ELISABETH SHUE took a deep breath. It was still early in the media push for her new film “Gracie,” an indie drama based on her own soccer-obsessed youth, and she was clearly still grappling with what she called the “sacredness” of her past, the “nerve-racking” aspect of making it public.
The film, which opens Friday, tells the story of a feisty 15-year-old girl (played by Carly Schroeder) growing up in a middle-class home in late-1970s New Jersey. She’s the only daughter in a family of three sons, and after her eldest brother dies, she competes on a boys’ soccer team to win her father’s approval.
This -- with a few tweaks -- is Shue’s story. But it was only at the insistence of her middle brother, Andrew Shue -- who co-wrote the original script, then co-produced and co-starred in the film -- that she agreed to support the project and open up about her childhood.
Telling her tale has had profound repercussions. For one, the film inspired Shue to rekindle her athletic drive and take up tennis -- professionally. After months of intense training, the 43-year-old aspires to be ranked by fall.
Just as significant, though, is the impact the movie has had on her close-knit family. Her father, James Shue, the inspiration for Dermot Mulroney’s character in the film, welled up as he watched it. For him, actor Jesse Lee Soffer revived the spirit of his son William, who was just 26 when he died in 1988 from injuries he suffered after falling from a tree.
After Shue’s mother, Anne Harms, saw the film, she toasted her ex-husband -- an extraordinary family milestone as their long-ago divorce had remained acrimonious.
For Andrew, the premiere of “Gracie” ends a decade-long commitment to honor William and the family’s passion for soccer. He persuaded Shue’s husband, Oscar-winning documentarian Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”), to direct it and wrangled financing from Gatorade, the state of New Jersey and a hedge fund. He even met the demands of the financiers to guarantee the film’s release date -- to the day.
One of his greatest hurdles was persuading Shue to play a character inspired by their mother and reassuring her that the film would honor, not exploit, her childhood. In fact, Shue didn’t fully embrace the project until months after the film wrapped, said Guggenheim.
“There was always this hand-wringing that perhaps telling a story based on her life and also telling the story of her brother ... was something cheap or exploitative, just in the act of doing it, and a worry we didn’t get it right and capture his spirit,” he said. “And the feeling of maybe, ‘How dare she think that her story is so special?’ ”
A surprising star
SHUE spent much of her childhood in the shadow of her brothers, so it felt somehow incongruous to her -- and even, initially to Andrew -- to spotlight those years in a film. Told by Guggenheim that his script was really his sister’s story, Andrew quipped: “Really? She was the underdog? But she always got the good pillow! She was the girl!”
From ages 9 to 13, Shue was the only girl playing on an all-boys soccer team. But like Gracie in the film, her athletic abilities and fierce determination went relatively unnoticed by her family.
“There is no footage of me playing soccer as the only girl,” she said. “For four years. None. In some ways, I could judge and say I can’t believe ...! And I’d love to sometimes. But on the other hand, it was also an acceptance that that was not that extraordinary. I had been playing soccer with my brothers on the side yard my whole life.”
Unlike the girl in the script, who triumphs over stereotypes to compete with the boys, Shue quit when she hit puberty, just as she was poised to play boys’ varsity soccer. She was worried that her tomboy ways would alienate her from her peers. It was something she later regretted. “Gracie,” she said, has helped her reclaim some of that old fire. And if the film inspires girls to fight for their goals, Shue said, then “it’s worth putting my life out there.”
“Gracie” is set in South Orange, N.J., where the Shue children grew up. The family in the script struggles financially, as the Shues did. James Shue was a public defender and the captain of his college soccer team. He was a good coach to his kids, drilling them constantly, telling them: “You can do anything,” a line that became a mantra in the film.
“Our dad wasn’t the Great Santini, but we did play sports nonstop,” Shue said. “All day. Every day.”
Even in their off hours, even in the house, the kids kept it up. They lobbed head balls at one another in the living room and pitched baseballs against the oven doors -- raucousness that shows up in “Gracie.”
After the divorce, though, their father wasn’t around much -- Shue remembers her father’s absence from most of her soccer games. Money was tight too. Andrew remembers eating cereal from recycled plastic margarine tubs and making every gallon of milk stretch with powdered milk. Their mother took a job as a low-level bank executive, and the four kids were often left to manage alone. (The youngest, John, now lives in Massachusetts and works in finance at Harvard University.)
William became the heart of the family and, in many ways, a surrogate parent. He was captain of the high school soccer team and an Eagle Scout. He once rescued a baby hawk and nurtured it back to health. Andrew said he remembers being 5 and crawling into bed with him, scared after watching “The Wizard of Oz.”
“He was our protector,” said Andrew. “He was a gentle soul.”
There are lots of moments in the film to immortalize William and the Shues’ childhoods. Gracie releases a baby hawk back into the wild. And Andrew made sure William’s Eagle Scout uniform hung on the set in the bedroom of Soffer’s character, serving as a memento and a talisman.
“The heart of the movie,” said Shue, “is that his passing away really is what has changed our lives and in some ways has been one of the most painful gifts that we could have ever been allowed to have.”
A family tragedy
SHUE was 24 when William died. Guggenheim remembers meeting her about a year later when she was still “in a fog,” devastated by the loss.
“I don’t think you can continue after that and live on the surface,” said Guggenheim. “You cannot approach life without seeing there’s a wonderful, horrible duality to things. What it means is that she can suddenly, as an actress, dig a whole lot deeper. Boy, when you see [her Oscar-nominated role in] ‘Leaving Las Vegas,’ you saw a woman who dug very deep and was not afraid to live in the depths of a really dark world and then find beauty out of it.”
Today, Shue said, those challenging roles don’t come around as often as she’d like. She had supporting roles in 2004’s “Mysterious Skin,” and the 2005 Robert De Niro-Dakota Fanning thriller “Hide and Seek,” but nothing that has lived up to her heart-wrenching portrayal of prostitute Sera in “Vegas.” Still, Shue said she’s content, acting when it’s right and raising her children, Miles, 9, Stella, 6, and Agnes, 11 months, in their L.A.-area home.
She spends two hours a day playing tennis, hitting balls with a pro and working with one of several coaches. She’s determined, but not delusional. Shue laughed readily when asked about her budding career. “My goal is not to win Wimbledon,” she said.
She knows how it sounds, and initially she worried over that perception. But like “Gracie,” she isn’t listening to the critics. Now she’s just relishing the uphill climb toward a goal.
“I like the road toward excellence,” she said. “I like that it requires work. Everyday work. And it’s fulfilling to reach a goal of being as good as you can possibly be. And to push yourself. It just becomes a metaphor for how you live your life in other areas.”
Recently, Shue’s father visited to watch her play tennis. It was an important moment, bringing full circle her childhood yearning for his attention and the reticence it bred decades later about seeing that painful truth depicted on film. This time, though, there was a more satisfying ending.
“It did feel like it was art imitating life,” said Shue. “Him watching me play was so important to me. Almost as it is to Gracie. It was really cool. It sort of healed that part of my life.”
She thought about that for second, then added: “We don’t change as much as we think.”