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Robin Hood's new Maid Marian

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is leading lady in ”Prince of Thieves”

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”When the script arrived, I laughed,” she says, recalling her disbelief. ”I had just finished taping Uncle Vanya for the BBC. And I thought, Robin Hood? Give me a break! About 48 hours later, Kevin Costner is kneeling at my feet.” Even for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, a production that raced breathlessly from the start, the casting of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Maid Marian was, as she puts it, ”extremely last-minute.” Robin Wright was the original choice to play Costner’s landowning love interest but had to withdraw when she became pregnant by Sean Penn. A desperate search for a replacement turned up Mastrantonio, who lives in London with her husband, film director Pat O’Connor.

My husband and I had just bought this house,” she says. ”I wasn’t thinking, ‘Great! A blockbuster!’ I was thinking, ‘Wow, I can come home every night!”’ Whatever her reasons for taking the role, Mastrantonio now finds herself, after nearly 10 years of major movie roles, in her first all-out smash.

The self-exiled actress hardly cultivates the look of stardom. She arrives for an interview at my London flat in beat-up jeans, looking more like a college kid cutting class than a Hollywood diva. She is petite and pretty, even with no trace of makeup, and carries a pink backpack over her denim-jacketed shoulder.

But when Mastrantonio smiles, her whole face is transformed. You suddenly notice her perfect bone structure, the startling luxuriance of her trademark wavy hair. By turns wry and winsome, dopey and seductive, her smile suggests a loose, loopy sense of humor that’s almost completely at odds with the cool, competent characters she tends to portray on film. In Scarface (1983), she stepped into the movies as Al Pacino’s tough-minded little sister. A string of prestige projects followed — The Color of Money with Paul Newman and Tom Cruise, The January Man with Kevin Kline, The Abyss with Ed Harris — though none of them quite succeeded in making her a star in her own right. ”It got to the point,” she says, ”where all interviewers ever asked me was, ‘Al Pacino! Paul Newman! Kevin Kline! What were they like?”’ Her luck began to change with this year’s Class Action. The schematic courtroom drama, with Mastrantonio as a yuppie lawyer who goes up against her own father (Gene Hackman) in court, was one of the winter’s surprise successes.

Raised outside Chicago, where her father worked in a foundry, she originally trained for a career in opera. But a singing role in a Broadway revival of West Side Story led to a speaking part in the long-running play Amadeus. ”And suddenly I realized: This is what I want!” she says.

What Mastrantonio didn’t want was to see her life caught up in the star-making machinery. She and O’Connor (they met in 1988 when he directed her in January Man) spend as much time as they can in his native Ireland or at their house in London’s funky Portobello district. But the success of Robin Hood has required more involvement with the Hollywood hype apparatus than she would like.

”Just don’t ask me if Maid Marian was a feminist!” she says, sprawled unceremoniously on the floor. Even in London she has gotten the word: ”This is supposed to be the summer for tough, independent women.” But Mastrantonio says Marian is no Thelma or Louise. ”Marian isn’t portrayed as a feminist at all. She doesn’t even really choose Robin; he’s practically the only person of her station she finds likable.”

The actress dismisses assurances that her role in Robin Hood is a career breakthrough. ”Whatever Robin Hood does for me, it won’t solve the basic problem: that almost every script is written by a man, will probably be produced by a man, directed by a man. Hollywood is run by men who are big on ‘vulnerability,”’ she goes on. ”Women see the parts I play as separate people. Men just say, ‘She plays tough cookies, but at least they’re vulnerable.”’

She is equally impatient with the anything-for-a-hit mentality of her profession. ”I really hate it when people say, ‘Okay, this is hell now, but the movie is gonna do well.’ I’m not looking at grosses or percentage points,” she says. ”This is my life, you know? And every day counts.”