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I Dream of Gina

Actress Gina Gershon uses drive and dreams to forge her varied and sometimes risqué career.
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
Gina Gershon, Sep/Oct 98

Gina Gershon has her guard up.

She's sitting in a funky little tea room in Beverly Hills, picking at her sandwich and politely fending off any question she's not sure how to handle. So she won't talk about her private life. She won't talk about Showgirls, the hilariously awful bit of trash that launched her fame. And she won't talk about the man she'll identify only as Sean, the boyfriend and housemate she clearly adores. "I've seen it too many times in Hollywood," the actress explains. "Talking about a relationship in public can jinx it. And if you have your picture taken together, you might as well start packing your bags."

So you sit across the table from Gina Gershon and are left to wonder: What makes this actress tick? Her mode of dress this afternoon offers little clue: she's wearing dark slacks and a turtleneck of a somewhat somber blue. Her face is striking, with all sorts of intriguing facets, but it, too, only gives hints of the woman inside.

Gershon's acting career is multifaceted as well. In Showgirls, she played Cristal Connors, a campy, conniving Las Vegas chorus queen. In the dark Mafia thriller Bound, she played Corky, a hard-edged lesbian just out of jail, and she played the role so convincingly that many viewers came away wondering about Gershon's own sexual inclinations. She's played more traditional female roles with equal conviction and aplomb. She was one of Tom Cruise's girlfriends in Cocktail, she starred in Face/Off opposite John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, and she worked and smoked cigars with Arnold Schwarzenegger on the set of Red Heat. In the coming months, Gershon (she pronounces it ger-SHON) will be appearing opposite Harvey Keitel, Al Pacino and James Garner. Now in her 30s, Gershon's an actress on the verge of major stardom, and now, as you watch her over tea and sandwiches, the question only deepens:

Behind her many professional masks, who is Gina Gershon?

Ah, therein hangs some delightful stories, and the following morning Gershon is ready to kick back and tell them. She's sitting in the dining room at the Four Seasons Hotel, in front of a cappuccino and a huge plate of scrambled eggs and sausages, and she looks for all the world like a changed woman, as if she has gone through some profound transformation during the night. All the edginess and caution are gone from her face. Her hair is mussed, her voice is brimming with unguarded warmth and wit, and she looks relaxed and almost unbearably sexy in a black sweater, black jeans and black scarf with a splash of color. "Gina, you look so different..."

"Yes," she says with a laugh. "For everyone I've ever lived with, it's like the big joke: who's going to come home today? I'm like a split personality. My face changes, my voice changes, my personality changes. If I'm talking about Boston or New York, you'll notice my voice change. It's bad; I have no personality!" Again she laughs. "What's the animal that always changes color? A chameleon. I feel kind of like that. Because if they're nervous or scared or they don't trust someone, they have a different sort of camouflage. But as soon as they warm up to someone, they reveal their true colors."

Being chameleon-like, of course, is akin to being an actress, and Gershon has had a love for acting--and acting out--since she was a little girl. "My first professional job was in a spirit role," Gershon recalls. Her older sister, Tracy, would cover her in Day-Glo, tuck her in a closet and then, in front of the family audience, Tracy would come on stage in swami garb. As Gershon tells it now, Tracy would say, "I feel the spirits coming out. Spirits, do you hear us?" And Gina would knock from the closet and then make her appearance in all that Day-Glo. "My sister charged 50 cents a head, and now that I think about it, she ripped me off; she only paid me a nickel! I'll have to speak with her about that."

As it turns out, Gershon's family was filled with colorful characters. On her father's side, she had a grandmother named Pearl and a great aunt named Ida, and they both loved to gamble. The family was originally from Chicago, but when Gina's father, Stan Gershon, developed some lung problems, the family moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, so Stan could recuperate in the clear mountain air. Ida and Pearl loved to go to Las Vegas to gamble, and Gina says that Pearl lost a good bit of the family money at the gaming tables. In the process, Pearl and Ida earned themselves quite a reputation.

"Ida and Pearl, the two Jewish broads from Cheyenne, that's how they were known," Gershon says. "One of my first memories of my grandmother is of her trying to teach me how to play poker when I couldn't even see the table." Starting when she was 11, Gina would often visit her Aunt Ida in Vegas. "I'd dress up and try to go gambling with the old ladies, and for some reason they'd let me in."

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