An actress, naturally

Special to The Times

After a brief incandescent run in the theater and some TV movies, Meryl Streep's first film role was two brief scenes in "Julia," starring Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda. Her second was "The Deer Hunter," in which she played a war bride and fresh-faced beauty -- so fresh-faced, in fact, that some thought they had merely found a woman who resembled the character and cast her -- and which generated the first of her 14 Oscar nominations.

Now 30 years later, Streep's oldest daughter, Mamie Gummer, after only two professional plays, has her first role of consequence in a film starring Vanessa Redgrave ("Evening"), playing the younger version of Streep's character, with a second film on the way as a war bride and fresh-faced beauty (Kimberly Peirce's much-anticipated "Stop Loss"), and, apparently, people whose business it is to worry about these things can barely contain themselves.

"Vanity Fair," in a two-page spread staged to accentuate the family resemblance, called Gummer "an ethereal ingenue." Even the New York Times, reviewing "Mr. Marmalade," in which she played a precocious 4-year-old in a tutu with a coked-out boyfriend, said, 'Ms. Gummer brings a crackling intensity to Erica's anger that recalls the young Meryl Streep (who happens to be Ms. Gummer's mother) at her hostile best in Woody Allen's 'Manhattan.' "

Based on a novel by Susan Minot and adapted by Michael Cunningham of "The Hours" fame (book and movie), "Evening" is a story told in split time frames about a dying woman (Redgrave), attended to by her two daughters (Toni Collette and Redgrave's real-life progeny, Natasha Richardson) reflecting back on a weekend 50 years before when her younger self (Claire Danes) attends the wedding of her best friend (Gummer) and sets in motion the events that will preoccupy her life. When her aging friend (Streep, in a galvanizing cameo) shows up in the final moments, the symmetry is complete.

Such is the film's accomplishment that the '50s scenes do not seem like flashbacks, nor the modern-day section a mere wraparound, but are given equal weight and audience loyalties divide neatly between them.

Gummer plays a small but pivotal part that serves as a fulcrum for the plot in her role as the reluctant bride, doomed to exist in the pale shadow of her friend as they compete for their one true love (Patrick Wilson), who they will both lose over the course of several days, and taking solace in a loveless marriage ever after.

In no more than a handful of scenes, she also captures the hysteria and desperation of an emotional decision made in haste, primarily so as to be done with it. In one memorable moment, crying in bed and confessing to Danes her nuptial doubts, her acting choices seem counterintuitive as her tears crest in embarrassed laughter. It's not the way actresses cry in movies -- it's just the way people cry in life.

Sounding like David Lynch meeting future fiancee Isabella Rossellini at a dinner party and guilelessly noting her resemblance to her mom, Ingrid Bergman, "Evening" director Lajos Koltai recalls the casting process.

"I think I saw 130 actors for the different roles," says the Hungarian cinematographer of his second film as a director (after "Fateless"), his first in English. "One morning Mamie came in and I liked her very much -- both her look and what she did with it. It was a very complicated scene, when she's deciding whether to marry or not, and she was very sensitive and very emotional. When I talked to the producer, I said, 'Look, this lady is beautiful -- she looks very much, actually, like Meryl Streep.' And the producer told me she was her daughter. I didn't know that; nobody talked to me about it. So I was surprised but also very happy, because I just found her as a person."

"I'm more Masha than Nina," says Gummer, referencing Chekhov's "The Seagull," as 23-year-old ex-theater majors are apt to do. "I'm more prone to the dark brooding Masha, the complicated character, than the sprightly beautiful ingenue Nina, for whatever reason. I've got this whole different side to my makeup, from Indianapolis, where my dad is from -- and Norway, before that," she says of sculptor Donald Gummer. "My dad is very introspective; he's an artist, and he's actually very shy in crowds. So I sort of balance these two personalities. Sometimes I would rather just sit in a corner and not talk to anyone."

Speaking from Manhattan, where she lives with her parents, she in fact appears extremely normal. So normal, in fact, that an hour on the phone with her seems less the extended audition that conversations with young actors often become, than like calling your kid sister at college. We resist the urge to do the crossword puzzle.

"Is it disarming?" she asks.

She's also quite funny. She makes light of "the buzz" that currently engulfs her and speaks in regal terms of her "anticipated film debut." Asked what's the biggest difference about turning pro, she told one interviewer she was relieved to find out that professional actors don't stand in a circle and make animal noises. "That was drama school," she says. "With all the feathers and the candles and the fabric. I mean, I had a great time, but it was very silly."

As a child, Gummer spent little time on film sets, preferring summer theater instead. After prep school, she attended Northwestern in Chicago, which is, after all, a theater town. There, as a senior, she auditioned for a Manhattan showcase and was accepted, got an agent and booked the lead in "Mr. Marmalade," a squeamish off-Broadway comedy opposite Michael C. Hall, on hiatus from "Six Feet Under."

In her second play, "The Water's Edge," Gummer starred opposite Kate Burton, daughter of Richard, and Tony Goldwyn, whose family once owned Hollywood. "I think early on in one of the reads, we just looked at each other and had a little moment, and then went about our business," Gummer says. "It was more like, 'Hey, do you realize....?' "

She had four lines as a secretary in "The Hoax," where Hope Davis had to show her how to hit her camera mark, and where her skill at projecting to the mezzanine was not the asset she had anticipated. "I had this tiny role, so I was mostly focused on staying out of the way as much as possible," she says. "It's very hard to act when you're trying to disappear."

Of her celebrated pedigree, Gummer says, "I don't know that I can say specifically whether I'm genetically wired to just plug into the truth meter. But I try and find what feels right and honest. I'm a terrible liar, so if I feel like I'm lying, I can't do it." She claims not to have coordinated her performance with her mother's. "It kind of ties the movie together," she says of her mother's cameo. "It gives you a chance to exhale at the end."

This summer, Gummer will join the cast of the HBO miniseries "John Adams" in Budapest, and then travel to Williamstown, Mass., for a revival of "The Autumn Garden" by Lillian Hellman (whose novel "Pentimento" was the basis for "Julia"). She has no work lined up past September and anticipates the worst.

Subjected to a momentary lull as her interviewer fumbles for new and better questions, Gummer says, "Let me know. I'll be here."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday July 26, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction Lillian Hellman: An article in the June 26 Calendar section about actress Mamie Gummer called Lillian Hellman's "Pentimento" a novel. It was a memoir.
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