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Byline: Reed Johnson Staff Writer

Sharon Stone wants to play doctor. Seriously.

Without warning, she flings herself onto a couch at the Meridian Hotel in Beverly Hills, crosses the very substantial part of her long legs left uncovered by her short, tight skirt, and begins impersonating a severe headcase.

``For the past three weeks, since I've seen you last, doctor ...,'' Stone begins in a mock-sincere voice. Her female assistant giggles.

OK Sharon, we'll show that we're a good sport. So tell us about your father.

``My father was'' - Stone pauses for dramatic effect - ``well, my father was one of the Rockettes.'' Huh. Must be where she got those gams.

Then, just as suddenly, Sharon Stone is thoughtful, forthright, insightful.


The subject has turned to Sam Shepard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose 1994 drama ``Simpatico'' has recently been released as a feature film starring Stone, Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges and Albert Finney. After opening in December, just under the Oscar-qualifying wire, the film will move into wider distribution this weekend.

In the movie, Stone plays the distaff side of a shattered love triangle, whose now middle-age participants have been struggling to come to terms with a crime they committed long ago.

Stone professes great admiration for Shepard, the prolific author-actor (``The Right Stuff'') whose lyrical, laconic style has contributed to one of the most substantial and acclaimed bodies of work in postwar American literature.

``Well, I think Sam Shepard is just tops,'' Stone says, ``because he's articulate, he's highly intelligent, yet he approaches the work from an emotional point of view. He does deeply, devastatingly dramatic work with hilarious jokes all through it. But they're not yuk-yuk jokes. They're jokes that reflect the underbelly of our humanity. So they're ironic and revealing simultaneously.''

Kind of like, well, Sharon Stone.

One of the more enigmatic screen presences in Hollywood these days, Stone is a performer who offers more in person than sometimes meets the eye, though what meets the eye is by no means offensive.

Ever since she caught the Industry's attention with her hair-raising, midrifaring performance as Arnold Schwarzenegger's treacherous wife in Paul Verhoeven's ``Total Recall'' (1990), Stone has made the most of her seductive persona in movies like ``Sliver,'' ``Basic Instinct'' and ``Intersection.''

But the glossy perfection of her appearance may have limited her career in other ways. Like many actors blessed with exceptional cheek bones and low body-fat ratios, Stone has worked hard to be judged by her acting ability, seeking out such mettle-testing roles as a divine spirit in Albert Brooks' comedy ``The Muse,'' a plucky parent in the inspirational children's fantasy ``The Mighty'' (which she also executive produced) and, most memorably, a grasping gangster's moll in Martin Scorsese's violent Las Vegas melodrama ``Casino.''

While asking Stone to look truly terrible in a movie is a bit like asking the Hollywood sign to spell out ``Peoria,'' her stock as an actress seems to go up whenever she de-glamorizes herself.

``Simpatico'' has the potential to extend that streak by casting Stone as Rosie, the dissatisfied, boozing wife of Lyle Carter (Bridges), a millionaire Kentucky thoroughbred race-horse breeder and owner. It's the kind of small, juicy character role that gets studio publicists working overtime to stir up Best Supporting Actress pre-Oscar buzz.

It also has Stone's collaborators speaking admiringly of her performance as a gutsy, forward-looking career move.

``Sharon is obviously at a point in her life where her future is going to be as a character actress, and I think a really wonderful character actress actually,'' says Matthew Warchus, the young, much-feted British stage director who helmed ``Simpatico'' and co-wrote its screenplay. ``And this was a sort of great bridging role into that new acting for her.''

Warchus' reimagining of Shepard's bittersweet tragi-omedy expands the narrative scope of the play while pruning some of its philosopical ideas into more manageable form and eliminating some of its stage mechanics altogether.

As the movie flashes back and forth across 25 years to Cucamonga, Calif., we learn that Rosie, Carter and their estranged friend Vinnie (Nolte), now a deluded barfly, once took part in a scam to swap fast race horses for slower ones and bet against the odds.

When the trio subsequently blackmailed a race track commissioner (Finney) who'd uncovered the scam, they unleashed a sequence of events that wrecked their friendship and left each of them with painful scars that now must be confronted.

Although Stone's screen time is relatively brief, compared with that of her co-stars, her two big scenes are emotionally intense and tightly compacted. They required the actress to plumb psychological depths as deep as any in her career.

``It really took sky-diving into the deep end of the pool to do it for me, like it did for `Casino,' '' she says. ``I got really wacky, like I did on `Casino.' I think I'm very difficult to be around when I play these people, because I can't shake them, but I'm not not myself, you know? I'm still me. And so I feel emotionally unwell the whole time.''

(Ah yes, Ms. Stone, you have vat ve in ze psychoanalytic world refer to as `wackophobia.' Not to vorry, is very common thing here in L.A. Take two screenplays und call me in ze morning.)

Seriously though - when she gets this way, does Stone give fair warning to those around her so they can be prepared, or just get out of the way?

Stone is frank.

``Well, I learned my lesson on `Casino,' '' she says. ``Now I go in (and) I put my team together - not the whole (film) crew, but the people I work with directly: hair, makeup, wardrobe, the director's assistant, the production assistant, the people that are just going to be right on me - and say, `I have no ability to maintain any sort of gracious social behavior. I'm going to be weird. I might be mean. I'm sorry, in advance. Please know that anything I do that's inappropriate is a result of my working toward this character and I just don't have time to worry about the other things. I won't be able to do both. I'm not good enough. So this is what it is. Are we all in agreement?'

``We all get on with it, and then at the end I sit everybody back down together, thank them, apologize for anything I've done that is bizarre or hurtful or was not thoughtful at the time, and thank them for helping me bring something dangerous to the screen.''

In the end, Stone says, it was Warchus' remarkable self-assurance as a first-time feature film director, and their warm personal rapport, that freed her to concentrate on the role's extreme demands.

At one point, Stone was fascinated to learn that Warchus' father is an Episcopalian priest who performs exorcisms. From there she and Warchus formed the idea of treating her part as an exorcism of sorts.

As it turned out, that exorcism took place both on-screen and off.

``I was watching the movie last night and it's about the third time I've seen it,'' Stone recalls. ``And suddenly there was a certain point ... (when) I thought, `I'm not the girl in the tight dress. I'm not that girl.' And I had that moment of pause. And I thought, `Fabulous! This is great.' Because I was that girl. I was the girl in the bikini in the Coppertone ad. To me this is like a dream, that I've actually learned my job and get to do this really wonderful stuff. It's just, you know, what a life!''

No need for a doctor in the house, thank you. Sharon Stone is doing just fine.



Photo: Sharon Stone gets serious in her role as a drunk, middle-age participant in a fizzled love triangle and a criminal cover-up in Sam Shepard's ``Simpatico.''
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 3, 2000

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