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Witt’s Beginning: Alicia Witt Struts Her Stuff in the New Comedy “Playing Mona Lisa”

It’s funny, but the very last thing you expect when you knock on the door of Alicia Witt’s hotel room is that Alicia Witt will actually answer it.

Meeting the stunning 25-year-old star of TV’s Cybill, Urban Legend, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Cecil B. DeMented, and the new Playing Mona Lisa, a journalist couldn’t ask for a more congenial subject than Alicia Witt. Patient with this reporter’s star-struck sickness and candidly honest to a degree rarely seen in Hollywood, the talented Miss Witt reveals herself to be superbly charming, a little bit nuts, and every bit the brainiac she adamantly claims not to be.

In an old interview of yours you are quoted as saying, ‘I’m much more dirty minded and insane’ than your character from Urban Legend. Explain.

That’s true. I didn’t have very much in common with that character. That movie… was basically a genre film. It turned out to be not that great of an experience. There was a lot that I wanted to do with the role… but that wasn’t what the producers were interested in.

Yeah, but what do you mean by ‘dirty minded’?

I don’t consider myself to be a quote-unquote good girl. I’m not prim and proper and polite. I’m very honest, and I love talking about sex, or people’s deviances. I love psychology. I like listening to or talking about any personality traits that are unusual. That’s what I like about acting.

My wife is a redhead and we have an ongoing discussion — a mutual agreement, really — that redheads are inherently crazy.

I think they are.

Why is that?

They seem to be much more bipolar. I don’t know that I’m actually bipolar, but I definitely have huge mood swings, and I’m definitely passionate about the way I feel. I’m not really lukewarm one way or the other.

We see you in a lot of small and independent movies but also a lot of big ones. And you’re always at the Hollywood premieres, dressed to the nines. What’s you opinion of the big versus the small?

I like to play any character that allows me the freedom to explore it and teach the audience something they didn’t know, and show them a journey they identify with… or be inspired, or moved. Anything that touches someone’s heart is important for me.

Do you think Mr. Holland’s Opus is a good example of that, in a big-budget movie?

I do. Because I know people [like those in the movie], having been trained as a classic pianist. And my father was a junior high school teacher. I know that scenario happens. That people start out with dreams, they work hard towards them… Mr. Holland is an aspiring composer and he ends up teaching at a high school for 30 years. He never leaves. And that story is so true.

I have to ask about one of my favorite movies of the 1990s and that’s Fun [a semi-true story about a pair of murderous teenage girls who kill an old woman ‘for fun’]. Why am I the only person who ever saw that movie?

I don’t know! I’m very, very proud of it — my first sort-of lead role.

I looked at some stills from the movie last night and you look like a little kid.

I was a little kid!

How old were you?

Um… I was 18…. I would love for Fun to be more readily available. We shot it in eight days. It was such an intense experience I didn’t have time to get out of character at all. I felt like I was going crazy at night when I went to bed, because I was Bonnie. I couldn’t leave Bonnie’s skin.

Our dressing rooms were detention center cells. The prison scenes were all shot at the Los Angeles Detention Center for Youths in downtown L.A. — really horrible neighborhood — and I saw all the prisoners in their orange jumpsuits, which meant they had killed someone, and they were all looking at us pretending we were prisoners and they hated us for that. It just felt like we were making a documentary. It didn’t feel like a real film.

I read a lot about how you were a child genius and you were super-brilliant…

[Alicia shakes her head cynically. She’s heard this one before.]

Hey, I’ve seen you on Jeopardy!

That’s Celebrity Jeopardy! That doesn’t really count. [Genuinely bitter.] It doesn’t.

So where does the acting bug come from?

I think it comes from being fascinated with human nature, and I love performing. I love the social aspects of making a film. There’s nothing like the bonds you make when you’re working with someone that closely for a period of a few months.

Or eight days.

Or eight days. [Laughs.] I didn’t make any bonds on that movie in fact. I didn’t have time.

There’s just something amazing about [acting]. It’s a great life! It gives you so much freedom. You can write and read and play the piano… and pursue other things. And plus you get to be all these people. You get to explore psychoses without actually going nuts.

My favorite scene in your new film Playing Mona Lisa is when you show up in front of the guy’s door with the ‘Yes!’ signs all over yourself, a kind of desperate attempt to throw yourself at him. But to me it doesn’t seem like something a woman such as yourself would need to do to ‘get a man.’ Do you really identify with the character?

I completely identify with her! Well, not any more. But it was very similar to what I was like when I was younger. The dichotomy between being very advanced in a professional sense… but in my personal life, not knowing how to handle myself, not knowing how to be around guys. I used to get unbelievably goofy. I had that sort of jubilant excitement when I went out with a guy I liked a lot. I think I scared off some people because I seemed like such a nerd.

Do you go online at all?

Definitely. I play Internet backgammon.

I play Internet Scrabble.

I love Scrabble!

[A long conversation ensues about online games and what a colossal waste of time they are, which won’t be reprinted here for the sake of keeping the reader from throwing up. Suffice it to say that if you keep tabs on the Yahoo! Literati tables, you might run into Ms. Witt someday. The Scrabble discussion eventually turns to the topic of vocabulary.]

…at least I’m learning new words.

That’s good. I learned the other day what a doucet is.

What’s a doucet?

It’s a deer testicle.

How’d you learn that?

I found a site on the Internet of unusual and sexual terms, and I found a bunch of interesting and bizarre words. One of them is nothosonomia. That’s the act of calling someone a bastard.

Did you know you can download an Alicia Witt screensaver online?

I didn’t know that. [Laughs.]

Does that creep you out?

Just the fact that it exists doesn’t mean anyone actually downloaded it. I can’t imagine anyone would actually want one.

My screensaver says, ‘I want gelato.’ [She makes a funny voice.] I WANT GELATO!

Some more rumors I read: That you enjoy watching porn for laughs?

It’s funny.

What is your favorite porn movie?

I don’t know any of the names of them. I’ve mostly seen porn in hotel rooms… with the five-min
ute preview. I’ll just keep watching, turning off, turning on… There’s one porno I saw in Toronto… and it involves this really dorky guy, your stereotypical insurance salesman, with a big, pointy nose and big, horn-rimmed spectacles, bumbling his way up the stairs… And of course, the door is opened by this gorgeous, double-D woman. And of course within five seconds she’s all over him, and of course he has this giant penis. I mean, it’s ridiculous. I mean… those are funny. How could anyone get off on that?

[Nervous.] Um, well this is not an interview of me… Er, so tell me about the gerbil scene in Cecil B. DeMented.

It was the most inventive porno scene probably ever filmed for a movie. It’s vintage John Waters. I’m just happy that for the rest of my life, I will be able to say that I did a John Waters film and I played a porn star named Cherish who had a sex scene with a gerbil.

Do you think you’ll ever work with John again?

I’d love to. He wrote on the inside of my wrap present [a book of Andy Warhol artwork], ‘You are a member of my gang for life.’

John’s such a nice guy.

Very nice.

Yet a dirty mind.

Very dirty. A very intelligent man. He’s brilliant.

I’ve noticed a few TV appearances of yours lately, The Sopranos and Ally McBeal. Are you thinking about going back to television?

I’m not going back. I just did those two shows. I would do another guest-starring role if it was really good. I did Ally McBeal because it was my favorite show. I felt completely star-struck being on the set. I know that sounds silly, but it was the only show I have watched since the beginning, and I call my girlfriends on the phone and we refer to everybody by character name. To be on the set for the first time… I just felt like a little kid. It was a wild feeling.

Did working with David Lynch so early in your career on projects like Dune and Twin Peaks shape your expectations of Hollywood?

Well it certainly spoiled me. I expected the directors that I worked with in the future to be as wonderful as he was. I mean, my first movie had the biggest budget ever at its time — $75 million, unheard of in 1983. So, I didn’t know any differently. I just thought, ‘This is the way movies are made.’

Witt and Ivan Sergei in Playing Mona Lisa.

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