Sometimes Kate Nelligan calls them ”wig roles” — those total transformations at which she excels, particularly this season: She’s Cora, the New York waitress with the snap of chewing gum and loneliness in her voice, in Frankie & Johnny. And she’s Lila, the fierce Southern mother whose ripeness yields to brittleness as she ages into a steely society matron, in The Prince of Tides.
So good is Nelligan at these transformations, in fact, that it’s often hard to place her. Wasn’t she in Shakespeare on public television? Didn’t she once play a Greek in some movie? You can’t get a fix on the woman, and if that’s her strength, she notes, it has also been her biggest career obstacle.
”I don’t go and do Kate Nelligan,” she says. ”I don’t even have a Kate Nelligan!” Her consummate dramatic mutability has powered her work in such films as Eye of the Needle, Without a Trace, and Eleni, but finding films has been difficult for the Canadian-born actress, who spent 11 years on the London stage.
”I’ve never been anything like the people I play,” she says. ”It’s very hard to get the press to understand that it’s this job you do. I mean, do they go to ballet dancers and say, ‘Are you a water nymph in real life?”’
In real life, Nelligan moved to L.A. in 1981 but fled for New York the next year. Now 40 and married to 35-year-old theater composer Rob Reale, she is wry about the ways of her profession. Having received the first of four Tony award nominations for her role in David Hare’s play Plenty, she watched the film go to Meryl Streep. But Barbra Streisand saw Nelligan in Spoils of War on Broadway in 1988, and brought her to The Prince of Tides.
Still, even as she’s being touted as a Supporting Actress Oscar candidate, Nelligan is cautious-and aware that being 40 is not a plus in Hollywood. ”Barbra was very kind to me,” she says. ”She made me look good. I wasn’t supposed to look good in Frankie & Johnny. But ughh! Aaghh! There’s a part of you that wants to protect yourself. I hope these roles work for me, not against.” Meanwhile, she says, ”I sit around and get paranoid.”