Rebecca Romijn-Stamos Article - The Curse of the Former Supermodel

She's beautiful! She's smart! She's been painted from head to toe! But can Rebecca Romijn-Stamos find respect in Hollywood?
Beautiful women aren’t just mentally sectioned off by a skeptical world from such pursuits as neurosurgery, aviation, and alligator wrestling. They’re also seen (thus the recent spate of stringy-haired, prosthetically debeautified Oscar candidates) as unlikely candidates for the job known as Serious Dramatic Actress.

Romijn-Stamos, 31, is just yards away, chatting with the owner of her favorite Malibu restaurant, as these thoughts unfold. One look at her answers the question you might ask from simply reading her dossier: How did this product of lefty-hippie Berkeley, California, become not just a sort of marvel, but a world-famous one?

And an uppercase marvel to boot. She shape-shifted from pinup to actress largely thanks to her role as Mystique, an unclothed ultramarine villainess in 2000’s X-Men. That will be joined by another Marvel Comics adaptation when she appears this month as the female lead, opposite Thomas Jane, in The Punisher. But the good news is that as both Joan the Mouse in The Punisher and as housewife and mom Jessie Duncan in Godsend (due at month’s end), Romijn-Stamos is far from the sexual terrorist that Mencken, Mother Nature, and Hollywood typecasting would have loved to make of her.

In casting sessions, a modeling portfolio can be more like a rap sheet than a résumé, but Romijn-Stamos instinctively knew how to use her own image. A dropout from the University of California at Santa Cruz, she was shanghaied to Paris by a sharp-eyed French scout who saw her photograph at a small agency. "I never wanted to be a model in the first place," she says. "It happened, and I’m grateful for it, and I actually did take a lot out of it. I don’t regret any of it."

Romijn-Stamos was just mature enough to survive some lonely years in Paris and find her footing in front of cameras going crazy. "I was 18 when I started," she says, "which is Jurassic compared to the other girls. I don’t think anybody should be allowed to model until they’re 18. I think that 14- and 15-year-olds have enough to worry about without all their self-worth being placed on their looks. That screws with your head. But modeling gave me a lot of confidence. And I wouldn’t be here today without it."

The temptress thing that Romijn-Stamos deploys quite cannily certainly could not have happened without her own calculating investment in it; she steered clear of the good-girl and trophy-wife roles. Indeed, from her early TV guest shots on Friends and Just Shoot Me, through her brief film résumé, she’s been the big blond stunner most likely to steal your valuables, not to mention your self-respect.

Witness her brief but gawk-worthy film debut as a drunken, satin-clad Bearded Lady in Dirty Work, followed by the Mystique turn in X-Men and X2: X-Men United. She was a scarred Euro skater in Rollerball and a wannabe who flings herself at Al Pacino in Simone. And she was joltingly watchable doing a taunting striptease in the stimulating ball of confusion that is Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale. Romijn-Stamos has left us wondering if she’s set her career course as our favorite vixen from hell.

Not today. As is, of course, de rigueur for beauties doing print interviews, she’s free of makeup, and with her hair pulled back and cargo pants half tucked into her shearling-lined boots . . . Well, let’s drop the pretense. As you approach her in her tight, patterned sweater and make contact with those klieg-light eyes, your limbic system is on at least Yellow Alert and holding.

Proprietor Tony is, like Romijn- Stamos’s late father-in-law, a Greek restaurateur. "This is my daughter," he says amiably, if not factually. He then seems delighted to go off in search of fish soup. Some minutes pass in discussion of Romijn-Stamos’s Dutch roots (shared with her interviewer) and significant Berkeley geography. It’s increasingly evident her adventurous career arc is very much the product of her upbringing. That’s why it seems abrupt, and yet somehow charming, when she delivers a typically direct question: "When do we start?"

Rebecca’s an intelligent woman who understood where she was when she walked onto this movie," says Godsend director Nick Hamm, who has served as resident director of England’s Royal Shakespeare Company. "She’s a very beautiful woman in an industry that punishes that and oftentimes doesn’t credit the abilities that go along with it. You can name several models-turned-actresses—Charlize Theron is one—whose career line has been progressively more interesting as people have gotten used to the fact that these girls can really act."

In Godsend’s bleaker-than-standard take on a psychological thriller, Romijn-Stamos and Greg Kinnear are the parents of an eight-year-old boy who’s killed in an accident, and Robert De Niro is the doctor who offers to clone him. The medical experiment will go awry, with substantial cinematic chills (Hamm and the producers were fretfully juggling endings until late in the editing process). But much of what the actress undertakes as a grieving mother is straight-up naturalistic acting. "When things start going wrong," says Romijn-Stamos, "and he [the clone son] starts getting a little nutty, she becomes like the protective lioness; she’s in full-on denial, because she doesn’t care about anything except that she’s gotten her son back. She’s just got blinders on."

"Part of the job of the director is to make actors equal," says Hamm, taking a coffee break outside an editing suite in the Hollywood "flats." "You ain’t hugging De Niro the first day." But, he adds, "Rebecca is somebody for whom this is just the beginning. Because no one has seen her act in something so deep. She had a couple of complicated scenes with De Niro that were straight acting, no scariness, nothing to help out other than the situation. And she and Bob were wonderful onscreen. They very much clicked."

Romijn-Stamos appreciated costar Kinnear’s accomplished underplaying ("he’s the king of subtlety," she says), and he reciprocates: "In some ways, coming from the modeling background that she did, she probably has to work harder to break these preconceived notions . . . and she worked really hard on this role, but never in a way that looked affected. She has a really strong, natural ability that makes an impact without feeling forced."

That knack as well as her stamina were tested one weekend when Romijn-Stamos had to depart Godsend’s Toronto set to shoot some final scenes for X2 director Bryan Singer. "She [was] amazing," says Singer. "She had eleven hours of travel, went out into zero degree weather in her makeup—which is like being naked in the snow—in the Canadian Rockies with no sleep, did her scenes, and then traveled back to work on the De Niro film the next day. And she was giggling and telling Brian De Palma stories the entire time."

Singer’s tribute brings a chortle from the actress: "He conveniently forgot the moment where I was bent over a chair and they were spraying paint between my ass cheeks, and he handed me a glass of white wine and told me to stop crying."

Directors cleave to Romijn-Stamos, who is inquisitive without being uppity. In the scramble to replace Uma Thurman after she dropped out of Femme Fatale, Romijn-Stamos was flown to Paris to meet with director De Palma, who also wrote the screenplay. The meeting began badly. "I guess he was just irritated that I didn’t understand the story completely. I think the producers had flown me in to meet him, I don’t think he personally had requested to meet with me. So . . . who is this model who doesn’t understand my script entirely?"

One might ask, Who doesn’t need help understanding this visually stunning exercise, in which the actress plays not only the elegantly homicidal Laure Ash character but also her doppelgänger, Lily, a dangerously depressed Parisian. "I was so green," says Romijn-Stamos, "I turned to him and only him. That movie was his vision. . . . I needed his feedback one hundred percent, so I begged for it, and he was really open with me, very supportive. We had a lot of rehearsal time, so when it came to shooting, he could focus on all those crazy camera shots that he’s so famous for."

Although critics issued mostly faint praise, the Los Angeles Times’ Manohla Dargis said, "Not since Sissy Spacek burned up the screen in Carrie has a De Palma woman held the screen as forcefully as Romijn-Stamos, an Amazon blond straight from Helmut Newton’s portfolio. In the age of the incredibly shrinking, professionally demure American actress, there are few women who can hold the screen as Romijn-Stamos does, with her cat eyes and lustily confident physicality."

Hollywood seemed to agree. Marvel Studios president Avi Arad was in talks with Jonathan Hensleigh, screenwriter of a row of hits, including Die Hard With a Vengeance and Armageddon, to direct an updated adaptation of The Punisher. Arad knew Romijn-Stamos well from the X-Men films: "I really wanted her for this movie; the attraction was to dirty her up, if you will."

Hensleigh changed the story from a New York City mob squabble to a vendetta with Tampa-based thugs (led by John Travolta’s villainous Howard Saint) who slaughtered title character Frank Castle’s family. He also took the character of Joan the Mouse and made her a recovering addict rather than a meek recluse. "It’s a small part," says Arad, "but not really, because she’s in a lot of the movie as the metaphor. She says to him, ‘Don’t let those memories kill you.’ Rebecca plays a character who at one time was on top of the world, and then discovered alcohol, drugs, all the self-destructive things that take you down. We have a line in the movie, ‘Seven years, seven towns, always managed to find just the wrong guy.’ "

Hensleigh was already quartered in Tampa when he first met Romijn-Stamos, a couple of nights before the shoot began. "I asked her to do a little bit of line reading, and it was apparent instantly that she was extremely—I mean, underlined, capitalized—extremely well-prepared." Thus heartened as they ran Joan’s lines—"I had to shoot this picture in 52 days on a $34 million budget, and consequently the actors had to deliver on the first few takes"—Hensleigh let Romijn-Stamos alter his dialogue and emphases according to her vision of Joan. "She’s played the character as soft, wounded, but with a steely resolve of a recovering addict underneath. She also brought a sweetness and a hauntedness. She just had it down.

"I would love to work with her again. I think this is the tip of the iceberg. There’s an entire world, an untapped mystery. She reminds me of a young Lee Remick in her demeanor—very regal, but very simple at the same time."

Like any beauty who comes to fame young, Romijn-Stamos braved a demimonde of seasoned exploiters, but she shrugs those lessons off. "In terms of the darkness of the character that I played in Femme Fatale, yeah, my first couple of years as a model were pretty lonely. But I wouldn’t say that that’s where I took my darkness from. I’m just somebody that’s never been afraid to feel sadness, or to feel fear. I connect to my dark side as much as I connect to my light side. I’ve always done that, since I was a kid."

Elizabeth Kuizenga was a second-generation Dutch American who met Jaap Romijn on a trip back to Holland. The couple settled in North Berkeley, where she began her still-active career as a college language teacher and he started a small woodworking business ("sawdust is still my favorite smell," Romijn-Stamos says) that’s since grown formidably. Rebecca was six, and her sister, Tamara, four when the couple split up; Elizabeth moved to a house so nearby that the girls would cut through one yard, sometimes in their pajamas, to migrate between the homes.

Romijn-Stamos admits that she was shy and awkward, wearing long johns under her pants to augment her skinny legs. Tamara vouches for it: "She was terribly shy. When she wanted to go buy something, I would take her by the hand up to the counter, and buy it."

But when the offer came to fly to Paris to start a career, Rebecca was on the plane within three days. "My father was fine with that because he’s European and wanted me to see Paris. But when it was clear I could work as a model, he said, ‘How are you gonna live?’ and I said, ‘I can do this.’ So, I did, and I did make money. And when I came back, he said, ‘This year I learned something from you.’ "

From that discovery forward, it was giant steps for the girl who was still known by her maiden name. She moved from second tier on the fashion runways ("I never was any designer’s muse") to the vaguer classification of supermodel, joining the robust glamour queens of the Victoria’s Secret catalog and Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.

One devoted fan was John Stamos, an Orange County–raised actor who had been a teen heartthrob as Blackie Parrish on General Hospital, and had starred as Uncle Jesse on the ABC sitcom Full House from 1987 to 1995. He journeyed to Fashion Week in New York in 1996 to track her down. In 1998, they married, and she became the hostess of MTV’s House of Style. As her career was fully launching, and his was becalmed (although he’s had a recent series of Broadway appearances that have drawn plenty of favorable reviews), the media snacked on the seeming disparity between her heat and his. One magazine that openly dissed her husband found themselves throwing a party for her cover appearance without the guest of honor—she stayed home. "What right do they have," she says. "They don’t know us. Nobody knows us and our dynamic; we have a very, very private life, we’re very protective of our marriage and of each other. They were taking a shot at him for no reason."

When the call came in late 1997 from the producers of Friends, Romijn-Stamos resisted. But when they offered her a part as "The Dirty Girl," whose incredibly unkempt apartment unnerves Ross, she couldn’t resist the typecasting. ("Look, I’m such a slob," she confesses after Tamara tells the tale of a chameleon Rebecca bought from her for 50 cents in their grammar school days. Lost in a heap of clothes in a closet, the creature was retrieved as a skeleton on a branch in its terrarium.)

After a day’s work, Courteney Cox insisted, "You should do this." In 1999 came a substantial guest arc as David Spade’s wife on Just Shoot Me, and before that millennial year was over, she was spectacularly blue and largely unclad ("people on the set were telling me, ‘Rebecca, we have news for you, you’re nude’ ") and part of a megafranchise.

This spring should bring her more credence. Says Hensleigh, "She doesn’t have a lot of the neuroses that one finds around town. I think she’s very comfortable in her own skin. She’s not a hugely experienced actress, but she is—it’s an old, hackneyed Hollywood expression—she is a natural."

Romijn-Stamos is polishing off her fish soup, talking about Femme Fatale’s mixed reception, when Tony hollers excitedly, using a remote to snap on the overhead TV, where one of John Stamos’s commercials for a certain long-distance calling plan is airing. "I’m told," she says, "it’s got quite a following among gay folks in New York."

Um, yeah, well, he is a looker.

Romijn-Stamos gives an enjoyably abandoned guffaw. "No," she says, shaking her head."I mean Femme Fatale."

Got it. She’s happy to have her husband back at their 20-acre ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains after he spent several months doing Nine on Broadway. "I think it’s always rough for two people who are actors to enter back into their reality, and figure out what it is again," she says. "It was an intense several months for John, and I was absolutely in awe of him—he showed so much fearlessness and so much commitment.

"You become so consumed with what you’re doing that you no longer are paying enough attention to the relationship. I think that’s the key to make our marriage work—keep that balance healthy. We’ve been together for ten years, and it’s been amazing and wonderful and fun and so full of love, and it’s also been really, really, really hard. But we keep figuring out how to check and recheck, and find the rhythm again. We love being consumed by things that we’re working on; that’s what life is all about. I love that. I know I’m not an attention whore. I don’t think I’m an actor because of anything unfulfilled in me.

"When I’m having a problem I call my dad up, my little humble Dutch dad in his workshop with sawdust on the floor, and I’ll say, ‘I did this scene today. I could have done it so much better. If I just had it to do over.’

"And he says, ‘That’s what it means to be an artist.’ "
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