Embeth Davidtz: Signal From the Second Tier
Hollywood's unforgiving eagerness to have what's hottest can leave some very gifted actresses out in the cold - witness Embeth Davidtz.
Imagine you're legendary director Robert Altman. You're casting The Gingerbread Man, a rain-soaked, erotic thriller based on the John Grisham formula--you know, Southern lawyer overreaches and is lured into a web of intrigue and murder. You've already hired Kenneth Branagh as the lawyer. Now you need an actress who can play Southern trailer trash, someone sexy and seedy who isn't afraid of full frontal nudity. Do you call Jennifer Jason Leigh? Elisabeth Shue?
Nope. You call Embeth Davidtz, the 31-year-old, Indiana-born, South Africa-raised actress who thinks Americans are much too uptight about nudity. "It's batty. You show one bit of nipple and it's all over. What's so bad about a woman's body?"
PolyGram, the producing studio, upon hearing of Altman's choice, made noises about wanting an actress with a bigger resume. Says Davidtz, "I wonder if the fact that they didn't want me made Bob want me all the more. At any rate, he put himself out there for me and afterwards, I felt I had something to prove."
Davidtz had already proved herself for another legendary director, Steven Spielberg, who, after seeing her in a TV miniseries, cast her as Helen Hirsch, Ralph Fiennes's cleaning lady/love slave in Schindler's List. Though her part was small, the Schindler phenomenon was so big everybody connected to the film basked in its glory. "I was amazed at the rosy glow that can be around one when you're in a film that's done well," says Davidtz in her elegant and lilting South African accent. We're having afternoon tea at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica. The lobby is brushstroked by sunlight which makes the rosy glow literal as Davidtz recalls those sanguine days. "Producers vied to be my friend. They wanted to take me to lunch and dinner and away for weekends. I thought, 'How lovely. This town loves me. Isn't it nice to be in America.'"
Then it came time for Davidtz to choose her next role. Expectations were high. She elected to do Murder in the First, which starred Christian Slater and about which she has little to say. Then she did the Merchant Ivory film Feast of July, about which she says, "When no one went to see it, there came the subtle chill. It was harder to get people on the phone." As if to mimic Davidtz's career slide, the lobby's rosy glow fades as the sun eases below the horizon. "There came this crushing realization that Schindler's List was now 19 months old and I wasn't hot anymore. I was heartbroken. But, in a way, it was good. I needed to learn how to navigate my way through this business. I needed to lose my virginity in this town."
You could say she lost it twice, since she did get what might have been a successful part--in Danny DeVito's kid pic Matilda--only to have an unpleasant experience in a movie that was disappointing. "The kids would stand at the bloody craft services table eating sweets and then they'd start bouncing off the walls. The chaos turned me upside down."
All this after what had not been an easy start in Hollywood to begin with. Armed with a degree in English lit, theater experience and $3,000, Davidtz arrived in Los Angeles in 1991, knowing no one. "When I first walked down Melrose [Avenue] I was struck by its post-apocalyptic ugliness, and what dawned on me then was the enormity of what it means to begin again with nothing. I was in a state of terror about surviving." She took a waitress job at (where else?) the Nowhere Cafe and worked in telemarketing for the Los Angeles Opera.
One night, driving home in the rain, her VW bug stalled in the middle lanes of the Santa Monica Freeway and she had to make her way trudging along surface streets "in a very dodgy neighborhood near Western and Beverly." She stuck out her thumb. A car stopped. "I was crying and drenched, and I said to the guy, 'I hope you're not some fucking crazy who could kill me, and if you're not, could you please give me a ride home?'" He did. A month later, Davidtz got a job in Sam Raimi's film Army of Darkness, but it paid so little that afterwards she had to go back to waitressing. Given her struggles you can see why this actress is drawn to roles like Helen in Schindler's List and the troubled character she played in The Gingerbread Man.
Since Davidtz doesn't have much to say about the film she recently starred in with Denzel Washington, Fallen ("It's a big, glitzy studio production"), I ask her to compare the filmmakers she's clearly enjoyed working with most, Altman and Spielberg. "They're polar opposites. Bob gives you the space to do what you want to do, he forces you to keep searching, and he doesn't smother you with love and affection. Steven is controlling. He knows what he wants and he's very specific, and when you get it, he hugs you and tells you it was great."
In talking to Davidtz, you get a sense of the struggle faced by actresses in the second tier. She frets that she hasn't been quite passionate enough when pursuing these coveted roles. "The smartest people I know have that extra edge. The risk is always there that you'll look terribly undignified and slobbering, and inside I cringe about that, but I should be more aggressive. I wonder how I could be ... without dressing up as Catwoman."
"I have nothing lined up except a safari in Botswana."
"What would you like to say to your fans?"
"Where are you? Who are you?"
Jeff Lantos interviewed Michael Jai White for the September '97 issue of Movieline.