Deborah Kara Unger's disdain for the trappings of movie stardom should not be mistaken for apathy. Far from it; the Vancouver-born actress is so determined to do the job right -- or, for that matter, to get the right job -- that she'll virtually go from one end of the Earth to the other in pursuit of her goals.
"Deborah wanted it," says Armyan Bernstein, a producer and co-writer of The Hurricane, the Norman Jewison film in which Unger plays one of the Canadian activists who helped get Rubin (Hurricane) Carter released from prison.
"She was making a film in Budapest when it came time to audition, and we said, 'No, we're not going to fly you from Hungary to read for us, we're interested in these five other actresses.' They wouldn't let her out of shooting the next day in Budapest, either. Nothing was going right for Deborah, but she just figured if she hopped on a plane at a certain time and made a connecting flight, she could meet with us for 25 minutes, then get back on a plane and be back in time for work. She did the whole thing, and when she was there for that 25 minutes, she was unbelievably great. She just owned this part; I think it's a virtue to just know what you know, and then go for it."
It wasn't the first time Unger had gone to far-flung extremes in pursuit of her muse. She was, after all, the first Canadian actress to graduate from the prestigious Australian National Institute of Dramatic Arts, the school that trained such talents as Mel Gibson and Judy Davis.
As for her zeal to play Lisa Peters in The Hurricane, currently playing in Toronto and opening in other Canadian centres Jan. 14, Unger, 33, sounds motivated by the same, almost unfathomable altruism with which the film's Canadians are portrayed.
"What I particularly liked about this project was its subject matter," says Unger, getting over a cold and looking so unglamorous in an old, soiled, orange ski sweater on a warm California day that a passing producer jokingly asks when she's going snowboarding.
"I really loved this story; I wasn't aware of it before I read the script, I wasn't even aware of the Bob Dylan song [ Hurricane, from the 1976 album Desire] But once I read it, I wanted to be a part of it. It wouldn't have mattered if it was two scenes, one scene."
The Hurricane Carter story is certainly an enthralling one. The one-time boxing contender, played by Denzel Washington in the film, spent close to two decades in prison for three New Jersey murders he did not commit. A cause célèbre in the 1970s, Carter lost a second round of trials and, subsequently, the active support of Dylan and other public figures who had championed him. But then Lesra Martin (Vicellous Reon Shannon in the movie), an African-American teenager who had been taken in by the Toronto-based activist collective Peters was part of, read Carter's autobiography, began corresponding with the discouraged fighter and ultimately convinced his Canadian friends to go through the case's evidence with a fine-tooth comb. Their discoveries eventually led to Carter's release.
According to the movie, anyway. There has been substantial controversy over whether the Jewison-directed film overemphasizes the Canadians' contribution to Carter's exoneration. There is further debate over why the freed Carter ultimately broke with the collective, and why the film does not mention the fact that he and Peters married -- or explain what led to their later breakup. (Though they are still married, Carter now lives with another woman whom he considers his wife. In a recent interview with Globe and Mail writer Stephen Brunt, Carter resisted any suggestion of diminishing the Canadians' role in securing his release. But a new book, Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Hurricane Carter, written by American reporter James Hirsch and authorized by Carter, paints a less than appealing portrait of his life with the collective after he was exonerated.)