Jennifer Connelly: The fearful star

Jennifer Connelly admits to being insecure and dreading that she is a 'thicky'. She explains her paranoia to Marc Cameron
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The Independent Culture

She is currently in Britain to promote the release of Dark Water, a Hollywood adaptation of the original Hideo Nakata-directed film that follows other American remakes of Japanese horror films such The Ring and The Grudge. In Dark Water, Connelly plays Dahlia Williams, who has recently separated from her husband (played by Dougray Scott) and is embroiled in a custody battle over their five-year-old daughter Cecilia, played by the brilliant Ariel Grade.

In an attempt to escape her past, Dahlia moves, with her daughter, to a new flat in Manhattan. It is dark, damp, and cramped, with plumbing problems. As the fight for her daughter descends into a nasty legal battle, Dahlia's mental state becomes frail and things take a paranormal turn when she hears mysterious noises coming from the empty apartment upstairs, accompanied by a persistent leak of dark water from the ceiling.

"I think it's a different type of horror film than has existed before,' says Connelly. "There are certain examples of it in the fact that it isn't a gory film, it isn't a slasher movie, and it doesn't have some aberration running around and coming to threaten the homeland.

"It's more subtle and more psychological, and could be seen as allegorical. There have been films like that in the past that people have really responded to, such as Rosemary's Baby and Don't Look Now, and I feel, at the moment, there's a renewed interest in that kind of film."

Horror is not a genre that Connelly has featured in before, but it was the prospect of working with Walter Salles, the award-winning director of The Motorcycle Diaries, the film of the motorcycle road-trip that Che Guevara went on as a youth, that drew her to the project. "Dark Water was one of my favourite films to shoot because of Walter. I had seen the previous films he had directed, Central Station and Motorcycle Diaries, and I thought they were great. I really trusted him. In rehearsals he was so lovely, but that's an aside, because he's talented enough for me to enjoy working with him even if he were a creep, which he's not. He's sensitive but he's not precious, nor is he sentimental.

"I have a lot of respect for his type of director and I really trusted his judgement. When we did takes and looked at the monitor, I generally agreed with his opinions and I always looked forward to hearing his ideas and getting feedback from him. I trusted him so much that, even if he would come up with ideas I didn't think were so good, I would certainly try them, because if they didn't work he wouldn't use them.

"He says he's next doing something in Brazil with a bunch of boys and I said 'Walter, you know what, I could play a Brazilian boy', and I think I could, it could be interesting, but I guess he didn't go for that."

As with so many horror films, studios often leak stories of paranormal events that occur on the set while filming. However, Connelly encountered these problems before the filming for Dark Water even began. "Walter came to my house before we started filming, and a week later the house flooded. And it didn't just flood once, it flooded twice. I hold him directly responsible." But as to whether she is a believer in the paranormal, Connelly remains unsure. "I don't know whether I'm afraid. I do absolutely believe in ghosts and the abstract, though. There seem to be lots of haunted people walking around out there."

Born to a clothing manufacturer and massage therapist in the Catskill Mountains of New York State in 1970, Connelly grew up in Brooklyn (aside from the four years the family lived in Woodstock, New York). When she was 10, her parents were advised by a family friend, who was an advertising executive, to take her to a modelling audition. From there she was signed to the Ford Agency, who arranged for her to appear in magazine and TV adverts. A casting director introduced her to Sergio Leone, who was seeking a young girl forOnce Upon a Time in America, a film that offered her a platform to demonstrate her acting skills and led to her next role, in the mid-Eighties, alongside David Bowie in Jim Henson's Labyrinth, which made her an international star.

Connelly doesn't see it that way. "I don't know if I was a star. I was certainly working a lot and that was strange because there were good things about it and things that were difficult. I wasn't the biggest rebel as a child; I wanted to do my job, show up on time and be responsible for my career. But I found being on time, learning my lines and standing on my mark a bit stagnating. I was really precocious but at the same time underdeveloped emotionally. That was the hardest thing for me. I didn't become a teenager until my twenties."

Dark Water sees Connelly cast alongside Grade, another precocious talent, who delivers a wonderfully sincere performance. "It was really nice working with her. She's a very sweet little girl. We had a lot of rehearsal time together. When were just getting to know each other she would tell me stories about her dog and her grandma before we got on with doing scenes together. She worked really hard but seemed to enjoy it. I hope we didn't torture her too much."

Connelly became famous for her role in Labyrinth, but the career that followed failed to deliver the promise of her early success. After seeing her in the film Some Girls, Dennis Hopper was impressed enough to cast her in The Hot Spot in 1990, which was based on the Fifties crime novel Hell Hath No Fury, but it had mixed reviews and was not a box-office success. Her next significant role, in Touchstone pictures' Thirties-inspired The Rocketeer, opposite her former lover Bill Campbell, brought a brief reprisal of stardom, but the next few years remained quiet. It has been through the selection of some well-chosen and gritty roles in films such as Dark City, Waking the Dead, A Beautiful Mind, and Requiem for a Dream, a dark and disturbing story about drug addiction, that Connelly has established herself as a major Hollywood actress.

She won the Oscar for best supporting actress in 2002 for her performance in A Beautiful Mind. "I really enjoyed doing that film. I had a good time working with Russell Crowe, Ron Howard and Ed Harris. It was a great cast and Russell worked really hard, doing tons of research and questioning everything. I didn't expect to win the Oscar. You grow up watching the Oscars on TV and you think it happens to fancy people and it's hard to think, 'how did I get here?'. It was really surreal."

Since her Oscar win, Connelly's career has gone from strength to strength, including roles opposite Eric Bana in the comic-strip blockbuster Hulk and Ben Kingsley in House of Sand and Fog. Her natural and effortless performance as a single mother confronting a custody fight and paranormal events in Dark Water should confirm her status as one of Hollywood's leading ladies. But, despite her success, she doesn't think her well-chosen roles necessarily say positive things about her. "It's probably that I'm really insecure and I have a dread that I'm really a 'thicky' and as a result I want to play smart people. I like characters that are complex."

Despite her feelings that she might be a "thicky", Connelly was academically excellent. She enrolled at Yale as an English major, then transferred two years later to Stanford. She speaks fluent Italian and French, on top of being someone of Irish, Polish, Norwegian and Russian descent who once recorded a single in phonetic Japanese.

"When I went to university I wasn't looking for a vocation and it was important to me to have my own private self-edifying experience outside of the movies. I went back to acting because it's a pretty good job. I didn't enjoy it so much when I was younger and a teenager. I went through a bad patch, but when it's good it's great, it's really great."

Connelly comes across as a down-to-earth and friendly person. Her success in Hollywood hasn't led to an overindulgent, glamorous lifestyle. Though she started her life as a child-star, unlike others who have gone off the rails she seems to have achieved a stable and balanced family life with her husband and two sons, Kai (whom she had with the photographer David Dugan) and Stellan.

"I've chosen not to live in Hollywood, and instead I live in Brooklyn, New York," she explains. "It's how I like to live. I'd rather hang out with my kids and family when I'm not working. Going to premieres is not my idea of a fun night out." Connelly has also found an affinity with England since she became involved with her husband, the British actor Paul Bettany. "We come here pretty often, as Paul has lots of friends in the UK who I've now adopted as my own. I love London, and my son was born here. I also love Ireland as well. Last time I went, I rented a car and spent most of my time in Dublin and on the west coast."

Connelly can next be seen starring opposite Kate Winslet, in the Todd Field film Little Children. She also hopes to work alongside her husband in a future project. "We've been talking about it. We've found something we'd like to do but nothing's definite yet." She will also star opposite Robert Duvall in The Berkeley Connection. For the time being, though, Connelly is focused on the success of her current picture, and on living her life in as down-to-earth a way as possible.

'Dark Water' goes on general release today