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Get Over It. (She Has)

Robert Hofler is an editor for Variety in Los Angeles

Maybe it’s in the genes. Minnie Driver’s sister, Kate, is just as outspoken--in her own behind-the-scenes kind of way--as her famous actress sibling. “Minnie’s opened herself up to situations where she should never have gotten herself,” Kate says straight out.

Is she talking about her sister’s tabloid blowout with former boyfriend Matt Damon or perhaps Driver’s disclosure to the press that the “Hard Rain” crew had turned the set’s water tank into a mega-urinal? Whatever. The British actress’ mouth got her into such trouble that Kate Driver says she told her younger sister, “I don’t want you to ever do another interview by yourself. I want to shut you up when you get into territory that can be misinterpreted.”

Fortunately, Kate Driver, 30, wasn’t anywhere near the Chateau Marmont the afternoon her 27-year-old sister sat down for tea, some smokes, and a chat about her upcoming movies “The Governess” (which opens Friday) and “At Sachem Farm,” the first project to be produced by the sisters’ new production company, the Two Drivers.

But first, the Two Former Lovers. Minnie Driver and Damon romanced during the production of “Good Will Hunting,” and no sooner had the movie made him the Next Big Thing than their affair was the Last Big Thing, and he was seen squiring Winona Ryder to every fete on the pre-Oscar party circuit. Driver rolls her eyes at the mere mention of the whole mishegas.

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“Everything has to be made so mythic,” she begins, not exactly uneager to discuss the affair and its dissolution--especially its dissolution. “There are these archetypes that everybody has to take apart,” she goes on to say. “I had to be the victim. It’s horrendous breaking up with someone anyway, but to have it be so public and to be cast in a role that I would never play if they were paying me--this wronged woman! It’s unfortunate that Matt went on ‘Oprah'; it seemed like a good forum for him to announce to the world that we were no longer together, which I found fantastically inappropriate. Of course, he was busy declaring his love for me on David Letterman a month previously.”

No doubt, this is precisely the territory of potential misinterpretation that sister Kate is talking about, and any journalist would have to bless Minnie Driver for taking him or her there. (For the record, she’s just parted ways with her post-Damon boyfriend, drummer Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters.)

But as for archetypes, the Driver-Damon breakup is definitely a newly minted one even for that Jungian of Hollywood junk, Jackie Collins.

Besides being witness to Damon’s Letterman/Oprah flip-flop, Driver kept running into her former boyfriend all spring at the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards, and the Oscars--thanks to their respective nominations for “Good Will Hunting.”

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A “Day of the Locust” apotheosis actually came two weeks before the Academy Awards, at the ShoWest convention in Las Vegas. She had been crowned ShoWest Female Star of Tomorrow; he, ShoWest Male Star of Tomorrow. How did that lightning-strikes-yet-again situation go down? “It was pretty strange,” Driver recalls, “being the counterpart to the person you used to be with--the male and female equivalent of each other, you’re standing on the stage with someone who’s not even speaking to you anymore. That was pretty bizarre. There had to be some reality check there. It was weird, uncomfortable, sad and strange. I really wanted to enjoy it more than I did.”

Enjoy them or not, these are the kinds of situations that can create the mythic, archetypal eggshells from which stars are sometimes hatched. Most important, it got people who’d never even seen a Minnie Driver movie talking about Minnie Driver. Heretofore she had clocked in a great film debut in “Circle of Friends” (1995), as a chunky duckling who finds love with the attractive Chris O’Donnell. The only problem was, no one saw “Circle of Friends.” “Savoy wouldn’t even fly me out to do any publicity,” Driver says, still somewhat miffed. A year of unemployment followed before the actress landed a series of supporting-girlfriend-to-the star roles in “Big Night,” “Sleepers,” “Grosse Point Blank,” and, of course, “Good Will Hunting.” All fine performances, but would she ever graduate from roles that, as Driver puts it, “had people yawning at the first read-throughs whenever I opened my mouth”?

Luckily, just after her breakup with Damon, Minnie Driver drove smack dab into another one of those pesky archetypes she so disparages. Seemingly overnight, the caterpillar victim metamorphosed into the Cinderella butterfly. Even though she purposefully gained the 30 pounds it took to play the college girl who resembles a “Malaga heifer” in “Circle of Friends"--and just as diligently shed them--that first screen impression made an unfortunately indelible impression. The hefty image stuck until, working all those January-to-March award shows this year, Driver trotted herself out supermodel-style in everything from form-fitting Escada to nearly topless Valentino. Faster than Mr. Blackwell could go thumbs-up/thumbs-down, Minnie Driver had landed herself on People magazine’s Oscar-fashion issue, and proud of it.

True to form, the outspoken Driver doesn’t go in for the popular actor-cant about never-ever pondering the offensive subject of her own reflection. “I quite like it,” she says of her newfound Hollywood beauty part. “It’s not a ditsy glamour. It’s the glamour of Katharine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall. This is how I want to be perceived--strong and adult and grown up. I’ve moved away from that other thing--the girl next door who is cute and sweet and good for a laugh. I had to wait and grow into being that person on the cover of People magazine.”

As Kate Driver described her sister: “Minnie has it all down so perfectly. It’s almost like it’s another part for her--to play the part of the big movie star.”

Only different. Driver’s beauty isn’t of the usual homogenized Hollywood variety. It’s more eccentric, almost archaic--the lines of her strong jaw serving to house a mighty tongue. There’s a willful quality about her look, too, as if she simply dared all those magazine editors not to find her cover-worthy. As predecessors go, Barbra Streisand comes to mind. A more apt comparison to Driver, though, might be fellow Brit Julie Christie. Although it’s nearly impossible to imagine now, back in the mid-1960s Christie was considered no raving beauty with her breakthrough performance in “Darling.” But break the mold she did, and in the process she came to personify the ideal of a generation.

Driver’s breakthrough performance could well be her star turn in “The Governess.” In director Sarah Goldbacher’s accomplished film debut, Driver plays an exotic 19th century Jew who becomes a governess to support her formerly wealthy, suddenly destitute family. Her Rosina Da Silva passes herself off as Mary Blackchurch to her new Gentile employers, and over time falls in love with her charges’ father, a photographer. Eventually, Rosina/Mary surpasses him in her command of the new medium. It is Driver’s first film--with the possible exception of the dreadful actioner “Hard Rain"--in which she plays a character with artistic ambitions, not just a love interest.

Driver can be as uncompromisingly honest in her assessment of self as she is of everything else she surveys. Discussing her performance in “The Governess,” she doesn’t lapse into the usual press-junket speak. “Ssss! It’s pretty out-there,” she says between suddenly clenched teeth, letting out what seems to be a lot of pent-up something or other. Her kneecaps find refuge somehow against her chest. “I’ve got to stand by the kind of work I did. It is very emotional. It’s pretty erotic at times. I don’t know . . . " Then after much thought and shaking of the head, finally: “Yes, I do like what I did in it.”

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As well she should.

Oddly enough, there is an uncanny parallel between the real Driver and her fictional governess character, and that is the precariousness of their families’ respective fortunes. Minnie and Kate Driver grew up in Barbados, the daughters of a wealthy financier, Ronald Driver. Later, when Minnie turned 10, the Drivers divorced, and the girls were sent off to Bedales, an exclusive boarding school in England, where Minnie studied comparative religion, among other things.

“I fell madly in love with a Buddhist monk,” Driver recalls of her very first infatuation, “and so religion became about my hormones.” Her life was rarefied in other ways as well. “My dad played polo, he had a team. So we were in Argentina and the south of France, great polo-playing areas . . . England as well, in the southeast. We did a lot of traveling.” Her sister remembers this aspect of the girls’ childhood a tad less romantically: “I wouldn’t call it cosmopolitan so much as nomadic.”

Not that Driver is prone to boast. She also speaks matter-of-factly about Britt Ekland and Peter Sellers living upstairs in their London apartment building, and her riding the same lift one day with Ekland and Rod Stewart, with whom Sellers’ wife was having an affair at the time. “Whew! You smell!” the forever-honest Minnie, age 5, told the rocker, much to the horror of the little girl’s nanny. Even more memorable were dinners with the likes of Michael Caine and Susannah York and David Niven Jr.

Her sister has no recollection of these soirees, but according to Driver, “there were wonderful conversations. My father was involved in investing in films. He was part of a couple of restaurants in London.”

How refreshing, not to get the obligatory struggling-actress-waitress stories. “Oh, but I did wait on tables,” Driver is quick to correct. “It all went a bit pear-shaped when I was in drama school at 19,” she says of the once-sizable family fortune.

Ronald Driver, a director of London United Investments, saw his insurance company go bankrupt. “It was part of the Lloyds [of London] crash in 1987. A lot of people lost a lot of money. People dredge it up--what happened to my father--but there was a lot of money involved. When people bring up my name in England, they bring up his name, too. It’s hard to stay away from it. It’s been awful for him.”

Smart women, the two Drivers now talk about involving Dad in their new production company.And as for Minnie’s hash-house days, Kate once again puts things in a slightly different, if not harsher, perspective. “Her stint was brief,” she says of Minnie the waitress. “Min was never the restaurant type. Min never had the ability to be at least faintly servile.”

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If it appears that Kate keeps knocking Minnie down a notch or two, it may be just the way the latter likes it.

“Kate’s the most fantastic ironic punctuation in my life,” says Driver, who lives with her sister in the Hollywood Hills. “The other day, I said, ‘I have to go roll some calls.’ ” Apparently, the Hollywoodism that escaped from her British lips sent Kate into irony overdrive. Go roll some calls?! “Who are you calling?” Kate shot back with a glance that could warp a bowling ball. “It’s Sunday!”

Driver can dish it out, but she’s that rare show-biz phenom: She can also take it. “Kate nailed my pretensions,” she says, “which is what Kate does.” Later, she explains, “Irony seems to be the only thing that will bring you back to a sense of self and a sense of reality.”

As for losing herself in the unreality of the movie business, Driver says it hasn’t happened to her--not yet. “No, I’ve only been part of the wake of somebody else’s time,” she replies. “But it has made me realize how far you can go from yourself and how much it is encouraged in this town. People almost want you to behave like a movie star, so you can carry on in the emperor’s new clothes. With Kate, irony allows you to catch yourself before you turn into that monster, before you really turn the corner on yourself.”

One can imagine that at some earlier point in time, these two sisters--both tall, nearly 6 feet, with their heightened angularity--were almost mirror images of one another. But then Kate Driver had a premature midlife crisis upon turning the Big 3-0. She got depressed, cut off nearly all her hair and bleached it within an inch of its life. Unlike her sister, Kate’s not quite so sure about life in L.A.: “I have problems putting down roots in a place. [But] there’s something about America. You feel you can succeed. Minnie felt that with her acting, and I certainly feel it with producing.”

At present, Minnie is in London filming a screen adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” for Miramax. Kate, who has produced a number of TV commercials in London, is looking for a distributor for their $2.5-million production of the romantic comedy about a mismatched couple, “At Sachem Farm.” Also in the works are a couple of films she plans to co-produce, both of which are to star her sister. For New Line Cinema, there is Ron Burch and David Kidd’s script, “Glamour Girls,” which, according to Daily Variety, is the story of “a working-class woman who transforms herself into a debutante to break into the upper-class world of a fashion magazine.” And in “Beautiful,” with a script by John Bernstein, Minnie will play a woman obsessed with becoming Miss America.

In “Beautiful” and “Glamour Girls,” are the Drivers telling us something? It’s a new corner in Minnie Driver’s career, not that she hasn’t wanted to walk this particular street before. A leitmotif of starry glitter--let’s call it that People-magazine-cover thing--has run through some of her better films and performances. At significant moments in a performance, the actress is not averse to letting the star peek through the otherwise carefully constructed seams of her characterizations.

In “Circle of Friends,” she is more voluptuous than porky when she finally gets to play dress-up at the big dance. As the lowly bank teller in “Big Night,” she sashays around spectacularly in a stunning gold dress at her boyfriend-restaurateur’s crucial dinner party. And impersonating Salome for her lover in “The Governess,” she performs an economical dance of two or three veils just a wee bit too expertly. Well, Faye Dunaway would understand.

Director Goldbacher, not so surprisingly, defends the actress’s instinct for occasionally wearing her art on her sleeve.

“The character Minnie plays in ‘The Governess’ had wanted to be an actress from childhood,” she explains. “Also, she was more liberated sexually than the Gentiles.” In addition to directing, Goldbacher wrote the script for “The Governess” and claims that Driver was the very first person she had in mind for the lead role.

“Minnie has a vividness that was needed for this character,” Goldbacher says. She sent her initial draft of the script to Driver’s agent, and as serendipity would have it, the actress became “very enthusiastic” upon reading it. Two more drafts of “The Governess” followed--not that anyone was pulling a star trip. “Minnie made very few suggestions,” says Goldbacher.

This summer, director John Huddles is editing his “At Sachem Farm.” Here again, Driver plays a woman who is “glamorous in her own right,” says Huddles. “She has made her own way. She has a great ability to make money, to move the world in effective ways, as opposed to her boyfriend [played by Rufus Sewell], who is drowning in his own efforts to make himself a success. He can’t do it; she can.”

Those dreary girlfriend roles behind her, Driver’s grand design is to meld oversized characters to her naturally oversized personality. “She’s more honest than most about her image,” says Huddles. “A lot of actresses hide behind image. As soon as they speak, their cover is blown. Minnie isn’t quiet. She is smart, she is driven, and she doesn’t need to let other people construct the words she speaks in her own life.”

No wonder the real-life “victim” role of Matt Damon’s ex-girlfriend continues to rankle. However, when it is pointed out that she told a GQ writer the exact same Minnie Mouse/Goofy dirty joke that another of Damon’s old girlfriends told to Vanity Fair, Driver is not the least bit provoked. For one rare moment, she is actually the epitome of bland discretion.

“I don’t know how that happened,” she says, all smiles. But then, bless her, Minnie Driver lets us know how she really feels. “The important thing is, I said it first.”


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