In January, Patricia Arquette hit the big time. She won the CableAce Award for best actress in a movie or miniseries for her performance as a 17-year-old hearing-impaired epileptic in the Lifetime movie, “Wildflower.” Arquette beat out the likes of Sissy Spacek, Laura Dern, Christine Lahti and Holly Hunter.
"(They’re) heavyweights,” says Arquette, 24, with a giggle. “It’s the real thing.”
And Arquette, the granddaughter of comic Cliff Arquette and sister of actress Rosanna, has proven to be the real thing. She’s quickly graduated from guest shots on episodic series (“thirtysomething”) and TV movies (“Dillinger,” “Daddy”) to co-starring roles in such features as Sean Penn’s “Indian Runner” and Sam Shepard’s “Far North.”
The majority of Arquette’s features have not been commercial fare. She says she picks projects that enable her to take chances “and do something different with people who want to try something . . . really different. . . .”
Her latest film, “Ethan Frome,” opening Friday, is based on Edith Wharton’s classic novel about a doomed love affair between a married man and his wife’s young cousin. Arquette plays the vivacious cousin Mattie Silver; Liam Neeson stars as Ethan, Joan Allen as his invalid wife, Zeena.
“Ethan” marks Arquette’s first period piece. “I have never done theater in the classic sense,” she says. “That’s why ‘Ethan Frome’ was so interesting to me. I thought it would be really exciting.”
She tackled a complex role like Mattie from a lot of “different angles” and hoped “that somehow you cornered it.” Though “Ethan Frome” takes place in turn-of-the-century New England, Arquette believes the moral of the story still rings true. “It is politically, morally almost for everyone, not ideal to be in love with someone who is married to someone else,” she explains.
“There was quite a lot of competition for the part of Mattie,” recalls “Ethan Frome” director John Madden. “I met and talked to her and felt instinctively that she was what I was looking for.”
Arquette, Madden found, imbued Mattie with a “magical mixture” of vivacity and vulnerability. “She has a particular quality that is all about life, happiness and energy and a kind of fragility at the same time. She doesn’t know how to play something falsely. She is extremely radiant and very unusual. You know you are in the presence of someone extraordinary.”
Born in Chicago, Arquette’s parents moved her and her four siblings to Los Angeles when she was 7. The family, though, often traveled to Europe. “My mom took us to Greece because she taught mythology and she dragged us to all of these sights,” she recalls. " . . . We are very thrilled they took us. At the time, it seemed like a horrible punishment.”
It only seemed natural to Arquette she follow in the family footsteps. Her father, Lewis, also is an actor.
“I guess if I grew up and my parents were nuclear physicists, God forbid, I guess maybe I would be doing something else,” says Arquette, who made her debut at age 4 as Chicken Little in the Philadelphia Folk Festival. “I think I would still be a creative person, one way or another.”
Her parents “pooh-poohed” the idea of her becoming an actress. “It was like, ‘Oh, are you sure? We know you can do it, but are you sure you want to?”
Coming from a famous family did open doors in Hollywood. Arquette found producers and casting people inquisitive about meeting her. “You are like some strange, different creature, and they want to see if you are the same,” she says. “But pretty much when you walk in, they realize you are not the same. Casting agents really want to help people.”
Older brother Richmond and younger brothers Alexis and David also are performers. The brood all hope to work together on a project. “It is just the matter of finding the right material,” Arquette says. “It’s hard to find parts for one person you are happy with--maybe we will have to write it. That would be exciting. We always hang out with each other and work with each other on things.”
Arquette has two films awaiting release, “Trouble Bound” with Michael Madsen, and “True Romance,” directed by Tony Scott and starring Christian Slater.
The mother of 4-year-old Enzo, Arquette is taking some much-deserved time off. “I am sort of trying (to),” she adds. “You got to support your family, so you got to work. But I am going to hold out as long as I can until something great comes along.”