LOS ANGELES - Lauren Ambrose got her first movie break playing a misanthropic teenager in 1998's ''Can't Hardly Wait.'' She can be seen every week as sardonic high school outsider Claire Fisher on HBO's black-humored drama about a family of undertakers, ''Six Feet Under.'' And, in ''Swimming,'' the coming-of-age indie feature that opened Friday Ambrose gets inside the skin of Frankie Wheeler, a shy townie trying to sort out friendship and her own sexual identity while waitressing at her brother's Myrtle Beach snack shop.
Such pitch-perfect channelings of teen alienation raise this question: Did Ambrose herself endure a hellish adolescence?
''Yeah, sure, everyone's miserable in high school aren't they?'' says Ambrose, laughing. ''People say, `Were you that miserable?' I don't know. Sort of. In high school, I think everyone is.''
Milky-skinned, red-haired, and perkier in person than her ''Six Feet Under'' persona would suggest, Ambrose takes a sip of coffee in a tiny restaurant in the beach community of Venice, where she lives with her husband, a few miles from the Hollywood studio where the program is shot.
Dressed in a coral sweater and khaki cargo pants, Ambrose, 24, has a brief Claire Fisher moment when another patron exits the cafe without
bothering to close the door. ''What were they, born in a barn?'' she mutters.
Though it's only recently been released, ''Swimming'' was filmed long before Ambrose's ''Six Feet Under'' buzz began getting her named to ''hot'' lists such as Teen People's ''14 Superstars of 2002.'' Almost three years ago, she received a script about a shy tomboy. ''That's what's most exciting about this one: It's one man's vision, and it's truly a labor of love,'' the actress says.
That man would be Robert J. Siegel, a film professor at the State University of New York at Purchase, who adapted a script by one of his students, Lisa Bazadona, that he read in 1998. ''It was this whole cross-age collaboration, based on Lisa's real-life experience spending summers in Myrtle Beach working in a fake tattoo parlor,'' says Ambrose.
''Lauren walked through the door while two other actresses were there auditioning, and I watched her out of the corner of my eye, and I knew - just knew, by the way she sat there, that she was going to be Frankie Wheeler,'' Siegel says. ''She had dressed for the role, and it was just her presence, and her eyes. Her eyes are absolutely compelling.''
After rehearsing in Siegel's New York apartment, Ambrose, cast, and crew headed down to Myrtle Beach, S.C. ''It's a real funky environment down there,'' she says, ''this sort of carny, Coney Island kind of vibe. That's what's interesting about that setting. For a couple of weeks, during spring break, it just goes wild; the people all go storming in and then go storming out, leaving all these townies in their wake, and they kind of despise them and equally love them.
''I've got my version of that in New Haven, very similar, actually,'' she says, referring to the college town where she grew up.
Ambrose began her career in New Haven as an opera-singing wunderkind. She studied music at Tanglewood and performed in college choirs, weddings, and, yes, funerals.
While in high school, Ambrose did a few spots on ''Law & Order'' and appeared in some off-Broadway shows. ''That was my introduction to this world. It was so idealistic. You walk up two flights of stairs, for no money, for people who just love what they're doing. That's what was so exciting to me. Wow - we can tell stories.''
She studied with a couple of teachers at Yale. ''But a lot of it I've learned on my feet,'' she says.
''Swimming'' tells a low-key tale. Frankie Wheeler and her childhood friend Nicola, a pierced jewelry artist, have their bond threatened when a sexy new waitress and a soft-spoken gentleman drifter both begin wooing Frankie. ''What really attracted me about `Swimming,''' says Ambrose, ''is it's really an actor's film, and it's really about relationships, and that's really rare.''
Though Ambrose is in nearly every scene, she does not have reams of dialogue to work with. ''I had to do so much with walking, with just my face. It was almost like being a silent-movie actor.''
Inside the role
The actress's labors included adding a few pounds worthy of her pudgy heroine, getting what she laughingly calls a ''special'' haircut, putting in 18-hour days, and putting up with Southern-style boiled vegetables at the catering table. But the work paid off two years ago at Slamdance, the alternative film festival that takes place in Park City, Utah, down the street from the more established Sundance Film Festival.
''Seeing the film for the first time at Park City was so cool,'' she says. ''At Sundance, it was all like agents and cellphones, trying to get deals, sign deals. And then across the street, here's this little space that they'd fashioned a screening room out of, and people were shoved into it like sardines, and they were so excited to be there and see the film. It was like, `Something's really happening here.'''
After filming ''Swimming,'' Ambrose made another movie set on a beach, but playing a surfer girl named Chicklet in the over-the-top ''Psycho Beach Party'' marked a 180-degree reversal from her muted performance as Frankie.
A few months after finishing ''Beach Party,'' Ambrose auditioned for ''Six Feet Under.''
''There were some painful months without a job for a while, trying to find the right thing to be a part of, trying to find something good,'' she recalls. ''And then this script came along, for the pilot, I just thought it was a great read, wonderful characters, so well crafted, and such an interesting world, I just wanted to be a part of it.
''I went in and auditioned for [the show's creator] Alan Ball, and there was this sort of altar of `American Beauty' memorabilia in back of him ... and it was very daunting,'' she says. When the pilot got picked up as a series two years ago, Ambrose moved to Los Angeles.
Ambrose says she has no problem leaving Claire at the studio - she did, after all, leave high school behind six years ago. But the teen experience she's so deftly conveyed continues to provide rich material for the actress. ''I think it's such an amazing time of life, when you have to accept responsibility for yourself for the first time, you have to look at yourself for the first time, you have to look at your surroundings. I love playing young women coming of age, trying to figure things out, starting to see their lives for what they are.
''It's like your ego is being born at that time, where you're starting to realize how other people see you,'' she adds. ''It's very clear to me, that emotion, that time. I think it's something that we all feel all the time, at different levels, but I think you probably feel it the most at that age, as young girls do.''
This story ran on page L13 of the Boston Globe on 4/7/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.
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