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PROFILE: Where's Whalley?; AFTER AN EIGHT-YEAR EXILE, JOANNE WHALLEY IS BACK TO RECLAIM HER POSITION AMONG THE HOLLYWOOD ELITE.

Byline: ALUN PALMER

Whatever happened to Joanne Whalley? She was the girl from Stockport who began her career with bit-parts in British soaps before going on to make her name in Hollywood and marry a screen heartthrob, but for the past eight years she has all but disappeared from view.

Yet you'd be wrong in thinking Joanne, 37, had turned her back on acting. Following several low-key roles, she is about to make her major comeback in a stylish British drama, Before You Go, directed by Lewis Gilbert of Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine fame.

It could be the film to put her back in the spotlight after her self- imposed exile. Joanne's traumatic 1996 divorce from her film star husband Val Kilmer coincided with a decline in demand for her as a leading lady. Devastated, she took an extended break to heal her wounds and reassess her life. Things had hardly worked out as she had expected them to.

When she met and fell in love with Val, on the set of the 1988 fantasy adventure Willow, it all seemed like a fairytale come true. Both achingly good looking, they were rising stars and made a perfect match. Within months they were married and Joanne began using the surname Whalley-Kilmer to show the depth - and at the time, permanence - of their relationship.

The newlyweds set up home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, far from the glitzy showbiz trappings of Hollywood, and three years later were celebrating the birth of their daughter, Mercedes. Meanwhile, their careers were spiralling heavenwards. In 1995, Val landed the lead as the Caped Crusader in Batman Returns, while Joanne had cemented her status as a leading lady with the hits Scandal (1989), Navy SEALS (1990) and Shattered (1991).

But then the top roles started to dry up, and both Val and Joanne spent the latter years of the '90s as a low-key box office presence. Val began spending more and more time away from the family home, working on lesser projects.

While the couple may have been hard to spot on-screen at that time, they burst back into public view in 1996 when their eight-year marriage fell messily apart. Just eight weeks after the birth of their second child, a son called Jack, while Val was again absent from the family, Joanne filed for divorce.

Val, who Batman Returns director Joel Schumacher described as "the most psychologically troubled human being I've ever worked with", was outraged at what had happened. He later claimed that he had heard about the divorce petition on CNN, and offered Joanne $500,000. But, following one of the most bitter divorce fights in showbiz history, a court ordered him to pay his ex-wife $4 million, plus child maintenance of $25,000 a month.

Hurt as much by the slump in her career as by the divorce fight, Joanne devoted herself to her children and homelife. Despite the odd minor role in unforgettable movies, she virtually retreated into her shell. And it was only two years ago that she felt ready to re-emerge, older and wiser.

It was the chance to play the lead in the big budget US TV mini-series, Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, that tempted Joanne out of her self-imposed semi-retirement in 2000. She says the role of the '60s icon was simply too good to turn down and her performance returned her to the glare of Hollywood's spotlight.

"It was a great role, but I realised why I had been away for so long," she says. "I missed my children too much. Now I do work that I can fit in with my family. They come first at all times."

She will not, however, be drawn on the current state of her relationship with their father, Val.

"That is all in the past," is all she will say. "And I don't want to go there."

Her current home is in Los Angeles with Mercedes, now 11, and seven-year- old Jack. Most days involve taking the kids to school with leisure time spent at the beach or in the mountains. "I love it here," she says. "The weather's good and so is the lifestyle. My kids love it, too."

It is certainly a far cry from her own upbringing in a Stockport semi. Her plumber father Jack worked all hours to build a comfortable life for Joanne, paying for her drama lessons and dance classes and taking time off work to ferry her to auditions. Fortunately, his belief in his daughter's talent paid off.

From an early age Joanne was determined to be a star. She even vowed to a fellow actor that one day she would buy her own private jet - a dream she very nearly realised.

Her first role was in Coronation Street as the nine-year-old daughter of Rita Fairclough's boyfriend, and she later won another bit part in Emmerdale Farm. But her big break was playing Ingrid in Granada TV's A Kind Of Loving. It caused a sensation when she went topless in the drama's love scenes - she was 19.

Joanne moved out of home and successfully auditioned for the Royal Court, where she was nominated for an Olivier Award. But it was the double TV whammy of The Singing Detective in 1986 - where she memorably rubbed Vaseline into Michael Gambon - followed by the thriller Edge Of Darkness which thrust her centre stage, providing the impetus for her to make the leap to Hollywood.

Now that she has rediscovered the early drive that propelled her to stardom the first time around, she is keen to get her career back on track. And how better to do that than by working with such luminaries of British acting as Julie Walters, Tom Wilkinson and John Hannah in the new drama, Before You Go?

In the small budget movie, a version of the successful stage play The Memory Of Water, three sisters gather at their mother's funeral only to end up bickering and battling over her estate.

"I have become more selective," says Joanne of her decision to return to the big screen. "My priorities are my children and keeping things simple. I am also pretty lucky in that I don't have to panic about the rent."

After nearly a decade spent re-establishing the priorities in her life, Joanne is now back in her career saddle. Later this year, she will star in Virginia's Run, a warm-hearted drama of love and loss, alongside Gabriel Byrne.

After all the ups and downs, stardom and scandal, it is clear that the inner drive which took a hopeful young girl from semi-detached Manchester to palatial California is again pushing Joanne Whalley back on the road to success. And not before time.

l Before You Go is released today.

CAPTION(S):

FANTASY: Making Willow in 1988 led to marriage with co-star Val Kilmer; BIG BREAK: 1986's Singing Detective; CONTROVERSIAL: As Christine Keeler in Scandal in 1989; TOUGH: In Navy SEALS in 1990; STRIKING: As Jackie O in a 2000 US TV series; MOVING: With John Hannah in new film Before You Go
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 21, 2002
Words:1179
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