Sitting in a restaurant here, Amy Irving looks as if she could well be an extra from ex-husband Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.” With no makeup, a babushka taming her frizzy brunet curls and a long gray shawl draped over her shoulders, the blue-eyed actress conveys a picture of severe beauty and intensity.
But Irving’s character is a Jewish refugee not of an Eastern European pogrom but of 1938 Brooklyn. She has just finished a performance of “Broken Glass,” Arthur Miller’s new Broadway drama. And though Sylvia Gellburg, the character she plays, is 3,000 miles from the horrors of the incipient Nazi Holocaust, they are still very much present in her thoughts and dreams.
“The first time I imagined Sylvia’s nightmares in the play, I pictured Ralph Fiennes,” Irving says, referring to the actor who played a Nazi officer in “Schindler’s List.”
Irving, interviewed after a Saturday matinee at the Long Wharf Theater, where the drama is trying out before bowing on Broadway next Sunday, continues: “This woman is sitting in Brooklyn but she’s imagining herself in the situation of the Jews in Berlin after Kristallnacht. Steven’s film immediately came to my mind because the images were so haunting.”
It doesn’t take long for Spielberg’s name to crop up. The surprise is that Irving is the one to bring it up, given the fact that a good part of the actress’s life and career has been spent in the glare and the shadow of being first Spielberg’s girlfriend; then his wife and the mother of their child, Max, and now the ex-Mrs. Spielberg, happily coupled with Brazilian film director Bruno Barreto, with whom she has another son, Gabriel.
In that regard, Amy Irving has always been another sort of refugee, one who has escaped the distortions of Hollywood through periodic forays in the theater. Now, after the dismal failures of her movies “A Show of Force” (a 1990 film directed by Barreto) and “Benefit of the Doubt” (1993), Irving has once again returned to a place that has been welcoming her since a 1980 Broadway debut in “Amadeus.” While her ex-husband glories in unprecedented commercial and artistic success, the 40-year-old actress finds herself working for relatively little money at a small regional theater--though she says she loves every torturous, nerve-racking moment.
“It’s exciting, it’s terrifying, and I’ve never been so alive,” Irving says, sipping a glass of mineral water and nursing a swollen lower lip, the result of an accident that occurred in a blackout that ends the show. “I’ve never created a role for the theater before. You’re given new pages, you try them, and they don’t work and you feel so exposed. But everyone tells me: ‘Be patient. We’ll get there. This is the way the theater works.’ ”
(Indeed, the rigors of mounting a new play would take their toll in the succeeding weeks when, just before the play departed New Haven for Broadway, it was announced that David Dukes would replace Ron Silver in the lead role of Dr. Harry Hyman.)
On first glance, Irving’s choice for her return to the theater seems at odds with the astringent beauty and spunkiness that have imbued her previous roles onstage (“The Heidi Chronicles”) and often in film (“Crossing Delancey,” “Yentl”). Sylvia Gellburg is a Brooklyn woman stricken with a sudden hysteric paralysis. Harry Hyman, her doctor, uncovers some clues for the medical mystery: her near-psychic identification with the suffering of the Jews in Germany, which she obsessively reads about in the newspapers, and, more notably, her self-hating martinet of a husband. As she becomes increasingly emotionally involved with Hyman, Sylvia begins to realize that what she sees as the passivity of the European Jews echoes her marital resignation, sparking in her a personal uprising.
“She has a lot bubbling up in her,” Irving says. “No one will ever think of me as a delicate, fragile woman after this play.”
Nor would they think that if they ever met her in person. While Irving is agreeable when someone approaches her for an autograph in the restaurant, what she communicates most is clarity and directness. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
Still, although Irving may share Sylvia Gellburg’s moxie, as one character puts it, the similarities end there. Miller’s description of the character in the play--"She is in her mid-40s, a buxom, capable and warm woman"--indicates the playwright and director John Tillinger decided to go in a different direction when they cast Irving. In fact, Dianne Wiest had initially been announced for the role but backed out because, Tillinger said, “she couldn’t give it the time and energy that the role required.”
“I suppose there are people who will still say she’s too young for the part,” Tillinger says of Irving. “But there’s no question she has the right emotional makeup for this highly strung woman. We felt that those strengths would override any reservations that she wasn’t physically right.”
Irving got the chance to join the company, which also includes Ron Rifkin and Frances Conroy, in December when she received a copy of the play at the Santa Monica home she shares with Barreto, 4-year-old Gabriel, 8-year-old Max and Helena, Barreto’s 17-year-old daughter by a previous marriage. Since Miller was not familiar with Irving’s theater work, the producers were keen for her to fly to New York to audition for the playwright.
“I wanted to hate this play,” Irving says, alluding to the disruptions that doing the play would visit on her family. “But then I read it. I showed it to my mother (actress Priscilla Pointer) and she said, ‘Go. Do it. Your family will survive.’ ”
On a December morning just after seeing a private screening of “Schindler’s List,” Irving flew to New York and auditioned. “How do you know this woman so well?” Miller asked of Irving after she had read the first scene of the play. Although she quickly won the part, there was still some question among the creative team as to whether Irving could pull it off. Makeup, after all, could only fade her beauty so much.
“They were all concerned,” Irving says. “But I’ve had a lot of experience in my life. I have a lot to draw on. It’s not just the obvious marriage f---ups. It’s a lot of, you know, growing up . . . loss, whether it’s through death, career disappointments, marriage failures. I’ve spent a lot of time exploring very strong issues with my father, very strong issues with Steven, very strong issues with my husband (she calls Barreto her husband, though they are not legally wed). I’ve had very intense relationships all along the way, and they’ve all, in one way or another, involved a loss of identity. I can’t be more specific than that.”
“Amy’s a very complicated person,” says Rifkin, who plays her husband in the drama and recommended her for the role. “There are a lot of layers to her. And the more you get to know her, the more layers you discover underneath those layers. She has the maturity that comes from knowing that life is full of surprises, some of them pleasant and some of them painful. Like any good actor, she can translate those deep feelings into her work. I think she’s a lot more like Sylvia than anybody thought.”
Irving struggled for her own identity from early on, as the daughter of Pointer and her husband, distinguished director Jules Irving. Irving’s paternal grandfather was a Russian Jewish immigrant, and she says she has drawn on that heritage to create the Jewish characters she has played in “Crossing Delancey,” “Yentl” and now “Broken Glass.”
She was reared a Christian Scientist, however, and the family observed no religious customs or traditions.
“I’m not an advocate of organized religion,” she says resolutely. “I really leave my children’s religious education to their fathers. Max gets his sense of Jewishness from Steven; Gabriel gets his Catholicism from Bruno.”
The altar in the Irving household was the stage. Along with her brother, David, now a film director and teacher, and her sister, Katie, who works with deaf children in Santa Fe, N.M., Irving literally grew up in the theater.
“I can’t imagine a more wonderful way of growing up,” she says of her youth, spent first in San Francisco, where her father headed the prestigious Actor’s Workshop, and then in New York, where he was appointed director of the Lincoln Center Repertory Theater. Pointer was a leading member of her husband’s repertory of actors.
“Instead of using baby-sitters, Mama would put us in the front row where she could watch us from the stage,” Irving recalls. “My father was an amazing artistic director, and the values of the Actor’s Workshop were special. It was about the work, not money or fame. Things were very disillusioning when I got out into the real world.”
After studying at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and the American Conservatory Theatre, Irving worked in the competitive arena of Los Angeles theater, where actors kept one eye cocked for a spot on “Starsky and Hutch.” Despite her dismay at the bald ambition, Irving initially thrived in that environment. She was soon making a splashy film debut in Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” (1976), which she followed with the director’s “The Fury” (1978).
“The most shocking thing to me was that talent or training had little or nothing to do with it,” Irving says. “The reason people were working was because they were a type or a look. I couldn’t really complain, because my career was happening as fast as I might’ve wanted it to. Working with De Palma was great--completely strange --but great.”
About this time, Irving met Spielberg through George Lucas (she had auditioned for but lost out on the part of Princess Leia in “Star Wars”). The attraction was instantaneous but volatile from the start, exacerbated by the director’s growing profile. After several years together, the two split up in the early ‘80s. Irving gave up the role she was set to play in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and took stock of her life in an adobe house high above Santa Fe.
“You start out being Jules Irving’s daughter,” Irving said at the time, “and you finally break away from that to become Amy Irving, and then you become Steven Spielberg’s girlfriend, and, well, I was having an identity crisis. I had to take positive action and get a new sense of myself.”
The positive action led her to the New York stage, earning good reviews and, more important, her exacting father’s approval, when she took over the role of Constanza, Mozart’s wife, in “Amadeus” in 1980.
Irving says it was one of the happiest times of her life, and more success followed in movies, including Barbra Streisand’s “Yentl” (1983), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actress, and Joan Micklin Silver’s “Crossing Delancey” (1988).
“I didn’t want to do ‘Yentl’ at first,” Irving says now. “I thought Hadass was just this submissive and pretty little airhead, but Barbra’s a hard woman to say no to.”
Irving’s successes on film and stage gave her enough confidence to resume her relationship with Spielberg in 1985. When she became pregnant with Max, the couple decided to tie the knot in a private civil ceremony in Santa Fe later that year.
While Spielberg continued to develop and oversee projects in his film empire, Irving opted largely for television (“Anastasia,” “Far Pavilions”) and theater (“The Road to Mecca”). She received few film offers, but she did get a chance to try out a sultry vocal technique when she dubbed in the singing voice of Jessica Rabbit in 1988’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” for which Spielberg was an executive producer.
The marriage, however, soon started to show the strains of an ambitious couple pursuing their private agendas. And Irving continued to rankle under her unofficial status as consort to the Prince of Hollywood.
“During my marriage to Steven, I felt like a politician’s wife,” she says. “There were certain things expected of me that definitely weren’t me. One of my problems is that I’m very honest and direct. You pay a price for that. But then I behaved myself and I paid a price too.”
Irving made it clear, however, that it was she, more than her husband, who placed those pressures on herself. The marriage ended amicably in 1989 amid reports in the press of a divorce settlement of about $100 million. Spielberg married actress Kate Capshaw in 1991.
Irving almost immediately became involved with director Barreto (“Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands”). They met when he cast her for the role of a spirited Puerto Rican television reporter who uncovers political chicanery in “A Show of Force,” which was critically panned and fared poorly at the box office.
Their relationship, however, bloomed. Suddenly, Irving was dancing samba and singing in full costume at Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, speaking Portuguese in the couple’s home in the coastal resort of Buzios, north of the city.
“I think I was just as surprised as everybody else,” she says. “I didn’t want to get involved that quickly, and Bruno and I tried to keep our relationship professional at first. But being exposed to this Brazilian world has enriched me in multiples. I’ve enjoyed it--a lot ! This has been the happiest relationship of my life.”
Barreto has been supportive of her professional life, even if that has meant occasionally uprooting family. But the film offers, somewhat to her chagrin, remain meager. Acknowledging that she finds the self-promotion necessary for stardom to be “hideous,” Irving says that at the same time, she is frustrated by her lack of options.
“I was out there trying,” she says. “I couldn’t get meetings. I couldn’t beg through the door.”
Could Hollywood’s cold shoulder have been caused, at least in part, by her split from the powerful Spielberg?
“I think it hurt being Steven Spielberg’s wife,” she says, “and then it hurt being the ex-Mrs. Steven Spielberg. It was awkward for a while. I don’t know why. I only know that I felt nonexistent.”
In addition, Irving has had a reputation for being difficult with some producers.
“I absolutely never found that to be the case,” says Micklin Silver, who directed Irving in what is widely considered to be her best film role, “Crossing Delancey.” “Amy is a pleasure. She has a great delicacy as an actress that I appreciated. She was never on a star trip, always the professional and generous to a fault.”
But Irving is the first to say that some producers wouldn’t agree.
“I get along great with directors, but I think some producers would tell you I’m a pain,” Irving notes. “They may say I’m tough to work with, but I have a great passion for what I do. I believe in fighting for it.”
One production source at Warner Bros., which produced two of Irving’s films (“Crossing Delancey” and 1980’s “Honeysuckle Rose”), agreed with Irving’s assessment, saying that she was considered by some at the studio to be very difficult.
Brian De Palma, on the other hand, says, “She was a delight to work with.” Although De Palma used Irving in two films nearly back to back, he has not used her since. “She just wasn’t right for the roles” in his other pictures. “But I would work with her again anytime.”
Asked if he ever felt any implied pressure from his close friend Spielberg when working with Irving, De Palma laughs.
“I was married to an actress (Nancy Allen) at the time whom Steven used in two of his films,” he says, referring to “1941" and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” which Spielberg produced. “Anybody who says that is ridiculous. Steven would never put pressure on anyone for something like that. Amy is a talent in her own right.”
Irving says that at most the Spielberg factor is just one possible explanation: “There were other aspects; I’m not 20 years old, and I haven’t been in blockbusters.”
That’s something of an understatement. Last summer’s “Benefit of the Doubt” earned Irving some good reviews as a tough-talking blond cocktail waitress opposite Donald Sutherland, but the film, a thriller with heavy scenes of father-daughter incest, flopped.
Her most recent film, “Kleptomania,” directed by Dan Boyd (“Twenty-One”) and produced by Carol Curb Nemoy, in which Irving plays a spoiled socialite who also happens to be a kleptomaniac, may never see the light of day because of differences between the director and the producer. (“The urge to steal has a lot to do with a lack of love and loss of sexuality in her life,” Irving says. “The character is very interesting . . . and far different from anything I’ve ever known.”)
Irving has also finished a role in a “Twilight Zone” CBS movie that will air next month.
“I’ve gone from ‘low-budget’ movies to ‘no-budget,’ ” she says with a rueful laugh. “I think ‘Kleptomania’ is the best work I’ve ever done. I put my heart and soul in that film, and it breaks my heart that it may never get released. And so you let go and move on, and just as my heart’s breaking over that, Arthur Miller’s asking me, ‘How do you know this woman so well?’ I wouldn’t trade doing this play for the biggest film.
“People shouldn’t waste time thinking about what happened to Amy,” Irving says, a little snappishly. “I’m living in a very beautiful, intimate way. Maybe I’m less ambitious, but my life is so full. So excuse me for having an incredibly wonderful life.”
After her run in “Broken Glass” ends, Irving plans to do a movie with a Brazilian friend, but she doesn’t foresee working with either Spielberg or Barreto anytime soon.
“I’d do a movie with Steven,” she says, “but I think it would be awkward for him. Our friendship is very valuable to us, and that would probably put a strain on it.”
In fact, Spielberg’s company, Amblin Entertainment, is producing Barreto’s new film, “Casanova,” starring Antonio Banderas. But while Irving maintains that she is “too old” for a part in the movie, she does say that she and her stepdaughter, Helena, plan to visit the set in Spain. “We’re just going to watch from the sidelines and drool over Banderas.”
Meanwhile, Irving has been happy to be a homemaker and mother. Her concerns these days include helping her young boys navigate the shoals of celebrity as they show indications of following in the footsteps of their famous parents.
“Gabriel hasn’t really mentioned it, but he’s already an actor,” she says. “Every once in a while Max says he wants to be in a movie, but I won’t let him. If he’s serious about it, let him get some training first. Let him earn it. Just don’t go and be a celebrity. He’s famous enough. He really wants to be a director. God knows, he’s got a hard act to follow.
“I just want to expose them to enough so that they realize there are other choices,” she adds a little hopefully.
More than most celebrities, Irving has been especially successful in protecting her public image, even if she has emerged as something of an ice princess in the press. Lucky, to be sure, but also certain of her prerogatives.
“I’m not a princess,” she says. “There are a lot of givens that don’t necessarily make for happiness. I’ve had a lot of s--- to swallow and stuff to work out. I have scars nobody knows about.
“Sure, my life looks hunky-dory to someone living in Tucson. They read (the tabloids)--lies about things that didn’t happen and things they say I’ve gotten that I haven’t gotten. But if I don’t have pain, I don’t grow. I like to take chances. I like to get hurt. I like to jump in and have it slapped back in my face. Otherwise, I’ll just be like Sylvia Gellburg. Life will just close over you like a grave.”