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Tuesday, November 7, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Pepsi girl' Hallie Kate Eisenberg plays Helen Keller in movie

(East Brunswick N.J.) Home News Tribune

At just 8 years old, Hallie Kate Eisenberg has channeled the voice of Joe Pesci, jammed with Kiss and helped Einstein decide which cola to drink in those Pepsi TV commercials.

But Hallie's also an actress who is at a pivotal time in her career. Her most recent movie, "Beautiful," is in theaters and later this month she'll star as Helen Keller in a new version of Disney's "The Miracle Worker" (7-9 p.m. Nov. 12 on ABC).

"She really is so recognizable as the Pepsi girl," says Hallie's mom, Amy Eisenberg. "It hasn't been a bad thing . . . people have been so receptive and nice to her. On the other hand, we understand that there are directors who may not feel comfortable with the strong connection to Pepsi. We're very grateful to Disney and ABC for their being able to see Hallie beyond being the Pepsi girl."

"The Miracle Worker," which is the season debut of "The Wonderful World of Disney," is the true story of Helen Keller, the young deaf-mute girl born in 1880 who learned to communicate thanks to the heroic efforts of her teacher, Anne Sullivan (Alison Elliott).

A 16-year old Patty Duke won a Best Supporting Academy Award when she re-created her Broadway role of Keller for the 1962 movie, and Melissa Gilbert starred when it was filmed again for television in the '80s.

"I had to do a lot of research for it," says Hallie, who is playing Keller at the same age she was during the real-life events. "I learned sign language, I went to deaf-blind schools, I read books and I watched movies."

Keller lost her sight and hearing at 19 months due to fever.

Formerly cut off by the world in a savage isolation, Keller grew into a woman who wrote, spoke, and labored incessantly for the betterment of others, and almost single-handedly destroyed age-old myths about blindness and other disabilities before she died in 1968.

While Hallie is younger than the actors who previously played Keller, she did not shrink from preparation for the role.

"I think Hallie has the ability to get into the keys of a character and really understand that character," her mom says. "When she was doing Helen Keller, she was doing sign language in her sleep and she was really becoming Helen Keller. She would write in her journal things about Helen Keller as though she were her. It was a pretty intense experience, actually."

Hallie delivers a convincing and adeptly understated performance in the new "Miracle Worker."

Hallie as Keller walks through her internal darkness without sight, sounds and language to guide her. As Keller learns more of her surroundings, Hallie conveys her fear, fascination and finally acceptance of the new world around her.

When she's not acting, Hallie can often be found writing in her journal.

"Actually, I'm in the middle of writing a brand-new script," Hallie says. "It's mostly about three generations of women. It's called `Three Generations.' "

When not writing, Hallie keeps herself physically active.

"She rides her scooter all over the set or her Rollerblades," her mom says. "She's got two scraped elbows to prove it."

It's been quite a ride for the Eisenbergs since Hallie emerged on the national scene in 1998. First, there were ad campaigns for Nickelodeon and the Independent Movie Channel. The well-acted Dreamworks feature "Paulie" was her big break, followed by TV movies and other theatrical releases.

But the Pepsi commercials have put things into another orbit for the acting family.

Amy Eisenberg has not quite figured out the meaning of it all.

"I don't know - not a clue," she says. "Honestly, you never know - timing? She's a great kid but everybody thinks `My kids are wonderful.' I don't know what it is, honestly. Obviously there's something there that connected, but I'm her mother and I'm totally biased."

Hallie's older brother, 16-year Jesse, also is a an actor; he starred on Fox's series "Get Real" last season.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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