After nearly two decades after getting a rise out of Tom Cruise in "Risky Business," Rebecca De Mornay gets pulses racing on "ER"

By Dan Snierson
October 15, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • TV Show

So,” begins Rebecca De Mornay’s publicist, ”Rebecca would like to meet you someplace a little…different.” Hmmmmmm. You’ve seen Risky Business a hundred times (often in slo-mo); could this mean…a cozy supper interview at her Hollywood Hills home? A late chat over cocktails at a slinky club? Or maybe a little (wink, wink) tete-a-tete on a subway car? (There are a couple of train lines in L.A.)

But the following week at a quaint flower nursery — apparently she wants to go ”rose shopping” — you get the creepy feeling you’re being lured into a different Rebecca film. ”Let’s go over here where it’s cooler,” she says, steering you inside a lush greenhouse. The ferns and figs quiver uneasily. ”Oooh, this is cool,” she says. ”Did you ever see The Hand That Rocks the Cradle?” ”Ummm,” you respond, assessing the ceiling windows (which, of course, her Cradle character used as a weapon), ”are you going to kill me?” ”You?” she coos, easing into that lethal, all-knowing smile. ”Nooooooooooo.”

Paging security: She’s baaaaaack! Again. After rocketing to fame as the worldly call girl who beds Tom Cruise in 1983’s Risky Business, falling into oblivion, reemerging as a psychotic killer nanny in the surprise 1992 hit Cradle, and then dipping once more into obscurity, De Mornay has surfaced — of all places — on NBC’s ER. ”It was slightly embarrassing because I’d never actually seen ER,” she admits. ”I said to [exec producer] John Wells, ‘I’ve never committed to a role without a script. You’re telling me the story arc, but where’s the script?’ And he’s like, ‘It hasn’t been written. That’s how we do it in episodic television. Trust us, we’ve been nominated for Emmys. We’ve got good writing. It’ll be good.’ And I thought, ‘Well, I’ve heard that one before.”’ Guest-starring for six episodes as alluring socialite Elain Nichols, De Mornay administers intensive care to Noah Wyle’s Dr. Carter before dropping a big kink into their May-October (she’s only 37, after all) relationship. ”We embark on this passionate fling, only to have things become strangely and deeply and movingly complicated,” she teases, ”but the strangely and deeply and movingly part is what I can’t talk about.”

If anyone knows from steamy flings, it’s De Mornay: Her two-decade resume has included several character-building one-night stands with Hollywood. ”I was so amazingly witty when I had the No. 1 movie, you have no idea,” she says. ”People laughed at every single one of my jokes. Then when I hadn’t had a hit for three or four years, some of these same people pretended they didn’t see me when I walked in the room…. I went from ‘find of the decade’ [in Risky Business] to ‘unsurpassedly awful’ [in 1985’s The Slugger’s Wife] and it was like, which is true? I got pushed up so high and slugged down so low in such quick succession that it forced me to take none of it seriously.”

Which is not to say that the California-born, Europe-schooled actress doesn’t have her solemn side. She’s a married mom (her husband, actor Patrick O’Neal, is Ryan’s son) with a 23-month-old daughter, Sophia. (”I’ve got to introduce her to painting, flowers, the ocean, and animals….”) She practices Zen Buddhism. (”She’s a very sophisticated lady,” notes ER star Alex Kingston. ”When she walked on set, there was definitely an aura about her.”) She’s deep into those save-the-animals causes. (”You don’t wear cashmere?” she asks. ”Good for you. Do you eat meat?”) And, yes, she really, really wants to direct: She’s trying to finalize financing for a romantic dramedy screenplay she wrote — and she’s not afraid to use those fickle let’s-do-lunch politics to her advantage. ”If ER [makes] people suddenly think I’m hotter and more interesting — then, ‘Here’s my script. Give me my financing so I can make it.’ I just want to tell stories that have an impact on people. Somebody needs to have an impact because people are lost. People are really lost.” But as De Mornay perpetually proves, they can also keep finding their way back.