Not many movie stars abandon a career in favour of college, but Elisabeth Shue has never been one to follow the Hollywood herd.
"I've always been on the outside of wherever the fun was supposed to be in terms of Hollywood," says the actress. "I think the perception of the fun the actors were having in the Eighties was probably different from the actual experience, but I was never a part of that."
Shue's trademark sweet-natured, girl-next-door appeal contributed to her landing parts in the Eighties classics The Karate Kid, Adventures in Babysitting and Cocktail.
After a few misfires, her star status went under the radar for a few years. Yet she returned, guns blazing, proving her talent in the meaty role of a prostitute in love with an alcoholic (Nicolas Cage), in Mike Figgis's Leaving Las Vegas. The critics raved; audiences cheered, but Shue failed to win the Bafta and the Oscar in 1996.
Priorities shifted slightly when she married the documentary maker Davis Guggenheim, and had two children, Miles, now seven, and Stella, four. After dabbling in and out of the industry, Shue considered this would be an ideal time to enrol at Harvard University, to complete her political science degree, which she neglected in 1987 when her career was white hot.
At the luxurious Casa Del Mar Hotel in Santa Monica, where we meet to discuss her new thriller, Hide and Seek, Shue clarifies her reasons for revisiting her books.
"I knew I wanted to go back, before I had too many more kids," she says. "And I just knew the longer I waited, the less chance there was I was ever going to finish my degree. It felt like a good time to take a break.
"I was feeling a little bit disconnected from the kind of work I was being offered. Then I began to wonder whether acting was the right thing for me. Then it hit me how much I missed learning, which was something that had always made me feel more connected to the real world. I just knew I had to go back." Not only did returning to Harvard mean putting her career on hold, but Shue had to relocate her family to the East Coast. "It wasn't easy at first," she concedes. "I did make friends [at Harvard], but I couldn't hang out the way I used to when I was in my twenties, I had to go home and take care of my kids at the end of day. But it was really nice being with kids who were different ages."
Clapping her hands in a child-like manner, Shue proudly says: "Now I can say, 'I'm a graduate.' It was fun to wear the cap and gown, and the ceremony was very emotional for me."
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When Shue returned to LA, she even toyed with the idea of leaving acting in favour of teaching, but changed her mind after reading a script for Amy and Isabelle, the fifth instalment of the Emmy award-winning series of literary adaptations produced by Oprah Winfrey. "I am extremely proud of that film, which no one ever saw, so it's a good lesson that you do work for yourself and not necessarily for the end result," she says.
Staring into the freckled face of the 41-year-old actress, it's unnerving how much Shue has defied Father Time. Dressed in a beige cashmere sweater and jeans, she looks the same as when she starred in the Back to the Future movies, almost 15 years ago. What's her secret?
"Téa Leoni and I made a pact that we were not going to use any Botox," she says, with a hearty laugh. "When we feel weak about Botox or surgery, we'll call each other for support. Whenever we see each other, we're like: 'We're not going to do it. We're going down, wrinkles and all!'"
Most actresses over 40 complain there is a lack of roles for women, but Shue has a more positive approach. "I think those of us over 40 need to find good scripts and raise the money in order to tell the stories that need to be told, instead of sitting back and moaning: 'Oh, there are no parts... Why doesn't the phone ring?' I really want to be a part of changing that."
In the double-standard profession where men "mature like a fine wine" and women become "less desirable" at every birthday, Shue says turning 40 was not as traumatic as she had envisaged. "I really think the forties are the greatest years for any woman, because you have a real sense of yourself. I'm much more aggressive in what I want to do in my life."
Shue was raised with three brothers in a tightly knit middle-class family in New Jersey. Her parents divorced when she was nine, and her eldest brother, Will, who attended Harvard Medical School, adopted the role of a surrogate father to Shue. She also formed intense bonds with her two younger brothers, Andrew, a star on the TV soap Melrose Place, and John, also a Harvard graduate. But at their summer house in Maine a family tragedy changed Shue forever. Will, two days before turning 27, was clinging to a rope, swinging over a pond. But the rope broke, and he was impaled on the branches of a tree. He died as his siblings watched helplessly.
Shue, who rarely speaks of the freak accident, expressed her emotions years later: "During the years of healing, the example of Will's life has come so close to me. He was unafraid and exuberant, embracing life with his arms wide open, cherishing what's important, family and friends, instead of being scared of being vulnerable. My connection to joy and pain, to the beauty of feeling, is so much greater and deeper now."
She admits Robert De Niro was the main attraction when she signed on for the new psychological drama Hide and Seek. "I was very fortunate to get to know him. There was definitely a great deal of respect for him, and at times, I was in awe. But there was no intimidation, and I was quite surprised as to how comical he was on the set."
Hide and Seek tells the story of a recent widower, Dr Calloway (De Niro), who feels powerless to console his daughter, Emily (Dakota Fanning), and thinks a move to a remote village in upstate New York will do the trick. Introverted Emily doesn't have any friends to play with, and creates an imaginary friend named Charlie. Dr Calloway befriends a woman (Shue), to the annoyance of his daughter who thinks she's trying replace her mother. A few unsolved murders later and the audience wonders if Emily is acting out, or perhaps Charlie isn't imaginary after all?
Shue jokes that this is not a film her son will be watching. "He watched Adventures in Babysitting the other day, and I forgot that I used a curse word in that movie," she says. "There's a scene where she has to protect the kids on a train, and she screams: 'Don't fuck with the babysitter!' At the time, my dad wrote me a letter saying I shouldn't swear, because children will be watching this film for years and I'd be a bad role model.
"I remember telling him: 'I have to say it, because I'm acting it out to be tough.' So now my son is running around the house shouting that word. I was like: 'Oh my God, my dad was right!'"
'Hide and Seek' is released on 25 February
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