Brooke Shields: Brave New Brooke

She's the best thing about the glossy new comedy The Bachelor, but it's in small, independent films that Suddenly Susan star Brooke Shields hopes to show what she's made of. Here, Brooke talks to writer/director James Toback about rap, religion, Republicans, remarriage and the upcoming film she did with him, Black and White.

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When I was putting together the cast for my film Black and White, a cinematic excursion into the hip-hop phenomenon and the new ways in which white and black kids are mixing, most of the roles fell into place fairly quickly with people ranging from Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr. to Mike Tyson and several members of the Wu-Tang Clan. The one essential character that remained uncast was the wife of the gay character Robert played, a video journalist who is making, within the film, a documentary on white prep school teens who long to become part of the hip-hop world. When I learned that Brooke Shields's agent had called to say Brooke was interested in joining the cast, I was surprised and intrigued.

Brooke Shields's entire career has been the quintessence of wholesome American life and she is now at the center of that most centrist of American entertainment forums, the TV sitcom. My own directorial work, comprising eight films from Fingers to Two Girls and a Guy, seemed, to paraphrase Henry Miller, "a gob of spit in the face of" everything Brooke Shields appeared to represent. Obviously I had to meet with her.

I was immediately charmed by Brooke's intelligence, good humor and innate decency, and I soon decided this was one of those odd conjunctions from which fruitful collaborations so often arise. I was not disappointed. Brooke improvised her way into the creation of an original, complex character, and her performance in the film is astonishing. When we were shooting, one scene in particular brought home to me how good she really was.

This was the set-up: As Brooke's character was filming with her Minicam, Robert's character had come on to Mike Tyson, and Mike had choked him and knocked him to the floor. My direction to Brooke was to respond as she wished. What she did was approach Mike tentatively, then more confidently. Mike said to her, "I've been in the penitentiary. They say I raped someone. I don't need no white bitch causing me trouble." Instead of being intimidated, Brooke looked him in the eyes seductively and told him he was beautiful. The whole scene was such a remarkable piece of improvisation that I decided to begin my interview with Brooke by asking her what she was thinking while she was doing it.

JAMES TOBACK: So, what went on in your mind in the scene with Mike Tyson, and why did you react as you did?

BROOKE SHIELDS: I began by trying to diffuse Mike's anger and apologize for Robert's advances. The strange part was discerning what was improv and what was reality. I chose to believe it all as reality. I knew he wasn't acting, yet the role-play itself had incited raw emotion and anger in him. All of a sudden he appeared beautiful and sad. He only softened when I told him he looked beautiful. I think he thought I might be lying, but I wasn't. I wasn't coming on to him, either. What transpired between us was a mix of sympathy, fear, attraction and the maternal.

Q: You did feel fear?

A: Yes. I was afraid he could turn at any minute, but fear didn't override my desire to be different in his eyes, different than the "white bitch" he accused me of being.

Q: What comes across in the film is an odd mixture of seductiveness and affection that clearly moves him and confuses him.

A: Isn't that the power that lies at the heart of being maternal?

Q: Certainly in oedipal relationships! In any case, what made you so eager to leap into a film with this kind of improvisation in it, when all of your previous acting experiences had relied so firmly on a script?

A: I wanted to see how far I could go unmonitored. My defenses are too readily available to me and I crave being shaken out of safety.

Q: Don't you worry about jeopardizing your "image"?

A: I worry more about not jeopardizing my "image."

Q: What about the general perception of you as the Ivory Snow baby growing up into the quintessential Middle American white princess?

A: I just finished the new Ivory campaign and our main message is one of purity. What seems to be at the heart and soul of all of this--whether it's the Wu-Tang Clan or an Ivory ad--is the raw self with the exterior stripped away.

Q: You wore dreadlocks for the movie. Are you "going black," or is this just a phase?

A: Come on. The truth is I'm not black, but I feel very accepted by the black culture. The music, the style and the general pride move me. Growing up in New York City, the black neighborhoods always represented more of a sense of history and community to me than anything I knew firsthand. I felt more in my own skin wearing dreads than I ever did sporting big '80s hair-dos. I've never felt quite as beautiful as I did wearing dreads. I felt sexy and strong off camera, more accepted and less pristine. It was the most versatile hairstyle I've ever had. If I could, I'd have them all the time. I only wish 20 percent of my hair hadn't fallen out in the process.

Q: I first became aware of you when you were in Pretty Baby, and then again in the "nothing comes between me and my Calvins" ads, both of which were provocative considering that you were, what? Twelve?

A: Twelve and fourteen. Both those cases perfectly represent my innocence at the time.

Q: Are you saying you were innocent of all sexual implications?

A: As far as Pretty Baby is concerned, I grew up seeing the world of prostitution on 42nd Street and Pretty Baby's version of Storyville in the 1910s was a dreamworld by comparison. I saw nothing sordid in it.

Q: What did you think of the prostitutes on 42nd Street?

A: I thought they were alone and unprotected. The girls in Pretty Baby seemed happy, whereas the girls and guys on 42nd Street seemed like sad characters.

Q: Did you have any kind of romantic life back then or were you entirely sheltered?

A: There was a boy I had a crush on back home and he gave me his necklace to wear. But at that point I had only French-kissed a boy once!

Q: Why only once?

A: Because it was really sloppy and he planned it all too much. At a party he asked me if I wanted to go to the back room. He had set up the pillows and closed the blinds. And soon the mother of the house kicked us out.

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