Mind Games

Smart moves: "I'd like to play someone who isn't particularly well educated," says the 31-year-old star of A Beautiful Mind. "I keep playing scientists and smart girls."Photo: Anne Menke

Catching up with Jennifer Connelly these days is largely a matter of locating her between awards shows. As she settled into a West Village restaurant recently for a drink, appearances at the American Film Institute and Broadcast Film Critics awards (she won at both) were already behind her. Just ahead lay the Golden Globes (which she would also win, a few days later) as well as nominations from the Screen Actors Guild, the Chicago Film Critics, and, it’s likely, the Academy Awards. Her role as Alicia Nash, opposite Russell Crowe, in Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind has unexpectedly gunned a career that until the past few years had mainly languished in forgettable teen films. After more than twenty movies, Connelly’s impact still had more to do with her astonishing beauty – exploited onscreen, slavishly documented on the many Websites devoted to her – than with the actual performances she’d given. But suddenly, things have changed.

“The Broadcast Film Critics was last weekend,” she says. “It was fun. I got nervous – getting up, saying something. I suddenly reverted back to being a shy 8-year-old. I had no sense of time. I thought, should I just get gracefully off the stage? Or would that be dashing off, like a terrified bunny rabbit?”

And yet: The day before, columnist Liz Smith had published an item about how mutually attentive Connelly and Crowe had been at the Critics Choice Awards, accompanied by a photo of the two captioned “cozy and canoodling.” Can Connelly imagine seeing that in the papers a year ago?

“I don’t know,” she replies, twirling a pensive straw. “It’s him, too – it’s Russell. The press likes to focus on that aspect of his life.” She laughs. “I was equally affectionate that night with my agent – I kissed her, and gave her plenty of hugs. But they’re not gonna write that I’m having a lesbian relationship with my agent. Not yet.

“It’s someone making something up,” she concludes, shrugging off the subject. “It’s not worth spending time worrying about.”

“She’s a strong woman, and she’s a deep thinker,” says Ron Howard. “I don’t see her as the most trusting person in the world – there’s a shyness, a reserve. “The director met Connelly when he produced the 1997 romantic comedy Inventing the Abbotts, in which she’d “taken a fairly simply written character and given her a lot of dimension.” But even for Howard, the Connelly career hadn’t gelled. “I wasn’t tracking her,” he admits. “She was in Labyrinth, right? I remember kind of liking the girl in The Rocketeer. I didn’t see the ‘youth comedies’ she was doing.” But, he says, Connelly’s work on Abbotts and the fact that she slightly resembled the young Alicia Nash (“not that hair color was crucial“) put her on his list.

Connelly’s academic background – she studied English at Yale and drama at Stanford – was one more thing in her favor. “I was impressed by her instincts about the character, the story, the era, the academic environment,” Howard recalls. “Then I saw Requiem for a Dream.” Darren Aronofsky’s harrowing 2000 film about junkies showed off – to Hollywood, if not to mass audiences – Connelly’s range and did much to upend her old image. “Her performance was courageous and effective,” Howard continues. “I thought, ‘That’s gonna be important because this woman needs to sort of fool us – her strengths need to emerge, be a little bit unpredictable.’ And she blew us away in the audition.”

Says Connelly, “I read that script, and I thought, ‘I want to work on this.’ Without hesitation.”

Early on, there was hesitation.

Connelly grew up mostly in Brooklyn Heights, the daughter of a clothing-manufacturer father and antiques-dealer mother. She attended Saint Ann’s and started modeling when she was 10. “I worked so much when I was a kid,” she says. “But I did some city crawling. In New York, you do everything really fast, really early. So for a short time, I was a bit of a clubber. Back then it was Area and Nell’s, you know? The eighties.” But mainly, she says, she toed the line: “I wasn’t a rebel; I was a good girl. I’d hit my marks, say my lines, be very mature, and all of that. I never wanted to rock the boat too much; I wanted to do what was expected of me – better than what was expected of me. And I think it was a little bit stunting. I didn’t have much of a quiet corner to go back into, to play with what I wanted to be.” She still gravitates to that quiet corner: Her hobbies don’t normally include popping up in gossip columns with Russell Crowe but rather “painting, yoga, running, being in nature” – fundamentally private, solitary activities. “I’m not the person who’s gonna be on the table at the party, not by any stretch,” she says.

Connelly was cast in her first film, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, at 11, and continued working through her teens – nine films before the age of 20 – but for years afterward remained uncertain about whether to stick with acting.

“I was still connected back to those movies I’d done when I was younger, and I didn’t really feel they were a reflection of who I was,” Connelly says. “I’d started working before I ever thought about whether acting was what I wanted to do. I felt like, ‘Will I always be the girl who was in Career Opportunities?’ “

Judging from some of the Internet sites devoted to her, yes. The introduction to one begins, “I think I’ve sat through more and dumber films on account of the stunningly voluptuous but generally underused Jennifer Connelly” … and that pretty well articulates the pleasure and pain of long-term Connelly worship. (“I’m not checking out the Websites,” says Connelly.)

She says that the birth in 1997 of her son, Kai, helped to focus her professionally – she “re-chose acting” is how she puts it – and the films that immediately followed, Waking the Dead, Pollock, and Requiem for a Dream, bear this out. (Kai’s father, who isn’t in the movie business, and Connelly are no longer together but, she says, “kind of co-parent while living separately. We have a very amicable relationship.”) “I feel more comfortable in my own skin now than I ever have,” she says. “I think there’s something about loving Kai so much, in a way that I’ve never loved anyone, including myself. Also, I used to spend a lot of time alone, but he’s this incredibly social kind of guy, so all of a sudden I’m always having people in and out of my house. It’s changed the way I feel as a citizen of the world. And it’s really important to me to feel good about what I’m working on, to justify the number of hours I’d have to be away from him.”

She’ll take Kai with her to Los Angeles next month when shooting begins on The Hulk. The film might seem like a peculiar career move – isn’t this the sort of part she’d finally shaken off? – except it’s to be directed by Ang Lee. “First I thought, ’The Hulk?’ ” Connelly says. “I have no particular affinity for comic books. But I think he’s such a talented filmmaker, he has such a lyrical sensibility.”

“Jennifer was always the first choice,” says Lee, who cast her as Betty, the scientist girlfriend of Bruce Banner/the Hulk. “She’s beautiful, sober-looking, intelligent. She also looks quite intense, so that’s great because you can see the Hulk from her point of view.” Lee met with Connelly recently and was delighted to find the actress absorbed in her Hulk research, even though it was the night before the Golden Globes: “She seemed to be unfazed about the event, and totally 100 percent wanted to dive into the role – doing her homework, lots of questions, lots of discussions.” Connelly believes that the bad stuff – “Working on something that’s really bland and mediocre, and you’re really bland in it, and you can’t figure out how to make it better? That’s really torture” – is behind her now. “I’m really happy with the projects I’m working on,” she says. “I can’t imagine being better suited for anything. I feel like I’ve made a decent start, and like I’ve got a lot more to accomplish.”

A few days later in Los Angeles, a radiant Connelly, elegant in a black Narciso Rodriguez gown, her hair up, rises from her table to accept the Golden Globe Award. It’s the first presentation of the evening, and it happens just seconds into the ceremony.

“Oh, my gosh,” Connelly says as she reaches the front of the star-filled room. “That was fast!”

Well, yes and no.

Mind Games