When we last saw Jeanne Tripplehorn, she was splayed on the floor of a San Francisco office building, her limbs limp and tangled, her right hand clutching her Bart Simpson key chain. ''I love you,'' she gasped to Michael Douglas in Basic Instinct. Which was funny, because his character, Nick Curran, had just filled her character, Beth Gardner, with enough bullets to wipe out an Iraqi battalion. Then, with a certain B-movie bravado, poor Beth expired, a bloody mess in a bad trench coat. A casual observer might have assumed that this was the last we'd see of the steamy brunet with the killer lips. Sure, she was good, one might have reasoned, but Hollywood is full of gorgeous young actresses capable of eating lead and getting violated by an action hero over the back of a sofa. Hello, chainsaw-massacre movies.
But no. Somewhere along the line, a (relatively) weird thing happened: The Hollywood gods discovered the bimbo was no bimbo. She could act. After a few informal chitchats and a screen test director Sydney Pollack cast Tripplehorn opposite Tom Cruise in the meaty and comparatively unerotic role of The Firm's Abby McDeere. Good move: Her assured, adult performance gives the film emotional ballast; even in a sea of stars and star turns, her quiet passion is making audiences take notice.
''This role is not close to her personally,'' says Pollack. ''She's vivacious and turned up, and I was looking for something more quiet, more mature.'' Abby is the sort Anne Archer would play if she were still in her 20s: the Impossibly Good Wife, loyal, loving, and heroic despite her husband's unfortunate zipper problem. ''I really went after it,'' Tripplehorn says of the role, which she nabbed after failing to make the cut for Groundhog Day. ''I wanted a change from the Basic Instinct character, so I kept my eyes open. I read the script. Then, whenever I saw him, I'd casually ask Sydney, 'So, uh, what's happening with The Firm?' I guess he listened.''
Speaking of listening, that's just what two British screenwriter types seem to be doing as Tripplehorn relaxes at a corner table in Hollywood's Chateau Marmont hotel, a few feet from where Christopher Walken keeps scurrying past, checking his watch and sighing a lot. The Euro-writers try to act casual, but they're definitely spying on Tripplehorn, who's in a simple blue-and-white sundress. ''God,'' whispers one. ''Now those are lips.'' That sentiment is being heard a lot around Hollywood these days. They are large and full and pouty, her lips. Lips that make strangers stare as if there's a gold Rolex wedged between them. These are, in the marketing sense, million-dollar lips.
That aside, Tripplehorn looks much younger in person than she does on screen. She wears no makeup and, at 30, could pass for a college student, albeit a rather, shall we say, worldly one. She also seems smaller than she does on film, which says less about Tripplehorn's size (5 foot 7) than it does about Cruise's and Douglas'. ''No, I don't look a whole lot like my characters, that's for sure,'' she says. ''And I'm definitely not like them in other ways. Abby and Beth are so serious and earnest all the time; they don't ever lighten up. I guess I had good days for those auditions because, believe me, that's not me.''
These days, ''me'' is living in the Hollywood Hills, not far from this hotel to the stars. ''I walked here,'' Tripplehorn says proudly, as if describing how she'd just hopscotched from Oklahoma on one leg (to car-happy Angelenos, there's little difference). Still, having a nice house near the Big Sign is something to boast about, especially considering Tripplehorn is only a few years out of New York's vaunted Juilliard School, where she enrolled after hightailing it out of Tulsa, eager for the scuzzy if spirited life of an aspiring New York actor.
It all came pretty easily, beginning when director Paul Verhoeven cast her in last year's Basic Instinct. Tripplehorn maintains that the notorious, uniquely primal grunt scene in which her character and Douglas' had brutal, bruising sex was somewhat ''lighter'' when described to her by Verhoeven before shooting. ''Once I was on the set, I could see Paul's new storyboards and realized what was happening,'' she says, shrugging. ''Before we filmed the thing, I was so nervous I was laughing uncontrollably. But I just followed the script and it was fine well, except for the bump on my head I got from slamming it against the wall so many times.'' Today, however, she can't watch the movie, partly because of the sex, partly because of its ''really cheesy'' lines (like Beth screeching about Sharon Stone's bisexual psycho: ''She's evil! She's brilliant!'').
After all, the typical Juilliard student does not spend four years learning how to make her brassiere burst open at just the right moment. ''Actually,'' Tripplehorn says soberly, ''I'm turning away from overt sex scenes. That was like a different time in film. It's time for something sweeter and more romantic.'' Enter Pollack and Cruise, never ones to haul out the ice picks and candle wax. ''It was different in more ways than that, though,'' Tripplehorn says. ''Paul is so outgoing, so...oh, what's that word?'' She slaps her forehead, tugs her hair, pounds her chair. ''Oh, I'll think of it. Anyway, Sydney's the opposite: paternal, avuncular, quieter.'' Dutch-born Verhoeven was always cajoling the doe-eyed actress to ''ahct mawr matyure,'' she adds. He even gave her fake eyelashes and glasses so she would look older, more professorial, less ''Extroverted!'' Tripplehorn suddenly yelps. She remembered the word.
Strange business, acting. One day, an excitable action-adventure guru is telling you to look more like you're 35; next time around, a cerebral Academy Award winner is training you to be more like 25 and this only the second major role of your career. ''Honestly, you get pretty scared walking in and working with Michael Douglas or Tom Cruise,'' she says. ''They were both really helpful, but you could say I used up a lot of deodorant.''
Tripplehorn can relax a bit. She's on vacation now, traveling by car to places like Texas and Oklahoma simply because she can. And driving alone, even though she recently got engaged to actor-director Ben Stiller. But maybe the biggest relief for her these days came when she was able to take her beloved grandmother, Jean Neely, from Tulsa to the swanky Hollywood premiere of The Firm. ''She didn't see Basic Instinct,'' Tripplehorn says, ''for obvious reasons.'' Grandma took to the local scene so much so that she had to cut short one night on the town. Seems Stiller put Neely in his new movie, the comedy Reality Bites, and she had to be up for an early-morning shoot. Next stop: Chateau Marmont?