She's All That (and Then Some)

"Who you are is not where you come from": Rachael Leigh Cook on the set of The Hi-Line

If you own a TV, chances are that Rachael Leigh Cook has captured your attention. The Twin Cities native shows up during commercial breaks: standing in a kitchen, quiet as you please, and then, all of a sudden, smashing up the joint. "This is your brain on heroin! This is your family, friends, career!" she screams above the metallic din of abused appliances and scattered cookware. If you'd ever entertained the idea of shooting up, Cook's set-searing performance in this PSA has vanished it forever.

Not the typical behavior of a teen queen, but then again, Cook isn't your average "Budding Hollywood Starlet"--to borrow the moniker of a Minneapolis band named in her honor. Sure, the once baby-faced Target and Milk-Bone print model, now 20 years old, has grabbed the attention of the youth market with her breakout role as Laney Boggs in 1999's She's All That, not to mention a brief recurring part on Dawson's Creek. But this woman has no plans to join up with the latest brat pack. Consider her role in The Hi-Line, a bleak, often moody indie screening Friday at Oak Street Cinema as part of the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. Cook's take on Vera Johnson, the product of an emotionless family and the harsh Montana landscape, is very much a study of beaten-down hopes and modest ambitions.

"I think a lot about Vera's innocence," says Cook by phone from Los Angeles during a break from filming the big-budget adventure Antitrust with Tim Robbins, Ryan Phillippe, and Claire Forlani. "Vera is me before everything happened. I had a lot of trust in the beginning, when I started out acting. And Vera has a vision of what the world can be, something that exists beyond her small town and its small-minded people. It's all about her journey coming into herself and realizing that who you are is not where you come from."

As written and directed by Ron Judkins, The Hi-Line has the feel of a Carson McCullers short story transplanted from the Southern environs to colder climes. Emotions run ragged and even painfully raw as Vera hooks up with Chicagoan Sam Polvino (Ryan Alosio), and is then faced with a complete reexamination of her life. Cook, whose dark yet delicate features recall the young Winona Ryder, seems to embrace the opportunity to drift through moments driven by nothing other than the slow unfolding of a life crisis. It is truly impressive to watch her character's vacant and bored eyes become increasingly expressive with each secret revealed.

"I much prefer a character piece, because there's nothing more boring than working on films with stunts or special effects," observes Cook, who warms to the subject of staying connected with fringe movies that provide the opportunity to grow into a fully dimensioned figure like Vera. Indeed, Cook reports that she'll soon be doubling as a producer on an indie project whose name, pending the casting of one final lead player, is still under wraps. "Independent films are not always better, and they're not necessarily marketable," she says. "But with studio films, there's a reason why so much money is put behind them."


Rachael Leigh Cook is scheduled to appear at the festival screening of The Hi-Line 7:00 p.m. Friday at Oak Street Cinema; call the festival hotline, (612) 627-4430, for more information.

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