TNT Movie Built for Two : Christine Lahti: She Relishes Return to Comedy in Film About Finding Love

Times Staff Writer

It was one of those stifling dog-day afternoons.

Christine Lahti and Ruben Blades were sitting in an old dusty truck preparing to shoot a scene from "Crazy From the Heart," their off-beat romantic comedy premiering Monday on TNT.

The temperature was hovering near 95 degrees on a barren stretch of road in Valencia; Lahti and Blades were going crazy from the heat.

Director Thomas Schlamme, who also is Lahti's husband, peered into the cabin of the truck and gave the go-ahead for the scene. As Blades drove the truck down the road, a young woman picked up the Schlammes' 3-year-old son, Willie.

"Look," said the nanny. "Wave to your mommy." Willie shyly raised his right arm. But as soon as his mother disappeared from sight, the disheveled towhead wiggled out of the nanny's arms and began scurrying around the set.

Thirty minutes later, Lahti was running her fingers through her short curly hair, cooling off in her air-conditioned trailer. Though gracious, Lahti was a tad antsy during the interview. She just had one more scene to shoot that afternoon and then she was free to take Willie on a promised visit to nearby Magic Mountain.

While pregnant with Willie, Lahti didn't want to take much time off, so she continued working to her seventh month, starring at the Ahmanson Theatre in a production of Tennessee Williams' "Summer and Smoke."

"Nine months is a long time (to be pregnant and unemployed)," she said with a small smile. "But I wouldn't do that again."

Motherhood has changed her outlook on her career. In fact, Lahti said, she isn't as concerned with her career as she once was. "I am still ambitious and still want challenging, great projects," she said, "but I don't care as much when I don't get them."

Before Willie, Lahti would always sit at home and "obsess" about the roles she didn't get. "It used to be hard for me between jobs," she said. "That's very unhealthy and very selfish and a waste of time. Now when I am not working, I don't think what I should or could be doing. I think about what I have, which is this amazing family and this child. That's really been a gift."

One of Lahti's other talents is a gift for comedy. She received an Oscar nomination for her comedic turn as Goldie Hawn's best friend in 1984's "Swing Shift," although her lighter side has been overshadowed by her dramatic work in "Running on Empty," "Housekeeping" and currently, opposite William Hurt in "The Doctor."

"I love doing comedy," Lahti said, enthusiastically. "I do a lot of comedy on stage. I did Noel Coward's 'Present Laughter' and Jules Feiffer's 'Little Murders'--a lot of bizarre, outrageous comedy, but for some reason I guess my last few movies have been very serious, and studio heads think I am in the Meryl Streep mode."

Lahti chuckled and deepened her voice: "They think I am very, very serious. After I did 'Swing Shift' I was known as a comedienne and now I am a tragedienne."

So she jumped at the chance to do "Crazy From the Heart," in which she plays Charlotte, a high school principal in a small Texas town who is "letting her life go by. Everything is status quo."

Charlotte lives with her mother and has been going steady with her boyfriend, the high school athletic coach, for seven years. "She feels kind of dead inside," Lahti said. "You know how you get sometimes when you suddenly wake up and it's 20 years later and you haven't begun to reach your goals and dreams?"

When she learns that her best friend is about to become a grandmother, Charlotte takes action and decides to make her boyfriend jealous by going on a date with Ernesto (Blades), a down-on-his luck farmer working as a janitor at her school. Much to her surprise and the town's dismay, Charlotte ends up falling in love with him. "It's like having a rebirth of her spirit," Lahti said. "She finds this little soul that was almost dried up up and starts to grow."

Lahti has very definite ideas about her characters and has backed out of projects when directors didn't agree with her interpretation. 'If the director is not willing or able to see the character the way I see it, then we shouldn't work together," she said matter-of-factly.

When she replaced Joan Allen on Broadway in 'The Heidi Chronicles," Wendy Wasserstein's feminist comedy-drama, Lahti insisted the whole concept of the production change. "It was my mission to find out what was beneath all that glib banter," she said. "The director, Dan Sullivan, agreed to explore the play on a deeper level."

"Crazy From the Heart" marks the first time that Lahti and Schlamme have worked together on screen, although she and Willie did a cameo in Schlamme's 1989's "Miss Firecracker." He directed her last summer at a theater workshop at Vassar College.

Being directed by her husband, Lahti said, has been surprisingly easy for her. "We have great shorthand," she said. "He listens better as a director than a husband. He is a lot less defensive as a director and maybe I am a lot less defensive as an actress."

Schlamme was especially beneficial for her during emotional scenes, Lahti said. "He knows me so well that he'll say something very personal about me that he knows will push a button," she said. "Then I am ready for a scene. That's so unusual. I have never been able to have that kind of trust with a director. Usually, I have to go off by myself with my Walkman and my music and prepare."

Ruben Blades: His Work Is a Rare Success Story Among Latinos

Observing Christine Lahti and Ruben Blades on the set of "Crazy From the Heart" is a case study in contrasting personalities.

Lahti was quiet and serious. She sat in her chair in the shade and watched bemusedly as Blades joked and laughed with the cast and crew. Despite the relentless heat, he managed to radiate energy and joie de vivre.

Blades was just as engaging for a smaller audience in his trailer--rushing to his refrigerator to get refreshments for his visitors and beckoning them to sit next to him on the small sofa.

"It's pretty nice here," he said, smiling. "We do our work and nobody is acting like royalty. I have been very lucky. I don't have bad stories to tell. I think consideration is contagious."

In "Crazy From the Heart," Blades turns on the charm as Ernesto, a farmer who falls in love with the town's uptight high school principal (Lahti).

"This is a nice story with no murders," Blades said. "Some films have violence in them, and I certainly have been in films where there has been some violence, but I really like the idea of having a situation like this--it's just a story about people."

And a story about people who are not playing a "pre-assigned role." Ernesto, Blades said, "is a very human guy, very down to earth actually. I think that it is a very nice opportunity to show that people from a different culture can be as simple and honest and nice and as funny as anybody. Unfortunately, we don't see enough of that, especially in America."

The Panamanian native is a true Renaissance man. He holds two law degrees, from Panama's Universidad Nacional and from Harvard University. He practiced law in the early '70s. Since 1975, he's been working steadily as a best-selling Grammy-winning salsa musician and songwriter; he penned the score to the 1990 Sidney Lumet film "Q&A.;" He performed all his own salsa numbers in his first major film, "Crossover Dreams" in 1985.

For the last four years, Blades has been acting almost nonstop in such films as 'The Milagro Beanfield War," "Predator 2" and HBO's "One Man's War" and "The Josephine Baker Story," which won him an Emmy nomination this year. His latest feature, "The Super," with Oscar-winner Joe Pesci, opens in the fall.

Despite his success story, Blades acknowledges that most Latino actors have found Hollywood a closed community. "Things have begun to change," he said. "I remember when I was mainly doing music, and I want to stress I still do music--acting is a very nice outlet and it keeps me on my toes--but when I began the only (Latino) name was Raul Julia. Now, you have more names."

But, Blades said, " we are at a disadvantage. When I say 'we,' I am not only talking about Latinos, but anybody else who happens not to have English as a first language."

Blades pointed out Hollywood has no problem hiring an American actor to play a Latino or changing a character from a Latino to an American.

"They don't come to me if they are going to do a Custer movie and cast me as Custer," Blades said. "They say, 'He is not a North American. How can he play Custer?' But there's not a moment's hesitation that someone like William Hurt can play a Latino."

A Latino actor, Blades said, has a better chance at good roles if he looks "closer to the Anglo ideal of a leading man or whatever. My position is just cast the roles in terms of talent and try to make it more representative of what it is all about."

Blades said he also has struggled in Hollywood because he is seen as a musician. Producers, he said, only began to take him seriously after he won the ACE Award for best actor in a 1989 film for HBO, "Dead Man Out," in which he played an insane convict on death row.

"Now I am getting more interesting job offers," Blades said. "In the case of Jack Nicholson in 'The Two Jakes,' he cast me on his own (as tough guy Mickey Nice) because he wanted me do to it. That was Jack thinking, 'He can do the job.' If he had left it to the attention of the casting director, most likely I would not have been called."

Blades playfully nudged his visitor on the arm: "I can't complain. I am working."

"Crazy From the Heart" premieres Monday at 5, 7, 9 and 11 p.m. on TNT (cable); it repeats Tuesday at 1 p.m., Saturday at 7 p.m., Aug. 25 at 1 p.m. and Aug. 30 at 7 p.m.

More Lahti

Christine Lahti movies available on video: And Justice For All . . . (1979, RCA/Columbia) Funny About Love (1990, Paramount) Gross Anatomy (1989, Touchstone) The Henderson Monster (1980, International Video) Housekeeping (1987, RCA/Columbia) Just Between Friends (1986, HBO) Running on Empty (1987, Warner) Single Bars, Single Women (1984, Prism) Stacking (1987, Nelson) Swing Shift (1984, Warner) Whose Life Is It, Anyway? (1981, MGM/UA)

More Blades

Ruben Blades movies available on video: Critical Condition (1986, Paramount) Crossover Dreams (1985, Congress) Dead Man Out (1989, HBO) Disorganized Crime (1989, Touchstone) Fatal Beauty (1987, MGM/UA) The Josephine Baker Story (1991, HBO on Sept. 4) The Last Fight (1983, HBO) The Milagro Beanfield War (1988, MCA/Universal) One Man's War (1991, HBO available Sept. 11) Predator 2 (1990, CBS/Fox) The Return of Ruben Blades (1988, SVS) The Two Jakes (1990, Paramount)

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