When Minnie Driver first read the script for the Irish period romance "Circle of Friends," she immediately fell in love with the central female role of Bernadette.
"I just felt that you never see parts like that," said the ringlet-haired English actress. "When you're young, you don't get character leading roles. You're generally playing the daughter, the nurse, the mistress, the young wife. This was an extraordinary part for me when I was 22 -- this great big, warm character."
Bernadette, whom everyone calls Benny, is indeed the heart and soul of Pat O'Connor's film about three young women from a small Irish village who come of age while attending college during the late 1950s. Based on Maeve Binchy's well-regarded novel, "Circle of Friends" has proved surprisingly popular in its limited U.S. release and, as a consequence, now has gone into wide distribution.
Part of the film's appeal is no doubt due to its old-fashioned take on romance and sex: The former was nicer in more innocent times, when curious Catholic girls were convinced that doing the latter would damn them straight to hell. Another component of the movie's success is clearly American actor Chris O'Donnell ("Scent of a Woman," Robin in the coming "Batman Forever"), who plays Jack, the most attractive guy at all of Trinity College.
But it's safe to say that Ms. Driver's performance as vulnerable Benny, a self-styled ugly duckling whom Jack unexpectedly falls for, is what film-goers respond to the most. Straightforward, good-hearted and strong when she has to be, Benny is well nigh irresistible, and it's easy to see why Jack loves her -- even though, as she self-deprecatingly exaggerates, she's something of a rhino girl.
Meeting Ms. Driver in person, you understand immediately why she had to lobby hard for the chance to play Benny. Although the energetic and wry actress-singer projects the same kind of inner radiance that shines so winningly from Benny on screen, no one would dream of making a duckling, rhino or any other unflattering animal comparison about Ms. Driver.
"I had to gain about 25 pounds for the role," said Ms. Driver, who was raised in the Caribbean nation of Barbados and has appeared in numerous British television productions. "That was the prerequisite; they didn't want to give me the part straight off because of that. I campaigned for a year before I actually got cast."
According to "Friends" director Pat O'Connor, Ms. Driver may not have had to try quite as hard, nor eaten quite as much, as she presumed.
"I always thought Minnie could do it," he said. "I met her and I thought she was very sweet and very good. Personality was the key ingredient; how I felt I'd get along with her and she'd get along with me, the impression that we'd both be reaching for the same result. If you don't have that in the beginning, it can become difficult.
"So, I said to her that you have to be very plain and simple, and you have to be honest about that. You have to resist the temptation to suddenly come out looking like a glamour puss. Because that's what the film is about, it's about a homely girl. She said she could do that, and I knew she could."
But even though Ms. Driver gained and, afterward, lost the weight with jealousy-inducing ease, actually playing the role required some serious attitude adjustment.
"You've got to get over that vanity," Ms. Driver said. "That was a great lesson. One of the most troublesome problems of acting is that it can bring up aspects of yourself that you just don't want to deal with. But you absolutely have to hit them face on; otherwise, they're going to get in the way of everything that you're trying to do.
"Pat was brilliant about that. While he wasn't unsupportive, he was very clear. He insisted that, 'If I get for a moment, in your eyes, that you're not relinquishing this need to be found attractive, it's going to throw off the whole balance of the film. You've got to give it up, right now!' "
Luckily for Ms. Driver, there was support at home throughout the shoot.
"The sky didn't fall in, the light didn't disappear from the end of the tunnel. Life carried on, it was fine," she said of living larger. "My boyfriend thought I was the sexiest thing ever! There are definitely positive ways of looking at it. It's just that we are so bombarded with looking at it negatively that we forget we do have a choice. We choose to be negative about it, then we sort of bullwhip ourselves."
After filming, however, Ms. Driver had singing engagements booked at London jazz clubs and slimmed down quickly for them. She describes the music she writes and performs as a Sade-ish fusion of jazz and rhythm and blues.
Ms. Driver's next movie appearance will be quite a departure in several ways. In "Goldeneye," the new James Bond film starring Pierce Brosnan and scheduled for release in the fall, Ms. Driver plays a Russian country and western singer. "I get to sing 'Stand By Your Man' with a big Stetson on, and I sing it very badly," she said with a grin.
That should be light years away, in tone, from the gentle, nostalgic innocence of "Circle of Friends."
Ms. Driver insists that "Circle," which may just make her a star, has a universal message that transcends its time and setting.
"Certainly, the issues within 'Circle of Friends' are perennials; stuff that could be in 1957 or 1997," she observed. "Growing up, falling in love, betrayal, losing a parent -- that stuff doesn't change. I think the moral framework changes. Whereas, you had the fear of hellfire and damnation if you had sex then, today we have AIDS.
"There are all these considerations, all these parallels, that just manifest in different ways through time. But the basic stuff stays the same. I'm sure it was the same in 1411. Y'know, 'Oh, it's a nightmare! I want the guy in the tights.' "