In the summer rush of movie images--cliffhangers, dinosaurs, Tom Cruise on the run, Clint Eastwood in a sweat--one should certainly take its memorable place: The sight of Nancy Travis’ unguarded face smiling a winsome hello while she slams a meat cleaver into a sheep’s skull.
That is one of Mike Myers’ (and our) earliest sightings of the butcher shop woman who would become his wife in “So I Married an Axe Murderer,” and it creates an understandable frisson of misgiving: How can a woman who looks so fair, so unassuming, be so at home around a chopping block? And if you’ve had a bad day together, what will she think when she sees your head on a pillow?
That’s the bubble of suspense on which the movie floats through the streets of San Francisco, and it would burst in an instant if Travis didn’t maintain thorough inscrutability.
“She does have her rationale for being wary,” Travis says, of a character whose three prior husbands have turned up dead. “To work yourself up to marry somebody, then lose your spouse--that leads to insecurity.”
For most of the film, you can’t be sure. That steady face, with its catchy off-center grin and eyebrows that rise in the angle of a circumflex--a bit like Stan Laurel’s--is intended to disarm. But her hands have told us something else; so does a mounting collection of fishy, so to speak, clues.
A lot of Travis’ work has been either perishable (as in TV commercials or in “Spenser for Hire”) or strapped into nose-diving vehicles like “Chaplin” or “The Vanishing” (her most recent films). Much of the time she’s played the Girlfriend (“Three Men and a Baby"/"Three Men and a Little Lady”) where she’s not encouraged to fill in the generic blanks.
But in her best work she shows a fine actor’s gift for playing several things richly at once. In the 1990 movie “Internal Affairs,” for example, she was the wife of a Latino cop who brutalized her with macho jealousy; her body wanted to trust him but her eyes couldn’t, and her voice was laced with passion, weariness, anger and urgency.
In her stage role as Isabel in Athol Fugard’s “My Children! My Africa!” (in which she played both at the La Jolla Playhouse and the Henry Fonda Theatre), the blondeness of her schoolgirl figure seemed a contrast in hopelessness pitted against South Africa’s sky-blackening self-ruin--until you heard the conviction in her voice that went with the erectness of her stance.
“ ‘Keep it simple,’ Athol told me when I read for the part--I hadn’t memorized the script,” Travis said. “Then, he asked what I’d done, and went to see ‘Internal Affairs.’ He was horrified when the audience cheered the restaurant scene where Andy Garcia knocks me around. He had asked me, ‘What makes you angry?’ and I just blew from the frustration of not being appreciated, the things you have to deal with by being a woman, but mostly from having this passion and not being able to express it.”
Travis does not seem particularly angry in person. On the contrary, she seems jocular, plain-spoken, relatively free of the self-absorption of her milieu, an amiable lunch companion.
“How did I get involved with ‘Axe Murderer’? I can truthfully say I slept with the producer.” She held up her hand to show her engagement ring; she and producer Rob Fried, whom she’s been dating for four years, will be married next spring.
At 30, Travis is a child of the ‘70s with a sensibility of the post-war ‘50s--you’re hopeful, but you play the hand you’re dealt. You take the long view. Born in Astoria, Queens, her family moved around, and she went to high school in Framingham, Mass. She calls her childhood “very suburban, very American.
“When I was a little girl, my mother suggested joining a drama club. ‘Draw-ma,’ she called it. ‘What is it?’ I asked. ‘Basically, you learn to crawl around like a cat.’ I’m still trying to learn that.”
Applications to several drama schools yielded little, or too-slow, response. Except for New York University, where Travis memorized the role of Estella in Sartre’s “No Exit"--which was completely incomprehensible to her--and then was asked to do the part while impersonating an elephant.
“That I was able to do--not like a cat--though it made me forget my lines. Doing Sartre as an elephant. I don’t know.” Travis stuck it out for four years, and a degree, “for my parents’ sake. But the training was full-scale theater training, not cinema. Which was better, at least for me.
“There is a difference between movies and the theater. Talent isn’t the final denominator in movies. If you’re someone people like to watch, if you have a presence, that’s something. And your performance can be made or broken in the editing room. It’s all out of your control. The stage is more of a testing ground. It’s a more rounded process, and every night is a unique, encapsulated performer-audience relationship. It’s a more palpable thing.”
After school, Travis “did Europe with a backpack,” then came back to do “It’s Hard to Be a Jew” at New York’s 92nd Street Y and the national tour of “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” Then some TV commercials and bit parts. Things began picking up when she worked in “I’m Not Rappaport.” Then she came to Hollywood in earnest.
“I thought I was prepared, but I was absolutely not. I thought everyone was interested in art and artists. But there was no one to teach you how to get a job, or about exploitation. I was naive. I’ve been burned a couple of times.”
Travis spoke matter-of-factly, as though her memories were as factual as the recollection of a flight number. What was the worst experience?
“I don’t want to say.”
She glanced out the window for a moment with an empty, obligatory smile.
“OK, I’ll tell you one: I had been cast as Daniel Day-Lewis’ wife in ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being.’ Three weeks into the shoot, I was fired. Not European enough. I had gone in with the typical attitude, trusting and open with the director, as though he knows everything and I don’t know what I’m doing.
“Like so many actors, I thought I could just say, ‘You help me.’ I didn’t realize at the time that everybody is insecure, and that you have to be focused and confident that you know what you’re doing. The strangest thing was that getting fired creates a stigma. You go out on interviews and people want to know why you got fired. The whole thing taught me that you can’t take rejection personally.”
In the type of roles she thinks are right for her, Travis says she’s “somewhere between Jodie Foster and Meg Ryan, right in there.”
She’s now shooting Universal’s “Greed” with Michael J. Fox and Kirk Douglas, directed by Jonathan Lynn (“My Cousin Vinny”).
Kim Basinger and Sharon Stone were two of the names considered for “Axe Murderer,” but for one reason or another, they didn’t pan out. Since Fried and Robbie Fox had worked on the screenplay for some time, Travis was on hand through its various incarnations.
“I made suggestions, but I stayed back. After Sharon Stone fell through, Thomas Schlamme, the director, said, ‘Let’s do it.’ I read with Mike Myers. I passed all the tests.” (She sidesteps the report of Myers’ “difficulty” on the set by saying, “I have tremendous respect for his talent. He was passionate about this project.”)
Though Travis and Myers are close to the same age, she seems much more the film’s center of gravity. Too, maybe it’s because she’s traveled more in fact and imagination, and is closer to the hope and suffering of the real world. She recalls the last performance of “My Children! My Africa!”:
“I knew Athol was somewhere in back of the house. I made Isabel’s final speech (which goes, in part, “You gave me a little lecture once about wasted lives . . . how much of it you’d seen, how much you hated . . . I sort of understood what you meant at the time. Now, I most certainly do . . . My promise to you is that I am going to try as hard as I can, in every way that I can, to see that it doesn’t happen to me.”). A few months later, Athol said, ‘I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but I couldn’t help thinking you were delivering that speech to me.’
“ ‘I was,’ I said. I felt at that moment as though I’d perfected my life.”