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Perkins Finds a Role to Sink Sharp Teeth Into

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Some actresses pick their roles for glamour, some for money, but few seek out the chance to be ugly. Elizabeth Perkins, however, is after exactly that.

In her first play in six years, the film actress is onstage at the Geffen Playhouse in “Four Dogs and a Bone,” John Patrick Shanley’s satire about the movie business, directed by filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan.

She’s relishing the chance, to paraphrase Eartha Kitt, to play a woman who spits tacks. “She is ugly,” Perkins says of her character. “She’s desperate and angry, and it’s like she just vomits a lot. She’s just not afraid to be an ugly person.”

That, in fact, was what drew Perkins to the role. She portrays an aging ingenue duking it out with a producer, a screenwriter and younger actress over the fate of their troubled film.

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“It’s a great part for a woman my age,” says the 35-year-old Perkins, dressed in black clothes and dark shades during a recent midday conversation in Larchmont Village. “The chance to play an actress--especially someone like Collette, who’s considered over-the-hill at 35--in front of a Hollywood audience is a chance that any actress would take.”

Perhaps. Yet not all movie actresses would be eager to return to the stage, even in the company of such fellow film-actor cast members as Brendan Fraser, Parker Posey and Martin Short.

Perkins, who also stars in the September film release “Moonlight and Valentino,” is candid about her reasons. “I hadn’t worked in a year, and I didn’t have [a film script] that I felt, ‘Oh, this would be a good reason to pack up and move for three months.’ And I wanted to work with Larry Kasdan.”

Clearly, it was a good move. Of her performance, The Times’ Laurie Winer wrote, “Elizabeth Perkins steals the show. . . . Her gift for unmitigated self-hate and her genius for savagery are equally hilarious.”

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It’s a fun role--"You can get away with all those things you could never get away with with any other part,” Perkins says--but it’s not without its pathos. “This is the kind of stuff that I love to do: people who are ready to fall off that cliff at any moment. There’s a lot about her that I understand.

“I understand how a woman in this business can be driven to that kind of desperation,” she continues. “Yes, it’s magnified 10 times, but there are things about it that are very honest and that, metaphorically, are very real.”

Born in Queens, N.Y., and reared in Vermont, Perkins won her first major stage role in the 1984 New York production of Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” She has been seen on such New York stages as Playwrights’ Horizons, the Ensemble Studio Theatre and the New York Shakespeare Festival and in Chicago at the Steppenwolf Theater.

Perkins’ film debut was in " . . . About Last Night,” an adaptation of a David Mamet play. Her breakthrough, however, was in the 1988 film “Big,” in which she starred opposite Tom Hanks. More recently, she played Wilma in the remake of “The Flintstones.”

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Yet even though Perkins might be envied for working steadily, she knows that good roles are hard to find. “In most films that I read, there’s a fear of showing an ugly woman like [Collette], a woman who’s desperate,” she says.

The situation is much better for men. “That’s what I envy about most actors,” Perkins says. “They get to play these horrible people. They don’t have roles like that for women, or, if they do, they’re the femme fatale, the gorgeous film noir [character].”

The absence of such meaty roles for women, however, is just a symptom of a larger industry malaise. The greater problem may be Hollywood’s reluctance to get real. “I’m bored by most movie [scripts] that I’m reading,” Perkins says. “With most films, everything is so nice and beautiful, and that’s not right.”

Yet Shanley’s play, in Perkins’ estimation, captures that heart of darkness beneath the friendly facade. “A lot of it is dead-on--the emotions, the desperation that is so brilliantly masked in this town,” she says.

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“It’s absolutely cutthroat, all masked under this pretense of beauty,” Perkins continues. “I love that he’s brought that rabid-dog quality out into the open. He’s taking it to an extreme, if only to make a point.”

Perkins has, in fact, seen the damage that can be done. “I had a friend, a screenwriter who took his own life a couple of years ago, who said that Hollywood was the only town where you could die of encouragement,” she recalls. “And it’s the truth.”

Like the characters in Shanley’s black comedy, there are those in the entertainment industry who seem driven primarily by desperation. “These people are, in their own way, dying, or just hanging on by whatever thread they can grasp,” Perkins says. “That goes on all the time.

“Anybody who’s been in this business for 10 years can say, ‘Yes, I know what that is about,’ and I’ve been in it for 12,” she continues. “That’s the thing about fame: riding high in April, shot down in May.

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“It’s the only business I know that can bring you up and pull you down just as fast.”

Yet even though she knows the downside, Perkins remains pleased with her own lot. “Once you have a level of success, you don’t have to worry about it as much,” she says. “I’m lucky to still be working at the age of 35. I enjoy my career. I don’t have to panic about it, and I don’t.”

* “Four Dogs and a Bone,” Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 5 and 9 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 6 p.m. $25-$35. Dark Thanksgiving Day. Ends Dec. 10. (310) 208-5454, (800) 233-3123.


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