Screensaver: Hope springs eternal

Hope Davis talks about her upcoming features, "Mumford" and "Arlington Road," and why she's no Hollywood day-tripper.

Published December 11, 1998 2:05PM (EST)

Her name is Hope Davis and on this cool fall afternoon in New York City, when the leaves in Central Park are turning yellow and swirling about the Metropolitan Museum, she is still able to walk unnoticed through the crowded galleries. In her black skirt and leather coat, with her blond hair lank against her face, she has an aura of jaded New York cool about her. She fits right in.

Davis has come for the second time to see an exhibition of 90-year-old photographs by the impressionist painter Edgar Degas. The actress is drawn to the photos, she says, because the people in them seem unconcerned with the camera. "It is so disarming to me how little they cared about what their faces looked like," says Davis. She moves to a photo of Degas himself, who is staring gloomily into the distance. "You would never see anyone with that expression nowadays, because nowadays the man would be like this --"

Then Davis turns around, sets her eyes in a seductive scowl and purses her lips in a perfect imitation of a supermodel pouty face. She waits for a reaction and when she doesn't get one, she laughs quietly and heads off in another direction.

Hope Davis is a charmer. She has the knack of being funny and deadpan and dramatic and seductive all at the same time. She is polite and engaging in person, and yet another part of her seems to be watching you from behind the veil of her eyes. This sense of distance is also part of Davis' allure. So far she has exhibited her particular talents in a handful of well-received performances in independent films, including "The Daytrippers," "The Myth of Fingerprints" (both 1997) and "Next Stop Wonderland" (1998).

Now she is taking a few months off, hanging out with her mother, her sisters and actor friends like Stanley Tucci and Julianne Moore, because it looks like 1999 is going to be hectic. She'll have two big feature films out, "Arlington Road," a thriller with Tim Robbins and Jeff Bridges, and "Mumford," a comedy by Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote and directed "The Big Chill" and "Body Heat."

"Hope is in a great spot," says Kasdan, who is currently editing "Mumford" in Los Angeles. "Everybody is interested in her. There is a huge buzz about her. I think she has come out of the indie world in a big way. Some of the public hasn't seen her yet, but she's getting offered big parts. And she has the acting chops to pull it off."

Davis, 33, says she's thrilled with the way things are going. "You know, everything for me is pretty rosy right now." And yet, Davis admits she harbors a lot of anxiety. For all her good fortune, she can't stop fretting.

"I worry about being alone for the rest of my life," says Davis, who in the past two years has been through a divorce as well as the death of her father. "I've been worrying about that for two years, even though I'm seeing someone really nice. I'm worried about not being able to get a job in five years and being right back where I felt I was five years ago. You are totally out of control in this profession to some degree."

The seeds of this anxiety seem embedded in her childhood in Tenafly, N.J., where she grew up the middle child of three daughters. Tenafly, a small suburb about 15 minutes from Manhattan, is known as a rich town, but the Davises lived in a relatively modest section. Her mother is a librarian and a professional storyteller who had to support the family when her father succumbed to substance abuse. "My dad, what did he do?" says Davis. "He did a lot of drinking. He was a salesman, but didn't hold a job after I was 10."

Davis says she was a quiet little girl, certainly not the class clown, a child who could spend hours obsessing over her own fantasies. A long ride to the family country house in Maine might find Davis sitting in the backseat obsessing that the house would be locked and her parents wouldn't have a key. Davis' therapist traces her tendency to be a little insecure and a bit of a hypochondriac to having to deal with an alcoholic parent. "I worry about everything," admits Davis. "Every headache is an exploding vessel in my brain."

Davis' childhood dream was to become a dancer, but in elementary school she did write, direct and star in a play titled "China Doll," about a doll that comes to life, with a girl across the street named Mira Sorvino. Sorvino's mother, Lorraine, gave Davis acting lessons. After high school, Davis went to Vassar College, where she studied cognitive science. But it was during a junior year abroad in London that she became infatuated with acting. "I saw over 50 plays," says Davis. "I was swept away. That is what I wanted to do."

After graduating, Davis moved to Chicago in 1987 to support herself waiting tables and, as she puts it, to "make theater." She and some friends started a troupe and staged plays by Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter and Arthur Miller. At 24, Davis married her boyfriend, Ford Evanson, a playwright. "We had been together for six years," she says. "We had a home, and we felt like adults."

Davis spent three years working in Chicago before deciding to return to New York, where she spent another six years before getting her first big break in film. She describes these years as a brutal campaign of auditions for everything from serious theater to "Baywatch" (she never made it to the bikini stage). But as depressing as the aspiring actor's life can be, Davis says, she never thought about quitting. "I would always get a job just before I got totally discouraged," explains Davis. "I would get theater things, but I didn't get jobs in film."

Her movie career finally took flight with the release in 1996 of "The Daytrippers," in which Davis plays a wife who suspects her husband of an affair. It's the kind of role that could easily have dissolved into a heap of screaming and crying, but Davis took it the other way. Her performance is quiet, and relies on facial expressions rather than words to convey her character's growing sense of dread. "I had very few lines," says Davis. "But she is supposed to be the center of the story. Fortunately the director cut to her face enough to give the audience a sense of her."

In the new thriller "Arlington Road," Davis is the graduate student and girlfriend of a terrorism expert, whose recently murdered wife was an FBI agent. The professor (Bridges) thinks the next-door neighbors (Robbins and Joan Cusack) are bombers; his girlfriend (Davis) thinks he's nuts. "He is paranoid and deluded," says Davis. "And I'm righteous and whiny."

Davis may not bash the audience over the head with attention-getting histrionics, but you can't ignore her when she's on-screen. Whether playing a graduate student, a sexpot (as she did in "The Myth of Fingerprints") or a lovelorn young woman ( "Next Stop Wonderland"), she says what she wants to say with finely drawn gestures. The seductive way she eats a banana in "Fingerprints," or that open-faced look that says, "I really need you to be a nice guy but I know you aren't," that Davis flashes at a blind date in "Wonderland," are moments that stay with an audience.

It is this quality of taking everyday details and making something dramatic of it that Davis' actor pals admire. "Hope can do anything," says Julianne Moore, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role in "Boogie Nights" and who performed with Davis in "The Myth of Fingerprints." "I lose myself when I work with her. She is able to do something surprising with a character, and yet it is believable."

Davis seems most excited about her role in "Mumford," an ensemble comedy about a psychiatrist who comes to a small town and transforms the lives of the locals. Davis plays a woman who is convinced she has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

"I knew this woman," Davis says, smiling. "The hypochondria paid off."

Despite her recent successes, Davis does not live extravagantly. She rents a small apartment in Greenwich Village, and in the past few years has become part of a circle of other smart New York actors -- including Lily Taylor, Aidan Quinn and Steve Buscemi -- who dabble in big Hollywood movies but have focused their careers on independent films. Tucci acts as the group's fulcrum point.

"We see each other as much as possible," says Tucci, who will often come into Manhattan to spend a few hours wandering through the Museum of Modern Art with Davis. "This weekend everyone is coming up here to my house for dinner, Scrabble and soccer."

Though her newer friends may have higher profiles, Davis says she spends just as much time with longtime buddies who don't appear on-screen, as well as with her mother and sisters. "Not much has changed," she says. "My life doesn't feel all that different. It's not like we were living in a rat hole and now I'm living in a palace and knowing all new people. My life is the same: my family, my friends."

And there is still the ever-present angst about her career. At 33, Davis is hitting the big time a little later than some, and Hollywood doesn't love a 40-year-old actress. And while studio films do pay better, there is also the concern that even in the next few years, Davis won't be able to find the kinds of parts she wants. "She's not going to shy away from the big career," says Kasdan. "She is going to go for it, but she is so smart and good that it will be hard for her to work with a lot of what's out there."

Of course, none of this is news to Davis. Like many of the characters she plays, she is very deliberate, particularly when it comes to building her career. "You are 35, and then you are 40 and you look different, and then nobody wants to accept you," she says. "I've tried to avoid stuff that would make me into, you know, the cutesy-poo of the moment."

By Edward Lewine

Edward Lewine is a New York writer who contributes frequently to The City section of the the New York Times.

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