It wasn't until 2005, when she completed four movies in 11 months, that the leap began to resemble a blastoff. First came the drama "The Namesake," then the romance "The Last Kiss," followed by the mega-disaster flick "Poseidon" and finally the comedy "School for Scoundrels." At one point, the filming of "The Last Kiss," in Montreal, and "Poseidon," in Los Angeles, overlapped, so she rocketed between the two cities in a private jet. "I was so tripped-out," she says. "That was the first time I had a plane hired for me, and I was in the back of the plane all alone. It was so weird!"
Australia. In high school she was involved in theater, but opportunities to work in film or TV were limited. Then, when she was 14, a scout for a modeling agency spotted her on the street. After graduating, she began modeling in Sydney and then strutted her stuff as a runway and print model in Tokyo and Paris. Despite the glamour of the profession, Barrett says she didn't find her work intellectually or creatively stimulating. "At first, modeling was OK, but I got sick of it," she says.
She took six months off and went to Germany to learn the language. Then in 1994, when she was living in Paris and thinking about getting her pilot's license, "The Real World" called and asked her to be on the London show. "I know it sounds funny now, but at that time there were no reality shows, and MTV was just a late-night music show in Australia," she recalls. "I was like, 'This sounds interesting: I get to live in London, they'll pay me to get my pilot's license and there will be this little documentary of this five-month period of my life.'" Barrett, whose quest to fly was cataloged along with every other minute detail of her existence, became a favorite with viewers.
But far from being her big break, she says the reality-show experience hindered her acting career. The genre was considered frivolous, and she had to work extra-hard to convince casting agents that she was a serious actress. "When you go in to do an interview, no one's interested that you were on a cable [reality] show," Barrett says. "Unless you want to be known as that person on that show."
After "The Real World: London" wrapped in 1995, she studied acting in Oxford and landed parts on two U.S. TV series. She says the real turning point in her career came in 2003, when she scored a role opposite Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins in "The Human Stain." The film received mixed reviews, but Barrett's portrayal of Steena Paulsson was singled out for praise. New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote, "Some of the best performances are in secondary roles. Jacinda Barrett is wonderfully touching as Coleman's first great love, a blond Midwesterner to whom he decides, heedlessly and a little cruelly, to divulge the secret of his race."
"Great people were working on it, Robert Benton directed it, it was based on an [award]-winning novel," Barrett says. "And things just sort of progressed from there." She made such an impression on the producer, Tom Rosenberg, that when she told him she was interested in doing a remake of the 2001 Italian film "The Last Kiss," Rosenberg "got the rights to the story the next day." In the 2006 version, she's Jenna, the betrayed girlfriend of the 30-year-old man-child Michael, played by Zach Braff. She recalls the two months of filming as the most challenging of her career. "That character ran the gamut of emotion. And she has this fierce anger and violence when she's wronged emotionally."
In "The Namesake," which comes out this month, Barrett plays rich Manhattanite Maxine Ratliff, the love interest of Gogol, a rebellious young man who is struggling to reconcile his immigrant Bengali roots with his life in America. The film, directed by Mira Nair ("Monsoon Wedding," "Vanity Fair"), is based on Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jhumpa Lahiri's first novel, which is what sold Barrett on the project. "The writing is so beautiful," she says. "It's about displaced people and the immigrant experience. Not that I can understand that experience, but I know how shocking it can be to be constantly uprooted. . . . I have lived all over the world in the last 14 years." Married since 2004 to actor Gabriel Macht ("The Good Shepherd," "Behind Enemy Lines"), Barrett divides her time between Los Angeles and Australia, where she has just purchased a home. "It has a little path to the beach and a gorgeous view," she says. "I couldn't be happier."