The girls of summer

Special to The Times

Just because Lindsay Lohan is a high-powered teen star who has worked consistently since she was 5 -- first as a Ford model, then as a dimpled sprite in myriad television commercials, then as a 10-year-old regular on the soap opera “Another World” -- doesn’t mean she doesn’t act her age. At 1:30, about a half-hour after she’s expected at Le Petit Four, a cafe on Sunset Boulevard, the 17-year-old Lohan flutters in, armed with a tank-topped girlfriend named Natalie and a cotton puff of an excuse.

Sliding into a beige-leather corner booth, Lohan says: “There was, like, so much construction.”

Lohan made her feature film debut six years ago in a dual role as separated-at-birth twins -- one an unpretentious yank, the other British and snooty -- in a remake of the 1961 Disney kiddie classic “The Parent Trap.” Since then, she’s played a rock-chick daughter suddenly given her prim psychologist mother’s personality in “Freaky Friday,” and a child of Manhattan who moves with her single mother to New Jersey in “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen.”


Her latest movie, “Mean Girls,” opens April 30. In the film, directed by Mark S. Waters (“Freaky Friday”) and scripted by “Saturday Night Live” head writer Tina Fey, she plays Cady Heron, a girl home-schooled in the wilds of Africa by zoologist parents. When her family moves to the American Midwest, Cady must navigate the even more treacherous high-school-girl society. First, Cady bonds with other outcasts. Then, she succumbs to the allure of a flock of soulless popular girls. By the time credits roll, Cady has seen the light and reclaimed her spot at the cafeteria table alongside her fringe-dweller friends.

Like Cady, Lohan is embarking on her own real-life perilous journey. She is still at the semi-private stage of celebrity where her demographic -- women under 24 -- know from her blurb-length profiles in teen and beauty magazines the name and breed of her dog (Max, a bichon frise), the car she drives (BMW X5 4.6 convertible) and her chosen clothing designer (Christian Dior) and not much more.

But with the reported $1-million check Lohan was paid for “Mean Girls,” she’ll be expected to do endless rounds of photo shoots, interviews and television appearances, all of which will entail a level of scrutiny that extends beyond a list of her favorite cosmetics, colors and shoe brands. “I think everything is a big deal now: The way I dress, the events I go to, who I hang out with. I think everything changes how you’re perceived,” Lohan says.

What Lohan’s getting is a crash course in how image, publicity decisions and the right role ultimately add up to a movie career. And yet she can’t let any of that cynically seep into her girl-next-door vibe on-screen. Be it saccharine (Annette Funicello), sturdy (Julia Stiles) or sort of spooky (Christina Ricci), the role of the young female star in our collective imagination is all about radiating youthful vitality. The problem is that real adolescence lasts only a few years while movies are forever.

A broader appeal

Lohan is no longer a player in the ‘tween market -- edgeless happy-ending confections like “The Parent Trap” and “The Lizzie McGuire Movie” that are tailored specifically for 9- to 12-year-olds. Instead she has entered a new, much wider niche -- aimed at older teenage girls, gay men and hip mothers, but also folding in the younger crowd -- that Hollywood executives like to refer to as the “aspirational wish-fulfillment movie.” It’s a trend that started in 2001 with Reese Witherspoon’s “Legally Blonde” and “The Princess Diaries” with Anne Hathaway. Both were movies clearly not for the sought-after boy audience, but which made so much money -- $97 million and $108 million, respectively -- that a new formula was born, leading to “Freaky Friday,” “What a Girl Wants,” Mandy Moore dramas (“A Walk to Remember,” “How to Deal”) and the recent “The Prince & Me,” with Stiles.

In contemporary girl movies like these, looking like who you might be off-camera is part of the appeal for peers in the audience. So what is Lohan wearing today? Tiny would be the best description: a baby blue T-shirt and a pleated miniskirt roughly the size of a place mat. Yet she still exudes a kind of freshly scrubbed, girlish, wholesome quality, something she is especially protective of because she knows it is part of what makes her bankable.

“I don’t want to lose my virginity in a movie yet because then I can’t go back,” Lohan says. “I want to grow with my fans, not ahead of them. The second I lose them is the second people aren’t going to see my movies.”

Ask Lohan who she’d like to pattern her career after and she ticks off a top-drawer list: “Jodie Foster, Julia Roberts, Audrey Hepburn

But is there such a thing as a role model for handling publicity? “It’s a lot harder for people my age in this business,” Lohan says, citing how US Weekly, In Touch Weekly and Star Magazine fill their pages with little text and lots of paparazzi snapshots capturing a celebrity doing something, anything, nothing. “I’m not at a point where I need to go out and get really drunk and do stupid things. That’s just me. But it’s hard being 17 years old and not be able to do the things that other 17-year-olds do, like going out, learning about yourself, finding out who you are.”

Lohan certainly completed high school differently than any of her former classmates in Cold Spring Harbor, a wealthy Long Island suburb. “We really didn’t [celebrate] yet,” says her mother, Dina Lohan, adding that Lohan, who has been home-schooled since the middle of the 10th grade, compressed her last year of education into three months and finished 12th grade ahead of her friends.

Mention the prom at her Cold Spring Harbor high school and it’s treated like a movie role. “There’s been offers, but she hasn’t made a decision yet,” her mother says.

Lohan’s parents -- Michael, an investment banker, and Dina, a former Radio City Music Hall Rockette -- always wanted their flame-haired, freckly, eldest daughter to experience at least a measure of the ordinary world. (Lohan has two brothers, Michael, 16, and Dakota, 7, and a sister, Aliana, 10, all of whom have worked as Ford models and done cameo bits in her films.) So, Lohan’s seven-month stint on “The Parent Trap” was followed by a move back home and a three-year career hiatus.

“It was a gamble for me as a mom because I didn’t want her to grow up hating me,” says Dina. “If she stayed in Hollywood, she’d be a nightmare now. Kids need boundaries.”

Though Lohan’s limits are set by her mom and dad when she’s home, much of her time is spent in Los Angeles where she rents an apartment she never stays in (she prefers a no-maintenance luxury hotel room or the slumber party coziness of a friend’s couch). Here, her upbringing is “it-takes-a-village” Hollywood-style, meaning Lohan, who has never taken an acting class, is supervised by agents, publicists, an assistant-guardian (often only a year or two older than she is) and via calls from her quasi-manager mother.

But what’s appealing about photographs of Lohan posing at red carpet affairs is that she seems so much less hardened than her same-age counterparts, a bit dazzled by the hoopla. In our belly-button-pierced, baby-stripper, Britney Spears world, Lohan is a throwback to another time -- safe, mainstream, chaste. Lohan may be struggling to balance being normal with embracing Hollywood, but what teenage girl isn’t trying to crack the code of conflicting internal personalities? The actress’ wide-open cuteness, energetic delivery and her natural comic timing have certainly boosted her star power, but when it comes to carving out an official niche, hers is playing two characters at once. “The Parent Trap” is literally a twin tale but metaphorically it’s about the war inside a kid(s) going through divorce. In “Freaky Friday” she’s the responsible adult inside the flighty teen. In “Mean Girls” she’s straddling the worlds of the disenfranchised and the popular crowd, and confused about which she really wants.

When the time comes, though, will Lindsay Lohan be able to replace the indelibility of her current image with something that allows us to accept her as a grown woman? Ask Molly Ringwald how hard it is to escape a label. Twenty years ago, Ringwald hit it big as the pouty girl of choice for John Hughes in “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty in Pink.” She subsequently has had more than two dozen film and television roles and starred in a revival of “Cabaret.” Yet the sight of Ringwald’s face still triggers memories of where you were when you first saw “The Breakfast Club” and what you felt about her Claire, a prissy high school socialite. Ringwald never found a part that allowed her legion of “Breakfast Club” fans to wrap their heads around the idea that she’s a mature woman.

From a showbiz perspective, it’s all part of the circle of life: an ingenue is born, time passes, the glow of innocence fades and a fresh crop of replacement teen sweethearts bubbles to the surface, most of whom fade into obscurity. The baton passes from Alicia Silverstone to Jennifer Love Hewitt to Lindsay Lohan to wait-and-see. In 20 years, Lohan might be regarded as “the ‘Freaky Friday’ girl” or an actress in her own right.

What Jamie Lee Curtis sees when she looks at her “Freaky Friday” costar is someone to lecture to about showbiz.

“Lindsay has the dramatic and vocal ability, she’s drop-dead gorgeous. But I don’t know whether or not Lindsay wants to be a serious actress, to lose herself in a character,” says Curtis, a daughter of Hollywood (her parents are Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis) who has floated in and out of film industry favor since she made “Halloween” at 18.

Curtis says she often contemplates starting up a telephone hotline for teen actors featuring advice such as “Live way below your means,” “Don’t buy the big house,” “Save your money” and “Fire your manager.”

“When you’re young and successful, you can’t see that it could all go away at any minute,” she says. “Back in the day, I didn’t have publicists, stylists, clothes being thrown at me or this constant flow of invitations to must-be-seen-at events. I want to tell them: ‘Focus on acting class, take a year off and go to college and study art. Go do things that challenge your mind because ultimately they will make you a good actor.’ ”

Curtis offered Lohan unsolicited counsel when “Freaky Friday” hit the $100-million mark in box office receipts. “I told Lindsay, ‘This does not happen a lot. If it does, it’s alchemy.’ These are the kinds of lessons that young people have to learn and nobody teaches them.”

Sideline skirmish

What Lohan says she would prefer not to be known for is the dust-up between her and perky blond teen icon Hilary Duff, star of the “Lizzie Maguire” TV series and movie. It’s an angst-ridden tale involving a tug-of-war over pop singer Aaron Carter, tension at a Vanity Fair cover shoot and Duff’s mother demanding Lohan be ejected from the movie premiere of “Cheaper by the Dozen,” which featured Duff (Lohan got to stay). In the end, Lohan announced, “I love you, Hilary Duff!” during an appearance on MTV’s Total Request Live.

Her decision to wave the white flag was prompted by a message from one of Duff’s friends left on her answering machine. “It said I was fat and should do Pilates,” Lohan says, in a can-you-believe-it voice. She leans forward. For the first time in an hour, Lohan actually appears interested in what she’s talking about. Even Natalie -- whose activities on this afternoon have been restricted to silently staring into space, applying multiple coats of lip gloss or sending instant messages on her blue-and-pink-sequin-encrusted T-Mobile Sidekick PDA -- perks up. It’s not so much the subject of Duff they seem enlivened by, but the discussion of who said what to whom and why.

It’s at moments like these that it’s clear why Lohan is so perfectly cast in her movies which, so far, have focused on the shiny trivialities of an adolescent girl’s daily life. “She’s not a weird robot child actor,” says Fey, who shows up in “Mean Girls” as a math teacher. “While they were adjusting the lights, Lindsay could be on her cellphone talking to her mom and chewing gum. Then as soon as ‘Action!’ was called, she was completely in the scene. Only a kid can do that.”

Yet soon Lohan will face the biggest battle of a teen star: tossing out the prop lunch bags and textbooks and playing an adult. “Her own physical appearance is going to make the transition for her,” predicts Fey. “She doesn’t look like a kid anymore. She’s getting to be too glamorous, too beautiful to play high school students.”

A typical strategy is to drop out by dropping into college for a few years, but Lohan’s post-high-school graduation plan starts with yet another Disney update, of the 1969 classic “The Love Bug.” Past that?

“I want to do a film that shows a different side of my abilities,” says Lohan, an accomplished singer and dancer who also dreams of playing a role like Foster’s tormented FBI agent in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Is she prepared to plumb the darkest depths of her emotions? Lohan looks hurt at the mere suggestion that she’s not ready. “I just want to do something completely different and really rock at it,” she says. “You can only do the same thing for so long.”