ”

She agreed to gain 10 pounds and gained 15 (going from 125 to 140) on a diet of milk, cheese and ice cream, as recommended by De Niro, who had done it for “Raging Bull.” The weight is gone again, and the tall (5-foot-9), svelte and stylish young woman who talks about the part is hardly recognizable as the self-abusing Anna.

“Anna” was shot in 26 days for well under $1 million, thanks to ruthless begging, borrowing and stealing by the film’s young producer, Zanne Devine.

The film, an out-of-competition success at Cannes in May, was bought by Vestron for distribution. Since then there have been standing ovations for Kirkland and the film at the New York and San Francisco film festivals.

Kirkland, who lived in Los Angeles from 1972 to 1985 and produced several plays, including the “Twelfth Night” that ran for four months, still gives acting seminars here and in other cities. They are partly to teach acting, partly to encourage people to make the most of themselves: as, for example, by winning a role that makes them look old, overweight and unattractive but that may well cause people to remember the name when the Oscar ballots go out.