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Joan's role a leap of faith for actress

Friday, May 14, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

When you sign onto a project that doesn't yet have a completed script, you have two options: wait and worry or take a leap of faith.

Actress Leelee Sobieski chose the latter.

"I said to myself, 'OK, you're 16, this is the chance of a lifetime, just jump,' " Sobieski said in a recent phone interview. "So we jumped and everything turned out extremely well, which is perfect."

To play the title character in CBS's "Joan of Arc," Sobieski spent three-and-a-half months away from her New York home in the Czech Republic. Much of that time she was either freezing cold astride a horse during battle scenes or burning at the stake.

During snowy battle scenes Sobieski wore armor that weighed 60 pounds, making her feel like "a sardine in a tin can." When it came time for Joan's demise, Sobieski was anxious for the special effects team to ignite the fire.

"I was excited for the fire to be turned on because I was really cold," she said.

Sobieski said she related to her character on a number of levels: same age, Sobieski is half-French and, she added hesitantly, "I'm a virgin and she's a virgin, too.

"In this version we portray her as very real," she said. "She becomes a little bit corrupted, and even the best and purest people have their faults. Nobody's perfect. It doesn't matter what period or what decade, you'll still have normal problems of self-discovery and seeing the way the world works. All teen-agers have gone through emotions like that."

Sobieski, who will next be seen in the late Stanley Kubrick's anticipated "Eyes Wide Shut," said she grew up a lot while making "Joan of Arc." She didn't keep in touch with many school friends in New York during filming, because she was working six days a week, but also because it would have been too difficult.

"They were two different universes," she said. "It's still taking me time to relate to them in a way. It's not that I'm on another level, but I've experienced a little more, and little things changed for me."

Executive producer Ed Gernon called Joan of Arc one of the most impenetrable characters in history, but he feels Sobieski came to embody the character.

"There's a tendency to define Joan by the plot [of her life], but with an actress of Leelee's skill it gave us an opportunity to imbue the character with a personality," Gernon said. "Getting a girl the right age who understands some of these fundamental impulses is essential to making the character come to life."

Although the script for "Joan of Arc" was still being written as production began, the project began to take shape five years ago. A detailed treatment convinced Sobieski to sign on, but more work needed to be done as the production commenced.

"One of the unforeseeable consequences of writing the script as we went along is you don't get to see how much script you have versus how much air time," Gernon said.

Consequently, the four-hour mini-series could have been five hours. An international edition will feature footage cut from the CBS version due to time constraints.

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