They pooled their talents

Special to The Times

"I'M A NATURAL athlete."

"Actually, she's a natural competitor."

Sitting in a booth at Jerry's Deli in Studio City, actor-writer-director Chris Eigeman and his current leading lady, the strikingly tall, Dutch-born actress Famke Janssen, weren't trading opinions on Janssen's sporting prowess. Rather, they were discussing her recently acquired skills at billiards -- skills that are on abundant display in Eigeman's debut as a bona-fide filmmaker with "Turn the River." The feature opened last week in New York and comes to Los Angeles today.

In it, Janssen plays Kailey Sullivan, a troubled gambler and pool hustler -- a tough woman in a man's world -- who drifts between upstate New York and the city. Kailey is an exceptionally well realized example of a distinctive personality in the rarefied world of high-stakes money games, the idiot savant who's capable of doing one thing astonishingly well but can't handle the normal side of life. In Kailey's case, a youthful fling with a Catholic seminarian led to a son she is forbidden to see. The brittle, traumatized shell that Kailey has become as the boy enters his early teens provided Janssen, 42, with the ideal raw material to craft a performance that she said is completely uncontrived -- and one that earned her a special-jury best actress prize at the 2007 Hamptons International Film Festival.

"I don't always know what I'm doing," she said, sipping water and adjusting a large pair of Dior sunglasses atop her head, "but I try to be in the moment 100%. The happiest moments are when I'm truly in my life, and that's how Kailey is with her pool game."

Janssen has more than a dozen movies to her credit, including the James Bond installment "GoldenEye," a trilogy of "X-Men" films and a notorious arc on cable as a transsexual in "Nip/Tuck," but Kailey is a breakout performance. After secretly communicating with her son, Gulley, played by newcomer Jaymie Dornan, Kailey hatches a plan -- with his cooperation -- to spirit him away from his angry, alcoholic and quite possibly abusive lapsed-Catholic father (Matt Ross), passive stepmother (Marin Hinkle) and imperious, hard-core Catholic grandmother (Lois Smith). The pair will strike out for Canada with fake passports. Pool hustling will fund their exodus. So Kailey heads for New York City to seek the assistance of her mentor and father figure, Teddy "Quinn" Quinette, portrayed with crusty glee by Rip Torn.

Obviously, Janssen's pool shooting had to be impeccable. This requirement was only intensified by Eigeman's expertise, honed during his struggling-actor years in New York before he hit it (sort of) big with Whit Stillman's critically acclaimed "Metropolitan" in 1990. (Eigeman and Janssen have known each other for several years, since they appeared together in 2006's "The Treatment.") "I used to play a lot of pool -- and I lost a lot of money," he said.

Janssen had barely lifted a cue when Eigeman, 43, let her in on the role. "I knew he was writing something, but I didn't know it was for me," she said. After Eigeman handed her the script one night, all was revealed, and it was clear that Janssen would have to learn her way around a green baize table.

"There were no fake shots," Eigeman said. "We knew if there was even one fake, people would know."

Janssen quickly added, "Kailey breathes and sleeps pool. I had to be the one making the shots. People have no idea how competitive this world of acting is. You have a responsibility to play a character honestly."

Two months of practice with a pool coach yielded, to say the least, a convincing game. There are really only two touchstone pool-shooting performances in film: Paul Newman in 1961's "The Hustler" and Tom Cruise in the 1986 sequel, "The Color of Money." Newman's "Fast Eddie" Felson is the epitome of embattled cool, while Cruise's Vince is all grinning, testosterone-pumping bravado, flipping his cue around like a samurai sword as he taunts his victims. Janssen's Kailey is an entirely different creation: Her confidence in her scheme to run away with her son is highly questionable, but her quiet faith in her pool game is absolute and unshakable. Her existence is a nicotine-addled and over-caffeinated ruin, interrupted by anxious vomiting and an overpowering sense of maternal loss, but when she chalks up, she's at peace.

The result is something of a cinematic three-way battle royal, with Janssen nearly equaling Newman and besting the tense Cruise, who in "The Color of Money" never eases into a realistically smooth shooting stance. Janssen's competitiveness was an asset on set -- most of the time. Eigeman had to insist that she miss shots when necessary, but when it came time to test her talents with the film's most complex combination, a side bet broke out among the crew over how many takes would be required. Wagering was capped at 40, according to Eigeman (Janssen wasn't aware of the betting). "Some poor P.A. got stuck with Take 1," Eigeman said. And naturally, Janssen pulled it off the first time. After Janssen made the shot, the crew exploded with hoots and shouts. "I was the only one who stayed in character," Janssen said.

Eigeman, of course, has his own stake in the film's authenticity. He has a reputation as a cult favorite based on the three movies he did with Stillman -- "Metropolitan," "Barcelona" and "The Last Days of Disco." In each, he played talkative, upper-crust characters who, as he puts in, "cracked wise." He's still connected with Stillman, who said that he had not yet seen "Turn the River" but was optimistic about its success, as well as the possibility of working with Eigeman in the future. He added that Eigeman and Janssen make a perfect team. "She has the same kind of intensity he has. There's a level of comfort that they achieve when working together."

Regardless of his evident versatility, Eigeman -- who graduated from the school of Stillman to collaborate with Noah Baumbach, as well as taking on TV roles -- has never really achieved a mainstream following, choosing instead to work when it suits him. "I infrequently take a job just to take a job," he said. "That can get a bit squeaky at times." (Eigeman is married with a son, and divides his time between Brooklyn Heights and a farm in upstate New York.) "I used to be furious about 'Metropolitan,' " he added of the typecasting that followed the wise-guy blueblood role. But he seems to have gained perspective, parlaying the voluble preppy Nick Smith into a lucrative calling card. "If they want me to crack wise, they can pay me. If they want me to play the drug-addled drummer in a failed rock band, they don't have to pay me."

This attitude toward his craft, which he sees as encompassing acting, writing and directing -- "the whole gestalt" -- allows him time to work on scripts and use his experience to fashion roles for specific actors. "I wrote the part of Kailey specifically for Famke," he said. This made for an easy and, according to Eigeman and Janssen, nearly telepathic working relationship. "We had a secret language," he said.

So far, "Turn the River" has been well received. But both Eigeman and Janssen know that, with it going into wider release, the real test begins.

"We're trying to say something with this film," he said. "It's not casual. It's not a full-on entertainment."

The movie is proof of this, right up to its uncompromising ending, which is difficult to watch but hard to forget.

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