- The Washington Times - Friday, July 13, 2007

It’s hard to imagine anyone but Brenda Blethyn in the role of Jean, the larger-than-life mother in the dysfunctional-family comedy opening today, “Introducing the Dwights.”

When she’s not sabotaging her nearly grown sons’ romantic relationships in a desperate attempt to keep them at home, she’s trying to resurrect her career as a stand-up comedienne — using the same eye-rollingly naughty material that barely worked more than two decades ago.

The starring role calls for hysterics and heart in equal measure, so it’s no surprise that screenwriter Keith Thompson wrote the character with Miss Blethyn in mind. At least, it’s no surprise to anyone but the actress herself.

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t know when I read it,” the 61-year-old actress says by telephone from New York. “I’m kind of glad I didn’t know. It would have been too much responsibility.” She didn’t find out until after she read — and loved — the script.

It turns out that Mr. Thompson grew up about 20 miles from where Miss Blethyn grew up in Kent, England, and admired her work in the 1980 Mike Leigh television film “Grown-Ups,” which is set nearby.

The actress wouldn’t make her big screen debut until 1990 (with “The Witches”) and got her big break when she was almost 50, in another Mike Leigh film, 1996’s “Secrets & Lies.” She played a working-class white woman who discovers that the daughter she gave up for adoption decades before is black.

She earned her first Oscar nomination for the film and won just about every other major best actress prize that year, including at the Golden Globes, British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and Cannes.

Many actresses complain that the quantity and quality of roles dry up as they get older. But Miss Blethyn is still in her prime, working steadily since she became a star.

“Fortunately, I haven’t had a problem. But I don’t have any ego about the size of the roles I play,” she says matter-of-factly. “ ’Beyond the Sea,’ that was a little tiny part. ‘On a Clear Day,’ that was a tiny bit. I liked the roles, so I did it.”

Audiences will see her again later this year in “Atonement,” the much anticipated film based on Ian McEwan’s heartbreakingly tragic novel. “If you blink, you’ll miss me,” she laughs. “I play Grace Turner, the mother of the part played by James McAvoy.”

(For those curious about the film, Miss Blethyn says, “I’ve only seen a little bit of it, and it looks absolutely, astonishingly good.” She played alongside “Atonement” star Keira Knightley in 2005’s “Pride & Prejudice.” In that film, Miss Blethyn says, “She’s a girl. In ‘Atonement,’ in the little bit I saw, she’s a woman.”)

Miss Blethyn says she makes her career choices based on “the quality of the script, first and foremost,” and she’s more eager than most in her profession to talk about the character she’s played and the journey all the characters make through the course of a film.

She contributed directly to that journey in “Secrets & Lies” — Mr. Leigh is a famous fan of improvisation. While “Introducing the Dwights” already had a script, there are lines written by Miss Blethyn herself — in those hilariously out-of-date stand-up routines.

The actress adds, “It always helps to improvise around a scene even if none of the words are changed because it helps you get into a scene and it links scenes, tells you what happened between this one and that one.”

It seems she can’t stop improvising. Relishing her roles, she even imagines three damaged women she’s played sitting in a room together, Jean from “Dwights” trying to “shepherd” Cynthia from “Secrets & Lies” and Mari from “Little Voice.”

Kelly Jane Torrance

Zahn’s new ‘Dawn’

Actor Steve Zahn lost 40 pounds, pumped himself full of malaria meds and ran barefoot through the jungles of Thailand dodging waterfalls, poisonous snakes and mudslides while filming Werner Herzog’s “Rescue Dawn.”

While sitting comfortably in a posh D.C. hotel room during a press tour, the physically reconstituted Mr. Zahn says, “I’d never shot anything before [this] where I wasn’t asked, ‘Do you like Diet Coke?’ or told, ‘We’ll get that for you; here’s your chair with your embroidered name on the back.’ ”

Lavish catering and the typical on-set pampering would’ve seemed inappropriate given the movie’s subject matter, though; it’s a dramatic re-creation of German-born U.S. Navy pilot Dieter Dengler’s real-life escape from a Laotian POW camp.

With Christian Bale as the lead, Mr. Zahn plays Duane Martin, a fellow prisoner who’s resigned himself to what he believes is his tragic fate — death in captivity — until he finds himself a freed, albeit dangerously weak, man wandering the jungles alongside Dieter.

It’s a meaty, highly dramatic turn for Mr. Zahn, who’s appeared in more than 30 movies and built a reputation largely on wild-eyed, zany and/or bumbling characters in such flicks as “Saving Silverman” and “Riding in Cars With Boys.”

Up to this point, many people have seen him as a comedic actor, which fascinates the theater-trained thespian.

“If that’s the one thing that pops in their heads, great, that’s fine,” he says. “I never really categorize [my films]; I just go act. I’m a character actor.”

Although Duane is deeper and more affecting than many of the roles audiences are used to seeing the actor play, Mr. Zahn says that he approaches all his characters the same way: by “trying to find those weaknesses that we all can associate with so that you’re drawn into them.”

Duane isn’t part of some calculated career move to storm into dramatic territory, says Mr. Zahn (although it could have that effect). Instead, he was drawn to the role because of the opportunity to work with Mr. Herzog and because of the topic (he calls himself a “nonfiction guy” and a “history junkie”).

He also notes that his age is naturally nudging him into a slightly different turf.

“I’m going to be 40 this year, so I’m going to start playing 40-year-old parts,” he says. “I’m not going to be the private; I’ll be the colonel.”

Obviously Mr. Zahn hopes that “Rescue Dawn” is well received, but ultimately, he’s not in it for the fame and paparazzi. In fact, he lives far away from the Hollywood hubbub on a farm in rural Kentucky with his wife and two children, and much prefers this relaxed lifestyle.

“Isn’t that the point, to kind of blend in [to a crowd] as an actor?” he asks.

Jenny Mayo

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