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Mimi Rogers in ''The Rapture''

Mimi Rogers in ”The Rapture” — The actress talks about her new role portraying a woman involved in a fundamentalism cult

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Hollywood’s big names were not exactly clamoring for the role. Sissy Spacek, Meg Ryan, and Rachel Ward all passed. Debra Winger’s agent never even sent her the script. ”’What is this?”’ sputters Michael Tolkin, writer-director of The Rapture, mimicking the reactions to his controversial screenplay. ”A lot of actresses didn’t understand it,” he says. Then Mimi Rogers got hold of it. ”I cried through the whole thing.” Rogers recalls. ”Two hours later I called and said, ‘I must have this movie.”’

In The Rapture Rogers plays Sharon, a sort of contemporary Mary Magdalene who works as a directory- assistance operator by day and corrals strangers into wild sexual encounters by night. Desperate for meaning in her life, Sharon becomes involved in a fundamentalist cult and is born again as a serenely fanatic disciple in a sect whose members share dreams about a pearl and follow a child prophet. Since opening on Oct. 4, the film has been variously savaged and praised, but most critics and moviegoers agree on one thing: Rogers delivers a subtle and complex performance that has given her career a much-needed jolt.

The accolades have been a long time coming. For years Rogers, 36, has routinely been cast as ”the girlfriend” — of Michael Keaton in Gung Ho (1985), of Christopher Reeve in Street Smart (1986), of Tom Berenger in Someone to Watch Over Me (1987). But she got more press for her offscreen appearances with actors Tom Selleck and Ed Marinaro, Bobby Shriver (Maria’s brother), and of course, Tom Cruise, to whom she was married for three years (they divorced in 1990). The Rapture is her shot at becoming the main event. ”From a purely pragmatic view,” she says, ”Sharon was one of the best women’s roles I’d ever seen. How many films do you read where the woman is the central character? The whole story?”

Wearing jeans and a giant sweater, Rogers is sitting in a restaurant in Sun Valley, Idaho, near the set of the upcoming Dark Horse. ”In our wildest dreams we hoped The Rapture would cause a big ruckus,” she concedes with conspiratorial delight. ”We hoped it would get people thinking and talking and debating.” But in fact, given its content, the movie has met with surprisingly mild protests. Many fundamentalists did take exception to the extreme portrayal of religious fervor. But Tolkin, 41, defends his extravagance. ”I wrote it to explore the logical implications of faith and our relationship to God as a character,” says the director, who majored in religion in college.

Despite the potential controversy, the film stalled at the box office. Hoping to drum up the curiosity seekers, the movie’s backers didn’t hesitate to tell the press that the film had been turned down by Atlanta’s 30-theater Litchfield chain, the same outfit that rejected The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988. But Litchfield advertising director Jack Jordan says the film was nixed simply because it was ”too boring.” The Rapture has grossed only $819,697 in its first six weeks, but for Rogers, the risky role paid off. ”It shows that I can carry a film,” she says. ”And that’s a good thing for people to know.”