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Kyra’s Caring Characters: A Conversation with Kyra Sedgwick

Once a shayna maidel, always a shayna maidel. Even with the tough broad brio that brings Vickie to the very edge of viciousness, Kyra Sedgwick softens her Woodsman woman warrior with a softness born of inner sadness that is so sensational a portrayal, it borders on the phenomenal. But then, the star of Phenomenon (1996) has a feel for the fine edge that separates the hurt and the healed in a body of work of scraped and scrappy women. The one she plays now, the lumberyard driver driven like a bat out of hell, is one of her more accomplished parts. And she achieves it as a stick of dynamite just waiting for the right man to come along and let her emotions explode.

Such is the role of Philadelphian Kevin Bacon–on and off the screen. Bacon stars opposite his wife as Walter in the city-set The Woodsman, as a pedophile scared by the prospects of freedom. He may have been released from prison after serving time for his assault on a young child, but the shadow of memory stays one step ahead, always holding him back from fading into the crowd.

The Woodsman, a film by Nicole Kassell, is now playing in the area. And the role of Vickie, who confronts and comforts Bacon’s weakened Walter, romancing and reminding him to see the forest beyond the trees, is as astute an actor’s effort as seen all year. Because under Vickie’s veneer is that shayna maidel reminder that hearts of gold beat with a special heavy mettle. And Sedgwick seriously knows from shayna maidels; she’s one herself, having been raised in a Jewish home where the understanding was that nice girls can finish first.

“Everyone has heart,” says the star. “And everyone has pain, uncertainty, shame.” There’s no shame in her bio, where Sedgwick’s résumé reads with smart choices even when the women are at wit’s end. Such was the case with her Miss Rose White, a fully colored portrayal capturing the essence of a guileless young woman and the guilt she assumes having been sent to safety ahead of the Holocaust even as her sister remained behind. Raised American, she finds her safe home of satisfaction razed when her sister eventually joins her in New York, where the new and old worlds of jaded and genuine Jewish lives stick to the edges of the melting pot, fearful of the fire at their feet. That Hallmark movie proved a hallmark for Sedgwick’s career, one which is surpassed now.

“Miss Rose had shame, this woman, too,” says Sedgwick of Vickie, a survivor surreptitiously standing tall as a hardened woman while her heart is shattered in pieces. “She is so damaged,” says the actress, “yet she’s still able to love.” Damaged but daring, but most of all, adds Sedgwick, she knows the importance of guts and glory: “She has a lot of chutzpah.” So does Sedgwick, who took Miss Rose White, based on the play “A Shayna Maidel,” and made it her own. “I have great compassion for my characters,” says the native New Yorker, whose appearance in Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity showed just how much up to speed Sedgwick is at getting to the core of character.

The co-star of HBO’s “Something the Lord Made” is someone you can’t make up in Hollywood–a genuine genteel actress with the spunk to spike any film she stars in. Her compassion is beyond comparison whether it be in film (Born on the Fourth of July, Lemon Sky) or theater (“The Exonerated,” “Ah! Wilderness!,” “Oleanna”) or raising a family of two children with husband Bacon by her side on the mean streets of New York, made softer by the couple’s low-key approach to stardom.

No stars in her eyes–not even herself. “I want so much for him, for his career,” says Sedgwick of Kevin, that when he begged her to take the role of Vickie, she initially refused, hoping he’d get a bigger name. “Can’t we get some young hot broad to do this part?” she asked.

Home is where the heart is, and where he found that “young, hot broad,” although Sedgwick, lean and mean, means no self-disrespect in not seeing herself that way, even though others do.

Tall and tawny, she is the tower of strength in the wobbly world that is Walter’s. “It is the hardest part I’ve ever had,” she admits. Easy to see why. Not that other roles weren’t painful to perceive. As Rose White, Sedgwick sensed the family’s personal pain when she herself visited Auschwitz; she also starred in another Holocaust-related film, The Children of War.

“As an artist, it is not my job to cut out certain realities of life,” says Sedgwick of taking on tough roles such as Vickie and those which led to her tour of Auschwitz. “As I live in New York, I live in the real world. I’m aware of humanity.” And Hollywood is very much aware of her talent: She is also starring in Loverboy, opposite real-life loverboy Kevin, and is co-producing it with him as it unfolds this month at the Sundance Film Festival. And TV fans can do a dance of their own; Sedgwick has signed on with TNT for an explosive new cop drama due to air soon.

In the meantime, she dazzles in The Woodsman, going out on a limb as the lover of a hard-to-like character. Why accept such a role? Because the characters “are all about acceptance of themselves–much like Rose White learned to accept her Jewish heritage.” No exceptions in real life, either. “This is the real Jewish link for me,” she says of real and reel life. “Walter takes responsibility for what he is and what he has done, and that’s what I have gotten from being Jewish. What separates us as a people–and I’m not [disparaging] any other groups–is our taking responsibility for what we do. Judaism is about being responsible human beings.” Her responsibility extends to parts taken: “I won’t take on a role where I’m going to blow up people,” she says. But then, she already has in a way: bombing the barriers that brace Walter’s heart, detonating the ds that destroy his diffidence. Sedgwick’s Vickie is all about damage control, and the actress has a handle on her own personal velocity, warp speed that it be in the race to greatness.

Michael Elkin

Michael Elkin is the nationally syndicated entertainment editor of The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.