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ARTICLES Details: Leelee in Lala Land
 
It's a bright spring afternoon in Manhattan, and Leelee Sobieski is walking the streets of the Upper West Side, deconstructing fire hydrants. "They're quite interesting, actually," she says excitedly. "My dad did a photo project on them." On her arms are geometric designs she doodled with a ballpoint pen, and in her bag, a dog-eared copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. She's spent the past hour strolling through the dinosaur exhibit at the Museum of Natural History--not far from where she lives with her father, a French artist, her mother, a writer, and her brother; who's 10 and likes chess and Nintendo 64. It's a day pretty much like any other for the 17-year-old, except she's being followed around by a writer. And every once in a while someone will stare at her like she's some kind of freak, which--aside from being unusually tall for her age and rather striking in a vaguely Helen Hunt-ish way--she's really not.

An elderly man in a wheelchair rolls up to Sobieski and says hello. "You're very beautiful," he tells her. "Are you really 17?" This kind of thing has been happening more and more often lately. Since she made her debut in the 1997 family flick Jungle 2 Jungle, Sobieski's recognizability has steadily increased through roles in the meteor movie Deep Impact, Merchant-Ivory's A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, the Drew Barrymore comedy Never Been Kissed, and the CBS miniseries Joan of Arc. Now, in the late Stanley Kubrick's pshyco-sexual thriller Eyes Wide Shut, she's appearing opposite Tom Cruise as the nymphet daughter of a costume shop owner (at press time, details were still shrouded in Manhattan Project-like secrecy). The film will certainly boost her profile even further, but at the moment she's still getting used to all this fame stuff. She hasn't yet lost her blush reflex.



A city bus with an ad for Joan of Arc goes by, showing Sobieski in chain mail, her face a mask of kicking-ass-for-God-and-France determination. The miniseries won solid reviews and even better ratings, but Sobieski shrugs off it's success. "Yeah, it did well," she says. "That's good." It's like a bio test she aced. No biggie.

Like most teen actors in the first flush of stardom, Sobieski would rather talk about fire hydrants. "When you really look at them, you realize they all have different personalities," she explains. "Like, some of them are friendly and some are beaten up and disgusting. Some seem all shiny, but you know they're not really rich fire hydrants--they look silver, but at the core they're steel." She points to a weather-beaten hydrant on the next corner. "See that one? Nobody loves him. He's waiting for someone."


Mental Ward B
I am sad and you laugh, that's not very nice.
You just follow the crowd, like a bunch of white mice.

She was a piece of shit, she was a piece of plastic.
Is it possible for me to kill her. Just squirt her with Fantastik
I love to lay rat traps, and chop off their heads.
With the blood squirting everywhere, getting specks on my Keds.
-
Leelee Sobieski


Pity the poor Sharon Stones and Kevin Costners of the world. It's tough to be a grown-up movie star. You feel old, irrelevant, out of touch. You're not "jiggy wit it," or whatever the kids are saying.



In Hollywood today, it's all about getting teenagers to fork over their baby-sitting earnings at the box office. The studios are pumping out teen horror flicks and comedies at a steady clip--and even if the horror movies are fairly comical and the comedies mainly horrific, as long as a few keep sticking it'll remain a profitable business to be in. The line about Hollywood being high school with money has never been truer.

For would-be teen idols, it's the biggest gold rush since the Brat Pack stalked the earth. Casting directors are frantically scouting for fresh faces in high-school cafeterias and summer-stock productions of Bye Bye Birdie. If they could, they'd contract genetic-engineering firms to breed teen actors in test tubes.

Now here comes Leelee Sobieski--with her fire hydrants and her blood-spattered Keds and a face out of a Renaissance painting--and suddenly the buzz traffickers are scratching their heads. Where do they put this one? None of the convenient labels fit. She has bypassed the usual teen-genre movies and WB series in favor of projects that many of her peers might deem too serious or too arty. For her one high-school comedy, Never Been Kissed, she declined to audition for the role of one of the popular girls, taking instead a small part as a noble nerd. "Leelee hasn't really been pegged," says Sobieski's Deep Impact costar Elijah Wood. "She's been able to transcend the boxes these young actors have been put in, which is really hard to do."

In part, it's the air of sophistication Sobieski projects. "Leelee has a certain gravitas to her; like jodie Foster has," says her mother, Elizabeth, who, along with husband Jean, manages Leelee's career. "I don't think she will be doing teen movies at 20."

"I did try to get a few of those teen high-school movies, but they just didn't like me," Sobieski admits with a shrug. "I guess I wasn't enough of a certain type."

The fact is, the usual teen fare doesn't suit her tastes anyway; this is possibly the only teenage girl in America who's only watched Dawson's Creek just once--and didn't even make it through an episode. "All the teenage films are, like, everybody's smoking marijuana, and they go shoot a couple of people--woo-hoo!" Sobieski says disgustedly. "Or, 'We cheated on all our tests and became the biggest sluts, and now we're going to Harvard!" I'm not saying these movies are evil. They're just stupid."

Spend a little time with Sobieski and you'll get a rapid-fire earful about what does suit her taste: Otis Redding, Tom Waits, John Waters movies, and this one Massive Attack song with "kind of a porno beat." She'll tell you about a 1930s erotic print she bought recently at a shop in Prague: "It was this naked women with big hands, like monster hands, weird black hair, and strange lips. I found it very sexy." She'll tell you about her growing collection of celebrities' locks of hair; which includes samples from Kubrick, Peter O'Toole, and Regis Philbin ("Kathie Lee didn't want me to touch her hair; so she gave me a hairbrush with her hair on it"). She'll spend five minutes recounting the plot of an old Bette Davis-Errol Flynn movie, and seconds later engage you in a debate about the merits of Big Mama Thornton's and Evlis Presley's versions of "Hound Dog"--she prefers Thorntons, silly girl.

 
She'll gush about how cool her parents are ("The few times I've ever been to a disco, I've been with them") and how much she appreciates their advice and overprotectiveness.



Born and raised in New York City, Liliane Roudabeh Elvieta Gloria Sobieski was inoculated early on with her parents' artistic sensibilities. Introduced to Shakespeare in the Park at age 3, she was toted to art galleries every weekend and the south of France every summer. At age 11, Sobieski was spotted in her school cafeteria by a casting agent for Interview With the Vampire, who suggested she try acting. The concept had never even crossed her mind--she planned to become a writer or a painter--but she found she had a knack for it. Before long, Sobieski, whose father once appeared in spaghetti Westerns, found herself going up for cereal commercials and Hallmark TV movies. Cut to three years later, and Sobieski is spending two months in England with the biggest movie star on the planet and one of the most legendary directors of all time. The audition process for Eyes Wide Shut had been grueling, but in the end, Kubrick chose the relatively unknown 14-year-old over, in her mother's words, "every famous girl now between the ages of 17 and 21 in the business."

"Some people might think this is all just dropped out of the sky for, but I've worked hard for it," Sobieski insists. "Maybe I'd be happier if it was coming when I was 30, but it's coming now, so I'm bathing in it." She pauses. "I just don't want to take it for the real world."

Sobieski is walking along 83rd street towards her apartment when she runs into a boy she knows from school. She offers a chipper greeting. "Howzitgoin?" he mumbles, his mouth full of some sticky orange substance. That conversational line exhausted, the two stand there awkwardly. A long moment passes. "Um, you wanna Cheez-it?" the kid finally asks, thrusting a bag at Sobieski. She politely declines and continues on her way.

Sobieski, who proudly attests to being the only true virgin who's ever played Joan of Arc, is in the market for a boyfriend. Generally, though, she finds guys her age immature. "I'm always yelling at them. They get those bottles of Silly String and shoot it all over the place. I'm like, 'What's Wrong with you?'"



Last year, Sobieski attended a party on the Hamptons for A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries. All sorts of big-name authors were there: Norman Mailer, Salman Rushdie, Arthur Miller. Minimal Silly String is evidence. "I sat next to Peter Matthiessen," she recalls breathlessly. "He was talking to me about how he's trying to save this species of cranes for, like, an hour. And I'm thinking, If only I could find a guy who wasn't in his 70s to talk to me about white cranes, I'd be madly in love." (Alas, Sobieski's parents won't let her date anyone over 21.)

At times, Sobieski--who's tutored when she can't attend school--has difficulty shifting between her Hollywood life and her other life. She doesn't want to seem like a show-off: "I can't tell my friend, 'Hey the other day I met the guy you've had a crush on for the past six years!' That's mean, you know? But all these really weird, crazy things are happening to you, and sometimes you just want to burst."

Weird and crazy is pretty much par for the course when you're barely old enough to get into R-rated movies and Hollywood comes calling. "It's strange," Sobieski says. "All these grown-ups are working for you. They want you to get into their game. They want to make their money off the money that you're making. And you're thinking, I should be working in an ice-cream place."

Sobieski usually gives the young-Hollywood party circut a pretty wide berth, but a while back she attended a bash some agents were throwing for a 16-year-old actor she knows. "They kept going, 'Hey you want some wine? You want a beer?'" she recalls. "This one agent said to my friend, 'Anytime you want some pat, I'll hook you up.' I was shocked. I mean, I couldn't believe it."

You hear the stories about young actors being preyed on by Hollywood sharks, or cracking under the pressure and landing in various kinds of headline-grabbing trouble. To be sure, not all of the class of 1999 will make it. But Sobieski doesn't seem particularly concerned. She'll see where the acting goes--next up is the romantic drama Here on Earth--but she has other interests. She's determined to go to college, even if it takes her six years to graduate. The example of Oscar-toting Ivy League alums like Meryl Streep and Jodie Foster looms larger than any join-the-dark-side-and-we'll-rule-the-galaxy-together come-on Hollywood could offer.

"A lot of young people have to touch the stove at some point," says Drew Barrymore, who should know--having basically lived on the stove for awhile. "But I really don't worry about Leelee. She just has such a clear head on her shoulders. She'll be one of the people who keeps it together."


Perfect for the Part
She was a bitch, and starved herself like they always do.
She was a star, and did what only starlets do.
She was an intellectual, and thought her way through.
She was an artist and was sometimes called a coocoo.
I am the girl, all these things combined, but I still won't act the way you want me to.

-Leelee Sobieski


She resisted as long as she could. but last week, Sobieski finally broke down and bought that most basic and stereotypical of young-actor accessories. "I was so mad at myself," she says. "But now I have one, and you know what? It's so cute. You have to get a really silly one or else it's not fun." She reaches into her bag and pulls out a cell phone cheesily decorated with a bald eagle and an American flag.

"See? I have a Hell's Angels cell phone!"

She switches the phone on. "Look," she says brightly, "I have my little personalized message here when I turn it on." It read B REAL B NICE B THOUGHTFUL THINK.

She shrugs. "Whatever."