I have a bone to pick with Entertainment Weekly,'' actress Shannon Whirry says as she digs into a goat cheese salad at mad. 61, the chic eatery in the chic basement of the chic clothing store Barneys New York. ''When they reviewed my movie Mirror Images II, they referred to me as 'the improbably named Shannon Whirry.' Except that that's the name on my birth certificate you can look it up. But they call the director, Gregory Hippolyte, 'wonderfully named,' and Hippolyte is such an obvious pseudonym.''
It's a moment of mixed emotions for Whirry's interlocutor, who's delighted that she reads her reviews but disappointed that she doesn't recognize his name from the byline. Well, he explains, sometimes these things get changed in the editing.
That past, they get back to a discussion of the special niche Whirry has carved out for herself in the enormously popular video-driven genre called the erotic thriller. Whirry and Hippolyte are fast becoming the Dietrich and Von Sternberg of the soft-core set, with four titles Animal Instincts, Body of Influence, Mirror Images II, and the latest, Animal Instincts II, due out next week under their belts.
Unlike most actresses who doff their clothes regularly for the rental masses, Whirry, 29, comes from an acting-school and theater background, not from the pages of a men's magazine. A stint at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts led her to Off Broadway, where she appeared in Mrs. Warren's Profession and Butterflies Are Free, among others. Soon Hollywood beckoned in the form of Steven Seagal, who cast the Wisconsin-born actress as a Brooklynite in his 1991 Out for Justice. ''I worked in a Brooklyn bar for years while I was doing theater, so I could do the Brooklyn ting fuh day-eez,'' Whirry convincingly intones. Then came Animal Instincts, based on the true story of a cop who recharges his libido by watching his wife have sex with other men.
While Whirry's on-screen demeanor can seem quite uninhibited, for her it's all acting. ''How I feel about any given erotic scene depends on my mood at the time,'' she says. ''All the scenes are highly choreographed, and sometimes, depending on the circumstances and who I'm working with, it can be comfortable and fun. And then there are days when I just can't wait to go home and get under the shower.''
To save water, Whirry maintains some measure of control. She says that there's a clause in some of her contracts allowing her to balk at any simulated sexual gymnastics she's uncomfortable with, and that Hippolyte has on occasion asked her to do things she didn't want to do. Moreover, she insists that the erotic thriller is just a means to an end she'd like to star in A pictures, and, yes, she'd like eventually to direct. ''That sounds like a pretentious thing to say,'' she admits. ''But I'm talking 15 years down the road, when parts for women get pretty sparse.''
Later, while strolling through Barneys' multiple floors of very pricey haute couture, Whirry is reminded again of ambitions that go far beyond direct-to-video stardom. Eyeing a beautiful dress with the texture of a portobello mushroom, the wonderfully named Whirry cringes at its $4,000-plus price tag. ''That'll have to wait for the Oscars,'' she says.