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A MOST INDEPENDENT LINDA FIORENTINO CURE FOR BOREDOM LIES IN SMALLER ROLES.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Writer

This is not how you scheme your way into millions.

Linda Fiorentino, who co-stars with the legendary Paul Newman in the low-budget, independently produced caper comedy ``Where the Money Is,'' is well aware of that.

``The title of my autobiography should be 'Not Where the Money Is,' or 'Where the Money Isn't,' '' the joke-loving actress says with a deep, hearty laugh. ``But independents are where the good roles are.''

And that's reason enough for Fiorentino - who has indeed been part of one of the biggest commercial hits of all time, albeit one that totally reflected her zonky/edgy sense of humor - to eschew the Hollywood star track for modest films that fulfill her artistically.

The irony is that, perhaps even more than her widely seen work in ``Men in Black,'' the actress is most identified with one of the 1990s' most celebrated indie productions, ``The Last Seduction,'' in which she updated the femme fatale movie archetype to a character of unbelievably amoral, unfettered greed.

And now, in ``Where the Money Is,'' she's typically making fun of that mantis-from-hell image. Fiorentino plays Carol, a nursing-home attendant in a small Oregon town, married to her high school sweetheart Wayne (Dermot Mulroney) and a bit concerned that her life is slipping away into abject nothingness.

But then she gets a new patient from the nearby prison, the infamously clever bank robber Henry Manning (Newman). Immobilized by a severe stroke, he's supposed to be warehoused at the old folks' facility until a bed is freed up at the penitentiary's overcrowded clinic. But Carol half- suspects, half-wishes that the catatonic criminal has something cooking in that supposedly flatlined brain - and that it could be her ticket out of Nowheresville, if she could just get Henry to respond.

``If ('Seduction's') Bridget Gregory had not been a monster and had been more human, she might have been Carol Ann McKay,'' the Philadelphia-born Fiorentino says in her distinctive, hickory-and-caramel voice. ``I kind of see her as the B-side, almost a prequel to Bridget. But she's more compassionate. She has a heart; so she's more rounded, I guess.''

Fiorentino stops short of declaring Carol more like the true Linda. But that doesn't mean she couldn't relate.

``I would say that Carol suffers from an enormous amount of boredom,'' adds Fiorentino, a never-married 40-year-old from a domestically overachieving family of eight kids. ``That's the reason why she does what she does in the film, for sure.

``I have no boredom in my life, I have to be honest. I come from a big family, I live in New York, and there's never a moment when I'm bored; there's always something interesting happening. But it was a simple role to understand. I just think about what my life would have been like had I not been lucky enough to become an actor. It was very easy for me to identify because I know a lot of girls like her.''

It was Fiorentino's low tolerance for boredom that got her into acting in the first place. On a pre-law track at a Catholic women's college, she quickly learned that she couldn't stand lectures. And although she had contempt for what she considered the intellectually lightweight business of playacting, too, she did find drama more interesting and excelled in a few school plays. One of the college's advisers, impressed by her performance, suggested that she think about the stage instead of law school.

Accepted into New York's prestigious Circle-in-the-Square Performing Workshop, Fiorentino - yes - got bored and quit after six months. But by then she'd nailed her first movie job, in the wrestling film ``Vision Quest.''

The career progressed in fits and starts from there. There was challenging work for admired filmmakers (Martin Scorsese's ``After Hours,'' Alan Rudolph's ``The Moderns'') and a lot of pictures that, as Fiorentino likes to joke, can always be found on late-night cable and in convenience store video bins. The iconic/commercial one-two punch of ``Seduction'' and ``Men in Black'' has made her pretty recognizable in recent years, but it's still tough to dodge big studio bombs like ``Jade,'' ``Unforgettable'' and the recent ``What Planet Are You From?''

It's somewhat emblematic that Fiorentino's most notable hit since ``MiB'' was last year's scruffy, controversial ``Dogma,'' in which she played God's chosen abortion worker.

Through all of this shifting fortune, Fiorentino has developed an ability to pretty much swing with anything. And that's had a very positive impact on her work.

``She almost has an animal instinct, creatively,'' notes ``Money Is'' director Marek Kanievska, for whom she'll be playing famed artist Georgia O'Keeffe in the upcoming ``Til the End of Time.'' ``Linda tries something and it's usually spot-on. But if it isn't, I can give her a very brief note and, using what she's already done as a springboard, within two or three takes it's there. There's a lot of excitement in working with an actor who's that immediate.''

The self-possessed actress is also good at sizing up situations quickly, knowing what to take seriously and what not to. This came in handy opposite a screen legend like Paul Newman.

``I treated him with respect because he's my elder, and my parents taught me well,'' Fiorentino says. ``But I didn't think of him as Paul Newman or as a special person, and I think that's why we became friends. I just treated him like an actor and a person, someone that I had to work with. And I think that it shows; I mean, if I thought that I was working with some god, I wouldn't have been able to interact and feel comfortable.''

Which is not to say that everything was perfect, even in the most sensitive scene. There was some frustration, Fiorentino laughingly admits, doing the mostly improvised lap dance, in which Carol tries her darnedest to get some kind of reaction out of unmoving Henry.

``He never, ever flinched,'' she says with exaggerated indignation. ``I was completely insulted! I thought that I'd lost my touch, I gave him everything that I have. At the end of the day, Paul apologized for not being more responsive. He said, 'I don't want you to take it personally, I was just doing my job.' ''

We'll next be seeing Fiorentino in the Irish gangster drama ``Ordinary Decent Criminal'' opposite another imposing presence, this year's best actor Oscar winner Kevin Spacey. But he's an old friend from the New York theater scene, and she describes working with the intense actor as ``a blast. All we did was laugh on the set all day long. It was very difficult to get anything done.''

You get the impression that enjoying herself and those around her is probably the top item on Linda Fiorentino's work list. While she's looking forward to reteaming with Will Smith for a yet-unscheduled ``Men in Black'' sequel, the actress figures she might as well make the best of not being where the money is.

``You can tell, when you look at a film like 'Where the Money Is,' that we all liked each other,'' she says. ``It's a brutal experience, independent filmmaking, because there's not a lot of money in the budget. So you'd better like the people you're working with, 'cause you're going to be with them for 18 hours a day.''

CAPTION(S):

4 photos

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) Why indie star Linda Fiorentino trades 'Money' for nothing.

(2 -- 4) Nursing-home attendant Carol, bored by her husband, Wayne (Dermot Mulroney, above), finds some excitement with bank robber Henry Manning (Paul Newman, top left) in ``Where the Money Is.''
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 12, 2000
Words:1264
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