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Jennifer Connelly: Love and Rockets

Jennifer Connelly’s impressive body of work is launched by a starring role in Disney’s “The Rocketeer”

Jennifer Connelly

Jennifer Connelly

Ron Galella/WireImage

Jennifer Connelly and I are together, and we are breathing heavily. Very heavily. Panting, really.

So, okay, I’m breathing more heavily than she is. But there’s nothing remotely inappropriate going on. The twenty-year-old actress is engaged to Bill Campbell, 31, who costars with her in The Rocketeer. The movie — a Disney comic adventure in which he is a stunt pilot and she plays his starlet girlfriend — allows them a few clinches when they’re not fleeing Nazis, gangsters and assorted explosions. To help prevent The Rocketeer from getting squeezed out this summer amid the mega-hype for Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator 2, Connelly has agreed to an interview.

But not the usual interview. She suggests going hiking in Temescal Canyon, one of her favorite spots in her recently adopted hometown of Los Angeles. And as befits a young actress who says she “loves to be challenged more than anything else,” she also suggests that it might be nice to turn the hike into an invigorating run up and down the mountain. That’s where the heavy breathing comes in.

The scene is beautiful. A movie crew packing up at the entrance to the canyon is the only reminder that this pastoral setting is a short walk from Sunset Boulevard. “The first time I came up here the air was so good that I gagged,” Connelly says as she prepares for the run. “I like to go quickly,” she adds. “But we should warm up first so that I’m not panting all over your tape recorder.” Suddenly she seems to remember that she’s talking to a male reporter. “Unless, of course, you happen to want me panting all over your tape recorder.”

Yes, there seems to be something about Jennifer Connelly that brings out the leering juvenile in many males. Consider the makers of Connelly’s Career Opportunities, who, perhaps realizing they had a complete dog of a movie on their hands, attempted to hard-sell the dubious teen flick as some sort of cleavage fanatic’s wet dream. Even David Letterman couldn’t get through Connelly’s recent Late Night appearance without smacking his chops and complimenting the well-endowed Connelly on how much more she did for her double-breasted jacket than he did for his. Many supposedly adult male directors have proven utterly incapable of working with Connelly without photographing her admittedly striking figure as though it were some sort of fantasy special effect.

For Connelly, one low point along these lines came last year. Here she was, a sophomore studying English at Yale, a bright young woman, sophisticated beyond her years and even a bit serious by nature. As Connelly remembers: “One of my professors came up to me at school and said, ‘Jennifer, Jennifer, I went to the movies the other day and I saw this…poster of you. This sort of…mechanical poster of you. This sort of…life-size mechanical poster of you.’ Now I’d never seen this poster, but some of my friends told me about this…thing that was prominently on display in Cinema One Too Many where Career Opportunities was playing. As my friends explained it, you see me rocking back and forth on a mechanical horse, and then you see the face of Frank Whaley [her love interest in the movie], and the ad line goes something like ‘He’s about to have the ride of his life!’ Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but that wasn’t something I felt all that comfortable about. That sure as hell wasn’t a subject that I was dying to learn about from my professor.”

As a career opportunity, and in more personal ways, The Rocketeer promises to be a very important movie for Connelly. For one thing, the film is in the process of making this eight-year veteran of the movie business into a name player. Directed by Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids), the $35 million film has been described as Disney Studio head Jeff Katzenberg’s attempt to create his own Indiana Jones series of blockbusters. Whatever its final box-office take, the film allows audiences to see Connelly at work without rummaging through the video discount bins or getting on an airplane. “Listen,” she says, “I’m just excited to be in a movie that will be around theaters long enough that when I tell my friends to see my movie, they actually have the option of waiting till the end of the weekend it opens. Some of my movies, you blinked and you missed them.”

And, of course, it was while making The Rocketeer that Connelly met the man she plans to marry. “People keep asking me about the first time that I met Bill,” she says. “They want to know if, when he walked into the room, I was immediately smitten. The truth is, what I actually recall thinking was ‘He is so fucking tall! How am I going to work with him?’ The thing is, we were just good friends for a while; romance didn’t enter into the picture for the first couple of months. And anyway, our characters spend just about the whole movie arguing.” Connelly says she doesn’t mind the age difference between her and Campbell, although she says, “It’s strange to realize he was born in the Fifties and I was born in the Seventies.” It’s also not the first time she’s been interested in an older man. “I found, when I did go out with men my own age, I got into some ridiculous situations,” she says. “One time in high school, I started going out with this guy. And then I found out that there was this bet through school on how long it would take him to sleep with me. It was like some horrible teen movie I wouldn’t want to be in.”

While Connelly admits the relationship will certainly make the couple’s publicity tour a lot more fun, she adds: “This is definitely not for the sake of convenience. He’s an incredibly sweet guy.” Campbell says that his first impression of Connelly had nothing to do with her height — she’s five feet seven to his six feet four — but rather with how tailor-made she was for the role of Jenny Blake in The Rocketeer. The eleven-year age difference doesn’t bother him either. “She’s a mature twenty-year-old,” he says, “and I’m pretty immature for my age.”

The way director Johnston remembers it, “there was real chemistry right from the start between Connelly and Campbell, though obviously more came later.” Johnston knew just how much chemistry there was when he said “Cut” after a kissing scene and his young costars, exhibiting passionate commitment to their craft, kept right on going.

At a Beverly Hills restaurant, a pretty, young blond TV actress is doing lunch with a trio that appears to be her manager, her lawyer and her mother. They are having a discussion about merchandising the young woman’s likeness. The starlet – who appears to be about fourteen – chain-smokes and keeps asking about “the bottom line.”

At the next table, Jennifer Connelly is discussing her career in very different terms. Connelly’s oeuvre — her body of work, if you will — began quite promisingly. Her first screen role, just about her first acting role of any sort, came at age twelve, playing Elizabeth McGovern’s character as a young girl in Sergio Leone’s underrated epic Once Upon a Time in America. “I did a little modeling, which I hated, and then I got interested in acting,” says Connelly. “So I called up an agency and got an appointment. They asked me to read a Nabisco commercial to see if I was prepared to do a Sergio Leone movie. I remember my family driving me into the city where I was supposed to meet Sergio and Robert De Niro. I was this tiny, nervous, mousy little thing. My grandmother told me to just picture De Niro on the toilet bowl, but I was too frightened to take her advice.” That film, says Connelly, was an incredibly idyllic introduction to moviemaking. “It’s also one of the few movies I’ve made I like watching, because I’m in it so briefly.”

Connelly — who moved to Los Angeles a few months ago — grew up in Brooklyn Heights, just across the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan, except for the four years her family spent in the bohemian paradise of Woodstock, New York. “It started as a weekend thing, and then my dad [who makes children’s clothing] joined a softball league, and my mom opened up an antique store, and all of a sudden we were living there. It was great. I was in second grade, so I basically remember climbing a lot of trees.”

Back in Brooklyn Heights, she attended Saint Ann’s school. She recalls a brief period as an underage club-hopper on the downtown scene. “In New York, things are sped up,” she says. “I had long hair, so I’d just put my hair over my face and put on red lipstick, and all they’d see was this Veronica Lake thing at the door. And I went through my period of just dressing in black and listening to, like, the Cure and all that. But it was a phase that came early and went fast.”

Connelly got another break when she was chosen to star with David Bowie in Labyrinth, the 1986 fantasy film that marked the much-ballyhooed collaboration of Jim Henson and George Lucas. “I got to know Jim, who was just an incredibly wonderful man,” she says. “And there I was at fifteen, starring in a movie and having David Bowie singing and dancing and joking with me. I got to know him as much as one gets to know David Bowie.”

There were other films, like Some Girls, Seven Minutes in Heaven, Dennis Hopper’s steamy Hot Spot and the Italian horror flick Creepers, the latter featuring Connelly as a young woman who could communicate with insects. None of these made for boffo box office, but they did make for colorful reading on Connelly’s college applications. Now, after two and a half years at Yale, Connelly has decided to search around for a college in California to be closer to Campbell, her work and her family, who also recently moved to Los Angeles.

“The thing people should know about Jennifer is that she is an incredibily hard worker,” says Johnston. “She’s obviously very beautiful, and she sure is a lot more intelligent than I was at her age. But the thing that impressed me was her dedication.”

“I like to work hard better than anything else,” says Connelly. “That’s why I like to run up a mountain.” Asked if she’s ever felt unprepared for the challenge of an acting role, she shakes her head. “I think the opposite is true,” she says. “I haven’t done things in acting that are quite as challenging as I’d like them to be.

“Sometimes in the past, it’s been frightening to me to be in movies that weren’t bad enough that I wanted to warn people away from seeing them, but also weren’t saying anything I wanted to say,” says Connelly. “So if sometimes people just wrote about what I looked like, then maybe there was reason. Maybe that was the only thing to write about in that movie. But I’m still learning — I know nothing compared to what I want to know.”

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