On a movie set, a star's trailer is about as personal a place as you can find. And if you're invited there, it's usually because the celebrities in question want to talk or, better put, they are confident enough both in you and in themselves to let you inside their lives a little bit.
I know this from experience. Kathie Lee Gifford didn't invite me to her trailer when she was in Toronto a few years ago, shooting the movie Spinning Out of Control. It was clear right from the start that I would only get to chat to her, in hushed tones, on the sidelines of a set as a scene was being shot and for the few minutes between takes. It was her way of controlling things. If she didn't like a question -- about, say, her husband Frank's infidelity and her ability to forgive him, or her decision to leave Regis Philbin at the helm of their popular morning talk show -- she could pretend not to hear me. She was very pleased with the way the interview went, I think.
Actress and singer Vanessa Williams, on the other hand, specifically asked to see me in her trailer on the Toronto set for a Showtime movie, Keep the Faith, Baby, when she was here last summer. She knew exactly what she was doing because she knows exactly who she is. She had nothing to fear and nothing to hide, especially not her figure in her skimpy relaxing-in-my-trailer outfit. With three children from her first marriage, she had just had a baby with her new husband, Rick Fox of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team. Her beautiful, trim body was definitely a statement she wanted to make in print.
And now, I am on a street in downtown Toronto, inside the trailer of Canadian actress Deborah Kara Unger. It's private in here. She lights two small votive candles on the edge of her vanity table next to a picture of her grandmother in a heart-shaped frame. "I travel everywhere with this picture," she coos. Inviting me to sit on a cozy banquette against a wall, she pushes to one side a big, round, zippered hat box that's filled with film scripts, penicillin (she caught a cold on the Air Canada flight from Los Angeles) and makeup. But she is very uncomfortable, not so much with me, I don't think, and not really with herself, but with the whole idea that anyone would want to interview her. "Do you have to use one of those?" she says, pointing to my tape recorder. "It makes me feel like such a wanker," she says, exaggerating the last word and making an ugly grimace. "Make stuff up," she instructs, waving her du Maurier cigarette at me. "Grab some great sound bites from Voltaire."
Outside on the sidewalk, she gave me a little preview of this I-hate-being-a-celebrity psychology. She greets me warmly, then tells an anecdote about a dinner she had the other night with Jennifer Tilly, one of her co-stars, along with Alan Bates, on Hollywood North, a comedy they've been shooting for the past two weeks around town. They were eating in Sassafraz, a place to be seen in Yorkville, when one of the owners or a waiter (she wasn't sure) approached them for a picture to put on the wall. "I was, like, get me outta there," Unger says in her smoky voice. "I wanted to crawl under the table. A picture of Deborah Unger? It's all so f------ stupid," she almost spits. "But Jennifer was, like," here Unger puts on a breathy, girlish voice "let me fix my lipstick and could you take the shot again but from a different angle so you don't get the chin?" Unger strikes a movie-star pose to mimic Tilly. "Oh," she says, "it was such a riot." She is not being critical of Tilly, who is teetering down the sidewalk as we speak, dressed in film wardrobe -- high heels and a gold lamé gown and turban. She is simply laughing at the scene of it all, at the whole phenomenon of fame.
That Unger is a bit offbeat should surprise no one who has seen her in films. She has become known for doing cerebral sexpot as perfectly as Robert Redford does aging hunk. Anyone who needs to be reminded that female sexuality is never as simple as an English muffin should have a look at her in Istvan Szabo's epic Sunshine. As a communist chief's adulterous wife, she draws from the ancient civilization of womanhood, expressing, at turns, smoldering lust, innocent vulnerability and chilling self-absorption. In David Cronenberg's Crash, she digs down to a deeper, weirder level, where sex is like performance art in some obscure fringe theatre. She may not have been quite so weird as Michael Douglas's accomplice in the thriller The Game, or as Mel Gibson's junkie wife in Payback, or in Norman Jewison's The Hurricane, but there's always something unsettling about her portrayals.
"I'm noirish and I'm cold and I look like I have a carrot up my behind," she blurts about her film personae as I try to settle into conversation with her.
It has not been easy to get her to talk, despite the confessional feel of her small, candle-lit trailer. She seems to have no idea what she wants to say. Asked about growing up in Victoria, she looks at me blankly and then shakes her head. "I'm sorry, really. I don't have much Deborah Unger in my head at the moment," she says, before helpfully mentioning a few biographical details, which she watches me note down. Her father and mother split up when she was 5. Her father, a "respected gynecologist," grilled her when she was 17 about why she wanted to pursue acting. "He wanted to make sure it wasn't just to become famous," she says, chortling at the thought that anyone could misunderstand her motives. She has always been serious. As a young girl, she had a vision of herself as a photojournalist, snapping history in dangerous places. Then at 14, she saw films by Australian filmmaker Peter Weir ( Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli) and decided she would go to the Australian National Institute of Dramatic Art as soon as she graduated from high school.
After telling me this, she squints at me through a screen of exhaled smoke, silent again for a moment and grimacing, as if to say, "There, I managed to do some self-publicity." She is tired, she explains after a pause, having slept only four hours the night before because she had to get up early to call a director in South Africa about a film she may do next. Dressed in a T-shirt with "Hustler" written across it -- a purposeful choice, she tells me, to help her get in character as a seventies documentary filmmaker -- and capri pants, she looks disheveled. She wears no makeup. Her skin is blemished. Her long hair, which she gleefully admits is "bottle blond," hangs limply down the angular planes of her pretty face. There are dark circles beneath her almond-shaped blue eyes.
She brightens slightly when I ask what she likes about film. "I love the storytelling. I love the way it tells us something about how we see the world." She takes a breath, then a puff of her cigarette as she considers what she has just said. (Unger is nothing if not self-conscious, even when she's working hard to be the non-celebrity.) "It's not so much the what but the who and the how," she says, gaining momentum as she explains her choice of roles. "What interests me is who's driving the film, who the conductor is. That's why I'm drawn to Cronenberg and to Jewison and to [David]Fincher [director of The Game] Just to be a part of their world. I don't care if I'm in a paragraph or a sound bite or if I'm a bit of topography."
She veers off on a story about Between Strangers, a film she just completed with Sophia Loren that was written and directed by Loren's son, Edoardo Ponti. (It will make its debut in North America next month at the Toronto International Film Festival.) "I get to play this world-class cellist. My character is seeking retribution for something someone did to her in her childhood, so when this guy, this guy who did this thing, gets out of prison, I go after him with a gun," she says in rapid-fire sentences. "But my character didn't make sense to me. I said to the director, 'I feel like a f------ perfume ad.' I looked too pretty. My character was too together-looking to be a gun-toting cellist. And that's when we decided that I would put on 20 pounds. It was perfect, because that psychology for women is so normal. When you're depressed, you reach for comfort, for food. And so I ate and ate -- oh, God, it's so easy to gain weight -- and my face got all bloated and the burden of this character became apparent," she says. She has since lost the weight, mostly thanks to the heat of Toronto's summer. "I sweated it off just being outside," she laughs.
The story causes her to relax, perhaps because it helps to demonstrate how determined she is to avoid vanity, both physically and emotionally. Her closet at home is filled with clothes from sizes 2 to 14, she says. She is 5 foot 7 inches tall and doesn't exercise regularly. As part of her non-celebrity thinking, she insists on flying economy even though most actors stipulate business class in their contracts. She gives away a lot of her money, she says. I ask again about her choice of roles, hoping she will explain what she enjoys about playing such complex women. "I like to think about the psychology of the characters," she says. "I think [those roles]make me a better person, more empathetic about seeing things through different people's eyes."
Suddenly, we're on very personal ground. With little prompting, she tells me how she met Chris Cirillo, her "better half" who is sitting outside her trailer on the street curb. Three and a half years ago, she was having a detox treatment in a Los Angeles spa when she got fed up with sitting in the salon. ("I'm not really a spa person," she quickly adds, "but I thought I should do this. It was a weight thing then, too.") Covered head to toe in spa mud and wrapped up like a Michelin man in heated cloths, she stood outside, smoking a cigarette, drinking a Starbucks coffee and talking on her cellphone. (She was toxifying herself while detoxifying: very conflicted, very Unger.) Cirillo, a gaunt man who looks as though he was born wearing the sunglasses he hides behind, spied her from the clothing store he ran nearby. They struck up a conversation and that was that. It was love. Since then, they have spent every day together. He travels with her everywhere on what she calls her "vagabond existence" in hotel rooms around the world. "We are thinking of getting married," says Unger, who admits to being in her mid-30s. "Having a family is definitely in my plans."
Asked why she fell in love with him, she doesn't hesitate to answer. "Kindness," she says softly. "Kindness goes a long way with me. I think it's horrible the way most people treat each other in the world," she offers. But just as suddenly as she has relaxed, she grows tense again. I ask what formed her morality. "Oh, you're going to make fun of me now, aren't you?" she says peevishly. Why, I wonder. "Because it's easy to make fun of people who are earnest," she says shrewdly through a plume of smoke.
Unger, it seems, is caught in the web of her identities, as the real Deborah Kara Unger, as the celebrity Deborah Kara Unger and as the non Deborah Kara Ungers, the complex characters we see her play on film. I'm not quite sure what holds at her centre, although, when I ask that question, she looks at her feet, shod in trendy black slides, and tells me that, "metaphorically, I'm in bare feet everyday."
At that point, Cirillo peers in the trailer door and rescues us both.