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Radha & Radha: The Two Facets Of a Rising Star

The Glass May Be Half-Empty, But the Actress's Plate Is Full

By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 26, 2005; Page C01

The actress -- luminous, delicate, and other wide-eyed words used all the time for starlets, but in this case we really mean them -- is disembarking at LAX when Woody phones.

(Yes, she calls him Woody. Not the say-it-like-it's-a-single-word WoodyAllen the rest of the world uses. No, his latest leading lady says it with whispery, insidery glee.)

Woody Allen's tendency not to rehearse much "creates this sort of spontaneity," says Mitchell, his star in "Melinda and Melinda." (Brian Hamill -- Fox Searchlight)

Radha Mitchell answers her cell phone. She has just returned from a trip home to Australia, and she assumes it's her "mum," she says later, "ringing to see if I'd landed."

Instead, this man starts talking. He's got an unexpectedly "relaxed and cool" voice. He says he's Woody Allen. But more like "sort of a smooth Woody Allen," Mitchell notes (calling him both Woody and Allen here, differentiating this early moment from the later, now-I've-starred-in-a-Woody-Allen-film intimacy of just plain "Woody").

"I was a bit suspicious," Mitchell remembers, especially because she hadn't even auditioned for him. And, after all, Radha Mitchell is no household name.

But he'd seen a tape of her. It wasn't "High Art," the 1998 indie film about lesbianism and heroin addiction that first put Mitchell on the map. And it wasn't "Pitch Black," the 2000 Vin Diesel sci-fi cult thriller. Was it 2003's "Phone Booth," where she starred with Irish heartthrob Colin Farrell? Uh-uh.

Perhaps a bootleg of her most recent performance, as Johnny Depp's cold wife in "Finding Neverland"? Or her turn opposite Denzel Washington as a distraught mother in "Man on Fire"? No and no.

What caught Woody's attention, she says, was a monologue she did for the 2001 film "Ten Tiny Love Stories," directed by Rodrigo Garcia ("the son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez," she notes, swiftly dropping the Nobel Prize-winning novelist's name and recalling the media and literature degree she earned at university in her home town of Melbourne). In Garcia's film, which wasn't widely released, Mitchell plays a woman bumping into an ex-boyfriend at the movies and recalling such nostalgic details about him as: "He smelled like oranges and had hairy hands."

From this, she got a lead role in "Melinda and Melinda," Allen's latest movie, which opened in Washington on Wednesday. It's actually two films within a film about the meaning of life: Is it tragic? Or comic? Each "film" has its own cast, but Mitchell, as Melinda, stars in both -- her character a mysterious woman who crashes a small dinner party. The opposing plots unfurl from there.

It's an intriguing challenge for a 31-year-old actor whose eclectic career has earned an eclectic audience.

That audience includes a couple tattooed clerks at the Tower Records in Annapolis, who, a couple weeks ago, picked up an on-hold DVD for "High Art," then immediately halted and stared at the cover. "I know her!" the first exclaimed.

Behind her, the other clerk, a skinny girl in a black-and-white wool cap, peered at the DVD and agreed, "Yeah!" Pause. "She's good."

"She's good," agreed the first.

And not long ago, Mitchell recounts, she was singing karaoke in the East Village, and the room filled with "people from different worlds." There was the lesbian crowd that appreciated her first two breakout films, she says, and the Irish backpackers who loved her in "Phone Booth," and even some Australians who remembered her first days on the Down Under soap "Neighbors."

"We all ended up singing karaoke together," she says. "It was uniting."

She describes all of this while curled into a tweed couch in a hotel cafe here, arranging peanut M&M's in her palm, eating each one slowly, sometimes three bites per M.

Her foamy coffee sits on the marble table, half-empty -- or is it half-full?

"Woody says the glass is completely empty," she notes. "I agree. It's empty."

A little despairing, we think, from this sunny-seeming transplant to California whose full given name, Radha-Rani, means "queen of love" in Hindi. (Her mother, who modeled on the Italian catwalk in the 1960s, had become enamored of India in the early '70s. Mitchell dropped the "Rani," she says, "on my first day of school. Someone asked me if my name was Macaroni.") And the coffee cup conclusion sounds especially bitter from a woman who prefers, she notes later, comedy to tragedy because "I like stuff that has a happy ending. I think I'm a believer in happy endings."

So she clarifies: "I don't see emptiness as a negative thing. I see that as space for anything" -- as space to be filled, to be invented. And Allen's latest movie, she adds, "is more a comment on attitude than whether life is a comedy or tragedy. . . . Your attitude very much has an impact [on] the way life pans out."

Perhaps that's why she had such difficulty, initially, acting the tragic, disturbed version of Melinda.

"I didn't like what she represented: high drama and attachment to events," she says. "So needy." She affects an agitated moue, imitating the graspy quirks she gave the character. "Gotta smoke! Gotta drink!"

Her solution: Separate herself from the character by playing "crazy Melinda" as an "exaggerated performance." (She got into character by guzzling coffee.) Allen corrected her: "Just say the lines."

It was a rare moment of direction from Allen, whose tendency not to rehearse much "creates this sort of spontaneity," Mitchell says. She, Will Ferrell and Chloe Sevigny were the rare cast members allowed to read the entire script. (That way, for example, it came as a surprise to the other characters when Melinda crashes their dinner parties.) She calls the entire experience "challenging."

Filming might have been easier had they shot the comedic story line first, the tragic one next. But her first day on the set, Mitchell played dark in the morning and sweet in the afternoon. Nervous about how she was doing -- should the two Melindas be polar opposites? Be similar somehow? -- she left the set that day with "no affirmation of 'Yes. That's the right thing.' I just left going, 'Ohmygod.' " (Allen later told her that there should be a recognizable overlap between crazy and sweet.)

Many critics, well, have skewered Allen's film, but saved their snaps for Mitchell. David Denby in the New Yorker griped, "Allen's most grievous lost opportunity is with Radha Mitchell . . . a performer who brings an almost lyrical flow to vulnerability." Entertainment Weekly announced: "The best reason to see 'Melinda and Melinda' is Radha Mitchell." The Hollywood Reporter singled out Mitchell's "nuanced intensity."

That understated quality, says director Marc Forster, who cast her in "Finding Neverland," is Mitchell's true gift. The two are good friends -- "Anything for Radha!" he says when he picks up the phone in Chicago, where he is in pre-production. Forster, who also directed her in 2001's "Everything Put Together," with Mitchell playing a young mother who loses her baby, says he admires her "sensitivity and way of grabbing onto a part. . . . She takes on these characteristics. She just sucks them up and becomes them."

He also, he adds, appreciates her "angelic, very bright and luminous" beauty, the way she just "lights up the screen, and you love watching. . . . She has the ultimate look of a movie star -- very classic."

She also appears to be suffering from the classic movie star concern: Age. (Okay, she's nine years from 40, but we're not counting.) She may especially admire Johnny Depp's "ideal career" and how he "does risque things with characters -- makes them artistic." But she acknowledges the extreme difficulty of women "sustaining a career. Men don't have the same issues." She has fiercely feminist friends who would admonish, "If you acknowledge limitations, then they exist," but, she says, "it's something you'd be stupid not to confront and be aware of."

Ask about her personal life, and the animated Radha gives way to the Garbo Radha: "I have a satisfying love life. But I won't elaborate."

On to the safe harbor of clothing. Today she wears a vintage dress, and notes, "I'm not advertising anybody." She hesitates not even a second before adding, "I don't really feel opposed to it." And with a wink-wink she announces: "And I really love Lancome!"

So what comes next? She will return to Los Angeles, where she has lived for 7 1/2 years, to her home in Ocean Park, some distance from the Hollywood hubbub. There her view of the Pacific gives "perspective," she says. "I can see packs of dolphins swimming, and that's reassuring."

But such quietude ends at the shoreline. If her career is just getting started, it may also be nearing a deadline, and it's time to make some money. With Lancome, perhaps. Or with a blockbuster.

"I want to do an action movie, a movie like 'The Matrix,' " she says, a movie that will "appeal to a broad audience and yet have something to say about it all."

Looking only slightly mischievous, she adds, "Acting is really just playing dress-up. So why not be a superhero?"

© 2005 The Washington Post Company