Shirley MacLaine

In Her Shoes

Which director would you like to work with that you haven’t before? “David Lean and Freddy Zinnemann, because they’re great. And if they’re dead, I probably will (after she’s dead). If they’re still alive, that’s a tossup.” (Note: Lean died in ’91, Zinnemann in ’97)

How do actors balance commerce and art? “It’s difficult but I don’t know if it’s actors that it should be at the foot of this. I think it’s the producers and directors. … I only do what’s on the page.”

Up next: “I’m planning three or four things. What looks most forthcoming is a film with Richard Attenborough that we’ve been trying to make happen for three years. The others are independent pictures with great parts.”

Midway through “In Her Shoes,” Shirley MacLaine’s Ella Hirsch, a retirement-home widow, gets unexpectedly kissed. In another film, this might make a MacLaine character jump back and scream in hysterics.

But here, Ella just breaks out of her suitor’s arms, says “OK” and walks away, the silent combination of joy and panic so visible on her face, it makes audiences howl louder than perhaps any one-liner in the film.

“It’s all about reaction,” says MacLaine of the role, adding that playing this kind of “contained” character is new for her, but something she’d like to try again. “It’s a much more gentle feeling. I like that very much, that regardless of what she’s gone through, she forebears with class.”

The film originally intrigued her because she wondered what director Curtis Hanson, known for more testosterone-heavy work such as “8 Mile,” would do with the female-centric “In Her Shoes.” It’s the story of two seemingly opposite sisters, played by Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz, and the grandmother they’ve never known.

MacLaine was pleased to find Hanson not only had “more stamina than Lance Armstrong” in his dedication to the film, but also “gave me more ideas of how to find meaning in a line than maybe any director I’ve worked with.”

They filmed the bulk of her scenes in an actual retirement community filled with genuine “active seniors,” as Diaz’s Maggie refers to them, making the shoot “long and pleasant” for MacLaine — so much so she thought twice about applying to live there. “I had such a good time meeting and knowing the people there, and seeing what they do with their lives,” she says.

While the Oscar winner for 1983’s “Terms of Endearment” says she still loves to be nominated, she can’t predict how the film will fare with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voters. Yet she’s been encouraged by the strong critical reaction to “Shoes,” which some label a chick flick, but which she says strikes a chord with broader audiences because people relate to the family problems in the film. After all, she asks, “Who has a functional family?”

“I think most of the critics got that,” she says. “It’s really about how one needs more communication in the family unit, so dysfunction can be solved — little by little, one day at a time.”