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.)
Unger defends the film's portrayal of the Canadian group. "In real life, they are more altruistic," says Unger, who speaks with exquisitely careful enunciation in a deep, mellow voice. "It's shocking; they are just incredibly passionate about injustices. They're very enigmatic, though, very protective. But I think I understand them."
Too well, perhaps. Although she was willing to do anything to be a part of The Hurricane, Unger was frustrated by the limits the screenplay placed upon her performance.
While there were actually nine Canadian members of the communal group that played parts in the Carter scenario, only three are in the film: Peters, Terry Swinton (played by Scottish actor John Hannah) and Sam Chaiton (Liev Schreiber). The film is partly based on Chaiton's book Lazarus and the Hurricane, but Unger admits the Lisa Peters she plays is nothing like the real woman she met.
"We're obviously supporting characters, but it was hard for John and Liev and myself to resist the temptation to be much more specific in the depictions of the individuals," she says. "Because we met them, and we're not fools as actors, we walked away going, 'She wears this, he does this, she chain-smokes like that, that thing about gardening, his obsession with astrology, her obsession with interior design, she hates driving. . . .'
"We, of course, came to Norman desiring to embrace them much more specifically. But we were playing a collective, representing nine individuals. If I were to play Lisa, it would've thrown the balance off because there were only two other people. Lisa, in real life, was balanced by the other women who were in the household. She is a very forward, forthright, powerful and sometimes overwhelming character, as well as a very compassionate and lovely woman. It was frustrating to feel like I was playing her in neutral, but that's how the writers chose to represent those people and we respected that. It's just that, selfishly, I wanted to dress like her, speak like her and fight like her."
There was one good thing about acting like a subdued team player, however.
"Something as simple as being clothed throughout the goddamn film and being able to smile every so often was a lovely release for someone who's usually shoved into these remote, distilled, B-grade, femme-fatale-style roles too often for my own liking," Unger says with great relish. "I'm an animated and personable individual, and I'm so bored with that."
Unger's blond, high-cheekboned looks have indeed inspired a kind of fetish response among filmmakers, most notably David Cronenberg for his outré Crash, David Fincher for his noirish The Game and Mel Gibson and Brian Helgeland for their violently underworld romp Payback. Though all those films displayed above-average intelligence and ambition for their genres, her roles were not exactly what Unger ever aspired to. The babe stuff indeed seems to embarrass her, to the point where she all but apologizes for her brief, well-regarded turn as Hollywood bombshell Ava Gardner in the cable television movie The Rat Pack.
Part of that is the result of a natural modesty, part of it apparently a wish to still live up to the standards her father, an obstetrician-gynecologist and medical ethicist in British Columbia, instilled in her when she took off for the antipodes to study acting.
"He was concerned, initially, that I would evolve into a facile being that no longer read newspapers nor cared about anything other than MTV videos and VH1 fashion awards," she dryly notes. "He wanted to be sure that I actually gave a s--- about the art of storytelling through the medium of film, as opposed to celebritydom."
Despite the recurrent femme-fatale casting, what Unger calls her tortoise-like career is a monument to the fact that she does care about acting and film as expressive art forms. The past year and a half, in fact, has been a non-stop run of worthy projects -- including the film she was shooting in Hungary, the internationally acclaimed family epic Sunshine, directed by Istvan Szabo and co-starring Ralph Fiennes. (Last month, it earned Unger a Genie nomination for best supporting actress.) There are also three character-based, U.S. independent productions -- The Weekend, The History of Luminous Motion and Signs and Wonders -- awaiting release.
"It's a reflection of my ability to say no more than it is of choice," Unger explains about her résumé. "I say no to lots of bad things because, in an industry where there's 3 per cent employment and I'm obviously not a superstar, the only choice that I can exercise is to say no. And because money is not a priority to me, my choices are reflective of that. But what I've really liked about the last year or so's worth of films is that the subject matter has been very fulfilling, and I really would like to be involved with more films that resonate for me personally."
The work has also been a nice substitute for, well, life. Having recently ended a four-year relationship and with no fixed address at the moment, Unger feels comfortably, if not quite contentedly, adrift.
"I am truly on a walkabout, my slate has been cleaned as I go into this new millennium," she notes. "I think that's a good thing. . . . But I would love to be in love. In fact, I look forward to a home with a dog, a darkroom and a man -- I'm not sure about the order, but darkroom would be up there."
Where, remains up for grabs. But while the wandering Unger has established herself as a citizen of world cinema, she will undoubtedly keep coming back to the only place that's ever really been home.
"The film business is not a nationalistic business but, at the same time, one can't escape the colouring of a culture," Unger says. "Whether it's a good or a bad thing, I too am irrationally vulnerable to the fact that I am Canadian, and I would love to do more Canadian films. Absolutely."