By Sherrie Li
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Offscreen, that same sympathetic quality translates into an easy intimacy with strangers. Observe her long enough and you can see her pull out a common thread for everyone — for the groovy young man who does her hair before a photo shoot (“I had a dream about you!” she says. “You savedme.”), for the photographer who offers up an art book about Africa after Smith confesses that the continent is among her passions. Minahan, too, found in Smith a kindred spirit: “We were both fat kids,” the now-slender Minahan told me. “That was just one thing that we really bonded over. Fat kids are outsiders the rest of their lives.”
And as outsiders, the two are well-situated to critique the intensifying societal obsession with watching real people in candid suffering. Minahan came up with the idea for a send-up of reality TV back in 1996, inspired by Cops and Real World, but in the five years it took him to finish the movie, Survivorand Big Brotherhad already brought mediated voyeurism to another level, in which real life was being manipulated by game-show producers. It made Minahan look prescient, and the film uncannily pertinent. “They scooped us,” says Smith. “We’d shot the whole film before Survivorever came out.”
On the press tour, Smith has noticed, TV is imitating its satire: Like the producer in Series 7who interviews the contestants, talk-show hosts want to know how she reallyfeels. “I’ve been on these morning talk shows lately where people say to me, ‘Dawn’s a bloodthirsty killer!’” Once again, Smith worries that she may be so deeply identified with a performance she’ll be bound to the real-people genre.
“Somebody was saying to me recently, and I know he meant it as a compliment, that he thought of me as a very emotional actress, and he didn’t see me in films that were more stylized and less emotional. I hope that’s not true. I’d like to do both, and I like the idea of putting the style and the emotion together — like Giulietta Masina did in Nights of Cabiria, or the way Claire Denis does her movies. I’d like to try everything.”
With a recurring role as a wheelchair-bound ALS victim in a new television series called The Big Apple by NYPD Blue co-creator David Milch, and another round of critical success for her performance in Series 7, Smith is resisting any new ultimatums about her career. “I remember being told when I was 21, you’re not really going to work a lot until you’re 33, 34. And I just thought, ‘Well, that’s 12 years away! What the hell am I supposed to do until then?’ And now here I am 33 and it might be true. It’s almost like I’ve grown into myself.
“And now,” she reflects, “I’m thinking maybe I don’t have be a zoologist. Maybe I can just play one.”
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