Embracing the complexity

It is hardly unusual for an actor to keep an eye on the camera while being photographed, but Anna Gunn's obsession seems to have less to do with vanity than research.

As a makeup artist fusses with Gunn's red mane during a recent photo session at Westwood's Geffen Playhouse, Gunn seems less interested in flattering angles than in grilling the photographer about how the camera works -- and where she might go to improve her shooting skills after finishing her current role as a photojournalist in the world premiere of Donald Margulies' play "Time Stands Still."

"Part of what I love about acting is it allows me to get inside people's minds," Gunn says. "With this role especially, since I'm already interested in photography and photojournalists, I couldn't get enough.

"The sense that it's opened up for me is personal responsibility: It's important to bear witness. It's important for people to know."

Margulies' drama tells the story of war photographer Sarah (Gunn) and her boyfriend, print journalist James (David Harbour), whose relationship is thrown into crisis after Sarah is wounded on the job by a roadside bomb.

The incident occurs after James has already fled the combat zone with a crippling case of post-traumatic stress disorder. When Sarah returns home to recuperate, neither is sure whether a relationship forged in war can survive ordinary domestic life.

And the pair have wildly different reactions to the recent choice of their middle-age editor friend (portrayed by Robin Thomas) to marry Mandy (Alicia Silverstone), a young Pollyanna who is horrified by Sarah's photos and can't understand Sarah's compulsion to get the shot instead of trying to help the subject.

Some critics have quibbled about the polemical manner in which playwright Margulies, a Pulitzer Prize winner for "Dinner With Friends," presents the multiple ethical issues in "Time Stands Still." But they have embraced Gunn's performance as one that transcends that perceived weakness in the script.

Writes New York Times critic Charles Isherwood, "Ms. Gunn's quietly centered but passionate performance helps keep us attuned to the human being beneath the lofty principles." Times theater critic Charles McNulty, who calls Gunn's performance a "standout," offers that her "deeply inhabited portrayal reconciles the play's zigzagging public and private concerns."

Gunn -- whose theater roles include playing opposite Jeremy Piven in "Uncommon Ground" and starring as Isabella at the Ahmanson Theatre in the Peter Hall-directed "Measure for Measure" -- has heard people react coldly to Sarah, whose drive to expose the horrors of war often causes her to neglect her own emotions.

But the actress says she likes -- scratch that, loves -- the tough-minded character. "She is an unapologetically flawed person, and that makes me like her even more," Gunn says. "A friend of mine says: 'It's great to see you playing a woman.' She's a real, grown-up woman, and I think it's fantastic to be able to play her.

"There's a good reason Sarah is the way she is," continues Gunn. "She says it very clearly: I wish I could cry, looking at pictures, but I can't because I wouldn't be able to do my job."

Margulies tapped Gunn for the role after seeing her in an L.A. Theatre Works radio theater production of his play "Sight Unseen." "I thought she was remarkable," he says.

"It seems that the women that I write are all complicated women -- they are all smart and funny and have a kind of bristling intelligence," Margulies says. "They're also attractive, many of them. And Anna seemed to embody all of those qualities. She embraced the richness of the role."

Gunn is known to TV audiences for her roles in HBO's "Deadwood" and, more recently, in AMC's "Breaking Bad," which launches its second season March 8. In "Breaking Bad," Gunn plays Skyler White, wife of a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher (Bryan Cranston) who cracks under life's pressures and "breaks bad" by assuming a second identity as a drug dealer.

"Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan says Gunn radiates an intelligence that challenges the writers, who must continue to keep her character believably in the dark about her husband's illegal second career.

"Anna is such a smart person in real life that it comes through in her acting," Gilligan says. "It would be hard for her to play a ditsy blond, although she probably could if she wanted to. It's hard for us to pull the wool over her eyes.

"To me, there are movie stars, always bringing themselves front and center, and then there are actors," he says. "The ones who always seem to amaze me are the true actors who just disappear and submerge completely in the role."

Gunn's life is the polar opposite of Sarah's. While the 40-ish Sarah cannot reconcile her dangerous profession with marriage and children, Gunn has been successful in combining family life with career.

Gunn, who was born in Ohio and raised in Santa Fe, N.M., lives in the Hollywood Hills. Not being the "movie star" type, she's reticent about family details. And she declines to give the names of her husband, who is in real estate, and their two girls, ages 2 and 8. But she credits the kids with helping her to understand both the Sarah and the Mandy points of view about how best to deal with the injustices of the world.

"My 8-year-old asks: 'Why is it that way?' Or, 'Why is there a war? What are they fighting about?' I find that I have to explain that in a fairly fundamental way with a child," Gunn says. "The kids know that they have a very comfortable life, and then they see people living in the street. They don't know what to do with that.

"Mandy says: 'What am I supposed to do? I can't save everybody,' " Gunn says. "And that's true, but you can do small things. You say: 'OK, let's see what we can do.' That has fed me.

"The fact is we need all of it -- you can't have a steady diet of what is wrong and awful in the world. Part of the joy of having kids is it gets me out of my head. I do my work, and then I let it go and spend time with my kids."

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diane.haithman@latimes.com

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'Time Stands Still'

Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte, Westwood

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 15.

Price: $45 to $79

Contact: (310) 208-5454

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