Half the fun of meeting an actor in person is seeing how different they are from their on-screen presence. When the lights aren't shining from above, cheek bones are no longer razor sharp. Height diminishes and personalities fall back into everyday proportions. The same goes for "meeting" via the phone.
The cult New York actress Ally Sheedy's (The Breakfast Club) voicemail message is an everyday recording about herself and her daughter, Rebecca Elizabeth, not being home. It sounds far too homely for an actress who, not so long ago, was a suitably unruly member of The Brat Pack, the hip group of upcoming 1980s actors that included Molly Ringwald and Demi Moore. After the voicemail picks up several times, Sheedy answers. "I'm totally sorry. I thought we said 2.30," she says. Her apologetic voice rings in at a higher pitch than one might imagine for an actress with such depth. It reminds me of her most raved-about performance as an erstwhile photographer in the acclaimed independent film High Art.
Altogether, Sheedy sounds far too normal for someone whose life, as it has so often been written, has many parallels with her High Art character, Lucy Berliner. "This may sound funny," Sheedy says, "but let me give you my cell phone number just in case the battery dies on this phone." Her landline holds out long enough for her to talk through her colourful biography. From the ages of six to 12, she danced with the American Ballet Theater; at 12, she became a best-selling author with the children's book She Was Nice to Mice, and by 20-something she had embedded herself into Hollywood culture with a slew of 1980s teen movies.
She made her big-screen debut with Sean Penn in the 1983 film Bad Boys before co-starring with the A-Z of Hollywood actors, including Matthew Broderick in War Games, Rob Lowe in Oxford Blues, and Gene Hackman in Twice in a Lifetime. Then, several years later, she famously walked away from Hollywood altogether. "I wanted to change things over and go in the direction I went in," she says. "The independent film world was just getting established. I didn't know how I was going to find the types of parts I wanted to play, and indies are hit or miss. But I never would have got to play as many types of roles as I have, had I stayed there. I was being characterised as the girl next door."
Since then, her career has been a quirky, under-the-radar ride through the back alleys of off-Broadway and her native Manhattan's independent film scene. "I love doing offbeat films," she says. Last year, Sheedy co-starred with Cuba Gooding Jr in T Sean Shannon's film Harold, which played on a handful of screens in New York. She can currently be seen in the New York art-house circuit film Perestroika, the director Slava Tsukerman's story about Jewish emigration from Russia. Sheedy plays a frustrated astrophysicist whose career is shelved when her husband (Sam Robards) takes flight.
Although such independent projects have often obscured her from public view, her upcoming performances look set to give her a higher profile once again, which may not be unwelcome. "I would love to do a mainstream film again," she says. Currently in Los Angeles to play the title character in the Hallmark television movie Citizen Jane, which is based on a much-reported true story about Jane Alexander, a woman who became an amateur detective in her later years, Sheedy recently completed Forgiveness, the sequel to Todd Solondz's Happiness.
Both Forgiveness and Perestroika touch upon the Middle East. In Forgiveness, Sheedy plays a Jewish woman for whom personal issues become confused with the Middle Eastern politics. Perestroika, meanwhile, follows the emigration of Jews from Russia to America. Sheedy auditioned for Forgiveness two-and-a-half years before production started. "I loved meeting Todd and auditioning," she says. "I didn't hear anything for two years. Perestroika happened in between, then I was in New Orleans to make Welcome to the Rileys. I got off the plane to do the movie and Todd called and said: 'Turn around to San Juan.'" (The Welcome to the Rileys story is personal rather than political. Sheedy plays alongside James Gandolfini and Kristen Stewart in the story about a grieving young couple who drift apart after the death of their daughter.)
The story of Perestroika resonated with Sheedy, as she comes from a Jewish family that emigrated from Eastern Europe. "Both of my dad's and my mum's families were peasants who survived the famine. Both families came to the US to escape oppression and gain hope. America was not the land of milk and honey. Both sides were totally wiped out." The political strand that runs through her current crop of films is not something that Sheedy sees as coincidental. "I think that a lot of the films that are going to come out now are going to be political," she says. "People tell me that I am wrong and that because of the economy people will want to see upbeat themes. But I think you will see a lot about war."
Sheedy says she looks for something to identify with in any character. "The parts that are interesting to me are women that have created their own world, for better or worse," she says. "I look at characters and movies as being broader than one culture or one way of life," she says. "There is something that is universal in people. Even if I find her reprehensible, the thing that bothers me and intrigues me about the character in Forgiveness is that she has appropriated a real history for herself. It is her understanding as an American of the situation in the Middle East that leads her to take on a role in this huge conflict."
At home, Sheedy has found her own way to keep it real. "My daughter has grounded me," she says of her child from her marriage to the actor David Lansbury. "If I didn't have her it would be much harder when I'm not working. I'm going on Sunday to work in California. Sometimes it will be a week. Sometimes it is for three weeks. I throw myself into it. She loves her dad. I meet a million people and have a great time then come back and it is all fresh again."
Sheedy rarely sees her Brat Pack friends of old - "It was like leaving college and everyone just went their separate ways," she says - but she does have a close circle of friends that form a big part of her life. She is also active in various charities, and has been known to give the odd talk at her daughter's school. Still, she tries to make sure that she creates a structured upbringing for Rebecca Elizabeth.
"When my daughter is with me, we get up and take care of everything. I go to walk the dog - normal stuff," Sheedy says. "I do all the things to keep myself in shape, like therapy. Then I get home in time to be there after school and look after my daughter."