See Gin Run

Memphis' own Ginnifer Goodwin is quietly taking over Hollywood, one role at a time.

At precisely 4 p.m. on a Sunday in mid-March, the doors of Beverly Hills' Urth Cafe swing open, and Ginnifer Goodwin scans the crowded room, looking for the journalist who's in town to interview her.

At least I think it's her. This girl doesn't look a thing like she did in any of the seven DVDs I'd rented over the last month in the name of research. The beautiful creature removes her oversize, futuristic sunglasses, looking expectantly around the crowded cafe. "Hi! I'm Ginny," she says as I approach. She surprises me with a huge hug, and plops down at the table.

We dive into introductory chitchat, then, as though she's just remembered where she is, excuses herself to wait patiently in line for a coffee. She returns, clutching a steaming cup in her unmanicured fingers, folds one leg under her, and launches into an excited recap of her last few days on the HBO set of Big Love.

A waiter appears with the largest piece of chocolate cake I've ever seen contained on a single plate, and just as I'm about to tell him he has the wrong table, Ginnifer squeals excitedly and reaches up to grab it. "I got two forks," she says. "You have to have some of this. It's so good it's insane."

Then she does something that would make other young Hollywood actresses collapse into a shameful heap of neuroses.

She takes a bite.

A big, messy, chocoholic-sized bite, and sighs with pleasure.

I'm going to like Ginnifer Goodwin very much.

Urth, flanked by the luxe Rodeo Drive and the überhip Robertson Boulevard, seems almost out of place here, resembling a small country cottage, complete with white picket fence separating it from the stream of beautiful, tanned bodies passing by at a steady clip on the sidewalk out front. It's one of the Memphis-born actress' favorite hangouts, as much for its down-home atmosphere as for its desserts.

She's clad in low-slung gray skinny jeans tucked into brown knee boots, and a black turtleneck under a vintage, navy blue short-sleeved sweater. It's an outfit that shouldn't match, but somehow does, beautifully. Her still-damp hair hangs in natural ringlets, and her pale skin has the lit-from-within look that's separated many a woman from her hard-earned cash in the quest to achieve it.

In a word, she's stunning.

If those stunning looks haven't translated into leading-lady roles yet, it's simply a matter of time. Not to imply that she hasn't made huge inroads in the highly competitive world of Hollywood. Goodwin, who turns 29 this month, has held her own costarring with the likes of Julia Roberts and Reese Witherspoon, though the roles thus far have been more shy friend than ingenue.

A Life-Changing Experience

The love of acting came early to Goodwin. The daughter of Dr. Linda Goodwin and Tim Goodwin began her education at Auburndale, and then moved to St. Mary's until her junior year. She transferred to Lausanne, and graduated in 1996. "My first time on stage was probably kindergarten, playing the role of the Little Engine That Could. I remember getting really frustrated that my fellow actors were dropping lines," she laughs. "I was as bossy as the day is long, and I'd step in for them and do everything in my power to keep us on track."

A teacher at Auburndale noticed the youngster's stage presence immediately, and suggested her parents take her to audition for Annie Get Your Gun at Theatre Memphis. She nailed the audition and left with the role of Annie's little sister Nellie. She was hooked.

"My parents were so supportive," she says. "I don't know how they did it all, getting me to skating lessons and auditions and horseback riding the way they did."

As long as she wasn't eyeing professional roles, her family was behind her. "They didn't want it to be about money or competition at that stage; they just wanted to know I was being fed, artistically speaking. Kids are supposed to be in school, not working. Education in my household was non-negotiable. We knew we were expected to go to college; it wasn't even an option not to go," she says. "And when I said I wanted to study acting at college, they were more than okay with it, telling me not to worry about a backup plan. Their take on that was that if you have a backup plan, you'll back up. Don't. Follow your passion."

So Goodwin found herself at Boston University, chosen for its drama department's stellar reputation. She loved it, and used the school's affiliations to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art as well as the Royal Shakespeare Institute Stratford-upon-Avon, training she credits for much of her success today.

"It was a life-changing experience, and I wouldn't be a working actress without those tools and ideas. I needed to be reconfigured as an actor, and that's where the process began," she explains. She fell so hard for the Bard in fact, that she returned twice more to study abroad, the time away adding a fifth year to her undergraduate work. "All those summers and Saturdays were worth it from what I took away from those experiences," she says.

Her favorite character? "There's something about Rosalind in As You Like It. It was my least favorite play until I was cast in that role and learned so much from her," she recalls, adding that Ophelia is on her "to do" list for the future.

Boston was a wise choice for more than just its ties with the lofty London programs.

At BU's graduation ceremony in 2001, Goodwin found out she'd been awarded the "Excellence in Acting Professional Promise Award" from the Bette Davis Foundation. The honor came with a grant, which meant she was free to spend her days auditioning rather than working to make ends meet. She also left school with the advantage of an agent, thanks to the school's Showcase Program. The program allows student actors to perform in front of agents from both coasts, and through what Goodwin describes as "a throwing-up, nerve-wracking competitive process," agents pluck 20 or so students out of about 1,000 to represent.

She was already two steps ahead of 99 percent of the competition.

Grant money in hand and agent at the ready, she moved to New York, sharing a tiny, un-air-conditioned apartment with a female college friend. "We only had room for one bed, which we had to share," Goodwin recalls. "We were a sweaty duo, though that's nothing compared to what everyone else goes through. I don't know what I would have done if I didn't have a wonderful agent sending me out to auditions."

Lightning struck twice, and she landed the role of "the girl that finds the dead body before the opening credits" of an episode of Law & Order. But, recognizing that Los Angeles had as much if not more to offer the young actress, she packed up those sweaty clothes and headed west. It was a good move. Next came a two-year-long recurring role on NBC's Ed. Goodwin played the role of Diane Snyder, "the nerdiest girl in school, with glasses and boy clothes and gargling all my words. It was a blast," she laughs.

From Small Screen to Silver Screen

Winning over critics as the lovably nerdy Diane, Goodwin caught the eye of agents casting roles for a film starring Julia Roberts. The 1950s period piece, Mona Lisa Smile, put Roberts in the role of a free-thinking art teacher in the decidedly conservative Wellesley girls' school. But the roles of four main student-characters were left to be filled. "It was my first movie audition, and I knew I wasn't going to get a part, but wanted the experience of auditioning," says Goodwin. "I didn't think anything would come of it."

But she impressed the director, who, though wary about Goodwin's lack of screen experience, cast her — along with Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Julia Stiles — as the studious, shy Connie Baker, eager for a boyfriend and destined to have her heart broken. The scenario was far from ideal, as Goodwin's Ed schedule overlapped with the film's. "I was going crazy being Diane one day and then a girl from the '50s the next. It was screwing with me. So I didn't go back to the show the next year. I was addicted to making movies."

The film hit theaters in December 2003, and critics were more than kind to Goodwin, with reviewers sprinkling "the next big thing" and "a movie's best friend" throughout their reviews. She landed a full-page profile in Vanity Fair and photos in the industry mags Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. So no one was surprised to see Goodwin hit the big screen yet again as Kate Bosworth's quirky best friend in 2004's Win A Date With Tad Hamilton! Though the movie's premise — small-town beauty (Bosworth) enters a contest and wins a night with a Hollywood hottie (Josh Duhamel) — was decidedly fluffier than the serious Mona Lisa Smile, the role of Cathy Feely was not an easy one for Goodwin to wrap her brain around.

Sporting denim mini-skirts and pink highlights, the lusty, outspoken Feely was as far from the serious, Shakespeare-quoting actress as any role she'd tackled yet. Once again, she all but stole the spotlight with her laugh-out-loud delivery of Feely's flirty lines. Not only did she rack up more experience, she left the film with two very good friends in costars Bosworth and That 70s Show's Topher Grace.

It was her next film role, however, that would launch Goodwin's career to a new level and, ironically, bring her back home to Memphis.

Walking the Line

Memphis was abuzz with the announcement that the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line would be filmed in town, bringing with it serious star wattage in the form of Reese Witherspoon in the role of June Carter, and Joaquin Phoenix as Cash.

Johnny and June's love was the stuff of legend. Cash fell hard for the brunette Carter Family singer, and chased her relentlessly until she finally gave in and agreed to marry him.

Just one little problem, though. He was already married.

It's Cash's first wife, the lesser-known Vivian, that Goodwin brought to life onscreen. Despite the certainty that audiences would be rooting against first-wife Vivian from the beginning, having the benefit of knowing the story's ending in advance, Goodwin was up for the challenge.

"It was not a movie about the love affair between Johnny and Vivian. There was one, certainly. They were very much in love at one point and just couldn't give each other what they needed. But that's not the story told in the film, so I had some trepidation about the role. What I did was fight very hard to show the love between them, and to justify the anger written into Vivian's role. I cared very much about Vivian, but the movie is about a glorified affair between Johnny and June. All I could do was show her side of it."

And she does. Watch her in scenes where anger simmers just below the surface as Johnny hits the road with the band. And watch as she brings justifiable rage to the boiling point with a here-and-gone-again husband who's more drunk than sober and dabbling with drugs, leaving the young wife to raise her family alone.

It's a sad role, Vivian's, but Goodwin drives her point home: If it were your husband, you'd be mad as hell too.

Off the set, Goodwin took advantage of being home, spending time with her grandparents, mother, and friends (her father now lives in Florida). Her castmates quickly became family too, and the gang spent many nights at Sekisui, Ernestine & Hazel's, and the Blue Monkey. Game nights at Jillian's were a much-needed stress reliever from intense days on set.

The hard work from all involved paid off. The movie was a hit, with Phoenix and Witherspoon both earning 2006 Golden Globes, as well as an Oscar for Witherspoon and a nomination for Phoenix. Though no statues came her way, reviewers credited Goodwin for rising above her character's "one-dimensional role."

It's Not TV . . .

Given Goodwin's self-described "addiction" to film, her decision to tackle not only a television series, but one of the most controversial shows of 2006-07, seems a bit surprising. When HBO, never one to shy away from left-of-center topics (think Six Feet Under and Sex and the City), announced its newest series, Big Love, centered around a Mormon polygamist family, it was a topic made no less controversial by the real-life drama of Warren Jeffs, president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, being played out on the nightly news. Jeffs' Fundamentalist church members still practice polygamy, and Jeffs was trying to outrun charges of rape, among other transgressions. The Fundamentalist sect has long been the black eye of the Mormon church, causing headaches for progressive members who long ago abandoned the concept of as-many-and-as-young-as-you-like wives.

But Goodwin finds herself in a similar, if not Fundamentalist, family as the third wife of Bill Hendrickson, played by Bill Paxton. Goodwin's character, Margene, is the youngest — and most sexually charged — of the wives (the others played by Jeanne Tripplehorn and Chloe Sevigny).

Margene, not much more than a baby herself at 21, is new to the family, the religious beliefs, and motherhood. Goodwin takes Margene's vulnerability and naiveté and transforms her into an eager-to-please Mormon Lolita, utterly watchable, and utterly believable.

But it took a lot of research to nail the character, explains Goodwin. She spent hours in libraries, poring over books on the topic, including Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer, approaching the role as a student approaches finals.

"This was not a time when I could think about what the lifestyle of this family is and question it while acting. It had to be ingrained in me. It had to be second nature or it would come off as fake. Not only that, but I had to really tackle what it would take for Margene to come to this situation and embrace it, not being from the same religious background," she says, thoughtfully twisting a ringlet with one hand and playing with her coffee cup with the other. She seems lost in thought for a split second, then is back to the topic at hand with more character analysis to share.

"Margene is a girl who was never good at anything. She comes from a place of too much judgment and not enough real love. So for her, this situation is just more of everything. More love. More safety. And she wears her heart on her sleeve, which makes her very fun for me," she smiles.

But what of her eschewing of TV for the silver screen? "You know, someone handed me a script, and I said the same thing. They said 'It's not TV, it's HBO,' which of course is HBO's tagline, and it's so true. I read the script and loved it, loved it. And Tom Hanks is an executive producer, so you couldn't ask for a better boss.

"We have a whole lot of freedom on the series," she adds, leaning in conspiratorially. "And I can tell you this about the second season, we have a lot more creative freedom after the success of the first [season]. And you'll get to meet Margene's mother. But that's all I can tell you," she says, catching herself before spilling any beans.

Goodwin has just wrapped filming on season two (which hits the air this June) three days prior to our meeting, and she's exhausted. "We shot it for the last seven months straight – I'm talking 12-hour days, and I am just pooped," she says. "So I've been sleeping a ton and not setting the alarm and doing this," she says, pointing at the aforementioned hunk of cake. "I'm a big fan of cheeseburgers, but you've got to be kind of careful with that while you're filming," she sighs, noting that it's a small price to pay for what she's accomplished in Tinseltown.

Life in Hollywood

If she's not yet reached "It Girl" status, Goodwin's certainly one of the industry's good girls. Her occasional "margarita with friends or her sister" barely registers on Hollywood's sin-o-meter. But she's hardly some sort of celebrity shut-in. Four days after our meeting, celeb-gossip sites put her front-row at an Imitation of Christ fashion show. Photos of her with boyfriend (fellow actor and former Katie Holmes fiancé Chris Klein) in Park City at Sundance parties appear on the same site, and magazine sites have tons of glam-girl shots of a red-carpet-ready Goodwin at awards after-parties, posing with famous friends. More often than not, you'll find her sporting vintage dresses she finds at LA's legendary thrift shops – more Gucci than Goodwill – and flea markets, tailored to fit her petite, 5'6" frame. She credits much of her look to stylist Penny Lovell. "Penny has such wonderful taste, and she's more concerned about you feeling comfortable and looking like yourself than she is about getting you into 'high' designers," she explains. "She helps me modernize older pieces and gives me great advice, like investing in shoes or handbags that will last, and updating those vintage finds. She's a friend, too, as are all the people I work with. I can't have it any other way."

And those glamorous, flashbulb-studded nights on the red carpet? They aren't all they're cracked up to be. "It's weeks of deciding what to wear, and how to do your makeup and hair, then the day comes, and you get the mani and pedi and six hours later you're ready. Someone drives you, hopefully, and then you're out alone in front of a million screaming people, all wanting you to answer or pose. It's more nerve-wracking than I can tell you. All you can do is hope that no one asks you something you can't answer and that you don't get ripped apart in some tabloid the next day," she laughs.

Sometimes, though, things can get downright ugly on the red carpet. Goodwin shudders recalling the Mona Lisa Smile premiere. "That was my first big red-carpet event, and I was so nervous I was literally shaking, and Julia [Roberts] saw me, took me by the hand, and led me though it." A nice gesture from a veteran actress, no doubt, but the paparazzi turned vicious.

"We were both running a bit late, and when she walked me down and opened the door to go in, the tide turned so fast. Photographers were yelling horrible things at her and belittling her, because they decided she hadn't given them enough time. So I watched her turn around, walk back out, and pose and smile for a few more minutes until they got what they wanted," she recalls, shaking her head. "I asked her later if it's always going to be that scary," Goodwin smiles, pausing for a sip of coffee. "She said, 'Yes, it always is.' So these days I still get a little tense, but I don't shake in fear anymore."

What does give her nightmares are the prying eyes of the paparazzi.

Fueled by the public's seemingly insatiable lust for all things celebrity, tabloids have become ruthless in their quest for the juiciest story and accompanying photos. It's a part of the business Goodwin despises, and she's ever vigilant when it comes to protecting her privacy.

Dating a fellow actor means a double-money shot for the paparazzi, so she and Klein have a few favorite restaurants and hangouts they trust not to sell them out to the tabs. It was a lesson learned the hard way.

"On our first date we got mobbed coming out of dinner. And it was horrible. The car was literally surrounded. One of the valets tipped off the press, we think. So then you have to have this talk," she says, shuddering. "I mean first dates are hard enough, but then you have to acknowledge that you were shot together, so you're a couple. Period. And you have to have this discussion about whether or not you want to go out again, and what you're going to say if asked about the date, because I don't want to read that you're not interested in me in the paper. And it's just so awkward. Thankfully we worked through it and came out of it fine, but the tabs will print outrageous stuff just hoping you'll call in to correct them, so they have a story from the source. It's so ridiculous."

Traveling under assumed names helps, as does avoiding the "see and be seen" places like Robertson Boulevard, the Ivy, or any of the one-name nightclubs that pantyless partiers Paris and Lindsay frequent. "You know where you can go and where you can't, and a lot of who you see in the magazines are because they wanted to be seen. I don't," she says. In fact, she tells me, she's heard that a website lists her address in Beverly Hills, so she's resigned herself to moving. Again.

A couple of hours have passed, the coffee is cold and the cake almost gone, and it's time to call it a day. "Where are you parked? I'll walk you," she says, heading for the door. We hit the sidewalk, and I muse aloud how sweet she is to not only meet with me and talk so freely, but walk me to my rented Hyundai. She turns deadly serious at the thanks.

"You know, my dad always said that there's no hierarchy of humanity. Some people just get to do what they do in front of more people than everybody else. I really believe that."

She gives me my second hug of the day, and bounds across two lanes of traffic, headed to her own car. I watch her turn around and give me one final wave, and can't help but think of the line her favorite playwright gives the melancholy Jacques in As You Like It:

 All the world's a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts. . .

I have no doubt, as she disappears, that Ginnifer Goodwin will not make a liar out of Shakespeare. 

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