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Catch Her if You Can

Three times a week, Ellen Pompeo has breakfast under the low lights of the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel and spies on the rich and famous. “Last week I was here and I had such a ‘Blue Velvet’ moment,” she whispers over a plate of pancakes and bacon. “I walked in and I saw Dennis Hopper. And then five minutes after he left, Laura Dern walked in. I was like, ‘Oh my God, where’s Isabella [Rossellini]?’ I just love coming here because you never know who you’re gonna see.”

But the green-eyed Massachusetts native had better become accustomed to being on the receiving end of celebrity-watching. Next month, she makes her studio movie debut in “Moonlight Mile,” a romantic drama in which she co-stars with young man of the moment Jake Gyllenhaal and Oscar winners Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon and Holly Hunter.

She’s also got three other high-profile movies in the can. Due out at Christmas is Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me if You Can” with Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio, then February will see the release of the Marvel comic-book adaptation of “Daredevil” opposite Ben Affleck. Additionally, she’s Luke Wilson’s love interest in the “Animal House"-style comedy “Old School,” which DreamWorks says will be released in the first quarter next year. All of which should squash her chances of remaining a fly on the wall at any Hollywood hangout.

Pompeo’s seeming arrival out of nowhere is enough to make any aspiring starlet look for a new agent. While bartending at the Soho Kitchen in New York City in 1995, she was approached by a casting director. The next day, Pompeo called the woman and was promptly sent out on three commercial auditions; she got all of them. The first, a L’Oreal hair spot, “was actually really cute. They dyed my hair red,” she says. “And then I booked like 20 more commercials after that because I had this great red hair.”

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It was enough for Pompeo to live comfortably in a West Village apartment. Then she started to get work on New York-shot episodic television series over a four-year period including “The Job,” “Strangers With Candy” and two different stints on “Law & Order.”

“In the first one I did, I hired my boyfriend to kill my parents,” she recalls. “The second one I was a lesbian sadomasochist who killed my sister. There must be a shortage of murderesses in New York City. Isn’t that hysterical? My poor father.”

Inevitably Pompeo realized that if she wanted her career to go any further, she had to head West. “I’m the quintessential East Coast girl,” she says. “So I put it off as long as I possibly could. But then eventually you run out of TV shows to do in New York.”

Intent on getting a head start on the TV pilot season, Pompeo moved to the Hollywood Hills in December 2001. Three months later, she experienced one of those only-in-L.A. stories that can seem too perfect to believe. A guy tried to pick her up in the parking lot behind gourmet sandwich shop Joan’s on Third. She says she had no idea he was actor Jake Gyllenhaal.

“She walked by and I was just blown away by this energy,” Gyllenhaal says. “She does this thing with her hair where she kind of jolts it back and forth. I thought it was so sexy.”

“He knocked on my [car] window in the parking lot,” Pompeo says. “And he was standing there very nervous and shy. He said, ‘I just want to tell you that you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen in my entire life.’ And he tried to run away. So I said, ‘Wait a minute, come back here.’ Normally, I would say, ‘Thank you’ and let it go. But there’s something so interesting about his face, so soulful.”

“I looked down at her passenger seat,” Gyllenhaal says, “and I saw that there were ‘sides’ on it,” the parts of scripts actors are given to read for auditions, “and I was like, ‘Oh God, this girl’s an actor.” Pompeo says she told him, “Maybe we’ll work together someday. Thanks for the compliment. See ya. And that was it.”

But it wasn’t. Three weeks later, under the urging of New York casting director Avy Kaufman, known for finding actors their breakthrough roles--like Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense” and Tobey Maguire in “The Ice Storm"--Pompeo auditioned for writer-director Brad Silberling’s “Moonlight Mile” (at the time tentatively titled “Baby’s in Black”) and found herself reading with none other than Gyllenhaal. “I walked into the room and he turned pale. Then I turned pale. It was so bizarre,” Pompeo says.

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“In walks Ellen to the room and I was like, no way,” Gyllenhaal says. “I guess she had burned her forehead with a curling iron. It was just like this big scabby thing on her forehead and she was trying to hide it the best she could. But finally she was like, ‘I know it’s really stupid but I was trying to straighten my hair.’ And she blew the audition out of the water. She walked out of the room and Brad turned to me and said, ‘There’s our movie.’ ”

Set in the early ‘70s, “Moonlight Mile” is about Joe Nast, a young man (Gyllenhaal) whose fiance is killed just weeks before their wedding, sending him into emotional paralysis, holed up at the home of his would-be in-laws (Hoffman and Sarandon).

Adrift in grief and confusion, Joe unexpectedly crosses paths with Pompeo’s character, Bertie Knox, a local postmistress, who’s dealing with ghosts of her own. Silberling, who explored issues of life and death in his previous films “Casper” and “City of Angels,” based his script on the aftermath of the 1989 murder of his girlfriend, actress Rebecca Schaeffer (TV’s “My Sister Sam”).

Pompeo’s first movie break turned out to be a homecoming. Not only was “Moonlight Mile” filmed in the Massachusetts coastal towns of Marblehead and Gloucester, just 10 minutes from her hometown of Everett, but the film deals with family mourning and moving on, a theme she could relate to. When Pompeo was 4, her mother, who had been in and out of hospitals for back surgeries, died of an accidental overdose of painkillers, leaving her father, a tobacco company sales rep, with six kids to raise. During the filming of “Moonlight Mile,” her father wasn’t able to visit the set because he was in the process of undergoing a stem cell transplant for lymphoma. “He did chemotherapy,” Pompeo says. “But you get to a certain point and there’s no more chemo they can give you. He’s very lucky. He’s alive and he doesn’t have cancer anymore.”

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When asked if the script struck any nerves, Pompeo said only that “I’ve had a quarter of a lifetime to figure out how to deal with that.”

But Gyllenhaal says he tapped into his co-star’s traumatic past to find an emotional anchor. “I think the closest person who really got the script, next to Brad, was Ellen. So I think she really related,” Gyllenhaal said, and in performing, “I could come to her.”

“In a lot of ways, she has the hardest job in the movie,” he adds. “She had such a short time and not a lot of scenes to get a point across, but she’s the catalyst that breaks them all down.”

“Moonlight Mile” gave Pompeo the cachet to go out for other A-list movies, including a little something called “Catch Me if You Can,” for which she did an audition on tape. After seeing the tape, Steven Spielberg wanted to meet her. “And I said, ‘Well let me get back to you and see how much time I have. I’m really busy right now,’ ” she jokes. “So I met Steven and he offered me the part. And I graciously accepted. And screamed all the way home.”

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In the film, she plays a naive flight attendant who has sex with con artist Leonardo DiCaprio. “She doesn’t know that he’s a virgin and that he’s really only a 17-year-old posing as this adult airline pilot. We have sex in his hotel room and it’s the best date I’ve ever been on. You know, I have no idea.” The significance of working with DiCaprio and Spielberg wasn’t lost on her. “If you do anything wrong, then you have no talent,” she says. “Because you can’t fail with those two on either side of you. It’s impossible.”

That film got her the female lead in another DreamWorks project, “Old School,” directed by Todd Phillips (“Road Trip”) and starring Wilson, Vince Vaughan and Will Ferrell as former frat boys looking to relive their raunchy days of glory. “It’s a big ridiculous comedy,” she says. “And Will Ferrell. It was like, can I not be in this scene because I can’t watch him do that without laughing.”

She found her work on “Daredevil” much less daunting. In Mark Steven Johnson’s adaptation of the Marvel comic series, Pompeo plays Ellen Page, the devoted secretary to Ben Affleck’s blind man who’s a lawyer by day, caped crusader by night. “I do all my scenes with Ben and he’s just a Boston boy,” she says. “In the comic books, she becomes a drug addict and a prostitute and gets AIDS. But I guess all that crazy stuff will happen in the sequels if there are sequels. I just worked two days in the office and got to wear great Varga-inspired costumes, I had that whole ‘His Girl Friday’ look going on.”

Even before her movies come out, Pompeo is getting looks from the frittata-eating deal makers at the Polo Lounge, but it’s usually because they think she’s somebody else: Renee Zellwegger. “I can tell certain places I go, people look at me as if they know me,” she says. “I’m not worried because fundamentally we’re very different. I grew up on the East Coast and she’s a Texan and whatever’s meant to be will be.

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“It’s funny because I’ve met some people that are very close to her who say it to me. But I don’t photograph like her, I don’t think--do you think so?--I did meet her once at a party at [CAA agent] Bryan Lourd’s house. It was just a quick ‘Hi.’ ”

When asked about the comparison, Gyllenhaal says, “With Ellen, besides that voice and the sense that people might think in a cliched way--God, I don’t know. If you put Renee and her in the same room, I don’t know who would come out standing.”

Although Pompeo has been remarkably chatty during the interview, the actress clearly has been coached by her publicists, declining to reveal her relationship status--"I have no idea. If someone else has a clue, they can tell me.” Or her age--"Can’t you just say late 20s?”

Is Ellen Pompeo ready for the attention? “I better be,” she says, laughing. “It’s a little too late now.”

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Kevin Maynard is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.


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