The lady vanishes

She bared all for David Cronenberg and fell for Ian McKellen, but Deborah Unger remains elusive.

By Andrew Gumbel
Saturday 20 July 2013 02:58
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When Deborah Kara Unger was 11 and growing up in British Columbia, she was bright enough to have jumped two grades in school, but found herself intimidated by the older kids in her class and in need of a prop that would make her seem cool and immune from the playground toughs. She settled on the idea of standing with a fake cigarette - the long, hollowed out kind - like a femme fatale out of the movies.

It worked brilliantly. Soon, though, she was on to real cigarettes, which she bought by acquiring a fake ID card - a whole adventure in itself which is so buried in the past that she has trouble remembering quite how she did it. The smoking led to another immediate complication, which was that it cost money she couldn't easily beg off her parents. So she got herself a job at McDonald's. She was way too young for that, too, but thanks to her fake ID and her natural shyness, nobody noticed. "I was so fucking illegal it wasn't even funny," she told me, snorting with laughter.

A few years later, at 16, she was on an organised camping trip in the south of France when she got it into her head that she wanted to visit the casino in Monte Carlo. Luckily, she had packed a black dress, which she wore as she sneaked out of the campsite on her own and hopped on a bus from Nice to Monaco. She blagged her way into the casino - "it helped that I had very large knockers" - and spent the evening draping herself behind the roulette tables with a languour worthy of Jeanne Moreau in Jacques Demy's Baie des Anges. She didn't gamble, nor did she want to. She was content simply to circulate, and watch.

After studying philosphy and economics and the University of Victoria, she decided to go into acting and somehow had the brilliant idea of applying to the Australian National Institute of Art (as well as RADA and the Juilliard in New York). Even more remarkably, the National Institute accepted her - the first Canadian they had ever taken. Soon she was on TV (opposite Nicole Kidman), and in her first movie (opposite Russell Crowe). Hollywood beckoned, and in a few years she was picked for the kind of role that can either make an actor's career, or kill it off entirely - the part of Catherine Ballard in Crash, David Cronenberg's notorious study of warped sexuality, ennui and car collisions that spilled more newspaper ink, and generated more censorial outrage, than any film since Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.

Audiences armed with no knowledge other than Unger's frank on-screen fetishisation of flawed bodywork - both the automotive and the wounded, human kind - might have imagined her as a cold, sex obsessed nutjob. Some clearly did, to judge by some of the interview questions she has faced down the years. In fact, she was playing radically against type - who wouldn't have been, in that bleak landscape? - and, despite being the least experienced member of the cast, made herself most vulnerable and took the greatest risks. A couple of times she came close to being stumped by the material, both by its physical challenges and by the difficulty of capturing "a way of seeing that was completely foreign to me". For all the nudity and sexual moaning required of her on camera, Unger says she's the sort of person who, normally speaking, wouldn't so much as take off her shirt on the beach. And she didn't lose her virginity until she was "well out of the digits that begin with 1".

The experience with Cronenberg, though, "shifted me as an individual? I was almost more inspired as an individual than as an actor". Which, when you think that she's talking about one of the most unsettling, most reviled pieces of cinema of the past 30 years, is quite some statement.

It soon becomes apparent that Deborah Unger is one intriguing person, just as it becomes apparent, viewing even a part of the long catalogue of films to her name, that she is a stunningly accomplished actress. Like a lot of people, perhaps, I had not entirely registered who she was. She is certainly not A-list, either in terms of the parts she has had or the sensibility she brings to her work. But absence of fame may be no bad thing for an actress endowed with the sort of beauty that can be fashioned into almost any shape (check those arching eyebrows, for starters), as well as a singular knack for vanishing into her parts.

Even knowing I was going to interview her, and even though I spent several evenings watching films with her performances foremost in my mind, she still managed to make me forget who it was I was watching on screen. Catherine Ballard doesn't have a whole lot in common with Christine, the enigmatic waitress who goads Michael Douglas into the existential adventure of his life in The Game, or with the fat alcoholic mother she plays in Thirteen, or with Bekkie Stander, the uncomprehending wife of a South African police captain so revolted by apartheid that he becomes a serial bank robber (in the forthcoming Stander, directed by Bronwen Hughes). None of these, in turn, seem in any particular way connected to the easy-going, warm voice of the Deborah who fixed our appointment on the phone, or to the unassuming, breezily engaging woman who showed up punctually in a Santa Monica hotel lobby, hoping to spot the reporter with curly hair and glasses quickly so she could order a badly needed drink.

She'd just come from an on-camera interview for a documentary about censorship in film, for which she had prepared meticulously, reading articles and books and thinking hard about her experience of making Crash and why the film caused such an outcry. (The answer, she thinks, has less to do with sex or violence than it does with the lack of a moral point of view and the deliberately unsettling absence of a contextual frame within which to relate to the characters.) She had prepared for our meeting, too; no-one else I've interviewed has ever taken the trouble to Google me, and read articles of mine, and read online discussions of those articles, and then offer insights and ideas and jokes about them all. If I had had the impression she was trying too hard, it might have unnerved me, but instead it felt perfectly natural. This meticulousness, clearly, is just part of who she is.

Another insight into her professional attitude came in a five-and-a-half minute compilation DVD that she sent me - a sort of greatest hits tape of some of her 26 screen credits. Although this was supposed to be a strictly promotional vehicle, it was striking how much of the footage was of her co-stars - including the long climactic moment in The Game when Michael Douglas's character falls from a skyscraper like Icarus tumbling into the sea. Unger explained this as contextualisation of her own acting. To me, though, it also bespoke a touching generosity towards her fellow players, the sense that without them her performance meant nothing. She told me she had wanted to include a scene from a film she made with Gena Rowlands called The Weekend, a scene of the two of them on a raft, but couldn't figure out a way of cutting it up.

In similar fashion, the film we were primarily meeting to discuss, the small Canadian chamber piece Emile, triggered a lengthy tribute to her co-star Ian McKellen, whom she described unreservedly as "my favourite actor I've worked with". The film had next to no budget, a volunteer crew, and one tiny trailer "the size of a dining table" that she and McKellen had to share with just a broken plastic accordion divider between them. "There was no privacy, it was like living in a toilet," she said. But all that paled next to the experience of working with that rare species - "an intelligent, humorous man with soft lips" - and a great actor to boot. "By the end," she said, "I wanted to be related to him so we could have semi-annual occasions to attend together."

McKellen plays a fussy academic bachelor living in London, the eponymous Emile, who returns to his native Canada to accept an honorary degree. He takes the opportunity to stay with his niece Nadia (Unger), whom he has never met, and her 10-year-old daughter. Nadia is pent up, aggressive, and resistant to emotional warmth, while Emile is merely awkward and lost in memories he feels he cannot share. Soon it emerges the two characters are at opposing ends of a traumatic family story of bereavement and betrayal. Instead of a showdown, they opt for something quieter, something at once more distant and more conciliatory.

The story is clunky in places, but the real delight is in watching two superb actors on cracking form. Unger brings nuance and understanding to a character she describes frankly as "a pretty crappy femme". She, in turn, marvelled at the "brilliance"of McKellen's grasp of Emile. Her fondest memory of the lightning-fast shoot was something that ended up on the cutting room floor, a Gone With The Wind kiss over a haystack between Emile and Nadia's mother, also played by Unger. Quite apart from what this scene contributed to the audience's understanding of Emile's motivations, it was also a sensational kiss - "and I've kissed a few men". McKellen, she noted gleefully, "is a very sexy man".

From Emile, our conversation veered in a hundred different directions. She railed against advertising (she turned down the chance to make a cigarette commercial in Germany, calling it "a good business to go into if you want to sell your soul"), touched on religion (she is, she says, a second-generation agnostic "selfish enough to hanker after the day when we find out we aren't going to die") and rattled through some intriguing thoughts on politics (America, she suggested, is really the world's teenager, celebrated for its virility, optimism and youthful fearlessness that the grown-ups pray won't lead to some giant screw-up).

In some ways, I thought as we sat sipping drinks in our poolside cabana on a warm Californian night (we were outdoors so Unger could smoke, a habit she has never dropped), this wasn't much like an interview at all, more like an unwinding session at the end of a busy day. Then again, Unger doesn't play by the usual Hollywood rules, doesn't have a publicist to hover over her and keep an eye on the time, doesn't - despite the insistent ministrations of a waiter who recognised her from The Game and from Mel Gibson's Payback - play the movie star game in any form. Her great privilege as an actor, in fact, is to be the consummate observer, not the one being observed. Or, as she put it: "I'm not investigated as much as I get to investigate other people."

Much of that investigation takes place overseas, which is where film shoots seem to be these days. Spending time in South Africa for Stander made an indelible impression, as she shuttled between the hotel where Nelson Mandela wrote his memoirs - "a protected Eden," she called it - and the Wild West world outside its gates. Bizarrely, her two best friends from that shoot were her black driver, who gladly took a different production-owned Mercedes home to Soweto every week, and one of her Afrikaaner fellow actors, with whom she disagreed furiously about politics but loved anyway. In Romania, where she shot the as yet unreleased One Point O, the desperation of Bucharest street life rubbed right up against the production. She was once arrested in Belgrade, for taking photographs the military disapproved of, and spent six nerve-racking hours on the airport tarmac in Nairobi while anti-government rebels took potshots from the bushes.

In many ways, she has a charmed life - admired by her peers, never short of interesting work, and forever challenged by new surroundings. At the same time, she remains refreshingly detached from the craziness of Hollywood. She has been happily living with her boyfriend, who is not in the film business, for the past four years. In fact, she says, she's never dated anyone from the industry.

Did she ever wish she was better known, that her work received wider recognition? She seemed to find the notion vaguely absurd, haring off on an extended riff about the unlikely celebrity of Desmond Tutu, of all people, who she said sometimes risked becoming a slight caricature of himself with his endlessly mirthful ho-ho-ho of a laugh. "It's very easy for cultural icons to become anecdotal," she reflected. Besides, it is almost impossible to loved by everyone.

"I don't know of anything that everyone in the world appreciates," she said. And added, deadpanning: "Except for Air, of course."

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