James plays Malerie Sandow, the buttoned-down daughter of a Baptist preacher (William Hurt) in Corpus Christi, Texas. Along comes the mysterious Elvis Valderez (Gael García Bernal), freshly discharged from the US Navy. A secret relationship begins. Malerie is unaware that Elvis is actually her half-brother, the result of her father's dalliance with a prostitute in his wild-oats days before he found God.
Malerie Sandow - gawky, ordinary-looking, God-fearin', bashful, Southern - is only 16. Pell James - a smiley, brainy and striking indie music fan who oozes buzzy New York vigour and Los Angeles savvy - was 27 when she made The King. She hadn't done many films before, far less a lead role. Her most high- profile jobs, prior to The King, were an Ikea ad directed by Wes (The Royal Tenenbaums) Anderson, and a blink-and-you'll-miss-it scene in Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers. The lack of acting chops means this grown woman's makeover as an adolescent is all the more revelational. As winning, striking and thoroughly credible as Felicity Huffman's recent portrayal of a pre-op male transsexual in Transamerica. That's how good the "novice" James is.
Even if she didn't also have a looming role in David Fincher's much-anticipated, $80m serial killer flick Zodiac, her wonderful and courageous performance in The King will make Pell James one of the breakout film stars of 2006.
To try to secure an audition for the part, "I wrote a journal of the character when I sent in my showreel," James says over afternoon tea in the Château Marmont in Los Angeles. Her CV mostly comprised bit parts in TV shows such as Law & Order. "And on TV they make you wear tons and tons of make-up and it's always really goofy lighting - so you look older. So I wrote this 30-page journal of Malerie's and put little stickers on it, and pictures of the babies she watched in church. Totally fleshed her out from my point of view. It was the extra mile to go."
She was living in New York at the time of the audition, and attended Baptist church there to research the role. "It's a different, different world," she says, wide-eyed. Many more experienced actresses tried out for the role, notes James Marsh, director and co-writer of The King with Milo Addica (Monster's Ball, Birth). But James was "the most intriguing of all of them. You wanted someone who felt psychologically vulnerable. Malerie had to be awkward and clumsy, and Pell worked at that very hard. She's very graceful but she developed a way of walking where she's almost hiding herself in her body.
"We were asking a sophisticated young woman to become an unsophisticated young girl," the director says of the demands he placed on James. "I wanted her to be a very plain person, less attractive. She shouldn't be someone everyone in town is chasing."
Once on location in Texas, James continued to focus on the character. She bought shoes and clothes for Malerie in Austin thrift stores, "which are more regional [ie uncool] than in LA or New York". Nonetheless, having endured her fair share of disappointments in her stop-start career, she was "nervous and paranoid" about the shoot. At any minute someone was going to clock the ridiculousness of her trying to jump half a generation backwards.
"While we were rehearsing, a young girl came into our hotel with her mom - and I was convinced the part had been recast. But then a girls' volleyball team came in. They were all at high school - and they looked so much more developed than me," she says with a mortified smile. "They had bigger breasts, they had more make-up, and more sass. They were, like, on the make!"
She needn't have worried either way. Marsh had insisted that he not know her real age, for fear the knowledge might distract his direction of his young lead actress (he only found out at the end-of-shoot party, when she wrote on his Thank You card in bold black marker pen, "I'm 27!"). But when he witnessed James talking with one of the teenage volleyball players, he was encouraged to note that James blended in perfectly.
The King is an intense, claustrophobic film, the Texan heat, religious ardour and sexual tension dripping from the screen. It's never less than gripping. Bernal, in his first full English-language role, is as good as ever.
"The King is about borders between human beings," he says with typical impassioned flair. "Faith ... redemption ... It conveys all these things into a very simple, classical little tragedy." Pell James, he adds, understood this completely, and the pair's brilliant, nuanced performances give their characters' relationship a tender, loving feel - even as we know that it's incestuous, wince at the no-holds-barred sex scenes, and sense that disaster surely lies ahead.
This believability in the face of a potentially overwrought storyline is the making of The King. To plot Malerie's journey from Christian virgin to steamed-up infatuation, James fully inhabited the role of Malerie. Or vice versa. "I made sure my art was finely woven and connected from each scene to the next. Even scenes that weren't filmed - or written."
As Milo Addica says, "The King and all its elements walked a knife-edge. It could have fallen into melodramatic bullshit or something that really touched the dark places in all of us. Pell maintained the sincerity of the piece as a whole by not uttering a single false note. She was gracious to her fellow cast and came prepared to do the work, always in the trenches."
Lest all this conjure an image of an intense, sober young woman afflicted with a serious case of method acting, the Pell James taking tea this overcast spring afternoon in Los Angeles is unassuming, friendly and excitable. You wouldn't know her from The King. It's only because she's the unaccompanied woman in the poncey Château Marmont tearoom that I recognise her as Pell James. The slight, f almost elfin 28-year-old in student-chic scribbling in a notebook is the least "Hollywood" person in the room.
She opted to meet in the legendary Sunset Boulevard hotel in part because it's something like home - this was her base for her first few weeks in LA. She came here from New York for a couple of auditions and ended up staying. This was 18 months ago, but she's only just had her records, books and letters dating from high school shipped out.
Why LA when she calls New York home? Because it's the obligatory move for the actor on the rise?
"Twofold. Financially it's hard to live in New York and get back here [for auditions]. And also, the great thing about working in LA is you constantly get to test with other actors and work with directors in the room. You end up auditioning more than you do working - but if you look at that as your work, it's a much better job than sitting in my apartment in New York and filming myself for screen tests and not really acting. It's this weird process that's like further removing myself from it."
In New York she'd have to wrangle friends to read her scripts with her. "They never know whether to really go for it," she laughs. "If it's a horror movie they're like, 'Do I scream? Are you really killing me?'" She sighs. "It doesn't feel like acting. It feels like some weird mail-order attempt."
She grew up in rural Virginia, just beyond the Washington Beltway, the capital's peripheral highway. She was named Pell in tribute to the surname of her grandfather, who was born in America to Belgian parents. She has three older sisters. "I'm the runt of the family! I'm so petite. I always feel little. And it's not like I look very old. And I never feel like I'm the hot chick. So those aspects of Malerie weren't hard."
There was no moment of epiphany as a child: acting was just something "I did when I was little and something I always wanted to do". But she didn't perform at school - "All they did was weird musicals and I'm not a singer. And it was a weird group of people involved, like a cult."
Aged 19 she moved to New York. She attended college for a year while she worked to save up sufficient funds to enrol in New York University's prestigious theatre programme. "It was hard and scary and fun. I worked in restaurants and delivered Chinese food. I had a really good time." But she left without completing the course ("I just didn't like the programme"). Plus, the fees were prohibitive: she's still paying off a $40,000 debt arising from her two years at NYU.
She tried to make it as a working actress. A commercial here (she still gets paid holding fees for an as-yet-unaired ad she did for the New York Lottery), a low-budget film there (none we've heard of). There were highs: landing a part in a Sidney Lumet thriller, Strip Search, for HBO. And there were lows: being cut out of said TV movie and not being told about it.
She says her family were supportive of her stuttering career, even though her sisters were settled down and her parents had serious, proper jobs: mum, a substance abuse counsellor; dad, a lawyer; her stepdad, a retired State Department official.
"I'm convinced he was a spy," she says. "He denies it. But I'm sure he has some title. I've never learnt it."
Have you seen ...?
"Austin Powers?" she interrupts.
I was going to say Meet The Parents. Does he have a hi-tech den like De Niro's character?
"No, he's not like that," she laughs. "But he lived in Russia and Poland during the Eighties - an attaché."
He's totally a spy!
"Yeah!" she winces. "He's gonna get in trouble for this. He told me not to talk about it."
Some other things Pell James isn't supposed to talk about (but can't help herself): writing her Malerie journal. The audition where she was asked, at the last minute, if she was up for a topless lesbian scene. The fact that she used to lie on her CV, inserting films she'd never been in. "It probably wasn't the best thing in the world to do," she flushes, "but I never got caught. It's the Catch-22: you have to have been in a few things to get something." Her desperation to get a film, a proper film, right up until the moment she landed The King.
Some things she is happy to talk about: her love of the CDs released by the Chicago record label Drag City (Will Oldham, Jim O'Rourke), which is run by friends of hers. Her new film Fanboys, which she finished the day before we met, and is about some kids obsessed with Star Wars. She plays a nice prostitute. "A hooker with a heart, imagine that?" she hoots. "I think it's the first time." How she'd like to be a "punch-up" writer, improving comedy scripts, and how she's obsessed with Little Britain. "I love Lou and Andy and Vicky Pollard. But who's Dennis Waterman?"
Now she has to dash - it's William Hurt's birthday dinner tonight, and she feels bad that she hasn't baked the cake like she said she would. But before she goes she talks about the directors who are helping shape her as one of the most outstanding new actresses around.
Late last year she worked with David Fincher, of whom she's a huge fan. Zodiac takes the brilliant, stylised director back to the gritty, psychological terrain of 7even. It's about a series of unsolved murders in the San Francisco in the late Sixties and stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo. James plays one of the victims, Cecelia Shepard. Another intense role then.
"Yep," she says brightly. "It was bizarre - we filmed it where she actually got killed, and it was almost exactly the anniversary of it happening. I get hog-tied and stabbed to death. But it wasn't so bad. I had a full bodysuit and kneepads and everything. It was like doing gymnastics." Anyway, she spoke with Fincher the other day and he assured her that the almost-completed film is more "sad than blood and guts and gore".
Then there's Jim Jarmusch. Working with him and Bill Murray on Broken Flowers (she played florist Sun Green) was awesome. "I was just trying to breathe! That was so intimidating - especially as I thought I'd be fine since I'd just done with filming The King."
Finally, after years of trying, Pell James felt like she was in the right place.
"I had this confidence: OK, I work! I am an actor!" she beams. "As opposed to: I am an extra! Or: I was in a tampon commercial! Ha ha!"
'The King' is released on Friday
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