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A Case for Elizabeth Perkins : Film: The actress tackles the role of a detective searching for romance in ‘Love at Large.’

Even now, four years after her film debut as Demi Moore’s caustic, unstylish friend in “About Last Night . . . ,” Elizabeth Perkins can walk into producers’ offices and still notice looks of surprise.

“You can tell they’re thinking, ‘She’s much more, uh, attractive than we thought she was going to be.’ ” Perkins smiles mischievously. “There’s this little side of me that wants to say, ‘It’s called acting. It’s what I do for a living.’ ”

In “Love at Large,” Perkins is acting the part of a woman shielding her insecurities behind the tough-guy facade of a detective. On her first job, she is shadowing a man (Tom Berenger) who happens to be another detective shadowing someone else. Alan Rudolph, the writer-director of “Love at Large,” said he found in Perkins an actress for all ages.

“Elizabeth could have been a movie star in the ‘40s,” Rudolph said. “They had faces then. So does Elizabeth. She brings a sexy, quirky vulnerability to the screen.”

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Speaking animatedly during an interview in her publicist’s office, the chain-smoking, 29-year-old actress--Tom Hanks’ co-star in “Big"--displays yet another Elizabeth Perkins. This one is chatty, bemused, extremely articulate in discussing both her films and her career. Except for the occasional pause to light a cigarette, the words come in a steady wave.

When she first read Rudolph’s script, she felt, “My God, this guy knows me.” As it happens, he did; Rudolph and Perkins are old friends. But after a couple of days of shooting in Portland, Ore., she said Rudolph stopped a scene and told her, “Elizabeth, I’m just looking for you.”

“He really demanded that I use most of my personal experiences and personality. That’s a very uncomfortable thing for an actor to do. Like going on ‘The Today Show,’ you’re completely exposed without the protection of a character to hide behind.”

Like Rudolph’s “Choose Me” and “Trouble in Mind,” “Love at Large” is a stylized meditation on romance set in a mythic urban landscape. Everyone, in a sense, is a detective; everyone is trying to track down true love.

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“Stella is a searcher, somebody who is continually looking for that light at the end of the tunnel or that person who’s going to be the consummation of love in her life,” Perkins said. “I think that’s why Alan chose for his two leads to be detectives. Both are looking for something they’re lacking in their lives. I think I can relate to that . . . I’m constantly looking for explanations or some other meaning to life. Or at least something new.”

That search began in the perfect atmosphere. She grew up in an isolated environment on a 600-acre farm in southern Vermont.

“That played an enormous part in my becoming an actress. Any child that isolated will develop an overactive imagination. I used to be absolutely fascinated when I was around people.”

After high school, Perkins moved to Chicago and was there during that city’s theatrical explosion of the late ‘70s. She attended the Goodman Theater School and performed locally. Then one day she impulsively moved to New York.

Within two weeks she landed a part in the touring company of Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and later played the role on Broadway.

Then came “About Last Night . . . " the movie adaptation of David Mamet’s 1972 play about the Chicago singles scene, “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.” Her character, Joan Gunther, was a plain, tasteless woman embittered by male exploitation and rejection. In other words, the kind of role many actresses would shrink from.

“That never crossed my mind. Friends would say, ‘I can’t believe you did that on film, especially your first movie. She is so unattractive and that hairdo and those clothes and she’s has such a mean spirit.’ I never thought that it would do something to my career, that it would be the way people perceive me.”

Perkins’ next two films--"Sweet Heart’s Dance” and “From the Hip"--were pretty forgettable, then came “Big,” as in big break. “At least it was a departure from the role in ‘About Last Night . . .,’ ” she said. “That’s what I’d been identified as. But the minute ‘Big’ came out, I became the uptight executive with a heart of gold deep down inside somewhere.

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“So (every script submission) I got was an uptight executive with a heart of gold deep down inside somewhere. It wasn’t until I read Alan’s script that I got anything different.”

Perkins said she was also attracted to the project because of the presence and treatment of women in the film. “All are extremely different. Alan is one of the only writer-directors who has the ability to instill both feminine and masculine qualities into a film.”

The romanticism in Rudolph’s films create a nether world free of time and place. They lie somewhere in the dream world of movies, where the characters can unlock their hearts’ secrets.

“Alan doesn’t like the production or costume design to interfere with the emotional life of his characters,” Perkins said. “So his scenarios become very undefinable. The concentration is on what the characters are going through.”

Perkins made two other films last year. In “Enid Is Sleeping,” shot in Santa Fe, N.M., she enjoyed her first full starring role, where her character carries the picture. “I play a bleached blond, a very lost Southern soul who accidentally murders her sister with a large ceramic clown.”

In Barry Levinson’s “Avalon,” filmed in Baltimore, she joined an ensemble cast that includes Joan Plowright, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Aidan Quinn in a tale about Jewish-Polish immigrants from 1914 to 1963.

“Me and Aidan Quinn playing Jews--kind of interesting,” mused Perkins, who is herself Greek.

Perkins has recently settled into a home she bought in Hancock Park and says she’s not anxious to get back to work soon.

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“Ten and a half months on the road doing three pictures last year--I’m in no hurry to leave home again.”


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