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Her Salvation? : Mimi Rogers has taken a chance with a role in a movie about faith and sin. The question: Will ‘The Rapture’ redeem a career bedeviled by typecasting?

<i> Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

What Mimi Rogers’ carefully nuanced performance in “The Rapture” will do for her career remains to be seen, but there’s no denying the film takes her into previously uncharted territory: Her character, Sharon, a directory assistance operator in Los Angeles, participates in group sex, experiences religious ecstasy, commits murder and tells God to take a hike.

“Mimi knew she had to do something electric to jump-start her career because it was kind of stuck,” says first-time director Michael Tolkin of Rogers, the star of his provocative debut film, which opened in L.A., New York and Atlanta on Friday. “She didn’t want to keep playing rich women and agreeable girlfriends and she realized she’d been typecast as a stoic object, a caged rich bird. In a way, being married to Tom Cruise for three years must’ve been sort of a real-life version of that, and she was ready to take a chance and break out. This film gave her an opportunity to do that, and she really delivered. I think people are going to be surprised.”

Rogers’ performance is just one of the surprising things in Tolkin’s controversial film, which has been the talk of the film community since it began screening in August. Not since Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” has a film dealt so explicitly--some say blasphemously--with issues of faith, sin and retribution. Aptly described by critic David Ansen as “a theological film noir,” this modestly budgeted movie (it was made for $3 million) is structured in such a way that it’s open to wildly divergent interpretation, and test-audience response to the film has been decidedly split. Some Fundamentalist groups hail the film as right on, others lambaste it as anti-religious; some non-Christian audiences dismiss it as pro-Christian propaganda, others read it as a conservative, AIDS-era treatise on sexuality.

“Whether they agree or disagree with the politics of the film, most of the people who’ve seen it appreciate the fact that it deals with things that seem to have become taboo in movies,” Rogers observes. “It gives people a way to talk about religious issues, and we’re discovering this is something people want to talk about very much.”

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With Rogers appearing in all but one of the film’s 102 scenes, she describes the six-week L.A. shoot as simultaneously “exhilarating and terrifying, because I knew if my performance didn’t work, then the movie wouldn’t work.”

The film chronicles the spiritual journey of Sharon as she attempts to fill the excruciating loneliness of her life with casual sexual encounters. Finally, in complete despair, she finds God, who proceeds to lead her down a path fraught with such suffering and trauma that she ultimately rejects Him. Sharon no longer doubts the existence of God--there’s ample proof that He exists. However, she concludes that any God who inflicts such torment on those who place their faith in Him as unworthy of her love. Tolkin sees Sharon’s defiance of God as an act of heroism and interprets the film as a metaphor for the conflict between the individual and the authority of the collective. Rogers agrees with Tolkin--sort of.

“I see the film as a warning against blind lack of self-awareness and self-determination because my character is equally blind before and after she experiences her conversion,” Rogers explains. “If you interpret the film that way, then Sharon’s final decision is a moment of triumph because as dark as the choice she makes is, it’s the only point in the whole story where she says, ‘This is what I believe and I won’t violate this belief.’

“At the same time, I don’t see this story as anti-religious, nor was it our intention to present my character as a ‘born-again’ Christian,” she says emphatically. “We tried to make it clear that the story is not an indictment of any specific denomination, but rather, is an inquiry into the issues of faith, God, obedience and morality.”

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Catching Rogers for a conversation about the film proves to be something of a challenge, and we’re meeting at a conference room at LAX, where she has a two-hour stop between flights. En route from Sun Valley, Ida. where she just completed shooting “Dark Horse” for director David Hemmings, to Santa Fe, N.M., to complete shooting with co-star Willem Dafoe on the Roger Donaldson film “White Sands,” Rogers looks remarkably healthy and rested considering that she can’t remember the last time she had a day off. “It’s always feast or famine with me,” she says with a sigh, “but I’m not complaining because I’m thrilled with what’s happening with my career.” Rogers will begin shooting her next film with co-star Jeff Goldblum in November.

Wearing no make-up, jeans and a denim jacket and ornate Indian turquoise jewelry, and with her mop of long, curly hair tied in a bandanna, the 34-year-old actress looks the earthy antithesis of the wealthy sophisticates she played in “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “The Mighty Quinn” and “Desperate Hours.” “I don’t know why I got typecast that way--maybe it’s because I’m tall and have big breasts,” she says with a laugh. “I hope I’ve broken out of that with this film.”

“I’d never been naked on screen before and it made me feel like throwing up,” says Rogers of one of the risks she took in an effort to break out of the typecasting she’d been saddled with. “I think the human form is beautiful, and if somebody walked by a window and saw me naked, it wouldn’t freak me out, but it’s intensely unnatural to be on a set simulating very ugly sex. And the sex in this film is very ugly in that there’s no love or tenderness to it--the sex scenes really reveal the deadness of this woman’s life.

“However, the scenes showing Sharon as a blissed-out convert were even harder because I had no understanding of that experience whatsoever, and I was stumped as to how to show this change in her,” she continues. “During the period when I was trying to figure out how to play those scenes, Michael and I went to a Catholic church service and the sermon dealt with the idea of transferring one’s burdens to Jesus and it hit me what an amazing rush that would be! That sermon sort of gave me a way into the scenes.”

Although Rogers says she’s had no personal experience with religious conversion, she did grow up with a firm grounding in spirituality.

“My father is Jewish and my mother’s Episcopalian, and in the early ‘50s--before I was even born--my father became involved with Scientology,” says Rogers, who was born in Coral Gables, Fla., the daughter of a civil engineer. “So, it’s not like I ever ‘converted’ to Scientology, rather, that philosophy was simply part of my upbringing. And, I think it was an excellent system of belief to grow up with because Scientology offers an extremely pragmatic method for taking spiritual concerns and breaking them down into everyday applications.

“Scientology is controversial because it doesn’t deal with traditional concepts of God,” she adds, “and people are always threatened by anything that veers away from the accepted norm. However, I’ve never been disenchanted with Scientology because the basic philosophical tenets I grew up with have proven to be sound.”

Asked if her father has seen “The Rapture,” she smiles apprehensively and says, “I’d like him to see it, but it’s fine if he doesn’t because I don’t want him to be traumatized. I’ve warned him that I’m nude in the film and do things that may not be pleasant for him to watch.”

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Rogers is quick to point out that “my own religious views didn’t affect my approach to the picture at all,” and Tolkin agrees. “Mimi’s background in Scientology played no role in my casting her, nor did I see it as a problem--we never even discussed it,” he said.

As to how the two of them went about developing the character of Sharon, Rogers says: “Michael and I had about two months together before we began preproduction and we went to lots of church services of different denominations, and he asked me to study the Book of Revelations in particular, as the events foretold in that chapter of the Bible figure prominently in the film. He also gave me a fascinating book called ‘The Unvarnished Gospels,’ which is a version of the Bible written in modern-day vernacular without any of the interpretation it’s been given by born-again Christianity. I also read a novella by Mark Twain called ‘The Mysterious Stranger,’ which--like ‘The Rapture'--makes the point that we make a mistake in judging God from the point of view of human morality. Twain’s book is an inquiry into the morality of God, and asks the question: How does God perceive us?”

Rogers says that her interest in such questions, as well as her affinity for the gypsy life of filmmaking are the result of a childhood marked by the upheaval of repeated moves.

“My family moved every year,” she recalls, “and when you’re always the new kid, you learn to adapt or you die. I learned to adapt very well--to the point that the movie character I relate to most viscerally is ‘Zelig.’ Because of my experience as a child, I can go to a movie location and feel acclimated very quickly.”

The continual disruption of Rogers’ high school career resulted in her graduating at age 15, at which point she embarked on a career in social work in the Bay Area that occupied her for the next six years. In 1977 she married her first husband, a Scientology counselor named Jim Rogers, and after their divorce in 1980 she moved to L.A. to try acting.

“I’d been thinking about acting since I was a teen-ager, but I didn’t get serious about it until I was in my mid-20s,” she says. “At that point I saved up enough money to support myself for a while, moved to L.A. and studied acting with Milton Katselas for nine months. I then devoted myself to getting an agent, which took me six months, and started working immediately. I got my first job when I was 24--I was cast as Renko’s love interest on ‘Hill St. Blues.’ ”

Small roles in several films followed, and Rogers landed her first lead, in the Ridley Scott thriller “Someone to Watch Over Me,” in 1987. That same year she married her second husband, Tom Cruise, whom she divorced in 1990.

“Being married to Tom Cruise didn’t hurt my career, but it certainly didn’t help it,” she says of that three-year period when her career seemed to be stuck in neutral. “Nobody hires you because you’re married to somebody famous--in fact, I think you’re tested a little extra because of it. The only way that marriage might’ve affected my career is that if you decide your marriage is your first priority, then your career will suffer--had I been unmarried and focused on my career maybe things would’ve gone faster.”

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Presently sharing a home in Brentwood with her boyfriend of 18 months, Chris Ciaffa, Rogers laughs ruefully when asked if Ciaffa is an actor. “No,” she says, “I’ve learned about that.”

At this point, life in Brentwood is only a dim memory for Rogers, who has been on the road for months and will continue to travel for several more weeks doing publicity for “The Rapture.”

“Our hope is that people who want to be challenged by movies will respond to ‘The Rapture,’ but I have no idea how this film will do,” she speculates. “So far we’re thrilled beyond our wildest expectations that we’ve been invited to all these film festivals, and Roger Ebert really likes it, and people seem interested in talking about the issues it raises.

“This movie wasn’t made to capitalize on any trend,” she continues in regard to the fact that church attendance in America is on the rise for the first time in over three decades. “However, it would’ve had a much tougher time finding an audience five years ago. People may be more receptive to it now because in a sense we’re dealing with the consequences of the ‘80s, which was a thoughtlessly adolescent time when society degenerated quite a bit. ‘The Rapture’ is as much about contemporary society as it is about religious issues, and the society it shows is one not unlike our own, where it’s very easy to become disconnected from things. There are people who fall through the cracks all the time, people with no family structure or sense of community, and these people feel the lack of a spiritual center quite intensely. I think there are a lot of people out there having this experience, and perhaps this film will mean something to them.”


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