WOMAN OF NOTE (August 2006)
Choosing projects is an interesting affair for Annabeth Gish these days. "There are some things that I just can't do anymore," says the actor, who's been in the biz since she was 13. "I've embraced my own complexity as a woman now. I can't play the typical, one-note girlfriend part. I understand the value of it, but I can't do it."
Looks like she won't have to worry about that anytime soon. Gish is currently inhabiting two deliciously complicated women of nuance and depth, and she hopes to continue mining parts like these for all they're worth. In Brotherhood, a dramatically potent new series from Showtime, she portrays Eileen Caffee, long-suffering wife of rising politician Tommy Caffee (Jason Clarke). Though Eileen seems like the epitome of a perfect, passive wife, there's a lot more going on under the surface, including dabblings with drugs and extramarital affairs. It's a beautifully layered, brutally honest performance, one that should win Gish kudos from critics and viewers alike. "The complexity of Eileen as she's written and as the creators really envisioned her was a draw for me on such a basic actor level of craving a role that you really have to take a lot of risks for emotionally and physically," says Gish. "It was a complex, meaty role, the likes of which I really have not yet had."
And from July 28 to Sept. 3, Gish is set to play Regan in director Patsy Rodenburg's production of "King Lear" at Electric Lodge in Venice. Gish has never done Shakespeare professionally and is relishing the opportunity. But what is it like for an actor to be interpreting these words that so many have interpreted before? How does one keep it fresh? "I think that's actually to the credit of Shakespeare: He doesn't load any of his characters down with preconceptions," says Gish. "And I think Patsy is insistent about taking it always back to the text, so therefore it's personal and unique each time.... It's a wonderful opportunity to be in the moment and in the word and in the breath. That's the simplest way I can say it. It's different than sort of indulgent television acting, where you can pause and you can think and you can emote on a small, subtle scale. You can't take a pause and interrupt the rhythm of this verse and this text; it has to drive you. It's actually quite liberating in that way."
Gish broke into acting at 13, with a starring role in the film Desert Bloom opposite accomplished thesps Jon Voight and JoBeth Williams. "That experience came about in the most random way ever," she recalls. "I grew up in the Midwest, in a very small town, and did local community theatre from the time I was a child. My parents were at a literary conference in Minnesota where they happened to have an ad in the newspaper about some casting search they were doing for a movie. I went in and just randomly got the part, and it opened up this whole new world for me."
At 17, she starred alongside Julia Roberts and Lili Taylor in the tender coming-of-age classic Mystic Pizza. Her career was definitely revving up, but Gish decided to take a slightly unorthodox path: She took a break from acting to attend Duke University, eventually graduating with a degree in English. "I loved going; I could be an eternal student if I didn't have to work," she says, chuckling. "It was right at the time when Mystic Pizza came out, but it was really integral to me, having a life experience and getting really armed educationally."
And, she says, the experience and education were assets when she returned to acting. "I think that college saved me, truly, because I would probably have been eaten up had I come out here at 18," she says.
She hasn't stopped working since graduation. Notable parts include Wyatt Earp's first love, Urilla, in Lawrence Kasdan's 1994 biopic of the famed gunslinger, Wyatt Earp; presidential daughter Elizabeth Bartlet Westin on The West Wing; and spiritual FBI agent Monica Reyes on The X-Files. These roles ensure that Gish is certainly known to die-hard TV fans and film critics, but she's not exactly a household name just yet—and she's okay with that. "I'm actually grateful for the kind of career I have, in that I fly pretty low under the radar," she says. "I have great experiences behind me and, hopefully, many rich ones to come."
After all, for Gish, it is the craft of acting—not fame—that brings her the most happiness. "The purest joy for me and the purest form of the art is when you're in a scene and either the camera's rolling or you're onstage and it's that electric current of embodying someone else's pain or feeling and really being transported to that and transforming it for the audience," she says. "It's just the most thrilling experience."