She lenses herself to comedy

By Steve Daly
Updated October 20, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s fair to say that audiences know Illeana Douglas best for a bit part: She’s the woman whose cheek Robert De Niro chomped in 1991’s Cape Fear. But these days it’s Douglas who’s sinking her teeth into the meaty roles, a far cry from the ”girl victim” gigs that are the stock-in-trade of so many aspiring actresses. A onetime stand-up comedienne who claims she ”never could convince directors I was funny,” the 31-year-old granddaughter of actor Melvyn has landed at last on comic — though still dark — terrain in the art-house hit To Die For, as weatherwoman Nicole Kidman’s sharp-tongued sister-in-law.

Five minutes into a chat with Douglas at her publicist’s Manhattan office, it’s clear the cheeky shtick is her basic communication mode, both in person and in the short films she wrote and directed that have been airing on the Independent Film Channel and Bravo. Her filmmaking career began in 1993 when she spent $8,000 to make The Perfect Woman, an uproariously satiric eight-minute group monologue in which 30 put-upon females (among them Douglas and Martha Plimpton) address unseen males with such mock assurances as, ”Just seeing you twice a week for the rest of my life is fine.” A few months ago, she finished the 20-minute Boy Crazy, Girl Crazier, about a pair of battling actors (Douglas and Kevin Breznahan) desperate to be cast in the same feature. Says Dan Etheridge, one of her producers, ”She laid dolly tracks, planned shots, and dodged a real pimp in a gunfight around the corner. And all that in costume — in heels and a cocktail dress.”

Despite her sure hand and evident storehouse of material, Douglas insists, ”I do not want to direct. I mainly did it to keep myself working as an actress.” Indeed, even though she once dated Martin Scorsese and appeared in several of his films, Douglas declares, ”He had nothing to do with Alive, Household Saints, or most of the movies I’ve been part of. There’s no privilege here.” Evidently not. After finishing To Die For, she won her second feature lead as an up-from-nowhere songwriter in Allison Anders’ Grace of My Heart. But the film has no release date yet, and Douglas is back auditioning ”for the kind of role that ends up on the editing-room floor. And I don’t even get those. I swear, what’s gonna be on my gravestone is ‘She’s just too quirky.”’