Look Who's Back : Movies: Tonya Harding gives acting a spin in the action film 'Breakaway,' getting raves from cast and crew.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Memo to Hollywood: Yes, Tonya Harding can act.

Granted, not everyone will care. Industry opinion has long been against the plucky skater from Oregon. Even through-the-roof name recognition and a mean triple-axel couldn't land her a spot in the post-Olympic "Ice Capades" tour. "Saturday Night Live" tapped rival Nancy Kerrigan, not Harding. That way too went the A-list endorsements: Revlon, Disney and Campbell's Soup.

But Harding may yet have a future beyond Lillehammer, and beyond the probation she now serves for knowing a little too much about Kerrigan's clubbing a little too early. Last weekend she received permission to leave Oregon for several days to make her acting debut in the low-budget action film "Breakaway." Produced by Breakaway Productions, the film, which is due out late this year, is about a female courier who wants to break away from the Mafia. Harding plays "a feisty waitress" who finds $1 million of mob money and runs off to Tahiti.

"I had no expectations about Tonya's performance," admitted 32-year-old "Breakaway" director, co-producer and co-writer Sean Dash. "We figured this was a no-lose situation."

As it turns out, Harding's participation was a fluke. Living in Portland, far from the firm hands of CAA and PMK, Harding must field film offers on gut instinct. "Breakaway," being executive produced by Century Film Partners (whose other movies include "Texas Payback" and "Fists of Iron"), was the first one that felt right. Co-producer Eric Gardner, from Harding's hometown, managed to convince her that it would be a fun, low-risk project with a supportive crew.

"Protection" is Gardner's watchword when it comes to handling Harding. "Protection. No one will bother her."

"Tonya is here to shoot a movie. Not to answer any questions. Not to talk to the press," is how Harding's new boyfriend, Doug Lemon, put it, an enigma in a crew-cut and wraparound sunglasses, arms folded across his chest.

No wonder members of the press approach the aspiring starlet gingerly: "I hate the L.A. Times," the skater told associate producer Michael Muller in turning down a request for an interview. "They wrote something bad about me once." "I don't think Tonya is making the distinction right now between Sports and Calendar," Muller says.

A reporter from USA Today, an old friend of Dash's and therefore on the inside track, did not even try for a direct quote. "I'm just hanging out," he said, hands up. "Entertainment Tonight," however, fared worst of all. It was banned from the set entirely and forced to sit on the street, cameras and all.

Public relations, however, proves to be the only bobble of the weekend. Within the "Breakaway" family, cast and crew are as one. Excess tensions are handled in the way of the film's celebrity guest--quaffing Mountain Dews and chain-smoking Marlboro Lights. At one point, a production assistant weaves through the group distributing whole packs.

On the set, Harding's behavior is model perfect. She submits easily to a make-over. Stepping onto the set, Gina the Feisty Waitress bears scant likeness to the red-sequined spitfire that riveted Lillehammer. Gone is the temple-winching ponytail; in its place is softly loose blond hair. Natural-looking makeup brings out electric blue eyes. A modest blue dress flutters.

"You're much prettier than I expected!" exclaims Century Film Partners co-founder Aron Schiffman, shaking her hand.

Harding is also extremely disciplined. She repeats lines and blocks take after take. She even ad-libs good dialogue when necessary. When lines referring to a gun are cut, a new question is put to her character: "Do you know how to fight?" "I can take care of myself," she snaps, not missing a beat.

As such, she draws unanimous raves from her co-stars. Since "Breakaway's" budget is slightly less than the $1 million Gina the Feisty Waitress discovers in her fridge, the cast does not include big names such as Charlie Sheen or Emilio Estevez. Their uncle, actor Joe Estevez, however, has proved available.

Estevez resembles a burlier version of brother Martin Sheen. His acting has that husky, faintly hammy quality popular in the action genre. In fact, while Estevez may be less known to the public than other family members, he may well have acted in more films. Just a few include "Body Count," "The Summoned," "Criminal Intent," "The Flesh Merchant" and "Double Blast" (with Linda Blair).

The veteran actor, who has the task of partnering Harding in her very first on-camera scenes, likes what he sees.

"Instinct, that's what Tonya has. Instinct," Estevez says. "She's a nice little actor. It's like Robert Mitchum said, 'Learning acting is like learning to grow tall. Either you do or you don't.' Tonya has the raw talent.

"I think she could do rather well in films. She's got a really great look, she's got a fantastic body, she's very photogenic. People forget that she's just a baby. She must have a lot of discipline and determination to do the things she's done in life, you know? So movies--why not? Why the hell not?"

"If she wants to, she could move right up to big action parts," agrees second unit director Cole McKay. He supervised Harding's first fight scene, which required her to throw a punch at a bad guy, kick him twice and then hurl him down some stairs. "Here's a woman who's an athlete, who knows how to choreograph moves in her head. She'd make suggestions too, things like, 'I punch better with my right hand than with my left.' "

Would "Breakaway's" crew work with Harding again?

"Absolutely," enthusiastically confirms director Dash. "I've had less trouble with her than with many other actresses."

Such a positive buzz comes as no surprise to the self-described "brave people" who believed from the start Harding could turn things around. "She can do more than just skate," declares her current manager, Portland-based Merrill Eichenberger, who says his client has been offered roles on Fox-TV's "Married . . . With Children" and CBS' upcoming comedy series "SHE TV." Eichenberger has an extensive background in marketing and video, describing himself as "one of the pioneers of the infomercial."

"I took Mickey Rooney's career out of the ashcan in 1971--we can do the same for Tonya," agrees Ruth Webb, the partner of Harding's talent agent, Sherri Spillane.

"Look at Vanessa Williams--eight years later, she's opening on Broadway," points out Spillane. "Of course, we're hoping it won't take eight years!"

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