Actress enjoying growing popularity


TORONTO - Director John Dahl thought his Joy Ride star, Leelee Sobieski, was mature beyond her years. But he forgot just how young she was until discovering she missed her high school prom to perform in the movie.

"We all felt like such jerks," Dahl said. "I felt terrible. So the grips and the electrics got together and bought her some flowers. She was a real trouper about it."

The 19-year-old Sobieski is part of a new crop of actresses whose sophistication belies their age. Fellow New Yorker Julia Stiles (O) pro- jects the same wisdom.

Sobieski learned while shooting the French-language L'Idole in Paris over the summer that being smart and funny still can be threatening. Even to the French.

"Their favorite thing is when women are like little girls," she said during a recent interview at the Toronto International Film Festival. "I thought it was so bizarre."

Sobieski, her 5-foot-10 frame curled up on a couch in a hotel lounge, then squeaked out in a timid French accent, " 'Oooh, ze big bad wolf is coming to get her.' That irritates me a lot."

Still, autumn features her as a woman in distress in two movies. In Joy Ride, she plays a college student terrorized by a trucker. By the time the hometown boy (Paul Walker) who likes her and his shifty brother (Steve Zahn) pick her up at school for the trek east, they are being hunted by a bloodthirsty CB operator in a black rig. The brothers played a practical joke on him. He didn't get it.

The Glass House has Sobieski as an orphan who finds out that her adoptive parents are out to get her. And on Friday, Sobieski makes a departure as a goth-style loner who falls for a middle-aged man (Albert Brooks) in My First Mister.

The increased exposure has its down side. Her salary, which hit $1 million for The Glass House, has now become public. "You don't want people to know what you have in your bank account," Sobieski said. "You just want to be a person that can have nothing or have a lot."

She now has to deal with the demands of her own growing popularity. Sobieski said she tended to reveal too much. Fans know she likes to clip a lock of her co-stars' hair. That she is descended from Polish royalty and one relative supposedly invented the bagel. That she enjoys ceramics and martial arts, and that she would like to be a painter like her father, Jean, and a writer like her mother, Elizabeth. Now she holds back to preserve a bit of mystery.

"Let's say I love to put popcorn kernels between my toes and eat them from my feet," she says. "If I met someone, I would think that that would be a really cool, bizarre thing I could share with them."

The same hesitation applies in discussing boyfriends. "No comment," she says. However, she adds, "It's very difficult not to fall for your leading man because you're acting like you're in love with them and you have to pick something to fall in love with [in] them."

Sobieski lost out to Kirsten Dunst for 1994's Interview With the Vampire, but used a few television movies to spark her career. She made her feature debut in 1997's Jungle 2 Jungle and followed that by playing one of civilization's last hopes in 1998's Deep Impact.

Heavy sexual themes energized her roles in A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries (1998) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Last year, she played a dying townie who falls for Chris Klein's preppie in the weepy Here on Earth.

She received her biggest critical acclaim on television, earning an Emmy nomination for playing Joan of Arc in the 1999 miniseries of the same name.

"I found her so incredibly compelling as Joan of Arc," Dahl said. "She was what, 15? How many 15-year-old girls can pull that off? She's a very old soul in a young body, I guess."

Sobieski, who was taught method acting by her father, returns to the small screen in the coming miniseries Uprising, about Jews fighting off the Nazis in a Warsaw ghetto.

Even though career demands are greater than ever, Sobieski is giving Brown University a one-year trial. She is living in a dorm with a roommate and trying to blend in. "If I'm going to have the college experience, now's my time to do it," she says.

Sobieski wore a dark blue suit and a light blue shirt open to peek-a-boo depth. The pinched corners of her mouth and long nose give her a resemblance to Helen Hunt. Sobieski has heard the comparison for years and said she doesn't mind it.

Much of the conversation had revolved around her maturity. She disagreed by pointing out her body language.

"I'm still curled up in a ball with my shoes up," she said, "so I am acting like a kid right now. I'm just dressed like a grown-up."

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