Last seen playing straight woman to an indignant Jack Nicholson, a naked Kathy Bates, and a mulletted Dermot Mulroney in About Schmidt, Hope Davis is a scene-stealer with the effacing, surreptitious technique of a shoplifter. In the Harvey Pekar biopic American Splendor (opening August 15), she locates an unexpected median between astringency and compassion as Joyce Brabner (Mrs. Pekar), transforming a one-man show into a touching two-hander. In this week’s The Secret Lives of Dentists, she’s the possibly adulterous half of a miserable suburban couple; while Campbell Scott’s sympathetic Mr. Mom has the benefit of narration (and even an imaginary friend), Davis’s character remains opaque throughout—yet her anguish is as tangible and comprehensible as his.
“I had to accept that maybe the audience will see her as this conniving, child-abandoning femme,” says the 39-year-old New York-based actress. “But I wanted to tell her story as fully and as ambiguously as possible. I thought it was important to send clues in different directions. That old actor’s thing—you have to have a secret. For this role, there were so many possibilities.” The nature of the secret changed during shooting, says Davis, but “to me, she was definitely having an affair. I like that it was the other way around from the usual ‘He’s cheating, she’s stuck at home with the kids.’ I’d rather be the strong, philandering character than the simpering, being-cheated-upon wife.”
Davis adopts a no less resilient persona in American Splendor, where she had to immerse herself in the minute physical details of a real-life subject. The closest she’d come was her small role as Joseph Mitchell’s wife, Therese, in Joe Gould’s Secret, and she relished the exercise: “Actors can be so lazy. Good theater directors will tell you, ‘Sometimes you have to get off your ass and actually do something.’ Playing Joyce, I couldn’t rely on instinct.”
Brabner’s involvement made it all the more demanding. “She wasn’t easy to be around on the set,” says Davis. “She’s one of those people who will just look at you with no expression and you think she’s mad at you. After the first day, I had to ask her not to watch. She was pretty peeved about that.” All the same, Brabner was instrumental in the end result: “Joyce was very hands-on about how she wanted to be portrayed. She felt that Harvey portrayed her as more dour and negative than she is. It’s funny when you hear her say this, and she’s looking at you like . . . ” Davis illustratively affects a blank, wide-eyed stare. “In the comic books, she can be harsh and humorless. But she’s not humorless at all. She’s also without boundaries—she would tell me anything.”
These two latest roles exemplify Davis’s paradoxically tender-tough, slightly withholding screen presence—typified by a refusal to ingratiate herself, whether playing romantically luckless types in The Daytrippers and Next Stop Wonderland, a chronic-fatigue sufferer in Mumford, or the resentful, put-upon daughter in About Schmidt. “Sometimes being real means being unsympathetic,” Davis says. “Instead of having the viewer go, ‘Oh, she’s just darling,’ which I don’t know how to do anyway, I’d rather play someone they might identify with.” She doesn’t gravitate to showy parts: “With Jeannie Schmidt, her averageness is exactly what fascinated me. Nobody special, nothing sparkly. She’s not especially unhappy; she’s just dealing with an asshole of a father. But there was also so much to delve into: that wardrobe, that sensibility, that small mind.”
An analytic approach to character is perhaps not surprising for someone who holds a degree in cognitive science. Davis briefly considered pre-med, but a senior year in London spent largely in West End theaters was enough to change her mind. Her education, she concedes, was not the worst preparation for this line of work: “It’s about getting into somebody’s head, and asking why they are who they are.”
The mother of a one-year-old, Davis was pregnant while shooting some of Dentists‘ more harrowing domestic scenes, in which husband and wife struggle to contain the gale-force carnage inflicted by their three convincingly unruly young daughters. “There was this moment when I was sitting at the breakfast table with the kids, and they were jumping about, and we just couldn’t work with the hubbub that these three tiny bodies were creating,” she says. “I was like, ‘I wonder if I’ve made a massive mistake.’ I knew then that I definitely won’t have three.”
As the less popular parent, Dana is routinely slapped on the face by her youngest. “It wasn’t hard at all to get her to hit me,” says Davis. “She really enjoyed it, that little child. She fell in love with Campbell and wasn’t at all interested in me. With children, you just have to let go of your plans. Kids will show you up every time. And animals. Now I’m moving on to a cheetah.” Indeed, Davis is spending the rest of the summer in South Africa, shooting an as-yet-untitled kids’ wildlife adventure with Black Stallion director Carroll Ballard.
“I’m content where I am,” says Davis of her career, roughly two parts Sundance, one part Hollywood. “I don’t have pressures to be a public person, I usually end up in films I like—that’s good enough.” Born and raised in Englewood, New Jersey, she’s adamant about remaining “an East Coast person”—part of an NYC indie constellation that includes Scott, Stanley Tucci, Oliver Platt, Steve Buscemi, and Lili Taylor, who’ve often costarred with and/or directed each other. “In a business with absolutely no security, it’s nice to be part of this little group,” Davis says. “There’s only so much planning you can do. It’s not like, I only get offered this and I turn down all of that. Sometimes it’s hard because of how I get cast, but I try to do something different every time. To me, there’s a massive spectrum of ‘Not the Romantic Lead.’ There’s the rest of real life.”
J. Hoberman’s review of The Secret Lives of Dentists
“Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor Is Coming to a Movie Theater Near You. Why Can’t the Pioneer of Autobiographical Comics Talk About It?” by Ed Park