This is the end of the innocence

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Andie MacDowell used to be just a pretty face in some pretty average films. Now she stars in the Wim Wenders' movie, `The End of Violence' and talks to Sarah Gristwood about mistakes, motherhood and the new-found intelligence she brought to her first major role in an art-house film

Leaf through the pages of interviews with Andie MacDowell, and it's hard to find a quote on her films. There's plenty about the ranch house in Montana, about marriage, about maternity. In many ways it is our fault - a failure, more than 10 years after the model turned actress, to take her seriously. Serene smile and soaring eyebrows, she's just too beautiful, basically.

MacDowell will turn 40 in 1998 and she's just gone through another rite of passage on the road to credibility. She has filmed The End of Violence, a European-spirited arthouse movie, with the German director Wim Wenders. And that's a must-have on any worthy actor's CV - just as it is compulsory for the said European director to make at least one film the American way.

Of course, she's already worked with two British directors. But both Four Weddings and a Funeral and, less successfully, Greystoke were essentially entertainment. Wenders' is a film in which the plot is secondary to the theme; the nature of violence in the cinema. "The idea of dealing with violence rather than using at a device intrigued us," Wenders said. MacDowell plays wife to a producer of violent exploitation movies (Bill Pullman). When he is abducted, she slowly takes over his business and discovers her own capacity for violence.

MacDowell has wanted to work with Wenders, she says, since seeing Wings of Desire. She thought out the background of her character thoroughly. "In my imagination-she was probably a B-movie actress who gave up her career to marry someone really wealthy. I can hear the conversations she might have had. Her husband gave her a lot of verbal abuse, kept her away from the business. She feels unappreciated, like an expensive toy. Now she's given this opportunity...

People, she says "are always pointing fingers and blaming others for violence, but they aren't examining their own participation. There can be artistic, intelligent movies which talk about our violent society." As the character becomes more ruthless, her clothes become more extreme. Big diamonds, and a swimsuit that's practically a form of bondage. "So kinky."

"What I learned from Wim, I think, was freedom with my body. It was my decision to cut my hair and straighten it, which makes me look completely different, much more angular."

MacDowell is no longer having to apologise for her history as a model. She is hardly the only one to have come up in the acting profession that way, but it's difficult to stay off the subject of her looks entirely.

"I used to get so defensive and frustrated when I was asked about being a model. I've worked so hard to be considered as an actress but there's still this stigma, this stamp. It's ironic now that all these actresses are modelling..."

She made one bad mistake, with Greystoke, by appearing in a film when she really wasn't ready. Her diction was so bad she had to be dubbed by Glenn Close: and the reception she recived then has been compared to the way in which, after Showgirls, everyone turned on Elizabeth Berkeley.

But MacDowell went away, took classes, and fought back; rather like the way her character, in The End of Violence, keeps hammering away at the unfamiliar computer system which holds the key to her husband's industry. Andie MacDowell is big on determination: "I've turned out to be a better actress than perhaps I would have been because of Greystoke." Five years later, with sex, lies and videotape she was really on her way.

"I've grown up a lot since then. You grow so much with every child [she has three, from her marriage to former model Paul Qualley who now manages their ranch in Montana] and every movie. Every film you do is like an internship. You take something away with you. I'm more secure with myself now and that's something only time - and success - can give."

Born in South Carolina, MacDowell didn't always have such an enviable life. Her parents divorced when she was six and her mother slid into alcoholic dementia. She and her sisters had to be parents to their parent. "I'm not resentful. I know now that my mother wasn't mean - just ill," she has said.

It's MacDowell herself who makes a link between that troubled childhood and her acting - which spares you the trouble of the amateur psychology. And provides a let-out for the press; maybe their repeated questions about her background aren't too intrusive. Or at least, not idly so.

"Everything that I've done has been help by the drama in my life. I don't think I would be an actress without the helter-skelter I've experienced. It sort of makes who you are - gives you your character and your strength. The acting coach I've worked with over the years is very familiar with my history and he says that, for the kids in his class who come from a perfect background, it's very hard for them to find the emotion inside themselves."

Ironically, MacDowell's own surface today is all sweet graciousness. The shifts she once served in McDonald's seem a long way away.

"My own kids are growing up in a different situation but they're going to have struggles, just because of the kind of job I do. As a parent you can't do everything perfectly, but hopefully the imperfections will give your children character.

"Sometimes I feel I'd like to be a full-time Mom - except that I really like my job, and my independence. I feel like I have a split personality. Because my parents were divorced, part of me still wants to keep my strength. I think I would feel very vulnerable to not be making money. It's ingrained in me." The best thing about Four Weddings..., she says, "was that it gave me the money to wait for something good. I wanted to be in a picture I don't float in and out of."

She did Unstrung Hero, in which she played a dying young mother, with Diane Keaton as director. She liked having a woman director: "Growing up in a family of girls, I'm very comfortable with women. I've never been very comfortable with men, actually."

She worked with Robert Altman on Short Cuts, where, she says, "I regretted not being more complicated. I think I could have been harder on him and on myself. Then I could have explored the character deeper. Later, he [Altman] said he admired me for not being more difficult, but that's exactly what I regretted. I didn't make the same mistake on Wim's movie."

After Multiplicity and Groundhog Day she worked for Nora Ephron on Michael. Ephron said she was particularly good at playing opposite cold men - which seems to have been what happened with Wim Wenders.

Wenders: "I don't think I ever spoke less to any actress than Andie, but she never complained."

MacDowell: "I was scared of him at first, I was very chatty and Wim was so quiet. He just watched me. But he loosened up eventually."

Is there anything different about working with a European director? "It's a question of working with an artist rather than a business person. I've had that with Americans, with women, it's a question of their sensibility." But she may be taking a long-planned break in Europe - for the fun of it, and to introduce her children to another culture.

Very slowly, the emphasis on her looks may start to diminish: Peter Weir, with whom she made Green Card, "was the first man I ever worked with who told me not to lose weight. I don't want to have a face lift. But I don't want everyone else improving themselves and leaving me to look old.

"The man running for president of the Screen Actors Guild once told me that after 40, women fall into a dark tunnel. But recently there's been a change in that point of view. A friend of mine who's 53 told me that the age at which she felt strongest and sexiest was between 38 and 50. That gives me a lot more hope. I have wisdom and knowledge and I feel I'm more intelligent than I was 10 years ago, which gives me a sense of security. People don't believe you can do things until you show them, but maybe getting older will open the door to more interesting roles."

The End of Violence opens today.

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