Carla Gugino has demonstrated a distinct aversion to typecasting throughout her acting career. She was Pauly Shore's girlfriend in "Son In Law," an Edith Wharton heroine in "The Buccaneers," a not-so-innocent rape victim in "Jaded," a femme fatale government whistleblower in "Snake Eyes," and a neurosurgeon in last season's "Chicago Hope."
This may be why you probably don't know Gugino by name, but that's OK with her. "I think for the sort of who's-hot-now thing, fitting into a box really easily is very advantageous," she said during a stay in San Francisco last week. "For having a long career, hopefully -- and this is sort of what I base my choices on -- (I think it's wise) to do a variety of things. It confuses some people, and they're not quite sure what to do with you. But other people, thankfully, appreciate the fact that you don't just play yourself."
Dressed in a head-turning, low-buttoned, tangerine chiffon blouse and white capri pants, this morning Gugino radiates a playful sultriness, a genuine warmth and indubitable intelligence -- all of which come into play in her role as a super-spy soccer mom in "Spy Kids," the adolescent action-comedy that proved to be a $27 million hit its opening weekend.
Written and directed by Robert Rodriguez -- hitherto known for violent but equally cartoony shoot-'em-ups like "Desperado" and "From Dusk Till Dawn" -- "Spy Kids" is a zestfully fun and eminently cool family film that updates the kind of throw-away adolescent caper matinees Disney used to crank out in the early 1970s.
Gugino and Antonio Banderas play top-notch international secret agents who fell in love and retired into suburban parenthood. When they're kidnapped by the nefarious host of a surreal Saturday morning kiddie program (Alan Cumming) who has designs on world domination, their two young children have to come to the rescue with gadgets-a-blazin'.
Gugino took this frolicsome role because "I had just done this really dark role...and when I finish something very dramatic, I end up inevitably wanting to do a comedy."
That dark role was in Wayne Wang's controversial "Center of the World.".The film is a sexually charged character sketch about a pathetically lonely dot-com engineer who pays an icy stripper to spend a weekend with him in Las Vegas hoping she'll fall in love when she gets to know him. Gugino plays the stripper's friend, a tormented part-time prostitute who has had her children taken away from her. Wang had considered her for the lead, but he said (in my recent interview about the film) that her voluptuous efficacy might have been too much. "I was worried that she would eat the movie up with sexuality."
"I did 'Center of the World' right before, while I was shooting 'Chicago Hope'," Gugino said. "So that was something else that appealed to me about 'Spy Kids' -- (it was) lighter and playing dress-up for those opening sequences was really fun."
She has half a dozen costume changes in the first few minutes of the movie, which is a tongue-in-cheek, James Bond-like montage setting up the parental spies' backstory.
So how did Gugino prepare for playing a minivan-driving suburban secret agent?
"Well, you know, there are probably many, many things I could have done to prepare. But I had just finished doing 'Chicago Hope,' working nine months straight, and literally two days later I got a call saying would I go meet Robert Rodriguez for this movie 'Spy Kids.' Forty-eight hours later I was shooting. It was sort of like jumping in with a blindfold on, but it was fun because of that too."
Didn't she feel like she needed a break after the dual stress of "Chicago Hope" and "Center of the World"?
"I actually had tickets to Baja," she laughs. "I was going to lie in the sun! I was in such desperate need of a vacation. But a good movie is better than a good vacation."
Passionate and articulate about her profession, Gugino became an actress when she was 15, after a brief flirtation with modeling (at 5'5" she was deemed too short). She became emancipated after making enough money to support herself in her first film, "Troop Beverly Hills," and played the obligatory teen roles for a few years before landing the part of a disgruntled new bride who fuels the commitment phobia of sister Sarah Jessica Parker in "Miami Rhapsody."
"Spy Kids" was something of a reunion with Banderas, another "Rhapsody" co-star. "It's always nice when you go on a set and you know someone. It's easier to start a movie like that."
There was a definite rapport between the stars, Gugino said. "Robert plays guitar, so we did a little dancing, but not on screen. He's a very good dancer, I have to say."
According to Gugino, Rodriguez sent her the script for "Spy Kids" on the advice of 8-year-old Daryl Sabara, the boy who plays her son in the movie.
"I had done a Hallmark Hall of Fame film with Kathy Baker and Laura Dern and with these two kids, (one of whom was) a little boy named Evan Sabara -- whose twin brother (is) Daryl. When they were looking for the mom, Daryl brought a tape of this movie to Robert and said 'This is who we want to be the mom.'"
"I talked to Robert on the phone and he said 'I've been shooting with the kids for two weeks. I've fallen in love with (them) and I feel like I'm trying to find a mom for my kids."
Gugino said she flew to New York to meet with the director and it was a little chaotic "because (Miramax chairman) Bob Weinstein's wedding was that night at that hotel. I'm looking at my watch going, the wedding is starting in an hour!" Rodriguez offered her the part, "then I had my wardrobe fitting while he was getting dressed for the wedding. The next day I had my hair dyed red and I was shooting in Austin that night!"
Her favorite thing about her role in "Spy Kids" is "the fact that mom can be sexy, but she's kind of confused, but she's a good mom. I'm so excited to finally be at an age when I can play women and not girls."
She may finally get that vacation in Baja now that her promotional tour for "Spy Kids" is finished and the film is a big hit. But since she's in a space where she's getting the roles she's desired all along, taking a break seems more unlikely than ever.
"That time for actresses, as we all know, is relatively short," Gugino said, looking forward. "I would like to be able to, in 15 or 20 years, be doing more producing, because I do find that's also creative and it doesn't matter so much how many wrinkles you have on your face."
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