There is not much to be taken lightly in Showtime's Saturday-night movie "Paris Trout," a dramatic reach deep into the dark hollows of racism, abuse and murder.
Written by Pete Dexter, from his novel that won the National Book Award in 1988, the film will be screened in May at the Cannes Film Festival as part of the prestigious Director's Fortnight series. And the film, which was directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal ("Family of Spies"), already has been sold as a theatrical release in overseas markets.
But the film's most indelible stamp may be its cast. Dennis Hopper plays Trout, a brainsick businessman in a small Southern town in the early 1950s who, while collecting on a busted car deal, self-righteously kills a young black girl. Ed Harris plays Hopper's self-contained defense attorney, trying to defend his own values in the stink of a rotten case.
Caught in between the two men is Barbara Hershey. Her role as Trout's wife, Hannah, might be the toughest in the film. Physically and sexually abused by Hopper, swept with passion for Harris, Hershey has to squeeze the most out of a role that is heavier on emotion than dialogue.
"I was first attracted to the material almost more than the role," said Hershey, 42, sitting down for coffee and a muffin at a Larchmont Village cafe near her home.
"There was a challenge in the role that I was curious whether I could meet. I like challenges, and one of the challenges of the piece for me was that she (Hannah) does not have many lines. She's like a shadow. She's a whisper. And I wanted to see if I could create a character with whom you get a sense of history, a sense of a whole person."
In her last TV role, the CBS docudrama "Killing in a Small Town," Hershey won rave reviews, plus an Emmy and a Golden Globe, for evoking both horror and sympathy as a suppressed Texas homemaker and church choir member tried for murder after whacking her friend to death with an ax.
Gyllenhaal, who also directed Hershey in "Killing" for CBS, said that the actress "always skates on as thin ice as she can get to, without falling in. It's amazing watching her. It's not like there's ever a take where you say, 'Oh, we can't use that.' Every take is complete and could be used in the film. When the camera rolls, she just can't allow dishonesty to creep in."
Because of Gyllenhaal's stark directing, and without network TV's cautious interference, the type of unsettling and explicit scenes found in "Killing" are more abundant in "Paris Trout." At one point, Hannah, a quietly consenting partner to her husband's abuse, is nearly drowned naked in her bathtub. Another time she's humiliated and raped by Trout with an opened water bottle.
When asked about the rape scene, Hershey hung her head ladylike. "You wonder how you shoot those things." She laughed nervously. "It needed to be ugly. And it was ugly. I mean, I have a hard time looking at it. It was obviously hard to do.
"Dennis was a prince. He was totally professional. You know, very sensitive and caring. In between takes, he'd always check me, 'Are you OK?' Because those scenes--acting is very odd. On one level you know that it's acting, and you see the crew and know you're safe. But on another level, if you're doing your work right, you feel it. Your body believes it. It's hard, those scenes."
Hershey has come far as an actress since she was first nudged into the profession at 17 by her Hollywood High school drama teacher. She did a stint on the "Gidget" TV series, followed by a starring role in the TV series "The Monroes." Her feature film debut came in 1968 opposite Doris Day and Brian Keith in the campy '60s period piece "With Six You Get Eggroll."
She doesn't talk much about those early days, when she fleetingly changed her last name to Seagull, moved in with David Carradine and named their son Free. She said most of that era of her life was misreported anyway. These days, Hershey discusses her work in length, herself in brief.
"I find that when you make private things public they cease to have meaning privately," Hershey said softly. "Sometimes you need to keep something sacred for it to be sacred. So on that level, I'm protective."
Hershey survived the '60s and her media brand as a ditsy flower child, struggled through the '70s in good films ("The Baby Maker") and bad ("Flood!"), and finally transformed into womanhood on screen, she said, in the acclaimed 1980 movie "The Stunt Man."
Strong performances in "The Right Stuff" (1983), "Hannah and Her Sisters" (1986), "Hoosiers" (1986), "Tin Men" (1987), "Shy People" (1987), "Beaches" (1988), "A World Apart" (1988) and "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988) have since made Hershey a standard among critics and adult moviegoers.
The actress denies the suggestion that such roles have brought her fame. "I'm not recognizable." What she has attained instead is longevity, she said.
"People often ask me what role I've played is the most like me, and I know what that question means," Hershey said. "It means they're trying to figure out who I am, which pleases me. Because I never wanted to be easily definable. I always wanted to do variety as an actor. So it means on some level I'm succeeding, even though it's not the best road commercially. But it's definitely the path that I've chosen."
"Paris Trout" debuts Saturday at 9 p.m. on Showtime.