The Secret Lives of Dentists & American Splendor
Admired for her indie-film work since the mid-’90s, Hope Davis is riding a swelling tide of acclaim that has put her in serious kudo contention this year.
She recently scored an actress prize from the New York Film Critics Circle for diametrically opposed turns in “The Secret Lives of Dentists” and “American Splendor.”
In the former, she plays a stunning dentist in a drama of Flaubertian passions; in the latter, she’s the sweet ‘n’ tart center of an imaginative biopic about comicbook writer Harvey Pekar.
Last year, Davis was lauded for her work in “About Schmidt,” in which she played a bride on the verge of a nervous breakdown who strong-arms her sourpuss father into enjoying the impending nuptials.
Davis has often embodied women with a contemplative mien who fumble through disappointments big and small by the grace of their own self-sufficient wit. The last among them is Joyce Brabner, Pekar’s fiercely intelligent, no-nonsense savior and spouse. Playing half of a real-life couple hilariously slouching toward absolution in “Splendor” was nerve-wracking, but, Davis says, “I love a challenge. Most actors would tell you, ‘Jeez, gimme something concrete to work on!'”
Throughout the film the actress had to peek from behind saucer glasses and frumpy brown bangs. She also had to contend with the real Brab-ner, who had been unkindly mythologized by her husband in print.
“She told me a lot about how she felt she’d been portrayed in the comicbooks, and how she felt she was different from that,” Davis says. “So I just tried to give her as complex a picture as I could.”
Joyce was “the hardest role to cast,” notes “Splendor” co-director Robert Pulcini, who along with collaborator Shari Springer Berman, had long admired Davis for her intense on-screen presence and “perfect comedic timing.”
“We saw so many people, and Hope was one of the last to come in,” Pulcini says. “There was something there in her understanding of Joyce — and in her eyes. She has this kind of natural melancholy that worked really well with the character.”
Davis grew up in Tenefly, N.J., where she used to stage plays with childhood pal Mira Sorvino; graduated from Vassar College with a cognitive science degree; and honed her acting skills on Chicago and New York stages.
“It’s kind of my first love –theater,” she says. “It was really good for me to have all this theater training because acting is a craft, and it’s good to learn as much as you can.”
Davis, who just finished work on an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Proof” last month, is taking it all in stride.
“You don’t have a plan as an actor; nobody does, right? You’re just going day to day and job to job,” says Davis, who’s excited about new projects on the horizon and the awards buzz.
“At the moment,” she notes cautiously. “Knock on wood!”
Coming attractions: “Shadows,” “Proof,” “The Weather Man”