December 16, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

Hope Davis gets to frown in movies maybe more than any actor working today. Take her 1998 leading lady debut, in the underrated romantic comedy Next Stop Wonderland: In the first scene, her gray-as-a-rain-cloud Boston nurse wearily walks under an umbrella — only to come upon her live-in boyfriend, who dumps her. As Jack Nicholson’s daughter in 2002’s About Schmidt, Davis makes her entrance by rushing into Nicholson’s arms and sobbing for her dead mother. When she turns up in 2003’s American Splendor, her Joyce Brabner is miffed that she can’t find the new Harvey Pekar comic (”Why does everything in my life have to be such a complicated disaster?!”). Even in the current photo accompanying her profile on the Internet Movie Database, the actress looks mildly heartbroken.

In person, however, Davis’ serious countenance frequently breaks into thoughtful smiles. ”In my real life,” she insists, over lentil soup and fries at a French place around the corner from her West Village apartment in Manhattan, ”I feel like I’m one of the happiest people I know.” After a two-year absence from the screen, during which she and her husband, actor Jon Patrick Walker, mostly tended to their two ”little people” — daughters Georgia, 3, and Mae, 11 months — Davis, 41, has returned this fall with four films. She’s already appeared as Nicolas Cage’s fed-up ex in The Weather Man, as Gwyneth Paltrow’s controlling sister in Proof, and as a worried mother in Carroll Ballard’s cheetah movie, Duma. And now she plays Greg Kinnear’s wife in The Matador, a dark comedy starring Pierce Brosnan as a gone-to-seed hitman who strikes up an alliance with the straitlaced Kinnear in a Mexico City hotel bar. With these new projects, Davis continues her unusual career of revealing the sympathetic flip sides of tired, shielded, or unhappy characters.

It was, she figures, all because of Wonderland that she found this niche. ”I really was that person,” admits Davis, who got divorced from her first husband right before filming began. ”I was single, I had been through a really bad time, I felt like a turtle kind of wallowing in my shell. It was very hard for me to make that movie, and I was all alone in Boston, in a very, very blue section of my life.” She is quiet for a moment. ”The work evolves when you get another part, and then you’re getting called on to solve difficult characters, to inject a note of humanity into them. It’s more interesting for me to do that than to stand around and be sunny.” She immediately amends that. ”Although — I haven’t seen The Matador yet, but there’s the sunniest character I’ve played in a while, right? She’s kind of bubbly and silly, and her name is Bean.”

But Bean’s not completely bubbly — she’s actually mourning her dead child throughout the whole movie. That observation stops Davis for a second. ”Yeah, I know,” she finally concedes, letting out a short laugh. ”Exactly.” Then, simply, ”I’m not Cameron Diaz.”

”It has something to do with her intellect,” says Campbell Scott, who, since calling up Davis to do a reading in 1990, has appeared opposite her four times (most memorably in 2003’s The Secret Lives of Dentists) and directed her once (in 2001’s Final). ”Someone who is as smart as Hope is, when she plays a good character, she’s going to darken it up a bit. And if she plays a dark character, she’ll make her kind of beautiful, crazy-attractive in some way. I think that comes from her desire to keep it all mixed up.”

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