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Ally Sheedy: Unpacking Brat Pack

February 5, 2000 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ Before things went sour, Ally Sheedy was living in a dominatrix’s paradise.

Her dressing room was stacked with studded belts and funky fishnets. There were leather bustiers, each adorned with chains. There were 2-inch eyelashes that looked like fuzzy tarantulas.

``That’s nothing,″ Sheedy insisted. ``You have to see the wigs!″

Indeed, they were glorious _ a half-dozen mops of cascading, bottle-blond hair, each more pouffy and outrageous than the next.

Sheedy loved showing off this stuff, bounding from one end of the off-off-Broadway theater to another, with all the glee of a 6-year-old tearing through Toys R Us.

``This is what I’m suited for, this is what’s interesting,″ the former Brat Pack sweetie said late last year before slipping into her costume and transforming herself into ... a German male transsexual rock singer.

``For me right now, it’s a question of finding roles that are challenging _ sexually, emotionally, in every way,″ she said. ``Just not cookie-cutter.″

Her lead role in ``Hedwig and the Angry Inch″ was indeed a challenge _ but the stage run didn’t last. Around Christmas, an exhausted Sheedy abruptly pulled out of the show. Her publicist, Reid Rosefelt, said the actress wouldn’t comment.

Tom D’Ambrosio, a spokesman for ``Hedwig,″ said the show’s producers also wouldn’t discuss the situation, other than to say that Sheedy asked for, and was granted, permission to leave early.

Sheedy’s run might have been cut short, but she nevertheless made her point: The actress is back in business after more than a decade of living with irrelevance.

``There was a whole period of time when I just could not get seen for a job,″ she said in an interview before leaving the show. ``The Brat Pack label stuck for a long time and I just felt there was a very dismissive attitude of, ’Oh, no. She can’t. Not her.‴

Now a slew of edgy, indie roles _ not to mention her brief gender-bending theatrical role _ have brought renewed attention to the star of ``The Breakfast Club.″

And something else has arrived: respect.

``She’s one of the most extraordinary, dedicated, hardworking, brave performers that I’ve ever encountered,″ said Stephen Trask, composer and co-creator of ``Hedwig.″

``To do something this difficult _ in a stage performance which is not even her medium, in a role that few thought could work with a woman playing it, at a time when her career was probably fragile _ seemed to me a high-wire act.″

Sheedy laughs it off: After all the doors slammed in her face, after battling addiction to sleeping pills, after being dropped by her agent, well, she simply had nothing more to lose.

``I was losing faith that I would be able to do the kind of things that I wanted to do, that I could be the kind of actor I wanted to be. I felt that that was out of my reach,″ she said.

Everything seemed in reach for Alexandra Elizabeth Sheedy as a child growing up in New York City. At age 6, she appeared with the American Ballet Theater at Lincoln Center. Six years later, she published a best-selling children’s book, ``She Was Nice to Mice.″

Arriving at the University of Southern California at the dawn of the 1980s, Sheedy did commercials and then co-starred in a string of now-classic teen hits: ``WarGames,″ as Matthew Broderick’s cutie; ``The Breakfast Club″ as a misfit who’s really a princess; and ``St. Elmo’s Fire,″ in which she was a wholesome dumpling.

Her twitchy on-screen demeanor and whippet-thin figure gave her a special allure. People still approach her and shake dandruff from their hair, a homage to her offbeat character in ``The Breakfast Club.″

But she was quickly lumped into the teen explosion in film, an explosion that also was making stars of, among others, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Andrew McCarthy, Rob Lowe and Demi Moore.

Sheedy, though, was uneasy: ``To me there’s a chasm between someone who said, ‘I really want to be an actor,’ ... and somebody who said, ’I want celebrity.‴

One day, at a political gathering, the young starlet sought the advice of an old Hollywood pro and a woman she greatly admired _ Jane Fonda.

``She said to me, ‘You’re a character actress. You are not going to figure that out just playing the golden girl roles. You’re really going to have to find your own way.’

``She was the first person who ever told me that. I was 21 or 22,″ Sheedy said. ``It kind of put into words this feeling that I’d had for a long time from someone I really respected.″

The advice was too late. By the mid-1980s, the bottom was falling out of the teen market. Sheedy’s ``Short Circuit,″ which paired her with Steve Guttenberg and a robot, fizzled. The final nail came when a cover story in New York magazine christened the new gang of young actors a punishing label: They were now The Brat Pack.

``I was in complete shock when that Brat Pack thing came out,″ she said. ``I was extremely naive on some of those interviews _ and actually came off as a little bit stupid. I didn’t see it coming.″

She should have. After all, Sheedy grew up in a savvy family: Her mother, Charlotte Sheedy, is a book agent and her father, John, is a marketing director-turned-consultant.

``I grew up surrounded by a lot of people who were very political, a lot of writers, a lot of intellectuals,″ she said. ``I didn’t think my answers were going to be twisted into some kind of way. The writers that I grew up around were of a different ilk.″

Sheedy’s first true starring role _ as a bratty heiress turned into a maid in 1987′s ``Maid to Order″ _ soon bombed. Hollywood balked. Sheedy was left to wander cinema’s wasteland, doing more than a decade’s diet of TV movies, uncredited voice-overs and cameos.

To get back in the industry’s good graces, she was told she had to change her look. That included, she was informed, straightening her teeth, changing her hair, lowering her voice, smoothing her complexion and boosting her breasts.

``That’s Hollywood,″ she said. ``I don’t think that many people would talk about it because they want to come off as they were perfect to begin with, but I was absolutely bald-faced, point-blank told to change practically every single inch of myself.″

She refused.

Well, actually, desperation forced her to experiment.

``I tried for a little while to do the makeup,″ Sheedy said sadly. ``I went to this wonderful, sweet man. He showed me, ‘OK, they want you to look glamorous. Here’s what you need to do.’ And he put this stuff on my face and tried to show me how to do it and I practiced at home.

``It was just so ridiculous! They weren’t just looking for someone with makeup on looking a certain way. They were looking for some sort of persona,″ she said.

``It’s the nature of how the business works with women,″ said Allison Anders, who directed and befriended Sheedy during the making of 1999′s ``Sugar Town,″ a black comedy about has-beens in the music business.

``If you become a star, it’s when you’re young and desirable and 18 to 25. At the same time, they’re willing to not only throw you away, but they’re also not willing to give you respect. It’s a real mess for girls.″

Sheedy struggled on. She battled an addiction to Halcion and bouts of bulimia. She waited in lines for auditions. She moved back to New York, married and had a daughter, Rebecca.

Rock bottom came when her agent at William Morris dropped her.

``Everything is perception _ how people see you, unfortunately. It’s hard because what they really need to see is your work and what you’re capable of doing,″ she said.

``I’m 37 now, and I’ve gotten out of the ingenue thing. I thank God as I’ve gotten older that the way I am inside and the way I am on the outside have gotten closer together.″

In 1997, Rachel Wein, her sister-in-law and herself an agent, passed along a script that seemed dynamite. Sheedy called all the phone numbers listed on the cover and wrangled her way into an audition.

The director, Lisa Cholodenko, was intrigued. She had never heard of Ally Sheedy, had never even seen ``The Breakfast Club″ or ``St. Elmo’s Fire.″

``It was in my favor,″ Sheedy said, laughing. ``She really didn’t have an idea of who I was before I walked in.″

And that’s how she got the part of a heroin-addicted lesbian photographer in ``High Art,″ a film that was cheered at the Sundance Film Festival and won Sheedy the best actress award of the National Society of Film Critics.

``As far as my career is concerned, as far as my work is concerned, ‘High Art’ is the best thing that ever happened to me,″ she said. ``Suddenly, people were interested in talking to me who hadn’t been interested in talking to me for years.″

Sheedy is the new darling of the indie world, happily mining a darker career that turns her former golden girl image on its head.

``That’s the incredible thing: It’s that she doesn’t mind playing unsympathetic roles or roles where the character is an idiot,″ Anders said. ``It’s parts that a lot of people wouldn’t take on _ they’d be too worried, too self-conscious.″

But what choice does she have? Like her former Brat Packers, it has been a taxing 15 years: Andrew McCarthy, Judd Nelson, Anthony Michael Hall and Molly Ringwald also have struggled to remake themselves.

Demi Moore, the fastest out of the blocks, initially soared but has since stumbled; Emilio Estevez has been largely confined to the ``Mighty Ducks″ franchise; Robert Downey Jr. has battled drugs; and Rob Lowe only recently re-emerged from exile after his video romp with a minor.

Sheedy, though, has few regrets on her life’s difficult path.

``I would do exactly the same thing,″ she said. ``I have a daughter, I’m married to a man who I love. I’m very happy in my life right now. That’s actually true! I’m not trying to make everything sound wonderful.

``Whatever brought me to this place is fine. I don’t particularly want to go through the painful episodes, but if that was necessary to get here, then that was necessary.″

Next on her horizon is publishing another book, written from the perspective of a dog named Betty who wants to become a Hollywood star. It’s targeted for girls between 11 to 14 because Sheedy said it has a ``special message″ for them.

``The dog has learned how to speak and wants to be an actor and does not want to be pigeonholed into playing these dog parts,″ she said with a smile.

``All names have been changed to protect the un-innocent,″ she joked.

So what exactly does Betty the dog want to be?

``She wants to be Jane Fonda,″ Sheedy said.