Delighted to act her age

Times Staff Writer

Eva Marie Saint likes to read obituaries. But it's not due to any morbid curiosity on her part.

"People are living so much longer," says the actress, who is a vibrant 80. "When you see people 106, 92, 96, 89 ...there are very few in their 50s or 60s. It's great."

And she plans to keep acting as long as she can. "At my annual checkup -- I think my doctor is in his 60s -- he said, 'Eva Marie, when are you going to retire?' I said, 'Why should I? This is what I do. I have my life, my wonderful family. I am married to a director who understands [my profession]. I never want to retire. I like what I do. Why don't you retire?' And he said, 'I like what I do.' So I said, 'Never ask me that again!' "

Saint, who has two grown children and three teenage grandchildren, is relaxing in the living room of the stylish, art-laden Wilshire Boulevard condominium she shares with her husband of 54 years, director Jeffrey Hayden.

Friendly and motherly, Saint certainly doesn't act like the movie royalty she is. She won a best supporting actress Oscar for her film debut as Marlon Brando's love interest in 1954's "On the Waterfront." And over the decades she's starred opposite some of Hollywood's most delicious leading men, including Montgomery Clift ("Raintree County"), Cary Grant ("North by Northwest"), Paul Newman ("Exodus"), Warren Beatty ("All Fall Down"), Yves Montand ("Grand Prix") and Gregory Peck ("The Stalking Moon").

Her directors, to name a few, include Elia Kazan, Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, John Frankenheimer and Fred Zinnemann.

At an age when most of her peers are retired or relegated to cameo parts, Saint finds her career is as busy as ever.

She stars with Jeff Daniels, youngster Annasophia Robb and Cicely Tyson in the family film "Because of Winn-Dixie," which opens Friday. Later this year, audiences will see her as Sam Shepard's mother in the Wim Wenders drama "Don't Come Knockin,' " and just last week she was signed to play Martha, Clark Kent's adoptive mother, in Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns."

"You don't get as many offers when you are my age," she says. "But this has been a particularly good year with interesting, interesting directors."

In "Winn-Dixie," based on the children's novel by Kate DiCamillo, Saint plays Miss Franny, an old-maid librarian and spellbinding storyteller who befriends a motherless 10-year-old girl (Robb) and her smiling mutt named Winn-Dixie.

Wayne Wang, of "The Joy Luck Club" fame, directed the comedy-drama.

"We filmed it in Louisiana, in Napoleonville," Saint said. "There are only about 1,000 people in the town."

"Winn-Dixie" producer Trevor Albert said Saint had a number of the qualities they were looking for in Miss Franny -- "a great storyteller and very vivacious. But you never really know until the scenes [are being shot] what an actor is going to bring to a part. You always hope they will fill in the words and take them even further. I think we were all immediately comforted when we saw her with Annasophia Robb. She just took her in her arms as soon as she saw her. I think that sort of carried on in the performance."

Robb, who is all of 10, describes her veteran costar as "such a lovely lady. She felt like a grandma to me. Her voice is so calming. She is such an elegant woman. You look at her and go, 'Wow. I want to look like that when I get older.' "

Saint also bonded with a woman hired to drive her back and forth from the Ramada Inn to the location every day. "She was pregnant with her fourth child and working," Saint said. "On my days off we would go to dinner."

Briefly leaving the living room, Saint returns with two photo albums -- one chronicling the "Winn-Dixie" production and the other from her days in Elko, Nev., shooting "Knockin.' "

She points out a picture in which she is giving a bear hug to rocker Dave Matthews, who also appears in "Winn-Dixie."

"He was so dear," she said of Matthews. "This was the first night I met him. Wasn't I being aggressive? I said, 'I want a picture of you for my grandchildren.' "

There are also a few pictures of her embracing Shepard. "That little funny tooth of his," Saint said, referring to the actor-playwright's chipped front tooth. "I told him that is the most attractive part of him and 'never get your tooth fixed.' "

Saint relishes the fact she is getting older, because the once painfully shy actress said age means she doesn't have to mind her tongue these days.

"I have this thing about cellphones," she said. "I was in this small elevator and there were about 10 people in it. And this fellow's phone rang and he started talking: "I think we can get 6 million for it....' And he goes on and on. I said, 'Excuse me. I am not interested in your business.' I go crazy with cellphones. I don't want to know what are people talking about all the time."

It will be 50 years ago on March 30 that Saint won her Oscar for "On the Waterfront." Nine months pregnant with her first child, Darrell, she blurted out on stage: "I hope I don't have the baby right here."

Darrell waited until two days later. "So when people say, 'Wasn't winning the Oscar the greatest?,' I say of course it was wonderful, but the baby kind of overshadowed Oscar."

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