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'I Am Sam' plot changed Michelle Pfeiffer

Thursday, January 24, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Michelle Pfeiffer has known a few Rita Harrisons in her life. They weren't lawyers, like the one Pfeiffer plays in "I Am Sam," but Hollywood has had its share of high-powered women who drink coffee from jumbo cups, rarely see their children and drive expensive sports cars almost as fast as they talk.

Pfeiffer says: "Whenever reviews are that diverse and that strong one way or the other, it means you're doing something right." Official movie site for "I Am Sam"

In "I Am Sam," opening in theaters tomorrow, the 43-year-old actress built Rita from the outside in, starting with her sophisticated black Armani suits, expertly applied makeup and silver jewelry. "The wardrobe and the sort of physicality, I actually many times start from there and then work in," she said in a recent phone interview.

Pfeiffer plays the attorney of a mentally challenged man named Sam Dawson (Sean Penn) who could lose custody of his bright 7-year-old daughter, Lucy (Dakota Fanning). The girl's mother, a homeless woman who briefly shared Sam's apartment and life, bolted after giving birth. Now, a court is weighing whether Sam can raise a girl who is surpassing his mental abilities.

Sam, a busboy at Starbucks, has muddled through, with the help of a neighbor (Dianne Wiest) who suffers from agoraphobia and his friends, also mentally disabled. Joseph Rosenberg and Brad Allan Silverman, two of the actors who are part of Sam's circle, actually have disabilities.

Although Pfeiffer was worried about the perilous combination of a tight shoot, a child who can work only eight hours a day and men with disabilities, she ended up pleasantly surprised. Dakota "is such a gifted child, and she is so bright and beyond -- way beyond -- her years, that it really wasn't like working with a child actor," Pfeiffer says of the blue-eyed blond girl who made her acting debut at 5 in a Tide commercial.

Director and co-writer Jessie Nelson considered hundreds of children before finding Dakota, who demonstrated the right balance of empathy and compassion.

"She was just like a little adult, and the guys were incredibly professional," Pfeiffer says. "And I have to say, I had some trepidation. This is such an ambitious schedule already, and it is so underscheduled, and we have so much work to get done, and I kept thinking you really have to allow for added time. ... The truth is, they never, ever slowed us down."

The movie had a 48-day shooting schedule, which is compressed for a feature film, at Los Angeles locations ranging from the museum of art to IHOP and Starbucks.

"I Am Sam" arrives in theaters on the heels of films based on wildly popular books that win audiences with wizards and special-effects wizardry. It's not easy trying to carve out an audience in a crowded marketplace, Nelson acknowledges.

"I always have a faith that people want to see movies with heart and that are uplifting and that reflect their experiences and examine themes that are important to all of us," the director says. "I always feel there's a place for those kinds of movies and would hate to think we've become a culture that can only embrace the big e-ticket ride movies."

Come Monday, she'll know if that's the case with "I Am Sam."

It was a true story about a disabled father that sparked the idea for "I Am Sam" in Nelson's co-writer, Kristine Johnson. "I thought it was an incredible metaphor for what every parent must feel," says Nelson, married and the mother of a 7-year-old daughter.

In "I Am Sam," the experience of representing Sam changes Rita. It also changed Pfeiffer, the mother of two children and wife of lawyer turned superwriter/producer David E. Kelley.

"My father died a few years ago, and I didn't realize that I'd become a bit shut down myself," the actress says. "And I also think being in the presence of these people, you can't help but open up. That was such a gift to me. ... Well, I just sort of vowed to stay that way. It's not easy."

Critics have been either kind or cuttingly cruel to "I Am Sam."

"Whenever reviews are that diverse and that strong one way or the other, it means you're doing something right. It means you are touching nerves in people," Pfeiffer suggests.

Nelson, for her part, says: "I think it's a very emotional film, and I think you have to be someone who's comfortable having an emotional experience. And I think some critics resent having their defenses taken down. No one says a film's manipulative if they're trying to make you laugh and you laugh.

"But if it's a genuinely sad story and you cry and you cry hard, somehow that can be labeled manipulative. When it's actually the appropriate response to a sad story and actually means your actors are doing beautiful work to elicit a real response from an audience."

And then Nelson takes it a step further.

She thinks some of the harsh reviewer reactions "reveal a real prejudice against disabled people." Critics suggest "this could never happen, they could never hold a job like this, they could never have a child, but this happens every day. There are millions of disabled people in the work force at jobs like Starbucks, and thousands and thousands of them are parents and more of them will become parents."

Special Olympics has hosted screenings of the movie and its president and CEO, Timothy P. Shriver, has endorsed it. "For the first time in film history, it puts an accurate face, voice and presence on what is the most forgotten segment of our global society -- people with mental retardation," he says.

Nelson says attitudes about the movie "reveal how separate these people are in our society, that people can't even fathom this experience." Sam isn't disabled and a brilliant painter (as in "My Left Foot") or disabled and a genius pianist ("Shine"). "He's just a nice guy who works at Starbucks who is kind."

The movie's PG-13 rating, for language, should not stop parents from taking children to see it, Pfeiffer and Nelson suggest. "I think it opens up the format to really discuss mentally disabled people and our relationship with them and what it's all about," Pfeiffer says. "Mentally challenged people grow up either being stared at or basically being treated as if they're invisible."

Nelson's daughter has seen the movie and, perhaps predictably, loved it.

"I think what's challenging for a kid is that it's sad. And you're having to watch a child being taken away from a parent," the director says. But the movie has a happy ending and can teach children about how "we're ultimately far more similar than different."

And kids love the soundtrack of Beatles songs. "A number of the disabled people we met had a real love of the Beatles, and some of them knew an amazing amount of Beatles lore, almost as if there was like a Tao of Beatles," the director says.

Nelson was involved in pairing musician and music. "It was like casting the movie. We worked with the record company to really match the right artist with the mood that we needed at that point in the movie. We painstakingly went over each choice. We weren't needle-dropping. The Beatles are really like the fourth character in the movie; they're a huge part of the story."

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