New crop of female stars take on mature parts

Anne Hathaway is careful to distinguish her role as Kym, the 12-step train wreck who disrupts the proceedings at the center of Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married,” from the unsullied ingenues that were her calling card in such films as “The Princess Diaries” and “The Devil Wears Prada.”

Just as the ’90s signaled a new generation of twentysomethings vying for the most sought-after roles in features — Gwyneth Paltrow, Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett, et al — Hathaway is at the forefront of a new crop of actresses, including Keira Knightley, Scarlett Johansson, Michelle Williams, Amy Adams, Natalie Portman and Emily Blunt, who charmed audiences as teenagers and, now in their 20s and 30s, are transitioning to more complex adult fare.

“I think a lot of the roles I have been playing up to this point have been young women coming into themselves,” Hathaway muses during a phone interview from New York. “The circumstances may have been different from role to role, but they were all coming-of-age stories. ‘Rachel Getting Married’ isn’t. Kym’s issues are different.”

The critics, too, responded to Hathaway’s growing range. “A career-changing performance,” trumpeted Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, while Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman raved, “She makes toxic narcissism magnetic.”

Knightley and Adams are best known for their profiles in studio productions; Johansson and Portman alternate between those and edgier, independent fare. Of all the twentysomethings, Williams has followed the least traditional path, eschewing mainstream pictures for small, low-budget projects — “Wendy and Lucy,” “Synecdoche, New York,” “The Station Agent” — that she finds more satisfying on both an emotional and professional levels.

“There was a certain kind of work that I always wanted to be doing, and I wasn’t getting the opportunity,” Williams says. That changed when she was cast in a New York stage production of “Killer Joe.” “It marked a real turning point for me,” she declares by phone from her home in New York. “It was the first time I felt I was taken seriously and that the work was being taken very seriously. It gave me my first shot of confidence.”

Not that she isn’t grateful for her 6½ years on the television series “Dawson’s Creek,” noting that it allowed her to get comfortable in front of the camera and “to work out a lot of kinks, just by sheer volume.” With a laugh, she adds, “I sort of feel that ‘Dawson’s Creek’ was the equivalent of doing studio films.”

But the popular series took place in what Williams refers to as “a hyper-realized, hyper-sexualized, life-as-it-never-is-for-anybody-in-the-whole-world” universe. Now she avoids that kind of artificiality, focusing instead on playing authentic characters who grapple with real-life issues and conflicts, such as the desperate young woman from a broken home who’s seeking salvation, and a job, in Alaska in Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy,” or the naive young bride in Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain,” which earned her an Oscar nomination.

Hathaway, now 25, also appeared in Lee’s nontraditional Western. In fact, she considers “Brokeback” her first adult role — and not simply because her character ages some 30 years in the course of the film. Rather, her own life experience and growing maturity played a part. “When I was younger, I thought you could sum people up really easily,” she confesses. “As I get older, I search for people’s contradictions.”

Mature beyond years

Maturity isn’t necessarily a matter of age, of course. A Hollywood veteran at 14, Dakota Fanning has never been restricted to “cute kid” parts. In fact, she rarely plays them. Her Lucy in “I Am Sam” and Pita in “Man on Fire” are emotionally mature beyond their years.

“I have always been drawn to dramatic movies and characters who go through intense things in their life,” affirms Fanning, who considers “The Secret Life of Bees” a transitional film for her. Not only does she play her first teenager, but her character, Lily, is burdened with a terrible sadness and, in the course of the film, goes through a challenging emotional journey.

Whether Fanning, Hathaway, Williams or others of their generation will attain the professional respect, longevity and popularity of a Meryl Streep or a Nicole Kidman remains to be seen. But they seem to be handling the transition to more demanding fare with aplomb. Hathaway reports that since “Rachel Getting Married” was released, “People have been telling me, ‘Wow, this is a breakout role for you. It’s such a departure.’

“Well, I don’t see it as a departure. I see it as an arrival.”

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