TORONTO -- A year ago, Alison Lohman arrived at the Toronto International Film Festival as an unknown in an actress-loaded movie called White Oleander. But her performance as a foster child who takes abuse at every stop overshadowed the stars, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robin Wright Penn and Renee Zellweger.
"I remember they had me in a limo," Lohman says in a recent interview here, "and I freaked out, tears rolling down my cheek and having to get out of the limo and just walk there because I couldn't deal with the limo and the premiere and the dress. It was too much."
Lohman, 24, still has the dewy visage of an ingenue. She's just not a rookie anymore. This year's festival, which concluded last weekend, marked her second big-studio feature, Matchstick Men. Lohman plays the precocious 14-year-old daughter of a con artist played by Nicolas Cage, who wants to retire from grifting to set an example but is pulled into one last job by his longtime partner, played by Sam Rockwell.
"I hung out with my cousin, who's 14, for about a month and just got to know her world -- what she would talk about, what she would do all day," Lohman says of her preparations for the role. "It's changed so much since I was 14, so that was helpful."
Heavy eye makeup and a chic shag cut reveal more of the adult Lohman. She says she wanted to look older and sexier but is now grateful for her youthful appearance. The idea that her character is "14 going on 40" made the transition in Matchstick Men a little easier.
Lohman next appears as Ewan McGregor's wife in Tim Burton's Big Fish, about a Southerner who reconciles with his dying father. There are a few more projects she is about to complete. Premieres probably will not make her cry anymore.
"I've been really lucky to have these opportunities," she says. "I know there's so many actors out there who can't even get a job right now."
Lohman hails from Palm Springs, Calif. While it is just a 2 1/2 -hour drive from Hollywood, it is not a breeding ground for entertainers. Show-business types go to the desert community to get away from show business for a weekend.
Her closest brush with any kind of celebrity, she laughs, was that her father built a house for golfer Arnold Palmer. Lohman plugged away in high school plays and local theater before a couple of older part-time residents, Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope, took notice and asked her to sing in a concert with them.
She moved to Los Angeles after high school, and her pixie good looks helped her land parts in two short-lived television drama series, Pasadena and Safe Harbor. Now she splits time between Vancouver, British Columbia, where her cameraman boyfriend lives, and Santa Monica, where she keeps the premieres and Hollywood soirees to a minimum.
"I don't really like going to all those parties," she says. "I feel uncomfortable. It feels kind of forced. I just like hanging out with friends and having real conversations and not just meeting people."
She rarely returns home now because her friends are gone and she hates the heat, but her best friend is her mother. "It sounds so corny," she says.
Lohman's appearances in Toronto have raised her profile but not her expectations. She has not charted a path to continued success, saying that the mere thought of planning stresses her out.
Unlike many of her peers, Lohman has a sense of history about her craft. Performances she admires include Shirley MacLaine's in The Apartment (1960) and Katharine Hepburn in Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962). She often asks older co-stars what their favorite movies are and then rents them. "I haven't watched enough," she says.
She also asks for advice -- not a bad idea, considering that the last two directors she has worked with are Burton and Matchstick Men's Ridley Scott.
"Ridley was always kind of there," she says. "I remember asking Ridley, 'How do you think I should choose the script?' He said, 'The director's really important.'"
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