Madeleine Potter is an actress at a most delightful point in her young career. Plucked from promising obscurity last year to play Verena Tennant, one of the central roles in "The Bostonians," holding her own with Vanessa Redgrave and Christopher Reeve, she has neither been deluged with attention nor ignored. It is a time of peeking into the window of celebrity, of borrowing finery to wear to glamorous openings -- and taking the subway after leaving the producer's rented limo.
Currently her ethereal features are being put to good use as Ophelia in the Folger Theatre's production of "Hamlet." She was drawn here by the chance to work with director Lindsay Anderson -- and to spend some time here with her mother and brother. She is from Washington as so many foreign service brats are: a home occasionally supplanted by others.
She went to Holy Trinity High School in Georgetown, graduating early. "I've had very good nuns in my life and very bad ones. The bad ones would say, 'You're so intelligent, what a shame you are interested in the theater.' "
She is not conventionally pretty, yet she is lovely. There is a weakness around the chin and a sort of flatness to the planes in her face from certain angles, a prim set to her mouth. Then there is the tangled mass of red hair, and skin like white silk.
"She has a period look to her," says James Ivory, who directed "The Bostonians." "Most young actresses conform to the current idea of what a young girl should look like, and conform in the way they speak as well. She looks Victorian, and her speech is not terribly contemporary either. I guess that comes from having lived all over the world."
It is a somewhat calculated look and a manner that says Actress.
"I've never considered myself pretty," she says. "I'm odd looking."
Acting has been her passion for a long time. "I've known since I was a child," she says. "I started putting on plays at age 7, in Africa, and I took it very seriously. For a while I wanted to be a nun, until mother explained it wasn't like being Joan of Arc."
Her father, the late Philip Potter, worked for the Central Intelligence Agency, and she recalls auditioning for a director who wanted to know what her father did.
"I said he worked for the State Department. He said, 'Is that a euphemism?' So I said that yes, he worked for the CIA. And this man said, sort of sneering, 'Did he have a license to kill?' So I just looked straight at him and said, 'Of course. We all did. We were all trained to shoot at a very early age.' "
She spent her early childhood in Hong Kong and later lived for four years in Tanzania. Graduating from high school at 16, she decided to go to Marlboro College because one of her three brothers was there. Without taking any Scholastic Aptitude Tests, she says she simply appeared at the school and was admitted. Her academic career lasted about 18 months. After a year in Ireland, waitressing and working on a farm, she was ready to plunge into acting full time.
Her first parts were here, at the now-defunct ASTA theater, New Playwrights,' and the Source. She did a one-woman show on Sarah Bernhardt and took a course at Arena Stage. Then it was time to leave.
"I went to New York because there was more work there," she says. "I guess I believe in my destiny."
She took advice from Arena's Mark Hammer and "auditioned for everything," finding herself standing in lines at 5 a.m. to sign up for an open call, riding the subway at 3 a.m., auditioning for a role that would require nudity ("I said no"), spacing cups of tea in cafes to stem the hunger pangs, and, most of all, facing the actor's fate: rejection.
"I auditioned for one part eight times and then didn't get it." But Potter says she tried to avoid thinking of it as rejection and viewed the whole process with a different perspective.
"I was tremendously curious," she says. "I was fascinated with these people; I'd think, what does a casting director do? What is their life? It's better than going in desperate . . ."
And slowly it began to happen. The people who rejected her after eight auditions recommended her to director Joan Micklin Silver for a part in a staged reading. That led to another audition, then a showcase (a production of "Love's Labor's Lost" in which she had all of 12 lines), a manager taking an interest in her. "It doesn't ever work the way it's supposed to, especially for me," she says solemnly. "Once I realized that, I was all right. Otherwise you'd be constantly, devastatingly disappointed."
For a short time she worked in a duplicating business, but one day her employers would not let her leave early for an audition and she was "filled with rage." That was the end of that job. But again fate intervened. A woman saw her in a coffee shop and asked if she would like to be a painter's model. "That was great. I could just fall asleep."
Potter, now in her early twenties (she won't tell her precise age), has particular ideas about what she wants to do. She will not do commercials. Or soap operas. "They don't interest me," she says flatly. She would rather do Ophelia at the Folger and put off finding an apartment in New York, where she still lives out of a suitcase, a sublet gypsy.
Her first "proper" play in New York was in 1982: "Lydie Breeze," by John Guare, which starred Roberta Maxwell and Ben Cross, and was directed by Louis Malle. She was an understudy in Liv Ullmann's "Ghosts" at the Kennedy Center and then had a small part in "Plenty," which went to Broadway. She was playing Lady Anne in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of "Richard III" with Kevin Kline when she got the call to audition for "The Bostonians."
Since then there have been openings in London and New York, the Cannes Film Festival, a trip to India for a film festival. It is something an actress who has reached a certain level learns to do. The future seems very, well, possible. Even promising. She is an actress.
She remembers the first time she was inside a Broadway theater -- on the stage. "It was the most romantic thing I'd ever seen. Filled with ghosts, like a church. It was like the temple at Delphi."