Tears of a Clown

BLUE IN THE FACE, the scriptless sequel to Smoke, was named for the actors who improvised dialogue until they were get the idea. So it's another coup for Miramax when Mel Gorham, in town to chat up her role as Harvey Keitel's yakking girlfriend, turns out to be no less motormouthed in real life. Over lunch at the Minneapolis Hilton, this hungry young actress is as eager to drop yet another dose of PR as she is to gobble up a plate of the hotel's chicken special. Talking at breakneck speed through open mouthfuls of bread and bird, she manages to promote her gift of gab, her entree, and her movie. In other words, Mel Gorham is Blue in the Face. And by the end of this noon-hour brush with fame, we're Red in the Ears.

"They [the filmmakers] were so enamored by Violet, my character, that they wanted more footage on me and they didn't have enough to put in the movie and they wanted to build the character up," Gorham recalls. "I had sung [Peggy Lee's] 'Fever' as a gift to Harvey Keitel at the wrap party in July, and they liked it so much that three months later they called me and asked me to do it in the film." This scene, which Gorham performs as a near-masturbatory striptease in front of a mirror, allows the actress to chew scenery on a par with such equally ravenous co-stars as Roseanne, Madonna, Jim Jarmusch, and Lily Tomlin.

In between bites, Gorham describes herself as "a very meaty, juicy-type" actress. "I'm not the girl next door, I'm not a Julia Roberts, I'm not a Demi Moore--I do character work," she says. And when you see Curdled [a forthcoming thriller], you're not gonna recognize me 'cause I have a big scar on my face and I play a Valley of the Dolls-type character with a flip wig. It might take a few movies for the public to know that I am as versatile as I am." Possibly, although Gorham reports that one viewer has already noticed her work: "I just heard that Joel Siegel, from Good Morning America or whatever, went nuts over Blue in the Face--and my character."

Apparently, Gorham's ability to transform herself so brilliantly from role to role comes down to one word: talent. "You can't learn how to act," she says. "The bottom line is that from the moment I stepped onstage to do Our Town at age 13, I knew that acting was gonna be it." Although Gorham credits her easygoing Miami parents ("a Cuban Catholic and an American-Russian Jew") with instilling her childlike flair for comedy, she says that drama often requires an additional commitment. Indeed, while describing how the thought of losing her father helped intensify her part as a fortuneteller in Wishful Thinking (due next year), this self-described "born performer" nearly starts to weep.

Since Gorham is adamant in her disdain for actors who "fake their passion," we wouldn't doubt for an instant the sincerity of her sniffles. Still, there's a faint whiff of Method in the air: As we lean across the table to change an expired cassette, the actress wonders aloud whether the recorder has captured her dramatic moment in full. "I really hope you got that last bit," she says, perhaps mindful of the fact that interviews don't allow for retakes.

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