Thursday, November 14, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seasoned, Smart And Hip -- Plimpton Brings Years Of Experience To `Uncle Vanya' Role

Seattle Times Theater Critic

----------------------------------------------------------------- Theater preview

"Uncle Vanya," opens Wednesday at the Seattle Repertory Theatre and runs through Dec. 15. 443-2222. -----------------------------------------------------------------

Keanu Reeves, Wynona Ryder, Ethan Hawke - these young screen stars can barely cross the street without causing a small riot.

Not so for Martha Plimpton, who at 25 has toiled in more movies (26, including "Beautiful Girls" and the upcoming "I'm Not Rappaport") than her celebrity peers.

In Seattle to co-star in Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," the season opener at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Plimpton wandered into a fancy downtown hotel recently without causing a flicker of recognition.

No wonder. Her slender frame clad in dark pants, rumpled shirt and baggy sweater, her blond hair pulled back to reveal a pale, sharply-planed face sans makeup, Plimpton looked like a college freshman who'd spent the previous night cramming. And she seemed not at all embarrassed that her adoring mom, Seattle resident Shelley Plimpton, was tagging along for the breakfast interview.

How uncool can you get?

Actually, Martha Plimpton reads extremely hip - a determined, astute, seasoned young player who has her head screwed on tight.

"I don't make six figures on a movie," Plimpton tells you in her nasal pitch between bites of eggs Benedict. "I'm not on the cover of every magazine. I don't go to every premiere I'm invited to. Sure, I'd like to be a millionaire, and constantly sought after for great roles - who on the planet wouldn't? But there's a price you pay for that."

Plimpton's clear-eyed view of her profession comes from growing up in "the business." Her mother Shelley, a former actor, and her father, Keith Carradine, conceived her while appearing in the fabled hippie musical, "Hair." Grandpa was prolific actor John Carradine - "a wonderful man," she recalls, "full of great stories, very supportive. I can't turn on the American Movie Classics channel without seeing him."

She also has an admiring theatrical stepfather: Daniel Sullivan, artistic head of the Seattle Rep and her "Uncle Vanya" director and co-star. (Sullivan and Shelley Plimpton are currently separated, an off-limits topic during our interview.)

` . . . a great mimic'

Raised in New York by her single mom (who never wed Carradine), Plimpton exhibited talent early in an artsy milieu. "Martha was a happy kid and a great mimic," says Shelley, a petite, vivacious woman. "She'd say, `Look, I'm the landlady!' and turn into our landlady."

At age 8, family friends were inviting Martha to act in shows at the Public Theatre (where "Hair" originated). At 12, she begin to win film roles as smart, sensitive adolescents. She was Tommy Lee Jones' daughter in "The River Rat," then one of the gang in the cult kid-flick, "The Goonies."

And the jobs kept coming - allowing an unusually graceful transition into teen and adult roles.

For years, Shelley Plimpton accompanied her daughter on movie shoots. "But she never spoiled me, or made me feel our lives depended on my acting," says Martha. "It wasn't like I went out for every Pop Tarts ad. We turned down lots of lucrative stuff that wasn't interesting, and a million TV series."

They did give the nod to "Running on Empty," a respected 1988 film by Sidney Lumet that brought Martha, then 16, critical praise - and introduced her to another gifted young performer, River Phoenix.

According to many reports, she and Phoenix became sweethearts. All Plimpton will say about the actor, who died of a drug overdose in 1993, is, "We were very, very good friends for many, many years."

You may well have seen Plimpton in scads of subsequent good, bad, mostly offbeat movies: "Parenthood," "The Mosquito Coast," "Shy People," "I Shot Andy Warhol." Or caught her onstage in Seattle.

After her mom wed Sullivan (another "Hair" alum) and moved to Seattle in the late '80s, Plimpton (who's still a New Yorker) worked at Seattle Rep in "Robbers," "The Heidi Chronicles," and a workshop of "The Sisters Rosensweig."

Recalls Sullivan, "Martha was about 17 when we did `Heidi,' and amazed us by fielding all the questions in the post-play discussions. She's a very smart, forceful person."

Plimpton continues to wedge plays between film gigs. Last March she shone with John Malkovich in "The Libertine" at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. Impressed ("she blew Malkovich off the stage"), Sullivan invited her to star in the opening show of his final Rep season, Ibsen's "A Doll's House."

Sullivan later switched to "Uncle Vanya," but Plimpton agreed to a smaller role as the loyal niece Sonya, opposite Sullivan's melancholic uncle, Vanya. Why? "I'd never done Chekhov."

A challenging play

Though reluctant to define Sonya ("I'm still learning about her"), Plimpton understands the challenges Russia's great dramatist poses. "We're using the David Mamet adaptation, which is beautiful but spare.

"This isn't a conventional plot with a beginning, middle and end, which can be difficult. The characters rarely say what they feel. And the comedy comes in odd places. People turn guns on each other, and it's supposed to be funny."

Next up for Plimpton is the release of a film she's excited about: a version of Tim Blake Nelson's stirring play, "The Eye of God," which debuted at Seattle Rep in 1993. Plimpton co-stars with Hal Holbrook and Kevin Anderson.

And then? She speaks mainly of theater: "More Shakespeare. Maybe Kate in `Taming of the Shrew.' There's no end to good roles."

Her mom listens intently, and can't resist a final burst of pride. "I think Martha's a terribly bright, wise person, and the greatest source of joy in my life," she says. "And I thank God she's not a movie star."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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