Role Elizabeth Shue gets a makeover

By Tom Russo
Updated October 27, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

With good-girl gigs in bound-for-video confections ranging from Adventures in Babysitting (1987) to Cocktail (1988), Elisabeth Shue has had her share of undercooked roles. But in Leaving Las Vegas, she delivers the raw life of a prostitute done to a turn. Watching her astonishing performance, it’s hard to shake the feeling that United Artists — the same folks who gave us Showgirls — put their marketing megabucks behind the wrong Vegas movie.

Shue downplays the idea that there was anything calculated about trading in her hopelessly virginal Karate Kid knee-socks for hooker heels. ”I’ve tried never to look at my career and say, ‘Okay, what do I need to do to change my image?”’ says the 32-year-old actress. ”But I did feel a desperate need to play somebody more complex, and at a time when I was really unhappy and unsure of my career, the Vegas script just came in the mail.”

The crisis, Shue admits, was fueled partly by younger brother Andrew’s meteoric rise on Melrose Place, particularly when, growing up in South Orange, N.J., they had always seemed to share a passion for sports, not acting. (Andrew left a pro soccer squad in Zimbabwe before Melrose, while Elisabeth played on boys’ soccer teams growing up, gamely enduring the inevitable ”She’s good for a girl” write-ups in local papers.) ”Andrew’s success obviously raised the question ‘Well, you’ve been in the business for 12 years — what does that mean?”’ she says.

It was seven years ago that director Mike Figgis auditioned Shue for an uncharacteristically edgy part in The Hot Spot. Neither of them ended up doing the film, but Figgis was sufficiently impressed that to Shue’s amazement, he offered her the Vegas role without an audition. ”I just said, ‘Tell me if you think you can deal with the toughness in this material,”’ Figgis recalls. ”I never doubted that she’d say yes.”

Having completed the upcoming thriller The Trigger Effect, in which she plays a mother, Shue’s in no hurry to say yes to new projects, which might even include motherhood (she wedded producer Davis Guggenheim this year) or wrapping up the Harvard degree she’s pursued on and off since 1985. ”In some ways I love that it’s unfinished,” she says. ”I haven’t stopped being a student in life.”