Maybe it's the red hair. Like her fellow carrottop Molly Ringwald, Lauren Ambrose has an uncanny knack for conveying the rigors of growing up. While Ambrose, 24, first revealed this gift with eye-catching supporting roles in the gay-Midwesterner comedy In & Out and the veritable teen classic Can't Hardly Wait, it's with her Emmy-nominated work as the wise-beyond-her-years but still floundering Claire Fisher on the HBO series Six Feet Under that she has done more to define modern teen angst. And today's kids are lucky to have her. Unlike the characters played by '80s icon Ringwald, Ambrose's Claire and the lot aren't merely waiting for their preppy prince to come along; they are meeting life head-on.
The same is true - eventually - of Ambrose's Frankie Wheeler in the moving Swimming, an under-$1 million indie directed by SUNY Purchase film professor Robert J. Siegel from a script he cowrote with Grace Woodard and his former student Lisa Bazadona. Shot in the fall of 1998, the film provides Ambrose with her first lead role, as Frankie, an unassuming, decidedly plain young woman working in her family's Myrtle Beach restaurant while also balancing her attentions between her wild-child best friend (Jennifer Dundas Lowe), a beautiful and fickle fellow waitress (Joelle Carter) and an intriguing new romantic possibility (Jamie Harrold). Yes, Swimming is another coming-of-age saga, but its naturalistic approach sets it apart: There's no makeover scene (as there would be in a John Hughes film), and there's no late-in-the-game dramatic incident (as there is in nearly every other entry in this genre today) to neatly resolve Frankie! 's story.
"This was a really cool acting exercise because I'm in almost every frame of the movie and I think I have probably the least amount of dialogue," says Ambrose, calling from an island off the coast of Virginia, where she is visiting her family before heading to Iceland for more vacation time. "But I think people get it because everybody feels like Frankie at times; shy, quiet, reserved and needing to figure out how to make big decisions in their lives." Indeed, since Frankie isn't able to readily articulate the sensations she's experiencing, the film is dependent on Ambrose's ability to convey these deep emotions through her body language and facial expressions. "Lauren's eyes are absolutely compelling," says Siegel, who wound up self-distributing the film despite his star's television acclaim and the great notices Swimming received on the festival circuit. "They just take you there. That's her strength as an actress."
Ambrose's eyes are incredible, but a particularly refreshing aspect of Swimming is Frankie's resolute drabness. She's rarely seen out of her dowdy uniform of overalls and a T-shirt, and despite her beguiling inner light, Frankie is definitely not the girl you'd immediately notice when entering a room. Ambrose worked hard at toning down her offbeat natural beauty to make that point. "I got a really special haircut, I put on a little weight and wore no makeup," she says. "I just went out there looking like whatever. It wasn't my most flattering moment, but it's true to the character."
To nail Frankie's speech and mannerisms, Ambrose arrived at the laid-back Myrtle Beach set to absorb the local color before shooting began. "Frankie's lived there all her life, so I kind of hnug out to get a sense of what it would be like to be from Myrtle Beach. It's a vacation destination, but people live there, and I think the locals have sort of a love-hate relationship with the tourists. "Having grown up in New Haven, Connecticut, home of Yale University, Ambrose (who has been acting sporadically in plays and teleivision since she was in her early teens) is familiar with the resentment that can build in a townie forced to watch the escapades of temporary residents. "Frankie's relationship with Myrtle Beach is a lot like how it was for me growing up in New Haven," says Ambrose. "The students certainly forget sometimes that it's a pretty place and people live there."
With such a promising career before her, however, Ambrose isn't stuck on past slight. But while most actors her age ("I just happen to look like I'm 12," she jokes) are determinedly planning their leap from youthful roles to more mature parts, Ambrose insists that she's content to continue in her niche. "I love playing a young girl. They're very interesting people going through formative periods in their lives," she says. "Besides, I want to play young for as long as I can pull it off."
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