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I Dream of Gina

Actress Gina Gershon uses drive and dreams to forge her varied and sometimes risqué career.

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"And I got to meet Frank. That was one of my conditions. I said, 'I'll do this, but I've got to hang out with the big guy,'" Gershon continues. "It was so upsetting because the night I was to meet him, I went with Tina Sinatra [his youngest daughter] to Radio City [Music] Hall and he had laryngitis. All the doctors were there and he was so wound up and he wanted to go on and all the doctors were saying, 'Frank, you cannot perform tonight.' And he was genuinely upset. 'All those people out there, they've all come from Jersey and Brooklyn, and they're going to be so disappointed. I gotta go on.'

"I was in Nancy mode and when he was reaching for a cigarette, I found myself almost going, 'Frank, Frank, you shouldn't smoke.' And I'm thinking, 'Gina, don't tell Frank Sinatra he can't smoke.' So I said, 'Would you like some tea?' I was in this maternal mode with him. And he turns to me and says, 'So how's the picture goin'?' 'Oh, the picture. It's goin' great, you know.' I loved him. I just wanted to go out and drink with him."

Then came Showgirls, the 1995 film based on a Joe Eszterhas script with Paul Verhoeven directing. The movie generated almost universal sneers, but most of the barbs and hoots went to the creators and to newcomer Elizabeth Berkley. Gershon got plenty of exposure (literally and figuratively--she played a Las Vegas diva who dances nude in a volcano) and came through unscathed.

If taking on the role of Cristal was a gutsy choice, taking on Corky in the Mafia thriller Bound was even more so. In a different Hollywood era, it would have been a role for Robert Mitchum: a tough ex-con, just out of prison, making a living as a handyman. Sexy woman comes on to Corky and draws her into a scheme involving the Mafia, murder and a few million bucks. In a lovely twist on an old theme, Corky walks off with the money and the girl, in this case played by Jennifer Tilly.

So how does a nice Jewish girl wind up with a role like that? And what does she tell her parents about it?

"I've played so many different sorts of parts," Gershon says. "If there has been any sort of premeditated path, it's that I know I want to play a wide range of roles so I never get pigeonholed. I know that if I play A one time, the next I'll want to do B or maybe Z. I don't want to keep doing A, A, A; I'll get bored and I don't think I'll grow. Certain people might be happy doing A their entire life. But that's not me. I've never gone by strategy. Strategy has always been secondary. Bound I really loved on a gut level. I thought, 'Oh my God, I love this character.' On the other hand, I thought: This is fantastic. It's 180 degrees away from Showgirls; that's great." Bound never found a mainstream audience, but some critics put it on their Top 10 lists for 1997.

Seeing their child play such roles in Showgirls and Bound might have stretched the tolerance of some moms, but Gina's mother, Mickey, took it all in stride.

"My mother's amazing," she says with a laugh. "Can you imagine going home and telling your mother, 'Hi, I'm going to be in a movie called Showgirls'? I said, 'Mom, I got this great part.' She said, 'Oh, let me write it down, so I can tell my friends.' And I said, 'Just so you know, uh, I'm kind of dancing around naked in it.' And she said, 'Oh, you used to do that all the time when you were little.' I said, 'Oh, really? Well, I'm also sort of kissing another woman in it and maybe having sex.' And she said, 'Oh'--you know, trying to be very supportive--and she said, "Well, is she a nice girl?' I said, 'Yes, she's a very nice girl.' And Mom said, 'Oh, that's nice then.' "

Gershon's siblings took her Showgirls role in stride as well. "I think they know how hard I've worked. It's not like this has happened overnight. So I think people who know me are just happy and relieved that I'm actually starting to get the sort of work I've worked so hard to get. To me, I feel I have so much further to go; I've taken one leap and now I need the next leap and the next leap. I'm really close to my brother and sister and I think they're really happy for me."

Last year Gershon costarred in John Woo's Face/Off, and the experience turned out to be a delight, especially working with Nicolas Cage and John Travolta. "John is one of the nicest men I've worked with. Really generous of spirit. His spirit is huge. I don't know if it has anything to do with Scientology or anything, but all I can say is that Tom Cruise and John Travolta both have that real generosity of spirit. They have a very similar sort of energy. I don't know if it's just coincidence, I don't know anything about Scientology, but if that's what it gave them, then I'll give it a point for that."

Gershon is now regularly getting roles with depth and texture. In Legalese, scheduled to air October 4 on TNT, she plays an actress accused of murder. The movie costars James Garner, Kathleen Turner and Mary Louise Parker. Gershon also has finished production on Paul Auster's Lulu on the Bridge, which also stars Harvey Keitel and Mira Sorvino. Over the summer, she was scheduled to shoot a small role in a Michael Mann movie starring Al Pacino.

One of her most challenging projects is Prague Duet, which she stars in opposite Rade Serbedzija, a Serbo-Croatian folk singer and cult hero. Serbedzija plays a dissident writer in the Czech Republic who becomes minister of culture, only to become ensnared in a political scandal generated by his romance with Gershon's Dr. Lauren Graham, an American child psychologist. Gershon gives a quiet, subtle performance of a woman swept up by love and the haunting revelation that her own Czech heritage, via a favorite Jewish grandfather, might not be what she was led to believe. Prague Duet is slated to air on the Romance Classics channel in December.

"I love being incredibly vulnerable on the screen, and in Prague Duet I was allowed to do that," Gershon says. "There's something special in that and I think for me it's a good thing to do. Hopefully you'll touch a nerve in someone's unconscious and that, at the end of the day, is why you're doing it. That's the healthier, altruistic side of why you want to do acting. To touch someone."

One aspect of Gershon's kaleidoscopic talents that has not come forth in recent years is romantic comedy. "That's really who I am," she says. "I want to do a romantic comedy, but a really smart one. Like Woody Allen. Or Albert Brooks. I just have to start finding my own projects. That's why I want to get to the next level, so a studio will say, 'Fine, Gina. We'll buy whatever property you want and we'll make it.'"

With so many high-quality movies coming out in the months ahead, Gershon understandably feels she is on the brink of a major career breakthrough. "I feel that. I feel like in the next year or two it's going to go. I think it's ready to flip. I'm happy with the work I'm doing this year."

She is also very happy with her private life. She lives with her boyfriend, Sean, who designs and owns restaurants and cafés in Los Angeles. Describing his work, she calls him an "environmental producer," a creator of interesting spaces and environments. More importantly, he has just the kind of temperament she needs in a partner: he's warm, supportive and well grounded. The last thing she needs is a man who's an emotional roller coaster.

"I'm enough of a roller coaster," she says with a laugh. "I need someone really solid and stable. Sean's really good about that. I need someone who's like a rock. So when I'm way up there, flying, he can say, 'OK, time to come down again.' And I'm like, 'OK.' Sean lets me go and fly around and do my thing and is secure enough to say 'OK, she's just doing her thing.' I need my own space to do my own thing. And he knows that." In return, she tries to be equally tolerant and supportive. "I think that's what a relationship is. You don't want to squish someone; you just want to support them. And, hopefully, help them to get to reach their potential."

Gershon's dream work does pose its share of problems, though. "When I'm doing certain dream assignments," she says, "I'll now know to warn Sean: 'Listen, I'm doing an assignment tonight.' Because sometimes these dreams are so unbelievable. I've always had really intense dreams," says the actress, "I mean, really intense. They're either like total movies where I can see what's going on or they hit nerves where, literally, I'll wake up screaming and crying, at such a level that, of course, his instinct is to calm me down. But I'll say, 'No, no, no! I'm working! Leave me alone!' Because I want to get to the end of it, I want to keep going! So I have to tell him, 'Don't wake me up tonight.' "

The dream work, coupled with the way she immerses herselfin difficult roles, has made Gina Gershon more accepting and more philosophical about life and what it has to offer. "Life is good that way, even when things are at their worst," she says. "That's the great thing about being an actor especially, or being any sort of artist: a writer, a dancer. Even in the really awful parts of your life, there's a part of you that you feel like you can work with it. This helps you understand life, it helps you evolve as a person and it helps you mature as an artist. And deal with the pain of it all."

Paul Chutkow is the author of Depardieu, a biography of the French actor Gerard Depardieu, and he collaborated with winemaker Robert Mondavi on his autobiography, due out in September from Harcourt Brace.

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