Don't cry for me Annabella

Most stars chase eternal youth. Not this one. She's hell-bent on ageing as painfully as possible. By Stephen Applebaum
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The Independent Culture
Death becomes Annabella Sciorra. In Abel Ferrara's creepy oddity, The Addiction, she made vampirism look chic and sexy as she sucked the life out of Lili Taylor, her face transformed into a death's-head by the film's chiaroscuro lighting. She also thrived on the deathly atmosphere of Ferrara's The Funeral, where her drawn features appeared etched with regret. The souls of Sciorra's women, you feel, are in a permanent state of partial eclipse; even their happiest moments tinged with melancholy. Now this lingering sadness has found full lachrymal expression in What Dreams May Come, a visually arresting tale of love beyond the grave, from the visionary New Zealand film-maker Vincent Ward.

In this painterly epic, Sciorra so immerses herself in the character of Annie, an artist who is first plunged into depression by the deaths of her children, and then driven to suicide - an act which literally lands her in Hell - by the loss of her husband (Robin Williams), that you're convinced she's reliving real trauma.

Sciorra will admit that she had doubts about taking the part. "I felt that there would be too much crying involved, and that it would be very tough to do that and remain sane at the end of the day. Ultimately, I was afraid of how far I would go with this character, because I knew I wouldn't be faking it."

Such a performance is the product of what could be described as a Faustian pact which the actress has made with her emotions. Living the roles "makes you older faster", she says. "When I came back from doing What Dreams May Come, I was so tired. I was walking down the street with a friend one day, and I said, `I feel like I got older on this movie.' And she said, `You look like you did.' I didn't like hearing that but, physically, I think it does take a toll; especially if you're the kind of person who is emotional and cries a lot."

She did what she could to cushion the blows. "I took an apartment in San Francisco, where we shot the film, and filled it with a lot of extra bed-linen for friends and family, so that at the end of the day I would have a dinner to cook, or a niece or a nephew to hang out with, and have some sort of normal life." (Sciorra is not "attached" at the moment.)

This desire for normality is reflected in the diminutive actress's plain, no-nonsense personality. When asked about the spiritual themes underpinning What Dreams May Come, and the notion of an afterlife, she refuses to play the PR game and launch into some airy-fairy New Age discourse.

"I saw the film as a dream or a Greek myth. To me it was about the opportunities that we have to create a wonderful life or a hell for ourselves." People tend to assume Sciorra is a crucifix-clutching Catholic. Not at all. "I couldn't connect with the afterlife thing because I don't have any strong religious beliefs. I think when you die there's just a lot of dirt. Some journalists have gotten really angry with me for saying that, but that's how I feel. If anything, this movie has made me more concerned with immediate things, like the people in my life and the love that I have. Honest to God, I could be a pretty cynical person, but about stuff like that I feel grateful everyday."

Indeed, she gets so carried away by the theme of love that she suddenly finds herself on the brink of tears. She has always been this way, she says. Even as a child, when she watched the emotionally charged films of Irene Papas and Gena Rowlands at festivals with her brother, she "would feel get excited - feel all this stuff bubbling up inside".

Is such trembly sensitivity the result of an insecure childhood? Sciorra laughs. "I did this movie, The Cure," she recalls, "and after doing 18 takes of my son dying, the director said, `What did they do to you as a child?' I was painfully shy, but I've had a really very loving, very nurturing family, a happy childhood."

In fact, Sciorra's closeness to her family is one reason she still resides in New York. She moved there from Connecticut when she was 11, with her veterinarian father and fashion stylist mother, and has no intention of moving permanently to the West Coast.

If she had decamped to Los Angeles in 1991, following her acclaimed performance opposite Wesley Snipes in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, then she might not have had to wait until she was 34 to star in her first $85m blockbuster. Instead, Sciorra remains an actress "on the verge" of a breakthrough - 10 years after her debut in Nancy Savoca's True Love and despite glowing critical notices for her performances in films such as The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Internal Affairs, Cadillac Man (also with Robin Williams), and Cop Land.

"I think if I would get on a fucking airplane and go out to LA, and get an apartment and stay there, that might help the `breakthrough' situation," she concedes. "[Casting directors] used to come there more often, and you didn't really have to be in LA. But now it seems like there are less and less roles. When they make those big movies, they hire one big name and, because they just want to pay one big salary, the rest are like whoever'll work for the cheapest amount. It has nothing to do with the quality of acting."

She also believes Hollywood often overlooks her because they cannot see past her Italian background. Her agent told her recently that she had not been considered for a role in a family drama because of her ethnicity. Yet the actresses cast as the character's siblings were exactly her colouring, if not darker. "Sometimes I think that if I was going to do it all over I would change my name," she says ruefully.

Inevitably, several actresses were given a shot at What Dreams May Come before it was offered to Sciorra, but the limited sum offered by the film's producers received a cool response. Meryl Streep and Michelle Pfeiffer are both rumoured to have turned the part down, after which the offer went to Annette Bening. When discussions with her collapsed, Sciorra stepped in.

Whether or not What Dreams May Come elevates Annabella Sciorra on to Hollywood's A-list, she has enough acting work to see her through to the end of the millennium. And no, she does not want to spend New Year's Eve, 1999, somewhere spiritual. Such as the pyramids, as one journalist suggested to her recently.

"Who the fuck wants to get on a plane and go there? No. I imagine that I will be with my family, where I am every year on New Year's Eve, eating and drinking wine."

`What Dreams May Come' is released 26 December