The two sides of a complex woman

Her real speaking voice falls somewhere between the hard Midwestern of her Jessica on HBO's "Hung" and the cool sophisticate, Samantha, she plays in the new film "Spread." Which only makes sense; Anne Heche is from Ohio but has navigated the palms of Hollywood for more than 20 years now since playing good and evil twins on "Another World." Now, at 40, her two current roles are akin to playing two sides of the same woman again.

"I thought it was an incredibly sexual role and a challenge to be an 'older woman' in the film," she says of acting opposite Ashton Kutcher in "Spread." "Roles always challenge me in some personal way and that was one I wanted to overcome: 'Wow, all of a sudden, you've become the "Older Woman" in a movie. Let's give the younger ones a run for their money.' "

Samantha is a confident, successful professional who, despite her accomplishments, ends up falling for the oldest trick in the book -- or the oldest profession in the world. She gets involved with parasite-hustler Nikki (Kutcher), who drains women for material sustenance before moving on, until he inevitably meets his match (Margarita Levieva) -- to Samantha's chagrin.

"This is a really strong woman who put her career first and she's now at a point where she wants to open herself up to fun and romance," says Heche of Samantha's vulnerability to Nikki. "There's no reason she wouldn't meet someone like Ashton and love that he's fun and sexual and playful -- who doesn't want to go home and be loved on and flirted with, and have their dinner cooked for them? And then, of course, she gets manipulated in that open place by him.

"I think it's hard for women to see signs of manipulators because they think they're being loved. And nothing feels better than that."

The rather dark film is sure to surprise those who hear "Ashton Kutcher" and "gigolo" and picture "Punk'd" meets "Deuce Bigalow." The energetic but focused Heche, however, found it easy to believe in the earnestness of the project.

"Ashton's one of the producers, so if he's going to hire [director David Mackenzie], I'm already clued in that he wants to go to a place he's never gone before. Humor is one expression of an actor who has soul. So even though he did that for years, I'm not surprised he wanted to explore these other avenues," she says.

The Scottish Mackenzie has built a reputation for crafting some emotionally bare-knuckled, unflinchingly grown-up fare with the likes of "Young Adam" and "Mister Foe."

"He's a very subtle shaper of character. He observes almost more than he tells," she says. Mackenzie would often keep the camera distant so as not to interfere with "the intimacy of a moment."

"You're peering in through the window," Heche adds, meaning it literally and figuratively. "There's one thing that's all one take, from when I walk in and find him [in a sexual act with] another girl, and her leaving, and Nikki and I get into a huge argument, all the way to when I throw him down on the couch and we start having sex. That's all one shot. You're never being told who to feel for or how to feel about it. The camera was literally out the window for that entire thing."

Heche's performance as Samantha is complex, ranging from a confident queen of her domain to someone so broken she undertakes desperate measures to transform herself into someone Nikki will love.

"I was very particular that the story not be told as 'An old woman pays a guy for sex and then she does something ridiculous.' I wanted it to be a story about a beautiful, successful woman who got caught in something that ended up devastating her to such an extent that she made a choice to hurt herself. And David said, 'Yes, that's the tale I want to tell.' "

Meanwhile, Heche also costars in the HBO comedy "Hung." It also involves a gigolo, but as far as Heche's two characters, that edge is the only point where these two sides of the coin meet: "Jessica doesn't have any sense of herself, really. She and Samantha are two completely different ends of the spectrum of women who are 40, looking at their lives and saying, 'What do I need now?' "

Jessica is the ex-wife of protagonist Ray (Thomas Jane), who finds himself so desperate for cash that he exploits his God-given physical asset for money. Jessica is not exactly sympathetic to his financial woes. "I'm an ex-beauty queen who fell in love. It was kind of a 'Jack and Diane' story -- two American kids, they had everything going for them. She's a girl who lives and breathes a dream of life being lovely and hearts popping out of clouds. Then she actually starts living her life and it's not everything she thought in high school."

In the earliest episodes, Jessica comes across as heartless -- if not a gold digger, then at least a pyrite biter. In recent shows, she reveals a more sympathetic, if twisted, need for love from her kids.

"Yes, a mother's yearning for her teenage children to show any emotion. That yearning is, I think, the yearning of many parents I talk to who have teenagers," says the mother of a 7-year-old with whom she can still happily indulge in "hug walks." "But the remarks I've gotten are mostly from parents with teens who love her patience with her kids and find it very funny. She is the most positive and most hopeful person -- she always, always, always thinks it's going to be OK."

Looking back on her decades in the business, she cites some highlights: "How can you get luckier? I worked with Harrison Ford on 'Six Days Seven Nights,' I'm so happy that I got to do that, and people see that all the time." She mentions "Return to Paradise," the gripping 1998 film she made with Vince Vaughn and Joaquin Phoenix. "For Joaquin, it was the beginning of some incredible work, obviously. We've seen him explode. It's a really sweet, wonderful, heart-wrenching movie that people really like.

"My boyfriend couldn't believe I was in 'Wag the Dog.' He was like, 'Who were you?' And I said, 'I was the girl! There's only one girl in it.' It's funny to get people who have watched some of my things without knowing. At the beginning of my career I wanted to be a chameleon and I ended up hiding myself so much sometimes they didn't know it was me."

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