THE PERFORMANCE: Vinessa Shaw
Many actors embrace the challenge of playing characters they might find objectionable, but few frame it in terms of “compassion for all beings.”
“When you practice Buddhism you have to always self-reflect and you can’t avoid your problems. That makes me understand human beings better. I feel that the more I do that in my own life, the more I can see how to play a character,” says Vinessa Shaw, one of the stars of “Two Lovers,” with Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow. “In ‘Garden Party’ or ’40 Days and 40 Nights,’ I played characters who people don’t necessarily like; I just find some humanity in them.”
When it’s opined that her character in “Garden Party,” a sexually manipulative real-estate shark, had “abundant” humanity, Shaw laughs in a single “Ha!” and adds, “Even though she steps all over people. And uses them.”
Sipping green tea poured from a faulty pot in an earthy-crunchy cafe in Santa Monica, Shaw is unusually still when she talks. That is, she hardly moves, but her large, expressive green eyes widen for emphasis, then relax.
“I grew up not too far from here, in Topanga Canyon, in the hippie Californian environment,” she says with a smile. “My parents weren’t hippies, though. My dad’s a surfer-psychologist and my mother’s an actress-fitness instructor, and we all practice Buddhism.”
Shaw may understand that life is suffering, one of the tenets of Buddhism, but viewers of “Two Lovers” may say her character, Sandra, brings suffering into her life. The “good girl” in the film’s love triangle, she pursues Leonard (Phoenix), though she knows he’s psychologically troubled. He’s secretly pursuing Michelle (Paltrow) with a singular fire of which Sandra never feels the warmth.
“She’s had all the stable, good suitors who are doctors, lawyers, whatever, and they were boring,” Shaw says. “Leonard’s someone who’s more on the edge. So is he bad for her? I don’t know. Maybe that’s more exciting for her.
“Love never makes sense. I think because everyone’s feeling and not thinking, they’re making decisions based on their ideas of love. It’s funny, [writer-director James Gray] has done many crime movies with sour endings -- in a way, this one has a fairy-tale ending.”
Without spoiling anything, it can be safely stated that this interpretation is . . . interesting. On hearing that, she emits another single “Ha,” but wickedly. “If you just saw the ending, you’d think, ‘Oh, what a wonderful movie.’ ”
Shaw got the job without an audition. She later learned that Gray and co-producer Donna Gigliotti were having trouble casting the third lead and had just agreed they were looking for “a young Claudia Cardinale. Then Donna saw ‘3:10 to Yuma’ and said, ‘I’ve found her!’ ” she says with residual amazement that her role as a barmaid led to this film.
“The rhythm of dialogue and the exchanges between characters are so real it seems like real life happening in front of you,” Shaw says. “But to be honest, a movie with Joaquin Phoenix and James Gray with Gwyneth Paltrow attached is kind of a no-brainer.”
Her career path hasn’t always been so clear. She had dreamed of going to college straight after high school, funded by acting. Then she worked on “Eyes Wide Shut.”
“Stanley Kubrick kind of rattled me about and looked over his half-rim glasses and said, ‘You’re very good.’ Of course, I was very deferential: ‘No, no, it’s you. I’m just happy to be here . . .’ ‘No, you’re very good, and I’m very excited to see where you’ll go from here. Are you really going to school?’ It’s what I’d wanted since I was a young kid, but everything was changing. So I had to see that I was trying to conform to something I never really, truly believed on the inside. I knew what I really wanted to do, and he woke me up to that,” she says.
Shaw, who also enjoys singing delightful ditties with disturbing lyrics with her all-female barbershop quartet, gives as good as she gets. When told some Buddhist jokes, her response is worthy of contemplation by any actor.
“How many Buddhists does it take to change a lightbulb?” she asks. “Many in body, one in mind.”
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Where you’ve seen her
When asked whether most people think of her as the woman with the gory hand on her face in a “The Hills Have Eyes” poster, Vinessa Shaw says, “More people recognize me from ‘Hocus Pocus’ because it was for kids -- who watch things obsessively.” She memorably appeared opposite Tom Cruise in Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999) and had a close encounter with Russell Crowe in “3:10 to Yuma” (2007). She also appeared in Woody Allen’s “Melinda and Melinda” (2004), “Corky Romano” (2001), “The Weight of Water” (2000, with Sean Penn and Sarah Polley) and the underrated “Garden Party” (2008).