Sporting a skintight charcoal dress and a Louise Brooks wig, Neve Campbell stands comfortably next to Robert Altman on the Chicago set of the ballet drama ''The Company.'' As they exchange ideas on today's scene (which takes place in a Goth bar), it's clear the 29-year-old Ontario native has come a long way from ''Party of Five.''
With that series, as well as both big-screen hits (the ''Scream'' trilogy) and misses (''Investigating Sex'') behind her, Campbell has matured into an artist with the confidence to develop and produce a $12 million dream project like ''The Company,'' in which she blends in as one of 40 members of Chicago's Joffrey Ballet. Described by Altman as ''a season in the life of,'' the movie attempts to capture the dancers' world, focusing on performances and their day-to-day, bloody-feet-and-all lives. ''I started out as a dancer,'' says Campbell, ''and it's a story I've wanted to tell for a long time.''
Five years, to be exact. After a deal with Warner Bros. fell through in 2000 (the studio had a rise-of-the-prima-ballerina fairy tale in mind; she didn't), Campbell and writer Barbara Turner (''Pollock'') moved to indie production house Killer Films, where they hooked up with Altman. ''Barbara and I kept saying this film [was] Altmanesque,'' Campbell recalls. ''Because Bob is the one most capable of telling stories through many characters.''
Of course, they never expected to get him, and at first, the 78-year-old auteur wasn't so sure. ''I said, 'This isn't for me,' but they kept pokin' at me,'' he says. Campbell's dedication also impressed him. ''Oh, she's the boss. She kept this thing alive and paid I don't know how much, but a lot more than she's ever gonna get out of it,'' adds Altman. ''She's worked so hard.... I wouldn't have traded [the experience] for anything.'' Nor would Campbell -- despite having broken a rib during her grueling preproduction dance training. ''I took a lot of painkillers,'' she shrugs. ''Being a dancer is masochistic: You love the pain because it means you're being creative.''
Since the film wrapped last fall, Campbell has stayed on a busy streak, shooting three films back-to-back: ''Blind Horizon'' with Val Kilmer, ''The Churchill Years,'' and James Toback's ''When Will I Be Loved.'' Next is ''A Private War,'' a film about Tourette's syndrome that she's developing with her good friend, tyro screenwriter Pete Antico.
All of which leaves little time for arabesques and plies. ''I miss it, but [doing the movie] helped me with the regret I used to feel about leaving dancing.'' Besides, there's that broken rib, which has healed into what she calls a ''lump of calcified bone.'' Pointing to her right side, she says, beaming: ''It's my souvenir.''