Moira Kelly: Sister Act

A casting director told me that when you're with Moira Kelly, it's like sitting in a room with Robert De Niro or Winona Ryder--you sense a major talent.

Although I personally believe that Winona would need a highchair to sit in the same room with Bobby, I understood what the woman meant: they have presence. But Kelly, tucked into the corner of her publicist's office, leafing nervously through a picture book on Hollywood, is exuding all the charisma of a high-school student who's been summoned to see the principal. "I tend to be quiet when it comes to the business," she admits.

"Hollywood scares me. Interviews scare me." It's been a year since Movieline chose Kelly as one of our hottest young actors, and I want to find out if she's been living up to the hype. I show her last year's article, in which industry insiders tossed around terms like "intoxicating . . . a major star."

"Uh--" she says quietly. "My hair was longer then." Finally she sighs unconvincingly, "It's very flattering," and sinks into the cushions on the couch.

"Not only that," I push on, ignoring her embarrassment, "but I keep running into guys who admit they've fallen for you in a big way. They think you're, you know, a babe--but in a smart way." Finally, Kelly giggles. "That always makes me laugh, because growing up, I was never popular. At school in New York, I was a tomboy-slash-nerd. So all this comes as a shock. I look at myself and go, me? Moira? They have no idea." Ah, but they like what they think they see, and in the movies, that's enough.

Kelly's combination of dark Irish beauty and intelligence is often more watchable than her films. In this last year, she's been one of the few survivors of David Lynch's horrendous Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. In The Cutting Edge, a by-the-numbers romance, she brought depth to her arrogant poor-little-rich-girl Olympic skater--you found yourself drawn to her despite her nastiness, and kept watching to discover why. In the exceedingly reverent biopic Chaplin, she plays both Hetty Kelly, Charlie's first love, and Oona O'Neill, the last and most substantial of his wives. The HBO feature film Daybreak, an Orwellian futuristic drama in which she co-stars with Cuba Gooding Jr., is due out this spring--I have no doubt she'll survive that as well.

But I admit to being a bit puzzled when Kelly, a "good Irish-Catholic girl," tells me she consults a priest when she's worried about the morality of potential roles. I can envision this starting a trend in Young Hollywood ("Well, my priest advised Coppola, and he says . . ."), but for the moment, it's got to be unique. Isn't morality in Hollywood an oxymoron? "It's hard," says Kelly. "There are very few scripts I come across that have no nudity or violence."

Kelly admired The Cutting Edge because it was "a family film. I like it when Hollywood can pull off a love story without all the unnecessary scenes." She has no patience for the film biz's favorite staples, sex and violence. "You can see it on the news, you can see it on the street, if that's what you want . . . I think there should be limits to what is shown and what is portrayed." I appreciate it when an actor has a defiantly un-Hollywood perspective on any subject, and Kelly has more than one. On nuns: "I can't think of a better thing to want to be"; on women becoming priests: "I don't believe in that at all . . . I'm old fashioned"; on Madonna and Sinead O'Connor's anti-Catholic agendas: "I personally believe that it's a lack of love and caring in their own lives that has made them so shallow as to just see the surface rather than seeing that religion and gearing towards the spiritual is important for all people." So there.

How does Kelly finally survive in sin-tillating Tinseltown? "I kind of take the lesser of all evils," she admits. "One does have to work." Here, moral fiber meets practical Catholic work ethic: "I hate being without a job. After the last film, I was seriously thinking about going to McDonald's and working part time." Really? She nods adamantly. "I love to work. I'll clean windows. I'll do anything."