Go ahead, just try to typecast Carla Gugino.
She has played the mom in the “Spy Kids” movies and the brainy museum docent in “Night at the Museum.” But just when you might be tempted to think of her as the squeaky-clean-girl-next-door type, Gugino likes to throw a curveball by taking a role - as she recently did - playing a pregnant porn star.
“Because I had an very eclectic childhood and moved around a lot, I’ve always sort of joked that I would either have been schizophrenic or an actress,” says Gugino. And yet in Hollywood, she notes with a grin, “you can be both, so it’s really convenient.”
The quirky approach is working for the 37-year-old Gugino, who is up on the big screen with five films scheduled for release this year, including “Watchmen,” in which she plays a retired superhero, and the Disney flick “Race to Witch Mountain,” in which she plays an astrophysicist turned UFO expert.
And as if that’s not enough, Gugino (pronounced: goo-GEE-no) has shifted gears again, stepping onto the stage at the Goodman Theatre, where she’s starring opposite Brian Dennehy and drawing rave reviews - “magnificent,” “arresting,” “courageous” - in Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms,” which opened in January and runs through March 1. The pouty-lipped, raven-haired actress is quickly gaining a reputation as a huge talent who can stomp easily back and forth across the line that separates high and low culture.
“Certainly, she’s a candidate to become a movie star,” says Dennehy. “But Carla wants to be something more than that: She wants to be more than a conventional movie princess. She wants this other thing that is a hell of a lot harder to get. ... She wants to be a real actress. And these days, that’s pretty rare.”
Dressed in black (slim black pants, tight black sweater, high platform boots), her hair swept up in a twist and a huge red scarf draped around her neck, Gugino slides into a red velvet booth at Petterino’s on a late afternoon, a few hours before showtime, when the restaurant is still a sea of empty tables. Sipping a glass of ice water, Gugino - who looks much thinner, smaller and more delicate in person than she appears onstage and screen - talks about how she has skipped back-and-forth among television, movies and theater.
“It’s not about choosing between one or another,” she says. “For me it is about the opportunity to play the great roles, with directors I really respect and actors I really want to work with. And (it’s about) continuing to be better and better at what I do, at what I love to do.”
In “Desire Under the Elms,” Gugino tackles the part of Abbie Putnam, a 35-year-old woman who, in hopes of securing her future, marries an older, wealthier man played by Dennehy. But in short order Abbie tumbles into bed with her stepson, sending the drama hurtling along on an emotional collision course.
“You’re on this downward spiral with these characters, in this very claustrophobic, rats-in-a-cage sort of way,” says Gugino.
Fans of the likable characters that Gugino has often played in the past will not see anything close to charming in her latest role as the desperate and unstable Abbie. But Gugino says she was able to find insight into the role, in part by imagining the experiences that must have shaped the character.
“I don’t think this woman ever got any love. I don’t think anyone ever took care of her,” says Gugino. When Abbie finally does find a scrap of affection, she will do anything to keep it.
“The thing is, we all want to be loved. But more than that, we want to be seen for who we are,” Gugino says.
“And loved anyway?” I ask.
“Exactly,” says Gugino. “And I think so often, especially as women, there’s so much of that: ‘How should I look? How should I be so that they love me?’”
Born in Sarasota, Fla., Gugino was 2 years old when her parents divorced. Soon after, her free-spirited mother swept her off to Northern California where they lived an unconventional, itinerant lifestyle. When Gugino was 4 years old, she and her mother lived in a teepee, bathing in a river and cooking over a propane stove.
When Gugino was 10, they lived in a van in Big Sur. But in other years, Gugino stayed with her father, an orthodontist, who provided a more stable existence, complete with a “tennis court, swimming pool and trips to Europe in the summer.”
“It wasn’t necessarily the easiest of childhoods,” says Gugino. “But I was exposed to so many different kinds of people, that it really probably informed my decision to become an actress. ... My mom always gravitated to the homeless guy on the street. It was like, ‘Where’s he from? What’s going on with him?’”
It was Gugino’s aunt, Carol Merrill, the hostess on “Let’s Make a Deal,” who encouraged a then-13-year-old Gugino to take up acting. Around that time, Gugino moved in with Merrill - “a huge influence” - who soon became her manager.
The valedictorian of her high school class, Gugino passed on the chance to go to college so she could pursue acting. In her late teens, she landed a recurring role on “Falcon Crest,” and, after a slew of additional television work, she nabbed a regular spot on “Spin City” in 1996.
In more recent years, she appeared with Denzel Washington in “American Gangster,” filmed steamy scenes with Robert De Niro in “Righteous Kill” and flexed her comedic muscles with Ben Stiller in “Night at the Museum.”
But it was her stint on Broadway in Tennessee Williams’ “Suddenly Last Summer” and Arthur Miller’s “After the Fall” that caught the attention of Robert Falls, the director at the Goodman.
“She came out of nowhere for me,” says Falls, who notes how rare it is to find an accomplished movie actress who can also “hold the stage.” On Broadway, she had a “ferocity and presence that took your breath away.”
In rehearsals for “Desire Under the Elms,” Gugino further impressed Falls with her dedication and persistence.
“She’s a perfectionist,” he says. “A lot of times, you find yourself saying, ‘That was great. That was terrific. Live with that, and let it go.’ But she would want to stay and keep working and working and working.”
As for Gugino, she says she’s happiest when she’s working, even if it sometimes feels like “walking a tightrope, every night.”
“For me, if I know exactly how to play a part, I want to let someone else do that. It’s always the parts that scare me and challenge me in different ways that seem interesting,” says Gugino, who lives in New York and Los Angeles with her longtime boyfriend, Sebastian Gutierrez, a screenwriter and director. Though the play continues through March, Gugino takes her final bow Feb. 17 and embarks on a prearranged publicity tour for her upcoming films.
Still not a household name, she suggests that fame is less important to her now than it was when she was younger. “I’ve been doing this for 21 years and I hope I get to do it for a lot longer,” she says.
Like the girl who once traveled around California with her footloose mother, Gugino seems to be always looking for something around the next corner. As our interview comes to a close, she wraps her red scarf around her neck and prepares to rush off to the Goodman.
“I love disappearing into different roles,” she says, clearly looking forward to another night of disappearing into Abbie. “I’m always searching for something I haven’t done before.”
CARLA GUGINO ON FILM AND TV
“Snake Eyes” as Julia Costello (1998)
“Spin City” as a city hall reporter Ashley Schaeffer (13 episodes, 1996-1999)
“Spy Kids” movies as Ingrid Cortez (2001, 2002, 2003)
“Karen Sisco” as Karen Sisco (10 episodes, 2003-2004)
“Night at the Museum” as Rebecca (2006)
“Entourage” as Amanda Daniels (7 episodes, 2007-2008)
“Watchmen” as Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre (2009)
“Race to Witch Mountain” as Dr. Alex Friedman (2009)