Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2011; 10:01 AM
The actress Rosamund Pike - British, blond and effortlessly chic in skinny black trousers and a blue-black jacket - cooly contemplates the tines of a fork. "Look at all the little teeth marks," she muses before ordering lunch at the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown. "Think of all the mouths that have bitten into it. Do you see that?"
A concerned server appears and discreetly inquires whether there's anything wrong.
"No, no, no it's fine," Pike says, her voice a creamy purr. "I was just sort of commenting on the life of a fork."
With any other actor on the publicity trail, it would be easy to dismiss the episode as carefully calculated eccentricity. But Pike's inquiry into the existential implications of cutlery aptly illustrates the spirit of alertness and curiosity that has often made her the best thing about every movie she's in.
Since making her big-screen debut as a Bond Girl in 2002's "Die Another Day," Pike - who just turned 32 a few days ago - has become something of a best-kept secret among discerning viewers. General audiences may not know her name, but they may well have found themselves captivated by her un-showy but indelible supporting performances in "The Libertine," "Pride & Prejudice," "Fracture," "An Education" and, more recently, "Made in Dagenham."
In "Barney's Version," which opened Friday, Pike once again finds herself in a supporting role, albeit a juicy one. The film, based on Mordechai Richler's novel, stars Paul Giamatti as the title character, a Montreal TV producer who becomes obsessed with the woman of his dreams at the reception of his own wedding (to another woman). Pike plays Miriam, the object of Barney's passion, who eventually succumbs to his dogged pursuit. Donning an auburn wig and wire-frame glasses, Pike breathes welcome warmth and life into Miriam, a paragon of wisdom, self-possession and inaccessible sex appeal.
"I was often angling to give her more bite," Pike says, recalling a scene in which Miriam takes a walk with Barney by the East River in Manhattan, where he has come to woo her. "I wanted it to be messy. I wanted to be eating a piece of pizza and I wanted to see Miriam get a bit grubby - you know, have tomato sauce under her fingernails."
She pauses wistfully. "But the perfect woman doesn't have that."
As it happens, Pike has ordered a bowl of tomato soup for lunch, and while the perfect woman may not have sauce under her fingernails, the actress who plays her isn't afraid to dunk pieces of French bread into the bowl, the better to lustily enjoy every drop.
The daughter of classical musicians, Pike joined Britain's National Youth Theatre and won the coveted leading role in "Romeo and Juliet" at 18 (when Kate Winslet's little sister Beth dropped out). Upon graduating from Oxford, she quickly landed the Bond film, in which she played the "ice queen" Miranda Frost.
She made it all look so easy, despite being a "frightened little ex-student" inside. "Especially in Britain, people want to limit you," she says. "So how dare you be so lucky to get a Bond film right out of university? You're obviously not a real actress."
But those naysayers would be overlooking the fact that, no matter what size the role, Pike has been the secret sauce in just about every movie she's in. Giamatti says he has been a fan since "Die Another Day" and the London play "Hitchcock Blonde."
When the "Barney's Version" producers told him they were looking at an actress named Rosamund Pike, he recalls saying to them: "Wait a minute, whoa! Why didn't you tell me that in the first place? You're crazy not to just cast her, because she's great. Don't waste any more time, because she's amazing."
Giamatti notes that Pike can always be counted on to be "slightly off-center, off to the side doing something." Nowhere was her oblique genius more evident than in 2009's coming-of-age drama "An Education," in which Pike played a party girl named Helen and took the role of dumb blonde to sublime heights of dimness. "An Education" may have made Carey Mulligan a star, but for many viewers, Pike's nuanced, flawlessly calibrated performance was the real revelation.
The result is that, unlike Mulligan, Pike has "never, ever, ever" been considered flavor of the month, despite her refined beauty and obvious talent. "I think I'll be flavor of the month when I'm in my fifties," she says, only half joking. "They'll suddenly say, 'Oh, she's done really good work over the years, we really like her.' I'll become a national treasure before I become flavor of the month."
None of this, it should be noted, is said with a trace of bitterness. But Pike readily admits that she is looking for bigger roles, on both sides of the camera. She's determined to executive-produce her own material as soon as she can.
"Why shouldn't I?" she says. "I have a good head on my shoulders. Maybe I should use it, not just be a gun for hire."
With luck, "Barney's Version" will nudge Pike just a little bit closer to the stardom she so richly deserves. In the meantime, she says, "This is the best moment in my career so far, without a doubt.
"It feels like I know who I am," she says, cheerfully scooping up one last delicious dollop of soup. "And I think other people are cottoning on as well!"