Befitting an actress who has stayed below the radar for so long, Carla Gugino arrives for an interview from underground.
She emerges from a bustling downtown subway stop like a diminutive Venus on a clam shell, a fresh-faced Hollywood starlet whose presence goes unnoticed among the rabble and the irritated.
Her disguise? A lack of one: No baseball cap yanked low over her head, no sunglasses to obscure her eyes. Just a pair of jeans, a backpack, portable music player, a cell phone and an orange button-down shirt.
“I basically feel that if I get on the subway and I don’t have any makeup on and I put my iPod on, people don’t ever accept that an actor would be doing that,” she says. “People I think tend to be pretty respectable if you’re doing your own thing.”
It’s telling that Gugino’s absence of disguise is so effective: Few who share her subway car may recognize the mom in the “Spy Kids” movies, the sexy crimefighter in TV’s “Karen Sisco” or the indie star of films like “The Singing Detective.”
“You get to sit there and see everybody in their lives,” she says. “In L.A., you could go a whole day without talking to anybody aside from being on your cell phone in your car. New York is such an accessible, vibrant, vital city. As an actor, there’s nothing better.”
Gugino’s career takes another step into foreign, subterranean territory with her Broadway debut this summer as the bombshell singer Maggie in a revival of Arthur Miller’s searing play “After the Fall.”
Gugino’s part, inspired by Miller’s tempestuous relationship with Marilyn Monroe, is a character who craves fame and attention. She would throw a fit, for instance, if she wasn’t recognized on the subway.
“There is no doubt that this is a part that has demanded the most of me and has been, on many levels, the most gratifying,” Gugino says over a cup of chamomile tea in a downtown hotel. “There are some shows when I’m just dying to get up on stage and some where my body is saying ‘Please don’t make me do it!”’
Written a few years before Monroe’s death and performed first in 1964, the play traces the soul-searching journey a lawyer named Quentin makes into his past, including revisiting troubled relationships with his wives and his mother.
Maggie, his second wife, appears in the first act as an irrepressible joy. By the final curtain, though, the bubbly light has been replaced by dark paranoia and drug-addiction. Few can miss the echoes of Monroe.
“What was really important to me as an actor was that I didn’t imitate her,” says Gugino, who has dyed her brown hair a fiery red. “I didn’t want to do the breathy thing — because you can’t hear that on stage — and I chose to do the red hair because I wanted something that had an apparent sensuality and vibrancy.”
‘Sort of extraordinary’
Todd Haimes, artistic director of the Roundabout Theatre Company, which produced the play, auditioned many actresses before seeing Gugino. “To see that kind of performance from someone with no experience is just sort of extraordinary,” he said.
Gugino’s wrenching performance also earned her kudos from actor Richard Kind, who appeared with Gugino during the first season of Michael J. Fox’s sitcom “Spin City.” One night after watching the show, Kind stopped Gugino. “He said, ‘Carla, people ask me when I do theater how I do eight shows a week, and I tell them I just do it. But how do YOU do eight shows a week?”’
A one-time petite model, Florida-born Gugino, 32, has amassed a quirky acting resume ever since she appeared alongside Shelly Long and Craig T. Nelson in “Troop Beverly Hills,” her first feature film.
There have been roles in such lowbrow films like “Son In Law” opposite Pauly Shore, art house flicks like Wayne Wang’s “The Center Of The World” and big budget ones like “Michael” with John Travolta and “Snake Eyes” with Nicolas Cage.
“It’s never been my intention to confuse people and yet I do find that once I’ve done one thing I gravitate toward something on the opposite end of the spectrum just naturally,” she says.
“I want to do it all,” she adds. “I think you’re more hirable if people know what to make of you in the short run. In the long run, a body of work can speak for itself.”
Not a household name, yet
Her most high-profile role to date has been in all three installments of the Robert Rodriguez’s “Spy Kids” series, opposite Antonio Banderas. But Gugino, with her oh-so-full lips and wondrous curves, hasn’t yet become a household name.
Last year, she stepped into the high heels of Karen Sisco, an Elmore Leonard character originally portrayed by Jennifer Lopez in “Out of Sight,” for ABC. Despite high hopes, it was canceled after 10 episodes.
“I would love to have more choices in what I’m able to do,” she says. “I’m ready to take the next step. I would love to find something in film that really has the same level of challenge and the same level of depth that I can really dive into.”
Haimes, for one, isn’t worried: “Carla will have a long career. When you have that kind of talent, you don’t have a flash-in-the-pan-type career. She may not be as famous as she should be yet, but my guess is that she’ll be famous longer.”
These days, Gugino is happy being just another New Yorker, subletting an apartment in SoHo and straphanging like any other resident. She does yoga a few times a week to unwind from the stress of Maggie and has become something of a massage junkie.
Then there is the matter of her feet: “Maggie has red toenails, and in New York they last for about two days. So I seem to be getting pedicures much more than I would like to,” she says, then points to her backpack, something she hasn’t used since she was a teen.
“I feel like I’m in college,” she says.
And with that, she turns to go back to the subway and on to the theater. Maggie awaits.
“That is the great joy of being an actor: You get to go to all these dark places and hopefully not live there in your own life,” Gugino says. “The journey is like getting on a train and seeing where it takes you. You can’t hold back.”