Film: Obscure object of desire

Twelve Monkeys star Madeleine Stowe doesn't like to give much away. So why did this interview end in tears?
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The Independent Culture
Terry Gilliam used to wonder why Madeleine Stowe always took a fortnight to return his calls, despite the fact that they'd developed a splendid working relationship while making 12 Monkeys. Oh dear. Could this be late-blooming Latin hauteur? Could Madeleine - surely the most impenetrable beauty of her generation of Hollywood actresses - be going all Garbo on him? Perhaps Terry had stepped out of line in some way? Bad breath? The wrong kind of joke? Nope. It was none of those things.

"It wasn't that I didn't want to call back," she murmurs from the folds of her sofa in the penthouse suite in Claridge's. "I was dying to. I was just afraid of not having something to say."

So she'd give it a couple of weeks to allow something to happen in her life; maybe even for some Wildean insight to suffuse her with confidence, so she'd feel able to ring the old joker back and, well, you know, tear it up a little. "I'd just try to build up time," she says a little desperately. "I know it was silly."

Silly or not, it's a clue to unravelling the Stowe enigma, which is extensive, and is not really there to be unravelled anyway. Not if she has anything to do with it. Stowe is what you get when you marry a palpably unresolved screen selfhood to seething good looks and cinema's obsession with the nailing down of beauty: a sort of slippage.

The CV is a steady read. Stowe, now 41, made her (late-ish) debut in John Badham's 1987 comedy-thriller Stakeout; ticked over satisfactorily until Altman cast her as the put-upon-but-secretly-loving-it wife of mendacious, gangloid cop Tim Robbins in Short Cuts (1992); then billowed into a sort of prominence with the lead in Michael Apted's rather dull Blink and as Daniel Day Lewis's plucky rescuee in The Last of the Mohicans. But it was with 12 Monkeys (1995) that Stowe - well-cast as Bruce Willis's psychiatrist in a typically ornate, fundamentally dotty Gilliam conceit - began to look like a star capable of holding a film. Then she had a baby.

She has the sort of laugh that makes you cock your rifle in the jungle - abrupt, loud and not at all human. (If anyone ever makes a film about the discovery of a hybrid parrot-hyena in the Mato Grosso, then Stowe will surely get the voice-over part for those episodes in which the creature hears a good joke.) She also has the sort of face that can take almost any amount of scrutiny. Her cheek bones stick up like alps. Her mouth is a complex structure involving ellipses, straight lines and undefined soft salients. And her eyes... It's her eyes that film directors like. In films, they pulsate and flash and radiate energy and go dead and flicker and draw light in like black holes. Stick Stowe up on a screen and read her the football results and her eyes will give you a subtext.

It's not always clear, however, what sort of subtext she's giving you. Stowe is not disposed to being readable. "I guess I like to send mixed signals," she says, helpfully. "It's like wanting to be scrutinised from a distance - wanting something to be on display, but remotely."

This is great in creatively robust films such as 12 Monkeys or Revenge (an enjoyable if overwrought Tony Scott Tex-Mex melodrama of sweltering sexual jealousy, in which Stowe simply steamed co-star Kevin Costner off the screen). But in messy ones, like her newie, The General's Daughter, cast alongside a swollen and self-congratulatory John Travolta, she is unreadable, as in unintelligible.

It's a pretty ghastly film; an incoherent, clanking military-noir thriller with ugly misogynist gashes (see Anthony Quinn's review on page 11). Stowe will not say so, of course, but you don't need to be an Internal Affairs officer to figure out that she is not overjoyed with what became of her contribution. And this despite the fact that she initially thought it would be a hit.

"The first script I got I was not inclined to do and I sat down, talked and didn't have any enthusiasm for it. But the redraft - I was very enthusiastic about that... I did expect it to be a huge success... In the end, we filmed a combination of the two drafts, so what came out was pretty much what I expected..."

Which means, in effect, that her veteran CID investigator Sarah Sunhill simply doesn't have enough useful words to say, or scenes to execute self-revealing actions in, leaving Madeleine's eyes with an unfeasibly large burden to carry. Yes, you feel, she's immensely mysterious, tough- minded and beautiful, this woman, but what's she doing in this film?

Stowe is somewhat baffled in real life. She wears a black T-shirt and what appears to be a tight-fitting black crocodile on her bottom half, over high-heeled boots. She hugs a cushion to her middle, crosses and uncrosses her legs, fixes you with her eyes for long, disconcerting moments of internal struggle, and erupts into laughter when she catches herself being daft or incoherent. She's likeable, as anyone is likeable who is in a vulnerable situation and knows that there are no brownie points for pretending otherwise. She is as unpretentious as anyone can be who is wearing a crocodile for trousers.

She's particularly mysterious about her childhood. She's half well-to- do Costa Rican, grew up in Los Angeles, and was raised by a mother who also had to sacrifice herself to the welfare of a husband who was seriously ill right from Madeleine's infancy. Stowe will not talk in detail about any of this because, she says, "my family background is very peculiar, and I don't want to do that to appear interesting. It's not because it's painful to talk about, but because I'd wonder at my own motives. So I've never really let anyone know anything."

Aha! So Madeleine, perhaps that is why you act the way you do, leaking information about your characters rather than, well, acting it.

"Hmm, sneaky," she says, clutching her cushion and cocking her head, then changing her tone. "But maybe that's a problem. Maybe directors don't get as much information from me as they should get..." She goes off into her faraway-mode for a second or two. Looks at the ceiling and into the fireplace.

She does have favourite directors. Or at least directors that she "sentimentalises". "They were all wonderful fathers," she says of Messrs Scott, Altman, Apted, Gilliam and Michael Mann, who directed Mohicans. She particularly adored working with Mann, who was "demanding, concentrated, all-consuming. I loved being his puppet."

You seem to like father figures...

"I liked those guys, yeah. It's difficult to work with women; I don't feel the same connection. I mean, they've always been very sweet when I've worked with them, and collaborative, and asked about what I feel about this and that, but I prefer to just get on with it."

She says she was a late starter in the world of sex; didn't date till she was 18 and a half, and never excited much interest in boys of her own age. She was, she says, "the kind of girl who looked for approval from older men".

It would appear that the most important of these was her Russian piano teacher, one Sergei Tarnowsky, who'd taught the adolescent Horowitz. Tarnowsky looked after the musical interests of the young Stowe from the age of 10. She talks about him in a completely different voice from the one she uses to talk about her career. She is articulate, measured and certain.

"He was 96 when he died and he'd lived everywhere, starting in St Petersburg, then moving to Paris and on. He had an American wife, who was 45, with fabulous hair that was shiny. Shiny. And she was very vibrant. And she died before he did.

"He just withered away. The last lesson I had with him, he taught me from his bed, through this trellis. I'd talk to him through the trellis but never crossed behind it - how British that sounds... and I knew the last lesson was going to be the last, but I was polite and I said, `I'll see you next week'. And he just nodded and... Oh God."

Stowe is weeping. Not sobbing, but tears are trickling down her face and she's gulping a little. She leaves the room. I get a tennis ball in my throat. Then she comes back and sits down, all mopped up.

"The truth was, I wasn't very good. But he tolerated me. He gave me the attention I needed. But it wasn't about being a pretty young girl; it was about having a talent. It felt substantial."

It's hard to know where to go with the film-star-interview thing after that, so we talk about our children instead, and where's a good place to buy toys in London.

`The General's Daughter' is out today